Category: Telefilm Review

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: The Deadly Lady

In “The Deadly Lady,” some time has passed since The Murder of Sherlock Holmes as the episode shows Jessica has a proof copy of a new book and is working on yet another. Wealthy financier Stephen Earl is apparently killed in a storm on a boat with his daughters, who will each receive $25 million at his death. Sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) suspects foul play and calls Jessica Fletcher in for her advice and he meets the man’s daughters, most of whom seem to have little love lost for him. At the same time, a drifter named Ralph (Howard Duff) comes to Jessica’s house seeking work and she gives him some work and befriends him.

Thanks to a local newspaperman, she sees a picture of the financier and realizes it’s the drifter, which means he didn’t die in the storm,  clearing one of his daughters who confessed to the “murder.” However when his body washes up on the beach, Jessica has to find out who killed him and why.

What Works:

The scenes between Howard Duff and Angela Lansbury were just superb.  Stephen Earl/Ralph is trying to sell Jessica a false story, several in fact, so that he can stay on the down low in Cabot Cove, though Jessica uses her deductive skills to see through most all of them. She’s still very kind and empathetic towards him and genuinely likes him, which gives her some added to motivation to solve his eventual murder.

We meet our first two Cabot Cove recurring characters. Tom Bosley (Happy Days, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home) would play Sheriff Tupper for the first four seasons on Murder She Wrote before leaving the role to become the lead in The Father Dowling Mysteries. In this episode, Tupper is a solid small-town lawman who does what needs to be done and refuses to alter his ways for high-powered, wealthy out-of-towners who descend on the town in the wake of news of Earl’s death. 

This episode features Claude Akins’ first episode as fishing boat Captain Ethan Clagg, an irascible character who enjoys taking good-natured shots at his friends in Cabot Cove. Akins makes the character work which is a challenge because that type of character can easily become annoying.

Dack Rambo does a nice-turn as the sleazy, money-grubbing husband of one of the daughters. He’s one of those characters you love to hate and Rambo’s quite good at making the character come to life.

What You Just Have to Accept:

Cabot Cove is supposed to be a small town in Maine, but this introductory episode is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of feeling like it’s set there.  The actors attempt New England rural accents with varying degrees of success, and some exteriors shots look passable, although the eagle eye will notice several dead giveaways that this was shot in Mendocino, California. 

It’s the type of production issue that’s fair to acknowledge, but not fair to hold against the show. It was good enough for its time. I just needed to bring my own imagination and suspension of disbelief to buy this location as being in Maine.

What Doesn’t Work:

Sherriff Tupper calls Jessica in when he thinks there might be a murder, but then when he finds an important crime scene, the story implies he told a deputy to not tell her where he was. The deputy then takes a phone call right in front of Jessica,  revealing the location and Jessica goes out there, with Sheriff Tupper none to happy to see her.

The whole sequence is a bit of pointless padding that goes against Tupper’s character as we’d seen it in the episode.

While Murder She Wrote is sometimes criticized for having plots resolved with Jessica finding the solution but the audience isn’t let on until she gives the solution to others, this particular episode has the opposite problem. The clues and overall solution are too simple and easy.  Though that may not be  the worst thing for the first hour-long episode.

Overall Thoughts:

A murderer who crosses Jessica Fletcher’s path is in serious trouble, but it’s pretty much hopeless for the murderer who decides that Cabot Cover is a good place to commit a killing.  The murderer caught in this episode won’t be the last one to try that fool’s errand and suffer the consequences.

While the mystery is a simple affair, Angela Lansbury carries it often with style, helped by a great guest performance by Howard Duff. This story gets the regular run of hour-long Murder She Wrote episodes off to a fine start.

Rating:4.0 out of 5.0

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes”

“The Murder of Sherlock Holmes” is the premiere double-length episode of Murder She Wrote that aired on September 30, 1984 which ran for twelve seasons and was one of the most beloved mystery series’ of all time.

In this first episode, Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) is a widowed substitute school teacher living in the town of Cabot Cove, Maine. She writes a mystery novel in her spare time that she only shows to family. Her nephew (Michael Horton) takes the unpolished manuscript to a publisher friend in New York and it is published and climbs to #2 on the New York Times Best-Seller list, giving her instant fame. This requires that Lansbury be extra likable in order to win over those of us who have revised countless times and received more rejection letters than we have fingers and toes.

However, quick success has its price as she is subjected to the most insipid series of television interviews an author has ever had to endure, including an interview by the worst person in the world, who spoils the ending of Jessica’s book on national television. She’s had about enough of this when her publisher (Arthur Hill) offers her a trip to the country to spend time with his friends.  It’s at this party that she begins her streak of finding a body nearly everywhere she shows up as a man in a Sherlock Holmes costume is found murdered in the swimming pool

What’s Good :

I’ve seen half a dozen episodes of Murder She Wrote at most and these were later episodes where Jessica took every dead body in stride and is used to being a world famous mystery writer.  Don’t get me wrong, she was in no way arrogant, but she was quite accustomed to a strange life of finding dead bodies in between writing massively successful mystery books.

This is a different performance by Lansbury as this tells the story of how Jessica was plucked from obscurity to become an overnight mystery-writing sensation. After nearly 60 years on Earth, she finds herself have to deal with New York City, and then she gets thrust into a murder investigation when her nephew is suspected of the crime.

She has the raw detective skills but begins her career believably out of her element and over her head. However, she pushes ahead with her basic skills and pure grit and determination. At the same time, she’s likable throughout. If you don’t have someone like Jessica Fletcher in your family, then you certainly wish you did. She’s kindly, wise, and caring about people around her.  She’s great at building rapport.

There’s also a romance angle to the story, where she and her publisher start to fall for each other. She finds it all way too fast and it’s a believable reaction.  The gentle sparks between them is a good example of how romance can work with an older couple.

The guest cast is solid and professional including veterans Brian Keith, who is great as the crusty fast seafood king “Captain” Caleb McCallum and Anne Francis as his alcoholic wife Louise.

Another aspect of the production I enjoyed was the costumes at the costume party. They were perfect for the occasion. The costumes didn’t look like rentals from a costume story or like they were from a new Broadway musical.  Rather they’re tasteful and classy costumes that look just like what would be worn at an upper class party.

I also loved the final confrontation scene. There’s so much going on and Jessica is in real danger and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s also got more emotional stakes than is typically at stake in these sort of stories. You wonder what the killer is going to do right up until the last moment.

What Doesn’t Work:

While much of the first twenty-five minutes served to introduce Jessica as a character before she got to the party, I did feel like portions of this dragged and this could have been better paced.

Ned Beatty plays the Chief of Police of the small town where the murder occurred. Beatty tries to play him as being smarter than he looks or initially acts, even though he’s not at Jessica’s level. The script works against him, so it’s a bit of an uneven performance.

The execution of some scenes in Jessica’s investigation were a little off. She supposedly was breaking and entering into her nephew’s office to investigate another suspect but it seemed like she walked through an open door along with her nephew, so what was the problem?  

Also, there was a scene where Jessica was mugged and I noticed they used a stuntman with a wig for the rough part. I was also confused as to the point of the scene. She’s exculpated from the situation by someone who isn’t involved in the mystery and doesn’t become involved in the case. He’s just a random person who read her book.  They added to the power of published authors that they get devoted fans who risk their lives fighting off muggers.

There’s a scene in a theater and it’s an incredibly cheap-looking set. Its cheapness undermines a key plot point.

The ending scene where Jessica is leaving and the police want her to stay in New York and investigate a strange murder is excessively silly. And I write that as someone with a high tolerance for silly.

Overall:

No good TV series reaches its full potential in its first episode. Murder She Wrote is no exception. Parts of this story are a bit rough.  The pilot was written in an open-ended way that could allow it to lead to a TV series or, if that failed, it would at least be a good mystery movie of the week.

Thankfully, Murder She Wrote did become a TV series, thanks to Lansbury, whose likable and energetic performance makes this more than a movie of the week with a standard mystery plot and a few minor flaws.

By no means, is “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes” Murder She Wrote at its best but its Jessica Fletcher’s origin story and thus its worth viewing.

Rating : 3.5 out of 5

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The Great Classic Detectives of Amazon Prime

Over the years, I’ve subscribed to most of the big name video streaming services, including Hulu and Netflix. My main streaming service right now is Amazon Prime Video.

Prime is adding a lot of classic series to its line up of programs. The service has millions of members, some who don’t use the video streaming as they just want the free 2-day shipping. A lot of articles are written about the  latest Hollywood blockbusters and the latest original series (which are often reboots of things done in the 80s and 90s) and. This article is all about classic detective, spy, and adventure series available on Amazon Prime. I haven’t watched every episode of all of these, so this isn’t a proper review, but here’s an overview of a few series I’ve enjoyed so far on Amazon Prime

Decoy

I’ve written about Decoy before. I saw all of the twenty-seven episodes circulating around among fans. However, a complete season DVD was released collecting all thirty-nine episodes of this syndicated series following NYPD Policewoman Casey Jones (brilliantly played by Beverly Garland.)

The old circulating episodes’ quality ranged from stuff that looked it was recorded off a VCR to not-bad prints. These new prints are really something else. They look better than when the syndicated series was first broadcast. This helps because there’s so much to enjoy visually, particularly the location shots which capture nicely how New York looked in 1957.

In many ways, Decoy is a female version of Dragnet with Casey providing a voice-over about the true-to-life operation of policewomen in New York City. Casey works a variety of policewoman functions and we learn little known facts about the job at the time, such as that anytime a female dead body was found, a policewoman had to search the body before it was taken away.

Unlike Dragnet, Decoy did use fictional cases and had more drama. This ranged from emotionally engaging moments to over-the-top melodrama. Regardless, Garland is great to watch throughout the entire series.

Peter Gunn

Of all the TV shows that don’t have direct roots in radio, Peter Gunn most feels like a successor to the old time radio detectives. The series was created by Blake Edwards, who created the radio version of Richard Diamond and there are elements of Richard Diamond in this series. (Arguably more so than in the Richard Diamond TV series.)

Gunn (Craig Stevens)has a regular girlfriend in nightclub singer Edie Hart (Lola Albright)and a competent and smart friend on the force in Lieutenant Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi)and Gunn is repeatedly on the giving or receiving end of physical violence. On top of that, many episodes were written by radio stalwart Tony Barrett.

The mysteries are all standalone private investigator stories, but told with style.Some programs feel like they strain against a half hour time slot, but Peter Gunn stories seem to work perfectly within that allotted time.

The music on this series is superb. The unforgettable opening theme by Henry Mancini, all of the great jazzy instrumental music, and quite a few soulful solos by Edie and other singers make Peter Gunn a rare delight.

Mr. And Mrs. North

In Mr. and Mrs. North, Richard Denning and Barbara Britton star in the lead roles as a publisher and his wife who are constantly stumbling into mysteries. Most married detectives depict the wife as a Watson-type sidekick. In the Mr. And Mrs. North stories, either spouse could end up solving the case. In my opinion, the episodes where Mrs. North solves the case tended to be the most entertaining. Just like with Decoy, there have been quite a few public domain episodes floating around over the years, but Prime is offering a far more generous portion with improved video quality.

Danger Man
I recently wrote a review of Patrick McGoohan’s late 1960s hit The Prisoner (which is also still available on Amazon Prime)and that got me interested in his first Spy/Espionage series, Danger Man where he played John Drake, an American agent of NATO, in Season 1. In later seasons, the character would be re-imagined as a British Intelligence agent.

In this first season of half-hour episodes, Drake’s a freelance troubleshooter. Sometimes his missions involve typical spy/counter-intelligence functions, including helping Americans who have run afoul of banana republics escape unjust imprisonment. Drake often has to go undercover, which is fun to watch as McGoohan effectively plays another character. McGoohan was a great actor and this series does a good job showing off his range.

The series is noteworthy for McGoohan’s refusal to have John Drake become romantically involved with any guest stars. McGoohan refused to kiss anyone other than his wife. He also believed Drake should use his mind before using his fists and certainly before using a gun. Thus, we get cold war action without the over-the-top violence and sex associated with the James Bond films. This make the series fairly good family viewing.

The early episodes do strain against the 25 minute length and often feel in a bit of a rush to finish. Still, it makes solid viewing.

The Saint

Before he was 007, Roger Moore was the definitive take on Leslie Charteris’ The Saint for six seasons over the the British network ITV. He traveled the world, helping out people in distress.

The series was stylish and interesting. You never knew where the Saint would show up. Would be he trying to foil a jewel robbery, break up a bunco operation in the English countryside, or playing a part in the Cold War? Whatever he was doing, the Saint was always suave and ready for action. And you always had that moment right before the credits when someone would either learn Simon was the Saint or remind him of the fact and a halo would appear over his head just before the series started.

The series adapted many original short stories from Leslie Charteris. This was often a challenge as Charteris had written the character over a course of several decades and he began as a  morally ambiguous character, who at one point had his own gang. However, the series usually managed to handle the adaptations well.

One notable exception was “The Saint Plays with Fire.” As a book, The Saint Plays with Fire dealt with the rise of fascism and Nazi sympathizers in 1938 England as the specter of Nazi Germany loomed large. It was an adventure that would change the Saint forever, going into World War II. However, when set in 1963 England, this story doesn’t work well over TV.

However, most of them do work quite nicely and it makes for great viewing. Amazon has all six seasons of the Saint currently, except they don’t have the broadcast version of the two-parter The Fiction Makers from Season 6, instead they have the theatrical release version of those episodes.

There are other series on Prime that I’d like to watch and haven’t got a chance to yet, including the classic police show The Naked City, Mission Impossible, and Murder She Wrote (Seasons 1-5).

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Telefilm Review: Nero Wolfe (1979)

Nero Wolfe was an adaptation of Rex Stout’s novel The Doorbell Rang starring Thayer David as Nero Wolfe. It was supposed to be a pilot for a Nero Wolfe TV Series. However, David’s untimely death meant the series didn’t go forward. Though the telefilm was filmed in 1977, it wasn’t broadcast until 1979 and has rarely been replayed since then. It was released on DVD along with the 1981 Nero Wolfe TV series starring William Conrad (which we’ll be discussing next week.)

Following the plot of The Doorbell Rang, a wealthy realtor named
Rachel Bruner (Anne Baxter) turns to Wolfe to get the FBI to stop harassing her after she bought hundreds of copies of a book critical of the FBI and sent it to many important people. Wolfe is reluctant to take the case but Mrs. Bruner offers way too much money for him to turn it down. In short order, Wolfe and Archie (Tom Mason) are targeted by the FBI who begin spying on them and try to get their licenses pulled.

David was just magnificent as Wolfe. I prefer his take over Maury Chaykin’s in 2001’s A Nero Wolfe Mystery. He manages to capture all of Wolfe’s ego and eccentricity. The adaptor gave him Wolfean dialogue and he nails every line. His take on Wolfe is quite a bit less shouty than Chaykin’s and it feels closer to the book. The one thing David is knocked for is not being big enough to play Wolfe, but that I’m willing to cut him slack on. The main goal of a casting director isn’t an exact lookalike but capturing the role’s heart. In addition, David had been bigger earlier in his career, with health problems including cancer that would ultimately contribute to his fatal heart attack.

Tom Mason was great as Archie. He had Archie’s banter and mischievous nature down perfectly. He plays off David well, and I love the way they portray the nature of the relationship between Archie and Wolfe. The films open with Archie trying to badger Wolfe into taking a case as they’re running out of money and then back-pedals and doesn’t want Wolfe to take a case involving the FBI.

The rest of the cast is pretty solid. Anne Baxter brings a big dose of charm and starpower to the role of Mrs.  Bruner.  Biff McGuire has one big scene as Inspector Cramer and a couple smaller scenes he appears in, but he absolutely nails the role, particularly in his big scene.

The only odd casting decision was Charles Horvath as Orrie Cather. Cather was the youngest of three detectives Wolfe hired frequently in the novels. Horvath was older than Thayer David, and like David passed away before the film aired. However, Orrie’s part in the novel is so minor that it’s not a huge deal. In fact, IMDB didn’t even catch that Horvath was playing Cather.

The film is set in 1965 rather than 1977 because Fritz does reference J. Edgar Hoover and the film maintains the book’s ending scene, which would be impossible in 1977 as Hoover was dead in 1977. However, there’s little evidence of an effort to make the film look like it’s set in 1965. The cars, for example, appear to include 1970s models. However, for the most part, the men and women in the movie wear professional outfits and stay away from anything that screamed 1970s, so the era remained ambiguous.

Beyond that, the film stays true to the spirit of the book with most key events occurring as Stout wrote them in terms of who done it, Wolfe’s plan for dealing with the FBI, and the iconic ending. There are quite a few details changed, such as the location of the murder, what Wolfe does while he’s out of the Brownstone, a couple of scenes in Wolfe’s office at the end are condensed into one, etc, but the essentials of the story are the same.

Slightly more significantly, the film makes subtle changes that have Wolfe and Cramer working closer together than in the book. In addition, Wolfe is too friendly with Mrs. Bruner and has dinner with her in the kitchen of the brownstone after the case is solved, maintaining a charming , almost flirtatious line of conversation. That’s out of character for Wolfe, who’s notoriously cool towards women. Though, that may also be a by-product of the character being played by Anne Baxter.

Most of all, the changes made for the TV movie either were harmless or served to make for a better viewing experience.

The only moments I thought were bad was when someone prompted to Wolfe to quote back a piece of his own dialogue that he’d once said. It was a tad indulgent, but ultimately forgivable in the grand scheme of the film.

Overall, this was a fine movie, and I think it would have made a great television series had it been picked up. It’s a fair debate whether this film was  as good or better than A Nero Wolfe Mystery’s adaptation of the same story, and I may write an article comparing the two some time in the future.

For now, it’s fair to say Nero Wolfe stands on it own merit as a well-directed, well-acted film that’s  a must-watch for any Nero Wolfe fan.

Ratings: Very Satisfactory/4.5

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TV Episode Review: Magnum, PI: I Saw the Sunrise

Before reviewing this episode, let me get one thing out of the way. In no way is a reboot of Magnum, PI necessary. This is the case with most television and film updates. There are limited cases where it can work. For example, if you have a television show that had some good elements but was hampered by flaws, a new creative team may find an entirely different way to take it. It can also be appropriate to bring an old series forward to a new time, think Star Trek: The Next Generation or the revived Doctor Who. And when you’re dealing with a literary character that originates from books, you can always make another screen interpretation.

The original Magnum, PI is a critically acclaimed, beloved series that’s still on the air in more than one hundred countries. It was both well-written and featured award-winning acting. In short, there’s no reason to remake it. The best a remake will ever achieve is being the second-best version of Magnum, PI.

That said, despite being unnecessary, the end product can vary from being a horrible betrayal of the original series to a pale imitation of the original series, to something that would be fun in its own right.

“I Saw the Sunrise” is the first episode of the new series and introduced the main characters including Magnum (Jay Hernandez), Rick (Zack Knighton)and T.C. (Stephen Hill.) The three were Navy Seals together and Robin Masters was an embedded reporter whose life they saved. He promised to hook them up if he became rich and famous. He wrote a novel series that became a best-seller and acquired a spare mansion in Hawaii and a supply of Ferraris. (Not the typical outcome of a writing career.) Masters has hired Juliett Higgins (Perdita Weeks) as his caretaker.

From a production standpoint, the series manages not to mess up the show. As I was a little boy in the 1980s, I got a nostalgic thrill from seeing the Ferraris and T.C.’s glorious helicopter. The series uses the same theme, although in keeping with modern pacing standards, the opening lasts twenty seconds as opposed to a full minute for the classic series. The location shots are gorgeous. The action scenes are well-shot and exciting.

The acting is solid. Hernandez is no Tom Selleck. Nevertheless, he’s got a good bit of charisma and warmth that made me like his character. Perdita Weeks had a difficult challenge, taking on a role associated with Emmy Winner John Hillerman and managed to make the role her own. Like Hillerman, she could be snarky towards Magnum but never is mean or denigrating to the hero as happens with some attempts to inject “strong female characters” into long-running franchises. Knighton and Hill manage to be almost perfect replacements for their 1980s counterparts.

The plot of the story is straightforward. An old Navy buddy of Magnum’s is killed before Magnum can meet with him and Magnum sets out to find the killers.

The writing of this episode is of variable quality. The best thing about the script is it gives Magnum and friends a good motive to solve the case because the murdered man was their fallen comrade. Magnum has good moments with the victim’s young son, showing a kinder side which contrasts with all the fights involved in the episode.

Other changes are adequate. The case isn’t amazing but in a modern series, its understandable to make the mystery simpler so you can introduce your character. There were some tweaks to the original series. Throughout the original series, there was a bit of a sense of mystery around Robin Masters and Higgins, with hints being dropped that the two men were the same man. This is dispensed within the first episode as we learn that Higgins isn’t Robin right off the bat. It’s one of the few changes that indicate a willingness for the series to do something fresh.

This pilot has a few plot holes and issues. Given it’s a series that’s supposed to be fast-paced, it has one pointless scene where he meets with a client in the middle of the episode that has no connection to the episode and serves no purpose. In addition, Higgins is keeping a major secret which Magnum has found out for reasons that are never justified except with, “Hey, I’m a detective and I can figure out stuff!” Higgins admits to what Magnum says on the basis of the same flimsy argument and gives Magnum access to a satellite to track the villains of the week.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad episode and it doesn’t look like a bad series, but it’s not a great one either. With good action and decent performances, it’s okay for mindless inoffensive entertainment, but it’s a far cry from the original.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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