One of the most memorable of the early television police dramas, M Squad bowed in 1957 and ran for three seasons on NBC.
There were many black-and-white crime dramas competing for viewers in the late fifties, most notably Dragnet, Arrest and Trial, and Checkmate. M Squad stands apart because of its unique combination of story, production values, musical score and great cast.
Lee Marvin starred as Lt. Frank Ballinger, a no-nonsense Chicago plainclothes cop in the elite M-Squad (“M” for Murder, of course) Division. The Squad's mission was to root out organized crime and corruption in the Windy City. Marvin's standout portrayal of a tough undercover officer gave him name recognition with the public, and did much to make him a star. He would go on to many memorable Hollywood roles (The Dirty Dozen, Emperor of the North, Cat Ballou) — and win an Oscar for Best Actor.
Frank Ballinger's boss, Captain Grey, was played by Paul Newlan, a fine actor who brought weight and substance to the role of M-Squad's leader in what was perhaps his most memorable career role.
But it wasn't just the crisp, taut story lines and great cast that made M Squad a surpassingly good show.
It was shot in gritty, film noir style black and white. The excellent high contrast cinematography brought Chicago — with all its landmarks, swanky Lake Michigan penthouses, and seedy hideouts — to life.
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 (Jaws, Star Wars, etc. etc. etc.). For the second season, the great jazz artist Count Basie wrote the enduring “M Squad Theme.”
The resulting television series was better than most when it came to its intensity and humanity. Marvin's hard-nosed Frank Ballinger remains a tough-guy-with-a-big-heart archetype. M Squad was that rare television series that had it all.