Category: Telefilm Review

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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TV Episode Review: The Avengers: The House that Jack Built

Series: The Avengers
Season 4, Episode 23
Original Air Date: March 5, 1966

“The House that Jack Built” begins atypically for an Avengers episode. Mrs. Peel (Diana Rigg) shows up to find John Steed (Patrick Macnee) developing photos. There’s no big case. She just stops by for a friendly chat before heading off to look at a house her solicitor sent her a letter saying she’d inherited.

When Mrs. Peel arrives, she’s trapped inside the house and forced to wander through a series of confusing rooms, traps, and weird contraptions seemingly meant to reduce her to a state of terror.

This is a brilliant episode. The directing is superb, giving this situation a very haunting claustrophobic atmosphere throughout. The design of this house and the all related traps lends to the suspenseful feel.

This episode is also a showcase for Diana Rigg. While Steed finds clues that put him on Mrs. Peel’s trail and allow him to be in on the finale, the focus is on Mrs. Peel as she creeps through this house with few words. Rigg is superb. Mrs. Peel is one of the few female characters on television in this era who wouldn’t break out in hysterics. Rigg plays Mrs. Peel with appropriate coolness, without portraying a flippant bravado that would take the viewer out of the episode.

While the Avengers had a fun light touch, this episode shows the series could work with a serious and suspenseful tone, too. This episode is a classic that’s well worth watching.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Sherlock Series 4 Review


Sherlock Series 4 features three feature-length episodes, “The Six Thatchers,” “The Lying Detective,” and “The Final Problem.”

The series was certainly different from the prior three. It would be inaccurate to say there’s no mystery in this season but they’re definitely very different sorts of mysteries.  We’ll go ahead and examine each episode in turn.

Warning, spoilers ahead for the first episode.

“The Six Thatchers” follows the events of Series 3 and the nightmare trip which was, “The Abominable Bride,” with Holmes having been given clemency for committing murder at the end of Series 3 in order to confront the seeming return of Moriarty. Holmes’ reaction is to put that off until something happens with Moriarty or whoever’s impersonating him. He returns to being a detective and texting all the time. While showing texts in Series 1 was interesting, it became incessant at the start of this episode. Characters should text far less than people in real life do.

There are some things I liked about this episode. I thought it was funny when Holmes offered to give Lestrade credit for solving a case, and Lestrade pointed out he’d done that before, and Watson wrote about it on his blog, making Lestrade look foolish. It’s a subtle dig at the original stories which were published by Dr. Watson in-universe, including stories where Holmes agrees to let Lestrade take credit for solving the case while the story exists in-universe and reveals otherwise.

The first half of “The Six Thatchers” is a well-done modern retelling of “The Six Napoleons,” which I really enjoyed. It leads into an ex-spy colleague of Mary Watson hunting her down for betraying him and the rest of her team.

Mary runs away. Sherlock tracks her down and searches for the real traitor. They confront the traitor unarmed and the traitor tries to kill Sherlock and Mary throws herself in the way of the bullet and is killed.

I found the “Mary has another secret” plot to be a bit of a rehash of plot points from Series Three. It was sad to see Mary go, but she died in the books, so it’s hard to complain about that. This episode was okay, not great, but it had some good moments.

“The Lying Detective,” finds Watson having cutting Holmes out of his life for failing to fulfill his vow to protect the Watson family. Holmes’ health is deteriorating, even as he pursues a rich man named Culverton Smith who may or may not be a serial killer.

This story leaves you constantly questioning who you can trust. Holmes has been taking drugs, and we’re given reason to question if what the audience sees is real or drug-induced fantasies. At the same time, Watson is hallucinating about Mary, with Mary even being helpful enough to tell him that she’s a hallucination created by his own mind.

This story does keep you thinking as there’s suspense about what exactly has happened. There’s not a question of who did it since there’s not a specific crime being investigated. That lets the central conflict be a battle of wits between Holmes and Smith.

Not being sure what you’re seeing is true makes for an interesting story, but I wouldn’t want to see another episode like this.

The series wraps up with, “The Final Problem,” in which we finally find out what was behind Moriarty’s re-appearance after dying in Series 2 as well as Sherlock finally learning the truth of his own past. I enjoyed this episode for the most part. It is much more psychological thriller than a typical murder mystery, but it has more use of deductive skills than any other episode this series. The final few minutes are superb as they say a lot about the man Sherlock has become without him saying much of anything.

On the other hand, to enjoy this, you have to accept Sherlock’s opponent in this story is a supervillain with the power to control any person if they get within three feet of her and speak to her alone. It can be disconcerting when a Sherlock Holmes story takes a giant step outside the realms of reasoning that’s such a hallmark of the character. To be fair, Steven Moffat is far from the first to do this. Sherlock Holmes has appeared in numerous pastiches that have put him up against supernatural creatures, aliens from outer space, and all other sorts of weirdness. This sort of thing certainly has been done worse.

The decisions this series have certainly been controversial, but I understand why they were made. When this series started in 2010, Moffat set Sherlock on a journey. In Series 1, Sherlock could be far more cold and oblivious to how others feel, and in many ways he couldn’t care less. In the first episode, Inspector Lestrade expressed his hope for Holmes, “Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and I think one day, if we’re very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.”

And that’s been the journey Sherlock’s been on. It’s not unheard of to do this in modern detective programs. In Monk, Adrian Monk was on a journey to become whole and find peace. The big difference between Sherlock and Monk is Monk aired sixteen hours of new episodes per year for eight seasons and worked Monk’s emotional journey into that series.

The challenge with Sherlock is they’ve gotten three feature-length episodes every two to three years due to the rising popularity of the series stars. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have both become major stars in Hollywood and scheduling has become more difficult. Who knows when they will be able to do a Series 5 or if they will be able to. Moffat seems to have wanted to ensure that character arc was completed, so a lot of character-related stuff was shoved into Series 4 in order to give the series a good stopping place.

The challenge is Moffat squeezed so much character work into this series, the mystery elements suffer. And to further along Sherlock’s character story, the show does some things that compromise Watson’s character.

Whether you enjoy it will depend on what you’re looking for. If all you want is a simple, well-written detective story, you’re going to be disappointed. The more invested your are in these characters, the more you’ll get out of it and the more forgiving you’ll be about the series’ flaws as you get to see Sherlock’s personal growth.

I was invested enough that I enjoyed the series,  but I’ll be okay if there’s not an additional series or future one-shot movies. Unlike the previous three finales, “The Final Problem” doesn’t end with a cliffhanger that demands another series. Unless Moffat plans on bringing viewers the type of mysteries that got people into Sherlock in the first place, it’s probably best just to leave it there.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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