The start of the show, not those teaser clips that they play at the beginning, the real start of the show is when the harmonica starts. The song plays against a series of still shots of Rockford being a private eye and some of him just being a normal guy. Film, of course, is more information, thousands of pictures. These still shots force you to look at his face, to try to read him. I’m always oddly touched by the shot of him in the frozen food section holding a TV dinner in his hand. He seems to be contemplating it and the whole bin of TV dinners stretching out to the edge of the shot. Yeah, yeah, frozen peas, Salisbury steak, loneliness, haven’t I gotten this one before? Oh wait, there is chocolate pudding. All is not lost. The harmonica is rough sounding and without it there would be a cheesy quality to the music. Everything behind it is almost too tightly arranged. The harmonica keeps landing heavily on the beats until the end when it spins off wistfully. I guess that’s Rockford though how could the Hollywood harmonica player know it. I wonder what one or two sentence marketing tag line they gave him in the studio five minutes before he made this little masterpiece of a solo.
After these still shots, the camera goes to his desk and pans right to left. The desktop has an abandoned solitaire game, a cassette tape, a cup of pencils, a private investigator certificate, a date stamp, a fancy pen, a cup of pencils and a picture of his father. There is no mess to it but it doesn’t look artificial. The camera stops at the answering machine and in every episode a different message plays. This time it is a bookie practically begging him not to bet on a particular horse. The effect of this, the snapshots, the shot of the empty desk, the message machine playing a call he is not there to receive, is to make the loneliness surrounding this character palpable. Every episode starts with him not being reached. It is no accident that it is his father in the photo on the desk. There are no women in Jim’s life. One may turn up in the course of a case and sometimes there is a hint at some past sad connection so far back that it might as well be something out of Homer painted on a vase. Enough for the woman to leverage something out of him, but not enough to mean anything or last into another episode. For me this opening sequence is one of the greatest thirty second stretches in TV. It played countless times in the afternoons of my latch key childhood and always mesmerized.
The, and I’m not sure if this is the right word, establishing shots are obvious and slow in pace. This episode starts with a long shot of a plane landing, cuts to people walking through the airport and finally Jim shows up and goes straight to the phone, this seventies hollow egg looking thing. I guess we have been taught to read the language of film so well now and there have been so many shots of planes and airports and people in airports that no director today would take so long or do a shot like this so simply. It is almost a relief. It feels like watching a foreign film from the sixties or seventies before the boredom sets in. There are perfectly plausible announcements as he walks through the airport, “Trans Global Sky Cab to Baggage Area.” Perfectly generic, calming. He tells his client that something happened back there but he isn’t sure quite what. But he will tell him about it later.
This episode is built like an absurdist play complete with that slight edge of menace. Immediately he is followed by a man. He escapes, but when he gets to his trailer, he finds that it has been trashed. He calls the DMV, pretends a Southern accent and sweet talks a young lady into telling him who owns the license plate of the car that chased him. It is Martin Fishback. A great name, a name like the airport announcement, generic in a good way for another private detective. Just then two goons burst in. He punches one, a perfect Hollywood hay-maker to the chin, but when the other pulls a gun, he stops immediately. He apologizes and accepts the punch in the gut as a matter of course. Rockford suffers violence but when he employs it, it is a last resort strategy and never done out of anger. If it is not effective, it is let go of immediately. The best detail is that they make him wear sunglasses that are so thick that they blind him. Some tension in the car. He keeps asking questions like who are you guys and what have I done and the goon in the back seat keeps telling him to shut up. A little Pinter-esque. Rockford keeps needling him but just short of the moment when the guy would have to back up his vague threats.
They take him to a mansion. A man behind the desk is drinking sherry. There are leather bound books on desk. The head thug is small and has a thin mustache and a cane. He looks like the ridiculous stock Italian character in the old Fred Astaire movie, Top Hat. They want to know who he is working for of course. He won’t tell because of professional ethics. This word keeps coming up in the episode. The head thug asks him if it is worth it and gives an almost too hard-boiled line about the only thing that he is deciding is whether he will be breathing air or dirt in the morning. They leave him alone for a while in the luxurious living room to confer with some nebulous higher up or to make preparations. Jim rattles the door to discover that he is indeed trapped. At this point the scene fuzzes out and we are in flashback. We learn why he has been hired. An older man, Warren Jamieson (Joseph Cotten in a guest appearance), has hired him to investigate his daughter’s fiancé who seems like a phony. The old man is giving him the details while shooting skeet on his country estate. It is not a job that Rockford wants and the old man starts by threatening him and then by pleading with him. Rockford takes the ticket to Newark to investigate the fiancé, Mark Chalmers, further. In Newark, we don’t learn much but he is harassed by the local cops and threatened by different goons in his hotel room. They all want to know who he is working for but won’t tell him why they are there or why anyone cares about the person that he is investigating. We also get a scene at the fiance’s club and meet Susan Jamieson. She is as sweet as her father is calculating. She immediately unmasks him as private investigator just by being sweetly curious, but she has no idea what he is investigating.
When the thugs get back, they pack him in a car presumably for the long ride in the proverbial black caddy. They blind him with the sunglasses and about a minute after the car is on the road, they are pulled over by four or five unmarked cop cars. This should be good news but the cops want something from Rockford too and won’t explain the how and why of it. Back at the police station they try to make him press charges for the kidnapping. He won’t do it. He realizes that they are stalling so that they can get a subpoena in his hand. They threaten him and Rockford gets in a good line that will come into play in the last scene: You haven’t lived until you have tried to subpoena me. He crosses paths with the Marshall trying to subpoena him on the way out and gives him directions to the office that he had been sitting in. This pattern of being followed by the unknown and being taken prisoner by the un-named continues through the episode until it is the point of the episode. He has wit in the face of it and controls what he can, his dignity and personal ethics. That is I guess gumshoe 101 but it is really well done in this show and in this character because he doesn’t try to be tough. He seems in the simplest way to be trying to get by.
Along the way, he has upheld his ethics by not divulging who he is working for to the people who have kidnapped him or the cops who have tried to coerce him. His real test of ethics come when the daughter seeks him out because her fiancé has gone missing. She had innocently met him before while he was at the club, and he is the only private investigator that she knows. She comes to his rundown rusted out trailer by the beach. He is relieved to see her and you can tell that he is enjoying the break from being punched and kidnapped. He takes her to a place to get breakfast, a taco stand on the shore. She turns the tacos down, the writer’s nod to her wealthy upbringing though it might not quite fit this actress. Rockford tells her that he has to clear up a conflict before he can work for her because of professional ethics. She asks, “What kind of ethics does a private eye have?” He tells her the kind that lets him look in the mirror and shave. This is the only moment in the show that he knows more than anyone else and he’s not telling either.
After the climax of the show, there is one more scene with these two. They are discussing some of the details, the aftermath. She is dressed smartly. He opens the door for her. It is almost like they are on a date. They drive off and are immediately followed by another car. Frustrated, he doesn’t evade them. He stops the car and approaches the man following him who produces a subpoena. He looks further up the street and sees two goons in another car. They almost look embarrassed to be there.
None of us ever knows the whole story and they are always after us.
Cue the harmonica.