Saturday, February 7, 2004

”Well, Hellman asked only one question…”

A combination of the success of Dragnet and its reputation as a detective show so hard-boiled it borders on camp has bestowed upon Jack Webb’s Pat Novak For Hire a faithful cult following among old-time radio fans today. For a program that enjoyed a fairly brief run during Radio’s Golden Age, this achievement is nothing short of impressive.

Pat Novak For Hire’s origins begin at radio station KGO, an ABC affiliate in San Francisco which had hired Webb in 1945 after his hitch in the service was completed. He did several innovative programs at KGO, most notably a series called One Out of Seven, which took an uncompromising stand toward bigotry and racial prejudice. Webb and longtime collaborator Richard Breen created Novak, an “acid-tongued waterfront troubleshooter,” for a gritty radio crime drama dripping with pessimism and chock-a-block with hilarious hard-boiled dialogue (“The skin hung loose around his face so when you touched it felt like an empty baked potato.”). The show would open with the sounds of a foghorn, the lapping of waves, buoys, and footsteps approaching. The just-the-facts-ma’am voice of Webb would then intone: “Sure…I’m Pat Novak…for hire…”

“That’s what the sign out in front of my office says—Pat Novak, For Hire. Oh, you don’t get in the blue book that way…but you don’t embarrass your friends, either. Because down on the waterfront in San Francisco they don’t separate the good and the bad…they let ‘em run together and before long, you’ve got a caste system…you’re either alive or dead. If you’re on top, you keep fading the crowd and trying for sevens till you lose the dice…it’s about the only way to play it unless you like worms. I rent boats and do anything else that’ll put a fast handle on a buck but it doesn’t always work out because down here, all your luck is junior grade and trouble is trumps.”

Every episode of Pat Novak For Hire contains these elements:

1. Novak is hired to do a job, either by a beautiful femme fatale, or by someone who in needing something done will lead him to said femme fatale.

2. Novak gets worked over by a thug or thugs, and when he comes to, someone has been murdered, setting him up at the patsy to take the fall.

3. Inspector Hellman of Homicide, Novak’s bete noire, believes that Pat is responsible—and also slaps him around for good measure.

4. Novak enlists the help of his boozy ex-doctor pal Jocko Madigan (who, with a whiff of irony, affectionately calls him “Patsy”) to help pull his fat out of the fire by doing a little investigative legwork. (Novak on Jocko: “He’s a good guy—and he used to be a smart one…except he didn’t like the San Francisco fog and worked out one of his own.”)

5. The show’s climax showcases what Anthony Burgess would call “a bit of the old ultraviolence.”
Sure, the show’s stories never stray from this formula—and the farfetched wrap-ups often come from someplace out of left field—but you don’t listen for the plot; it’s all in the dialogue:

NOVAK: What do you want, Hellman?
HELLMAN: Come on out! (SFX: struggle, as Hellman pulls Novak out of a phone booth) You’re a hard man to find…
NOVAK: Well, you don’t look in the right places…
HELLMAN: I’m a family man…tell me about the dead guy…
NOVAK: I don’t know, Hellman—he died in my boat, that’s all I know…
HELLMAN: He didn’t say anything?
NOVAK: Just sentimental stuff—his name’s Rubin Calloway and somebody threw him into the bay without instructions…I don’t know a thing about him, except he takes pictures…
HELLMAN (interested) Yeah?
NOVAK: Oh, wipe off the drool…they’re not your kind…
HELLMAN: Who are his friends?
NOVAK: He’s got new ones by now…I don’t know, Hellman…
HELLMAN: How about that guy on your couch?
HELLMAN: I just left your place, how about the guy on the couch?
NOVAK: There’s a gal up there, but that’s all…
HELLMAN: Does she wear suspenders?
HELLMAN: Then take my word, it’s a man…
NOVAK: And you’re gonna tell me he’s dead, Hellman…?
HELLMAN: No, I’m not gonna tell you he’s dead, Novak…he may be a soft breather…

During the program’s run on KGO, Jocko was played by Jack Lewis and Hellman by John Galbraith. Both men finished out the season, but Webb had jumped ship by the spring of 1947, having departed for greener pastures in Hollywood, with partner Breen in tow. Ben Morris took over as Pat, a move about as popular as Steve Dunne taking over for Howard Duff as Sam Spade; Morris took the part too seriously, and lacked Webb’s tongue-in-cheek approach. In the meantime, Webb and Breen re-teamed for a Novak derivative called Johnny Modero: Pier 23, broadcast coast-to-coast over Mutual Radio from April-September 1947. Webb’s acting career began to catch fire about this time; the actor made regular appearances on programs like Escape and The Whistler, and then came a small but crucial role in a 1948 B-picture noir called He Walked By Night, a film that provided the creative muse for Dragnet.

Pat Novak For Hire resurfaced on ABC beginning February 13, 1949, with Webb reprising the title role and Tudor Owen and Raymond Burr as Jocko and Hellman, respectively. (Burr later appeared for a short time on Webb’s Dragnet as chief of detectives Ed Backstrand.) This coast-to-coast version—from which most of the extant programs listened to today originate—only lasted five months (ending June 18, 1949, two weeks after Dragnet’s debut), but it’s interesting to note the show’s impact on its radio crime drama rivals at that time. A Richard Diamond, Private Detective episode featured a wisenheimer shamus named “Pat Cosak”, while on The Adventures of Sam Spade, the June 19, 1949 broadcast of “The Apple of Eve Caper” contains a witty in-joke reference to the show, made even more funny by the fact that both Jack Webb and Tudor Owen are in the supporting cast of that week’s episode.

Last night, I listened to a pair of AFRS rebroadcasts of Pat Novak: the first, “Rubin Calloway’s Picture” (originally heard over ABC March 13, 1949) finds Novak encountering a dying man in the harbor, some stolen photos, and a dame what’s plenty of trouble named Alma Biggs. “Shirt Mix-Up at the Laundry” (5/7/49) bends Novak Plot Rule #1 slightly—Pat’s not hired, but rather gets mixed up in murder when he attempts to locate the man who got his laundry by mistake. Pat Novak For Hire is a wonderful series, particularly for those individuals with a predilection for hard-boiled detective noir, but it also allows Jack Webb to showcase a hitherto unknown sense of humor. You’d be surprised to learn that while at KGO, Webb performed in a self-titled comedy series—two broadcasts still exist today, and in all honesty, they’re pretty amusing.

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