Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: Pat Novak For Hire

There's a reason why I do a feature now and then called, Stuff Pat Novak Says; the show, Pat Novak For Hire is one of radio's best-written. It was written by a man named Richard Breen, who just happened to be Jack Webb's roommate in 1946 when the show began.

Webb was perfect for the role, providing just enough wit when he spat out line after line of quotable soliloquy. Unlike other shows that did nearly the same thing (Broadway is My Beat, Jeff Regan Private Investigator, et al) Webb's portrayal gave the prototype noir feel to Detective Novak, so typical of the film detectives of the same era, when film noir was at it's height.

Pat Novak was the most hard-boiled detective that ever roamed the coast of San Francisco. Every show started the same: a foghorn in the distance - you could imagine looking across the foggy Bay and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Then he'd walk a bit and descriptively tell you how he rented boats to make ends meet.

Novak's descriptions never left you guessing what he saw or imagined:
"The veins stood out in his face and made a pattern as if he slept on an alligator bag instead of a pillow."

"The sky was the color of a bruised spot on a man's arm."

"He was crumpled up against the desk and she was staring down at him as if she forgot to water the plants."

"It was a pretty room, if you like dead women on your rugs. She was stretched out in a pale, yellow dressing gown, as quiet as an April morning and twice as pretty."

"His head was over to one side, and his body was twisted over the other way, as if he couldn't make up his mind which direction to die in."

"She stood leaning there for a minute, sort of a girl who moves when she stands still. She had blonde hair. She was kind of pretty, except you could see somebody had used her badly, like a dictionary in a stupid family."

"She was wearing black lounging pajamas, tied tight around her slim waist. She looked like a wasp with a nice sting."

"I watched her as she turned and walked out the door. She was wearing a flowered print dress, and as she walked, the roses kept getting mixed up with the daisies. She walked with a nice friendly movement, like the trap door on a gallows."

"When I came in, she was sitting on my couch drinking my whiskey. Hmm. She could have all wanted. A 1949 Panther model. Just the right amount of size 12 in a dress that looked like a well-tailored fig leaf. When she was through looking at you, you looked like the Sunday supplement."
The cynical Novak character was able to say "dirty" things out loud, without actually saying them. The potency of his words could conjure up many startling images to those who actually listened to him, some dark, some light. There was never a censor problem because the words were pure art; only a dirty mind would provide a dirty thought to what he said.

Webb, in his first radio crime play, ripped a new seam in the world of delightful figures of speech.  The show was so good it was canceled and it came back to life in 1949 and in between the time that it was axed, it came back with the same writer, star and director as the exact same show with different character names and a different show title in "Johnny Madero, Pier 23."

The show obviously had a giant cult following that demanded the show return each time it was cut down. And listening to the program (when Webb was the star) provides the answer why.

The stories were all just there in order to allow the metaphors to exist. The cases that Novak had were all pretty much the same: find a man, find a woman. Sure, he'd have to board a train one time or check another part of town - but the same formulas existed in every episode. The show lived and breathed on the relentless one-liners.

Eventually in 1949 the show changed a bit after the cancellations and in it's return and grand entrance on ABC radio. Novak was played then by Ben Morris. Novak also had an assistant (Jocko Madigan) and a steady foil (Police Lieutenant Hellman who was played by Raymond Burr.)

But it wasn't the same at all. Webb's words were dynamite while Morris' were firecrackers.

In it's heyday, a fine show, so very typical of the films of the era.

©Jimbo 2010/2011


  1. Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes!

  2. I always wondered about Jocko. He was always in a bar drinking things stronger than beer and yet 'Patsy' would ask for his assistance. What kind of investigative skills did Jocko have? How reliable could he be. He seemed to prefer staying at the bar with his low life friends rather than help 'Patsy.' Yet, he would come through at the end. Just wondering.

  3. I can't answer this one. I haven't heard one of the non-Webb Novak shows in a long time...

  4. I am referring to the Jack Webb shows. Jocko always referred to Pat Novak as 'Patsy.'


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