Tag: TV mystery

Telefilm Review: Cannon: Nightmare

The Season 5 premiere of Cannon from 1975 opens with a hitman being gunned down while trying to escape from prison. His wounds are fatal and he summons Cannon (William Conrad) to his bedside to confess to having murdered his wife and son by running them off the road. The criminal isn’t able to explain why the contract was put out before he died except that he stated that Cannon’s wife was a prostitute.

After an angry scene outside the killer’s room, Cannon realizes, while he’d always thought an old enemy of his had been responsible, his wife had been killed in a case of mistaken identity. He sets out to find the intended victim in order to flush out the man who hired the killer.

This episode feels different from the rest of the series. Usually Cannon is a genial, professional, and wise investigator who can  be intimidating when he has to be and can always handle himself well in a fight. Here Cannon is very much on edge. He’s relentless and with far less tolerance for nonsense than usual. He’s a man whose long-buried grief and rage is waiting to boil over. At one point, Cannon seems to realize he’s going too far and backs off. And the confrontation with the killer is intense.

Throughout his career, Conrad was mostly cast as “cops” or “heavies,” but when he was given something good to sink his teeth into (such as on Nightbeat or the radio version of Gunsmoke) he showed time and time again, that he was as good as any actor of his time. This story is no exception as he brings new dimensions to his portrayal of Cannon. 

The story itself is well-written. Despite being set in the 1970s, the story has a noirish feel that works well for it. The rest of the cast other than Conrad is little better than competent but with a story that gives Conrad so much to work with, that’s all that’s necessary.

If I had one complaint, it would be that the series didn’t  lay the foundation for this story at all. I remember (vaguely) in an early episode that it was mentioned that Frank Cannon’s wife had died, but this wasn’t Monk where the death of the hero’s wife was front and center throughout the series. The episode does offer a bit of an explanation for this as the death occurred fourteen years previous (nine years before the start of the series) and that Cannon had stuffed his emotions while trying to move on. This is shown through his visit to his former father-in-law, who he hadn’t spoken to in years. It’s implied on some level, that was part of his efforts to put the tragedy behind him.

Overall, if you’re a fan of William Conrad or 1970s Noir-style stories, this is a stand-out episode that is well-worth watching.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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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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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 Series Review: Banacek

A version of this review appeared five years ago

More than a decade prior to becoming universally associated with the character of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, George Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a Boston-based, Polish proverb-spouting insurance investigator. He made a comfortable living solving cases the insurance company couldn’t crack and collecting ten percent of the insurance company’s savings.

The series aired from 1972-74 and it focused on classic impossible mysteries. How does a football player on the field disappear in front of thousands of fans? How does a million dollars in cash vanish from behind a locked display case? How does $23 million in paintings vanish from a truck transporting it?

Banacek takes no case where the missing item is less than a million dollars in value. While a murder usually happens in the course of the investigation, it’s not guaranteed. The focus is on the big property crime, not on violence.

Banacek was part of NBC’s Mystery wheel, so its original running time with commercials was 90 minutes, with the shows themselves running a shade over 70 minutes in length. This allows for plenty of development, particularly in the early episodes, without a lot of fluff. A grand total of thirteen episodes were released.

Throughout the series, Peppard was supported by Ralph Manza who provided the comic relief as Banacek’s chauffeur and erstwhile sidekick. Manza’s character would occasionally take a crack at the solution that would be invariably offbase. Murray Mattheson played Felix Mulhol, a bookstore store owner that seemed to know everything about everything.

Banacek was portrayed as God’s gift to women, at least those who weren’t looking for a serious relationship. Among the Banacek women was future Lois Lane Margo Kidder. However, scenes in bed were avoided throughout the series, as mere verbal hints were all that would be allowed.

The second season did see some changes. In the first season, the insurance company was more than happy to hand over six-digit checks in order to avoid seven-digit losses. However, in the second season, an insurance company exec tried to thwart Banacek with the help one of his own investigator Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford) who tried to maintain an on-again, off-again romance with Banacek while trying to beat him out of his exorbitant fees.

This was a bad move, as it tampered with the show’s dynamic, slowed down the stories, and didn’t add anything to the plot. Kirkland wasn’t particularly likable. In one story, she wormed her way into an investigation, asking to learn from Banacek while on a leave of absence from the company and then tried to sell him out to her insurance company. The character didn’t appear in the last two episodes of the second season since the episodes were set outside of Boston.

The second season disc for Banacek contains the original pilot which shows a bit of the original conception. In the original conception, Banacek only worked cold cases that hadn’t been solved in sixty days and the executive commented on how much money the insurance company has squandered on investigators’ pay and expenses searching for millions of dollars in gold. Perhaps this is why the producers went with a format where Banacek came on with a promise of reward soon after the items were stolen. It made more economic sense. In the case in the pilot, they ended up out all the money they paid the investigators plus the reward.

Peppard played Banacek differently in the pilot. He was a quieter, less flip character. He spent a good fifteen minutes straight on screen at one point saying nothing. He spoke with conviction, explaining why he didn’t change his last name to something less obviously Polish.

Jay and Carlie were also in the pilot. Jay was quite different. He owned a limo rental business based in Dallas rather than being Banacek’s employee and simply drove him around. He also pulled a classic doublecross when he bribed the operator to listen in to Banacek’s phone call and overheard a key clue which he used in hopes of collecting the reward. Definitely a different conception than the loyal, albeit dimwitted character who’d appear in the rest of the series.

Overall thoughts:

Banacek is certainly not an essential mystery series. Unlike Columbo, Poirot, or Monk, Banacek is one of those shows you can take or leave.

Peppard is at his best as the wise-cracking detective who stays one step ahead of cops and official insurance investigators while hunting down items of unbelievable value.

The first season is a well-performed series with great mysteries, solid plots, and great solutions. The second season has too much airtime taken up by Carlie Kirkland and that drags down the stories. Still, even that season has the great entry, “If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” as well as the fairly good, “Rocket to Oblivion.”

Overall, I’d give the series three 3.5 stars out of 5.0 with Season 1 getting 4 stars and season 2 getting a 3.

In terms of availability, Banacek is a hard series to lay your hands on. The season sets are out of print. Last time, I recommended a bargain best of Banacek DVD with six episodes on it and that’s also gone out of print. I watched it originally through Netflix’s DVD rental service. but Netflix no longer carries it. If your local library doesn’t own it, viewing the series may come at a premium that could price it out for anyone but diehard fans until a new printing is done.

 

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