“Fire Island” is the story of a band of bootleggers who confront the NYPD at the title location. I don’t want to overhype a simple half-hour cop drama, but I see ”Fire Island” as a model of crisp, artful, evocative storytelling. Student filmmakers would do well to study the visual and narrative skill on display here.
The unique element of this episode is the setting, which is a far cry from the series’ usual jumbled urban landscape. The main location is the bootleggers’ hideout, a boarded-up shack surrounded by hard sand and seagrass. The only approach to the house is a narrow wooden walkway, and where the walkway meets the house, a belt-fed World War II machine gun has been mounted behind a barrier of sandbags. The gun is manned day and night by a psychopathic guard hired by the bootleggers to protect their still. The scene is surreal. The outsized gun and its trigger-happy attendant are a force that is all out of proportion to what it is being guarded; and the shack seems too remote to be threatened by anyone. The wooden walkway becomes a passage to hell, and only one of the people from the shack makes it out alive.
The mise-en-scene is stripped down, almost abstract. Besides the house and its desolate environs, all we see are winter beaches and water —a wonderful Dali-esque backdrop for cops in long overcoats and wide-brimmed hats. I get a little shiver when Lieutenant Muldoon looks across the water at a faint grey shape and says, “That’s Fire Island out there, isn’t it?” He might as well have said, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
At the heart of the episode are the tensions that play out between the people in the shack: an old man, his grandson, a hired hand, and the crazy guard. The grandson is disturbed by his grandfather’s decision to bring in the guard, who becomes more of a menace to the bootleggers themselves than to any would-be intruders. This is a sharp little drama about the tensions between family and the cruel world outside…or the consequences of making a deal with the Devil—whatever. The real draw here is the art of figures moving on a landscape.