Sunday, May 22, 2016

Television Review: GET CHRISTIE LOVE!: "Highway to Murder" (1974)





GET CHRISTIE LOVE!: "Highway to Murder" (ABC-TV/Universal; Original Air Date: October 30, 1974) Starring Teresa Graves as Det. Christie Love, Charles Cioffi as Captain Reardon.  Guest Stars: Clu Galager as Sheriff Burl Taggart, John Quade as Deputy Willet, Donna Andresen as Myrna James, Walter Brooke as Kane, Rudy Ramos as Dimas, Jack Ryland as Chan, Migdia Varela as Tina Estrada, Pat Corley as Duffy, Patch McKenzie as Loretta Brooks, Brion James as Trent Hopper, Georgia Schmidt as Mrs. Bannister, Douglas Dirkson as Tolan.  Written by Donn Mullaly.  Directed by Ivan Dixon.

Series overview for GET CHRISTIE LOVE! and introduction to the episode guide at this link.


The incarceration of material witness Myrna James brings Detective Love to the small town of Monroe.  Needing to arrange James' extradition for a key L.A. murder trial, Christie finds that she'll have to wait: Myrna's jailed for robbery and the Judge is away on a fishing trip.   Monroe Sheriff Burl Taggart can't be much help, since Love's arrival coincides with the discovery that one of Burl's officers has been found murdered outside of town.


Taggart offers to let Love ride along and observe investigative techniques "out here in the sticks".  Despite Deputy Willet's discovery of an incriminating stolen watch in Dimas' luggage, "big city" Detective Love thinks that the Sheriff is barking up the wrong tree when he suspects the Hispanic immigrant of the killing.  Meanwhile, with the backing of a menacing biker gang (The Vikings), the dead officer's brother Chan threatens vigilantism if Dimas is "let off".  When public defender Tolan pulls a few strings with the Attorney General,  Christie is assigned to help with the case, putting the L.A. Detective squarely in someone's crosshairs.  But whose?


Highway to Murder is the obligatory episode where our metropolitan detective unwittingly gets involved in a rural case and finds a hostile reception from the locals.  But don't expect many echoes of In the Heat of the Night---while none of the locals we meet are African-American, no one makes so much of a mention of Christie's race.  The lone comment Christie's appearance elicits?  Deputy Willet's opener: "They sure do package 'em nice in the big city!"  Even the Vikings' leader avoids racist or sexist perjoratives while menacing the outsider.


This isn't to say that Highway to Murder is devoid of racial tensions; Chan is upset to learn his brother has been murdered, and seems even angrier at the thought that Mexicans might get away with the crime--lynching is his stated threat from the officer's sibling if justice "isn't served".  As it turns out, the choosing of Dimas as a patsy is purely to cover up a much larger operation, one that has an impressive number of collaborators.  Not surprising in 1974, but this conspiracy isn't of (say) Race With the Devil proportions: the sheriff and the powerful Kane certainly aren't in on it.  However, both have moles in their organizations.


Despite a few comments early, the expected urban/rural law enforcement conflict never really develops.  He initially seems eager to demonstrate that hustle and know-how can compensate for budgetary shortfalls, but Sheriff Taggart owns a Masters in criminology from UCLA, takes refresher courses through the LAPD and already embraces the latest technology.  Still, it takes Taggart a while to release the idea that Dimas is guilty.  The Sheriff doesn't appear all that pleased to be ordered to work with Detective Love, but he welcomes her input before and after this brief irritation, agreeing that they both want the same thing: a real culprit behind bars.


Taggart and Love are equally dogged invesigators, and the former implies he's in Monroe instead of L.A. because he dislikes the hassle of the big city.  Then again, for all his training, hustle and expertise, he's still unaware of the major criminal activity taking place right under his nose--specifically, with his top deputy.  On the surface, Willet fields the calls and minds the store at the department, all the while directing and concealing the illegal transportation scheme.


Willet is intriguingly written by Mullaly: using his position to stay one step ahead of Taggart's leg work, deftly planting phony evidence to steer suspicion,  easing Love into a wild goose chase to the Kane farm (and into harm's way after).  All the while, he's deferential tto his boss, of whom he speaks glowingly--it's Willet who lists Taggart's credentials, something the modest Sheriff appears highly unlikely to do.


Unfortunately, much of the resolution doesn't hold water.  The incriminating body at the resort would almost certainly be disposed of after the first officer's death, particularly with the manpower available to our labor suppliers.  Chan's inflammatory actions also seem very puzzling in hindsight, once the final revelation is known.  Willet foolishly handles the showdown with Love--he should be telling her to throw down the gun instead of asking her to hand it to him (so he can lose his balance reaching out for it), shouldn't he?   (It makes as much sense as approaching Steven Segal with a gun instead of shooting him at a distance always did.)  Too many highly unlikely mistakes from a meticulous mastermind.


Outside of the disappointing finale, director Dixon (Trouble Man) handles the action capably, with Christie's second run-in with the Vikings well handled--Dixon doesn't even utilize the overexposed right hand flip that seemed to show up in every episode.  Christie's Capri takes the beating that the Detective avoids, with her back windshield shot out by "crazy hermit" Trent Hopper as he supposedly hunts for jackrabbit.


Speaking of Hopper, he's played by Brion James in what appears to have been the actor's first prime time TV role.  In fact, I suspect James may have been doing double duty, since he's credited only as Hopper, while the Vikings' leader is unlisted in the credits, but definitely appears to be him as well.  You be the judge:


Elsewhere, a young Patch MacKenzie plays Kane's much younger squeeze,


Migdia Chinea has one of her earliest credits as well, before launching her career as a writer-director:



And Donna Andreson makes an appearance as Christie's jailed material witness, shortly before her most memorable role in 1976's Mansion of the Damned.  Incidentally, that cult classic was directed by Michael Pataki, who would join the cast of GET CHRISTIE LOVE! just a few episodes later as Christie's new partner, replacing Andy Romano.



The eclectic guest cast headed by Galager, Quade and Brooke is a definite plus, since both Andy Romano and Dennis Rucker are M.I.A. this week and Charles Cioffi is limited to a fifteen second telephone cameo.  Doesn't quite all tie together, but does set up a potential sequel with Galager's Sheriff, since Quade's accomplice who actually committed one murder and sabotaged Christie's car is still at large.  Alas, Highway to Murder would be our only visit to Monroe, California and those fiery enchiladas.


ONE LUMP OR MORE?

Christie doles out two. with Trenton and Deputy Willet uneasily sugared by our wary heroine.  The first after that aforementioned back windshield blast, the latter after the deputy gets the drop on the big city detective who threw a wrench in his seemingly foolproof scheme.



THE BOTTOM LINE:

The guest cast is deeper and more fascinating than usual, and both Mullaly and Dixon bring impressive credentials and skills, but neither seems to be at the top of his game with Highway to Murder. On the plus side: Galager and Quade give well conceived performances and the change of scenery (for the first time since the pilot movie, we're out of L.A.) is welcome. An interesting setup that just doesn't quite come together.  (**1/2 out of four)

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