Friday, March 19, 2021

TV's Decoy - "Fiesta at Midnight" episode, 1958

Beverly Garland starred in a weekly police procedural drama called Decoy that ran only one season from 1957-58.  It was a ground-breaking program and far ahead of its time in many respects.  It achieved something rare during what was called the Golden Age of Television, and what is sad -- it’s even more rare today: a well-written, well-acted, sharply produced weekly show with a female protagonist that presents a refreshingly unselfconscious view of her abilities, intelligence, and emotions.

This is our entry into the “7th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon” at Terrence Cowles Canote’s A Shroud of Thoughts blog.

It’s a rather long entry.  Sorry.  Go get a snack.

She plays a policewoman, as the term was used then, named Patricia Jones, who frequently is referred to by her nickname, “Casey” Jones.  She uses both names, seemingly without preference.  She is smart without being brilliant – she sometimes gets it wrong and learns from her mistakes.  She is courageous without being a thrill-seeker; she knows fear but also knows that’s human.  She does not forsake being human in order to be a good cop – she follows procedure with the dogmatic persistence of Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet and sometimes sounds like him, but she is also empathetic and seems to take quiet pleasure in observing the troubled humanity she meets on her cases.

We see little of her personal life, we do not know about her family or much about her past, only that her fiancé, also a police officer, was killed in the line of duty.  She is not driven to revenge, to drink, to wallowing in angst, but she deals with the occasional stabs of pain from the memory as the price everyone pays for being alive, loving, and remembering.  She is sensitive, but also pragmatic.

We sense that the creation of Officer Jones is entirely a collaboration between director, writers, producers, and actress, and as such, she is a most polished enigma.  In an era of “Hi, honey, I’m home!” sitcoms, she does not take insecure pains to reaffirm her femininity.  On the contrary, she is unconsciously sexy, perhaps never more so when breaking into a brief Mona Lisa-smile in odd moments that remind us her mind is always working and her heart is always open.

Also unusual for the day – and for females represented on TV shows for decades after – her male colleagues do not belittle her, or makes passes, or treat her in any way other than as friendly professionals who rely on each other.  While some of her duties are quite routine, she often must go undercover, which means she is rather like an actress.  She must be a society woman one episode, and a secretary in another. 

If the show were filmed in later decades, she would spend every other episode victimized by being tied up or her vulnerability capitalized on, and the threat of rape would be implied to a degree that makes an intelligent person wonder what has happened to our society that that would be entertaining for the female to always be in danger.  Or she'd be swinging on that insane pendulum between dealing with her private demons with compensating addictions or supercharged overcompensating aggression, both to show that she is a "real" woman dealing with the pressures of her career.  This keeps the actress and the writers busy, but can ironically make for a less interesting character.  One of the most appealing aspects of Officer Jones is her stoicism.

The range of crimes Officer Jones investigates from white collar crime to arson to murder is such that not every episode is peppered with a hail of gunfire.  The show might be too slow for today, but that is one of its strengths.

From a production perspective, one of the most intriguing aspects is that the show is filmed largely on location in New York City.  We see neighborhoods, buildings from the late fifties, the street scenes, the nightlife.  The cameras were hidden, so what you’re seeing happen in the background is real.  The old Penn Station, long gone, is beautifully filmed.  There’s Coney Island, theater marquees, an array of interesting sites.  Many of the interiors are also shot on location, so when you see an office in a factory, that’s where you are.  There is no clean, fake scenery, no set flats.  We see the grime of the factory walls, the old, uneven floorboards and the overstuffed file cabinets. We see the rain-washed streets with real people pulling racks in the garment district or walking in a park.  Everything is real.

Perhaps just to punctuate that, or perhaps just to add an unusual style – Officer Jones breaks the fourth wall at the end of the episode and talks to us.  Sometimes it’s a little startling, even when you know it’s going to happen, because she does not break character.  She suddenly turns and her eyes lock onto yours and she comments about the case, as if she knows we were there every step of the way, as if we are the rookie cop she is teaching.  Sometimes it's to wrap it up, or tell us what happens next.  Sometimes it’s just a final thought.  In one episode, “Night of Fire” she discusses not the case, but ruminates on one character in that episode.  It’s the story of a suspicious factory fire, and she is placed undercover as an office worker.  Another worker in the office is a young woman with a history of being treated for mental illness.  The other workers are hostile to her, tease her, and even suspect her of being the arsonist.  However, she’s only a patsy, and Officer Jones figures out who done it.  At the end of the episode, she breaks the fourth wall and talks not about the crime, but about that young woman.

“Tomorrow she’ll be looking for a job.  I hope she finds a good one, a place where people are enlightened about things like mental illness.  If she comes to your office…give her a break.”  That brief, sad, enigmatic smile, a flicker of warmth in her lovely dark eyes, and she turns away.  She’s said her piece.  No need to beat it to death.  I wonder how many bosses and fellow employees took it to heart at work the next day.

After this rather long introduction to Beverly Garland’s character and the program, (are you still with me?) I’ll move on to the single episode I’d like to discuss for this Blogathon.  It’s “Fiesta at Midnight”, episode 32, broadcast on May 19, 1958.  The director is Michael Gordon.  We discussed his wonderful directorial work on Another Part of the Forest (1948) in this previous post.  The scene is set at Hunt’s Point Palace; again, a real venue.  There’s a dance hall up a flight of stairs, where tonight it’s a Latin combo playing for an energetic crowd of romantic young people.  We listen to the music, watch the couples dancing in the dim evening light as if it’s a documentary and they have no idea we’re observing them.  Maybe they don’t.

Hunt’s Point is in the Bronx, and the Hunt’s Point Palace around a century ago brought swing music to fans in the 1920s and ‘30s, and by the late 1940s, jazz bands gave way to Latin music as a new Puerto Rican population came to the neighborhood.  The ballroom held about 2,500 people, and top bands played here for decades.  Salsa music was coined in the 1970s, but the Palace closed in the 1980s.  The building still stands, but now it’s an office complex.

But in “Fiesta at Midnight” we’re still in 1958, the first flush of Puerto Rican immigration to New York City, only months after West Side Story hit Broadway, so Decoy was not the first pop culture exploration of the problems of Puerto Rican immigrants, but it was certainly among the vanguard. 

With moody shots up and down the staircase that leads to the music from the hall, we meet three people on the town:  Anita, played by Gloria Marlowe, and her fiancé Raoul, played by Dario Barri.  They will be married in a week.  With them is Anita’s cousin, Maria, played by Miriam Colon.  Maria wants to remain at the bottom of the stairs, not going into the dance, but just listening, dreamy-eyed, where she is.  They urge her to come, but she insists she just wants to listen and to contemplate.  She is not looking for a date for the evening: she reminds them she is going to be married tomorrow.

They leave her alone and go up to the dance.  After a moment, Raoul leaves Anita, says he has to meet a man around the corner.  She warns him against getting into trouble again, but he is a charmer and tells her he will be right back. 

Seeing she is alone, a young newly arrived immigrant from Puerto Rico approaches Anita.  He is Juan, played by Tomas Milian.  He asks her to dance, but she tells him she is engaged to be married.  Juan is a quiet, shy young man and he confesses that he cannot get anyone to dance with him, that all the girls are paired off with husbands or boyfriends.  Anita, half in sympathy and half teasing, suggests he go down to the bottom of the stairs and talk with Maria, maybe she will dance with him.

He meets Maria, but she will not dance with him either.  Again, what he dreads to hear: she will be married tomorrow.  She is a lovely young woman, and he is very taken with her and they chat a moment, at least until the midnight church bells signal that, like Cinderella, she must leave the ball.  He respects that she is off limits and he leaves the dance hall without following her.

We walk through the dark street with him, past storefronts, and about to cross a dark alley when a man runs towards us out of the blackness, topples Juan, and runs away.  Followed close on his heels are the cops, who grab Juan, thinking he's the guy they are chasing.  Poor Juan gets dragged to jail for the armed robbery of a store.

Officer Patricia Jones gets called in on the case, not undercover this time, but a routine investigation.  She visits the store owner in the hospital, a middle-aged white woman named O’Connell, played by May Michael, who was shot in the robbery.  She is conscious, and furious at the cops’ apparent slowness to understand what a menace the Puerto Ricans are.  She is asked,

“Are you sure the man who shot you was Spanish?”

“I’m sure, all right. Don’t I hear them jabbering all day long?”

Discussing the case with her chief, Officer Jones remarks, “Somebody steals an apple from a fruit cart and they’re ready to lynch anybody by the name of Jose or Pablo.”

She interrogates Juan (and even demonstrates a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish), who is scared stiff and desperate to find someone who will believe him.  She begins her drudge work of questioning leads to find out if his alibi – talking to a girl named Maria at midnight when the crime happened – is real.

She eventually finds Anita at home, a week later and now married to Raoul.  Anita is closed-mouthed and denies meeting Juan, denies even knowing Maria.  We begin to understand that she suspects Raoul, because he left her for a few minutes, to be the one who actually committed the robbery.  She is trying to protect him.  When “Casey” Jones leaves, Raoul comes back to the apartment and Anita confronts him.  “Casey” returns when it is reported by neighbors that Raoul beat her up.

Still, she attempts to protect her husband, and “Casey” gives her the sensible advice, “You’re a fool to let him get away with it, honey.  He’ll do it again sometime.  Maybe that time you won’t be able to complain.”

Then the O’Connell woman in the hospital dies.  It’s a murder rap now, for Juan unless “Casey” can prove his alibi is true.

Running down all the logical prospects and getting nowhere, she wonders if perhaps the woman called Maria – who was supposed to be married the next day after the incident – did not marry after all.  Perhaps the wedding was called off and that’s why Officer Jones can’t find any public record of it.  She goes to the neighborhood church to ask the priest if he can confirm this.  He is in the middle of a First Communion rehearsal with a group of little girls, so she has to wait for him.  She spots Anita kneeling in one of the pews, her Rosary beads in hand.  “Casey” tries again to work on her, but Anita is stubborn and won’t tell her anything.

It’s a small thing, but because we don’t know Officer Jones’ own personal religion, I find it quite touching as well as a sign of the times that she pauses before she enters the Catholic church to pull her scarf over her head.  In pre-Vatican II days, head covering for women was required, and still is the custom in some countries.

We are actually teased with religious symbols throughout the episode, but unless you’re really observant, or have seen the episode a couple times, you won’t know that director Gordon means them for clues:  the large cross Juan wears in the neck of his open shirt, the crucifix on the wall of Anita’s apartment framed behind Officer Jones’ head.  It’s all pointing to a solution that only hits “Casey” when she’s given up on Anita, and, about to leave the church, smiles at the passing procession of girls walking down the aisle to the altar to practice receiving their First Communion.

Then it hits her – but not us yet.  Next, she drags Anita, Raoul, and Juan to another place where she has located Maria.  We are in a hallway, which has a figurine of the Virgin Mary on a heavy piece of furniture – another last-minute clue.

Then the door opens and Maria enters. 

She’s a nun.

When she said she would be a bride the next day, she meant she was joining a holy order and become the “bride of Christ.”  Juan is shocked, but Anita and Raoul are only uncomfortable because now that Maria has been found, she will undoubtedly tell the truth, if she remembers talking to Juan at midnight.

She does, and recognizes him.  Raoul is off to prison. Juan’s free, if still pained by his crush on Maria.  Anita is just plain crushed, and Sr. Maria is wondering what’s going on.

Officer Jones realized that Maria could be a nun when she saw the little girls in their white dresses walking down the aisle towards the altar, looking like a row of little brides.  She figured out Maria’s use of the phrase “tomorrow I will be a bride” as if it were a riddle. 

It’s a shame Decoy lasted only one season.  Several future stars appeared on the program, such as Colleen Dewhurst, Peter Falk, Martin Balsam, and Suzanne Pleshette.  Many of the episodes are in public domain and have been released on DVD, but the three-disc set released by Film Chest MediaGroup is excellent and contains a booklet with facts about the show and a synopsis of episodes.

One interesting fact the booklet relates: Between 1949 and 1990 there were around 555 dramatic television series.  Only about 36 starred women.

I hope you can catch up with the series Decoy sometime, and please visit the rest of the blogs participating in this “7thAnnual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon” at Terrence Cowles Canote’s A Shroud of Thoughts blog.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.


Caftan Woman said...

I have seen a few episodes of Decoy and the DVD set is on the shelf waiting for the binge to begin.

I appreciated your analysis of Casey's character and Beverly Garland's exemplary work. The time capsule element of the series adds much to the program.

PS: Years later, wonderful Miriam Colon played Maria Santos, the head of a Puerto Rican crime family on Guiding Light. The deceptively sweet Abuela was a great villain.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'm glad you have this series to look forward to, that made me smile. I really love the outdoor location shots. The Broadway shows, the street scenes. It's terrific. But a mobster Abuela? Say it isn't so! Cute.

Brian Schuck said...

I am a big fan of Beverly Garland, having first seen her in Roger Corman sci-fi B's such s Not of This Earth and It Conquered the World. Regardless of the role or the genre, she always projected an inner strength that was refreshing and attractive. You're absolutely spot on in your comments about how tempting it is for movies and shows to always be exploring the extremes of human behavior and situations, which can get pretty boring if you don't mix it up once in awhile. It sounds like Decoy nicely navigated a middle way, with a lead character who was compelling without being tragically tormented or unrealistically heroic. I have to admit I haven't seen the show, but see that it's available currently on IMDb TV.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome to the blog, Brian. I like Beverly Garland as well, though I haven't seen the movies you mentioned, and I agree with your comment that she "projected an inner strength that was refreshing and attractive." Well put. I hope you can see some of the episodes soon. The show is a real change of pace.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I have never seen an episode of Decoy, and your post really makes me want to. I have a weakness for the police shows of the Fifties and early Sixties. They often seem more realistic and more down to earth the shows that would be made in following decades. In fact, your description reminds me to a degree of Naked City, one of my all time favourite shows (which was also shot in NYC). I am a fan of Beverly Garland, and I could easily see her playing a police officer like Jones! Anyway, thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you for hosting this terrific blogathon, Terrence. I encourage everybody to check out the other posts, and I hope you can see Decoy one of these days. I agree that sometimes those older shows seem more realistic, if only that they show much of the non-dramatic routine of police work and how police interact with the general public. I think modern shows push for more supercharged action, a faster tempo, and less interaction with the public and more with the criminals who make for more exciting drama.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Oh gosh, this sounds good! Not only am I not familiar with this episode but I never even heard of Decoy. This past year I've been watching a lot of "The Gentle Touch" and "Juliet Bravo" ( both British series that feature female police investigators ) and was wondering whether America made a similar series ( aside from Police Woman or Cagney and Lacey ), so I'm glad to hear there is another series to explore!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Metzinger gals, I'm surprised there seem to be a fair amount of fans of this show since it lasted only one season and hasn't been in reruns for a very long time. I hadn't heard of it myself until a few years ago. But it's wonderful how many have discovered this great show. I wish Beverly Garland was still with us. I would love for someone to have interviewed her about it upon the release of the DVD sets.

Azhar said...

I could easily see her playing a police officer like Jones! Anyway, thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon!

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