Newark on film (sort of): The Rockford Files (1974/1979)

Well, not exactly cinema, and barely Newark…

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I don’t understand the appeal of The Rockford Files. 30% of its screen time consists of driving scenes across the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area. That, I like; unfortunately, the other 70% is lightweight mystery fodder without any of the resonance of its cinematic contemporaries like Hickey & Boggs or The Long Goodbye or even Robert Aldrich’s muddled Hustle. Plus, James Garner is blandness personified. I just can’t stay focused on the guy. When he walks past a tree, my eyes wander to the branches.

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While The Rockford Files is the ultimate lazy-70s-L.A. show, it ventured twice to Newark, both times really randomly (perhaps for contrast—Newark being the anti-L.A. in many ways). The first came during season 1 in 1974, an unfortunately lengthy double episode called “This Case is Closed.” The plot—or rather, the half-assed gesture at a plot—involves washed-up guest star Joseph Cotten hiring Jim Rockford to investigate his daughter’s ne’er-do-well boyfriend, who affects an Ivy League demeanor—but get him down a few points in handball and “a New Jersey accent pops up—real gutter Jersey.”

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“Orson, the 40s really were a better time, weren’t they?”

So it’s off to Newark:

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Well, more like “Newark”: upon inspection, this is a rather dubious Brick City. As my food-historian companion notes of the top shot, See’s Candies (visible center-right) was California-based; the interior shot is so Burbank you expect the young Jay Leno to walk by, and I’m not sure who those other shots are supposed to fool.

So, alas; foiled by the aesthetic and budgetary limitations of television. But the 1979 return episode offered greater promise: Just a Coupla Guys was written by Jersey’s own pre-Sopranos David Chase, and directed by Ivan Dixon, who starred in the great 1964 independent drama Nothing But a Man and directed the incendiary The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973). Dixon’s subsequent career directing a legion of formulaic TV shows almost implores one to search for some secret revolutionary impulse, since that’s exactly what Spook was about.

Dixon and Chase really want to convince us it’s Newark here:

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I’m not sure; these are more plausible shots than the earlier episode, but they’re also tough to anchor to concrete locations. Anyone?

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It’s a shame, because Newark left a very thin 1970s cinematic legacy. At the very least, The Rockford Files did include at least one verifiably Newarkian shot; from 1974:

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And again in 1979:

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Gosh, a cynic might suspect these were drawn from the very same stock-footage bank, but in my heedless optimism and delusion, I prefer to imagine these as proof. Of what, I know not exactly, but in the spirit of The Rockford Files‘s own slapdash approach to narrative, just imagine a canned musical cue underlying the word evidence, and leave it at that.

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