Category: DVD Review

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

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