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The Rockford Files, “Sleight Of Hand”

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

On a hot summer night, a man, his wife, and their preschool-aged daughter are driving home from vacation. It’s after midnight. They’re all bone-tired. The woman goes into the house first, while the man carries his sleeping little girl up to her room. When he comes back downstairs, his wife is gone. No sign of a struggle. No reason why she would’ve left all of a sudden. Even stranger: Their neighbor is lying on the ground near the house, unconscious and close to death. When the man calls the cops, they suspect him of beating the neighbor, and possibly of killing his wife. The main reason? When they ask the daughter what happened, she says, “Mommy didn’t come home with us last night.”

That’s the beginning of Thin Air, a 1954 mystery novel by Howard Browne. The book is a classic puzzler—not quite a “locked door” mystery, but baffling nonetheless. The hero/narrator, New York advertising executive Ames Coryell, can’t convince the police he’s not a murderer, so he races to solve the case without them, tracking a lead that a woman matching the description of Leona Coryell was seen on a train shortly after the disappearance. But each step Coryell takes toward the truth brings him closer to a secret that the mob is trying to protect. Neither the good guys nor the bad guys are willing to give up any info without a fight.

Thin Air has been adapted multiple times for television. Simon & Simon did a version in 1982 titled “Thin Air,” which put the story through a gender-reversal—with the man disappearing and the woman blamed—and changed the details of the case to accommodate a pair of private detectives. In 1973, the short-lived mystery series Jigsaw adapted Thin Air as well, into the episode “Kiss The Dream Goodbye.” I haven’t seem the Jigsaw version—that show seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, at least as far as the Internet is concerned—but I’ve watched the Simon & Simon, and the focus there is mainly on the puzzle. How could a person just disappear?

But when The Rockford Files took on Thin Air, the approach was different, and more faithful to Browne. Written by Jo Swerling, Jr. with Stephen J. Cannell (the latter of whom had a hand in the Jigsaw episode as well, along with Jigsaw/Rockford producer Roy Huggins), the episode “Sleight Of Hand” originally aired in January of 1975, during The Rockford Files’ first season. At the time, neo-noir was coming into fashion. Chinatown had been a big hit a few months before the series premièred, and a wave of nostalgia for the styles and preoccupations of Golden Age Hollywood had come around to hardboiled detectives. So the combination of a genuine pulp novel and a semi-modernized version of the classic gumshoe wasn’t such a novelty in ’75. Still, “Sleight Of Hand” is unusually grim for an episode of a detective show. Frequently, noir is about how purportedly moral people get sucked into a criminal situation, and how they discover that they’re more stained than they’d realized. The hero of The Rockford Files is already fairly stained.

The Rockford Files starred James Garner, an actor who had success on both the small screen and the big after breaking into showbiz in the early ’50s. He frequently played shrewd pragmatists, as in the TV series Maverick, and the movies The Americanization Of Emily and Support Your Local Sheriff. Garner also starred in one of the first neo-noirs: the amiable but stiff 1969 Raymond Chandler revival Marlowe.

The Rockford Files was far more successful than Marlowe at recasting classic detective fiction for a new era. Garner plays Jim Rockford, a man who served time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, before being released with a full pardon. Rockford runs a private detective business out of his beachside mobile home, specializing in cold cases because he doesn’t want to irritate the local law any more than he has to. A typical episode of The Rockford Files finds the hero struggling to pay his bills and trying to quickly dispatch jobs that don’t pay much. Inevitably, he gets roped into a mystery that puts him up against the cops and/or the mob. Rockford prefers not to use a gun, but often adopts false identities with the help of a portable business-card printer he keeps in his car. And he’s willing to use his fists as a last resort (if he doesn’t get knocked out first). 

On the whole, The Rockford Files offers a fresh take on a tired genre. It’s funny, but rarely jokey. It’s tough and realistic, but rarely gratuitous or cynical. Even the opening credits feel modern. After a telephone ring and a pan across a desk—which shows a hand of solitaire, underscoring how slow Rockford’s business is—the answering machine picks up, and Rockford gets a message about money he owes or money he’s not going to get. (The gag changes with every episode.) Then, Mike Post and Pete Carpenter’s rousing, synthesizer-and-harmonica-stoked theme song fires up over a rapid progression of still shots of the hero, both on the job and idling.

Post and Carpenter’s music—along with the work of music supervisor Hal Mooney—was as significant a creative contribution to The Rockford Files as any of the scripts or performances. Rockford’s soundtrack has a more varied and moody sound than the typical ’70s cop-show: less of an Isaac Hayes/Lalo Schifrin knock-off and more like laid-back, jazzy SoCal soft-rock mixed with the wiggier, more experimental wing of ’50s/’60s easy-listening. (I’ve long-dreamed of stitching together all the music cues from Rockford into a megamix. It would be like the ultimate Air album.)

The music matters because a good portion of any Rockford Files episode is spent with the hero driving or walking, not talking. That’s how “Sleight Of Hand” begins, with Rockford strolling along the beach, going over the details of a case in his head, and continually getting distracted by the image of a woman lying dead in the surf.

As Rockford later explains to his dad, Rocky (played by Noah Beery), the dead woman he keeps seeing is from an earlier case, but he’s worried that he’s having premonitions of his current one. Then he starts breaking down his latest mystery for Rocky—and it’s the story of Thin Air, with Rockford in the Ames Coryell role.

In flashback, we see Rockford driving back from a San Francisco sailing trip with his girlfriend Karen Mills (Pat Delaney)—a former client—and her daughter Julie. The grown-ups banter a little about Rockford’s poor sailing skills and his days in the Army, when he used to sneak out to sea at night to sell contraband Japanese radios to the Navy. (“$17.95 for the two-band, $20 for the earplug.”) Then night falls, and they stop for a bite to eat at The Buena Vista Inn. For the last stretch of the trip, Rockford drives while his passengers sleep in the back. When they arrive at the Mills house, Rockford puts Julie to bed, and comes down to find that Karen has vanished.

Rockford calls his one semi-friend on the police force, Sgt. Dennis Becker (played by Joe Santos), but Becker is skeptical of Rockford’s version of the facts, and when the cops find one of Karen Mills’ neighbors near the house with massive head trauma, they haul the private eye in for more questioning. Rockford bucks at the rough treatment. (He wisecracks that he and Karen spent the weekend “stealing soup from the Salvation Army,” and when Becker’s superior scoffs at what a “tough man” Rockford is, he coolly replies, “You’re the one with spit on his chin, I’m just hanging out.”) When the cops release him, Rockford follows his lone clue: that Karen was wearing a brown coat, and that her handbag was left behind when she disappeared. He questions an old bus driver from a route close to the Mills house, who recalls seeing a woman who matches the description, but didn’t get a close look because, “I quit checking out that kind of talent over 15 years ago.” Then Rockford follows the trail of the Karen Mills lookalike to a residential hotel, where he has to rough up the clerk for a room number. (And that clerk? Played by Gerald McRaney, who a few years later would try to solve the Thin Air case on Simon & Simon.)

Initially, the trail looks to be a dead end. The woman who lives at the hotel is named Diana Lewis (Lara Parker), and though she does look like Karen, her suspicious behavior on the night of Karen’s disappearance is easily explained: She’s having an affair with a married man. At this point, the flashback ends, and Rockford tells Rocky that he’s stumped. But Rocky suggests there’s a key detail his son is missing. The cops told Rockford that little Julie Mills said her mom didn’t come home at all that night, which Rockford dismissed as the sleepy ramblings of a 3-year-old. But what if Julie was right? When they stopped at The Buena Vista Inn, Karen went to the ladies’ room, and then—according to a restaurant employee—went straight to the car. Rockford put Julie in the backseat next to a sleeping woman that he thought was Karen. But what if it was Diana Lewis?

Rockford returns to Diana’s room and finds her dead on the floor. Then a thug walks in and starts rummaging through the closet, looking for the clue Rockford already found: a Buena Vista Inn matchbook that had been nestled in Diana’s coat pocket. The thug comes clean. He says that when Karen went to the bathroom that night, she opened the wrong door and saw something she shouldn’t have: the crime boss Vincent Minette, whom the authorities believe to be in Mexico. Rockford races back to the Inn and scatters the mob by making a couple of fake emergency calls to get sirens blaring from every corner and prevent them from holing up and taking hostages. But it’s a moot point. The cops catch Minette and let Rockford off the hook, but Karen Mills is dead. The episode ends with Rockford back to the beach, now tormented by memories of another dead girl. Roll credits.

In the Simon & Simon version, there’s never any doubt that the missing person is dead; his corpse turns up early in the story, and the wife is put in jail while the two Simons work the case. There’s nothing especially poignant about the episode either. The detectives know the family, but they’re not emotionally affected by the murder, since the dead guy in question was a known drunk and gambler. In the original Thin Air though, Leona Coryell lives. Her husband tracks her to the estate of a mob associate, and when danger lurks, the cop who busts Ames’ chops for the entire book arrives to save the day. A battered Leona is retrieved from one of the upstairs rooms, and Ames says, “The next time you open a door, be careful.” Laughs and kisses all around.

Does it matter whether the missing person dies in this story? It depends on which character the story is really about. The best mysteries aren’t just about delivering a clever puzzle; they’re about giving the reader a reason to keep turning pages while the author takes us on a tour of a society at its highest and lowest, examining the dynamic. The Rockford Files had fun mysteries—sometimes light, sometimes heavy—but mainly the show was about one world-weary man helping the eclectic denizens of Southern California solve their most distasteful problems.

Thin Air, though, is about a wealthy family man with power and prestige. What makes the book so entertaining is the almost comic contrast between Browne’s punchy dime-novel prose and his classy protagonist. The big hook in Thin Air—besides the mystery—is that Ames Coryell mobilizes his high-powered ad agency to turn the search for Leona into a campaign, complete with posters and TV commercials. Like a lot of pulp stories, Thin Air is really a character sketch, taking us inside a world of privilege to the mechanisms that make suburban homes and Madison Avenue offices run smoothly. (Mad Men fans would love this book, if only for its in-the-moment, non-nostalgic snapshot of this milieu, including “Agency English” dialogue like, “Check and double-check and let’s put wheels under it, get it rolling, fire those jets, up-periscope and see where we’re at.”)

The Rockford Files is about a loner. Rockford has his dad, and a steady stream of women and clients (some of whom he also beds), but he’s still regarded with suspicion by many because of his past. Rockford’s learned to operate in his own way, on his own terms. Both Thin Air and “Sleight Of Hand” end with order restored. Ames Coryell gets his family back, while Rockford sees one murdered girl replaced by another. Even the immediate reprise of the peppy Rockford theme at the end of the episode is apt. There’s no time to mourn here. Someone else will be dead next week.

Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Checkmate, “The Paper Killer”