Category: Golden Age Article

A Look at the Revived Columbo: The Best of the Revived Movies, Part One

Having examined the five worst Columbo movies, in the next two articles, we’ll examine the ten best.

10) A Trace of Murder (1997):

A  woman teams up with her boyfriend to frame her tycoon husband for the murder of one of his enemies. The script is very clever and the resolution is classic Columbo if a bit over-emphasized.

9) Undercover (1994)

Another Ed McBain adaptation, but unlike No Time to Die, this one is good. It’s hard to view this as Columbo as it’s not an inverted mystery and Columbo has a partner, but despite violating typical formulas, this is a superb thriller.

8) Columbo Loves the Night Life (2003):

The last Columbo movie and a very interesting one that has Columbo entering a new century. Both the character and the formula show a great deal of flexibility as he faces very modern characters and has to adapt to modern crime-solving technology. Columbo enters the case as usual with little knowledge, but with plenty of instincts and a desire to learn. Whether it’s an electric typewriter ribbon in the 1970s or cell phones in the 1990s, Columbo has always mastered new technology in a way his opponent couldn’t predict, and it’s certainly the case here. It’s a pity Peter Falk didn’t get to do more because this movie shows how the character really stood the test of time.

7) Ashes to Ashes (1998)

Patrick McGoohan makes his fourth appearance as a Columbo murderer and the second in the revived series, playing an undertaker to the stars. The murder itself is far from the cleverest plot conceived as it was concocted on the fly. However, the solution is clever, and the chemistry between McGoohan and Falk is perfect as always.

6) It’s All in the Game (1993):

The production was nominated for a Golden Globe and Faye Dunaway took home an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress. The script was  written by Peter Falk. The plot was about two women conspiring to murder one woman’s no-good lover. One of them, Lauren, begins to flirt with Columbo. The movie works for several reasons. Dunaway is one of the few guest stars who rise to the same caliber of talent as the 1970s murderers. In addition, the script is clever. On the surface, Lauren is trying to seduce Columbo so  he won’t notice clues she’s the murderer. Columbo is acting smitten in hopes of luring her into a false sense of security, but it feels like there’s more going on. At the same time, while we see the murder occur, there’s so many questions about it particularly in regards to motive and what the relationship between these two women is. There’s far more mystery in this than your typical Columbo. On the negative, this is probably the most cynical interpretation of him. Plus a few of the scenes where they’re trying to act romantic don’t quite work, such as when Columbo brings her a big collection of roses. Still, despite these negatives, this is one of the best of the new Columbo movies.

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A Look at the Revived Columbo Episodes: The Worst of the Revived Movies

The original 1970s Columbo was pure entertainment gold: one of the best mystery series of all time, with Peter Falk playing the great detective as he matched wits with powerful and rich murderers played by some of Hollywood’s finest actors.

However, the Revived Columbo that returned in 1988 was a bit more like Silver laced with Bronze. Falk was still great, but the writing was problematic at times. It could be soap operatic or lame. They tinkered with the formulas and often not successfully. And plus, while the original Columbos were family programs, there were numerous attempts to sex-up Columbo scripts and make it more edgy, resulting in stories that felt out of place or even creepy.

But there were still more good movies than bad, more that recaptured the old magic rather that messing it up and still more that were tolerable thanks to Peter Falk’s presence. Over the next three weeks we’ll take a look at the worst and the best of the Revived Columbo series, starting with the five worst episodes and then celebrating the best from that era the next two weeks. So we begin with the top 5 worst Columbos of the revived series:

5) Murder with Too Many Notes (2000)

This was a story where the basic lack of a sensible motive really hurt. The Murderer Findlay Crawford reached an amicable agreement with Gabriel McEnery that would have allowed McEnery to begin a new career on his own without damaging Crawford’s reputation. And Crawford killed him because-—I don’t know. Beyond that, the pacing is slow and boring. The most interesting thing is the discussion of how music and films work. When your plot digressions are more interesting than your plot, that’s a problem. The movie does have an amusing bit between Columbo and Crawford that did go on a little too long. It also should be noted that the film begins with an intensely violent murder scene that actually does turn out just to be the film that Crawford but is kind of jarring and unpleasant.

4) Murder: A Self Portrait (1990)

The villain is a French painter who lives with his wife, his ex-wife, and his mistress. He kills his ex-wife and finds himself locked into a battle of wits with Columbo. The villain is such a stereotype, the only thing the plot forgot was to give him a mustache and a beret. The story itself had potential, and there are some fairly decent moments with Peter Falk, but it felt like the story was trying too hard both to be edgy and to tell a non-conventional story, and the painter’s rather dull collapse makes this one a disappointing conclusion and a bit of a mess..

3) No Time to Die (1992)

The first of two Columbo films that were adapted from Ed McBain books and abandoned typical Columbo formula. There is no major guest villain. Just Columbo and a team of dull cops chasing down clues to find the kidnapper of Columbo’s nephew’s bride. The story isn’t just below the standard of Columbo, the plot is below the standards of a decent made for TV mystery.

2) Uneasy Lies the Crown (1990):

A very clever title as it’s about a dentist who murders a patient through applying a temporary crown and the idea for the murder is actually  well thought out. However, what overwhelms the best elements of the story is a poor performance from James Read as the villain and the way the story peters out towards the end as he folds like one of Columbo’s suits.

1) Strange Bedfellows (1995)

After TV show Cheers ended, George Wendt (who played Norm) had an opportunity to move beyond being Norm from Cheers and perhaps move to being a bigger star. He had a short-lived Sitcom and then there was this episode of Columbo. Sadly, it was not to be, and this film didn’t help. Wendt wasn’t bad in this, he even delivered the response to Columbo saying, “Just One More Thing,” that dozens of murderers only dreamed of. But this was a failure of concept and script, with probably the stupidest idea for a murderer to come up with the entire series.. Wendt plays stable owner Graham McVeigh, who kills his brother and decides to frame a mafia figure for it. Guess what? The Mafia didn’t like that. The film gets into a sort of alliance between Columbo and the mafia to squeeze McVeigh. This ends in an over the top and painfully bad scene that’s worst than the conclusion of, “Dagger of the Mind,” from the 1970s run. In many ways, this sort of squeeze play to force the villain to turn himself over to Columbo is reminiscent of the 1970s story, “A Case of Immunity,” which was far better than this film.

Despite the flaws and the many weaker installments, the series still starred Peter Falk who made many episodes watchable and even delightful particularly when matched with the right co-star.. And while I wouldn’t want put any of these episode in the same class as the best installments of the original series, there were plenty of fine episodes and we’ll turn to take a look at them next week.

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Audio Drama Review: The Avengers: Steed and Mrs. Peel The Comic Strip Adaptations, Volume 1

Big Finish has so far adapted 20 of the 26 episodes from the lost season of the ITV hit The Avengers. Still, when people think of that classic British program, they think of the period with John Steed and Mrs. Peel that allowed the show to cross the pond to American Television.

In 1966 and ‘67, at the height of their popularity, several comic strip stories were written featuring the duo of Steed and Peel. Big Finish brings them to life in a new range with Julian Wadham playing Steed and Olivia Poulet offering her take on the iconic role of Mrs. Peel. Volume 1 of the Series offers four hour long stories.

Both the new actors are superb. I was familiar with Wadham from the more strait-laced “Lost Episodes,” but he does a good job playing the Steed of the Peel era with aplumb. Poulet offers a lively take on Mrs. Peel. Both succeed in making the rolls their own.

Here’s a breakdown of the episodes included in Volume 1 of the Comic Strip adaptations:

Return to Castle De’ath: A follow up on a T.V. episode, finds Steed and Peel returning to Castle De’ath to protect an insufferably arrogant prince who is key to British oil interests. This snappy script is littered with witty one-liners and the plot has outrageous twists. Only a few moments don’t quite translate to audio. But overall, a very good beginning for the series.

The Miser: A dangerous saboteur calling himself the Misers rocks Great Britain. Mrs. Peel and Steed go to work to find him before the nation’s leaders are forced to hand all of Great Britain’s wealth to him. Overall, this is fun, with a grain field that doubles as a minefield, impersonation, a wax works, and a notable villain, though the plot’s too predictable on the wind up.

The Golden Dresses: Several prominent officials have disappeared after their wives purchased fabulous dresses from a posh boutique. The story is well-told but a bit predictable. The villainess goes a bit too over the top even for the Avengers in the final minutes. Still, it’s a decent episode.

The Norse Code: Steed and Peel search for a missing colleague in Norfolk and find themselves having to thwart a Viking plot to destroy Great Britain. Overall, it’s a perfectly outlandish tale that’s clever and would have fit in with the 1960s show. There are many humorous parts, particularly the opening with Mrs. Peel learning conversational ancient Norse. (”Excuse me, my warship is on fire.”)

Overall, this set offers a fresh spin on two classic characters. While the adaptation from a strictly visual medium leads to a few uncertain moments, these are a few and far between. Fans of witty dramas will love this set.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The Top 10 Philip Marlowe Radio Episodes

The Adventures of Philip Marlowe starring Gerald Mohr aired from 1948-50 and then returned in the Summer of 1951 and is one of the best radio detective shows of all time. Here are my ten favorites. Right click on each link to download if you’re curious about an episode.

10) Where There’s a Will (Original Air Date: October 17, 1948)

Marlowe is hired by three heirs to help them locate their inheritance. It’s a great character story and very noirish.

9) The Anniversary Gift (Original Air Date: April 11, 1950)

William Conrad does a great job filling in with Mohr in a great story with a perfect pitch ending, and a superb performance by Conrad that makes me wish he had been a radio detective more often.

8) The Old Acquaintance (Original Air Date: December 26, 1948)

Marlowe engages in a race against time on New Year’s Eve to find a missing fiancée before a dangerous escaped convict does.

7) The House that Jacqueline Built (Original Air Date: December 31, 1949)

Another New Years Eve story. This one a quirky but well done tale of Marlowe searching for a missing house.

6) The Grim Hunters (Original Air Date: March 12, 1949)

Marlowe gets called to a house, only to find he was being used as an item on a scavenger hunt. This equates a light-hearted start that turns very serious when a body turns up.

5) The Big Book (Original Air Date: September 29, 1950)

Marlowe investigates an apparent suicide of a has-been actress. It’s an engaging story with a solid ending.

4) The Red Wind  (Original Air Date: September 26, 1948)

Marlowe lands right in the middle of a plot involving murder and blackmail. This is the only time the CBS series adapted an actual Marlowe story by Chandler, and it’s sad they didn’t do more.

3) The Iron Coffin: (Original Air Date: July 12, 1950)

Marlowe investigates a strange case where for a woman who fears for the life of her daughter’s fiancé. It’s a very clever and imaginative tale that find Marlowe in a medieval castle (that’s been moved to California) and has a superb conclusion.

2) The Lonesome Reunion (Original Air Date: February 12, 1949)

Marlowe goes to Phoenix carrying papers and finds himself robbed, and thrown into a battle with robbers and murders in the small town of Lonesome, Arizona.

1) The Little Wishbone (Original Air Date: December 10, 1949)

Throughout the series, Marlowe flirted with many women (and vice versa), but is the only episode where Marlowe truly falls in love, but he finds out the lady has a secret. Mohr is at his absolute best, particularly in the last few minutes, and the powerful final scene ends with a twist that hits you like a punch in the gut.

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DVD Review: The Classic Comedy Team Collection

The Classic Comedy team collection offers viewers a chance to see three of the all-time best comedy teams in action: the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello. The films, rather than being public domain works, are rare films that were made by MGM. This is particularly notable for Abbott and Costello as most of their pictures were made with Universal.

The Three Stooges discs offer two films, Gold Raiders, and Meet the Baron. Both films are obscure. Gold Raiders is an extremely low budget 1951 Western  notable for being the only film made with Shemp, but  unremarkable otherwise. Meet the Baron (1933) is an interesting film for fans of 1930s entertainment as you get some great performers all in one film, including Edna May Oliver, Jimmy Durante, and Zasu Pitts,  who all had pretty good performances elsewhere. In fact, the Stooges barely feature. This is a film where the whole is far less than the sum of it’s part as it falls short under the weight of weak writing, as do many of the all-star comedies of that era.

Laurel and Hardy were past their prime but I found both of their war time films to be entertaining. Air Raid Wardens (1943) finds them taking on volunteer war work in an effort to help the country. It’s not only patriotic, but it was so hilarious, when I watched it while giving blood, it ended the donation because I was laughing so hard, the needle moved, so consider yourself warned. Nothing But Trouble (1944) offers a nice contrast between the Depression and World War II with Laurel and Hardy’s butler/cook team having left America in the 1930s when jobs were scarce and returning in the middle of war when demand for any job was high. The story features political intrigue and they find themselves in the middle of a plot to kill a pro-Democracy, football-loving teenage king. It’s not quite as good as Air Raid Wardens, but it’s funny and charming in its own right.

Abbott and Costello are the only duo to be at the height of their popularity and talent in this collection. Lost in a Harem (1944) finds them as magicians helping an Arabian prince regain his throne, and then, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood has them playing barbers who end up playing agent for a young star who is hated by a stuck up and egotistical actor determined to stay on top at all costs. Both films are great comedies with some classic sketches and I think they do a better job of balancing the pair vs. the romantic story line involving other actors, something Universal struggled with. Of the two, I like Abbott and Costello in Hollywood  the best. The film has hilarious madcap sequences, such as when Costello pretends to be a dummy on a movie studio set. For fans of old films, there are brief appearances by Lucille Ball, Mike Mazurki, and Rags Ragland, with Carleton Young making a very good villain.

Overall, this is an enjoyable DVD set. While the Stooges films are more curiosities, the Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello installments are delightful wartime entertainment.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0