• Craig Hunter

PT - Banacek - 012 - Project Phoenix

Updated: Jan 26

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Show Notes


Welcome everyone to The Predictably Treacherous podcast. Today's episode is Banacek "Project Phoenix". This is episode two of season one. This episode was directed by Richard T. Heffron and written by David Moessinger. The original air date was September 27th, 1972

Let's get right to the episode summary.

"Banacek investigates the theft of an expensive concept car from the train that was transporting it."


An expensive concept car is being strapped onto a flatbed car of a train during the cover of night. The concept car is supposed to somehow be crash proof and worth 5$ million bucks according to the insurance agents supervising the transport. Several bumbling security guards will be accompanying the vehicle on it's train ride to Boston. Although, they will be riding on a different train car...conveniently.

Project Phoenix...interesting name for an episode. There are several "Project Phoenix" listings on Wikipedia, although most of them began after this episode aired, including a SETI program, a South African National Defense program, a BBC news-magazine, and a Hong Kong football program.

But the most interesting is, the "Phoenix Program". Not the exact name but i wonder if it the episode title is a shout-out to the Phoenix Program.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about the Phoenix Program:

" The Phoenix Program (Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Phụng Hoàng, a word related to fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix) was a program designed and coordinated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Vietnam War, involving cooperation between American, South Vietnamese and Australian militaries.

The program was designed to identify and destroy the Viet Cong(VC) via infiltration, torture, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and assassination.The CIA described it as "a set of programs that sought to attack and destroy the political infrastructure of the Viet Cong".

The Phoenix Program ran between 1965 and 1972 and it "neutralized" ( a euphemism for imprisoned, persuaded to defect, or killed) ) over 81,000 VC. Speculation is that it killed between 26,000 and 41,000 people. The methods used were to capture VC, interrogate and torture to get intelligence about more VC, then capture more VC...rinse and repeat.

There were a series of congressional hearings on "U.S. Assistance Programs in Vietnam" in 1971 so the Phoenix Program would have been in the news but to be fair, I don't see any obvious signals that this episode is intended to be a shout-out to the Phoenix Program. When choosing a name for the episode they probably just thought Project Phoenix was a cool sounding name that evoked thoughts of renewal.

Phoenix mythology https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(mythology)

When the train stops the guards get off and go to check on the car. The entire rail car with the concept car is missing from the train.

Banacek Intro

Some insurance guys are investigating the train and the site and looking confounded and upset. Banacek arrives by helicopter. A bald dude says "Banacek" with contempt.

Banacek exits the helicopter and runs over to the caboose and goes inside. The bald guy goes over to talk with him and says "hello banasek" and then calls him "superpole"

They obviously have an advasarial relationship. Bald guy tells banacek that he already spoke with the engineer and the brakeman and they saw and heard nothing...and the only helicopter big enough to haul the rail car away belongs to the army and they can verify where their equipment was at the time of the disappearance.

Bald guy thinks it's industrial sabotage...another car company.

Banacek leaves in the chopper. He flies over the rail yard and looks through binoculars and at a map. The camera shows up a waterway near the track. The helicopter lands and Banacek gets into the limo with jay.

Jay's Bogus Theory

whoops, they skipped it this episode. why? just do it. People like predictability...it just seems sloppy...early in the series you want to build some consistency and predictability and expectation

Polish Proverb

Banacek arrives at the bookstore to Felix reading about Karate. He claims that there is a crime wave in Boston and that's why he's learning Karate. Then we get the Polish proverb, let's listen to the clip, (clip proverb). That proverb had nothing to do with the plot of the episode it was just used a segue to Felix giving Banacek some information about trains. You couldn't come up with a proverb that ties into the plot of the episode...something that lends some insight into how the crime was perpetrated or how it will be solved...something

Banacek asks Felix how you can uncouple the railroad car while it's running. Felix gives him some research on R and W, Horizon, and reference works on railroad engineering.

Now Banacek arrives at the office of Doug Ruderman, the president of the car company. Ruderman says the only competitor that would have motive is Horizion Engineering. Concord was offering $15 million to the firm with the best safe car concept and Horizon Engineering's concept car was the next best after his firms car "the Phoenix". Harry Wexler, the chief engineer, is convinced it's Horizon.

They briefly discuss an ex-employee, Christine Verden, who tried to leave with the plans for the front end suspension.

Now Banacek visits Christine at her house on the beach. Inside Christine is working on a drill press. She is very attractive. He knocks on the door to ask her some questions. She tries to get rid of him and he gets pushy and aggressive so she let's him in. They apparently met before and she thought he was a self-indulgent womanizer. She's right. She won't give him any answers. He tries to ask her for dinner but she rebuffs him and tells him to leave. He does.

Now Banacek visits Mr Cole of Horizon Engineering and he has some cover that he will be putting out a magazine related to automotive safety. Cole gives him a tour. He says their working on some front end suspension modifications to their next model. Banacek mentions the Phoenix and Cole calls him on his cover story. Cole tells Banacek that he stole some personnel but not the Phoenix. He says he hasn't talked with Christine in two years since she left Horizon.

Ladies Man

Now back at home Banacek is assembling a model train when Christine arrives at his door. She apologizes for her behaviour the other day. She gets teary. She is getting harrassed by police, photographers, and insurance agents.

She tells him her story from the beginning.

- father was a race car driver. (seeds of her interest in automobile safety)

- worked for Horizon for 5 years. (was not taken seriously...too good looking)

- worked at R and W.

- Leaving work one day, security guard grabbed her, blueprints in briefcase. Don't know how they got there.

She asks for him to take her to dinner. They kiss.

What is Going On?

Now Banacek visits a Laundry Mat to speak with an undertaker named Collier. It's a small town and he is the undertaker and laundry mat guy. Banacek asks him about a body from a few days ago. Collier says it was a hit-and-run and there was no identification on the body.

Now Banacek is out on a dirt road where the accident took place speaking with the sheriff who thinks the dead man was a hippie or a hobo. The sheriff asks Banacek why he's interested in the unidentified dead man, let's listen (clip chief)

That response from Banacek pretty much sums up how I feel watching the investigation portion of any Banacek episode. It feels like i have no idea why he's looking into what he's looking into or how he got where he is or why something's important. The pattern seems to be investigate random thing, investigate random thing, investigate random thing, the big reveal. Unlike Columbo, where you know what happened from the beginning and you get to see Columbo discover the truth.

Alright, so now at a hippie colony. Banacek shows a picture of dead guy. They don't know who dead guy was. He leaves. A hobo catches up to the car and tells Banacek who the dead guy was, "Denver Sam". Denver went around with Whitey. The other day, Whitey came into camp afraid, and without Denver.

Physical Skill

Banacek goes to the railroad to look for Whitey. He's there and he runs. Banacek gives chase and corners him in an empty train car. Banacek tells Whitey that he thinks Denver was murdered, then taken to the highway and dumped. Whitey says he and Denver were by the tracks. They heard laud noises, then some guys came after them. They ran and he never saw Denver again. Just then, the two guys who were looking for Whitey at the hobo camp this morning arrive and Whitey yells "it's them" and Banacek begins fighting them. The train leaves and Whitey escapes on the train car.

Now back at R and W talking with Ruderman and Waxler. Banacek asks Waxman why Christine was searched that day when she was fired. Waxman says he found the blueprints missing and had everyone searched.

Now at Christine's place. The door is open so Banacek walks in. Christine is not there. He looks out the window and she is in a parked car with Andy Cole having an argument. She comes back in and explains that she and Andy were in love. He was married. There are still feelings there so Andy offered her a job but he wanted to get involved with her again. She says it's over.

The Get

Banacek calls Felix. Felix says the box cars on either side of the flat car were leased to legitimate corporations. However, the car ahead of the flatcar was leased to a firm that went bankrupt a few years ago. The firm belonged to R and W.

Banacek and Jay arrive at the abandoned plant of the bankrupt firm. There is a car there. Banacek tells Jay to go for the police while he investigates. Ruderman arrives in another car and enters a building. Banacek follows and he finds Ruderman, Waxman and an engineer working on the Phoenix. Ruderman pulls a gun but Waxler says, "it's over. The car doesn't work." He takes the gun from Ruderman and shoots the car.

The Big Reveal

Now Banacek is talking with the two insurance guys, Andy Cole, and Christine. Apparently the Phoenix had a revolutionary system but it didn't work. So they staged the theft to buy some time to fix the issue. They framed Christine because they knew she'd eventually discover the vehicle's flaws.

Let's listen to Banacek give the big reveal (clip reveal).

The Big Reveal does a great job of interspersing clips from the actual crime (that the audience hasn't seen) with the scene in the room where Banacek is using a toy train as a visual aid and the entire reveal is done with a Banacek voice-over. Very well done. Too bad it doesn't really translate to audio. Let's briefly recap how it was done.

- 2 days before theft a man leases the boxcar that will be in the position ahead of the Phoenix for the company "Rensler Tool and Dye" that went bankrupt 7 years ago.

- day before theft the boxcar is housed with a hydraulic winch and portable generator.

- Phoenix placed on board and chained.

- train leaves for Boston.

- By lake, they replaced a piece of track with a switch

- during the trip, they pull a cable from the winch of the boxcar across the flat car (with the Phoenix) to the next box car. Then they uncoupled the flat car from both adjoining boxcars so that the train was in three pieces.

- Front of the train crosses the switch, they flip it, the flat car veers off, switch back and the remainder of the train stays on the same track.

- then retract the cable reattaching the train.

- fly the Phoenix away in a helicopter and dump the boxcar in the lake.

This was a good episode. I really enjoyed it.

I've been critical in previous episodes about how Banacek leaves you in the dark for most of the episode and then suddenly reveals everything at the end in the big reveal scene, but in watching this episode I felt a little less in the dark throughout. I felt like the scenes where Banacek visited the R and W office Ruderman and Wessel both seemed really squirrelly, like they were lying about something. So at the end when they turned out to have orchestrated the entire heist it wasn't so surprising.

I also really enjoy the look of scenes that take place in rail-yards and abandoned factories. Check out the opening sequence of Les Bernstein's Night Train (1999) for a great rail-yard setting and check out the showdown scene from Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987) for a great abandoned factory setting.

Next week , on the Predictably Treacherous Podcast, we will continue with season 1 episode 2 of Banacek, "No Sign of the Cross".

"Banacek flies to Mexico to investigate the theft of a rare catholic cross"

Tune in next week

Night Train (1999) on Amazon

Robocop (1987) on Amazon

Intro music

Sweeter Vermouth Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/