TV on DVD: The Streets of San Francisco

Throughout the sixties and the seventies, there was one name in crime dramas on TV and that name was Quinn Martin. At the height of his success, Martin’s QM Productions had more hours of television on the air than any other company. The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, The F.B.I. and The Streets of San Francisco. Different in themes and settings, all of the Quinn Martin productions had that patented four-act formula (complete with act numbers on screen) and a stylized guest cast intro segment with Hank Simms’ distinctive narration. If you’re a child of the seventies I bet you can still hear that voice in your head.

“A Quinn Martin Production!”

At first glance, The Streets of San Francisco looks very much like The French Connection or Bullet. It has a gritty, street vibe which is accentuated by low level camera angles and driving sequences filmed with a hand-held from the backseat. The series makes good use of its setting, filming many scenes right in the heart of the city with the clang of cable cars in the background and the throng of tourists in places like Ghirardelli Square.

Produced in the early seventies, the show is firmly rooted in the culture of the era with many episodes about draft dodgers, Vietnam deserters, anti-war protestors, and an entire generation that preferred to turn on and tune out. The infamous “generation gap” of the sixties is well represented in this series in its lead characters and in its weekly storylines.

Representing the old school is Lt. Mike Stone. For such a craggy, brutish-looking man, Karl Malden has a real charm about him. He plays Stone with a natural warmth and there’s a very endearing quality to his “buddy boy” banter with protégée Keller.

Michael Douglas is well cast in his role as the college-educated detective ready to take on the world. With his trademark Douglas dimple, Michael was positioned to be the sex symbol on the series and despite the haircut (or maybe because of it) he captured the hearts of female fans. Keller’s love life was often used to lighten up this heavy series with Stone constantly dragging him away from one lovely lady or another. When Stone poses the question, “don’t you ever answer your phone?” and Keller replies, “not when it’s in the refrigerator”, one doesn’t have to think too hard to fill in the blanks.

The character of Keller is one you have to watch with your mind set in the era he was written. In the early 70’s, being a cop was hardly a noble profession for an educated young man and Keller often gets an earful from his contemporaries who see him as a sell-out. This puts a sweet little chip on his shoulder and makes him a tad volatile which is a nice contrast to Stone’s “slow and easy wins the race” style of police work

And speaking of watching with a 70’s mind set, I always get a kick out of how many cop show plots would be blown out of the water if only they’d had cell phones back then! Having to stop at a payphone to check in while on stakeout has endangered the life of more than a few 70’s TV cops.

On the Other Hand

Being that this is a cop show from the 70’s, modern viewers may find it moves a bit slower than they’re used to particularly since the scenery is such a large part of the show. Stick with it. Once you find the rhythm you’ll enjoy the pace.

Now let’s talk guest stars. The Streets of San Francisco is designed so that a large portion of each episode is devoted strictly to the guests. This is likely why there were able to attract so many popular actors of the time, because the guest characters are well rounded and get more screen time than they would in a modern series. This works in favor of the show when they have good guests such as Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart) Edward Mulhare (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), William Windom (Murder, She Wrote) or David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky & Hutch). Where it doesn’t work is when the stars aren’t strong enough to carry the weight of the story such as “Time Lock” and “A Trout in the Milk”. But then that’s the beauty of DVD, isn’t I, the ability to fast-forward and /or switch to another episode whenever you want.

The Whole Package

Overall, the DVDs in this series are well put together with easy to use navigation, an interesting combo animated / still opening screen, and smart use of the jazzy, strip-clubby theme song. The packaging is done with warm gold and bronze tones that suit the gritty nature of the series with good use of stills but I could have done with more Michael Douglas and less Golden Gate Bridge.

The First Season DVD comes with three special features. One is the original pilot movie with Robert Wagner (Hart to Hart) and Kim Darby (True Grit). I actually have vivid memories of watching this movie on the late late show over and over as a kid to the point where I even remember whodunit and why! The pilot is full of twists and turns and I especially love that they give you the clues to the crime right off the bat, but most people won’t catch them. That’s good storytelling, right there.

Also included is the short pilot presentation reel that would have been used to sell the series to advertisers and studio executives. I love features like these because they’re not something the public normally gets to see. This one is full of clips from the pilot movie with overly dramatic narration explaining what makes this series new and different. Very nice.

Finally, another unusual bit is the four-minute on-set interview with columnist Army Archerd. Archerd brings his camera into Lt. Stone’s office where he sits down for a chat with Douglas and Malden. This type of short promo is quite common on TV today, but fairly uncommon in the era. It’s a wonderful piece of TV history, especially when you hear them talking about newcomer Michael Douglas. I predict a great future in the business for that boy.

Even though this classic cop drama is loaded with hippies, sixties slang and Vietnam war references, it’s pretty much about two cops trying their best to bring about justice in the big city. If you love Law & Order, give The Streets of San Francisco a try.

You can buy the entire series as a box set over at Amazon.

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