Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: Assignment Redhead

Note: Twitter followers @radiodetectives voted this as the movie I’d review this week rather than Whodunit.

In 1951, the Australian radio company Grace Gibson released the first audio drama series featuring Major Gregory Keen, of MI-5. Series creator Lindsay Hardy turned this into a book, “Requiem for a Redhead,” which became a basis for the British movie, “Assignment: Redhead.” (aka Million Dollar Manhunt.)

The basic plot is the same as in the radio drama. A criminal mastermind known as Dumetrius kills a Colonel and takes his place on a flight from Germany to London. On the flight is a U.S. serviceman who takes a picture of Dumetrius. With the help of Hedy Bergner (Carole Matthews), a singer who is a secretly a spy for him, Dumetrius has the serviceman killed and a British Airman named Peter Ridgeway is framed for the crime. Keen (Richard Denning) steps in to locate Dumetrius and hunts for Ridgeway when he escapes.

The movie has some solid points. The original 104-part serial had a lot of repetition and the movie cut a lot of the fat. One thing I like is that we don’t get to see Keen acting like a fool in his being in love with Heddy Bergner and blind to the fact she’ s working for Dumetrius for more than 16 hours as in the radio drama. The plot remains interesting and engaging with some great elements still included. Richard Denning (star of Michael Shayne and Mr. and Mrs. North) turns in a good performance.

Yet, the movie is nowhere near as good as the radio drama overall. The film is low budget and it shows. With a Film Noir, a low budget feel can work, but a spy film needs a bit more room in the budget. The seventy-six minute run time cuts some of the more annoying elements of the radio serial, but it also eliminates a lot of the good stuff, including many complicated relationship dynamics. We don’t get to see Heddy’s growth as a character or her conflict as we do in the radio serial. Instead, her change towards the end of the story is abrupt. In addition, because Keen is an American in this version and his aide Sergeant Coutts is a Brit, there’s not some of the shared backstory and Coutts’ tireless loyalty which was such a great highlight of the radio drama. Key sequences from late in the story are cut or compressed. Even if I hadn’t heard the radio serial, I’d know something was missing. Weirdly, the initial set up is kept mostly intact. The acting is as spotty as you’d expect from a low-budget film.

Overall, this isn’t a horrible movie, but it’s tough to offer a general recommendation. If you’ve heard the radio series, then it’s worth checking out for the curiosity’s sake. If you’ve thought about listening to the radio serial, and want to check out the movie first, I’d recommend listening to the radio drama first. It’s far better than what was put out on the screen.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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DVD Review: The Last Detective Series 2

Police Constable “Dangerous” Davies (Peter Davison) returns for four more mysteries.

Overall, the series improved both in the quality of the writing and the quality of the cases given to Davies. His professional life is on the upswing as he does seem to be gaining some grudging respect from his boss.

At the same time, his personal life takes a hit. He has to temporarily vacate his rooming house and move in with his friend Mod (Sean Hughes). This creates tension in a relationship that’s mainly been supportive in Series 1. In addition, his estranged wife continues to be horrid. They’re separated, yet she calls him over to complete household repairs and to take the family dog at her convenience. She dates other men and tells him about it. She ignores him when he puts up clear hints that this is hurtful. She gets annoyed when he doesn’t want to hear details about the man she’s going to Paris with for the Easter Holiday.

Despite his griefs, at work Dangerous gets his killer in four separate cases:

Christine: Davies investigates the unexplained death of a lottery winner. The lottery winner had a trophy wife and a mentally challenged Haitian boy as his ward. This one is a good case. The character of Christine, the dead man’s wife, is fascinating. She’s dishonest and evasive, but why? We slowly come to understand her as the episode goes on. It’s a great character story and a good mystery to boot. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Long Bank Holiday: Davies has plans for the long Easter Holiday weekend while trying to help a local pharmacist, called a chemist in this show from Britain. Davies comes across numerous humans remains on the chemist’s property. Most of the department is busy processing the crime scene. This leaves him to solve several cases all on his own. Several of them interlink.

This one leaves me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I can appreciate the cleverness of the story. On the other hand, this is almost too clever. The story is far too busy and has way too many plotlines for a 70 minute TV show. A nice show, but it’s a bloated story. Rating: 3/5

Benefit to Mankind: Dangerous goes in for assertiveness training. On anyone else, it would lead to the character going too far and becoming a jerk. Davies is so non-assertive, it just helps him to show a healthy degree of assertiveness that’s required for the job and his personal life. In one case, he demands his wife give him his turn with the family dog. She typically only lets him have the dog when she doesn’t want it. The mystery will require the assertiveness as Davies investigates the apparent suicide of a researcher. Davies is stonewalled at every turn by the owners of the research firm. This episode is fun. The only dumb part is Mod’s awkward attempt to attract the attention of the woman teaching the assertiveness class. Rating: 4/5

Dangerous and the Lonely Hearts: Davies is called in to investigate when a young girl refuses to speak and can’t be identified. He discovers that she’s a refugee and locates the girl’s mother only to find her murdered. The best clue Davies has is the mother’s involvement in a lonely hearts club. He discovers one of the men she’d dated was his boss. The mystery is good and the story also features Davies trying to express his feelings to his wife in a beautifully acted scene by Peter Davison. The one big problem with the episode is that a character attempts suicide. This serves as a red herring but it’s never adequately explained. Rating: 4/5

Overall, this series isn’t perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed these episodes and they’re definitely worth a watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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DVD Review: Father Dowling Season Three


After a TV movie and two partial seasons, ABC gave the Father Dowling Mysteries a regular season of 22 episodes in 1990-91.

The same cast of regulars from Season 2 returned with Father Frank Dowling (Tom Boswell), Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson) investigating mysteries and Father Prestwick (James Stephens) and housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) providing comic relief.

The series maintained a pleasant, family friendly voice tone with likable characters. Steve does a lot of undercover work and handles most tasks well, but you don’t get the impression she’s unrealistically super competent in everything like during Season One.

Some of the past seasons had episodes that could more rightly be called “adventures”  than “mysteries,” but these are true mysteries. The plots are thought-out but never too intricate.

The one thing I did miss from Season Two was the little touches that made Father Dowling and Sister Steve seem more like a real Catholic priest and nun. Except as discussed below, they don’t do anything to cut against that idea other than the fact that the two can always run off to investigate a mystery.

My favorite episodes of this season is, “The Christmas Mystery.” It’s a nice mystery with a few suspect twists, but it’s a fun Christmas treat and there aren’t enough good Christmas mysteries out there. In, “The Moving Target Mystery,” a contract killer comes into Father Dowling’s confessional and confesses he was hired to kill him. He is backing out because he won’t kill a priest but somebody else will. It’s a good set up for a story.

The “Fugitive Priest Mystery,” finds Father Dowling on the run thanks to his evil twin Blaine, and he has to clear his name and find out what Blaine’s up to. “The Hard-Boiled Mystery,” is my favorite episode of the season. Father Dowling goes to have words with a writer who decided to write a story based on Father Dowling. It’s set during the 1930s with Dowling as a hard-boiled priest-detective. We flash from the present to the hard-boiled detective scenes and they’re absolutely hilarious.

On the downside,  some stories just didn’t work. After having an angel in Season 2, the writers decided, “How about having Father Dowling encounter the devil?” Thus we were given, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery.” What we get is a Hollywood version of the devil who is defeated by a plot ripped off from, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The story introduces an older brother for Steve and contradicts a previous season’s story featuring Steve’s younger brother. Further, it has the characters acting really out of character. It’s the worst episode of the series.

“The Consulting Detective Mystery,” is a bit of clunker. Father Dowling makes a deduction as to who committed a crime. He’s wrong, leading to an innocent ex-con losing his job. This leads to Sherlock Holmes appearing in order to restore Father Dowling’s confidence. It’s not a great setup and the actor playing Holmes doesn’t work. It’s not as bad as, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery,”  but it’s weak and poorly executed.

The rest of the box set is serviceable and fun. Father Dowling was never a big budget show, and it never featured television’s most clever mystery writers. It was a show you could enjoy with the whole family. Another reviewer described the show as “cute,” and I’ll go with that. This season, in particular, features Father Dowling and Sister Steve working to save a cute zoo monkey framed for murder. It’s easy viewing with a bit of nostalgia for simpler times thrown into the deal.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Pie in the Sky, Series 2

Series One of Pie in the Sky was a good enough series with a likable lead that, despite some weaker stories, left me hungry for more. In Series Two, Pie in the Sky really hits its stride.

The basic set up of Pie in the Sky is that Police Inspector Henry Crabbe (Richard Griffins) is ready to retire and focus on running a restaurant. Due to a mishap and a crooked partner, Crabbe ends up in line for a murder wrap. Assistant Chief Constable Fisher (Malcolm Sinclair) knows Crabbe’s innocent but holds the threat of an inquiry over Crabbe’s head to keep him on call. Crabbe spends most of his time running the restaurant Pie in the Sky, but when Fisher calls he goes into action to solve a case.

Series 2 manages to expand and clarify much of Series 1. Including giving a clear understanding of Crabbe on a very fundamental level. It only took a single sentence, but in a conversation with newly promoted Detective Sergeant Sophia Cambridge (Bella Enaharo) about the importance he placed on doing police work as opposed to a police career. That defines the difference between Crabbe and Fisher, whose entire focus is on career advancement. For Crabbe, each case is a job that must be worked well and solved correctly. For Fisher, cases are important based on how the outcome will advance his long-term career goals. While In Series One, Crabbe’s problem with other policemen was  vague. In Series Two, it firmly nailed down that it’s officers who are more concerned about advancing their career rather than actually getting things right.

It also explains why Crabbe is so suited to being a chef. The focus on quality work and getting the job done right is at the core of that position. And whereas his lack of attention to career left him in a rut on a police force, the attention to detail serves him well in the kitchen.

Of course, this does lead to some conflicts with his accountant wife Margaret (Maggie Steed) who is the legal owner of the restaurant  to satisfy a British legal requirement that wouldn’t let Henry own the restaurant as a policeman. It doesn’t help that she has no real taste for fine food and only sees how the bottom line can be improved. She doesn’t meddle all the time, but most often her efforts to change the business to make it more profitable cut against Henry’s overall ethic and good restaurant practices such as when she decided to start double booking tables to maximize the profits.

Yet, despite their differences or perhaps because of them, the Crabbes make a lovely middle-aged couple, balancing each other out. Both can be kind. While Henry’s heart of gold and decency is much more obvious, Margaret also shines in the series and the way they play off each other is fun to watch.

We do get some insight on Fisher. In the episode, “The Policeman’s Daughter,” Fisher has Crabbe look for his daughter who has fled to an enclave of drifters. We learn all Fisher really has is his career and that his wife cheats on him regularly and he has lost the respect of his daughter. Crabbe does his best to bring some sort of peace.

Cambridge received a promotion after the first series and this one focuses on the challenges of it. In one scene, another department tries to get her and Fisher fights the head of the other department over her and it becomes apparent she’s merely being used as a way for them to beef up their rankings for racial diversity. This contributes to the fact there are several instances where she doesn’t get respect for her achievements or rank that are due. It’s all done in an understated way though. She’s a still a very good character, but both she and Fisher are in this series less than in the first.

The staff of the restaurant was used more creatively. In the first series, Pie in the Sky was Crabbe’s refuge from trouble. Yet, in a bit of realism, the restaurant itself began to present some genuine problems, particularly when Crabbe had to step away to solve a case. He’d be in and out while his restaurant was in the hands of his twenty-something assistant chef and waitstaff and problems would develop that he would eventually have to solve. My favorite example of this is when they decided to switch out the classical musical Crabbe plays in the chicken coop for heavy metal music in order to get the chickens to lay more eggs. It actually works but with a side effect.

There’s also tension between the assistant chef Steve (Joe Duttine) and the head waiter John (Ashley Russell) as the former is an ex-con and the later is an experienced waiter from many highly regarded establishments. The rivalry mainly serves to show Crabbe’s sense of diplomacy.

The episodes are well-written. Each has a mystery at the core that’s well-crafted, but not so complex it doesn’t leave time for the comedy and drama of the episode. Some of the better ones include, “The One That Got Away,” where Crabbe has to stop a friend from being railroaded from the murder of his fiancee by an ambition Detective Inspector. In “Black Pudding,” Crabbe meets up with an elderly woman whose cookbooks he admires and finds her relatives are after her steamy memoirs. The “Mild Ones” finds Crabbe in pursuit of two elderly con-women who rip off people for thousands but leave behind an amazing recipe for bread pudding. In the “Mystery of Pikey,” some locals pressure Fisher to get Crabbe to investigate a series of minor local crimes. He gets results, but not what they would hope for.

The only weak episode of the series is the series finale, “Lemon Twist” that has Crabbe, Fisher, and Cambridge attending a management training conference. The premise is problematic as its hard to see why Fisher would send Crabbe as Crabbe is only working part time and has no interest in managing for the police or a long-term police career. The mystery is weak and there’s some humor around Crabbe that requires him to act out of character. The episode is not that bad, though. The restaurant plot has some genuinely funny moments after they earn a five star review from a nationally known food critic.

So, the worst episode of this series was but mediocre. The rest of the Series is pure gold. The stories are fun cozy mysteries with a lovable lead doing his best to bring peace and order in the kitchen and to whatever case he’s called to investigate.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Review: Elementary, Season Two

Season 2 of Elementary saw the modern-day Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) continuing to consult for the New York Police Department, with Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) as his junior partner who he is training in being a detective.

This season has them returning to London for one case and running into Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) who becomes a recurring character throughout the season.

The mysteries are solid, although they tend to take a fairly predictable turn of Holmes getting one or two incorrect solutions before arriving at the truth. The mysteries have a strong tendency towards intrigue and deep conspiracies as plot elements.

Probably the highlight of the season was their take on Inspector Lestrade (Sean Pertwee). In this story, Holmes’ assistance of Lestrade led to national notoriety. However, when that assistance ended due to Holmes’ drug use, Lestrade ended up on the downswing unable to cope with the unreasonable expectations set. It’s interesting exploration and Lestrade is a fun character with a nice little arc.

The series struggles on several fronts though. Of all modern Holmes adaptations, Elementary’s First Season featured the strongest supporting cast in Captain Gregson (Aiden Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill.) It really felt like we saw less of them, particularly Captain Gregson. Bell had a mini-arc in the season where Holmes’ arrogance caused an injury which nearly ended Bell’s career. This arc was interesting, although the resolution wasn’t particularly satisfying.

The biggest problem is the relationship dynamic between Holmes and Watson. In the traditional Holmes and Watson relationship, Holmes is exceedingly brilliant compared to Watson. Watson’s no fool, but he lacks the pure brilliance of Holmes. What Watson typically contributes is determination, physical courage, and a better understanding of how human beings work. He also has a great awe for his friend’s power.

This is where the decision to gender-swap the role of Watson becomes problematic. To have a woman as in awe of Holmes, and to have Holmes as superior to a woman partner, would be seen in today’s era as sexist.So the writers made Joan Watson a novice detective to become almost Holmes’ equal in deductive ability by the end of the season.

The problem with this approach is, for the Holmes/Watson dynamic to work, Holmes must be head and shoulder above all his compatriots, considering how hard he can be to work with. With difficult detectives of any gender, if they are just slightly above average compared to other detectives, why put up with the headaches of working with them?

To be honest, Holmes is often insufferable throughout this second season. He remains manipulative and self-absorbed. He harasses the family of a friend who died of a drug overdose after decades of sobriety and raises the possibility of foul play because he’s afraid of eventually relapsing himself. He’s rude with a lot of people who clearly didn’t deserve such mistreatment. (Editor’s note: no one deserves mistreated.) His story line this season is one of trying to keep Watson close, because he needs her for his well being and equilibrium.

What the season seems to show is she has no need for him. She is a strong, independent woman who makes her own choices, is her own person, and has no need for anyone. She needs the work but is perfectly capable of doing it without him by the season’s end.

The original Holmes and Watson dynamic was interdependent. They needed each other, and that’s the key to any dynamic joint detective program. Failing to capture this hurts the series.

Not helping it was a story arc woven through the season that seemed more Soap Opera than Sherlock Holmes where Watson had a relationship with Holmes’ brother because they could. The plot twists and turns were outrageous and seemed to be trying to compete with the bizarre and wild plot turns on the BBC Series Sherlock. While I’ve criticized many things about Sherlock, the series has an undeniable sense of style that allows it to pull of most of its wild plot turns. Elementary lacks that and so many of these plot ideas fall flat.

The series isn’t bad, particularly when it comes to its mysteries. Yet, Season 2’s fundamental problems with characters and characterization make it okay at best.

Rating: 3.0 outof 5.0

 

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