Category: Telefilm Review

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Death Takes a Curtain Call

Jessica goes to a performance of the Russian Ballet in Boston along with her friend Leo (Hurd Patterson) and there towards the end of the performance she finds out that Leo is attending so that he can help his great niece and her boyfriend defect. They get away but their plans are complicated when a KGB Agent is murdered backstage with them being the prime suspects.

Jessica believes the couple is innocent and sets out to prove it while getting Ethan to hide them back in Cabot Cove. To keep the couple safe, she’ll have to stay ahead of Major Anatole Karzoff of the KGB (William Conrad.)

What Works:

William Conrad is great as Karzoff. He manages to maintain the right combination of charm and menace. On one hand, he’s almost a flattering admirer of Jessica’s work, even though she receives no royalties because, as Karoff explains, ripping off authors is a Communist value.

At the same time, it’s clear Karzoff is a tough man to be reckoned with. He has the local police arrest Leo at one point just to rattle Jessica. Conrad had a long history of playing Russians and KGB men going back at least to the radio series I Was a Communist for the FBI and his Russian accent was never much better than so-so. However, he always sells it through his authoritative voice tone.

Conrad and Lansbury have wonderful performance chemistry and that makes this episode very fun to watch.

For her part, Jessica takes everything in her stride. It’s part of what makes her character work. She finds herself plunged into hiding two suspects from the FBI and KGB, is followed by a KGB man, and has her phone bugged, and she adjusts. One of my favorite scenes is when she decides to place a call and someone asked her why she didn’t use a closer phone, she responded calmly, “That one’s not tapped.”

This sort of character can becoming annoying or a Mary Sue but Jessica doesn’t because she’s not cocky or over-the-top, just calm and cunning. She just keeps her head about her and pushes through each new challenge.

Her outsmarting the FBI in the search for the missing couple makes perfect sense given that it’s been established that she knows Cabot Cove better than anyone including Sheriff Tupper.

I also think the KGB is at just the right threat level. Karzoff is ruthless, but in the United States his efforts are limited. A lot of Cold War films portray the KGB operating far too brazenly to be believed on American soil. This felt more grounded.

Sheriff Tupper is played mostly for comic relief, but he does work. He’s clearly in over his head with dealing with international intrigue, and mainly helps to expedite some matters for Karzoff and the FBI with his local knowledge. A search warrant is executed for the missing couple and Tupper evidently thought they might be in Jessica’s latest pie as Tupper cut off a piece just to be sure. I do suspect he was trying to frustrate the official investion just a tad, though that’s open to interpretation.

What Doesn’t Work

The story has an over-the-top anti-communist protester who storms onto the stage and disrupts the ballet performance shouting about communist plots. She seems to be in this story for two reasons. First, for the showrunners to say, ‘Yes, Communism can be terribly oppressive but we’re not crazy like this lady.’ The second is that she’s alleged to be the killer. The first reason doesn’t justify such a shrill and annoying character. The second doesn’t work because she’s an obvious red herring.

Of Note:

Dane Clark (Crime and Peter Chambers) appears as the FBI agent investigating the murder but is overshadowed by Conrad.

This was Claude Akins last appearance as Captain Ethan Clagg in the series.

Overall thoughts

This is easily my favorite Cabot Cove episode so far.  William Conrad is great, the mystery is pretty good, and Jessica has a lot of great moments. This tale of Murder, She Wrote meeting the Cold War is well-worth watching.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: We’re Off to Kill the Wizard

While visiting her niece somewhere in the Midwest, Jessica is invited to the opening of the latest amusement park by mogul Horatio Baldwin (James Coco) Baldwin wants to open a grisly theme park based on Jessica’s books, an offer Jessica refuses. Later Baldwin is found dead with a gun in his hand behind his locked office door. When the coroner finds he was killed by a blow to the head before the shot, the local police ask for her help.

What Works:

James Coco is marvelous as Baldwin. The first big scene is at a ceremony for Baldwin’s latest theme park where he plays a monk being hanged in a scene that’s played with perfect hammyness. Later, we get to see Baldwin as he tries to negotiate with Jessica. He treats everyone horribly, something Jessica doesn’t miss. When Jessica refuses his initial offer, he presses a button that locks the door so she can’t leave. When she threatens to press charges, he lets her go and sets out to dig up blackmail on her.

Jessica plays marvelously off Baldwin. She knows exactly who she is and what she’s about. Baldwin makes a great target for her moral indignation as his park is seeking to present violent and gory material to children. I thought it would be fun to watch these two battle over the course of the episode, but alas Baldwin was the designated corpse.

Jessica may have the best fan relations of any author ever. She not only signed Baldwin’s secretary’s book, but helped with the investigation to help clear herself as she disappeared after the crime was committed.

I also like the police motive for inviting her in. They’re neither in, “This is a police investigation, stay out” mode or “Please, we are helpless, solve the mystery,” mode instead Captain Davis (John Schruck) concludes that since they have a locked room mystery, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask a mystery writer for her opinion.

While this episode doesn’t have golden age Hollywood legends, the episode contains actors who appeared in other mystery series including Christine Belford (Banacek) and James Stevens (The Father Dowling Mysteries.)

What Doesn’t Work:

The killer came up with an ingenuous plan involving altering the office phones. Jessica is only able to solve the mystery because the killer stupidly failed to fix the phones, which is an inconsistency.

Speaking of inconsistent, there’s a bizarre detail put in by the writers. She disguises a roll of film as microfilm containing blackmail information collected by Baldwin and then announces that it was film from her vacation the previous year to Spain. It was jarring. Why would she take an undeveloped role of film from a trip year ago on a flight to see someone else? Why not just say it was from this trip to see her niece.

Overall:

“We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” is a well-done episode. Yes, the mystery has flaws and the story is not as fun after Baldwin is killed, but it manages to have some nice scenes of Jessica sleuthing mixed in with a few moments of light gunplay to keep the story engaging.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Hit, Run, and Homicide

In the middle of a baseball game at the Cabot Cove Founder’s Day Picnic, a car chases a wealthy out of town businessman, hits and disappears. Several witnesses testify that no one is driving. The same car then runs down the businessman’s partner.

The businessman claims they were there at the invitation of a disgruntled former employee Daniel O’Brien (Van Johnson) who wanted to meet with them. O’Brien is an inventor who had made plans for a driverless car and jumps to the top of the suspect’s list.

What Works

Murder by remote controlled vehicle is a novel murder method particularly for 1984.

Cabot Cove is very much a work in progress at this point as the show tries to grasp the feel of it. There’s a nice scene that captures the spirit of many small towns when a grocery store clerk points out O’Brien is an out of towner and Jessica points out that he’s lived there six years which leaves the clerk unimpressed.

It also feels like they’re still establishing Sheriff Tupper, who is a bit out of his depth about the whole case. I like the scene where Jessica provides him a gentle and respectful nudge that gets him to stop spinning his wheels.

O’Brien has a former colleague (June Allyson) as a house guest and the two have very\sweet chemistry together.

There’s a fun discussion about driverless cars and technology that’s fascinating if just a bit quaint for modern viewers in a time when driverless cars are starting to become a reality.

What Doesn’t Work

Let’s start with the murder. The business partner is killed on a road with two sides and he faced a choice. He could run up a hill with an impossibly high grade on his left or he could run down a hill into a forest filled with trees. Our victim chooses to run up the hill which he can’t climb and the car hits him, when if he had run into the forest he would have been fine.

While I can believe the victim panicked and did something stupid, it makes the killer’s plan look a bit haphazard because the whole thing could have been avoided with common sense.

In the scene that made the teaser for the episode, Jessica is trapped in the remote controlled car as it careens towards the edge of a cliff. It looks exciting but in context it makes little sense.

Tupper had spent an entire day searching for anywhere the car might have gone, hadn’t found it, and decided to go with the theory that a large truck had driven it away. Jessica points out there’s a place that Tupper hadn’t looked. Tupper refuses to go check, complaining about his budget, and so Jessica goes off by herself, finds the car, and gets inside it. The killer’s watching it an ominous van, remotely locks locks Jessica in, and guides the car down the highway, following it through Cabot Cove and heads it towards the edge of a cliff over the ocean…and then stops it.

This is a scene where nothing makes sense. Tupper was unrealistically stubborn. Jessica has no reason to get in the car and get behind the wheel. The killer had no reason to send Jessica on a scary ride through Cabot Cove unless they were going to kill her, which they weren’t.

It’s true the car needed to be found as part of the killer’s plan but once it was found, mission accomplished. They did the remote controlled chase for no good reason and exposed the van they were driving in to scrutiny. You can interpose your own reason for this such as equipment failure or the killer losing their nerve, but that’s the audience having to fix the writer’s mistake as you won’t find it in the episode.

The clue to solve the case is simple, but a little bit too simple. I pretty much had guessed the involved parties already but didn’t feel too smart for doing so.

Overall: This episode is flawed and continues an odd streak in Murder She Wrote’s first season where episodes set on the West Coast are way better than the East Coast stories.

Still, it’s got one of the more interesting premises so far and you also have June Allyson and Van Johnson bringing some golden age magic. So despite its flaws, this episode is far more entertaining than it deserves to be, and makes for good view.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Lovers and Other Killers

In “Lovers and Other Killers,” Jessica travels to Seattle as a guest lecturer at an University. While there she hires a young man named David Tolliver (Andrew Stevens) as her secretary to help her keep up with her writing. When Tolliver is accused of murdering an elderly woman, Jessica takes an interest in the case.

What Works

One recurring thing done in Television shows, movies, and comics of the area is that someone is that a man is looking for a Doctor, a scientist, or other important person and is given either their title and last name and initials and last name. They go to meet them and gasp (dramatic music)it’s a woman. Given that this trope is used so often, it’s interesting to see it reversed as Jessica is confused and a bit uncomfortable at a man applying to be her secretary.

I really enjoy Andrew Stevens as Tolliver. He plays the character just right. He’s got good looks and a certain amount of charm, but you also have a sense that this guy is bad news. He professes a lack of interest in women his own age, saying he prefers older women. His receipt of gifts and money from the woman who was killed are consistent with that of a gigolo, but he insists it was her way of making it up to him for causing a car accident. However, he also has a bit of a liar, so you can’t take that too seriously.

Jessica has mixed feelings on Tolliver. On one hand, she appreciates, his efficiency and seems to like him. On the other, she’s clearly uncomfortable at how familiar he gets with her. She arrives from a morning appointment to find him in her hotel room and tells him never to do that again. He does it later in the episode and claims to have forgotten.

However, Jessica continues to maintain that despite David being a conman, he’s not a killer. Yet, we’re given reason to doubt throughout. Is David really attracted to Jessica or is he a predator that she’s well-rid of? The answer is never spelled out in black and white, even by the time the episode ends.

Peter Graves put in a typically solid performance as an old flame of Jessica’s who’s now a college professor who is clueless that his long-time secretary is in love with him.

I also liked Jessica’s first lecture session as we got to see a little bit of Angela Lansbury’s acting versatility.

The plot is well-done with a lot of twists and mis-directions and a genuinely surprising reveal of the culprit. Jessica also faces more peril in this episode than in any other this season.

Other Notes:

When Jessica picked up at the airport she by Grave’s character, she’s hold a baby which she hands off to two nuns from China. Had nothing to do with the episode, but my wife pointed out. there’s a major story there.

The title of the episode is a play on the 1970 comedy film Lovers and Other Strangers, though nothing in the plot of that film seems to tie into this one.

Overall:

A very good episode. While the police foil isn’t great, there’s a bit of life in Greg Morris’ portrayal of Lieutenant Andrews. He’s mostly functional but that’s an upgrade over the unnamed Sheriff from last week.

And that functional performance is more than enough with a great mystery and solid work by Andrew Stevens and Peter Graves.

Rating:4.5 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: It’s a Dog’s Life

While Jessica is visiting her horse-trainer cousin down South, her cousin’s wealthy employer dies and bypasses his money-grubbing relatives to leave the bulk of his estate to his beloved dog. The dog is then accused of biting a neighboring farmer and then the dog is accused of a bizarre murder.

What Works

Dan O’Herlihy is only in this a few minutes as the wealthy patriarch who dies, but he plays a likable if eccentric old guy who’s beset by vultures. His delivery and timing in the video gives maximum impact.

Jessica remains likable and shrewd in her method of solving the crime. Suspicion her cousin is the murderer gives her a solid incentive to be involved in the case.

While the whodunit is made obvious, the how and why of the murderer’s plan are more interesting and Jessica unravels those well.

With Southern stereotypes abounding in this episode, I appreciated a scene where one character told another to stop acting like a stereotypical hillbilly.

Fans of A Life in Your Hands will appreciate when Jessica acts as Amicus Curiae at a Coroner’s Inquest so she can confront the murderer in a Perry Mason style.

What Doesn’t Work

The episode does rely a bit on stereotypes of Southerners including the somewhat dense Deputy Sheriff.

While in each of the previous episodes, I’ve commented (mostly positively) on Jessica’s police foils, the Sheriff in this story doesn’t make any impression at all. He’s generic (we don’t even learn his name) and aloof, and little more than a dumb local cop Jessica has to clean up after.

The same could be said of most of the characters. Even good actors like Dean Jones and Forest Tucker are given little material to work with. Other than the deceased millionaire, no character stands apart from stereotypical murder suspects. The most interesting character is the supernaturally-obsessed Morgana (Cathryn Damon.) However, she could easily become annoying if overused.

The identity of the murderer was obvious with every red-flag clue calling out one person. It didn’t help that the will made the SPCA the secondary beneficiary if anything happened to the dog. So while I could believe most of the family would gladly kill a family member or frame a dog for a few hundred thousand dollars, the entire situation made motive less plausible. Though not much less plausible than the motive we were given.

Interesting Note:

Two former cast members from F-Troop: Tucker (Sergeant O’Rourke) and James Hampton (Corporal Dobbs) appear together in one scene.

Overall:

Did Murder She Wrote go to the dogs in this episode? No It’s a serviceable hour of mystery which highlights Angela Lansbury’s ability to engage even on a weak script.

However, this episode is the weakest so far. The script and characters feel mailed in when compared to more interesting and better-developed episodes that preceded it. Still, thanks to Lansbury, it still offers a decent forty-five minutes of entertainment.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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