Tag: mixed 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: 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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Audio Drama Review: The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume 03: Steed & Tara King

Big Finish has released two prior sets of Comic Strip adaptations based on the 1960s Avengers TV show featuring John Steed and Emma Peel. This set features adaptions of comics strips featuring Steed (Julian Wadham) and Peel’s successor Tara King (Emily Woodward) There are four episodes on the set and here’s a run-down on each:

In It’s a Wild, Wild, Wild West: There have been several Old West style stick-ups and Steed and Tara King suspect an American-style Dude ranch opened in England and all is not what you expect. This is a well-acted story and the writing and acting is good enough to make a fairly absurd plot entertaining.

Under the Weather is not as humorous as other episodes. Steed and Tara race to save England from sinister forces that have seized control of the weather. This one has more mystery to it than many other episodes, while still having a far out concept that fits the Avengers of the later seasons.

Spycraft feels more like the Lost Episodes from Season 1 of the Avengers rather than comic strip adaptations as Steed and King are charged with guarding an important leader of an emerging African democracy. While working undercover, they stumble into agents of his own country’s government that are also working undercover.

The story has slow moments but does get going once they team up . Overall, this is a solid story with some of the most fun moments in the set.

…Now You Don’t is a standard “evil hypnotist” story where Tara is hypnotized to kill Mother. Decently executed, and well acted, but the villain is undone because he doesn’t understand the basic rules of hypnotism. Also Dorney’s decision to adapt this story and to then adapt the one that came before it featuring Emma Peel in the next box set is a little baffling and feels like just making things complicated for the sake of it.

Overall, this was a decent box set, without any bad stories, but it’s not as enjoyable as the Emma Peel box sets or the “Lost Episodes” productions Big Finish did. This felt like it took a middle ground approach between the strait-laced drama of the Lost Episodes and the wacky situations of the comic strip adaptations and wasn’t as satisfying as either.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Review: Sealtest Variety Theater

Doing a live radio broadcast from a Houston hotel ballroom to a rowdy crowd on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1949 seemed like a good idea to someone. That infamous 1949 broadcast of the Sealtest Variety Theater became one of the biggest live radio fails in history and what the series is remembered for.

The Sealtest Variety Theater had a total of 42 broadcasts between its premier in September 1948 and it going off the air in July 1949. It was hosted by Dorothy Lamour who had co-starred in most of the Road movies with the legends Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The show featured a dazzling array of stars including Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Gregory Peck, William Powell, Boris Karloff, and Sidney Greenstreet along with legends such as Hope, Abbott and Costello, Jim and Marianne Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly, Norris Goff and Chester Lauck and Lum ‘n Abner, Harold Peary as the Great Gildersleeve, and Ed Gardner as Archie from Duffy’s Tavern.

Lamour’s charisma and star power was on full display. She remained likable throughout the series run and provided nice musical performances as well. She appeared to have been enjoying the series, laughing regularly and making the audience want to laugh along with her.

Additional musical entertainment was provided by Henry Russell and his orchestra and the Crew Chiefs. The music is all pleasant to listen to and on par with what you’d hear on most other radio programs.

Through the show’s first seven months on the air, the format included plenty of music, a dramatic sketch between Lamour and the guest of the week, and a comedy bit. Sometimes Lamour performed in the comedic sketches. Other times, a comedy team like Abbott and Costello would perform a typical routine or there’d be an occasional stand-up sketch.

The comedy was pretty solid for the Golden Age. The dramatic sketches were a mixed bag. Some were fairly good, but others seemed trite, silly, or simplistic. I mostly enjoyed them, but there were a few times I felt bad that a talented actor had to work with that material.

The infamous Saint Patrick’s day performance fell during this run. The wild crowd and technical difficulties led to sound quality issues and a profanity being spoken over the air by a male voice. To her credit, Lamour remained calm through it all. It was radio veteran Gardener who lost it and ignored her attempts to keep the show on script by trying to come up with something random that would make the crowd happy.

The event made headlines and Lamour didn’t run for it. In one sketch later on where she had to boast of what deeds made her character tough enough for something, she said, “Oh yeah, well I did a show at a hotel in Houston.”

In April, the show tweaked its format. The music stayed, but the dramatic sketches and individual comedy guest spots were done away with. Eddie Bracken joined the series and it became something of a sitcom like Lamour and Bracken playing fictionalized versions of themselves, with Bracken finding ways to get himself and Lamour into trouble every week.

Bracken was a fair comic talent. In many ways, his style called to mind Alan Young’s style as an exuberant born loser who often believed Hollywood actors were exactly like the people they played in the movies.

Young filled in for Bracken in an incident that illustrates the culture of the golden age of radio. Young happened to be at the studio to record his own program and did the guess spot on Sealtest on 15 minutes notice. You couldn’t even tell the script had been written for another actor.

Overall, this is a decent comedy/music program.It didn’t have mind-blowing comedy or music, but it’s a pleasant and fun listen with some great talent. It deserves remembered for more than technical difficulties and some rowdy drunks ruining its Saint Patrick’s Day program.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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TV Series Review: Nero Wolfe (1981), Part One

The 1981 Nero Wolfe TV series is a controversial topic. For many fans, this fourteen-episode series is bad, with the critically acclaimed A Nero Wolfe Mystery making the series look even shabbier. Others have fond memories of the series, and it may even have been their introduction to Nero Wolfe.

I’ve wanted to watch the series for some time. After many years of waiting, we finally have an official DVD release. I have finally seen the whole series, and I’m ready to wade in with my opinion. This will be a long review as we take a look at many aspects of the series.

Key Adaptation Decision

Probably the most critical decision made with Nero Wolfe was to make it a contemporary program. This sets it apart from the period setting of A Nero Wolfe Mystery. It’s a perfectly defensible creative decision because Rex Stout had been writing Nero Wolfe up until six years previously and he’d always set the books in contemporary times.

This helped the series in some ways but hurt it in the look of the show, the way characters were portrayed, and the challenges of adapting stories that happened decades previously as if they occurred in 1981.

Casting

While the cast is not as good as the 1979 TV Novie’s, it’s solid. William Conrad has some good moments as Wolfe. Critics point out Conrad was shorter than Wolfe and  wore a beard plus Conrad’s usual mustache. Wolfe only wore facial hair in one book. Personally, the height’s not a big deal, and I like the beard. It distinguishes Wolfe from Frank Cannon and it makes him look distinguished which actually helps me buy him as Wolfe.

To be sure, I have problems with the way Wolfe’s portrayed, but it comes down more to writing than to acting. There was not a scene in all fourteen episodes where I thought, “This would’ve been better with another actor.”

Lee Horsey as Archie Goodwin is the best asset the series has. He makes a good 1980s take on Archie Goodwin. Because of the era, his performance is different from the book, but Horsey maintains the character’s charm and humor while still being a solid legman.

The one casting choice which doesn’t work is Allan Miller as Inspector Cramer. In the books, Inspector Cramer has this working-class, almost rumpled feel to him. He walks around chewing a cigar. Allan Miller is too smooth, polished and dapper to be Inspector Cramer regardless of the era. If they wanted the characterization Miller brought to the role, they would have done better to give Wolfe an original-to-TV police foil.

Adaptation Positives

There are some good touches for the series. Good effort went into building the set.  An April 3, 1981 story in TV Guide details how Art Director John Beckman flew out to New York, studied how Browstones were built, and paintstakingly created the facade on the Paramount lot. They built a four-story oak spiral staircase as well as a four-story working elevator that cost $175,000 (or half a million dollars today.)

On top of that, you have the crown jewel of the series, the Orchid Room. This is the one area where Nero Wolfe outdoes a Nero Wolfe Mystery, a lot of thought and effort went into creating a beautiful orchid room with 2,655 plants brought in. It’s a beautiful set and seeing it is a highlight of the series.

I also have to give the series credit for taking one of my favorite Nero Wolfe moments from The Rubber Band where Wolfe hides a client from the police in the orchid room under plants and working it into an original story even when that novel wasn’t adapted.

The series does have some good scenes with Wolfe arguing with people over cooking and orchids. Those scenes are true to the spirit of the character.

I also have to give them credit for keeping Wolfe house-bound for all but two of the fourteen episodes. It’s a far better ratio of housebound to not than the New Adventures of Nero Wolfe or even the original stories.

In researching the series, I learned from Charles Transberg’s book William Conrad: A Life and Career that Conrad had strict working hours in his contract and if the filming went past his time for departure, they’d have to finish filming without him. That’s the sort of thing Nero Wolfe would have in his contract if he ever became an actor.

Adaptation Negatives

There are a lot of issues I could take with this series, ranging from the trivial to the really serious flaws. I’ll start with the lesser ones and work to the big ones. I’ll save a look at issues with specific episodes for Part Two.

First of all is the office set. My first big annoyance is the set lacks a “red leather chair,” the most important piece of furniture (aside from Wolfe’s own chair) in the novels.  However, a bigger issue with the office furniture is just how cluttered the office looks.

The TV Guide article revealed that $250,000 was spent in to fill the Brownstone set with antiques. There’s some nice pieces, but it doesn’t look particularly well-put together and seems a bit busy. It looks a lot like my desk, with various and sundry things seemingly where they are at random and it shouldn’t. Based on the amount of order and rigor Wolfe puts into the house, you imagine its very orderly,  and not like the great detective needs a decluttering consultation with Marie Kondo.

A more serious blunder was choosing to adapt whole novels into one-hour episodes. A Nero Wolfe Mystery had the right idea when they did novel adaptations in two episodes and short stories in one. Doing it in the way Nero Wolfe does it ends up with many plots feeling rushed and important moments are missing.

The series also tended to have a clumsy approach to introducing aspects of the Wolfe world and/or Wolfe’s eccentricities. The story pauses briefly to show us the set designer bought a big globe like the one in the novels. Another story has an entire brief scene where Wolfe guzzles down a glass of beer and tosses the bottle cap in the drawer with no one else around.

The worst introduction of a part of Wolfe lore came in the thirteenth episode, “The Blue Ribbon Hostage.” In the novels, Wolfe insisted others be seated so that their eyes would be on the same level as his. Throughout the first twelve episodes of the series, this was not an issue at all as others stood while Wolfe sat or Wolfe stood while others sat with no mentions of “eyes at level,” until thirteen episodes in they decided to have him do it.

You simply can’t have Wolfe inconsistent on his eccentricities. To quote Wolfe in his first novel, “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.”

However, the biggest issues with the series come down to the character of Wolfe himself.  Nero Wolfe eliminates most of the character’s less likable habits.  Wolfe is never lazy and never has any hesitation about taking on work. He doesn’t have the mercenary sense of Wolfe in the book.  The one negative trait he’s left with is his opinionated nature on orchids and cooking. Other than that, if he’s not dealing with a murderer, he’s a large teddy bear of a man who is actually called “sweet” in one episode.

The problem with that is it’s not true to the nature of Nero Wolfe. It’s like the opposite of today’s “grim and gritty” reboots  where instead Wolfe is relieved of the burdens of his faults and rough edges. Yet, the decision calls to mind G.K. Chesterton’s warning, “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.”  The way the character is written, there’s a whole lot less Nero Wolfe to him.

Rex Stout wrote Wolfe as a fully developed human being, replete with flaws. In the course of the books, Wolfe does have many great moments where he surprises you and you get see more his sense of honor, his kindness, and his appreciation for different parts of his family. Yet, it’s done in a way that’s understated and true to Wolfe’s approach to life.

Since the series gets Wolfe wrong, it hurts the most important relationship in the books, that between Wolfe and Goodwin. In the books, the two men have gifts and talents that compliment each other and have an almost symbiotic relationship. However, they also tend to clash because of their differing personalities, with Archie providing his unique interpretation of Wolfe’s actions and beliefs.

While Wolfe is technically the employer and the boss, Archie is the one who balances Wolfe’s checkbook and often times has to spur  Wolfe to work when he would rather sit around and read all the day long when he’s not eating or tending his orchids. Several times, Archie has to deal with Wolfe losing interest in a case and his “relapses” into a semi-depressed state.

It’s an interesting state of affairs that provides for lots of interesting plots in the books. In the TV series, the two work together with little friction at all. The only exceptions are a book-accurate scene  in The Golden Spiders and a scene in the final episode where Wolfe orders Archie not to go to a meeting that Wolfe feels is a trap and threatens to fire Archie. Archie chooses to quit instead. It’s not great, but this conflict is as close as the series get to capturing the nature of these two characters.

Next week, we’ll finish up and talk about the individual episodes and my overall thoughts on the series.

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