Category: DVD Review

Streaming Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a throw-back as a big-screen murder mystery. This is the type of film made all the time during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the sixties and seventies, these sort of films began to feature all-star casts such as Murder in the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun.

Then, the big-screen detective faded in popularity and murder mysteries became almost exclusively the province of television. There have been exceptions over the years, but in general, the murder mystery has been replaced by more Thrillers at the box office or occasionally we’ll see Sherlock Holmes re-imagined as a steampunk action film.

What Knives Out offers is an original, modern day American murder mystery that feels a lot like Agatha Christie. Mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his mansion the night after his birthday party. He informed family members that he was going to be making some changes to the financial arrangements that his family members enjoy, including to his will. The physical evidence points to a suicide, however Louisiana-based Benoit Leblanc (Daniel Crag), “the last of the gentlemen sleuths” has been hired to investigate the case by an anonymous client. Due to his reputation, the local police take a second look at the case and find that all is not as it seems.

Daniel Craig is good at playing this eccentric detective. There’s a touch of Columbo that has most of the household not taking him as seriously as they should. He has many quirks to his method, plus great human touches. He calls to mind Hercule Poirot. The accent is only so-so, but to be fair some Poirot actors are a bit dodgy.

Ana de Armas has a lovable turn as Marta, the dead man’s nurse and his best friend who Benoit designates as his Watson, as he has a hint that she knows far more than she’s letting on.

We also have a supporting cast with Hollywood mainstays like Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and lesser known competent character actors, and some younger actors who know what they’re doing.

The mystery itself is something right out of a classic mystery novel and while the plot is complicated, some might say convoluted, it’s played out and resolved with a wonderful sense of style.

While this has a lot of throwbacks, it’s still set in the modern day and also includes enough modern touches to make the story work. In a lot of old detective stories, the victim is a really horrible person to nearly everyone they met. Here, I think there’s more nuance. Harlan does things that makes his family angry and provides good murder motives, but he’s still a decent guy whose actions are taken out of an abundance of concern. He’s actually an interesting person who has complex relationships. The main characters are handled pretty well in that regards.

The family is also a nice mix of modern day characters. They reflect a lot of aspects of society, including the current political divides, but the movie resists the urge to paint some family members as better based on politics or cultural alignment. In fact, with most of the family, it just means that they are equally horrid but in different ways.

There are also some great camera techniques that are used to enhance our enjoyment of the story without overwhelming us with CGI effects. It’s a well-balanced mix of classic and modern storytelling.

If I have one issue with the story, it’s that Marta has an unusual tell that means she throws up when she lies. I’m not a fan of gross out humor, and it was used to facilitate a couple of the laziest writing moments in the film.

Beyond that, this is good. This is a recent Hollywood film that lives up to its hype and I can only hope its success will lead to more films like it.

Based on its returns, I’m hopeful. It grossed $320 million at the box office. That’s not Marvel Movie money, Ant Man and the Wasp grossed $622 million the same year. However, Knives Out did this with a $40 million budget, which is 1/4-1/5 of Ant Man and the Wasp. Knives Out shows there’s still an audience for a well-made and well-written detective movie.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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DVD Review: The Complete PRC Michael Shayne Mystery Collection


Most of the Michael Shayne films from the first half of the 1940s starring Lloyd Nolan have been on DVD for years. This DVD features five films released in 1946 and ’47 starring future Ward Cleaver actor Hugh Beaumont as Michael Shayne.

The earlier films were B pictures for Fox, however the Hugh Beaumont films were poverty row pictures, with low budgets and generally dodgy acting with no-name casts.

The restoration is phenomenal. While the typical poverty row picture from original prints looks grainy and even unwatchable, these films look superb, given the source material. The production team on the release went to a lot of work to make these look as good as possible. Given I watch so many DVDs of older material where it looks like a straight transfer was done to get them out and start taking money, I was really impressed.

Hugh Beaumont elevates the quality of these films. The ordained minister who would go on to play Beaver’s dad is miscast. But Beaumont’s an actor and pulls this off. An annoying lead can wreck one of these films. (See George Montgomery in the Philip Marlowe “B” film The Brasher Doubloon.

The films are helped by having good underlying stories. The Fox Shayne films adapted one of Britt Halliday’s Shayne novels. All five of the PRC films were adapted  from Shayne novels. Halliday was great at constructing mystery plots and these transfer over well when the producers don’t tinker with them too much.

In the course of five films, Beaumont was paired with three different actresses as Phyllis Hamilton. Hamilton was a composite of Shayne’s wife Phyllis in the novel and Lucy Hamilton, who became Shayne’s secretary after his wife died. Cheryl Walker played the role in three films, Kathryn Adams in Blonde for a Day, and Trudy Marshall in Too Many Winners.  Walker and Adams did fine in the role, but I found Marshall irritating, though it’s hard to tell whether it was the screenwriting or her acting, but she was a negative on that film.

The rest of the supporting actors range from competent to awful, reflecting the sort of variety seen on these hour-plus-long poverty row films.

As to individual films, Murder is My Business, Three on Ticket, and Too Many Winners were decent to good films with Murder is My Business being the best. Larceny in Her Heart was based on the novel Bodies are Where You Find Them which was going to be a difficult novel to adapt in this format due to its complex political subplot, which does get reduced to confusing nonsense. In addition, in the novel, Shayne’s wife Phyllis heads to New York and isn’t heard from again. In this movie, Phyllis returns in the middle of the movie and adds a plot complication that the film didn’t have time for.

Blonde for a Day is undermined by weak acting apart from the leads and once again is too complicated for the limited run-time of the film, though I did find it more visually pleasing than when I first rented a non-restored version off Amazon a few years back.

While Too Many Winners was not my favorite, it’s the most noteworthy. As part of the plot, Mike and Phyllis are planning a duck-hunting vacation which is disrupted by the mystery and the movie is obsessed with this point, even using drawings of Mike and Phyllis duck-hunting in the opening credits. This film also featured the most recognizable actors to appear outside of Beaumont in the entire series. John Hamilton (aka Perry White from The Adventures of Superman) and also veteran TV and film character actor Ben Weldon who has 249 acting credits on his IMDB profile.

Given two of the movies aren’t good, it’s hard for me to recommend the set for everyone. However, if you love Michael Shayne books, are a fan of Hugh Beaumont, or if you like poverty row, B-movie mysteries and would like to see a well-restored production, this could be worth checking out.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Cannon/Barnaby Jones: The Deadly Conspiracy

A young woman who works at an oil company calls a congressional staffer promising to blow the whistle on her employer. This is overheard by the head of public relations who plots her death. A wine delivery man with a record is set up at the patsy for raping and killing the woman.

Frank Cannon (William Conrad) is hired by the an attorney for the accused, while the Congressional staffer hires Barnaby Jones (Buddy Ebsen), thus setting up a rare crossover between two TV detectives. Cannon had appeared in Barnaby Jones’s first episode.  Both programs were produced by Quinn Martin who used Cannon’s presence to jumpstart Barnaby Jones. Here the two detectives have both been on multiple seasons and would in effect be sharing star billing and solving the case together. 

This is a good story. Like many Quinn Martin detective shows, it was not a whodunit. Who is pretty clear from the start. However, there are all kinds of mysteries to solve along the way such as why, and what the goal of the titular “Deadly Conspiracy” is.

I liked a lot about the conspiracy. Their goal is complex, but it makes sense and also seems realistic and believable. While the conspirators are willing to kill for their goals, unlike other villains, they don’t just kill. They’re able to throw roadblocks in front of our heroes in ways that don’t involve homicide, which I think makes for a more interesting plot.

Both Conrad and Ebsen are given a chance to shine, and overall the team is very well-balanced with both playing nearly equal parts in the action and detective work. The guest cast is a notch above the typical guest cast with a lot of recognizable  actors including Diana Douglas and Francis De Sales.  Barry Sullivan shines as the chief villain.

There are two versions of the story available. The Season 5 DVD of Cannon contains a modified version of the story that’s trimmed down to a single episode of Cannon with an alternate (and in my opinion inferior) ending. The Season 4 DVD of Barnaby Jones collects both episodes and I recommend that version. While several episodes of existing programs were backdoor pilots for possible detective programs, this was the only crossover episode for two established 1970s Detective programs. It does its job well and deserves to be seen in its complete form.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

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Film Review: The Body Vanished

The Body Vanished is a 1939 British film where a vacationing Scotland Yard detective inspector and his reporter chum stumble across a mystery at a country house where the butler discovers a body, which then disappears.

I was able to watch this film for free on Amazon Prime. It’s a fun comedy mystery and seems to be a Quota Quickie, which adds up to the equivalent of an American B movie. This works better than your average American “B” picture. While it is low budget and some of the characters are a bit broad, the actors all know their business.

I admire the economy of the story telling. This is 15-20 minutes shorter than an American “B” film and that makes it a better movie because the story moves at a faster pace and avoids the more annoying padding you’d see in many of the American “B” films of the era.

This is by no means a classic, or a must-see film. It is a competently done black and white mystery that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you like B-movies or simple light comedy mysteries, this will be an entertaining enough use of 46 minutes, so it’s worth checking out.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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