For three years, Frank Ballinger was the most dangerous man on television.

Starting in 1957, Ballinger prowled the streets of Chicago in the hardboiled cop series M Squad. A detective lieutenant assigned to the Windy City’s special homicide detail, Ballinger was the essential tough-as-nails cop – more relentless than Joe Friday, more brutal than Elliot Ness and more unflappable than Peter Gunn.
When he took the role of Ballinger, Lee Marvin was 35 years old with hair already going distinctively white and a respectable string of tough-guy roles under his belt in movies and TV shows. Playing an assortment of military men and villains, he’d proven himself a reliable and occasionally memorable supporting player; but it was M Squad that made Lee Marvin a leading man, and the years following his run as Ballinger saw his rapid ascent to major stardom.

M Squad and Marvin were made for each other. He stalked through the show’s three-season run with the grace of a panther and the cold-eyed assurance of a hard man with nothing to prove, lending rawboned credibility to the occasional implausibility and wild coincidence of the scripts. At the same time, the series’ tightly focused world of brutality and callous betrayal provided the perfect setting for the actor’s patented aura of barely-controlled violence. A hungry tiger in a flimsy cage, Frank Ballinger wouldn’t have fit in any other police show of the era, and few that have been produced since.

51qn0mcufl_ss400_Thanks to Timeless Media Group, the entire series is now available on DVD, a whopping boxed set of 117 episodes on 15 disks. To their credit, when TMG discovered that they possessed an incomplete set of episodes, they put out the word to collectors – who dug through their stacks of dusty 16mm reels to provide the missing shows that made this complete collection possible.

The result is uneven; some of those reels were in less than prime condition, and the occasional episode has seriously blown-out contrast or distorted sound. Others suffer from bits of choppy editing, most noticeable in the jarring jumpcuts from Ballinger’s concluding narration to the final credits. Even so, there isn’t a truly unwatchable episode among them. The set would have benefited from the kind of loving restoration that the show’s contemporaries The Untouchables and Perry Mason have enjoyed recently…but, though M Squad is another cult favorite, its following is considerably smaller. Financial realities make it likely that this is the best collection that the adventures of Frank Ballinger will ever get.

Even so, make no mistake: TMG’s M Squad collection is still one hell of a ride.

These are mean little stories of murder, depravity and human desperation 1231084914_1that have been packed into fast-moving half hours stripped down to the bare essentials of storytelling, yet they rarely seem rushed or truncated. Nor is it all violence; held together by Ballinger’s hardboiled narration, the stories frequently take time to economically introduce the victims and perps of the week before plunging them into grief and horror. The investigations are often classic procedurals, with Ballinger interviewing witnesses and relying on proto-CSI forensic science for important leads from fiber analysis or ballistics. And you can always rely on a few minutes of laconic shoptalk with the show’s only other regular performer, the wonderfully hangdog Paul Newlan as Captain Grey.

There’s a distinctive blue-collar look to the series that can’t entirely be ascribed to its budget. The interior sets representing the homely apartments or workspaces of the struggling characters are often dingy and soulless. One of the show’s virtues is its departure from the back lot, incorporating authentic Chicago locations for scene transitions. Viewed back to back, the episodes’ repeated use of the same shots of Ballinger stalking down a sidewalk or stepping out of his Ford sedan becomes the stuff of a drinking game.

1231085080_11Though shot in black and white, which was simply TV’s coin of the realm at the time, these shows aren’t truly noir any more than West Side Story is a classical opera just because its characters sing a lot. Instead, M Squad is a particularly good example of the older and more straightforward hardboiled school pioneered and refined in pulp magazines by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Paul Cain. Ballinger’s world is a nasty place where people do terrible things to each other on a regular basis, and he responds with equal violence. The lucky bad guys are the ones who simply get the crap beaten out of them. More often, the last thing they see is Marvin taking aim with one eye shut just before he wipes them out with a volley from his snubnose .38. Our last glimpse of a murderer is frequently that of him sliding down a wall to die seated on the ground with legs splayed out in front of him.

The set offers only one extra, but it’s choice. That’s a 16th disk, containing a ballingerlpreissue of the 1959 LP Music From M Squad. Utilizing the talents of composers like Benny Carter and John Williams, the show featured the coolest jazz tracks this side of Peter Gunn. And the new theme song contributed by Count Basie for the series’ final two seasons is a bona fide classic.

There’s a fair amount of fun to be had by recognizing up-and-coming actors like DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy, Angie Dickinson and Burt Reynolds among the supporting cast, as well as the familiar faces of Grant Williams, John Hoyt, J. Pat O’ Malley, Sid Melton and others.

castBut ultimately, it’s Lee Marvin’s show all the way. Endlessly chainsmoking sponsor Pall Mall’s product, pausing from his examination of a murder scene to check out a nubile young passerby on the street, maneuvering one desperate thug after another into lethal showdowns, his Frank Ballinger remains one of TV drama’s essential hardboiled heroes…and the reason the show still holds up today.

February 22, 2009 · Posted in DVD, Vintage TV