by Francis M. Nevins


   Happy New Year! Over the nearly two decades I’ve been writing these columns, I’ve always tried to make sure I knew what I was talking about. This time I know very little about my subject, but no one else seems to know more.

   Recently I found myself getting interested in an over sixty year old TV detective series which, when it was running, I never watched. Nor, it seems, did the overwhelming majority of Americans. THE INVESTIGATORS aired on CBS from early October till late December of 1961, a total of thirteen 60-minute episodes. James Franciscus, James Philbrook and Mary Murphy starred as three detectives specializing in insurance cases. Most episodes featured one well-known movie star — Claire Trevor, Miriam Hopkins, Jane Wyman and Mickey Rooney, just to name four.

   The Internet Movie Database provides cast lists for each episode but no plot summaries, which I dug out from my TV Guide collection. What mainly sparked my interest was that, according to the IMDb, every one of the thirteen hour-long episodes was directed by the same man, whom I happened to know well and who in fact was the subject of one of my books.

   The director in question was Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), on whose boat the Buena Vista I taped the conversations that became the raw material for the only book about him published in his lifetime. In 1937, after a few years as a film editor, Joe had become a director and made some superb 60-minute Westerns, usually starring Bill Elliott, Charles Starrett or Johnny Mack Brown, each of them brimming with visual excitement; pictures that earned him the moniker of “Wagon Wheel Joe,” thanks to his habit of shooting scenes through the spokes of guess what.

   After World War II he became involved with what would soon become known as film noir, helming pictures like MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946) and, best known of all, the classics GUN CRAZY (1949) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

   In the early 1950s he suffered a major heart attack and was unable to work for a year. Near the end of that decade he moved from the big screen to the small, signing a generous long-term contract with Four Star, one of the top TV series production companies, whose executives wanted him to concentrate on THE RIFLEMAN (ABC, 1958-63), the iconic Western series created by Sam Peckinpah and starring Chuck Connors.

   â€œThey wanted me to direct every show in the series. I said ‘Hell no, I won’t do that!’” The compromise they reached was that he’d work one week a month preparing and shooting an episode of THE RIFLEMAN or some other Four Star series. The rest of the time he’d relax on his boat. Under this arrangement he helmed 51 RIFLEMAN episodes over five years, plus two segments of THE DETECTIVES (ABC, 1958-61; NBC, 1961-62), a cop show starring Robert Taylor, and one story for Four Star’s anthology series ALCOA THEATRE.

   There’s no question that, on loan-out from Four Star, he did some work on THE INVESTIGATORS. “I wanted to do a close-up shot of [James] Franciscus’s hands,” Joe told me, “and I couldn’t do it because of the awful way his fingernails looked. He was a nail-biter.” But would he have agreed to direct an hour-long episode every week when just three years earlier his heart attack had led him to refuse to do more than one 30-minute show a month? In the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle, not bloody likely.

   If only we could check the credits on the 13 episodes of THE INVESTIGATORS, we’d know who directed them, but we can’t. Apparently the only segment that survives is “The Oracle” (12 October 1961), guest-starring Lee Marvin as a religious cult leader, which exists only in a truncated form, minus credits.

   But from what I’ve dug up it seems to have been an interesting little series. Its main claim to historical importance is that one of the three protagonists, played by Mary Murphy, was apparently the first licensed female PI character to star in a TV series.

   For devotees of Cornell Woolrich a further attraction is that two episodes seem to be rooted in the work of that dark angel of suspense. In “I Thee Kill” (26 October 1961) the investigators set out to clear a man (Mickey Rooney) who was in the crowd outside a church when the fellow who was about to marry the suspect’s girlfriend was shot dead. Doesn’t that sound just a bit like a variant on Woolrich’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK?

   More clearly borrowed from a Woolrich premise is “Death Leaves a Tip” (30 November 1961), in which Franciscus and Murphy recruit a shy young waitress to serve as bait to trap a serial killer who’s preying on members of her profession. Unmistakably this is Woolrich’s 1938 classic “Dime a Dance,” also known as “The Dancing Detective,” with a different female job specialty. The guest star in this one was Jane Wyman, one of whose earliest credited movie roles was as the female lead in THE SPY RING (1938), an espionage drama directed by (can you guess?) Joseph H. Lewis, but this is hardly evidence that Joe helmed her episode of THE INVESTIGATORS.

   I touched base with an old friend who has one of the world’s largest collections of TV episodes from the Fifties and Sixties on video and he told me he had never even heard of THE INVESTIGATORS. I exchanged emails with a man whose biography of Joe Lewis will probably be published this year and he knew nothing more about the series than I did. Dead end. Game over. Case closed.


   I had hoped that this column would take me on a voyage of discovery that I could share, but the ship seems to have gotten itself grounded. Luckily I made another discovery late last year, and this is a genuine find. While fumbling around YouTube I came across a composition by my beloved Bernard Herrmann that I’d never heard before, a very early piece written when he was around 22 and never published or performed until after his death.

   What’s most fascinating about his Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (1936) is that it sounds very much as if it were a 15-minute excerpt from his score for PSYCHO, a quarter century later, that Hitchcock never used. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: No one does ominous like Herrmann does ominous. Check out the Sinfonietta and hear for yourself: