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

30Aug/140

DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season One

The Father Dowling Mysteries was a delightful mystery series starring Tom Bosley (Happy Days) and Tracy Nelson as Chicago-based Father Frank Dowling and Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, a priest and nun constantly finding themselves in the the thick of mysteries. The duo first appeared in a 1987 TV movie before joining the 1989 NBC line up as a mid-season replacement before moving to ABC in 1990 for another mid-season replacement season and its only full season. Having aired on NBC and ABC, the DVD release, of course, comes from CBS Home video. Father Dowling was a character created by Ralph McHenry in a series of popular novels, but the novels really don’t appear to have come much into play in the stories.

The first season set collects the 1987 Movie, “The Fatal Confession” as well as the seven episode first season of Father Dowling.

Ultimately, this isn’t a series made by the cleverness of its mysteries or bone-chilling suspense, or CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonist and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.

Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating that balance that’s required in a clerical detective. Dowling is clever, but he’s also compassionate. He cares about catching the bad guy but he also cares about people’s souls and lives. In so many ways, Frank Dowling is a bit of a throw back to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He was truly good and kind, and also didn’t take himself too seriously.

Sister Steve is street smart but also very compassionate. The biggest flaw with the way the series played the character was that in each episode, they had to have her do something you wouldn’t typically expect a nun to do usually in the line of duty but sometimes not: beating the neighborhood boys at basketball playing pool, fixing a car, mixing drinks at a bar, or teaching an aerobics class. It was all in the line of work. Sometimes, it was humorous, though it times it could get goofy and a little repetitive. The first few episodes had her being able to do every single thing well. Thankfully, in the “Face in the Mirror Mystery,” they finally had her undertake a task she couldn’t do well: rollerskating.

Rounding out the regulars were Father Dowling’s cranky housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) and the very particular Father Phil (James Stephens) who would appear in the first and last episodes of the 1989 series before becoming a regular. As for the episodes themselves:

“The Fatal Confession” had some good moments in it as Father Dowling looks into the apparent suicide of a former parishoner, but the last quarter of it or so was just too much like a soap opera

“The Missing Body Mystery,” the feature length first episode of the 1989 series begins with a man stumbling into St. Michaels and dying. When Father Dowling returns after calling the police, the body is gone. His stability is called into question and the bishop wants to relieve him and replace him with Father Phil. It’s a great story and a solid beginning.

“What Do You Call Girl Mystery,” is a story about a slain high-priced call girl that manages to tell a good story without being exploitative or sleazy.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery,” is probably the only clunker in the first season. Steve’s ex-fiance (played by Nelson’s then-husband William Moses) witnesses a murder but when he shows up with the police, the body’s gone. Even worse someone’s trying to kill him. This story not only has a similar plot to a much better episode that aired two weeks previously as a well as a weak conclusion, but it tries to create dramatic conflict over Steve’s decision to become a nun and fails.

The main problem is that we’re told that Steve was almost ready to marry her ex when she ran off to the convent to become a nun. Why would a young woman make this very radical decision? All of the reasons Sister Steve gives such as "it was the right thing for me" don't really ring true. It’s impossible to believe a nun would say or if someone wanted to be a nun with such weak reasons, that the Catholic church would allow it. Of course, treating the subject realistically may have required too much religiosity for network TV executives liking. But if you can’t do it well, why do it at all? Why try introduce a dramatic subplot that’s not believable?

The season got back on track with the two part, “Mafia Priest Mystery,” in which Father Luciana, the son of a mafia family becomes Father Dowling’s new Assistant. He’s trying to make a break with the family business but is drawn into an effor to help his brother Peter go straight and finds himself framed for murdering the DA. This is a great story with a lot of tension, suspects, and situations. We do learn whodunit about half away through the second episode but there’s still some great suspense including a delightful train chase. I also appreciate how the episode highlights both Frank and Steve’s compassion as they deal with and minister to members of the crime family even while trying to find the killer.

“The Face in the Mirror Mystery,” is actually a pretty decent story despite the fact that the premise of an “evil twin” of the main character has been done to death. This is  a great cat and mouse game between Father Dowling and his twin brother Blaine, though the payoff scene is a little silly.

The season concluded with, “The Pretty Baby Mystery,” which has a woman chased by armed men leaving her baby in the church. Father Dowling and Steve try to find the mother and end up getting arrested by the Feds. This is another episode that really respects the characters’ vocation and differentiates them from the typical TV detective. The episode also marked the return of James Stevens as Father Phil, who has become the Bishop’s assistant.

Overall, the first season of Father Dowling was thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to be a mostly well-written family friendly detective series with likable characters. It treats its main characters with respect, but also manages a great deal of humor and warmth. I’ll look forward to future seasons.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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16Mar/130

Telefilm Review: Murder on the Links

We continue our look at the the great Poirot Telefilm series over ITV as I eagerly await the new episodes coming later this year. Murder on the Links was the third of four films released during Poirot's sixth series.

In Murder on the Links, Poirot while vacationing in Deauville France is approached by a wealthy man who has received certain undisclosed threats. The next day, Captain Hastings finds the man murdered and lying in a sand trap. Poirot sets out to solve the murder and this time he has the rival, the pompous Inspector Giraud and the stakes are high: if Giraud solves the case first, Poirot must shave his trademark mustache.

This was another solid story with the battle with Giraud being played for great comedic effect. In addition, Captain Hastings holds back information from Poirot and it's open question as to whether Captain Hastings has helped a murderer escape. The solution is satisfyingly complex and exactly what we expect of Agatha Christie and this series.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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19Jan/130

Telefilm Review: Hickory Dickory Dock

In Hickory Dickory Dock, the second episode of Poirot's sixth season, Poirot becomes concerned when the usually infallible Miss Lemmon turns in some typed correspondence with three errors. It turns out that she's concerned about her sister who works at a hostel for college students where many small thefts have been occurring. Poirot steps in to try and stop the thefts, and all appears to be well when the thief of most of the items admits her responsibility and returns the items.

However, matters take a more sinister turn when the thief is murdered. Poirot investigates and runs into intrigue and international crime. As usual, the recurring cast is top notch to Suchet with Philip Jackson turning in another strong performance as Chief Inspector Japp. However, the mystery itself is incredibly well-done. It's complex but not convoluted  making this film a must-see for fans of classic mysteries.

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11Aug/120

Telefilm Review: The ABC Murders

The Fourth Series of Poirot from ITV was made up entirely of feature length Telefilms and the first of these was the A.B.C. Murders.

Hastings returns from South America in time to help Poirot solve a baffling and alarming mystery. A murderer sends Poirot a series of letters announcing murders and he's going in Alphabetial Order from A to Z for both the last names of the victims and the cities where the murder is committed. At each crime scene, a copy of the A.B.C. railroad guide listing schedules for trains to each of Britain's cities.

Being somewhat familiar with the plot from a far too abbreviated Poirot-less adaptation of the story on Radio's Supsense, I knew whodunit but even so The A.B.C. Murders still managed to hold my attention. The film did a great job not only maintaining a high level of suspense, but also in creating believable reactions from the victim's family and the genuine warmth between Poirot and Hastings was on display in a way it wasn't usually in the one hour episodes of the series.

Nearly was perfect pitch in this adaptation with solid performance from David Suchet and Hugh Fraser as Poirot and Hastings, and Donald Sumpter turns in a memorable performance as Mr. Cusp. The only performance that seemed a little off was Philip Jackson whose Inspector Japp seemed a little grumpier than usual.

Overall, this was a fantastic telling of one Christie's favorite stories and is rightly listed by Suchet as one of his favorites.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

As of this date,
This film, along with all Poirot Telefilms through Series 6 is available on Netflix Instant Watch as of this writing.

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28Jul/120

Telefilm Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the oldest Poirot story. In fact, it is the only Poirot story that is in the public domain in the United States (though not the UK). 

Lieutenant Hastings is convalescing and visits some friends at Styles. The matron of the house is killed and suspicion immediately falls on her husband who is Before the matter is officially reported, Hastings seeks the help of Poirot,who is a refugee from Belgium adjusting to life in the U.K. Poirot has to unravel the multiple lies and deception that surrounded the murder and a new will that apparently has gone missing.

I wrote in my review of the Peril at End House, that the producers of Agatha Christie's Poirot opted for a look that made the feature length episode look and feel like just a longer episode of the television. 

In the Mysterious Affair at Styles which led off the third series of Agatha Christie's Poirot, they opted to step it up notch with beautiful shots of the British Countryside and World War I British life. Suchet showed his strength as a performer and his mastery of the Poirot character in his ability to make subtle changes depending on the character's age. In Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot is far more obsessive compulsive, and is less adjusted to English life than Poirot did in the episodes set in the 1930s. 

While I think the transition to television lost a little bit of the charm of the book which had you suspecting everyone other than Poirot and Hastings at one point or another, Suchet is still masterful as Poirot and the improved quality makes it a pleasure to watch.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

As of this writing, this film along with all Telefilms through Series 6 is available on Netflix Instant Watch.

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30Jun/120

Telefilm Review: Peril at End House

Peril at End House was the first adaptation of a Poirot novel done as part of ITV’s Poirot series. The program aired January 7, 1990 ahead of the second series of 60 minute Poirot episodes.

Poirot and Hastings are on vacation when they encounters Nicki Buckley (Polly Walker), who had a series of accidents including a nearly fatal car accident. While she is talking to Poirot, she complains of a buzzing wasp. However, after she leaves, Poirot finds a bullet, which convinces Poirot that Nick is in deadly peril.

They journey to her inherited estate of End House, a beautiful home that Nick loves but can’t afford maintain. They find it inhabited by some characters of questionable motives. In addition, she has a lawyer cousin in town who could also be another suspsect. Poirot finds more intrigue and determines that Nick needs protected and Nick calls for her nearly identical cousin to be her protect. However, when the cousin is killed, Poirot realizes the case has escalated. Poirot has to find out who wants Nicki dead and why in order to prevent another tragedy.

Peril at End's House is an intriguing ystery. While not completely unique, it is different than most whodunits as Poirot begins to work to preempt the murder.  Peril at End House twists and turns quite a bit before reaching its conclusion. The story is cleverly told with the usual supply of red herring. David Suchet is solidly supported by the regular cast of the series including Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), Phillip Jackson (Inspector Japp), and Pauline Moran (Miss Lemmon).

If there's any criticism at all of the telefilm is too obviously a TV movie.  While later Poirot movies look and feel like they could have been shown in theaters with their rich colors and luscious cinematography, you have no doubt that Peril at End House was a made for TV movie. The DVD release makes this painfully obvious by leaving in the "To be continued..." frame that was aired when the film ran in reruns as a two episode. To this end, it also includes a somewhat absurd scene where Poirot has to explain every detail of the case they've been investigating to Captain Hastings in order to stop Hastings from walking off to go play golf. Hastings may not be the brightest sidekick but come on. Give me a good old fashioned, "Previously on Poirot..." any day.

However, Peril at End House was a good pick for the first ITV Poirot adaptation of the novel. It allowed the cast and crew to dip their toe into  longer adaptations without any of the expensive demands that would come with a much larger project like Murder on the Orient Express. Peril at End House is a telefilm that leaves you wanting more. Good news is that it delivered much more.

Rating 4.0 out of 5.0

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20May/120

DVD Set Review: The Columbo Mystery Movie Collection: 1991-93

If quantity was more important than quality that the first two seasons of Columbo's revival in the 1989 and 1990 movie sets would be a high point. The truth is that Peter Falk remained brilliant as Columbo making the programs worth watching. However, an old spark was missing.

Perhaps, the biggest difference between these early films and the 1970s Columbo were the guest villains. The 1970s series had featured some of Hollywood's most distinguished actors as foils for Columbo: Gene Barry, Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy, Donald Pleasence, Roddy McDowall, Leonardy Nimoy, William Shatner, Janet Leigh, and Patrick McGoohan.

By contrast the first twelve Revival movies over ABC had a cast of Hollywood unknowns. The exceptions to this were McGoohan who starred in Agenda for Murder (1990)  and walked away with an Emmy nomination and Golden Globes winner Anthony Andrews who led off with Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. When researching the actors, many of them looked good on paper with many nominations for awards. A surprising number of Soap Opera actors made their way to be Columbo guest villains.  When cast with the Columbo in his iconic rain coat they showed they weren't quite ready for "prime time."

The next six movies took a difference pace. Over 1991-93, a total of six Columbo movies were released and in 2011, these six were released on DVD. However, these had far superior guest murderers which produced some better movies, particularly the first three.

The set has absolutely no extras, but Columbo fans will glad take the presence of our favorite police Lieutenant with no bells and whistles:

Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health (1991): George Hamilton became the second actor to play a Columbo killer in both the 70s and 1990s. He plays Wade Anders, a man who hosts an America's Most Wanted Style TV show. The man who he beat out for the job (Peter Haskell) threatens to reveal Anders participation in a porno decades previously: information sure to undermine his credibility. The non-smoking Anders poisons the chain-smoking Anderson's cigarettes, and plans to make the death look like an accident. Then Columbo comes on the case. He and Columbo have some memorable scenes including a hilarious non-speaking scene in a parking lot.  Overall, a very well-done professional Columbo film. Grade: A-

Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star (1991): Dabney Coleman, in an Emmy-nominated performance, plays a high-powered defense attorney who murders his live in girlfriend. Coleman's lawyer is slick and charismatic,  making this game of cat and mouse between him and Columbo particularly enjoyable. Grade: A-

Death Hits the Jackpot (1991): A man going through a divorce wins the lottery but doesn't want to split the proceeds with his soon-to-be ex-wife. So he turns to his Uncle Leon Lamar (Rip Torn) for help. The Uncle (who is financially in trouble) comes up with a clever idea: let him cash in the ticket and then he'll pay off the nephew later quietly once the attention has died down. Instead, he murders his nephew and attempts to keep the money for himself with the help of the nephew's ex-wife.  Torn is perhaps the most sinister and cold-blooded Columbo murderer since Lee Grant in "Ransom for a Dead Man."  I cheered for Columbo like never before in this one. Grade: A

No Time to Die (1992): "No Time to Die" was based on an Ed McBain novel and really tossed the Columbo formula out the window in favor of a more straight police procedural. The result was an "okay" somewhat average TV mystery movie. For fans of the series, there's a lack of Columbo being Columbo and he does unColumbo-like things like carrying a gun.

Of course, other TV shows such as The Rockford Files and Simon and Simon adapted novel plots for TV episodes. The difference was that they adapted that fit the tenure of the series. Columbo comes from a much more soft boiled tradition like Poirot. Throwing him into a procedural was entirely bizarre. The whole case centers around the kidnapping of a policeman's new bride on his wedding night by a psychopathic sexual pervert. It's not Columbo stuff. Falk did the best he could with it, but from me it just gets a: C+

A Bird in the Hand (1992): A problem gambler (Greg Evigan)  decides to murder his sports team owner father.  He wires his dad's car with a bomb, but his father dies in an apparent hit-and-run accident, and his bomb instead kills the family gardener. This episode is an interesting experiment as we follow one person who plans the killing, but another person executes in an entirely different way. It doesn't work out quite as well on the screen mainly because the writers did not give the talented Tyne Daley enough work with in her role as the not-so grief stricken widow. Grade: B

It's All In the Game (1993): A wealthy socialite (Faye Dunaway) plots the murder of her boyfriend with the help of another woman he's dating. Columbo is very courteous to her at the crime scene, but he's also suspicious that the theory of a robbery motive for the murder may be wrong. Her plan to stop Columbo? Seduce him.  In the process, she actually starts to fall in love with him, telling her daughter that Columbo is "fun to be with." While Columbo does like her, there are numerous signs that in the "romance" he's only playing along until he gets what he needs: signs that she misses. Her confidence that her feminine wiles can get a veteran homicide cop to change a report border between attractive and over the top.

The episode also was made memorable by the fact that while we saw the murder, we were left with many mysteries as to the why and who the young woman with Dunaway's character was. Overall, this was a very solid latter episode. Grade: A-

Overall set rating: B+

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3Oct/100

Video Theater 009: Sherlock Holmes: The Cunningham Heritage

Sherlock Holmes (Ronald Howards) meets Dr. Watson (Marion Crawford) and they deal with their first adventure as a woman is suspected of killing her wealthy boyfriend.

Episode 1 (1954)

2May/100

Video Theater 004: Cases of Eddie Drake: Shoot the Works

Eddie is hired by a wealthy woman to recover a watch that could reveal an indiscretion. Along the way, Eddie runs into murder.

Original Air Date: April 10, 1952

24Apr/100

The Big List of Classic Online TV Detective Shows

Below is a list of  TV detective and police shows made available to watch online via Hulu, CBS, and In2TV. Most of these are not public domain but available through ad-supported watching

Adam-12

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Dragnet

Hart to Hart

Hawaii 5-0

Highway Patrol

Kojak

Moonlighting

New Dragnet

Perry Mason

The Rockford Files

Spencer for Hire

Starsky and Hutch

S.W.A.T.

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