Tag: good review

Book Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

Note: A version of this review appeared in 2009

This is the first Father Brown short story collection by G.k. Chesterton. Father Brown was in many ways a continuation of what Chesterton wrote in his classic Orthodoxy. 

The intellectuals of Chesterton’s time viewed the orthodox Christian as superstitious and weak-minded. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, asserted his vision of orthodoxy was entirely different: conscious, sensible, winsome, and wise. 

Two years after writing Orthodoxy, he wrapped it in a Cossack and embodied it in the person of Father Brown, a physically unremarkable and humble priest, who uses his wisdom, common sense, and experience as a confessor to solve even the most baffling crimes.

It should be noted that, contrary to what many people have said, Chesterton was not a Catholic at the time he wrote the first Father Brown stories from 1910-1914. That conversion wouldn’t happen until the 1920s. However, he already knew the priest who would facilitate his confession and Father John O’Connor was the basis of the character.

To enjoy Chesterton’s books, you have to appreciate a couple of things. First of all, many are unlike any detective stories we read today.  While there’s plot and action, the main focus is the puzzle, not character development. Outside of Brown and his friend Flambeau, most of the characters remain flat. They’re stereotypical Frenchmen, Calvinists, Rich Men, and Atheists. They’re there to provide their piece of the puzzle and then get on with it.

 There’s also not any sense of danger or mayhem. There’s little violence onstage, although Chesterton can come up with some quite ghastly ways to kill a man.

This is a battle of wits between you and Father Brown, and most of the time you’re going to lose quite badly. The plot unfolds to reveal the puzzle, Father Brown solves the puzzle and the story ends, often abruptly.

What carries the stories is Chesterton’s voice which I find delightful, even when reading a book over one hundred years after the time. Chesterton uses his prose like a painter uses paint, true artistry that’s understandable to a modern reader.

Father Brown is a fun character. When he speaks, he says something important. Brown was the first in a long line of unlikely detectives that would include Charlie Chan and Inspector Columbo: the last person in the world that the criminal would be worried about finding them out. But somehow, he solves the case with a completely unexpected solution.

There are a total of twelve stories in the collection, each constituting a different mystery. Several stood out to me:

The Blue Cross: The first Father Brown story and perhaps his most iconic tale. When Chesterton originally published this short story in 1910, readers must have been shocked to see Father Brown emerge as the hero. Through the whole of the mystery, the focus had been on a police detective following him. But the makings of the great detective were in place. He would hang back as a background figure until stepping forward to solve the case. When that first story was published in September 1910, a literary star was born.

The Invisible Man: This was a fitting case, because it not only provided an extraordinarily surprising solution, but also an insight on how Father Brown surprised so many with his observations.

The Three Tools of Death: This is the first Father Brown story I heard an adaptation of, and after reading it, I appreciate it more. The solution is a gigantic surprise. It’s also a reminder that many descriptions Chesterton gives at the start of the story convey what the popular view of a character is, not necessarily what the person is really like. 

The Sign of the Broken SwordThis had to be my favorite in the collection. To give you an idea of how different these stories are from modern mysteries, the entire case takes place on an entirely different continent from where the mystery occurred, and no witnesses are questioned. The story centers around a simple riddle. 

Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?

From there, the case proceeds to a startling conclusion, all without leaving a forest an ocean away from the scene of the crime.

On the negative side, the Honour of Israel Gow was absurd. Chesterton was trying to make a point about his perception of Calvinist legalism, but it fell a little flat. The solution in the Wrong Shape was not the right shape of Chesterton’s best Father Brown stories, but it was still passable.

Overall, I found the stories enjoyable and would encourage others to read them. You can read the entire book online or you can buy it on Amazon. (affiilate link.)

TV Episode Review: Murder She Wrote:A Christmas Secret

In “A Christmas Secret,” a Gulf War Veteran is set to marry Elizabeth, the daughter of a prominent Cabot Cove couple. While visiting for the holidays, Charlie receives an anonymous blackmail tape. When the woman who made the tape is nearly murdered, Jessica seeks to unravel the mystery.

What Works:

This episode has nearly everything you’d expect from a Murder She Wrote Christmas episode. The mystery has lots of suspects and potential motives as well as its share of red herrings

As this was from Season 9, the show was past the point where old Hollywood legends were showing up every week, but the recurring Cabot Cove cast is fun and the guest cast is solid.

The story has the right holiday flavor. It has just the right sentiment and rarely becomes saccharine or cheesy.

What Doesn’t Work:

Cabot Cove is supposed to be in Maine, but the show is filmed in California. That was never more obvious than seeing the streets snowless in December. The story features a Christmas trope of, “Will there be a White Christmas, it means so much to Character X.” I can’t help but feel the plot is a Hollywood ploy to avoid having to cover sets in fake snow for Christmas-related stories. It certainly feels that way here.

The solution requires a colorblind person to be completely incapable of making adjustments for her disability, and I have to admit I’m not entirely sure whether the writers have portrayed it accurately.

Overall:
This is a nice little Christmas treat. It’s neither the best Christmas mystery or the best Murder She Wrote, but it makes for fun holiday viewing.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

Movie Review: The Great Rupert (aka The Christmas Wish)

In The Great Rupert/The Christmas wish, an animal trainer has trained a tamed squirrel named Rupert to wear a tiny kilt and tam and dance. However, a broadway agent informs him that the squirrel isn’t “box office” because he is too small to be seen in a Broadway show. This is the animal trainer’s last chance before he’s evicted from the shack leaning against the fancy home of his landlord (Frank Orth-Inspector Farraday from the TV version of Boston Blackie). He releases his tamed squirrel into a local park, but the squirrel struggles to survive in the wild, so he returns home and takes up residence in a hidey-hole between the shack and the landlord’s fancy home.

The story is actually about a down-on-their-luck Vaudeville family with the father, Louie, played by Jimmy Durante. It’s Christmastime, they only have forty cents for a tree, and they can’t afford shoes for their daughter (Terry Moore). At the same time, the miserly landlord learns that his gold mine investment has paid off and that each week he will be receiving $1,500 (about $16,000 in today’s money.)

With bad memories from the 1929 crash, he doesn’t trust banks, so he hides his cash upstairs in a hole in the wall, unaware Rupert has built his nest right behind it. The money takes up space the squirrel is storing nuts in, so he dumps the money out, above a hole in the shack’s roof, which the money falls through just as Louie’s wife (Queenie Smith) is praying. Christmas is saved and so is the rest of the year as the landlord keeps putting money in like clockwork and Rupert keeps tossing it out to Louie’s family, who are unwittingly paying their rent with the Landlord’s own money.

There’s a lot to like about the movie. Rupert was a stop-motion animation. For the times, he looks really life-like and cute.

Louie is mostly a typical Jimmy Durante character: positive, upbeat, and a lot of fun. Yet there were a few moments when he’d acknowledge the problems he’s facing. It makes the character someone who understands life’s challenges but faces them with laughter and a positive attitude rather than a crazy screwball character. Queenie Smith gave a sweet, down-to-earth performance and played well opposite of Durante.

While the story is light and fun, it does have some interesting ideas at its core. It asks what money is for and fundamentally how you approach the rest of the human race, Louie and his landlord have different approaches and it’s interesting to see how they play out over the course of the film. Again, this is done without being heavy-handed.

There’s some nice music here. A Christmas Party sets up a couple signature Durante piano numbers, including one wishing Christmas came twice a year, and a piece called Melody for Two Orphan Instruments.

The film does have its flaws. The original title, The Great Rupert, isn’t a good choice as Rupert is only the focus of the film at the beginning and toward the end. It’s often sold under the title The Christmas Wish, which makes far more sense. The plot does sag a bit in the middle before the final act and some of its resolution is too pat by modern standards. Still, this is a fun film with a sweet feel. It makes nice viewing around Christmas or any other time you want to escape the cynicism of our modern world.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Note: This film is in the public domain and is available at numerous sources on DVD, but is also available for free download through the Internet Archive.

DVD Review: Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2:Rare Pilots

This DVD collects four unaired pilots of 1950s television shows.

The first is a pilot for Racket Squad starring Reed Hadley as Captain Braddock. In general, if you’ve seen an episode of Racket Squad, then you have a good idea of what this episode is like as it shows how con men set up a clever scheme to rip off the mark. If there’s any difference between this episode and the series proper, it’s that Captain Braddock is a little harsher to the victim, greeting him with, “Hello, sucker.” Still, it’s an entertaining half-hour of television.

Second is Cool and Lam. After the success of Perry Mason, network officials decided to give another Erle Stanley Gardener detective a chance and so they adapted the story of detective team Bertha Cool (Benay Vanuta) and Donald Lam (Bill Pearson). I enjoyed this one. There’s good humor and a decent mystery. This a series I wish had been picked up.

A bit of an oddball in this collection featuring crime dramas is the 1948 pilot for The Life of Riley. The series had been a successful radio program starring William Bendix. However, due to Bendix’s movie contract, he wasn’t able to reprise the role over television. We get to see the first choice to play Riley over television instead–horror movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr.

The pilot is historically significant. It was a taped program back in 1948 when live Kinescopes would dominate early television for the better part of five years. However, the big problem was Lon Chaney playing Riley. He  wasn’t cut out for the part. The TV script was based on a radio script and Chaney tried to play it like Bendix did and it just doesn’t work.

His delivery is flat and uninspired. When Jackie Gleason became the first TV Riley in 1949, he gave it his own spin. I’m not a huge fan of his approach, but at least he realized he couldn’t be Bendix.

Note we get to see John Brown as Digger O’Dell, the undertaker, often heard on the radio program. I have mixed feelings on this because Digger is such a broad character. I imagine him walking around with a black mustache and black coat and being tall. However, John Brown just looks like an ordinary guy in an ordinary suit. So that was a bit jarring.

The final pilot is 1959’s Nero Wolfe starring Kurt Kazner as Wolfe and William Shatner as Archie Goodwin. Shatner is a great choice for Archie, bringing great charisma to the role. Kaszner is an interesting choice for Wolfe. Kaszner was Austrian born. Having a European play Wolfe is closer to the book than most other portrayals of Wolfe which ignore the fact that he was from the Eastern Europe country Montenegro. William Shatner brings that swagger that’s a requirement to play Archie Goodwin and is pretty fun to watch. The plot was decent. Wolfe solved this case mostly from reading the newspaper and that was clever. Though the episode wasn’t based on the Wolfe stories by Rex Stout, it captured the spirit of them nicely.

On the other hand, this was a series that would have needed to be an hour rather than the pilot’s half-hour length. The episode was a bit bare-bones and lacked the style I associate with a Wolfe story or any of Wolfe’s and Archie’s supporting cast. Kaszner wasn’t quite big enough to play Wolfe which the wardrobe seemed to try to make up for by putting him in clothes that were a bit too big, which doesn’t work. Also, Wolfe has a cold in the pilot and is stuck in bed, which is a weird thing for a pilot to do as its establishing what a normal episode is like.

The bonus feature with this set is a not-for-air blooper reel that was sent out by CBS to managers of its affiliates, featuring many bloopers and flubbed lines. The programs featured are mostly Westerns, but with the Twilight Zone and The Red Skelton Show. I will warn that this is not really for kids. The unscripted bad language is not censored, so it’s PG-13 stuff.

Overall, for those interested in classic television, this set does offer some fun rarities. While this wasn’t the best the 1950s had to offer in television, it’s a mostly entertaining look at what might have been.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 3

This is the third six episode set of the Twilight Zone Radio Dramas presented by Falcon Picture Group. This volume, like most others in the series, adapts stories from the TV Show.

“The Obsolete Man” stars Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) as a librarian in a totalitarian state who is sentenced to die because he’s been declared obsolete. I have to admit, I was nervous about this one because the TV version featured an iconic performance by the great Burgess Meredith, but Alexander does a good job carrying the performance off and the timeless message of the story still makes it work today.

“Back There”starts Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) as a young man who visits a Washington DC based club and has a conversation with four wealthy men over whether a time-traveler could change history. As often happens with those sort of debates, he finds himself transported back to 1865 on the day Abraham Lincoln is assassinated and gets a chance to test his theory. This was a nice story with a good twist at the end, though a lot of the time travel stuff is never explained.

“A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” stars Adam West (Batman) as an older wealthy man married to a gold-digging wife who he wants to please. His brother is working on a de-aging formula that works on animals and he pressures his brother into trying it on him. The TV version is not a favorite of most fans, but this was entertaining and it’s all down to Adam West’s performance. You feel sorry for this guy, who, by modern standards, we’d consider a victim of emotional abuse.

“Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room” stars Adam Baldwin (Firefly) as a two-bit crook who has been ordered to commit murder. He rents a cheap room and waits to do the job and encounters one person who tries to change his mind: The man in the mirror. This one works over radio and Baldwin does a good job playing both versions of his character.

“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” finds a suburban neighborhood cut off from civilization when power fails and no one can leave. Paranoia spreads as the residents suspect one of them is in league with whatever caused this. This was a great tale of what fear and paranoia can do to a community and, by extension, to the world. It’s a chilling cautionary tale and the radio version is almost as good as the TV take.

“Escape Clause” is a Faustian bargain story where a middle-aged hypochondriac (Mike Starr) sells his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to live as long as he wants. The story is a bit of dark comedy as the protagonist finds out immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however I think the story has a more subtle message.

Overall, I probably enjoyed this Twilight Zone collection. The stories all work fairly well and there are a couple all-time classics that are well-handled. On top of that, we get to hear radio acting by some actors who never got to work much in the medium due to when their careers began.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5 

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase