REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:
THE INVESTIGATORS. CBS/Revue Production/MCA Studios, 1961. Cast: James Franciscus as Russ Andrews, James Philbrook as Steve Banks, Mary Murphy as Maggie Peters, Al Austin as Bill Davis, Asher Dann as Danny Clayton, and June Kenny as Polly. Guest Cast “The Oracle” (12 October 1961): Lee Marvin, John Williams, Audrey Dalton.
Today the CBS TV series The Investigators has been forgotten except for fans seeking the lost work of director Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy). I have been able to find only one surviving episode of the series and tragically most of the credits for the episode “The Oracle” are missing (including the writer and director credits). Like many of the forgotten TV series of the past, information about The Investigators is incomplete and misinformed.
The Investigators told the story of a major investigation firm that worked for various insurance companies around the country (or maybe the world). Investigators, Inc. was run by Russ Andrews and Steve Banks and located in New York. Among the staff of investigators were Maggie Peters, Bill Davis and Danny Clayton. The firm also employed a receptionist named Polly Walters.
Current information about the series is wrong (oh so so very wrong) when it comes to the character of Maggie Peters. She was not a secretary or some Girl Friday occasionally helping the men with the cases. She was a full time licensed PI and equal to Bill and Danny. She was referred to as “one of our investigators” and treated as an equal to Bill and Danny.
Fiction female detectives have existed for nearly as long as their male counterparts, but there has been a notable shortage of woman as licensed PI on TV. I have looked at television’s female PIs before. Until an earlier example is uncovered — The Investigators (October 1961) — Maggie Peters is TV’s first license PI predating Honey West (1965).
Considering Mary Murphy’s resume (The Wild One, The Desperate Hours), especially compared to male stars James Franciscus (Naked City) and James Philbrook (The Islanders) at the time, it should not surprise that Murphy received equal billing. While the episode I have of the series is missing most of its credits, it does have its opening theme and credits for the series stars. First is James Franciscus name and side profile of the actor’s face, then James Philbrook, then Mary Murphy and finally the title The Investigators.
The fall of 1961 was not the time to be a crime drama. The FCC, after radio’s payola and TV game show scandals, was getting more and more involved in local stations renewals and networks programming. Network executives and TV studio producers were spending more and more time in front of Congressional hearings defending its programs such as ABC’s The Untouchables and NBC’s Whispering Smith.
In the summer of 1961 the possibility of government getting involved in the programming of the public airways had become a real threat to the networks. As the studios worried about the bottom line and the networks covered its butt, it would be the action and crime dramas of the 1961-62 Season that paid the price.
“The Oracle” was The Investigators’ second episode and aired October 12, 1961. In the episode the staff was divided up for two cases. Steve and Bill remained behind to deal with another case while the episode focused on the case worked by Russ, Maggie and Danny. Russ leads the team to Los Angeles to check out Nostradamus, a West Coast prophet who is very successful convincing rich women to donate to his cause. An insurance company hires Investigator, Inc. to check out Nostradamus before one of their clients gives him a quarter of a million dollars.
Miscast Lee Marvin (M Squad) played Walter Mimms, a small time drifter who all women fall in love with at first sight. In a nice twist, older conman Joseph Lombard (John Williams, Dial M for Murder) cons and manipulates Walter turning him into a front for a big time con. But Walter’s power over women was also his weakness as he fell for the women as they fell for him. Walter was convinced he was in love with the latest mark, Constance Moreno (Audrey Dalton), the woman our detectives were hired to protect.
Constance loves Nostradamus but after a visit from Russ and Maggie, she tests his love and because of Lombard’s orders to Walter he fails her test and she leaves him taking her first check with her. Lombard then kills Constance for the check (and the trouble she is causing with Walter) telling Nostradamus she committed suicide over him. As Nostradamus grows more and more unstable, Maggie, backed up by Russ and Danny, goes undercover.
While James Franciscus and James Philbrook turned in their usual professional but nothing special performances, Mary Murphy was excellent as female PI Maggie Peters. The character of Peters reminded me of Della Street (Barbara Hale in Perry Mason) or Casey Jones (Beverly Garland in Decoy), women who are respected professionally by men while remaining feminine.
The script showed signs of great potential with the nice twist of the con man being conned, the depth of the character Walter Mimms, and the interactions between Walter and Lombard. But the script had problems most likely caused by the anti-violence times and the limitations of 1961 television.
In “The Oracle” when Constance is murdered we hear her scream off camera but don’t learn what happened until the next scene when we are told she died in a “fall” out of her apartment window. Not seeing her death diluted the dramatic shock the scene needed.
While much of the action took place off stage, too much of the exposition did as well. Instead of showing people following Nostradamus next mark, the undercover Maggie, and how Nostradamus got his information to impress the mark at the séance, Maggie told Danny (and us) about it.
Virtually all the information about The Investigators claims Joseph H. Lewis directed the series, so lets credit him for “The Oracle.” This episode benefited from Lewis creative use of the camera especially with forced perspective, a technique used by such director as Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File and Jerry Thorpe in Harry O.
Most directors use a standard master shot to establish a foundation for the scene then cut to other angles to enhance the dialogue or action. The master shot is like looking at a theatrical stage from the audience. Now picture the left and right side move closer to each other and the characters and setting uses the space up and down (closer and farther from you) instead of left and right. The look can reduce the stagey look of the typical master shot by giving a feeling of more depth to the 2-D picture. Lewis liked to stay in the shot and let the characters interact and move around the set before isolating the characters with camera angles such as a close-up.
In the scene where Lombard and his thugs kill Constance, there was a wide shot with Constance and Lombard near each other, behind Constance silently stood the two thugs. It was that framing of the four characters in forced perspective that gave the scene depth and its needed tension as the audience began to sense Constance was in danger despite what Lombard was telling her.
Lewis’s creative camera work never distracted from the story instead he made the episode something CBS refused to let the writer do, he made the story visually interesting. Fans of his work are justified mourning the loss of this otherwise average TV series.
The series aired from October 5, 1961 through December 28, 1961. The thirteen episodes were 60 minutes long and filmed in black and white. It aired Thursday at 9pm opposite My Three Sons and Margie on ABC and the last half hour of Dr. Kildare and Hazel on NBC. Once cancelled The Investigators would be replaced with Tell It to Groucho at 9:00 – 9:30pm and Mrs. G Goes to College (aka The Gertrude Berg Show) at 9:30-10PM.
The Investigators is worth remembering for the work of director Joseph H. Lewis and giving TV its first female licensed PI Maggie Peters. However it, as many other action and crime dramas during the 1961-62 Season, was doomed by the changing times.
“Murder on Order” (October 5, 1961)
“The Oracle” (October 12, 1961)
“New Sound for the Blues” (October 19, 1961)
“I Thee Kill” (October 26, 1961)
“Quite a Woman” (November 2, 1961)
“Style of Living” (November 9, 1961)
“In a Mirror, Darkly” (November 16, 1961)
“De Luca” (November 23, 1961)
“Death Leaves a Tip” (November 30, 1961)
“Panic Wagon” (December 7, 1961)
“The Mind’s Own Fire” (December 14, 1961)
“Something for Charity” (December 21, 1961)
“Dead End Man, The” (December 28, 1961)