One of the most memorable of the early television police dramas, M Squad debuted in 1957 running for three seasons on NBC.
There were many black and white crime dramas competing for viewers in the late fifties, notably Dragnet, Arrest and Trial, and Checkmate. M Squad stands apart because of its unique combination of story, production values, musical score and a great cast portraying crime fighters getting down and dirty on the mean streets.
Lee Marvin, a decorated WW II Marine veteran of the South Pacific, where he received the Purple Heart in the Battle of Saipan, stars as Lt. Frank Ballinger, a no-nonsense Chicago plainclothes cop in the elite M Squad Division. The Squad's (M-for Murder) task is to root out organized crime and corruption in Americas Second City. Marvin's portrayal of a tough undercover officer, whose perseverance and potential for violence, but with utter cool, permeates each gritty episode, gave Marvin name recognition with the public, and did much to make him a star. He would go on to many starring roles (The Dirty Dozen, Cat Ballou) and to win a coveted Oscar for Best Actor.
Frank Ballinger's boss, Captain Grey, is played by Paul Newlan, a fine actor who brings weight and substance to the role of running the M-Squad. It is perhaps his most memorable role.
In addition to the regular cast, a who's who of television luminaries and stars-to-be made guest appearances on the show. Among the guest stars were Angie Dickinson, Charles Bronson, Janice Rule, Leonard Nimoy, Ed Nelson, DeForest Kelley, H.M. Wynant and a young Burt Reynolds.
But it wasn't just the crisp, taut story lines and great cast that made M Squad memorable.
First, it was shot in gritty, film-noire style black and white. The excellent high contrast cinematography brings Chicago to life, with all of its easily recognizable landmarks, swanky penthouses on Lake Michigan, and the seedy darker side of the city. In fact, M Squad did for Chicago what the Naked City did for New York
Second was the musical score.
In keeping with the film noir look of the series, the producers enlisted conductor Stanley Wilson to lead the orchestra in arrangements by legendary jazz men Benny Carter, and a
young John Williams, (Star Wars). For the second season, the great jazz artist Count Basie wrote the enduring "M Squad Theme".
It was a perfect marriage of image and sound. Lee Marvin, who wrote the liner notes for the RCA Victor release of the 'Music From M Squad 'album in 1959, put it this way:
"I am…constantly amazed at the manner in which our characterizations and situations are supported, highlighted and intensified by the fine musical score…I love the great beat, the exciting solos and the clean, crisp section work of the trumpets and trombones. As I listen, my imagination paints thumbnail sketches of the Loop, Bayshore Drive, the South Side, and the other localities which set Chicago apart from other cities. It's sort of like an armchair tour of America's second largest city." Lee Marvin
The resulting television series is hard to match for its intensity and its humanity. Marvin's hard-nosed Frank Ballinger is the archetype of all the tough guy-big hearted crime fighters, from Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade, to later incarnations portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel.