The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.

28Mar/150

TV Series Review: Broadchurch Series 1


In the first series of Broadchurch from 2013, a small English town is shaken by the death of eleven year old Danny Lattimer (Oskar McNamara) and Alex Hardy (David Tennant), a detective inspector newly arrived in Broadchurch and lifelong local Detective Seargeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) are charged with investigating the case, and along the way they unearth many buried secrets of Broadchurch’s citizens.

While Tennant is the best known star in the series internationally, it’d be a mistake to assume that this a series about the investigators alone or primarily a David Tennant vehicle. The series is just not about the mystery, though there are plenty of clues and red herrings, but how this affects an entire community and then there are separate plots that work their way through Broadchurch: How the family handles this as well as learning of the husband’s infidelity, a discouraged minister, an ambitious young reporter, a self-proclaimed psychic telephone repairman, and then the suspects: some are hiding something, but in a few cases, we learn that people we've been suspecting have only been trying to hide a very painful past. It's not a story with disposable characters.

As such, the middle four episodes feel like an ensemble piece and a very good one at that. What Broadchurch does is make characters who feel like real people.  There are secrets but most of them aren't off the wall things. There's real human conflict at work.

My favorite character outside of the leads was Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill of Doctor Who) who was really revealed to be a strong character despite starting off looking much more like

In the hands of an amateur or a weak creative team, this type of story becomes a mess of characters running around. At the same time, the series succeeds on a directorial level. The way the story of Broadchurch is told is superb and nearly flawless with music, acting, and storytelling working together to tell a narrative. This is brilliant filmmaking and art on television which is just not something you see.

The mystery is good, although it's probably the weakest part of the series. There are a lot of clues and red herring thrown in throughout the series. It's hard to sort through, and the most important clues are ones that Alex Hardy knows but doesn't share with the audience. Still, there are a few clues to the killer that the attentive viewer can pick up.

While this is a great series, it's one that really requires parental discretion and is definitely not for the whole family.  The series deals with serious issues that surround the death of a child and what could motivate it. While it was produced for broadcast television, it was produced for British broadcast television which has different standards than broadcasts in other countries. There's very little sexual content or  violence  but some language that would not make it on American broadcast television.  For the most part, , the use of these elements in the series were not gratuitous which is a tribute to the talent of the creative team to tell a good story.

Overall, this is a great example of what Television can be but so often isn't.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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21Mar/150

Book Review: Playback


While the second to last Philip Marlowe novel was the longest, the last was the shortest, coming in at about 170 pages in its most recent reprint.

In it, Marlowe is hired by an attorney to follow a woman with very little explantion. He follows her to Esmerelda, a fictionalized version of LaJolla.

There Marlowe encounters blackmail and a corpse that disappears from the balcony of the woman he was hired to follow.

All things considered, this is a book that I wish Raymond Chandler hadn’t bothered to right. The beginning is promising, but 2/3 through the story begins to collapse.

Chandler, at his finest wrote involved and complex tales of mystery. There was always more than meets the eye to a Chandler mystery. Here, there is far less. I literally said out loud, "That's it!" and tossed the book aside until my determination to finish books I start compelled me to read on.

Chandler's characters are also far flatter than in previous works. You won't find any characters who approach the level of those in other novels. There's no one like General Sternwood, Moose Malloy, Bill Chess, or Terry Lennox in this entire novel.

While the dialogue isn't as good as in other books, there's still a few decent lines in this one and that's one saving grace.

And then there are the other issues of Marlowe's encounters with two different women. Thankfully, there's nothing shown, which is the most artful thing about this portion of the book. The writing by Chandler is just embarrassing.  The dialogue is awful, and the set up is clumsy.   The relationship with Linda Loring in The Long Goodbye is elevated to some high exalted status of her being an old flame, when she just came over for an evening before leaving town.

Worse than that, Marlowe admits that sleeping with one of the women was unethical as an Investigator and then it does it anyway and it's not like there's some psychological reason for it or an internal struggle that Marlowe's better nature loses, there's no reason at all given.  At the end of the book, it appears that all that remains of the ethical core of Marlowe from The Big Sleep is an eccentric aversion to taking money for getting himself beaten up and inconvenienced.

The book is sad because it shows how much of a toll alcoholism and depression took on a great author. It's one of the worst books written about a classic detective by his actual creator. It's the one Marlowe book that's never been made into a movie and hopefully never will be. It's a forgettable or at least I hope it is as I'll certainly be doing my best to forget it.

Rating: 1.75 out of 5.00

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14Mar/151

Audio Drama Review: I Was a Communist for the FBI

To see my review of the film, click here.

I Was a Communist for the FBI was a syndicated radio show produced by Ziv and began to air in 1952 and ‘53 with Dana Andrews playing Matt Cvetic with 78 separate broadcasts prepared with only a few  repeats. While the film focused on the end of Cvetic’s career, this focused on the beginning and middle.

The important thing to understand about the I Was a Communist for the FBI radio show is that it had far less to do with the real Cvetic than the film. This is subtly hinted at at the end of the program with lines like, “Many of the incidents portrayed are based on the experiences of Matt Cvetic...” which also meant that many were not.

Ziv often did programs were the lead character was based on a real person but the incidents and stories were mostly works of fiction. This could be seen in Ziv’s 1959-61 Television series, “Lock Up.” There really was an attorney named Herbert L. Maris but the televised version’s exploits had little to do with the real life Philadelphia lawyer.

The fact of the matter is that no real person’s life has enough interesting juicy incidents to make up seventy-eight television or radio episodes. This in part explains the “unreal” nature of, I Was a Communist for the FBI which will have Cvetic trying to take over a Boy Scout troop in one episode, escorting a Soviet Agent around in another, trying to reform the image of a Communist front group in another, and in yet another being tasked with sabotaging early computer technology. While the fictional Cvetic’s exploits are rarely unreal, it’s hard to swallow that the same man got all of these assignments. However, the format of the show requires a suspension of disbelief similar to how we accept Joe Friday changing departments every week on Dragnet.

At their best, episodes of I Was a Communist for the FBI manage to portray tactics that Communists used in America or in other countries. While the movie’s communist leaders were bald-faced opportunists, the cell group leaders in the radio show are mostly fanatics (though occasionally hypocritical ones)  The Communist Party of the radio is far more like a cult than a political party as members deride “Borgeois sentimentality” and demand absolute obedience and dedication to the party. The ruthlessness of the party plays out more in the radio than the film because of the greater scope and variety of the episodes because we see so many different episodes. The communists are willing to blackmail, steal, or murder.  They'll turn a father's son against him to keep him in line. While publicly championing the little guy, they'll crush anyone who gets in their way.

It also featured a great psychological element. For Cvetic, the fear of discovery is constant. The Communists don't trust each other in the first place as he's frequently followed by fellow "comrades" and even has his phone tapped and listened to. He faces tough questions. Does he help someone who sounds like she might want to leave the party or does he act like a "good party" member in the belief that she's testing him?

In one episode he's gotten into the bad habit of talking in his sleep and to his horror finds out that the Comrade he's staying at happens to record the room at night. At the same time, the FBI often doesn't tell Cvetic everything or he can't make contact. All this makes Cvetic constantly on edge In one episode, Cvetic was diagnosed with hypertension which is something that anyone who followed the series could readily believe.

The theme of isolation and self-loathing is here just like the film, though its more intimate as Cvetic's narration carries the story. The episode loops around eventually to one thought, "I'm a Communist for the FBI and I walk alone."

The series, like most other great Ziv shows in the era featured solid production values and most great radio talent of the era appeared including Gerald Mohr, Virginia Gregg, and Harry Bartel.  Olan Soule played Agent Beaker of the FBI with many actors playing party bosses and official. The best of these was William Conrad who portrayed the gruff and sinister Comrade Revchinko.

Most of the episodes had a very similar cadence of Cvetic being given an assignment by the Communists and him trying to undermine it with the help of the FBI. One exception to that was, "The Black Gospel" in which the villain was a nihilist who threatened to out Cvetic as an FBI informant unless he went along with their anarchist scheme.

The series was not without flaws. It managed to undercut its own point in a couple of ways. First and foremost, if you're going to portray the Communists as such an existential threat, it would be more believable if these fictional foes weren't so unbelievably thick. Cvetic is constantly involved in operations in which everyone else is arrested or the Party's ends are defeated. Over the course of more than seventy episodes and the Party is constantly giving him commendations while never considering that everything they put him on falls apart. By contrast, in the film, Cvetic succeeded as a Communist and was thus able to provide information to the FBI by gaining the Party's confidence through success.

While the series included some very plausible Communist plots, there are a few stories that have premises that are a little too silly. I could see Communists trying to gain access to early computers and sabotage U.S. research. I have a little more trouble with a Communist plot to take over the local 4H club. (Yes, seriously.) There was also the episode where Cvetic got a Communist front group to give blood and Revchinko insisted on having Communist goons hijack the Red Cross truck and steal the blood, so that the blood wouldn't get to the distribution center because that's worth risking exposure and the capture of an operative.

In the end, I Was a Communist for the FBI is worthwhile series. It succeeded in portraying Communism the soul-crushing system it was that left more than 100 million dead in its wake and brilliantly showed the mental strain that double age and informants for the FBI faced. It has tense suspenseful moments found  However, it's quality is hampered by repetitive and occasionally contrived stories that make the Communists seem hapless.  Still, it's a unique series in the golden age of radio that makes for an enjoyable listen.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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7Mar/150

Telefilm Review: Columbo: A Stitch in Crime

Peter Falk and Leonard Nimoy
Originally, this week was slated to feature a review of the radio series, I Was a Communist for the FBI.  However due to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, I've opted for something a little different my radio of the radio version of I Was a Communist for the FBI appears next week. 

Leonard Nimoy recently passed away. He's best known for playing the role of Mr. Spock. He played the character in Eighty Episodes of the original 1960s TV series, eight movies, a guest appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he voiced the character in twenty-two episodes of the animated series.

Yet, Nimoy's sixty year career was more than sixty year as actor, director, producer, and writer went far beyond a single role. As an actor, he was among the best of his time.

This is well-illustrated in the 1973 Telefilm, A Stitch in Crime in which Nimoy plays Doctor  Barry Mayfield, an ambitious heart surgeons who is partnered with an older doctor (Will Geer) in a research project. He performs surgery on his partner but Nurse Sharon Martin (Anne Francis) becomes suspicious and makes some calls and plans to discuss her concern. Before she can, Doctor Mayfield murders her in the Hospital parking lot.

There's so much that makes the film work. The music is great and at no time is it better than in the murder scene, as it adds to the suspense. Hy Averback's directing is flawless with him taking advantage of every minute of the 70+ minute screen time.

The supporting cast is among the best Columbo ever had. Golden Globe actress Anne Francis was a great  choice to play Sharon Martin, as the character was someone we really sympathized with which isn't always the case with Columbo victims.  And to add to our sense of sympathy, Doctor Mayfield's partner Doctor Hidemann is played by none other than the actor who played Grandpa Walton.

The story also had a bit of mystery as to what Mayfield's endgame was. We had a sense early on based on Nurse Martin's reaction that it was something sinister involving Doctor Hidemann but we don't learn what until the final fifteen minutes.

However, the key strength of Columbo is the interaction between the detective and the murderer.  There's a rhythm to it much like a dance and that dance was never more perfectly executed than in A Stitch in Crime. 

Columbo begins as usual with friendliness and a bit of a comic and sloppy presence, perhaps even more so as he's eating at the crime scene and has a cold. Doctor Mayfield is similarly polite and helpful, at one point helping Columbo with his cold and writing him a prescription for medicine. I once thought this was a goof as what Doctor writes a prescription to someone they didn't formally examine and whose history they don't know? Now, I tend to think of it as a sign of arrogance.

And arrogance defines Mayfield as a character. Nimoy's portrayal combines that with the cool headedness of a surgeon and Mayfield easily becomes one of Columbo's most sinister opponents.  Only one Columbo killer looked more sinister than Nimoy did in the moment before Sharon Martin was killed. (Rip Torn in "Death Hits the Jackpot") and his coolness throughout makes him more intimidating.

Mayfield's arrogance leads him to taunt Columbo. When Columbo is barely hinting that Mayfield may have planted evidence that points to Martin's death being drug-related, Mayfield demands to know what motivate he would have. Columbo responds, "You ask tough questions, sir." Mayfield flashed a grin. "So do juries."

Ultimately, when Columbo learns Doctor Hidemann's life is at risk, he confronts Mayfield and when Mayfield begins laughing at him, Columbo has one of his few bursts of anger as he slams a carafe of water down and accuses Mayfield of murder.

The only thing that surpasses that moment is the end of the episode. It's more typical for Columbo to spend several minutes exposing the murderer in grand style.   However in A Stitch in Crime,  Columbo nearly failed. Columbo's final gambit appears to fail and he concedes to Mayfield and walks away. The surgeon showing signs of relief. It appears the murderer has won until the final minute when Columbo returns and we find that Mayfield's calm demeanor proved to be his undoing.

The ending is a great payoff for what I think is Columbo's greatest episode. It was an episode that knew when to follow the formula the series was already becoming famous for and when to diverge. It featured two fine actors who were used to their full potential to create an episode that stands out even in a series that was full of great episodes.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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28Feb/151

DVD Review: I Was a Communist for the FBI


This week and next two weeks from now, I'll be taking a look at I Was a Communist for the FBI.  The first post will talk about the movie and next will discuss the radio program.

Any discussion of Communism in the 1950s will be controversial due to the “red scare.” My understanding based on the study of the era is that two things are true: 1) there were many innocent people charged with being Communists and 2) there were actual Communist who working to infiltrate others as agents of the Soviet Union and still others working to undermine and basic the basic social systems of the United States in order to bring about a people’s revolution.

There is also debate on the exact role that the real Matt Cvetic had or what he accomplished in his undercover work, but this debate doesn’t really matter as both the Movie and the Radio show were very fictionalized (though in different ways), so the exact truth of what actually happened to Cvetic has little to do with either.

In the film, Cvetic (played by Night Beat’s Frank Lovejoy) is in the tale end of his 9 years as a Communist for the FBI and it’s a miserable lot in life. His mother is dying and he rushes to her bedside too late to tell her the truth. His brothers look on with contempt for being a Communist and for the pain that brought his mother. When Cvetic's son learns that Cvetic is a Communist, he turns on him as well.

Cvetic has worked his way up into high circles of the American Communist Party and the film draws an interesting line between the rank and file Communists as represented by a Cvetic’s son’s teacher and the leadership.

The leadership is two faced and hypocritical. With rank and file party members, they're all about equality and the revolution of the proletariat. Among themselves, they're far more honest. When the Communists take over, someone's going to be in charge, so it might as well be them. They want to be like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm. One of them who is working actively to incite Communist activists among Blacks casually drops the "n-word" and persists with even when Cvetic challenges him on it. Cvetic is ironically considered the "true believer" of this group of senior party members.

The party leaders are also cunning and ruthless, not caring if innocents or bystanders are hurt in the process. In one scene, dedicated to helping the Soviets stop American steel production by staging strikes with fake protesters. This leads to people being savagely beaten including Cvetic's own brother.

The teacher decides she's had enough and wants out of the party but the party sets out to liquidate her and Cvetic has to foil the plan without breaking his cover.  This is a bit of an add on but it's decently done.

Overall, the movie shows some ways in which Communists did  or could have operated at the highest levels  particularly how on one occasion, they staged a filibuster and managed to force their way through a non-Communist union to get their way on the strike.

The film is in a way targeted towards the casual Communist and tried to warn of the long-suspected ties between the Community Party USA and the Soviet Union in hopes of encouraging people to leave before they got in too deep similar to a radio series of the time called Last Man Out. 

Ultimately, nothing was too original about the movie's message or propaganda value but what makes it stand out is the performance of Lovejoy as Matt Cvetic, a man whose position is eating him up. After 9 years, he hates the people who like him and is alienated from his friends and family, he takes part in despicable plots. Lovejoy does a good job portraying a tortured man who continues being ripped apart by what he does because his love for country and concern for his son's future is worth the sacrifice even if part of that sacrifice is being despised by his son.

Overall,  this is a good but flawed film, with an ending that's a bit confusing. Still, this is a decent film that rises above average due to the complex issues surrounding Matt Cvetic.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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21Feb/150

Book Review: The Jade Ogre

In this 1992 Will Murray novel, the legendary adventure Doc Savage faces a deadly challenge when he battles the Jade Ogre, a strange being whose decapitated arms fly on their own and deal a horrible green death to the Ogre's enemies.

The Jade Ogre is unusual in that Murray adapted the idea from a story original Doc Savage writer Lester Dent had written about a private detective, so this story has a bit of a mystery element in it and some detective tropes that play a role such as Doc explaining the solution to his aides at the end. However, the mystery is much more a matter of how rather than who as Murray provides more than enough clues to figure out who is behind the Jade Ogre. Also this makes more sense understanding it was based on a serialized story as it does have a very strong serialized feel.

In addition to the mystery, the book delivered the usual things we expect from Doc Savage with plenty of action, adventure, gadgets, and some great interaction between Doc's assistants. Here, as in the other more recent books, the number of supporting players is kept down to a minimum with Ham, Monk, and Pat Savage appearing. Murray is even more careful about overusing assistants as for most of the book, only two are "on stage" at once with Pat and Ham together early and Monk and Ham late. This allows enough interaction between the Bronze Man's two most beloved assistants (Monk and Ham) without their carping on each other becoming monotonous.

As always, Murray achieves a great period feel and this book succeeds in transporting readers back to the 1930s.

The story has one major plot hole and that comes from the whodunit plot. We learn that when Doc gives the solution that several others had figured out who the guilty party was. This leads the question of why everyone followed a crazed murder blindly into a trap.

Beyond that, there are more things that could be nitpicked, but at the end of the day, this isn't great literature, it's Doc Savage. And this book lives up to the high standards set by other installments in this series. So if you have a love of 1930s Pulp fiction in your soul, this book is for you.

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14Feb/150

DVD Review: The Mask Of Dimitrios (1944)

In Mask of Dimitros, Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a Dutch mystery writer becomes intrigued when the body of a notorious criminal named Dimitros (Zachary Scott in his first role) washes up on shore. Leyden begins to trace the sordid career of Dimitros. Along the way, he encounters the mysterious man named Mr. Peters (Sidney Greenstreet) who also has an interest in Dimitros.

Leyden is a very different from the typical Lorre role. While Leyden’s a mystery writer, prior to seeing Dimitrios, he’s never seen a dead body. He goes through the story with a certain innocence and naivete that makes the character likable.

Greenstreet is far closer to type with Peters, an experienced criminal with genteel manners. It’d be tempting to view Peters as just another version of the Kasper Gutman character from the Maltese Falcon, but there’s a bit more to Peter than that, which becomes clear as the movie plays out. The film’s best scenes are the ones between Lorre and Greenstreet. The chemistry between the two is superb and every moment with them sharing the screen is a joy.

Most of the scenes with Zachary Scott were flashbacks to his very active criminal career as a sinister ruthless criminal. Sometimes, it felt these scenes went on too long particularly as the mystery surrounding Mr. Peters became far more interesting than recalling that Dimitros was a scoundrel. Still Scott was a great heavy.

The film was made in 1944 and arguably this would have looked better had it been filed without the restrictions inherent with wartime filmmaking but in the pre or post war eras, but still the movie doesn’t look bad and has some great atmospheric scenes.

This isn’t a must-watch film or a classic but it’s certainly a well-made film featuring two of Hollywood’s most memorable actors in roles that are a little out of the ordinary.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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7Feb/155

Why Some People Can’t Enjoy The Golden Age of Radio

The Golden Age of Radio is beloved by fans who’d love to share an interest in old radio with children or friends, but to the uninitiated, the whole thing can seem rather weird or daunting, and leave them wondering, “why would I want to listen to that?”

How quickly radio declined once television became available and affordable to the mass audience is an indication that many people listed to radio less because they preferred the art form over film and more because it was all that was available outside of a movie theater and at no cost. Even in countries like Great Britain where new radio dramas are produced with high quality actors and creative teams, their popularity is dwarfed by that of television.

For younger viewers/listeners, this problem is compounded by an increasingly hyper-paced state of entertainment, they’re fed from their first television shows to the present to expect high-paced stories that are resolved very quickly and this has grown over the years. In the video commentary on the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series, it was commented that the show was too slow paced for today’s kids, and if you watch modern day cartoons, they move at a dizzying speed that make 1990s Action cartoons seem like they're moving in slow motion. And for viewers like that, the more deliberately paced programs of 1930s-60s don't have a chance.

Many people have an image of golden age radio drama from television and movies of the era that portray it as corny or hammy. Certainly there were programs that could be that way, but there's a wide variety of quality. The tens of thousands of programs out their encompass so many different genres and styles. If you like bold well-done drama there's Studio One and the Mercury Theatre, for classic Science Fiction, it's X-minus One, or you could listen to Fred Allen who pioneered the field of satire on his various programs, and then Cavalcade of America made American history entertaining. And there are countless more: from soaps to medical dramas to horror and fantasy.

Finally, there are social issues in old time radio for twenty-first century listener. To some people (myself included), patriotism, morals, and reverence aren’t bugs, they’re features, but not everyone shares that view and may find such things "preachy" or "propaganda."

However, there's larger concerns about some  golden age programming particularly when it comes to racial stereotypes and views of women.  Even some who might chafe at modern day political correctness will probably find something that would make them uncomfortable in the tens of thousands of surviving radio programs.

To enjoy the golden age of radio, you have to understand yourself to be a guest in another time and place with a different cultures,  values, and understanding. I tend to think that there are lessons to be learned from the past (both good and bad) and that we should have some grace and understanding for the foibles of past generations when listening to radio because future generations will no doubt have problems with today’s culture’s attitudes and behaviors, and I wouldn’t want everything good about our modern world written off due to those failures.

Still, if you find yourself unable to move beyond the lens of our twenty-first century world, you may not be able to enjoy the golden age of radio or many other classic works.

For some, enjoying the golden age of radio may mean finding the right programs or changing perspective. Still, for others, it's not something they'll ever be able to understand the joy of old time radio. As Jimmy Durante,  "Such are the conditions that prevail."

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31Jan/152

Book Review: The Long Goodbye


The Long Goodbye (1953) finds Marlowe living in a borrowed house in Los Angeles when he meets a down and out drunk and former war hero named Terry Lennox. Marlowe strikes up a friendship with the man and one morning Marlowe is awakened to find Lennox asking to be driven to Mexico. Marlowe does this and the finds out Lennox’s wealthy wife was murdered with Lennox the prime suspect. Lennox writes out a confession and kills himself in Mexico. The cops, organized crime, and the dead woman’s father want Marlowe to forget the case, yet Marlowe feels an obligation to Lennox.

To begin with, The Long Goodbye is the longest of all Chandler novels. The same publisher did the most recent reprint of the Marlowe books, and the first five novels range from 231-292 pages. This book weighs in at 379 pages.  At this point in his career, Chandler had come to realize what people looked to Marlowe books for: the characters and the dialogue, and Marlowe telling people off. So Chandler gave us this in spades.

He gives ample time to develop the Marlowe-Lennox relationship at the start of the book and there are great Chandler characters spread throughout the book including author Roger Wade, who I can see as a self-insertion character by Chandler particularly after listening to the BBC Radio 4 play about Chandler and Hitchcock attempting to collaborate on Strangers on a Train. The book is full of rich characterization, settings, and dialogue.

The downside of the Long Goodbye is that in the midst of all that, Chandler loses the story several times. It’s hard to remember a detective novel where the detective took so little interest in solving the central mystery of the book. Marlowe literally goes weeks without doing anything and there are moments in the story where I wonder if we’re ever going to get back to the Terry Lennox case. It’s hard to care about the solution to a story when the main character doesn’t seem to.

In addition, this is a much more cynical and jaded Marlowe than prior books with his remarks that organized crime is just a cost of civilization in one of the later chapters. Marlowe seems at times to be almost exaggerated at a few times even explaining he was trying to be mysterious at one point.

I also feel the relationship between Marlowe and Linda Loring or the attempt thereof was weak and far less interesting than the flirting with romance in prior novels.

Overall, this is a still a good read and is better than The Little Sister and The High Window with so many interesting characters and settings, and some great dialogue. Still, it feels less organic and its pacing issues place it below the very best Marlowe novels in the series. For my part, I think the 1970s BBC radio adaptation with Ed Bishop is probably the best way to experience the story as it manages to preserve the heart of the story while leaving a lot of extraneous elements on the cutting room floor.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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24Jan/153

Four Difference Between 1970s and Later Columbos

Columbo in the 70sColumbo 90s

Peter Falks run as Columbo can be divided into two sections. The first ran from 1971-78 over NBC as part of the network’s Mystery Wheel. Columbo returned in 1989 over ABC in a series of TV movies.

There were four key differences between the newer Columbo films and the originals:

1) Length

Most of the original Columbo films had a 90 minute time slot which made them about 70-75 minutes without commercials. The new Columbo films took up 2 hours and had running time of approximately 90 minutes. I have to admit that in general, this was a case of “less is more.”

One key example was the second ABC Columbo, “Murder, Smoke, and Shadows” where the film started really strong but dragged on too long and at the end of Columbo’s denouement we had (and I kid you not), the police coming out and doing a musical number when they announced the arrest.

The old Columbos worked because of their limitations. They didn’t go on forever and ever, and when there was a longer case thrown in such as with, “A Friend Indeed,” the time was well-spent while the only new film that I think actually benefited from the longer running time was, “Agenda for Murder.”

2) More Adult Content

Columbo in the 1970s remains a mostly tasteful family friendly TV show. The latter Columbo could be something else with a lot more sex in the plot and a lot more skin on the screen.   There were a few episodes with featured lurid plots and disturbing murder scenes. Of course, this isn’t to say that all of the latter Columbos were strictly adult affairs, but there were quite a few that pushed the envelope.

The general incidents and prevalence of sex and violence in the media and on various TV shows is certainly for a debate. I think that with a couple of exceptions, it tended to detract rather than add from Columbo. At its core, the strength of Columbo are great characters and their interactions, and the episodes that tended to have the most adult content such as, Uneasy Lies the Crown and Murder: A Self Portrait tended to not to sacrafice quality charagers. If there was an episode that seemed more “Grown up” that did work, it was, “It’s All in the Game” starring Faye Dunaway as a suspect who is trying to seduce Columbo to keep him off her trail but that works because of the character interactions.

Too often, the content inserted comes off as gratuitous or trashy. The seventies series was more stylish and tasteful.

3) More Experimentation

Of the 44 1970s Columbo films, only one messed with the formula of Columbo being an inverted mystery (Season 5’s Last Salute to the Commodore). Of the twenty-four revived shows, there were half a dozen different attempts to break with the formula. These variations ranged from following the killer up to the point of the murder and finding someone else had already committed the murder, not showing the murder and then planting doubt as to the killer’s guilt, and then there were two adaptations of Ed McBain novels.

While Last Salute to the Commodore was one of my two least favorite 1970s episodes, some of these later experiments aren’t too bad. Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo begins with the funeral of “Mrs. Columbo” and is then told through flashback from the point of view of a woman seeking revenge on the good Lieutenant  through murdering his wife. The McBain novel adaptation, Undercover is a fine thriller if you can get past the fact that Columbo’s behavior is completely inconsistent with everything we know of the character. Columbo Cries Wolf had its moments.

The other three are more problematic but not for messing with the formula but for other issues. Still, I have to say that while the revived Columbos that go in other directions can actually be entertaining, they still can’t beat the best of the “normal” Columbo episodes.

4) Less Star Quality

The original Columbo, even more than its plots were known for the amazing casting. Among the actors who played Columbo killers in the gold old days were Anne Baxter, Robert Culp, Leonard Nimoy, Roddy McDowell, Martin Landau, Dick Van Dyke, Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalban, Ruth Gordon, and so many more. Peter Falk was a fantastic actor and had great chemistry with so many guest stars.

The new series had a virtual power outage, particularly in 1989 and 1990. Of the first eleven villains, the only actor in Falk’s league was Patrick McGhoohan. The second best of the group was Fisher Stevens. A big let down from the 1970s.

The series did better guest stars between 1991-94 when Columbo cut back from 4-6 films a years to between 2 and 3 films a year with better stars. The results were among the best of the new series as Faye Dunaway was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Glove for her apeparance, and Dabney Coleman, George Hamilton, and Rip Torn turned in memorable and satisfying performances.

Of course, not even a good guest star could save some films. A mustached William Shatner’s is miscast in Butterfly in Shades of Grey. Tyne Daley did the best she could with a fairly stereotypical flirty lush roll in, A Bird in the Hand but deserved far better as a Columbo villainess.

There did seem to be a fair share more stories in the later years that strained credulity in terms of motive or were just plain derivative (i.e. Stange Bedfellows.)

Yet, the one thing that remained the same was Peter Falk. There are episodes were it felt like the only thing good in the movie was Columbo...but almost always that still made it worth watching. There’s so much in every moment when Falk’s on the screen that he can carry the show by himself which was a good thing because he often had to.

By almost every measure, ABC’s Columbo was an inferior product to its predecessor, but it provided two dozen opportunities to see Peter Falk in action as his greatest character and that alone makes them worth viewing.

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