“Decoy” (1957): A Policewoman in New York

16 Oct

“Decoy” is a TV cop show that aired from 1957-58. There were 39 half-hour episodes and they were all filmed on location in New York City. There is only one recurring character in every episode and that’s Policewoman Patricia “Casey” Jones, played by Beverly Garland. Yes, this is the first of only a handful of cop shows with a central female protagonist. I knew very little about this series until I read J. Hoberman’s review of it in his Video column in the Sunday New York Times of Sept. 3, 2017. I had no idea it was filmed in New York, a full year before the much more celebrated and much longer-running “Naked City” TV series. I learned that the series was available on Amazon Prime, so I watched the first two episodes. I was so intrigued by them that I immediately ordered the complete series box set (for $11.99!) from Amazon.com. One of the things that excited me in the first episode was the use of Times Square and 42nd Street and the generous views of some of the theater marquees in 1957.

I then watched every episode of the series and took screen grabs off the DVDs for this piece. There are a number of remarkable aspects of this show, not least of which is the wide-ranging use of New York locations, many of them captured in “stolen” shots, i.e. filmed on the street with hidden cameras without official permits. There are also quite a number of future stars who were just working actors in New York at the time of the filming, some making their very first screen appearances. The stories are edgier and grittier than was normal for TV dramas at the time, exploring subjects that I had assumed were taboo at the time, including drug addiction and obscene phone calls, as well as tales of troubled teens, child custody battles, deadbeat dads, a women’s prison, false arrest, point shaving and art forgery, as well as the usual crime show staples of armed robbery, jewel thefts, racetrack fraud, boxing match fixes, money laundering, fencing stolen goods, gun-running, etc. Casey Jones is as versatile a cop as Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) was in “Dragnet” (1951-59).

“My right hand clutched a magnum pistol, the most powerful handgun in the world.”

However, I would argue that the single most important element of the show is the central performance by Beverly Garland. She has to play quite a range of roles in the course of her police work, as she goes undercover in a variety of settings, but her main role is that of a no-nonsense law enforcement professional who finds herself often serving the function of social worker as she deals with troubled girls, family squabbles and suspects who are not in full control of their faculties. She has to be tough at times and compassionate at others, hopeful at times and cynical at others. Sometimes she loses her cool and snaps at someone giving her a hard time. Sometimes she wears a uniform, sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she has to persuade potential perpetrators to do the right thing at the last minute, as when she gets a diamond merchant about to be arrested to turn on the son who worships him so that the boy will go more willingly with his kindly uncle. (Shades of ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES!) Or when she gets the army lieutenant trying to get custody of the son he abandoned to drop charges against his wife when he realizes the boy would be better off with his mother and stepfather. She often pulls Perry Mason-like tactics and gets sudden confessions from key figures who haven’t been charged. Sometimes she makes mistakes as when a female suspect asks to have her handcuffs removed for a moment at LaGuardia Airport and Jones complies and then loses sight of her. In other episodes, she loses her gun to a bad guy and gets beaten up by a West Side street gang.

Many of her cases dealt with women in trouble. In “Two Days to Kill,”  she has to protect the teenaged mistress of a fugitive gangster who’s out to kill her. In “Night of Fire,” she goes undercover to befriend a female office worker who is believed to be an arsonist. In “Dream Fix,” she tries to identify and locate the pusher who has gotten an affluent young woman hooked on heroin. Family dysfunction is at the heart of many episodes. In “The Red Clown,” Casey has to find a child who has taken the subway alone from Queens to Manhattan to look for her artist father who abandoned her and her mother and moved to Greenwich Village. In “The Lost Ones,” she tries to track down a reform school parolee accused of shooting her abusive father. In “Bullet of Hate,” she tries to help a teenage girl who lives with an abusive aunt and uncle.

“Two Days to Kill” is also the episode in which Jones kills for the first time, after the gangster has burst into the hotel room where she and his mistress are staying, and she’s shaken by it. (Sgt. Friday faced the same situation in an episode of “Dragnet.”)

When she goes undercover she has to feign interest in all sorts of creepy, opportunistic and manipulative men (and some shady women) in order to get the evidence to bring them to trial. She puts on a lot of different faces, from high society to nurse to showgirl to showroom model to exotic dancer to gangster’s widow to street junkie. And she’s convincing in all of them. I don’t believe I’ve seen such varied work by a single actress in a single TV series.

As I watched these episodes, I thought of the two most iconic 1950s cops shows, the aforementioned “Dragnet” and “Naked City.” Compare Jack Webb’s one-note, unbendable, ever-moralizing Sgt. Friday to Garland’s Jones. I kept thinking, “This show makes ‘Dragnet’ look like ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse.’” “Decoy” also plays like a dress rehearsal for “Naked City,” which was much bigger-budgeted and offered much more extensive location shooting, complete with permits! “Naked City” was a half-hour show for its first season, but expanded to an hour for the rest of its four-season run. I liked the half-hour season the best, because it was the one most focused on police work. The hour-long episodes were basically social dramas with its police characters operating on the periphery of stories of troubled souls. “There are eight million stories in the naked city…” “Decoy” had its share of social dramas, but the half-hour format kept things concise and focused and reduced the pontificating we got so often in “Naked City.” Like “Dragnet,” “Decoy” used actual cases as the basis for its stories. The stories told in “Naked City” seemed much more removed from reality.

I love seeing scenes of New York 60 years ago in “Decoy,” especially when it’s obvious we’re seeing real New Yorkers hurrying by and not paid extras. Many of them look at the camera, mildly curious as to what’s going on. We see Grand Central Station, the old Penn Station (demolished in 1964) Central Park, Times Square, 42nd Street, Union Square, Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, and Columbia University, as well as scenes in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. (Of the five boroughs of New York, the only borough ignored in the series is poor Staten Island.)

The West Fourth Street train station (“Ladies’ Man”):

Coney Island (“First Arrest”):

In addition, the series offers us glimpses of such long-lost institutions as Colony Records and Horn & Hardart:

The old 42nd Street movie marquees are visible in some episodes.

The very first episode gives us a shot of the Apollo Theater on 42nd Street that confirms what I’d always wanted to know—whether Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI ever played on 42nd Street. When the film was released in the U.S. in 1956, it was in a shortened version that played under the title, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which is indeed visible on the Apollo marquee in this shot. (That would also be the title of John Sturges’ western remake of Kurosawa’s film some four years later.) The Apollo Theater specialized in foreign films throughout the 1950s and early ’60s.

Plus random shots of Garland on location:

The series’ last episode, “The Lost Ones,” takes place on the west side of Manhattan in an area that served as the setting of “West Side Story,” which premiered on Broadway in 1957, and featured teen characters not unlike the Jets in that musical, as Jones hits the streets in search of a teenage girl, just out of reform school, who shot her father. The streets on which the episode filmed would also be used for the opening number of the movie WEST SIDE STORY in 1961, just before the neighborhood was demolished to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center.

The series also gives us numerous opportunities to spot prominent actors in their early years.

“Deadly Corridor” was Colleen Dewhurst’s second screen appearance. She plays the queen bee of a cellblock in a women’s prison where Casey Jones goes undercover as an inmate to find out who murdered a “fink.”

“Two Days to Kill” was Diane Ladd’s first screen appearance. She plays the teenaged mistress of a fugitive gangster who offers to testify against him and is taken into witness protection by Jones but then changes her mind and sends word to the gangster, unaware that he’s out to kill her. (Does she not look like the spitting image of her daughter Laura Dern here?)

Martin Balsam plays a retailer in the Diamond District who fences stolen jewels in “Night Light”:

Peter Falk plays a racetrack worker who prints out counterfeit winning tickets in “The Come Back”:

In “The Sound of Tears,” Suzanne Pleshette plays a woman whose fiancé has been shot to death in Central Park and is then the chief suspect in his murder. Jones is the one who has to tell Pleshette her boyfriend is dead and it’s quite a heartbreaking scene:

Vincent Gardenia plays a boxing promoter trying to force a promising boxer to take a dive in “The Challenger”:

Larry Hagman has something to do with a marijuana ring based at Columbia University in “Saturday Lost”:

Ed Asner is a detective acting as back-up for Jones in “An Eye for an Eye”:

Al Lewis (seven years before playing Grandpa Munster) plays the manager of a Times Square hot spot where a showgirl has been murdered in “Queen of Diamonds”:

Clifton James plays a cop who loses custody of a suspect who thinks she killed her husband in “Escape Into Danger”:

In what may be the only time the actor brothers Frank and Joseph Campanella acted together, they play detectives seeking a fugitive robber/killer as Jones pretends to be the killer’s hostage’s fiancée in “My Brother’s Killer”:

In “Fiesta at Midnight,” Tomas Milian, future star of Italian westerns, makes his screen debut playing a newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrant who is arrested for an armed robbery and is unable to find the woman he met at a dance club who can give him an alibi. Jones believes in his innocence and sets out to find the mystery woman.

Simon Oakland played a gruff police lieutenant in two episodes, four years before his memorable turn as the gruff Lt. Schrank in WEST SIDE STORY:

Barbara Barrie appeared as a Queens housewife  in “The Red Clown” and as a woman whose fiancé is acting strangely in “My Brother’s Killer”:

Phyllis Newman appeared as a teenage heroin addict (“Dream Fix”) and as a reform school parolee who shoots her father and goes on the run (“The Lost Ones”):

Nicholas Colasanto plays a gun-runner in “Across the World”:

There were many more prominent character actors who appeared in “Decoy” and they include Madeleine Sherwood, Bert Freed, Ludwig Donath, Will Kuluva, Bill Hickey, Bruce Gordon, Lois Nettleton, Zohra Lampert, Kay Medford, Stefan Schnabel, Alfred Ryder, Albert Dekker, Lonny Chapman, Michael Tolan, Mike Kellin, and Joshua Shelley, among others.

In his piece on “Decoy,” J. Hoberman calls the series “notably (and shockingly) white,” singling out only one minority actor: “Cuban-American actor Tomas Milian is a rare Latino.” For one thing, Hoberman is dead wrong. I saw at least seven episodes with people of color, far more representation than you’d find in the overwhelming majority of TV series with contemporary settings in 1957. He also neglects to mention that the episode with Milian, “Fiesta at Midnight,” is about Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx and co-stars Puerto Rican actress Miriam Colon, who later founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre. There’s a “West Side Story” vibe to the episode with characters resembling Tony, Maria, Bernardo and Anita. (“West Side Story” was a huge hit on Broadway at the time this was shot.) Part of the episode was filmed at the Hunts Point Palace, and includes scenes of Latin dancers and a Latin band (Randy Carlos). Both Milian and Colon died in March of this year, 19 days apart.

Miriam Colon in “Fiesta at Midnight

 

In “The Showplace,” a Times Square nightclub where Casey goes undercover features a blind black pianist, played by Richard Ward, who has an easy rapport with Casey and even calls her “Honey” a couple of times, something that would certainly have riled southern TV stations thinking of acquiring this show.

Frank Silvera, seen below, was a mixed-race actor from Jamaica who identified as black and plays a character named Andy Garcia(!) in one episode (“Across the World”), the owner of an import-export business at the South Street Seaport who gets lured into a gun-running sideline by a pair of shady characters.

L-R: Arthur Batanides, Frank Silvera, Nicholas Colasanto

An actor named Richard Silvera plays a policeman in a later episode. I found no information on him and was unable to determine if he was related to Frank Silvera or not or whether he was Latino or black. But there he is in “The Lieutenant Had a Son,” playing a guitar to entertain a boy at the center of a custody battle. This is his only credit on IMDB and there is no other info about him.

In the 2nd episode, “The Red Clown,” Jones does a lot of footwork in Greenwich Village looking for the runaway girl’s deadbeat artist dad, including stopping to interview this street artist–and I believe he was a real street artist and not a paid extra:

In addition, there were tons of white ethnic characters played by actors of Jewish, Italian, Irish, Greek, and Hungarian backgrounds. Among the actors in these roles: Bert Freed, Martin Balsam, Nicholas Colasanto, Vincent Gardenia, the Campanella brothers, Arthur Batanides, Dick Davalos, Lilia Skala, Betty Walker, Zohra Lampert, Phyllis Newman and Ludwig Donath. The series is filled with authentic New York faces. Not many TV series at the time could make that claim and, again, is hardly what I’d call “shockingly” white.

Some “Decoy” episodes suffered the kinds of contrivances that inevitably turned up in shows like this, despite the “Dragnet”-like claim in the end credits that all episodes were based on true stories. Some coincidences strained one’s suspension of disbelief, such as the episode where the police are looking for a fugitive robber who may be headed to New York to try to hide out at his brother’s place, only for Casey to take a complaint from a frantic young woman whose fiancé won’t answer her calls or let her come see him at his Greenwich Village apartment. Guess where the fugitive robber is staying and guess whom he’s holding hostage. I also didn’t like the high society episodes since the characters just weren’t as interesting.

Except for one scene in “Night Light” where Jones questions a chauffeur and a “French” maid about the disappearance of a necklace from the Park Avenue apartment where they’re employed. Jones starts questioning the maid in French and gets nothing but stammering, revealing the maid to be a fraud.

But there are more than enough well-written and tightly plotted episodes covering a wide range of crimes that law enforcement must deal with. I was pleased to learn that some of the best episodes were written by Jerome Coopersmith, who taught screenwriting at Hunter College when I was a film student there and whose class I took. Among the episodes he wrote were “Two Days to Kill,” the one with Diane Ladd as an ambivalent witness against her gangster boyfriend; the aforementioned “Fiesta at Midnight,” about Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx; and “First Arrest,” in which Casey relates the story of the first arrest she made, which involved going undercover as an exotic dancer in Coney Island to track down a dealer in stolen goods.

I was struck by the inadvertent timeliness of the episode about art forgery, “Shadow of Van Gogh,” since its subject, the Van Gogh painting, “Starry Night,” just happens to be on display now at the Museum of Modern Art. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook about this:

The New York Times ran a column on Sunday about museum goers taking selfies with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at the Museum of Modern Art. A MOMA curator, Ann Temkin, wonders if “taking the photo replaces seeing it in the slow and thoughtful way I would ideally wish,” and adds that “the problem with all the photo-takers is that they make it impossible for someone who wants to do that kind of looking to do so.”  Coincidentally, I had just watched a TV episode from “Decoy” (1957), a series about a New York City policewoman, in which “Starry Night” figures in a tale about art fakery. A wealthy buyer has just purchased “Starry Night” from an art dealer on 57th Street only to learn that it’s a copy and not the original. The price she paid was $60,000, a far cry from the hundreds of millions this painting would command today. We later learn that the art dealer keeps the original in his office, covered over by a “mediocre” painting to hide it from view so that only he knew he possessed it. What a desecration! Casey Jones, the policewoman, only gets a confession from the art dealer when she threatens to slash the mediocre painting. In the final scene we see the original back on the wall at MOMA where it actually should have been anyway since MOMA has owned the painting since 1941 and such an art dealer would never have gotten his hands on it.

According to Hoberman’s piece, the series never ran in New York City, which strikes me as such a missed opportunity. Chances are the series would not be so obscure if it had gotten the attention of the people who are in it, thanks to all the “stolen” street shots, and the people whom it’s about, not to mention the actors whose careers were just getting off the ground. I wonder if stations were too cautious about the subject matter. Next Saturday, October 21, will mark the 60th anniversary of the show’s premiere date. I would urge anyone sufficiently intrigued by the above descriptions to order the complete series box set from Amazon. It’s distributed by Film Chest Media and includes a booklet with pictures and an episode guide.

At the end of most episodes, Garland/Jones breaks the fourth wall and addresses the viewing audience, offering a rough moral or a simple observation, sometimes hopeful, sometimes not. Here are some shots of those closers:

ADDENDUM: I posted this a day before October 17, Beverly Garland’s birthday.  She would have turned 91. She was born two months after my mother was born, in the town my mother grew up in (Santa Cruz, CA), and she died in 2008 about two weeks before my mother died.

5 Responses to ““Decoy” (1957): A Policewoman in New York”

  1. Craig J. Vogel October 17, 2017 at 8:19 AM #

    I had no idea this ever existed! What a superb cast of actors!

  2. Derrick March 29, 2018 at 4:38 PM #

    My wife an I recently discovered this show ourselves on Amazon Prime and have been watching two or three episodes a night before going to bed. I agree with your review 100% and am in the process of writing my own review as this is a show that was way ahead of its time and deserves a bigger audiences. Would you consent to my using two of your images in my review? I would of course give you credit and provide a link to your review.

  3. Elliot James May 19, 2019 at 11:31 AM #

    Decoy is running on Amazon Prime. I’d never known about this show until finding a few articles on the web. I’ve always enjoyed Beverly Garland’s acting and her films (Not of This Earth). Your blog captured the show’s appeal. As a fan of Naked City, I could relate to Decoy on some levels. The location work is astonishing, a time capsule of NYC. It’s amazing how a show like this is in many ways superior to the crime shows of the past 30 years. Today’s one-dimensional actresses should study Garland’s work in this series.

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  1. Decoy – The Ferguson Theater - March 29, 2018

    […] can find a more comprehensive review of DECOY at BRIAN CAMP’S FILM AND ANIME BLOG. I highly recommend you checking it […]

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