Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Still Smug, Still Sexist, Still Fun

With the first season of Banacek, the 1970s NBC mystery series in which George Peppard played a suave Boston insurance investigator with a bad haircut, finally available on DVD, The New York Times declares, “it’s time to render unto that Caesar haircut what is due that Caesar haircut. While not classic television, ‘Banacek’ is modish fun that holds up 35 years later.” Continues reviewer Frank DeCaro:
The show specialized in “locked room mysteries.” In each 72-minute installment, a seemingly impossible heist took place right under the victims’ security cameras, not to mention their noses. Although others would try to crack the case, only the well-heeled ladies’ man Thomas Banecek--with the assistance of his chauffeur (and comic relief) Jay Drury (Ralph Manza) and a fusty-but-trusty rare-book-store owner named Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson)--could possibly recover the goods and collect 10 percent of their value as his fee. The form is as old as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but it was relatively novel on television in the ’70s, and Poe wasn’t writing for guest stars like Stella Stevens or Jessica Walter.

Aside from seeing Broderick Crawford alive and Brenda Vaccaro thin, the biggest joy of “Banacek” is Peppard’s devil-may-care performance as “a smug Boston dandy,” as the character describes himself. Looking better in a turtleneck than anyone has on television before or since, he manages to look effortlessly, timelessly chic. He’s sexy, in a salt-and-pepper-haired, insouciant style that prefigured George Clooney by a generation, as he purrs to one of his many interchangeable female playthings, “I assure you my intentions are purely immoral.”

Along with his wealth and sexual prowess, the series makes much out of Thomas Banacek’s Polish heritage. No episode is complete without BAN-uh-check being mispronounced (Crawford calls him “Banana-check”) or without Banacek spouting an old Polish proverb like “Even a 1,000-zloty note cannot tap dance.” These sayings are about as authentic as the California back lot that often doubled for Boston locations, but they were the show’s trademark. During its run the series was honored by the Polish-American Congress for its positive ethnic portrayal.
DeCaro goes on to lament the lack of extras available on this two-disc “TV Guide Presents” set of Banacek. (Is the packager withholding the two-hour, 1972 Banacek pilot film until season two is released?) And he suggests that when more of the half-dozen separate series once contained, like Banacek, under the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie umbrella are released, they should be packaged “more lavishly.” Wait! Does this mean that those other shows are actually being considered for release before the turn of the next century? I’d love to be able to revisit Tenafly (which starred James McEachin as a happily married, middle-class black operative for a New Jersey investigative firm), The Snoop Sisters (featuring Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as mystery-writing Manhattan siblings with a habit of stumbling upon dead bodies), and Madigan (in which Richard Widmark reprised the role of a New York City cop he’d played in Don Siegel’s 1968 film of the same name).

My DVD player is warmed up and ready ...

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