Floater, The (1961 TVM)

US / 49 minutes / bw / Hubbell Robinson, NBC Dir: Herschel Daugherty Pr: Boris D. Kaplan Scr: Winston Miller Story: The Con Man (1957) by Ed McBain Cine: Lionel Lindon Cast: Robert Lansing, Ron Harper, Norman Fell, Gregory Walcott, Gena Rowlands, Robert Culp, Natalie Norwick, Paul Bryar, Wally Brown, Andy Albin, Victor Sen Yung, Dal McKennon, Ralph Manza.

Floater - 2 the magazine ad set to lure gullible gals

The pilot for the shortlived (1961–2) TV series 87th Precinct, this sees the boys of the 87th tackle the case of a floater found in the river. The medical examiner reports that she didn’t drown but was dead of arsenic poisoning before going into the water, and that she has a small tattoo of a heart with “MAC” inside it on the sensitive flesh between her right thumb and forefinger. Detectives Steve Carella (Lansing) and Meyer Meyer (Fell) soon identify her in the Missing Persons records as Scranton native Mary-Louise Proschek, who ran away from home to the big city to escape boredom and find love. The tattoo is recent, and so Carella, Meyer and Detective Bert Kling (Harper) start combing the city’s tattoo parlors to see if anyone can recall Mary-Louise.

Floater - 1 Lansing as Carella

Robert Lansing, more than adequate as Steve Carella.

Steve is accompanied on one such visit by his mute wife Teddy (Rowlands). Although the tattooist, Charlie (Yung), has never done such a tattoo—he explains it would be painful—Teddy becomes fascinated with the idea of having a tattoo of her own: a butterfly on her shoulder. Some while later, on an evening when Steve has to work late, she goes back to Charlie. As he’s embroidering her, there arrive at his shop Curt Donaldson (Culp) and his clearly ill girlfriend Priscilla (Norwick); when Donaldson asks Charlie for Priscilla to be tattooed between thumb and forefinger with a small heart and the letters “PAC” (for “Priscilla and Curt”), Charlie conveys to Teddy what’s going on.

Floater - 3 Culp and Norwick

Curt and Priscilla (Robert Culp and Natalie Norwick), supposed sweethearts.

Unable to communicate with Steve, Teddy hails a cab to follow Donaldson’s car. They reach the docks area and the darkened Pier 7, where Donaldson seizes Teddy and informs her that she, like the now-unconscious Priscilla, is going to be murdered and thrown into the river. Luckily the quick-thinking taxi driver, Dan (Manza), is able to alert the 87th . . .

The task of bringing the quirky characters of McBain’s 87th to the screen has challenged several moviemakers, and no one’s really managed it satisfactorily—the best effort perhaps being that of Claude Chabrol, in Les LIENS DE SANG (1978). (Other attempts have included COP HATER [1958], The MUGGER [1958] and FUZZ [1972], plus three TV movies done by NBC: Lightning [1995], Ice [1996] and Heatwave [1997].) The Floater makes a pretty good fist of it, certainly so far as the three central cops are concerned, with Fell in particular, despite his not being bald, superbly cast as Meyer. It’s probably the presence of Fell/Meyer that prevents this becoming just yet another cop show.

Floater - 5 Fell as Meyer ruefully watches violence

Norman Fell excels as Meyer Meyer.

However, the depiction of Teddy seems awry—and in fact is incongruous with her role in this piece, because more than anyone else’s this is “Teddy’s case”: without her courage and resourcefulness, Priscilla wouldn’t have been saved and Donaldson might have killed a dozen more vulnerable young women. McBain went to great pains in the novels to make it plain that Teddy was a very intelligent woman, his subtext being that the common tendency to treat the physically disabled as if they were infants or mentally retarded is a woefully misplaced one. The depiction of her here, by contrast, has her as more of a flighty, pouting, impetuous child, a flutterbrains whose idea of a busy day is getting her hair done and lounging around with a gossip magazine. This doesn’t jibe well with the character who later puts her life on the line in an attempt to save Priscilla and bring Donaldson to book.

Floater - 6 the Carellas at the end of a tiring day

The end of a long day for Steve and Teddy Carella (Robert Lansing and Gena Rowlands).

The TV series ran for a single season of 30 episodes, plus reruns. Whereas the novels are set in Isola, a fictional city that just happens to seem an awful lot like NYC—or, in specific, Manhattan—there seems to be no pretense here that the city is anywhere other than Manhattan, complete with a Central Park in which conmen like Donaldson can, canoodling in the back of a horsedrawn carriage, woo susceptible women.

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7 thoughts on “Floater, The (1961 TVM)

  1. John, I have to tell you that I am far more intrigued with this (unseen) series than you would imagine and I’ll tell you why. You list ‘Hubbell Robinson’ as the executive producer and Herschel Daugherty as the main director -or at least the one who helmed this pilot- these are two names I will always remember with fondness, because they were so influential in bringing one of my favorite television series’ of all-time to fruition—BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER. The series has captivated me since childhood, and though Robinson left it soon after creating it to leave the project with Douglas Frye and others, Daugherty stayed on to direct some of the most memorable episodes. Director of Photography Lindon shot the most celebrated entry in the series “Pigeon From Hell”:

    http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/anthology-heaven-thrillers-pigeons-from-hell/

    Apparently these men was at the height of their talent and influence in 1960-61, and I am assuming THE FLOATER was launched just about the time Robinson left THRILLER.

    Great review here of a significant artifact for whatever it’s worth.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sam! I’ve just left a comment over at your WitD essay, which I much enjoyed:

      That’s a heck of an essay, Sam! I don’t think I’ve seen any episodes of the series at all, but now I must make a point of doing so . . . and of starting with this one. Thanks for the YouTube link!

  2. Ah, now you are into my territory, television noir. This particular series I have on disc but have only managed to take in FLOATER. It is an excellent first episode of a series that should have gotten more than a one year run. Robert Culp shines here as the loose screw type killer. It is worth hunting up as you can find some on You-Tube, failing that, buy the set. Mine were from TIMELESS.
    Gord

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