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

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