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

6Jun/150

Telefilm Review: The Brazilian Connection

In the 1980s, the Saint returned to television with a series of TV movies starring Simon Dutton. “The Brazilian Connection” originally aired in 1989. In it, the Saint takes a hand to investigate when a baby is kidnapped in broad daylight.

The best thing about this updated Saint story is that Simon Dutton isn’t Val Kilmer. The second best thing about it is everything that doesn’t have much to do with the main mystery. There’s the early scene which has the Saint robbing a couple of criminals and getting away in style and then busting up an art fraud ring. Inspector Teal’s got a new boss who believes the Saint needs to be brought to heel, despite Teel’s support of Templar.

There’s lovely location shooting in London as well as some nice effects.

As a leading man, Dutton isn’t in the same league as the great Saint Actors: George Sanders, Roger Moore, or Vincent Price. He’s more like Hugh Sinclair, who played the role in two films in the 1940s. He’s certainly adequate, looks up to the part, and can be charming when the script lets him be. The problem is, far too often, the script doesn’t.

While this is better than the 1996 movie by a country mile, it seems the creative team doesn’t really understand the Saint and thus we’re given a story that could feature any 1980s Detective/Action hero.

The big failing of, “The Brazilian Connection” is it’s mystery story. It’s told with little style or real intrigue, and it’s hard to buy into the plot.

You could applaud the story for being years ahead of its time by its discussion of human trafficking, but the way the movie addresses the issue is unbelievable.

I’m not spoiling anything to explain the couple who kidnapped the baby in London worked for a black market baby ring that kidnapped babies from Brazil, particularly rural areas, taking advantage of local corruption to kidnap babies and smuggle them out of the country. The mystery is who the boss is.

So these kidnappers who have this Brazilian deal set up where due to their connections, they can easily smuggle babies out of the countries. So they are walking down the street, see a stroller, and do an impromptu kidnapping in the middle of London where they have none of the advantages they do in Brazil. Why? They figured they could pick up some extra bucks.

The story also does a disservice to adoptive parents who are concerned with overly strict regulations that made it difficult for them to adopt by tying people who support their cause to a baby smuggling ring.

Overall, the story isn’t awful, but it’s not great, either, and it didn’t leave me at all curious to see future episodes of this incarnation of the Saint.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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9May/151

Telefilm Review: Curtain


Curtain is a story many don’t want to read and don’t want to see. It’s Poirot’s last tale, the story in which Poirot meets his final end.

Poirot returns to Styles, where he solved his first great English case decades before. This is a different Poirot as far as we can tell, an invalid with a new valet whose days are numbered. Yet, he’s got one more case to solve and he turns (with reluctance) to his oldest and dearest friend, Captain Hastings.

David Suchet turns in a superb performance as this much older, ailing, and far less sunny Poirot. He’s more grumpy and snaps at Captain Hastings, who he has no choice but to depend on. Despite his inability to observe as he once did, it’s clear the little gray cells are still working.

Hugh Frasier delivers a great performance as Captain Hastings, no longer the dim-witted sidekick, he's charged with grief over the death of his wife, with concern for Poirot, and with his daughter’s coldness and involvement with an amoral man. Hasting is driven to his limit and Frasier plays this beautifully, taking advantage of a script that makes Hastings a far juicier part than the typical comic sidekick.

The mystery itself is unusual. It’s hard to follow or to even figure out if there’s a pattern to what’s going on until we get the solution. Then the nature of the evil Poirot faces is exposed, and we’re brought face to face with the shocking choice to make at the end of his days.

Poirot’s final scene is beautifully done, as he’s a man dying hoping only for forgiveness. It’s only later that we learn what for.

Curtain is a solid production, and probably the best of the season.

I’ve enjoyed the entire series, and mystery fans own a large debt of gratitude to David Suchet, who didn’t come to Poirot of remaking him, rather Suchet has said that he understood his job as an actor was to serve the writer (and in the case of the Poirot stories, his creator) by bringing the character to life as they intended it. His job was to truly to be Agatha Christie’s Poirot. While there are quite a few adaptations (particularly in Series 9 and 10) where the story was often very different from Christie’s vision, in all of these tales, Suchet remained superb and succeeded in being Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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2May/150

Telefilm Review: The Labours of Hercules


A few years back
The first thing to understand about the ITV telefilm, The Labours of Hercules is that it really couldn’t be faithful to the book as a whole the way it was produced.

The Labours of Hercules wasn’t really an Agatha Christie novel (see my review here.). It was a short story collection with an overarching theme. Where Poirot, prior to retirement, sought out to cap his career by re-enacting the Labours of Hercules. In truth, this should have been adapted as another season of hour-long adventures, as that’s how previous Christie short stories were handled.

But instead we have a ninty minute telefilm that must be evaluated on its own merits. After failing to catch a jewel thief who also commits murders for the sheer pleasure of it, Poirot is not well. He’d promised a young woman she’d been safe, but instead she’d fallen victim to the jewel thief along with a man who had been attending the same party.

Poirot is depressed, but decides to do something positive by helping his hired driver find his true love, and goes to Switzerland to do so and finds himself in the same hotel as the thief and murderer who defeated him in London. Poirot seeks to catch the killer, but finds more than his usual share of red herrings as the hotel is full of people hiding things and mysteries. In the book, Poirot solves these mysteries across Great Britain and the Continent, but the production is pretty clever in putting as many of these cases from the as possible, literally “under one roof.”

The direction in the film is fantastic, and the Chateau setting is gorgeous and atmospheric. It’s a very well-told and engaging mystery that borrows from the book, but has its own tale to tell.

The one thing that bothers me about is the tonal shift from the book. As a book, The Labours of Hercules is a fun collection of tales about Poirot deciding to cap his amazing career by replicating the original Labors of Hercules. It’s eccentric and light reading. This telefilm  is much darker, and it’s about Poirot’s failure and his struggle for redemption and the fact that his life can often be quite lonely. In many ways, this film serves sets the tone for the final story, Curtain.

Overall, even though this isn’t the Labours of Hercules as I’d really like to have it made (and I doubt, given the increasingly dark tone of our entertainment, such a production will ever be made), it’s good for what it is: an atmospheric mystery that sets up the series finale and Poirot’s last case.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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25Apr/150

Telefilm Review: Elephants Can Remember


A few years back, I listened to the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Elephants Can Remember when it was first released several back. Their version was quite enjoyable as Poirot undertakes solving a twenty-year-old murder mystery so a bride to be can be married without worry and to answer the attacks of her would-be Mother-in-Law. BBC Radio 4 managed to tell a story that was emotionally engaging and involving. Still, it didn’t quite seem to be a good story for television because of its pace and the fact it involved interviewing older people about what they did in their life.

I was curious to see what ITV’s Poirot did with Elephants Can Remember. Their solution was to make the original mystery a secondary story. As a main story, we have the murder of a psychiatrist and a brand new murder created out of whole cloth.

The problems with this are two fold. First, by having Poriot be dismissive to the cold case at first, it changes his overall character. Second, the telefilm’s new main murder isn’t all that good. Nick Dear’s plot is like a bad imitation of a Christie murder, with a lot of the tropes but none of talent for details and depth of character that made Christie’s work so fantastic.

This production takes a lesser Christie novel and turns it into a lesser television episode. This is the weakest adaptation since Series 10. There’s still some decent performances and good atmosphere, but not a whole lot to recommend this as a whole.

For a good adaptation of the story, I highly recommend the BBC Radio 4 version. As for the telefilm, to borrow a quote from the book, “Elephants can remember, but we are human beings and mercifully human beings can forget.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0

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4Apr/150

Telefilm Review: The Clocks


In, “The Clocks” a woman from a secretarial service is found running away in terror from a house in which a man has been found murdered by a young naval intelligence officer.. The secretary’s employer had sent her there in response to a phone call but the owner of the house claims never to have called to request the secretary’s services. In addition at the scene of the crime, four clocks are found each set to 4:13 P.M. but one of them disappears.

The police belive the woman committed the murder, but the Navy intelligence man doesn’t. However, it becomes clear that his judgment has been clouded, and it’s up to Poirot to sort out the truth.

The novel on which the telefilm was based was written Post World War II, though the film is set in the 1930s. There are a few signs of this, the biggest of which is the treatment of Poirot. The post-WW2 novels tended to have Poirot viewed with less respect by the local police. Instead of getting a compliant, respectful and cooperative colleague like Japp, the Clocks leaves Poirot with Inspector Hardcastle (Phil Daniels) who is not sure of Poirot despite assurances from Scotland Yard and Naval Intelligence. Hardcastle lives by a simple axiom that “somebody saw something” and doesn’t take much stock in Poirot’s hunches or vague statements include Poirot’s pronouncement that when it came to the unidentified victim “It doesn’t matter who he is, but who he is,” leading Hardcastle to mock Poirot, though it turned out Poirot had a serious point. There’s a great interplay and Hardcastle is a fine police foil for Poirot.

As usual, the production values are great with a beautiful period feel, and a superb cast. The mystery is complicated without being too convoluted and there are some very believable motivations for the criminals.

Overall, a very satisfying adaptation.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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22Nov/140

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: The Last Free Man

Murder She Wrote: The Last Free Man was the third made for TV movie featuring Jessica Fletcher following the cancellation of the long-time hit TV mystery show. This is definitely not your typical Murder She Wrote story.

In the film, while in Virgina, Jessica (Angela Lansbury) strikes up a conversation with Cassandra Hawkins (Phylicia Rashad) who is looking into the case of one of her ancestors Samuel Pickney who was labeled a murderer in the waning days of the antebellum South. To add to the mystery, he has not one but two gravemarkers with two different dates of death. Jessica and Cassandra uncover accounts left behind by Jessica’s Great Great Aunt Sarah (also played by Lansbury) who was a slaveowner who owned Sam Pickney (Michael Jace) but considered him a friend.

Through the journal entries, the audience is transported back to the late 1850s and we witness the events leading up to the murder and see how Sarah tries to solve it while dealing with prejudice and tense politics of the era.

The telefilm can be divided into two parts: The framing story and the Antebellum story that takes up most of the movie.

The latter is very well done. The cinemotography is solid and captures the feel of the era quite nicely. Lansbury has a nice turn as the proper but determined Aunt Sarah. Jace has a great emotional performance as Sam. The mystery is an interesting puzzle. It’s not great, but certainly worth watching.

The framing story is far more problematic. There are four scenes in the twenty-first century around the three larger scenes in the 19th century and the first three scenes involve uncovering letters and journals written by Aunt Sarah that tell the story of the murder and its investigation. In no case is the search actually interesting. There's no one trying to stop them from finding the information. Their search is simply finding a location, digging through boxes, and finding the documents for the next part of the main story. Where the final journal entry is found is not only easy to get to, it's absurd to imagine that something of that nature would not have already been found in the location they had it in.

Unfortunately, the framing story serves mainly to offer some ham-fisted political commentary about the modern South (the film clumsily suggests a link between Civil War re-enactors and people who spray paint racially motivated graffiti on cars) and debates over the history of the Civil War.  In some ways, it feels like the purpose of the modern day scenes isn't to tell a good story but to tell us how we should feel about the scenes from the 19th century, which is the definition of bad writing.

The historical portion with the antebellum mystery is enjoyable and evocative. but the weak writing on the modern day portions leads to wasted performances by Rashad, as well as David Ogden Stiers.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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1Nov/140

TV Mini-Series Review: The Escape Artist

In the 2013 BBC Mini-series The Escape Artist, Will Burton (David Tennant), a British barrister who has never lost a case, takes on the task of defending Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), a man accused of a heinous crime. Burton is able to get Foyle off but soon finds his family in Foyle’s crossfire.

David Tennant turns in a fine performance as Will Burton. Burton is likable, earnest, and caring. He’s a man doing a job he’s a good at and you never feel he crosses a line. The mini-series is stylish enough and has good moments. Also, several members of the cast pull off their roles quite well including Toby Kebbell as Foyle.

The degree to which you enjoy this is largely the degree to which you can view the British Justice system as horribly broken and the minions of the law as hopelessly incompetent. The Crown manages to lose three murder cases through a sheer force of incompetence as they fail to check a computer history before going into court and accusing the defendant of being a consumer of revenge porn, failing to fill out the search warrant form properly, and failing to properly examine the body, all while running a crime lab that invites defense challenges. While Will Burton is supposed to be some sort of genius, we really don’t see it until Part 3 as the Police and prosecutors manage to defeat themselves quite nicely.

The character of fellow barrister Maggie Gardener (Sophie Okonedo) is hard to even get a handle on. Her defense in Foyle’s second murder trial is understandable despite her obvious distaste for the man. Her actions at the end of Part 3 are .simply inexplicable and only done so that one can uncover what actually happened. After all, what good is it having a clever protagonist if no one knows how clever he's been?

Overall, if you can enjoy the music and Tennant’s performance and not focus on the plot holes, the Escape Artist is a decent but certainly not great British thriller.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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11Oct/141

Telefilm Review: Dead Man’s Folly

In the Series 13 film, Ariadne Oliver’s been hire to set up a “Murder Hunt” for a fête, which is a sort of  bazaar or carnival. However, Oliver is suspicious by some changes requested to her scenario and calls Poirot in for help.

Trouble starts with the actual murder of the Girl Guide who was to play the victim in the murder hunt. This is followed by the disappearance of the lady of the house.

This is a solid mystery that lives up to the highest standards of the Poirot series. I also preferred this over the Peter Ustinov version from the 1980s, if for no other reason than I really had trouble buying Jean Stapleton as Mrs. Oliver in the Ustinov version while Zoe Wanamaker carries the role off with style.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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27Sep/140

Telefilm Review: The Big Four

The Big Four was described by Mark Gatiss, the writer who was charged with adapting it for television as, an “almost unadaptable mess.” Massive restructuring was required and much of the book's plot was cut for the telefilm, but what remained was a solid and enjoyable mystery.

Most of the story feels like a bit of political thriller as a series of strange deaths occur, and a muckraking reporter believe it’s tied in to an international conspiracy known as “The Big Four” which also appears connected to the Peace Party. The solution takes the story in a different direction and I didn’t enjoy the last twenty minutes as much as what came before. But even that had its moments. My favorite was when the killer through Poirot’s comments that the killer was “theatrical” right back at the Belgian detective who does one of his most theatrical denouements ever.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable story. It wasn’t one of the best, but with great acting and a solid script by Mark Gatiss, this is definitely worth watching.

Rating: 4.00 out of 5.00

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13Sep/140

Telefilm Review: Three Act Tragedy

In Three Act Tragedy, Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright where a harmless clergy men collapses and dies after cocktails. It’s thought just to be a natural death until a Doctor friend of Sir Charles dies in the same manner. Poirot and Sir Charles then team up to find out what’s the truth behind the deaths.

Overall, this is a beautiful production. It’s stocked with great characters, chief of which is Cartwright, who really plays a big role in the investigation. It doesn’t hurt that this is a simply marvelous story and the creative team were mostly faithful to it.

Comparing to the 1986 telefilm with Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis, “Murder in Three Acts”, this one works better for being a faithful adaptation in the original time and setting of the book. However, I still have a warm place in my heart for the Ustinov version and what achieved in a modern setting and really taking advantage of lucious California landscapes. While Martin Shaw turns a good performance at Cartwright, it’s not near as strong as Curtis.

Overall 2010 telefilm is a great adaptation of one of Christie’s most interesting tales.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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