Category: DVD Review

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: We’re Off to Kill the Wizard

While visiting her niece somewhere in the Midwest, Jessica is invited to the opening of the latest amusement park by mogul Horatio Baldwin (James Coco) Baldwin wants to open a grisly theme park based on Jessica’s books, an offer Jessica refuses. Later Baldwin is found dead with a gun in his hand behind his locked office door. When the coroner finds he was killed by a blow to the head before the shot, the local police ask for her help.

What Works:

James Coco is marvelous as Baldwin. The first big scene is at a ceremony for Baldwin’s latest theme park where he plays a monk being hanged in a scene that’s played with perfect hammyness. Later, we get to see Baldwin as he tries to negotiate with Jessica. He treats everyone horribly, something Jessica doesn’t miss. When Jessica refuses his initial offer, he presses a button that locks the door so she can’t leave. When she threatens to press charges, he lets her go and sets out to dig up blackmail on her.

Jessica plays marvelously off Baldwin. She knows exactly who she is and what she’s about. Baldwin makes a great target for her moral indignation as his park is seeking to present violent and gory material to children. I thought it would be fun to watch these two battle over the course of the episode, but alas Baldwin was the designated corpse.

Jessica may have the best fan relations of any author ever. She not only signed Baldwin’s secretary’s book, but helped with the investigation to help clear herself as she disappeared after the crime was committed.

I also like the police motive for inviting her in. They’re neither in, “This is a police investigation, stay out” mode or “Please, we are helpless, solve the mystery,” mode instead Captain Davis (John Schruck) concludes that since they have a locked room mystery, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask a mystery writer for her opinion.

While this episode doesn’t have golden age Hollywood legends, the episode contains actors who appeared in other mystery series including Christine Belford (Banacek) and James Stevens (The Father Dowling Mysteries.)

What Doesn’t Work:

The killer came up with an ingenuous plan involving altering the office phones. Jessica is only able to solve the mystery because the killer stupidly failed to fix the phones, which is an inconsistency.

Speaking of inconsistent, there’s a bizarre detail put in by the writers. She disguises a roll of film as microfilm containing blackmail information collected by Baldwin and then announces that it was film from her vacation the previous year to Spain. It was jarring. Why would she take an undeveloped role of film from a trip year ago on a flight to see someone else? Why not just say it was from this trip to see her niece.

Overall:

“We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” is a well-done episode. Yes, the mystery has flaws and the story is not as fun after Baldwin is killed, but it manages to have some nice scenes of Jessica sleuthing mixed in with a few moments of light gunplay to keep the story engaging.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

f you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Hit, Run, and Homicide

In the middle of a baseball game at the Cabot Cove Founder’s Day Picnic, a car chases a wealthy out of town businessman, hits and disappears. Several witnesses testify that no one is driving. The same car then runs down the businessman’s partner.

The businessman claims they were there at the invitation of a disgruntled former employee Daniel O’Brien (Van Johnson) who wanted to meet with them. O’Brien is an inventor who had made plans for a driverless car and jumps to the top of the suspect’s list.

What Works

Murder by remote controlled vehicle is a novel murder method particularly for 1984.

Cabot Cove is very much a work in progress at this point as the show tries to grasp the feel of it. There’s a nice scene that captures the spirit of many small towns when a grocery store clerk points out O’Brien is an out of towner and Jessica points out that he’s lived there six years which leaves the clerk unimpressed.

It also feels like they’re still establishing Sheriff Tupper, who is a bit out of his depth about the whole case. I like the scene where Jessica provides him a gentle and respectful nudge that gets him to stop spinning his wheels.

O’Brien has a former colleague (June Allyson) as a house guest and the two have very\sweet chemistry together.

There’s a fun discussion about driverless cars and technology that’s fascinating if just a bit quaint for modern viewers in a time when driverless cars are starting to become a reality.

What Doesn’t Work

Let’s start with the murder. The business partner is killed on a road with two sides and he faced a choice. He could run up a hill with an impossibly high grade on his left or he could run down a hill into a forest filled with trees. Our victim chooses to run up the hill which he can’t climb and the car hits him, when if he had run into the forest he would have been fine.

While I can believe the victim panicked and did something stupid, it makes the killer’s plan look a bit haphazard because the whole thing could have been avoided with common sense.

In the scene that made the teaser for the episode, Jessica is trapped in the remote controlled car as it careens towards the edge of a cliff. It looks exciting but in context it makes little sense.

Tupper had spent an entire day searching for anywhere the car might have gone, hadn’t found it, and decided to go with the theory that a large truck had driven it away. Jessica points out there’s a place that Tupper hadn’t looked. Tupper refuses to go check, complaining about his budget, and so Jessica goes off by herself, finds the car, and gets inside it. The killer’s watching it an ominous van, remotely locks locks Jessica in, and guides the car down the highway, following it through Cabot Cove and heads it towards the edge of a cliff over the ocean…and then stops it.

This is a scene where nothing makes sense. Tupper was unrealistically stubborn. Jessica has no reason to get in the car and get behind the wheel. The killer had no reason to send Jessica on a scary ride through Cabot Cove unless they were going to kill her, which they weren’t.

It’s true the car needed to be found as part of the killer’s plan but once it was found, mission accomplished. They did the remote controlled chase for no good reason and exposed the van they were driving in to scrutiny. You can interpose your own reason for this such as equipment failure or the killer losing their nerve, but that’s the audience having to fix the writer’s mistake as you won’t find it in the episode.

The clue to solve the case is simple, but a little bit too simple. I pretty much had guessed the involved parties already but didn’t feel too smart for doing so.

Overall: This episode is flawed and continues an odd streak in Murder She Wrote’s first season where episodes set on the West Coast are way better than the East Coast stories.

Still, it’s got one of the more interesting premises so far and you also have June Allyson and Van Johnson bringing some golden age magic. So despite its flaws, this episode is far more entertaining than it deserves to be, and makes for good view.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Lovers and Other Killers

In “Lovers and Other Killers,” Jessica travels to Seattle as a guest lecturer at an University. While there she hires a young man named David Tolliver (Andrew Stevens) as her secretary to help her keep up with her writing. When Tolliver is accused of murdering an elderly woman, Jessica takes an interest in the case.

What Works

One recurring thing done in Television shows, movies, and comics of the area is that someone is that a man is looking for a Doctor, a scientist, or other important person and is given either their title and last name and initials and last name. They go to meet them and gasp (dramatic music)it’s a woman. Given that this trope is used so often, it’s interesting to see it reversed as Jessica is confused and a bit uncomfortable at a man applying to be her secretary.

I really enjoy Andrew Stevens as Tolliver. He plays the character just right. He’s got good looks and a certain amount of charm, but you also have a sense that this guy is bad news. He professes a lack of interest in women his own age, saying he prefers older women. His receipt of gifts and money from the woman who was killed are consistent with that of a gigolo, but he insists it was her way of making it up to him for causing a car accident. However, he also has a bit of a liar, so you can’t take that too seriously.

Jessica has mixed feelings on Tolliver. On one hand, she appreciates, his efficiency and seems to like him. On the other, she’s clearly uncomfortable at how familiar he gets with her. She arrives from a morning appointment to find him in her hotel room and tells him never to do that again. He does it later in the episode and claims to have forgotten.

However, Jessica continues to maintain that despite David being a conman, he’s not a killer. Yet, we’re given reason to doubt throughout. Is David really attracted to Jessica or is he a predator that she’s well-rid of? The answer is never spelled out in black and white, even by the time the episode ends.

Peter Graves put in a typically solid performance as an old flame of Jessica’s who’s now a college professor who is clueless that his long-time secretary is in love with him.

I also liked Jessica’s first lecture session as we got to see a little bit of Angela Lansbury’s acting versatility.

The plot is well-done with a lot of twists and mis-directions and a genuinely surprising reveal of the culprit. Jessica also faces more peril in this episode than in any other this season.

Other Notes:

When Jessica picked up at the airport she by Grave’s character, she’s hold a baby which she hands off to two nuns from China. Had nothing to do with the episode, but my wife pointed out. there’s a major story there.

The title of the episode is a play on the 1970 comedy film Lovers and Other Strangers, though nothing in the plot of that film seems to tie into this one.

Overall:

A very good episode. While the police foil isn’t great, there’s a bit of life in Greg Morris’ portrayal of Lieutenant Andrews. He’s mostly functional but that’s an upgrade over the unnamed Sheriff from last week.

And that functional performance is more than enough with a great mystery and solid work by Andrew Stevens and Peter Graves.

Rating:4.5 out of 5

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: It’s a Dog’s Life

While Jessica is visiting her horse-trainer cousin down South, her cousin’s wealthy employer dies and bypasses his money-grubbing relatives to leave the bulk of his estate to his beloved dog. The dog is then accused of biting a neighboring farmer and then the dog is accused of a bizarre murder.

What Works

Dan O’Herlihy is only in this a few minutes as the wealthy patriarch who dies, but he plays a likable if eccentric old guy who’s beset by vultures. His delivery and timing in the video gives maximum impact.

Jessica remains likable and shrewd in her method of solving the crime. Suspicion her cousin is the murderer gives her a solid incentive to be involved in the case.

While the whodunit is made obvious, the how and why of the murderer’s plan are more interesting and Jessica unravels those well.

With Southern stereotypes abounding in this episode, I appreciated a scene where one character told another to stop acting like a stereotypical hillbilly.

Fans of A Life in Your Hands will appreciate when Jessica acts as Amicus Curiae at a Coroner’s Inquest so she can confront the murderer in a Perry Mason style.

What Doesn’t Work

The episode does rely a bit on stereotypes of Southerners including the somewhat dense Deputy Sheriff.

While in each of the previous episodes, I’ve commented (mostly positively) on Jessica’s police foils, the Sheriff in this story doesn’t make any impression at all. He’s generic (we don’t even learn his name) and aloof, and little more than a dumb local cop Jessica has to clean up after.

The same could be said of most of the characters. Even good actors like Dean Jones and Forest Tucker are given little material to work with. Other than the deceased millionaire, no character stands apart from stereotypical murder suspects. The most interesting character is the supernaturally-obsessed Morgana (Cathryn Damon.) However, she could easily become annoying if overused.

The identity of the murderer was obvious with every red-flag clue calling out one person. It didn’t help that the will made the SPCA the secondary beneficiary if anything happened to the dog. So while I could believe most of the family would gladly kill a family member or frame a dog for a few hundred thousand dollars, the entire situation made motive less plausible. Though not much less plausible than the motive we were given.

Interesting Note:

Two former cast members from F-Troop: Tucker (Sergeant O’Rourke) and James Hampton (Corporal Dobbs) appear together in one scene.

Overall:

Did Murder She Wrote go to the dogs in this episode? No It’s a serviceable hour of mystery which highlights Angela Lansbury’s ability to engage even on a weak script.

However, this episode is the weakest so far. The script and characters feel mailed in when compared to more interesting and better-developed episodes that preceded it. Still, thanks to Lansbury, it still offers a decent forty-five minutes of entertainment.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

TV Series Review: Nero Wolfe (1981), Part Two

See Part One and my review of the 1979 Nero Wolfe TV Movie starring Thayer David which is included on the same DVD.

A Look at Nero Wolfe Episodes

Most TV versions, the two 1930s feature films, and the CBC radio series took the approach of adapting Nero Wolfe stories written by Stout. The Old Time radio versions of Nero Wolfe created original stories for Wolfe. The 1981 TV series is unique in that it chose to do both with six episodes based on Wolfe stories and eight original episodes.

The Adaptations

I’d split the six adaptations into three categories. The good, the bland, and the bad:

The Good:

This series features the only adaptations of “Might as Well be Dead,” and “Murder by the Book.” I enjoyed both of these novels, and was mostly pleased with the TV adaptation of them. The biggest challenge is the one hour format, which does lead to a lot of compression. Still, the essential story line from both books are transferred over quite nicely.

The Bland:

“Before I Die” was the only Nero Wolfe short story adapted and was an odd choice given the series’ contemporary setting. The original, “Before I Die” was set after V-E Day. In the heat of the war, Wolfe had patriotically refused to use black market meat. However, with the war all but over, rationing continued so enough meat could be provided for starving people in Europe. That didn’t seem like a good reason to skip his favorite cuts of meat to Wolfe, so he ends up becoming involved with in a dangerous dispute between two crime families to get black market meat. It’s a story with a lot of humorous and ironic moments.

Setting the story in 1981, that’s all lost and Wolfe’s involvement is more pedestrian. Thankfully, the underlying mystery has some pretty good twists, but it’s unflavored compared to the colorful original.

Death of a Doxy was adapted as, “What Happened to April?” where a woman with ties to one of Wolfe’s investigators is murdered. As Orrie Cather was not in this TV series and Saul Panzer was Wolfe’s only freelance operative on TV, the story was changed for TV to have Panzer accused. Unlike in the book, the relationship between Panzer and the murdered woman was strictly platonic.

Most of the key plot ideas from “Death of a Doxy” was carried over to the TV episode. However, the story was sucked of all of its flavor. The character of Julie Jaquette, one of the most interesting characters Wolfe ever met up with, is nowhere to be seen in the TV show.

I can understand why certain elements of the original story were changed as “Death of a Doxy” was a darker story. However, that doesn’t excuse the changes as they have chosen one of the many Wolfe stories that could be done justice on 1981 network television.

The Bad
Adapting In the Best Families was the weirdest decision made on this series. “In the Best Families” was the third novel in the Zeck trilogy. In it, after crime boss Arnold Zeck interferes with yet another Wolfe case, Wolfe leaves the brownstone, apparently retiring and ordering his home sold. Archie is ticked off by this and starts his own private detective agency and runs it until Wolfe returns, having lost a ton of weight, grown a beard, and infiltrated Zeck’s criminal organization in disguise.

The problems with adapting this story are multitude, particularly for this series. First, without the first two novels, the extreme nature of the housebound Wolfe’s actions are not justified. Those first two novels are vintage stories. One deals with an old time radio program, the other includes Wolfe exposing a Communist in part of his plan to catch the murderer. You would have to make a lot of changes to fit these into 1981. In addition, you have to get rid of the weight loss element since the actors old enough to play Wolfe will struggle to lose a large amount of weight quickly. Of course, to do this story right, you would need at least two episodes for this story as well as episodes to build up to it.

What we get instead is a one-hour adaptation of, “In the Best Families” where Zech’s character is renamed to Arnold Dorso. Like in the novel, after Dorso attacks the Brownstone, Wolfe abandons ship and announces his retirement. Since Dorso and Wolfe have no history, this makes little sense. However, instead of embarking on a cunning scheme to bring down Dorso, Wolfe goes undercover as a chef at his favorite restaurant, Rusterman’s.

Wolfe’s TV brilliant plan involves Archie pretending the hours that have passed since Wolfe abandoned him have made Archie willing to take on a life of crime. The story then continues mostly according to the basic plot of the book, but with all the changes, the plot is nonsensical and Dorso looks likes a colossal fool.

If “In the Best Families” succeeded at anything, it was making the mystery more interesting. In the book, after Wolfe left, the mystery of who committed the murder was put to the side and dealt with in a perfunctory manner at the end. However, in the TV adaptation, Wolfe’s ruse takes less time and is nonsensical, so the solution to the mystery is more interesting by comparison. In addition, Conrad does a bang up job delivering it. Both he and the murderer were standing (contrary to Wolfe’s typical M.O) but here it works like a charm as the shots are beautifully framed. The denouement of the episode was a nice end to what had been a train wreck of an episode.

“The Golden Spiders” started out well with the visit of a local neighborhood kid to see Nero Wolfe that found Archie letting the boy in just to annoy Wolfe. However, the boy has a tip on a potential case that gets Wolfe interested and Wolfe agrees to split any reward. The boy is hit by a car with clear evidence that he knew something. Wolfe begins to investigate and unravel the complex web of lies around the events.

The biggest change is one I can understand. Unlike in the book, the boy lives. In fact, not only does he live, he makes an appearance in the last episode of the series. I can understand you couldn’t broadcast a mystery in 1981 where a child is killed. It’s an upsetting idea, and it’s always a challenge when adapting The Golden Spiders.

However, this episode was the most hurt by the decision to adapt Nero Wolfe novels into one-hour episodes. The story is confusing and poorly paced, and includes a sex-related twist that wasn’t in the book and comes out of nowhere on TV.

The Original Stories

I much preferred the stories original to the TV series over the adaptations. I won’t list all of them, but they slot comfortably under the category, “Typical 1980s Mystery fare.”  Two episodes, “Gambit” and “Death and the Dolls” got technical Emmy Nominations.

I enjoyed seven of the eight of the original stories. The most interesting of them were, “The Blue Ribbon Hostage,” “Death and the Dolls,” and “Gambit.”

In “Blue Ribbon Hostage,” a burglar breaks into Wolfe’s orchid room and makes off with his most expensive orchid. He shows up to blackmail Wolfe into helping clear him of a murder charge in exchange for the return of the orchid. I love the concept of this story, it’s a plot I could imagine Rex Stout writing.  The mystery is clever and the relationship between the burglar and his ex-wife is kind of sweet. The story does have a somewhat unrealistic consequence of the kidnapping, but otherwise this is an exciting episode.

“Death and the Dolls” opens with a rich man getting on a yacht and it being blown up. The man’s daughter comes to Wolfe suspicious her father was murdered by his new young wife. (Christine Belford, Banacek) This is a clever story with a pretty surprising conclusion.

In “Gambit” (no relation to the Wolfe Novel of the same name, ) the Brownstone is taken over by a man who fought in Wolfe’s unit in World War II and who Wolfe had reported for betraying the unit. The man had gotten into the Brownstone several times by pretending to be various repair people and interacting with a different member of the household on each visit and going with a slight disguise (only one of which was obvious.) This is a suspense-filled episode as Wolfe’s own house is turned against all of its inhabitants and the episode does have a few nice surprises.

My least favorite original episode was, “Sweet Revenge”  which has a criminal that Archie and Wolfe put away back out and seeking revenge. After “Gambit” and “In the Best of Families,” this was the third episode in a fourteen episode series that featured someone coming after Wolfe or Archie which makes this repetitive. The key to the mystery is realizing the villain is wearing a ridiculous disguise. I give the episode credit for giving us a rare dose of real Archie-Wolfe tension even though the execution is only so-so.

Series  Evaluation:

Some TV shows are so bad, it’s painful to watch. Nero Wolfe isn’t one of them. While a lot in this series is not true to the books, this series can be enjoyed in the same manner as the 1951 radio series, which had many deviations from how Wolfe operated in the books.

In general, I find myself in agreement with Peter Boyer of the Associated Press, “I know, I know, the show pales next to The Rockford Files. But I’ve tried it a couple of times and I think there’s a good TV series there, obscured, admittedly, by some inane scripts.”

In his biography written by Charles Tranberg, William Conrad is quoted as saying, “I was really excited about doing a show called Nero Wolfe. I thought it couldn’t fail. Here we had one of the most popular characters in mystery fiction; everybody has read a Rex Stout novel. The books still sell, although they were written 50 years ago. But do you know how long we lasted? Just 13 weeks. Try to figure that one out.”

The  reason Nero Wolfe didn’t come back was it was broadcast in the 1980s. From the late 1960s on until the late 1980s, Americans were treated to many popular detective and police shows. The glut of options meant many fine detective shows didn’t make it due to the stiff competition. Good series like Ellery Queen and Hawkins only lasted a single season and those series had far fewer issues than Nero Wolfe. In addition, Nero Wolfe was  expensive to film, and it wasn’t going to get a chance to recover from a sub-par start.

The series is worth watching for fans of Nero Wolfe. You get to see the best representation of Wolfe’s orchid room on film, adaptations of two Nero Wolfe stories that haven’t been done elsewhere, and assorted Easter eggs. In addition, the original to the TV series episodes represent new Nero Wolfe stories, some of which are good. Give the DVD set comes with a made-for-TV movie adaptation of The Doorbell Rang, the DVD is a solid buy.

If you don’t care much about Nero Wolfe, but like TV detective shows from this era, this isn’t a bad series, but there are too many better ones to buy.

Overall, I’ll give the DVD box set a dual rating of satisfactory and a numeric rating of 3.5 out of 5.

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

 

a