Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season 2


This 3-DVD series collects the second short season of the Father Dowling Mysteries, originally broadcast in 1990 when the series moved to ABC after NBC produced its first season. The main cast of Tom Bosley (Father Frank Dowling), Tracy Nelson (Sister Steve), James Stephens (Father Prestwick), and Marie (Mary Wickles).

If I had to describe the difference between this season and Season One, I’d have to use the word “authenticity.” In Season One, our heroes were people who solved mysteries who just happened to be a priest and a nun. In Season two, they were a priest and a nun who came across mysteries in the course of their lives and duties.

They said prayers, performed ceremonies and dealt with church hierarchy and bureaucracy. It plays into the plots. In the “Solid Gold Headache Mystery” Sister Steve is named custodian of the estate of a wealthy man who she was visiting. In “The Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery,” she shows kindness to a blind conman and is taken in by him. A similar event happens to Father Prestwick in “The Confidence Mystery.” Father Dowling knows who an art thief is but is far more concerned about his life and his soul than bringing him to justice in “The Legacy Mystery.”  And Father Dowling’s pastoral relationship is key to his involvement in “The Falling Angel Mystery,” and “The Perfect Couple Mystery.”

The show isn’t preachy but it makes the characters more believable. Characterization was also better for Sister Steve. She’s still resourceful and frequently ditched her habit to go undercover. However, this didn’t happen every episode. Unlike in Season One, where she seemed to be super-competent at everything, she failed at a couple of her tasks. Sister Steve doesn’t make a good skatetress and doesn’t win at every video game. Thus she’s much more of a real person. This is also helped as we learn she has a hoodlum brother in, “The Sanctuary Mystery,” and that her father was an alcoholic in, “The Passionate Painter Mystery.”

The supporting acting shifted as subplots became more about Father Prestwick (who works for the Bishop) than their cook Marie. I didn’t like this as much as I prefer Marie as a character. Still, the officious and demanding Father Prestwick is more effective as a comic foil for Father Dowling.

The guest cast is mostly solid, although  a couple of scenes in “The Perfect Couple Mystery”  were  painful to watch.

In terms of the plots, they’re mostly okay. Many of the episodes felt more like adventures rather than typical mysteries and some were not all that clever such as, “The Ghost of a Chance Mystery.” Some of the better ones were, “The Visiting Priest Mystery” where a mob hitman tries to go undercover as a visiting priest at Saint Michael’s. “The Exotic Dance Mystery” which ends up with Steve going undercover as a card shark. “The Confidence Mystery” and “Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery” both have some clever twists though the similarity in plot made airing them both in the same season a dubious decision.

This season also featured “The Falling Angel Mystery.” Where a scruffy angel named Michael (not the archangel) shows up with a warning for Father Dowling. I was dubious at the plot as it could have been cheesy and there were some problems with the story. However, James McGeachin does a good job in the role and the twist is one I didn’t see coming. Of course, Father Dowling’s criminal twin brother Blaine has a return appearance much to Father Dowling’s chagrin.

Ultimately, the plots were not all fantastic. What holds it together is the characters are incredibly likable and a joy to watch.

 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Pie in the Sky, Series One

Pie in the Sky  is a British TV show that aired for five  series between 1994-97 and chronicles the adventure of Detective Inspector Henry Crabbe (Richard Griffiths) who would like nothing more than to retire and run his restaurant with the help of his account wife Margaret (Maggie Steed). Instead, while he opens his restaurant and serves as its chef, he’s subject to constant recall by his boss Assistant Chief Constable Freddy Fisher (Malcolm Sinclair.) This set collects the ten hour long episodes in the First Series.

The pilot episode is included, and  it was the worst episode of the first series. In fact, it tempted me to take the whole box set back to the library and be done with it. I’m glad I stuck with the series but the first episode was a hurdle to get over.

The writers had to get the concept of the series written, and it’s that Crabbe wants to retire after twenty-five years to open his own restaurant. However, things go awry on his last case.  He’s framed for taking a bribe from an escaped criminal. Fisher knows Crabbe’s really innocent but there’s no proof and Fisher instead proposed to hold an inquiry into the bogus charges over Crabbe’s head like a sword of Damocles. If he continues to be “on leave” and available at Fisher’s whims, Crabbe can run his restaurant most of the time. If on the other hand, Crabbe decides he’d rather not, then he can prepared to get accustomed to the joys of jailhouse food.

The plot was fine, but the episode got bogged down in giving us way too many details about everything. The lighting was terrible, and the character’s motivations were somewhat unclear.

However, once Pie in the Sky got past its first episode, it took off and became quite enjoyable.  The big change were the characters.

Inspector Crabbe became far more clearly defined. The first episode couldn’t quite decide if he had been frustrated by his inability to move up the ranks as Fisher had. Unlike Fisher,  he wasn’t a Machiavellian schemer. Thankfully, the idea of Crabbe acting out of envy for Fisher was dropped which made him more appealing.

Griffiths  does a great job portraying Crabbe as a crusty, wise eccentric with a strong ethical core that leads him into constant conflict with Fisher. At one point in this series, he’s offered retirement if he drops a case, and he takes  a firm ethical stand. Time and time again, he’s shown to be good-hearted and trying to do the right thing.

Mrs. Crabbe grows quite a bit from the series opener, where she was defined as an accountant unimpressed by good cooking.  Steed and Griffiths have an incredible chemistry and she shows herself a smart and well-defined character with a great sense of humor and opinions of her own. She also is tender and supportive of her husband in a way that makes for a sweet relationship.

I should also give some praise to Bella Enaharo who plays Detective Constable Cambridge. At first glance, she’s little more than a respectful, low-ranking officer on the police force. However, she really grows to be an interesting and fully developed character.

The strength of the show is its characters. The stories are mostly solid tales that are good Comedy Dramas with mystery an occasional and less-developed element.. The writers have strong political viewpoints that work their way into the story. Most of the time, it’s not too strident. Indeed, the series is an example of how to soft sell your political ideas. However, sometimes the writers’ political views make the plots more predictable than they otherwise would be.

If you can get past that as well as the pilot,  this is a very enjoyable and pleasant series with great characters, a good premise, and some fairly interesting stories.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Red Skelton Whistling Collection


The Whistling Collection from Warner Archives features all three MGM films from the 1940s in which Red Skelton played Wally Benton, an actor/writer who plays the Fox, a radio detective who comes up with his own plots.

In Whistling in the Dark (1941) , Wally, his girlfriend Carol (played by Ann Rutherford), and the sponsor’s daughter are kidnapped by a racketeer who wants to murder a man who is en route to New York. Wally poses a threat to the racketeer’s plans to lay claim to a wealthy woman’s fortune. Wally is forced to come up with a perfect murder plot and he has to figure out how to save his life from it and the life of the two women with him, as well as an innocent man set to die. He does so in a way that’s both ingenuous and hilarious, and it involves a brilliantly madcap fight with the thug Sylvester (Rags Ragland).

In Whistling in Dixie (1942), Wally and Carol travel down South to investigate mysterious goings on in a Southern town including the disappearance of a young man. There the Fox seems to have found Sylvester working for a local judge but it turns out to be his not so evil but just as dub twin brother Chester (also played by Rags Ragland.) There’s a genuine mystery, political corruption, a Confederate treasure, and lots of shenanigans involving twins.

In Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), Wally is framed as Constant Reader, a murderer who has been sending notes to a politician after committing his crimes. Wally has to prove his innocence and his efforts including going undercover as a pitcher on a Major League baseball team in which every player wears a beard. Several real-life Brooklyn Dodgers appear, including then-manager Leo Durocher. Ragland returns as Chester. The whole thing ends up in another madcap fight scene, this time aboard the ship.

Overall, the Whistling movies are a lot of fun. Unlike some lesser comedy detective mysteries, they never seem to forget that the lead isn’t just supposed to be funny, he’s supposed to be a detective. Throughout Wally shows  clever thinking, although his good plans occasionally go wrong. Skelton and Rutherford have strong chemistry. No one will confuse them for William Powell and Myrna Loy, but they make a nice on-screen pairing.

The stories’ take on the radio drama of the era is fun and cute. The first two stories have quite a bit of cleverness behind their plots. The third is a bit more thin. The way Wally is framed weak, and like the second movie is centered on him and his girl trying to get married even though there wasn’t a reason why they wouldn’t have married after Whistling in Dixie. The final third of the movie is funny, but essentially it’s two very long slapstick scenes at the ballpark and aboard the ship with the only breaks being people taking cabs to get one from scene to another. Nothing against slapstick, but I preferred the style of the other two movies better.

Still, all three films are good, and they all work with good performances from the returning cast and nice gags throughout. If you love detective movies with a dash of comedy or just love Red Skelton, this is a great collection to purchase.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Last Detective, Series One


Dangerous Davies, the Last Detective (played by Peter Davison of Campion and Doctor Who fame) isn’t your usual crime drama lead character. His estranged wife Julie describes him to one of her many boyfriends as “Dangerous because he isn’t…” ” He is “”The Last Detective’ because he’s the last man they’d put on anything important.”

His boss tells him, “The last detective, that’s what you are, Davies. The last detective I’ll ever think of for a job. Unless it’s a crap job; then you’ll be the first.”

Of course, PC Davies is far from incompetent. Whatever task he’s given, he takes on with relish and shows competence and intelligence. He’s easy to underrate and gains people’s confidence. He’s kind of like Columbo (most of his episodes are about the length of a 1970s columbo episode) except instead of being assigned every celebrity murder case, he goes out and investigates the report that a jeweler has shot a duck.

This first series collects four episodes including the feature-length TV movie, along with the episodes “Moonlight,” “Tricia,” and “Lofty.”

The TV movie is a great story as he takes on a cold case murder investigation without telling his superior based on a clue he came up with in a far less desirable case. It’s a well worked out procedural that does a great job showcasing the character and his overall decency. It’s probably the most traditional mystery of the four, and also the most engaging.

“Moonlight” is an odder story as Davies investigates the disappearance of an elderly man with a shady past, and an often tempestuous relationship with his wife. The story has some character moments and solid guest performances, but gets tedious in a few spots with the same themes harped on repeatedly. That and a less than a satisfying conclusion make this my least favorite episode of the season.

“Tricia” has Davies experience the downside of being a personable and caring person. He ends up taking on a case of a woman who claims to have been assaulted and robbed. The story shows Davies being shrewd and cautious as he figures out Tricia is falling for him and begins to discover what a bad thing that can be.

“Lofty” is the second strongest episode of the story. The episode begins by showing Davies’ friendship with an eccentric old man named, “Lofty.” When Lofty dies under mysterious circumstances, the police don’t care much, but with a word from her social worker, Davies presses. Believing the case to be a waste of time, his boss gives it to him. What follows is a solid investigation leading to a great mystery involving World War II and a ring. There are some red herrings thrown in, but I found this to be a very engaging story.

Overall, this was a strong series.  The mysteries are not concerned with big sensational “ripped from the headlines” crimes but rather with jobs that many policemen might look down upon. What makes Davies so admirable as a character is that any serious job, he takes on with serious dedication and determination. Finding how Lofty died or investigating Tricia’s robbery will not earn him plaudits from “the man upstairs,” however the way he approaches his work ultimately gives importance to it that supersedes the dismissive attitude of his superiors and gives the cases weight and dignity.

While the series has comedic elements, the comedy isn’t played broadly. Indeed, he’s a character you feel sympathy for because he’s a genuinely nice and decent person who it feels like life itself has turned against him with an estranged wife who (though not divorced) tells him about her boyfriends, and mocks and belittles him to his face,  younger colleagues who act like they’re in high school, and a series of unfortunate incidents that happen to him like he’s being followed by a rain cloud.

There are also two very important relationships. His friend Mod (Sean Hughes) provides a non-policeman sounding board for Davies in his investigation and the two have some wonderfully fun interactions and it’s with Mod that most of the real comedy occurs. And then there’s Detective Inspector Aspinall, who  has a complex relationship with him. While Aspinall rides him and saddles him with essentially meaningless cases, he also has some moments that are more respectful and rebukes the younger detectives who seem bent on finding new ways to make Davies’ life unpleasant.

Overall, this first series is a great start, showcases the fine acting talents of Peter Davison, and tells some great human mysteries.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Mask Of Dimitrios (1944)

In Mask of Dimitros, Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a Dutch mystery writer becomes intrigued when the body of a notorious criminal named Dimitros (Zachary Scott in his first role) washes up on shore. Leyden begins to trace the sordid career of Dimitros. Along the way, he encounters the mysterious man named Mr. Peters (Sidney Greenstreet) who also has an interest in Dimitros.

Leyden is a very different from the typical Lorre role. While Leyden’s a mystery writer, prior to seeing Dimitrios, he’s never seen a dead body. He goes through the story with a certain innocence and naivete that makes the character likable.

Greenstreet is far closer to type with Peters, an experienced criminal with genteel manners. It’d be tempting to view Peters as just another version of the Kasper Gutman character from the Maltese Falcon, but there’s a bit more to Peter than that, which becomes clear as the movie plays out. The film’s best scenes are the ones between Lorre and Greenstreet. The chemistry between the two is superb and every moment with them sharing the screen is a joy.

Most of the scenes with Zachary Scott were flashbacks to his very active criminal career as a sinister ruthless criminal. Sometimes, it felt these scenes went on too long particularly as the mystery surrounding Mr. Peters became far more interesting than recalling that Dimitros was a scoundrel. Still Scott was a great heavy.

The film was made in 1944 and arguably this would have looked better had it been filed without the restrictions inherent with wartime filmmaking but in the pre or post war eras, but still the movie doesn’t look bad and has some great atmospheric scenes.

This isn’t a must-watch film or a classic but it’s certainly a well-made film featuring two of Hollywood’s most memorable actors in roles that are a little out of the ordinary.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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