The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.

19Jul/150

Video Theater 067: Ellery Queen: The Man Who Enjoyed Death

A vengeful former District Attorney commits a series of murders to get even with Ellery for ruining his career.

Original Air Date: March 29, 1951

18Jul/151

TV Episode Review: The Rockford Files: There’s One in Every Port

In this Season 3 episode of the Rockford Files, Rockford is begged to take part in an illegal high stakes poker game by the daughter of Eddie Marks (Howard Duff, best known as radio's Sam Spade), an old friend from prison after Rockford visits an apparently ailing Eddie in the hospital. However, the poker game is robbed and the organizers pin the blame on Rockford.When Rockford finds Eddie gone from the hospital, he realizes he’s been had. Rockford had been used to lead the gang to the poker game so Eddie could take the pot in order to pull off a scam.

In order to avoid being killed by the gamblers, Rockford has to concoct a con of his own to foil Eddie’s scam and to reclaim the stolen money before he finds himself killed by the gamblers. To do this, his pal Angel recruits a group of conmen to help pull off the job.

As a story, the plot is intricate, and it’s different from a typical Rockford Files episode. It’s much more of heist/sting story with the big question being not who done it, but what is Rockford’s scheme to defeat the conman. It’s graced by great writing and a super guest cast including John Doehner (who played Paladin in Radio’s Have Gun Will Travel.)

As a fan of old time radio, I love seeing Duff and Doehner on screen.  Also, the appearance of Duff in The Rockford Files is interesting as Rockford's work was compared to Sam Spade's earlier in the series. However, even if that’s not a highlight for you, the episode’s clever plotting and strong acting make this story a winner.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

This episode is available for free streaming through Hulu.
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27Jun/151

TV Series Review: Ellery Queen


While four television shows bore the name of Ellery Queen, one incarnation is the undisputed best. The series starred Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen with David Wayne as Inspector Richard Queen.

Hutton first played the master detective in the 1975 Telefilm, “Too Many Suspects” which then led to a 22 episode run in the 1975-76 series.

The series was set in Post-War New York City with Ellery as a mystery writer often called in by his father on various cases. Only one suspect ever cried foul on this odd process.

The mysteries are well-written and well-crafted and very traditional, trying to provide a sense of fair play and usually succeeding. Though in one case, “The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne,” I don’t think anyone could have come up with a proper solution based on what was shown on TV. Still, following the tradition of the book and the golden age radio series, before the solution was revealed, Ellery issued his challenge to the viewers to see if they could solve the case.

There was great chemistry between Hutton and Wayne who made a solid and believable team, and played off each other beautifully.

In the majority of episodes, Queen wasn’t the only one trying to solve the case. He had a rival who was also collecting clues, sharing some findings with Ellery and hoping to come to a conclusion. Several times he faced off with the Suave and sophisticated Simon Brenner (John Hillerman) who was a criminologist who played himself on the radio but also tried to solve real life mysteries. He’d come up with very clever and well thought out solutions that always turned out to be wrong. When Brenner wasn’t around, resourceful newshound Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford) would often try to solve the case from right under the police’s nose.

The program featured an embarassment of riches when it came to its guest stars. Adding to the 1940s atmosphere, many great stars of the Golden Age radio appeared in the series including George Burns, Dana Andrews, Don Ameche, Lloyd Nolan, Rudy Vallee, Vincent Price, and Arthur Godfrey. In one episode, Eve Arden (best known for Our Miss Brooks) played the star of a radio soap who was murdered. Beyond the radio stars, such classic TV and film stars such as Ken Berry, Eva Gabor, Tom Bosley, and Bob Crane featured.

The series did a good job capturing its era with the vehicles, the cultural references, and the overall feel although it did occasionally deal with issues that were emphasized less during the era itself such as payola. Some of the portrayals of how radio drama worked were more played for comedic value than for realism. Still, this was a very wonderful period series.

Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after a single season, losing its time slot consistently to ABC’s Streets of San Francisco. Despite how well beloved by fans, it faced two challenges.

The 1970s was a great era for the TV detective, similar to the late 1940s for radio detectives. Ellery Queen began airing in the era of Columbo, McCloud, Mcmillan and Wife, Rockford, Kojak, Canon, and Barnaby Jones. However, its period feel and strict puzzle story format made it different from its competitors but perhaps they were too different.

As a postscript, the creators of 1970s Ellery Queen TV Series, Richard Levinson and William Link, waited eight years and then did another program featuring a Mystery writer as the main character and found great success with Murder She Wrote. Star Jim Hutton died at a young age, but his son, Tim would go on to star in a Nero Wolfe mystery as Archie Goodwin. Suggesting that the attraction to doing well-made but short-lived, great period detective television shows ran in the family.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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7Mar/150

Telefilm Review: Columbo: A Stitch in Crime

Peter Falk and Leonard Nimoy
Originally, this week was slated to feature a review of the radio series, I Was a Communist for the FBI.  However due to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, I've opted for something a little different my radio of the radio version of I Was a Communist for the FBI appears next week. 

Leonard Nimoy recently passed away. He's best known for playing the role of Mr. Spock. He played the character in Eighty Episodes of the original 1960s TV series, eight movies, a guest appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he voiced the character in twenty-two episodes of the animated series.

Yet, Nimoy's sixty year career was more than sixty year as actor, director, producer, and writer went far beyond a single role. As an actor, he was among the best of his time.

This is well-illustrated in the 1973 Telefilm, A Stitch in Crime in which Nimoy plays Doctor  Barry Mayfield, an ambitious heart surgeons who is partnered with an older doctor (Will Geer) in a research project. He performs surgery on his partner but Nurse Sharon Martin (Anne Francis) becomes suspicious and makes some calls and plans to discuss her concern. Before she can, Doctor Mayfield murders her in the Hospital parking lot.

There's so much that makes the film work. The music is great and at no time is it better than in the murder scene, as it adds to the suspense. Hy Averback's directing is flawless with him taking advantage of every minute of the 70+ minute screen time.

The supporting cast is among the best Columbo ever had. Golden Globe actress Anne Francis was a great  choice to play Sharon Martin, as the character was someone we really sympathized with which isn't always the case with Columbo victims.  And to add to our sense of sympathy, Doctor Mayfield's partner Doctor Hidemann is played by none other than the actor who played Grandpa Walton.

The story also had a bit of mystery as to what Mayfield's endgame was. We had a sense early on based on Nurse Martin's reaction that it was something sinister involving Doctor Hidemann but we don't learn what until the final fifteen minutes.

However, the key strength of Columbo is the interaction between the detective and the murderer.  There's a rhythm to it much like a dance and that dance was never more perfectly executed than in A Stitch in Crime. 

Columbo begins as usual with friendliness and a bit of a comic and sloppy presence, perhaps even more so as he's eating at the crime scene and has a cold. Doctor Mayfield is similarly polite and helpful, at one point helping Columbo with his cold and writing him a prescription for medicine. I once thought this was a goof as what Doctor writes a prescription to someone they didn't formally examine and whose history they don't know? Now, I tend to think of it as a sign of arrogance.

And arrogance defines Mayfield as a character. Nimoy's portrayal combines that with the cool headedness of a surgeon and Mayfield easily becomes one of Columbo's most sinister opponents.  Only one Columbo killer looked more sinister than Nimoy did in the moment before Sharon Martin was killed. (Rip Torn in "Death Hits the Jackpot") and his coolness throughout makes him more intimidating.

Mayfield's arrogance leads him to taunt Columbo. When Columbo is barely hinting that Mayfield may have planted evidence that points to Martin's death being drug-related, Mayfield demands to know what motivate he would have. Columbo responds, "You ask tough questions, sir." Mayfield flashed a grin. "So do juries."

Ultimately, when Columbo learns Doctor Hidemann's life is at risk, he confronts Mayfield and when Mayfield begins laughing at him, Columbo has one of his few bursts of anger as he slams a carafe of water down and accuses Mayfield of murder.

The only thing that surpasses that moment is the end of the episode. It's more typical for Columbo to spend several minutes exposing the murderer in grand style.   However in A Stitch in Crime,  Columbo nearly failed. Columbo's final gambit appears to fail and he concedes to Mayfield and walks away. The surgeon showing signs of relief. It appears the murderer has won until the final minute when Columbo returns and we find that Mayfield's calm demeanor proved to be his undoing.

The ending is a great payoff for what I think is Columbo's greatest episode. It was an episode that knew when to follow the formula the series was already becoming famous for and when to diverge. It featured two fine actors who were used to their full potential to create an episode that stands out even in a series that was full of great episodes.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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15Feb/153

Video Theater 061: Dragnet: The Human Bomb

In the premier episode of Dragnet, Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and Ben Romero (Barton Yarborough) try to stop a man from blowing up City Hall.

Season 1, Episode 1

Original Air Date: December 16, 1951

14Dec/141

Video Theater 059: Dragnet: The Big Little Jesus

Friday and Smith search for a stolen statue of the Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve for a church that desperately needs it.

Original Air Date: December 24, 1953

30Aug/140

DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season One

The Father Dowling Mysteries was a delightful mystery series starring Tom Bosley (Happy Days) and Tracy Nelson as Chicago-based Father Frank Dowling and Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, a priest and nun constantly finding themselves in the the thick of mysteries. The duo first appeared in a 1987 TV movie before joining the 1989 NBC line up as a mid-season replacement before moving to ABC in 1990 for another mid-season replacement season and its only full season. Having aired on NBC and ABC, the DVD release, of course, comes from CBS Home video. Father Dowling was a character created by Ralph McHenry in a series of popular novels, but the novels really don’t appear to have come much into play in the stories.

The first season set collects the 1987 Movie, “The Fatal Confession” as well as the seven episode first season of Father Dowling.

Ultimately, this isn’t a series made by the cleverness of its mysteries or bone-chilling suspense, or CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonist and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.

Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating that balance that’s required in a clerical detective. Dowling is clever, but he’s also compassionate. He cares about catching the bad guy but he also cares about people’s souls and lives. In so many ways, Frank Dowling is a bit of a throw back to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He was truly good and kind, and also didn’t take himself too seriously.

Sister Steve is street smart but also very compassionate. The biggest flaw with the way the series played the character was that in each episode, they had to have her do something you wouldn’t typically expect a nun to do usually in the line of duty but sometimes not: beating the neighborhood boys at basketball playing pool, fixing a car, mixing drinks at a bar, or teaching an aerobics class. It was all in the line of work. Sometimes, it was humorous, though it times it could get goofy and a little repetitive. The first few episodes had her being able to do every single thing well. Thankfully, in the “Face in the Mirror Mystery,” they finally had her undertake a task she couldn’t do well: rollerskating.

Rounding out the regulars were Father Dowling’s cranky housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) and the very particular Father Phil (James Stephens) who would appear in the first and last episodes of the 1989 series before becoming a regular. As for the episodes themselves:

“The Fatal Confession” had some good moments in it as Father Dowling looks into the apparent suicide of a former parishoner, but the last quarter of it or so was just too much like a soap opera

“The Missing Body Mystery,” the feature length first episode of the 1989 series begins with a man stumbling into St. Michaels and dying. When Father Dowling returns after calling the police, the body is gone. His stability is called into question and the bishop wants to relieve him and replace him with Father Phil. It’s a great story and a solid beginning.

“What Do You Call Girl Mystery,” is a story about a slain high-priced call girl that manages to tell a good story without being exploitative or sleazy.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery,” is probably the only clunker in the first season. Steve’s ex-fiance (played by Nelson’s then-husband William Moses) witnesses a murder but when he shows up with the police, the body’s gone. Even worse someone’s trying to kill him. This story not only has a similar plot to a much better episode that aired two weeks previously as a well as a weak conclusion, but it tries to create dramatic conflict over Steve’s decision to become a nun and fails.

The main problem is that we’re told that Steve was almost ready to marry her ex when she ran off to the convent to become a nun. Why would a young woman make this very radical decision? All of the reasons Sister Steve gives such as "it was the right thing for me" don't really ring true. It’s impossible to believe a nun would say or if someone wanted to be a nun with such weak reasons, that the Catholic church would allow it. Of course, treating the subject realistically may have required too much religiosity for network TV executives liking. But if you can’t do it well, why do it at all? Why try introduce a dramatic subplot that’s not believable?

The season got back on track with the two part, “Mafia Priest Mystery,” in which Father Luciana, the son of a mafia family becomes Father Dowling’s new Assistant. He’s trying to make a break with the family business but is drawn into an effor to help his brother Peter go straight and finds himself framed for murdering the DA. This is a great story with a lot of tension, suspects, and situations. We do learn whodunit about half away through the second episode but there’s still some great suspense including a delightful train chase. I also appreciate how the episode highlights both Frank and Steve’s compassion as they deal with and minister to members of the crime family even while trying to find the killer.

“The Face in the Mirror Mystery,” is actually a pretty decent story despite the fact that the premise of an “evil twin” of the main character has been done to death. This is  a great cat and mouse game between Father Dowling and his twin brother Blaine, though the payoff scene is a little silly.

The season concluded with, “The Pretty Baby Mystery,” which has a woman chased by armed men leaving her baby in the church. Father Dowling and Steve try to find the mother and end up getting arrested by the Feds. This is another episode that really respects the characters’ vocation and differentiates them from the typical TV detective. The episode also marked the return of James Stevens as Father Phil, who has become the Bishop’s assistant.

Overall, the first season of Father Dowling was thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to be a mostly well-written family friendly detective series with likable characters. It treats its main characters with respect, but also manages a great deal of humor and warmth. I’ll look forward to future seasons.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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10Aug/140

Video Theater 055: Decoy: Night of Fire

DescriptionCasey goes undercover in an office to investigate an arson. The business owner suspects a former mental patient.

Episode 23 (1957)

13Jul/140

Video Theater 054: An Eye for An Eye

Casey is undercover as a drug addict in hopes of busting a heroine ring when a junkie dies, leaving behind a checkbook with $6,000 in it.

Episode 18

22Jun/140

Video Theater 053: Decoy: To Trap A Thief

A businessman alleges that $10,000 was missing from money recovered from robbers. Suspicion falls on a patrolmen near retirement. Casey (Beverly Garland) goes undercover to find the truth.

Season 1, Episode 4 (1957)

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