December 3, 2009

The Rockford Files image James Garner (1).jpgThe Rockford Files (1974-1980) were always one of my favorite TV shows, both when on the air and whenever I could find since — in syndication, or on DVD and Hulu. In the former era, I thrilled to the complicated plots and oddball characters, and enjoyed the easy-going ruthlessness of James Garner’s Jim Rockford. Today, in addition to all that, each episode provides an instant return to the Los Angeles where I grew up — a place and time I despised then, but have since become somewhat nostalgic for.

Obviously, I was not the only Rockford fan who missed the genial detective: in the 1990s eight made-for-TV movies were issued; the first four of these are on this DVD. Not surprisingly, it is an older if not always wiser Rockford that Garner portrays — less given to running and fisticuffs, but still sharp (and not incapable of the physical stunts if he really has to use them).  More after the jump:

The Rockford Files movie collection volume 1 dvd.jpgThe 1994 The Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A. opens with an older Rockford fed up with his city, and anxious to move out. He gets involved — thanks to his ex-wife, Kit (Joanna Cassidy), to whom he was married in the 80s — in a murder case. Kit’s clients, a brother and sister, are accused of the murder of their wealthy former actress mother. Rockford must clear them if he can, in the usual mode. But there is a twist ending, and the action works out over two years, including all the disasters that broke out here in the 1992-4 period: the riots, earthquake, fires, and flood. At the end of it all, Rockford abandons all hope — or desire — to leave. An especially poignant note is cast by Rockford’s telephone conversations with his unseen father, Rocky (played in the series by Noah Beery, Jr.), and the dedication of the show to Beery, who died shortly before its first broadcast.

The Rockford Files: A Blessing in Disguise, released the following year, finds Rockford’s untrustworthy bottom-feeder conman of a friend, Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin), ensconced as the leader of a phony cult, the Temple of Holy Light Church. Unfortunately, the cult’s attack on a new film has endangered its lead actress, Laura Sue Dean (Renee O’Connor). The somewhat ditzy neophyte is literally forced into Rockford’s attention by events. He must protect her and solve a murder — even though it may endanger Angel.

1996 saw The Rockford Files: If the Frame Fits, in which Jim is framed for a murder, and must clear himself. He does so with the help of an off-duty IRS investigator, Jess Wilding (Dyan Cannon) and perennial pal, LAPD Lt. Dennis Becker (Joe Santos). Assistance is also given by his longtime (though now estranged) attorney, Beth Davenport Van Zandt (Gretchen Corbett). As an added lure for diehard RF fans, Miss Wilding is revealed to have been a close friend of the late Rocky, who by this time has died on the show as well as real life.

The Rockford Files image James Garner (2).jpgThe same year saw three other Rockford films, the latter two of which presumably will be issued on volume II. But The Rockford Files: Godfather Knows Best concludes this collection. In it, Rockford’s godson, Scotty Becker (Damian Chapa) — Lt. Becker’s son — crowns a career of screwing everything he tries up by being accused of the murder of a high-flying model/socialite. Said socialite’s husband (Maxwell Caulfield) and Mafioso father are also trying to get their hands on young Scotty. Jim is once again assisted by Beth, Angel, and of course, the Lieutenant himself.

It is relatively rare that revival movies of old series recapture the spirit of the former show while successfully translating the franchise into the present. But these Rockford movies do an excellent job of it. Not only are they successful on their own as mysteries, they recreate the dynamic of Rockford’s relationships with his friends that were so much a part of the effectiveness of the series. Moreover, these relationships have progressed in the years since 1980 in much the same ways as real ones do. And, of course, as in the series, the City of Los Angeles herself is very much a key player as well, in here scenery, diversity, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

Enjoyable as these films are, there is perhaps another note to them. On the one hand, as we leave the first decade of the 21st century, the last one of the 20th has begun to seem almost as remote as the 70s in which the series took place. On the other, the massive stroke suffered by Jim Garner last year makes it unlikely that we shall ever see him make another outing as a (by now) elderly Jim Rockford. In any case, I look forward eagerly to the second volume of this series.

Final Words

Really good return for one of TV’s great detectives. Worth watching both for itself and the nostalgia.

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