Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Rockford Files: "Sleight of Hand"

A little over midway through the first season of The Rockford Files comes a surprisingly poignant and moving story, "Sleight of Hand." Told in flashback - an unusual device for the series - the story finds Jim Rockford steeped in regret and loss for reasons that only become clear as the tale unfolds.

As the flashback opens, we find Rockford on a sailboat with a vivacious divorcee and her young daughter. Rockford's usual cynicism and hard shell are absent; it seems he really likes Diana and her little girl - maybe even enough to establish a permanent relationship. But seconds after Rockford drives them home, Diana vanishes - and when the police arrive, they find the dead body of her next door neighbour. Rockford, of course, becomes the number one suspect, and he must dodge the police as he searches for his missing girlfriend.

Given the structure of episodic television in the 20th century, it will come as no surprise that Diana winds up dead, since in those days you couldn't give a romantic lead a steady partner, as it would preclude romantic entanglements in future episodes. And yet despite that, James Garner's performance really convinces audiences that he is wracked by guilt and loss, that he hates himself for failing her.

Diana's disappearance is very cleverly structured, and the payoff really delivers. In the end, Rockford and Diana were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time for one crucial instant, and that tragic moment changed their lives forever. It really is a classic tragedy.

The episode guest-starred Jackie Cooper and Lane Smith, one playing a cop, the other a hoodlum. Both men, of course, played Daily Planet editor Perry White - Cooper in the Salkind Superman films of the late 70s and early 80s, and Smith in the 90s television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Cooper was, of course, an Emmy-award winning television director, and helmed at least one episode of The Rockford Files

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