Category: Telefilm Review

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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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Hooray for Homicide

In “Hooray for Homicide,” Jessica is surprised and mortified to find out one of her books is being turned into a trashy horror movie.

She visits the set of the film to persuade the movie’s much-loathed producer Jerry Lyndecker (John Saxon) to cancel the film or make it match the book. Lyndecker refuses and Jessica has an attorney pull her original contact only to find out Lyndecker is sleezy but within his rights. Rather than going home, tail between her legs as most people would, Jessica goes to the studio to apologize only to find Lyndecker dead and herself a prime suspect.

What Works:

This is a solid plot. The idea of the proper Jessica Fletcher having her novel turned into a typical horror movie gives her all the motivation she needs, and provides great comedic moments as well. It’s also a cautionary tale for writers about making sure their rights are in order.

The episode also takes some digs at Hollywood of the 1980s, many of which would apply just as much today. Jessica has a lot of foils to battle on the set in search for truth and its marvelous to watch her battle through them.

Lieutenant Mike Hernandez (Jose Perez) is a different sort of character. The short, disheveled, unassuming detective reminds me of Lieutenant Columbo, only if Columbo’s goal was to get someone else to solve the case. His belief only Jessica can solve the case is not realistic, but based on the way the character’s written is quite believable.

Hernandez makes Jessica go downtown but doesn’t book her. After that she’s banned from the studio as a disruptive influence but manages to sneak back in by just putting on a hat and disguising herself as an elderly tourist. It’s an idea that makes sense while also being humorous.

The episode features a great chase scene with Jessica pursuing a man who broke into a trailer. However, the denouement is  unusual, with Jessica providing a subdued and compassionate confrontation of the killer.

It should also be noted that Hollywood legend Virginia Mayo makes an appearance, which is a big highlight for fans of classic motion pictures.

What Doesn’t Work:

Jessica gets her entertainment lawyer to help her with the investigation by telling him he’ll have to defend her in a murder trial and him acquiescing instead of saying, “Well actually, I’ll have to refer you to a criminal lawyer.”

Basically, Jessica’s threat is that if she’s not able to clear herself, she’ll hobble her own defense by having someone completely out of their depth represent her. That’s just a bit too silly.

Overall:

We get a good solid plot to bring Jessica Hollywood, a great mystery for her to solve, and a lovely list of suspects. The show offers a small dose of social commentary on the entertainment industry that fits just right for Murder She Wrote. This one is my favorite episode so far.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Birds of a Feather

Jessica’s niece is worried when her fiance is acting strange. Jessica comes to San Francisco in preparation for her niece’s wedding and urges her to get to the bottom of her fiance’s strange behavior.

They trace him back to a night club where they discover he’s been working as a female impersonator after failing in the insurance business. Right after this, he’s arrested for the murder of a night club owner (Martin Landau.) Jessica sets out to clear her soon-to-be nephew and find the real killer.

What Works

We get an idea of how long its been since The Murder of Sherlock Holmes as we learn Jessica has six best-sellers under her belt, and Lansbury’s performance captures the added confidence. The awkwardness of the first episode is gone as she works the case like a master of the art of detection.

Jessica’s assertive at times without losing her quintessential charm. One of my favorite parts of this episode is where she worms information out of a fired secretary and ends by complimenting her discretion.

Jessica’s police foil for this episode is Lieutenant Floyd Novack (Harry Guardino) who quite reasonably wants to keep an amateur out of his crime scene. However, Jessica uses her celebrity status to push into the case and slowly wins Novack over. It’s a nice, believable turn and they play well off each other.

Landau is the most well-known guest star in this episode, but his part is brief. All he does is exchange a few nasty words and is found dead. Outside of Guardino’s Lieutenant Novack, the best guest character is comedian Freddy York (Gabe Kaplan) who is quite believable as an 80s stand-up comic. He was genuinely funny a couple times but also reveals a nasty streak as the episode goes on, and it’s all quite believable.

The solution was nicely crafted. The vital clue was one we, as the audience were shown quite clearly, but many of us may have missed its significance. In addition, it’s believable that Lieutenant Novack would have missed this clue and Jessica spotted it without making Novack look foolish.

There may be one or two minor points (such as the composition of the wedding party at the end) that you could nitpick, but nothing in this episode detracted from my enjoyment.

This is a solid installment of the series. While it doesn’t have anything that’ll blow your mind, every aspect of this episode is well-done: a good police foil, a good batch of suspects with believable motives, a solid, fair and sensible solution, and a typical wonderful Angela Lansbury performance and you’ve got an hour of television well-worth watching for fans of TV mysteries.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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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

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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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