Film 2019: Dog Day Afternoon


I’ve always been pretty clear in my recollection that my first cinema visit for an adult film (as in grown-up) was in 1973 when my mate Alan and I went to see George Segal and Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class. But a few months ago, browsing a rack of cheap DVDs in a charity shop in a part of Stockport I hadn’t visited in years, I came across the Sydney Lumet-directed, Al Pacino starring Dog Day Afternoon, and immediately got a flash on that being my first grown-up movie.

It can’t have been, so the only question is why I thought that in the first place: the film was released in 1975, and whilst I did see it at the local Odeon in Burnage, it couldn’t possibly have been a first.

I enjoyed it then, and hadn’t seen it since, but for 50p (I bought four DVDs at the same price) it was irresistible, and it heralds the new/ongoing Sunday film season, renamed in the best Barry Norman fashion.

Dog Day Afternoon must be pretty near unique in being an adaptation not of a book but a magazine article. It’s about a New York Bank robbery in 1972 that turned into a farcical disaster, and the film is supposed to be very close to actual fact, in the way that even the most absurd murders from Homicide: Life on the Street were taken directly from David Simon’s non-fction book. The real-life robber, John Wojtowicz claimed it was only 30% true, but the consensus appears to be that it was mostly taen from the real-life event. Al Pacino plays the Wojtowicz role (renamed Sonny Wortzik) with John Cazale as his partner Sal Naturale (the true name of the other robber) despite both robbers being in their late teens instead of being in their thirties.

The robbery is supposed to take ten minutes. Right from the start, things go wrong. The third robber, Stevie, bottles it after about thirty seconds. The cash run has been a pick-up, not a delivery, so there’s only about $1,100 in the place, so Sonny grabs the travellers cheques to compensate. To make these untraceable, he burns the register, the smoke escapes, someone calls the Police and suddenly there’s a seige: two amateur robbers, eight hostages.

If you’re like me, you’re already seeing this as a Donald E Westlake Dortmunder Gang novel translated to film, and far more successfully than any of the official adaptations. It’s not really that, though it is very very funny in places, with a wholly natural absurdity reinforced by Lumet’s insistence on a very naturalistic approach. The film is funny because the reality is funny.

But the skill in Westlake’s books is in how he merges orthodox crime fiction with the inconvenience of real-life, and how people don’t always fit in with complex plans. Dog Day Afternoon moves a stage further: Sonny doesn’t have a plan, not a real one, nothing complex, just go in with three men, three guns. From the moment Stevie runs, the plan is gone and despite his efforts to convince himself that he’s in charge, that he can get them out of it, Sonny’s had it.

The thing about the Dortmunder Gang books is that there’s always a way out of it, some ultimate plot that allows Dortmunder and Co to escape with at least their freedom. Right from the start, with its New York street scenes, its sidewalks of ordinary joes and jills, the gritty film stock, the near-television style of narrowness, there’saworkaday blue collar aspectto the film that tells you that nothing clever will happen and Sonny and Sal will not get away with it. Some of the film’s most effective comedy is the neverending scenes of more Police arriving, cars and busloads, task forces, snipers, helicopters, complete overkill for two schlubs in a tiny Bank branch. We know there’ll be no fairytale endings, it’s only about how it will end.

In the meantime, the film picks up on the heat of the times. The seige becomes a rolling news sensation. The crowd outside multiplies. Sonny makes increasing forays outside, to talk to the cops (Detective Moretti – Clay Durning – and FBI Agent Sheldon – James Broderick). He denounces the Police as just wanting to kill them all, chants ‘Attica! Attica!’ referencing the then-recemt and inffamous Prison riot, gets the crowd on his side.

He gets another element on his side when he demands the Police fetch his wife, only his wife is Leon (Chris Sarandon), who Sonny has married desppite being married to Amgie, with whom he has had two children. It turns out Sonny was robbing he Bank to pay for Leon to have a sex-change operation, which has the television describing the robbery as being by ‘two homosexuals’, getting Sal’s back up because he isn’t, but bringing the gay community out to cheer the robbers along.

Inside the Bank, it’s Stockholm Syndrome in a very short space of time. Both the Chief Teller, Sylvia (Penelope Allen) and the Manager, Mr Mulvaney (Sully Boyar) refuse chances to leave rather than abandon the girls. The Brooklyn-to-the-core gum-chewing Jenny (Carol Kane) even plays with Sonny’s rifle, trying to learn drill from him.

The absurdities pile up. Calls come into the Bank; one twisted bastard tells Sonny to kill them, kill thm all. Another wants to know what he’s doing to molest the women: he passes that call to Jenny, who obliges with some heavy panting.

It’s very much Pacino’s film. He is the story’s prime mover, he’s a volatile character, anda trapped one with delusions of power through having the hostages, even as he’s acknowledging that they’re the only thing keeping him alive. But as the film rolls on, unhurriedly, his energy starts to wane. He’s demanded a helicopter and a jet to fly to Algeria, though it’s a limo bus not a chopper. He’s trying to speak to Leon, who is a completely up-himself narcissist, concerned only with his depression, his suicide attempt, his drug habits. And Angie’s no better, frustrating his attempt at a goodbye call by overspilling her fears, her concerns, his crazy behaviour towards her, she can’t come down there, how can she get a babysitter this late? You start to understand why Sonny is so clearly fucked up.

There’s even his mother, brought in by the FBI (never happened according to Wojtowicz, though it’s perfectly in line with the real stuff), and she’s full of unrealistic promises and ideas, down to suggesting that, on a Brooklyn street, at night, surrounded by 500 plus cops, press and TV and a thickly clustered crowd, her son could run for it and get away…

Eventually the bus arrives. Sonny plays clever over the driver, a cheery jive black, who he suspects of being an undercover cop. He takes FBI Agent Murphy as driver instead, the original suggestion. Murphy wants Sal to have his gun pointed up, they hit a bump, it goes off, don’t want any accidental shooting. Immediately, I saw it, equal measures a late recollection and an intelligent expectation. At the airport, ready to debark onto the jet, guards down, Sheldon neutralises Sonny by forcing his rifle barrel down onto the dashboard, Murphy withdraws a gun from an armrest and Sal’s gone pointed up, swivels and shoots him through the middle of the forehead.

And its over. Sonny is held, frisked, handcuffed. The hostages are removed. Sonny says nothing, turning only to see Sal’s corpse carried past on a gurney. There are brief credits about the aftermoth: Sonny serving twenty years in federal prison, Angie bringing up their kids on welfare, Leon now living as a woman, post-op.

In real life, John Wojtowicz served six years and lived with his ‘Leon’, Elizabeth Eden until her death twenty years after the film: he died of cancer in 2004. John Cazale, silent, glum, a figure of depression, could play Sal Naturale because Sal was killed and you can always use a dead person’s name.

The whole film is absurd, farcical and funny because the real thing was. But it’s also a very serious film and Lumet works to keep it utterly grounded. The performances are natural, the actors look real: Pacino is the only one with Hollywood looks and he’s playing average joe schlub. The whole film is like a social document of early 1970s New York, and it looks horribly dated in a was-it-really-like-this? fashion and yes, I was there (not in New York, mind you) and it was like that and it shocks me to see it again. Ultimately, it’s a story of two losers who did something completely stupid that bloomed into a short-lived circus, and a man was killed because he was carrying a gun that he didn’t know if he could bring himself to use.

It’s not a film I’ll want to re-watch again any time soon, and maybe I’ll end up not keeping it. But it’s like a TARDIS in the mind, almost as much as The Lovers!, crossing time and space to pull me back to 1975 and a Monday night at the Odeon, a mile walk there, a mile walk back, in flared jeans and a night out for, what was it, 5p? Only one-tenth of what it cost to strt a new year of Sunday morning viewings.

Film 2018: The Princess Bride


Originally, this was going to be another sub-titled film session. Possibly, I was going to choose Delicatessen, or maybe Swimming Pool. But it’s been a stressful week, and I was seeking out simple things to read, books I didn’t have to think about whilst reading, books I had no intention of writing about. I turned to my dog-eared, second hand copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and from that naturally to its twenty-years later sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which Goldman details experiences with a new set of films, made and unmade. One such is The Princess Bride, adapted from his own novel. The moment I turned to that page, I realised that it had been ages since I’d watched it, and that I needed to watch it again as soon as possible.

Good morning.

Back in 1987, I was a regular, Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the Crown & Anchor, on Port Street, just back of Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, meeting a group of friends who had originally got together as comics and SF fans. This had been going on for several years. By this time, I usually gave John and Brian lifts home, even though this was miles out of my way, and John would often invite us in for a cup of tea with his elderly Mam and Dad (his Mam would cut the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons out of the Daily Express for me: lovely lady) and a chat. One Tuesday night, Film 87 was showing and Barry Norman showed a clip from a forthcoming film, The Princess Bride.

It was the clifftop scene. Two men – Inigo Montoya, a Spaniard seeking revenge for his father, slaughtered by a six-fingered man, played by Mandy Patinkin, and the Man in Black, a mysterious pursuing figure, played by Cary Elwes – are about to fight a duel withe swords.

And, oh my word, but this is brilliant! It’s an honest-to-goodness, stunningly athletic, Errol Flynn/Tyrone Powers swordfight, all flashing blades, athletic charges up and down rocks, superb poise, and running through it is this wonderfully ironic but completely deadpan commentary from the characters. In short, it’s a spoof, but it’s the only kind of spoof that really is funny, because it’s being made by people who know, and love, and understand, and respect the source, and it’s brilliantly balanced. No winks to the audience. No knowing looks that say, ‘hey, we all know this is crap, and only suckers watch stuff like this’. No mockery. It was stunning.

We all decided that we had to see this film. Blimey, if all of it was as good as this? And it is.

We didn’t go as mates, no. Instead, I took my girlfriend/love and her ten year old son, because we both knew it was the kind of film he’d love. What we didn’t reckon on was the manner of the opening, although his reactions which almost a perfect reflection of the way the film started.

William Goldman had written the novel of The Princess Bride in 1973. Like so many great stories, it started from stories made up for his children, two young daughters, one of whom wanted a story about princesses, the other a story about brides. Then he started writing it down, but soon found himself starting to struggle, until he hit on the idea of the book being the really fun bits of a longer story. The fiction is that Goldman’s book is an abridgement of the original story by S. Morgenstern, that Goldman’s dad used to read to him whn he was a kid only now Goldman realises his dad was leaving out the boring bits, which in the Goldman version are replaced by a running commentary from Bill himself, explaining what and why he’s cut out.

To produce that effect on film, Goldman introduced the brilliant device of a young, nameless boy (Fred Savage) ill at home in bed, whose grandfather (Peter Falk) is reading him the story when the Grandson would rather be playing video game Baseball. These two are a great double act, with the Grandson interrupting the film at various times, at first to complain about a dull story, and increasingly to comment when things are going the way he expects.

This enables Goldman to set things up, all the boring but essential exposition, by having the unimpressed Grandson chipping in. All about Buttercup (Robin Wright on her debut), the most beautiful woman in the world, not just in Florin, and patient, put-upon farmboy Westley (Elwes), whose only response to her demands is “As you wish”, and how they fall in love, and kiss (“you didn’t tell me there was going to be kissing!”). And Westley goes away to seek his fortune but his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who leaves no survivors, and Buttercup’s heart was frozen, and then five years later, she’s selected to be the bride of Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon, wonderfully straight-faced in the role of a cowardly, plotting, villain) except that she doesn’t love him at all.

The Grandson’s not liking this and neither is David, squirming in his seat, getting ever more furious at us for tricking him into watching such a rotten film as this…

And then Buttercup gets kidnapped by an gloriously implausible trio, consisting of a puffed-up, short, bald Sicilian plotter, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, constantly decrying every upset to his plan as “Inconceivable!”), the drunken Spaniard master swordsman, Inigo Montoya, and the slow-moving, rhyming Giant, Fezzick (wrestler and actual giant, Andre the Giant, real name A. R. Roussimoff).

This is where the film takes off. Just the look of the three, their extreme contrasts in size, their accents, Shawn’s near-shriek, was enough to take the film onto the elevated plane it would occupy from there on in. Vizzini’s trio are there to kidnap and kill Buttercup, to provoke a war between Florin and its ancient enemy, Gilder. Vizzini has planned everything to perfection. Exccept (“Inconceivable!”)…

Except the Man in Black is following them. Up the Cliffs of Insanity. Defeating Inigo in that magnificent fight. Defeating Fezzick’s strength (he’s out of practice with tackling one man, he usually fights groups, the moves are completely different). Outwitting Vizzini (“Inconceivable!!”) And confronting Princess Buttercup, with scorn for a woman who betrayed True Love, which raises Buttercup to a fury: losing Westley killed her, she will not have that mocked. She’s already realised that the Man in Black is the Dread Pirate Roberts, but only when she pushes him down a ravine and he calls “As… you… wish…” does she realise what the audience has already known for a long time, that he’s also Westley.

Oh, I forget to mention, there’s another complication. Prince Humperdinck is the greatest hunter in the world. There’s nothing he loves more than hunting. Except possibly hiring Vizzini to  kidnap and kill Buttercup and frame Gilder as an excuse to conquer Gilder in war and rule the world. And he’s on the trail.

By the way, just as an aside, remember how Inigo’s father was slaughtered by a six-fingered man? Humperdinck’s confidant, right hand man, and curious investigator into pain and torture is Count Rugen (lovely underplaying by Christopher Guest, dry, quiet, almost monotonous). Who has six-fingers on his right hand.

Reunited, Westley and Buttercup try to make their escape through the Fire Swamp. This is a studio set-up, with random gouts of fire, Lightning Sands (think quicksand, only instant) and R.O.U.S (Rodents Of Unusual Size), though much of what has gone so far has been filmed in gorgeous English countryside, mostly Derbyshire/Sheffield. I’ll come back to this scene later, but for now our True Love pair get all the way through, only to find Humperdinck and Rugan and their men waiting for them.

Westley’s prepared to die with defiance, but Buttercup can’t take his dying again. She surrenders to Humperdinck on condition he spares Westley’s life. And she’s sweet and naive and innocent enough to believe him when he says he will. Westley’s well aware that he’s going to be killed, but first Rugen intends to torture him in the Pit of Despair.

Change of plan. Whilst pretending to send messages to the Dread Pirate Roberts (it’s a title, practically a franchise: Westley inherited from Ryan when he retired, who inherited it from Cummerbund, etc.,) that he can collect Buttercup if he wishes, Humperdinck moves ahead with a complex plan to set-up the murder of Queen Buttercup, on her wedding night, by Gilder agents: actually, he’s going to strangle her himself, so much more satisfying.

Except that Buttercup may be naive but she’s not stupid. She sees through his plan on the Wedding Day, and bitterly and passionately accuses Humperdinck of being a coward, a rotten, lying, despicable coward. They say the truth hurts, and in this case, Humperdinck gets so mad, he storms down to the Pit of Despair, where Westley is connected to some sort of pre-industrial electrocution machine made of wood and water, slams it up to 50, and kills Westley.

Yes, that’s right. Kills. As in Dead. Dead dead. “You’re not reading it right,” complains the Grandson.

The hero is dead. But we still have Inigo and Fezzick, skill and strength. But without Vizzini, they need a brain: who better than the Man in Black? Even if he is dead: all they need is a Miracle.

Enter a great cameo from Billy Crystal, all made-up to be oooooold and Carol Kane as Miracle Max and his wife Valerie, allowed to improvise and doing so so well that Bill Goldman confessed that he wishes he had written one of their lines. This brings Westley back to life, if not actually motion, which leads to a storming of the Castle by two-and-a-bit men.

From hereon in to the end, this just gets too good to spoil, though there’s this confrontation scene between Inigo and Rugan, in which all of Mandy Potinkin’s dialogue is repetitions of “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” For months, I could reduce David to shrieks of laughter just by putting on the accent and saying “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”

And it all ends happily ever after.

The film was praised everywhere but didn’t become a commercial smash until the era of Home video.With one caveat I’m about to come to, I think it’s brilliant, and what makes it so is that it is played completely seriously throughout. The casting is perfect throughout, and everyone is not only completely comfortable in their roles, they are plainly loving every minute of it. Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin both learned to fence to play the Clifftop scene, and that’s all them (except for the somersaults).

What makes the spoof side work so well is that they play the story entirely seriously at every moment. That’s how it works: the film respects its audience, it condescends neither to its material nor to them. It’s the perfect example of why the 1979 big budget Flash Gordon was such a piece of shite.

You can only get under the skin of something and make it so funny if you love it. You can’t do it with something you hate, that you only want to tear down.

My one caveat, and it’s something that has only struck me today, on this watching, is that the film is very male-oriented. Apart from supporting cast, there are only two female roles of any substance, and one of those is Carol Kane. There’s basically just Robin Wright, and that’s it. She’s perfect for the role and even at twenty she shoulders such an important part without any missteps. But it took the Fire Swamp sequence for me to suddenly see that hers is an almost purely passive role.

Buttercup is the incarnation of the old-fashioned Princess. She’s there to be rescued, as Westley does, time and again, in the Fire Swamp. She doesn’t have anything to do herself. There are two confrontations with Humperdinck where, once out of desperation, once out of contempt, her words change the movement of the story. And there are two points where Buttercup takes actual, physical action in her own behalf, instead of waiting for Westley to save her. The first is where she dives out of Vizzini’s boat in an attempt to escape, only to land in water infested with deadly Screaming Eels, forcing her to retreat. And the other is when she shoves the Dread Pirate Roberts in the back, down into the ravine, discovers it’s Westley back from the dead, and hurls herself after.

It’s not much. It’s certainly not any kind of subversion of the cliches. I didn’t think that way back in 1988, when we took David to the cinema, but I think that now, and it’s a blot, a tiny blot on a film that would definitely be one of the ten I’d take to a desert island with a functioning DVD player and a reliable source of electricity. The Princess Bride is out-and-out fun!

Homicide: Life in Season Six


This year’s Crew

After the melodramatic announcement at the end of Season 5, Homicide: Life on the Street chose to start Season 6 in a similar manner to the previous year. Instead of Pembleton returning from surgery after his stroke, the episode begins with Bayliss and Pembleton returning to Homicide after their temporary re-assignment to the Robbery Squad: three months of routine, nine-to-five shifts, regulation cases, undemanding work: they can’t wait to get back!
Both detectives are imagining a welcome party, and indeed they walk into the middle of one, but it’s Barnfather holding a press conference to celebrate the cracking of a major case by Detectives Ballard and Gharty.
Yes, as we surmised, Peter Gerety has joined the cast as Stu Gharty, transferring from Internal Affairs, as has Jon Seda, as Paul Falsone, from Auto. Ballard is the third new cast member for the season: Callie Thorne playing Laura Ballard, who has transferred over from the Pacific North West, the Seattle Police, and making a name for herself as a fine detective: you can just feel the sparks between her and Pembleton before they are even introduced.
The new trio comes at the expense of two departing cast members, both of whom were written out as a response to outside scandals. Max Perlich’s departure was long-known: the young actor had gone on a cocaine-fuelled binge, barricaded himself in his Baltimore rooms with a gun and faced down the Police: Pembleton called for Brodie only to discover he’d gone west, to Hollywood, after winning an award for his Documentary in season 5 (cue sarky in-joke referencing Homicide‘s record of multiple nominations and no awards.
And Kay Howard has chosen to stay with the Fugitive Squad. Melissa Leo’s departure was unfortunate, for she had been swept into a national scandal involving her partner and a custody battle with his ex-wife. And Tom Fontana commented that they had gone as far as they could with the character, which was, to an extent, true. Howard’s promotion to Sergeant had isolated her from her former fellow-detectives, and the genuine role a Baltimore PD Sergeant played had had to be twisted to keep her in the cast.
So, sweeping changes.
But season 6 was to prove both rewarding and difficult for the show, even as it was still running on the back half of its confidence-boosting two season order.
In Britain, Homicide had been running on Channel 4 since the early Nineties. It was, in many ways, an ideal Channel 4 programme, in the way that Hill Street Blues, with its greater elements of conventional Police melodrama, and strong soap opera content, was archetypal ITV.
But Homicide had never been a strong ratings item for C4, and by Season 6 it was obvious that they wanted as little to do with it as they could. Almost from the beginning it was dumped into a midweek 12.30am slot, and in its back half, C4 began to speed it along with double bills. For someone working a 9 to 5 job it was out of the question to sit up until 1.30am for single episodes, let alone compound that demand, and I ended up videotaping most of the series to watch the following evening after work: all except the two parter centring upon Ballard and Gharty that had actually been broadcast in America as a double-length episode, for which something went wrong on the timer.
It was a horribly disrespectful way to treat a series that had been a strong part of C4’s image for so many years, but it was worse to hear that it would not be renewed. There was going to be a Season 7, and it was going to be the last season, without fail. I felt betrayed that I was going to miss this further series: even 12.30am double bills would have been acceptable if I could only see the thing. In the end, though, the Channel outdid itself, billing the final episode of Season 6 as the last ever episode of Homicide, a blatant lie designed to shield them from any complaints.
The opening episode, kicking off a three-parter, saw not just Pembleton and Bayliss returning from Rotation. Lewis and Kellerman were also due back at later stages in the day, Lewis first, and immediately asking Giardello for a re-partnering: he would fetch up with the new boy, Falsone. Kellerman, last in, was partnered with Munch, who was once again solo, Russert having tendered her formal resignation after realising how out of place she was amongst her ex-colleagues when dealing with Felton’s death.
Infodumps having been handled with Homicide’s customary naturalness, we are soon into action. The body of a woman is found in the toilets of a swanky hotel where the great and good of Baltimore have gathered to honour Felix Wilson (James Earl Jones), a prominent black businessman and philanthropist, not to mention friend of Giardello, who is sitting with the family. Unfortunately, the victim is their maid.
Equally unfortunately, Pembleton pulls the case. I say unfortunately because Pembleton, in awe of Wilson and what he has done for the black community, starts with the presumption that neither he nor his family, by virtue of who they are, can be involved, and any attempt to investigate him is a racist slur. Gee concurs in this, initially at first, and only Ballard, who Pembleton contemptuously refers to a ‘Seattle’ wants to see proper procedures applied.
As may have been expected, the case eventually does find its way back to the Wilsons. The case is solved but not cleared when Pembleton meets Felix and his son for an interrogation in which their rights are not read, thus invalidating anything they say as evidence. The son is the killer: he was in love with Malala but killed her in a jealous rage when he discovered she was also sleeping with his father. The Wilsons are going to protect their son: what’s more, they are leaving Baltimore, and pulling out their holdings. Pembleton, in the end, is forced to make an apology, of sorts, to Ballard.
It was an intriguing story. What I took from it was the customary message that the rich – even such ‘good’ rich as a black couple who have not forgotten their roots – are ultimately intent on being above the Law. Their son is a murderer: he has killed someone known to and liked by them, someone under their protection. But he is to be protected from what he has done, justice is to be denied, because they have the money to confront it. And in what I can only interpret as a fit of pique that they should even be questioned about this crime, they will take their toys and go away.
Amongst all this, the new season made it plain that it had not forgotten Luther Mahoney: his sister, Georgia Rae, is making waves, refusing to believe the official account, and there is a motorcycle gunman taking pot-shots at cops: specifically Kellerman, the car containing Lewis and Falsone, and a woman shot through the head as she talked with a Drugs Squad detective, Terri Stivers.
The aftermath of Mahoney’s killing, and the knowledge that affects the three detectives involved is a canker that underlines the whole season. Georgia Rae Mahoney maintains the pressure on the Department throughout. It is her hapless son, Junior Bunk, Luther’s nephew, who is the motorcycle shooter, and despite his protestations of being hard, he cracks like an eggshell. But Georgia Rae not only keeps up the legal pressure, suing the City, the Department, the detectives, but she tricks Kellerman into more or less admitting that the shoot was bad. She also provokes Lewis into an assault that sees him suspended for most of the series and off the official scene.
For Kellerman, things go only downhill. The pressure is on him from the beginning, when he is rejected by his partner Lewis, and things worsen when it appears that the new boy, Falsone, is investigating the Mahoney killing. The new boy gets himself shot at on his first day partnering with Lewis: he is naturally concerned about what he’s gotten into.
And Jon Seda got all kinds of promotion during this season, his brash, aggressive personality brushing up against everything, his custody battles with his ex-wife running on. It was known by now that Andre Braugher was in his last season, seeking fresh challenges: in a ‘show without stars’ he was the clear star, and there was some resentment at the relentless way Falsone was being groomed as the new ‘star’.
As for Reed Diamond, he would also end up leaving the show at the end of the season, because the screws that tighten upon Kellerman end up leaving his story with no future. His killing of Luther Mahoney creates an inexorable trail. Kellerman’s attitude, his sense of responsibility, his concern for the dead, even his appearance suffer the longer things go on, as he tries at one and the same time to take sole responsibility for his actions, reassuring Lewis and Stivers that he will sort out everything, whilst blaming everybody else under the sun for what has happened.
The storyline is beautifully paced, simmering in the background, developing towards a fiery conclusion.

Talking to a living dead man

But at the same time, Homicide showed itself capable of strong stories that had nothing to do with the Mahoney case. Having established the ongoing effects of the Mahoney shooting, the show had the chutzpah to switch direction completely, centring upon Bayliss and Pembleton, with a minimal role for Lewis and Falsone. ‘The Subway’ was an incredible one-off: Vincent d’Onofrio, in his first TV role, guested as a murder victim, a man who, one morning in the subway station, is jostled on the platform and falls in front of the train. He isn’t killed outright, but his body is caught between the train and the platform. He is conscious, lucid, talking. But beneath platform level, the lower half of his body has been twisted round by 180 degrees. He is being kept alive because the pressure of the train is holding his guts in, but once the train has been moved to enable the emergency services to extract him, he will die literally within seconds. That is a cast iron certainty.
Did he fall or was he pushed? Bayliss works the crowd, eventually tracking down the madman who pushed him, an innocent, random victim. Pembleton interviews the dead man. It’s so far out of his experience, that the articulate Pembleton is all but speechless, completely bereft of ideas of what to say: he’s not used to the dead being able to talk back.
Lewis and Falsone are pulled into the case on a mercy mission: the guy’s girlfriend is jogging in the park and they are asked to find her and get her to the station so that they can say their farewells. It’s not an easy task, given the size of the park, and the pair don’t exactly go at it whole-heartedly.
In the end, the subway is moved, the victim dies, his assailant is arrested and, the final irony, as everyone starts to wind down and remove the gear from outside the station, a lone female jogger, with headphones, jogs out of the park and gives the action a wide berth as she heads home.
Coincidentally, d’Onofrio’s future co-star in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Kathryn Erbe, was principal guest star later in the season, as a full-blown, dying AIDS victim who has murdered the HIV-positive lover who, impliedly deliberately, passed on the disease to her and several other woman through unprotected sex.
Whilst ‘The Subway’ was the highlight of the series, there were two other one-off episodes that had no relation to anything else in the season, these being the mid-season ‘Abduction’, guest-starring Elizabeth Marvel as a mother whose four year old boy is kidnapped in the park, and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, airing immediately before the final two-parter, in which Falsone, assisted by a retired detective who is a monster of old-fashioned attitudes, solves the oldest open crime on the Baltimore P.D.’s books.

Ballard and Gharty

I’ve already referred to Falsone’s prominence as the next Homicide ‘star’, but whilst he’s up front throughout the series, the other two newbies, Ballard and Gharty, do not fare half so well. Despite Ballard’s direct and challenging role in the Felix Wilson case, she and Gharty are very much side-lined until mid-season. The partnership doesn’t cross over much into other cases, and apart from introducing Callie Thorne’s real-life allergy to fish dishes, she and Gharty only start to come to the fore in the two-part ‘Something Sacred’, investigating the murders of Catholic Priests, a case that causes the former altar boy and practicing Catholic Gharty several issues.
In America, this was broadcast as a double-length episode, which was the latest example of NBC disrupting the show’s longer term plans. Lewis had been put on suspension the previous episode and throughout this two-parter, he is missing, uncontactable. The viewer is meant to fear he’s been killed by the Mahoney gang but the tension is not given room to develop when he turns up at the end of the two-parter.
For several weeks, whilst Clark Johnson was directing episodes, Lewis was making only fleeting appearances, dressed casually, slouching in his car, occasional meets with Falsone, who is feeding him information on the Mahoney gang. Slowly the screw begins to turn on Georgia Rae Mahoney as well.
Elsewhere, Bayliss and Dr Julianna Cox have a brief affair over Xmas and New Year, that Cox ends abruptly. Hurt and a little bitter, Bayliss becomes intrigued with his next case, the hate-murder of a gay man, and starts to explore other sides to his character, starting with a dinner date with the handsome, relaxed club owner who is so helpful to him and Pembleton.
Though the two are not connected, this is actually a prelude to the departure of Michelle Forbes. Tired of the awkwardness of shoehorning her into episodes, the show had Cox coming under pressure to falsify an Intoxication report on the victim of a fatal road rage incident by a City employee that looks to cost the city millions. Cox, after a long debate with herself, attempts to alleviate the pressure by leaking it to the press: she is summarily fired.
Just as she arrived during Season 5, Dr Cox departs Baltimore in her fast car, during Season 6. The producers have openly regretted the waste of Michelle Forbes by not introducing her as another detective.
As in Season 4, Homicide organised another crossover with Law & Order, with Munch and Falsone going to New York, and Lennie Briscoe, Rey Curtis and Jack McCoy coming to Baltimore in the second half. The case was a typical Law & Order ‘ripped from the headlines’ affair, riffing on the JonBenet Ramsay murder, a teenage model dying in New York following an attack made in Baltimore. Munch and Briscoe again hit it off perfectly, and Homicide played off that by introducing, a few weeks later, Munch’s ex-wife (and Briscoe’s ex-lover) Gwen , played superbly by Carol Kane.
Kellerman is also campaigning against Georgia Rae Mahoney, reporting a Judge in her pay to the FBI only to find that he’s already under investigation. Unfortunately, Kellerman makes a too obvious threat in a too obvious place and the Judge is taken out abruptly.
This is the unexpected signal for the endgame, in two of the most intense episodes of the series ever, though amazingly the finale starts with an in-joke. Bayliss and Pembleton, en route to the murder that will prove to be that of the Judge, precede the credits by discussing a new book by a couple of writers who spent a whole year on a Baltimore drug corner before writing it all up, and using everybody’s real names! Pembleton wonders if, one day, someone will write a book about him.
The joke is that the co-writer of ‘The Corner’ is David Simon, writer of ‘Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets’ and now an Executive Producer and scripter on our favourite programme.
The Judge’s killer is Junior Bunk, only he’s not the soft pushover he was at the beginning of Season 6. Bunk’s been inside and has toughened up, emotionally and physically. Handcuffed in the squadroom, he sees a chance to seize a weapon. An uncharacteristically bloody shoot out ensues: three uniforms are killed, Ballard and Gharty are seriously wounded and Bunk himself is shot down by a four pronged assault by Pembleton, Bayliss, Giardello and Kellerman.

Junior Bunk is no longer a sad-ass punk

It’s more than enough for Gee, who declares war on the Mahoney gang. In their decimated state, the gang cannot stand up to the cops. Georgia is found shot dead by her guards, one of whom in escaping confronts Pembleton, one-to-one. Pembleton freezes, unable to pull the trigger, and his life is saved by Bayliss, pushing him aside, but taking the bullet in his back. He is rushed to hospital.
The pressure of everything is too much for Stivers, who goes to Giardello and confesses that the Mahoney shoot wasn’t clean. Gee has to deal with this once and for all: though Pembleton wants to be at the hospital for news of Bayliss, Gee orders him back to the squadroom where, with Falsone, he takes first Lewis, then Kellerman into the box. Lewis initially lawyers up, but under Pembleton’s urging that they need to get the truth between them, dismisses his lawyer and silently points the finger at Kellerman.
The interrogation is intense, but despite Kellerman’s denials, the truth comes out, his body unconsciously betraying him by forming a gun hand pointing to the floor, giving Pembleton the vital clue. Kellerman’s astonishment at how he has given himself away is palpable.
Pembleton asks Kellerman for his badge and gun, but cannot bring himself to look at him. Lewis refuses Kellerman the loan of his gun and a moment alone in the Box. Pembleton writes it up straight and goes back to the hospital.
Giardello talks to Kellerman, advising him that he could fight it with lawyers, and maybe even win, but if he does he takes down Lewis and Stivers, who signed false reports to cover him. Trapped in an inescapable hole, Kellerman resigns so that the whole thing can be buried. When the news reaches the hospital, Pembleton does the same. The truth of the job has been lost to him: he can never go back in the Box. Bayliss is taken into surgery, and the season ends.
When C4 broadcast the final episode, they announced it as the last ever episode, in full knowledge that there was another season to follow, a season that I eventually got to see on DVD, several years later, slowly building up a library of the whole series.