Category: DVD Review

Telefilm Review: Cannon: Nightmare

The Season 5 premiere of Cannon from 1975 opens with a hitman being gunned down while trying to escape from prison. His wounds are fatal and he summons Cannon (William Conrad) to his bedside to confess to having murdered his wife and son by running them off the road. The criminal isn’t able to explain why the contract was put out before he died except that he stated that Cannon’s wife was a prostitute.

After an angry scene outside the killer’s room, Cannon realizes, while he’d always thought an old enemy of his had been responsible, his wife had been killed in a case of mistaken identity. He sets out to find the intended victim in order to flush out the man who hired the killer.

This episode feels different from the rest of the series. Usually Cannon is a genial, professional, and wise investigator who can  be intimidating when he has to be and can always handle himself well in a fight. Here Cannon is very much on edge. He’s relentless and with far less tolerance for nonsense than usual. He’s a man whose long-buried grief and rage is waiting to boil over. At one point, Cannon seems to realize he’s going too far and backs off. And the confrontation with the killer is intense.

Throughout his career, Conrad was mostly cast as “cops” or “heavies,” but when he was given something good to sink his teeth into (such as on Nightbeat or the radio version of Gunsmoke) he showed time and time again, that he was as good as any actor of his time. This story is no exception as he brings new dimensions to his portrayal of Cannon. 

The story itself is well-written. Despite being set in the 1970s, the story has a noirish feel that works well for it. The rest of the cast other than Conrad is little better than competent but with a story that gives Conrad so much to work with, that’s all that’s necessary.

If I had one complaint, it would be that the series didn’t  lay the foundation for this story at all. I remember (vaguely) in an early episode that it was mentioned that Frank Cannon’s wife had died, but this wasn’t Monk where the death of the hero’s wife was front and center throughout the series. The episode does offer a bit of an explanation for this as the death occurred fourteen years previous (nine years before the start of the series) and that Cannon had stuffed his emotions while trying to move on. This is shown through his visit to his former father-in-law, who he hadn’t spoken to in years. It’s implied on some level, that was part of his efforts to put the tragedy behind him.

Overall, if you’re a fan of William Conrad or 1970s Noir-style stories, this is a stand-out episode that is well-worth watching.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Streaming Review: Philip Marlowe, Private Eye: Season 2

In the 1980s, Powers Boothe starred in the HBO series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, a series based on Raymond Chandler’s short stories featuring Marlowe (or other detective characters Chandler created who were indistinguishable from Marlowe.

The second season is available for viewing on Amazon Prime and features two stories that were released as Marlowe stories in the collection Trouble is My Business as well as four others.

Boothe plays the lead and delivers a solid performance. However, some great actors have taken on this role, including Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Gerald Mohr. I wouldn’t put Boothe in their league. There are moments where it  feels like he’s trying too hard to create an effect of being a hard-boiled private eye and those are the moments where I find myself taken out of the story. That said, there have been worse takes on Marlowe, and I think Boothe works more often than not in this season.

The rest of the cast was fairly solid and believable. The main guest stars turned in good performances (including a young Robin Givens) and the supporting players all felt authentic.

The costume designs are great and did a superb job of capturing the era. On the other hand, compared to other period productions of the era, the sets and cinematography are pretty unremarkable. Nothing takes you out of the story with obvious anachronisms from the 1980s in the 1930s sets, but they also don’t evoke the era. They feel more like settings that existed unchanged from the 1930s to the 1980s.

The real highlight for many are the stories by Chandler. If you want to see adaptations of most of these stories, this is the only way to see them. As far as I know, four of them weren’t even adapted to radio. What comes across as a bit of a cheap feel for most of the production does work pretty well in telling the stories of the mean streets that Chandler does.

So overall, this isn’t close to being the best on-screen Marlowe presentation or production, but the trappings do well enough to be able to communicate some great overlooked hardboiled tales from the pen of Raymond Chandler, which makes this series worth checking out for fans of Philip Marlowe.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Movie Review: The Great Rupert (aka The Christmas Wish)

In The Great Rupert/The Christmas wish, an animal trainer has trained a tamed squirrel named Rupert to wear a tiny kilt and tam and dance. However, a broadway agent informs him that the squirrel isn’t “box office” because he is too small to be seen in a Broadway show. This is the animal trainer’s last chance before he’s evicted from the shack leaning against the fancy home of his landlord (Frank Orth-Inspector Farraday from the TV version of Boston Blackie). He releases his tamed squirrel into a local park, but the squirrel struggles to survive in the wild, so he returns home and takes up residence in a hidey-hole between the shack and the landlord’s fancy home.

The story is actually about a down-on-their-luck Vaudeville family with the father, Louie, played by Jimmy Durante. It’s Christmastime, they only have forty cents for a tree, and they can’t afford shoes for their daughter (Terry Moore). At the same time, the miserly landlord learns that his gold mine investment has paid off and that each week he will be receiving $1,500 (about $16,000 in today’s money.)

With bad memories from the 1929 crash, he doesn’t trust banks, so he hides his cash upstairs in a hole in the wall, unaware Rupert has built his nest right behind it. The money takes up space the squirrel is storing nuts in, so he dumps the money out, above a hole in the shack’s roof, which the money falls through just as Louie’s wife (Queenie Smith) is praying. Christmas is saved and so is the rest of the year as the landlord keeps putting money in like clockwork and Rupert keeps tossing it out to Louie’s family, who are unwittingly paying their rent with the Landlord’s own money.

There’s a lot to like about the movie. Rupert was a stop-motion animation. For the times, he looks really life-like and cute.

Louie is mostly a typical Jimmy Durante character: positive, upbeat, and a lot of fun. Yet there were a few moments when he’d acknowledge the problems he’s facing. It makes the character someone who understands life’s challenges but faces them with laughter and a positive attitude rather than a crazy screwball character. Queenie Smith gave a sweet, down-to-earth performance and played well opposite of Durante.

While the story is light and fun, it does have some interesting ideas at its core. It asks what money is for and fundamentally how you approach the rest of the human race, Louie and his landlord have different approaches and it’s interesting to see how they play out over the course of the film. Again, this is done without being heavy-handed.

There’s some nice music here. A Christmas Party sets up a couple signature Durante piano numbers, including one wishing Christmas came twice a year, and a piece called Melody for Two Orphan Instruments.

The film does have its flaws. The original title, The Great Rupert, isn’t a good choice as Rupert is only the focus of the film at the beginning and toward the end. It’s often sold under the title The Christmas Wish, which makes far more sense. The plot does sag a bit in the middle before the final act and some of its resolution is too pat by modern standards. Still, this is a fun film with a sweet feel. It makes nice viewing around Christmas or any other time you want to escape the cynicism of our modern world.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Note: This film is in the public domain and is available at numerous sources on DVD, but is also available for free download through the Internet Archive.

DVD Review: Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2:Rare Pilots

This DVD collects four unaired pilots of 1950s television shows.

The first is a pilot for Racket Squad starring Reed Hadley as Captain Braddock. In general, if you’ve seen an episode of Racket Squad, then you have a good idea of what this episode is like as it shows how con men set up a clever scheme to rip off the mark. If there’s any difference between this episode and the series proper, it’s that Captain Braddock is a little harsher to the victim, greeting him with, “Hello, sucker.” Still, it’s an entertaining half-hour of television.

Second is Cool and Lam. After the success of Perry Mason, network officials decided to give another Erle Stanley Gardener detective a chance and so they adapted the story of detective team Bertha Cool (Benay Vanuta) and Donald Lam (Bill Pearson). I enjoyed this one. There’s good humor and a decent mystery. This a series I wish had been picked up.

A bit of an oddball in this collection featuring crime dramas is the 1948 pilot for The Life of Riley. The series had been a successful radio program starring William Bendix. However, due to Bendix’s movie contract, he wasn’t able to reprise the role over television. We get to see the first choice to play Riley over television instead–horror movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr.

The pilot is historically significant. It was a taped program back in 1948 when live Kinescopes would dominate early television for the better part of five years. However, the big problem was Lon Chaney playing Riley. He  wasn’t cut out for the part. The TV script was based on a radio script and Chaney tried to play it like Bendix did and it just doesn’t work.

His delivery is flat and uninspired. When Jackie Gleason became the first TV Riley in 1949, he gave it his own spin. I’m not a huge fan of his approach, but at least he realized he couldn’t be Bendix.

Note we get to see John Brown as Digger O’Dell, the undertaker, often heard on the radio program. I have mixed feelings on this because Digger is such a broad character. I imagine him walking around with a black mustache and black coat and being tall. However, John Brown just looks like an ordinary guy in an ordinary suit. So that was a bit jarring.

The final pilot is 1959’s Nero Wolfe starring Kurt Kazner as Wolfe and William Shatner as Archie Goodwin. Shatner is a great choice for Archie, bringing great charisma to the role. Kaszner is an interesting choice for Wolfe. Kaszner was Austrian born. Having a European play Wolfe is closer to the book than most other portrayals of Wolfe which ignore the fact that he was from the Eastern Europe country Montenegro. William Shatner brings that swagger that’s a requirement to play Archie Goodwin and is pretty fun to watch. The plot was decent. Wolfe solved this case mostly from reading the newspaper and that was clever. Though the episode wasn’t based on the Wolfe stories by Rex Stout, it captured the spirit of them nicely.

On the other hand, this was a series that would have needed to be an hour rather than the pilot’s half-hour length. The episode was a bit bare-bones and lacked the style I associate with a Wolfe story or any of Wolfe’s and Archie’s supporting cast. Kaszner wasn’t quite big enough to play Wolfe which the wardrobe seemed to try to make up for by putting him in clothes that were a bit too big, which doesn’t work. Also, Wolfe has a cold in the pilot and is stuck in bed, which is a weird thing for a pilot to do as its establishing what a normal episode is like.

The bonus feature with this set is a not-for-air blooper reel that was sent out by CBS to managers of its affiliates, featuring many bloopers and flubbed lines. The programs featured are mostly Westerns, but with the Twilight Zone and The Red Skelton Show. I will warn that this is not really for kids. The unscripted bad language is not censored, so it’s PG-13 stuff.

Overall, for those interested in classic television, this set does offer some fun rarities. While this wasn’t the best the 1950s had to offer in television, it’s a mostly entertaining look at what might have been.

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Telefilm Review: Magnum, P.I.: Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii

Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii is the premier episode of Magnum PI. It aired on December 11, 1980, eleven months after the last episode of The Rockford Files aired leaving television without a top private investigator.

In the episode, Magnum (Tom Selleck)goes to pick up an old Navy buddy only to find he’s been murdered and posthumously accused of trafficking. cocaine. Magnus sets out to clear his friend’s name.

What Works:

Tom Selleck would win both an Emmy and a Golden Globe in the course of his eight season on the show. Here, we get a good sample of why. He delivers acting that’s above and beyond what you expect from a private detective show.

He’s helped by a script that does a superb job introducing Magnum and setting him up as an interesting and complex character. On a superficial level, he seems like a lighter character than James Rockford’s work-a-day private eye, with his own place on the grounds of writer Robin Masters’ palatial Hawaiian estate, but it’s more complex than that.

Magnum served in Vietnam and was a Navy Seal and in Navy Intelligence. He explained his reason for leaving the military, briefly: “One day, I woke up age thirty-three and realized I’d never been twenty-three.” Magnum and his friends had spent their youth getting shot at in a war zone and there’s this sense of him hoping to recapture something he lost.

Yet, he also has a sense of honor and decency. This first story has him trying to solve the murder of a friend and restore his good name. Magnum also resists the advances of his friend’s sister because he doesn’t want to take advantage of her. Magnum was a bit of a maverick in the Navy and is glad to be out of it. However, there’s a hint the Navy’s not entirely out of him when he describes a helicopter surveillance flight as “a mission.”

John Hillerman is fun as Higgins, even though his initial take on Higgins seems to be a bit more broadly British than I remember from my times watching Magnum as kid. We get some great scenes between Higgins and Magnum which help set the stage for  the most consistently interesting character relationship of the series. We also get to see Higgins go into action towards the end of the episode.

Rick (Larry Manetti) is kind of interesting and I like the idea of him having a Casablanca fixation and a real first name he would rather not share. It’s a shame they didn’t go ahead with the Casablanca stuff in the original series.

Beyond that, the series has most everything I really liked about the program as a kid and I still like as an adult: the Ferrari, the helicopter, and that theme music which practically screams adventure. On top of that, there’s some nice Hawaiian scenery although that’s not the main focus.

What Doesn’t Work:

The solution became somewhat obvious during a flashback sequence. It became painfully obvious when Magnum flew over the criminal’s boat. While the mystery itself isn’t bad, it could have landed a lot smoother and been a bit more challenging.

Also, T.C. (Roger Mosley) is mostly functional in this episode. We don’t know a whole lot about him at this point other than that he served in the Marines with Rick and together they served with Magnum in Vietnam. Of course, this may have been based on audience needs. When I watched Magnum growing up, the fact T.C. flew a helicopter alone made him cool and likable. As an adult, I’d like his character to be better developed, but I can’t work up too much annoyance over the fact it isn’t due to the nostalgia factor.

Overall:

Magnum, P.I. began its eight season run with an emotionally compelling case that did a great job establishing its main character and setting the tone for the rest of the series. Magnum can be considered the successor to Rockford Files. Magnum also laid the groundwork for the A-Team, another series featuring Vietnam vets back home as action heroes.

As a pilot, this is rock solid. While this isn’t good as it gets for Magnum, P.I., it’s a terrific opener that does nearly everything you could ask for.

Rating 4.25 out of 5

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