Tag: Telefilm Review

Telefilm Review: Magnum, P.I.: Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii

Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii is the premier episode of Magnum PI. It aired on December 11, 1980, eleven months after the last episode of The Rockford Files aired leaving television without a top private investigator.

In the episode, Magnum (Tom Selleck)goes to pick up an old Navy buddy only to find he’s been murdered and posthumously accused of trafficking. cocaine. Magnus sets out to clear his friend’s name.

What Works:

Tom Selleck would win both an Emmy and a Golden Globe in the course of his eight season on the show. Here, we get a good sample of why. He delivers acting that’s above and beyond what you expect from a private detective show.

He’s helped by a script that does a superb job introducing Magnum and setting him up as an interesting and complex character. On a superficial level, he seems like a lighter character than James Rockford’s work-a-day private eye, with his own place on the grounds of writer Robin Masters’ palatial Hawaiian estate, but it’s more complex than that.

Magnum served in Vietnam and was a Navy Seal and in Navy Intelligence. He explained his reason for leaving the military, briefly: “One day, I woke up age thirty-three and realized I’d never been twenty-three.” Magnum and his friends had spent their youth getting shot at in a war zone and there’s this sense of him hoping to recapture something he lost.

Yet, he also has a sense of honor and decency. This first story has him trying to solve the murder of a friend and restore his good name. Magnum also resists the advances of his friend’s sister because he doesn’t want to take advantage of her. Magnum was a bit of a maverick in the Navy and is glad to be out of it. However, there’s a hint the Navy’s not entirely out of him when he describes a helicopter surveillance flight as “a mission.”

John Hillerman is fun as Higgins, even though his initial take on Higgins seems to be a bit more broadly British than I remember from my times watching Magnum as kid. We get some great scenes between Higgins and Magnum which help set the stage for  the most consistently interesting character relationship of the series. We also get to see Higgins go into action towards the end of the episode.

Rick (Larry Manetti) is kind of interesting and I like the idea of him having a Casablanca fixation and a real first name he would rather not share. It’s a shame they didn’t go ahead with the Casablanca stuff in the original series.

Beyond that, the series has most everything I really liked about the program as a kid and I still like as an adult: the Ferrari, the helicopter, and that theme music which practically screams adventure. On top of that, there’s some nice Hawaiian scenery although that’s not the main focus.

What Doesn’t Work:

The solution became somewhat obvious during a flashback sequence. It became painfully obvious when Magnum flew over the criminal’s boat. While the mystery itself isn’t bad, it could have landed a lot smoother and been a bit more challenging.

Also, T.C. (Roger Mosley) is mostly functional in this episode. We don’t know a whole lot about him at this point other than that he served in the Marines with Rick and together they served with Magnum in Vietnam. Of course, this may have been based on audience needs. When I watched Magnum growing up, the fact T.C. flew a helicopter alone made him cool and likable. As an adult, I’d like his character to be better developed, but I can’t work up too much annoyance over the fact it isn’t due to the nostalgia factor.

Overall:

Magnum, P.I. began its eight season run with an emotionally compelling case that did a great job establishing its main character and setting the tone for the rest of the series. Magnum can be considered the successor to Rockford Files. Magnum also laid the groundwork for the A-Team, another series featuring Vietnam vets back home as action heroes.

As a pilot, this is rock solid. While this isn’t good as it gets for Magnum, P.I., it’s a terrific opener that does nearly everything you could ask for.

Rating 4.25 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Death Takes a Curtain Call

Jessica goes to a performance of the Russian Ballet in Boston along with her friend Leo (Hurd Patterson) and there towards the end of the performance she finds out that Leo is attending so that he can help his great niece and her boyfriend defect. They get away but their plans are complicated when a KGB Agent is murdered backstage with them being the prime suspects.

Jessica believes the couple is innocent and sets out to prove it while getting Ethan to hide them back in Cabot Cove. To keep the couple safe, she’ll have to stay ahead of Major Anatole Karzoff of the KGB (William Conrad.)

What Works:

William Conrad is great as Karzoff. He manages to maintain the right combination of charm and menace. On one hand, he’s almost a flattering admirer of Jessica’s work, even though she receives no royalties because, as Karoff explains, ripping off authors is a Communist value.

At the same time, it’s clear Karzoff is a tough man to be reckoned with. He has the local police arrest Leo at one point just to rattle Jessica. Conrad had a long history of playing Russians and KGB men going back at least to the radio series I Was a Communist for the FBI and his Russian accent was never much better than so-so. However, he always sells it through his authoritative voice tone.

Conrad and Lansbury have wonderful performance chemistry and that makes this episode very fun to watch.

For her part, Jessica takes everything in her stride. It’s part of what makes her character work. She finds herself plunged into hiding two suspects from the FBI and KGB, is followed by a KGB man, and has her phone bugged, and she adjusts. One of my favorite scenes is when she decides to place a call and someone asked her why she didn’t use a closer phone, she responded calmly, “That one’s not tapped.”

This sort of character can becoming annoying or a Mary Sue but Jessica doesn’t because she’s not cocky or over-the-top, just calm and cunning. She just keeps her head about her and pushes through each new challenge.

Her outsmarting the FBI in the search for the missing couple makes perfect sense given that it’s been established that she knows Cabot Cove better than anyone including Sheriff Tupper.

I also think the KGB is at just the right threat level. Karzoff is ruthless, but in the United States his efforts are limited. A lot of Cold War films portray the KGB operating far too brazenly to be believed on American soil. This felt more grounded.

Sheriff Tupper is played mostly for comic relief, but he does work. He’s clearly in over his head with dealing with international intrigue, and mainly helps to expedite some matters for Karzoff and the FBI with his local knowledge. A search warrant is executed for the missing couple and Tupper evidently thought they might be in Jessica’s latest pie as Tupper cut off a piece just to be sure. I do suspect he was trying to frustrate the official investion just a tad, though that’s open to interpretation.

What Doesn’t Work

The story has an over-the-top anti-communist protester who storms onto the stage and disrupts the ballet performance shouting about communist plots. She seems to be in this story for two reasons. First, for the showrunners to say, ‘Yes, Communism can be terribly oppressive but we’re not crazy like this lady.’ The second is that she’s alleged to be the killer. The first reason doesn’t justify such a shrill and annoying character. The second doesn’t work because she’s an obvious red herring.

Of Note:

Dane Clark (Crime and Peter Chambers) appears as the FBI agent investigating the murder but is overshadowed by Conrad.

This was Claude Akins last appearance as Captain Ethan Clagg in the series.

Overall thoughts

This is easily my favorite Cabot Cove episode so far.  William Conrad is great, the mystery is pretty good, and Jessica has a lot of great moments. This tale of Murder, She Wrote meeting the Cold War is well-worth watching.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: We’re Off to Kill the Wizard

While visiting her niece somewhere in the Midwest, Jessica is invited to the opening of the latest amusement park by mogul Horatio Baldwin (James Coco) Baldwin wants to open a grisly theme park based on Jessica’s books, an offer Jessica refuses. Later Baldwin is found dead with a gun in his hand behind his locked office door. When the coroner finds he was killed by a blow to the head before the shot, the local police ask for her help.

What Works:

James Coco is marvelous as Baldwin. The first big scene is at a ceremony for Baldwin’s latest theme park where he plays a monk being hanged in a scene that’s played with perfect hammyness. Later, we get to see Baldwin as he tries to negotiate with Jessica. He treats everyone horribly, something Jessica doesn’t miss. When Jessica refuses his initial offer, he presses a button that locks the door so she can’t leave. When she threatens to press charges, he lets her go and sets out to dig up blackmail on her.

Jessica plays marvelously off Baldwin. She knows exactly who she is and what she’s about. Baldwin makes a great target for her moral indignation as his park is seeking to present violent and gory material to children. I thought it would be fun to watch these two battle over the course of the episode, but alas Baldwin was the designated corpse.

Jessica may have the best fan relations of any author ever. She not only signed Baldwin’s secretary’s book, but helped with the investigation to help clear herself as she disappeared after the crime was committed.

I also like the police motive for inviting her in. They’re neither in, “This is a police investigation, stay out” mode or “Please, we are helpless, solve the mystery,” mode instead Captain Davis (John Schruck) concludes that since they have a locked room mystery, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask a mystery writer for her opinion.

While this episode doesn’t have golden age Hollywood legends, the episode contains actors who appeared in other mystery series including Christine Belford (Banacek) and James Stevens (The Father Dowling Mysteries.)

What Doesn’t Work:

The killer came up with an ingenuous plan involving altering the office phones. Jessica is only able to solve the mystery because the killer stupidly failed to fix the phones, which is an inconsistency.

Speaking of inconsistent, there’s a bizarre detail put in by the writers. She disguises a roll of film as microfilm containing blackmail information collected by Baldwin and then announces that it was film from her vacation the previous year to Spain. It was jarring. Why would she take an undeveloped role of film from a trip year ago on a flight to see someone else? Why not just say it was from this trip to see her niece.

Overall:

“We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” is a well-done episode. Yes, the mystery has flaws and the story is not as fun after Baldwin is killed, but it manages to have some nice scenes of Jessica sleuthing mixed in with a few moments of light gunplay to keep the story engaging.

Rating: 3.75 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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