Elizabeth Ashley - Jannette Johnson
Fred Williamson - Snake McKay
Ed Bernard - Casey Styles
The entire series run of POLICE STORY, 1973–1977, sat squarely in the center of my prime childhood TV watching. I remember it being on, but it wasn't really my thing...It seemed too real. I'd seen cops just like these guys, and the criminals were just like the ones on the news; at the time I was more interested in colourful characters like Kojak and Baretta(each episode of POLICE STORY has different characters), and I liked my villains a bit larger-than-life. Now, of course, I like it all, and it's that stark reality that puts this show far nearer the top of the list. Right from the beginning the writing is top notch...that's why my first post on THE LONG STREETS is DANGEROUS GAMES...the first episode of the first season.
Undercover cop Charlie Czonka, called CZ, is one bad dude; he dresses to a 'tee' , decked out in a variety of stylish 70's getups (click the photos to enlarge), and he walks among criminals with a deadly ease. As the story begins, though, he's more interested in hunting bighorn sheep on his upcoming vacation than hunting thugs and big-time mobsters. That actually cracked me up. I think that it should be in the TV cop handbook that top cops never get to take vacations! The boss, of course, has a new challenge; a hard, bad-mutha Kingpin Pimp called Snake has moved up his game, and he needs to get got...he's a slippery, untouchable cat. Apparently Charlie Czonka is the best man for the job, and he comes off that way; Farentino really has the gravitas to pull off this character. He's a manly-type figure, very confident, and unlike many similar actors of the time, he really wears that 70's flashy style well. You can buy him as a goodfella-type; one of the calm ones that control things, rather than the other way around.
CZ and his partner Styles go into Snake territory, their cover as pimps on the hustle in full effect, intent of making a connection happen. They take a table at a fancy restaurant and observe him for awhile; Snake (played by the Black Caesar himself, Fred Williamson) is holding court across the room, his table populated by a bevy of foxy ladies. Styles is nonplussed by the entourage:
Styles: [gazes at hookers] "Fifty dollar tricks."
Styles: [bemused] "Seventy-five...? That's class."
It's here where POLICE STORY shows why it's so good. The writers take the time to insert a scene completely unrelated to the story, indirectly and wonderfully fleshing out the world of the episode. CZ and one of the cops on his team interrogate a hooker that had been caught in an undercover bust. She's pretty young and vulnerable, and has been beaten pretty badly. She tells a gruesome story of being slowly "turned out" as a prostitute by a "friend", then of being drugged and raped consecutively by a large number of men...all while in total captivity. She escaped and was caught while trying to hook money for carfare back home to her parents. With no prior knowledge of her scenario, CZ showed her how typical it was by describing to her how it happened. The actress who played the girl was really very good; it would have been easy to overplay this bit part, but she pulls it off with agonising emotion. CZ lets her off the hooking charge and promises to get her back to her parents...Farentino really relates the right level of pity and mercy here, and also shows the compassion of a someone who has seen the same thing many times. It's a great scene, and establishes CZ's other side, a regular cop...the pimp character completely absent. It's a nice touch.
Now the team takes another shot setting up business with the bad man. CZ goes through one of his contacts, a madame named Faye, in order to meet one of Snake's key ladies, Jannette...his scheme is to get her to arrange a deal with Snake for the "purchase" of some hookers. Jannette is one of those "hooker with the heart of gold types", and CZ's plan is to control her...to use her as a pawn in his game. He plays the pimp very well; he does that controlling taffy-pull in his conversation with Jannette, taking her off balance, then using his own charisma to captivate her. He's calm and charming one moment, then angry and dismissive...her weaker will is drawn to him. He goes down on his knee, brushes the hair gently from her face and says, "If you were with me, you'd be my lady; that's a commitment." From then on, she is his. She makes the business connection between CZ and Snake, and the game is on. Farentino plays all of these various stages of manipulation like a master, as if he'd done it in his own life! It makes you feel a bit sorry for the Hollywood starlets of his time.
He immediately goes to Jannette with a scheme to steal Snake's girls out from under him. The plan? To force Snake into slipping up, so that he can be busted for something that can be seriously prosecuted. Jannette cautiously takes the bait, and shows that she's fallen in love with CZ. It's at this point that her relative innocence causes him to start feeling guilt over her involvement in the game, and his awareness that she may be killed in the process. I'm glad they put this layer into the story. The criminal CZ character really lives in that pimp world so deeply, yet Charlie Czonka the cop, one of the 'good guys', is showing the the moral trade-offs that have to be made in this kind of thing.
CZ is outraged, and by her hospital bed declares,
"I'm gonna get him...he's going to the joint!"
The final meeting with Snake is arranged; there CZ will meet a couple of the hookers in the deal, and will have a "sample of the goods" arranged at another location for a couple of his ficticious customers. In reality, the hookers will walk right into police custody; the johns are actually members of Charlie Czonka's team. At the meeting, though, a little wrench is thrown in the works. When the hookers are sent to meet the "customers", Snake's "bottom lady" draws a gun on CZ under the table. If a half an hour goes by and they get a call from the two hookers that the deal is legit, then they go into business; if not, then things will go badly for our undercover duo. On top of that, Snake has a thug hidden in a closet at the location, armed with a shotgun, should it turn out to be a setup.
Well, suffice it to say that our undercover boys manage to warn their team, the shotgun thug is arrested, and CZ, after a few very intense minutes, manages to turn the tables on our villainous pimp. With CZ's gun at his jugular, Snake asks him, "CZ...are you the heat...?" He looks into the eyes burning behind the gun-barrel and says, "Yeah...you're the heat". It was a very satisfying moment. Because of the assault on Jannette, the order to kill the two cops, and his other various crimes, Snake will go to the joint...and probably for a long time.
POLICE STORY pulls no punches when going into that universe, and it relays these stories with neither sentimentality or moralising. You walk away from it with merely an experience, and you're left to draw your own conclusions from that experience. I think that it's one of the most starkly honest shows that I've yet seen, even when compared to the conspicuously graphic cop shows of today. They manage to tell real stories, and at a time when you couldn't show lots of blood, they showed you the intense brutality of the streets.
NOTE: James Farentino returns as Charlie Czonka in season two, episode two, titled Requiem for C.Z. Smith. Sadly, I have not seen it, and it has yet to have been released on DVD.