Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: Father Dowling, Season Three

A version of this article appeared in 2017.

After a TV movie and two partial seasons, ABC gave the Father Dowling Mysteries a regular season of 22 episodes in 1990-91.

The same cast of regulars from Season Two returns with Father Frank Dowling (Tom Boswell) and Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson) investigating mysteries, and Father Prestwick (James Stephens) and housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) providing comic relief.

The series maintains a pleasant, family-friendly tone with likable characters. Steve does a lot of undercover work and handles most tasks well, but you don’t get the impression she’s unrealistically super competent in everything like during Season One.

Some of the past seasons had episodes that could more rightly be called “adventures”  than “mysteries,” but this season all the episodes are true mysteries. The plots are thought-out but never too intricate.

The one thing I did miss from Season Two was the little touches that made Father Dowling and Sister Steve seem more like a real Catholic priest and nun. Except as discussed below, they don’t do anything to cut against that idea, other than the fact that the two can always run off to investigate a mystery.

One of the best episodes of the season is “The Christmas Mystery.” It’s a nice mystery with a few suspect twists, but it’s a fun Christmas treat and there aren’t enough good Christmas mysteries out there. In “The Moving Target Mystery,” another of my favorites, a contract killer comes into Father Dowling’s confessional and confesses he was hired to kill Father Dowling. He is backing out because he won’t kill a priest, but somebody else will. It’s a good set-up for a story.

The “Fugitive Priest Mystery” finds Father Dowling on the run thanks to his evil twin Blaine, and he has to clear his name and find out what Blaine’s up to. “The Hard-Boiled Mystery” is my favorite episode of the season. Father Dowling goes to have words with a writer who has decided to write a story based on Father Dowling. It’s set during the 1930s, with Dowling as a hard-boiled priest-detective. We flash from the present to the hard-boiled detective scenes and they’re absolutely hilarious.

On the downside, some stories just didn’t work. After having an angel in Season Two, the writers decided, “How about having Father Dowling encounter the devil?” Thus we are given “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery.” What we get is a Hollywood version of the Devil, who is defeated by a plot ripped off from “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The story introduces an older brother for Steve and contradicts a previous season’s story featuring Steve’s younger brother. Further, it has the characters acting really out of character. It’s the worst episode of the series.

“The Consulting Detective Mystery” is also a bit of clunker. Father Dowling makes a deduction as to who committed a crime. He’s wrong, leading to an innocent ex-con losing his job. This leads to Sherlock Holmes appearing in order to restore Father Dowling’s confidence. It’s not a great set-up and the actor playing Holmes doesn’t work. It’s not as bad as “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery,”  but it’s weak and poorly executed.

The rest of the box set is serviceable and fun. Father Dowling was never a big budget show, and it never featured television’s most clever mystery writers. It was a show you could enjoy with the whole family. Another reviewer described the show as “cute,” and I’ll go with that. This season, in particular, features Father Dowling and Sister Steve working to save a cute zoo monkey who is framed for murder. It’s easy viewing with a bit of nostalgia for simpler times thrown into the deal.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season 2


Note: A version of this article was posted in 2016. 

This 3-DVD series collects the second short season of The Father Dowling Mysteries, originally broadcast in 1990 when the series moved to ABC after NBC produced its first season. The main cast is Tom Bosley (Father Frank Dowling), Tracy Nelson (Sister Steve), James Stephens (Father Prestwick), and Marie (Mary Wickles).

If I had to describe the difference between this season and season one, I’d have to use the word “authenticity.” In season one, our heroes are people who solve mysteries, who just happen to be a priest and a nun. In season two, they are a priest and a nun who come across mysteries in the course of their lives and duties.

They say prayers, perform ceremonies and deal with church hierarchy and bureaucracy. It plays into the plots. In “The Solid Gold Headache Mystery,” Sister Steve is named custodian of the estate of a wealthy man whom she was visiting. In “The Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery,” she shows kindness to a blind conman and is taken in by him. A similar event happens to Father Prestwick in “The Confidence Mystery.” Father Dowling knows who an art thief is, but is far more concerned about his life and his soul than bringing him to justice in “The Legacy Mystery.”  And Father Dowling’s pastoral relationship is key to his involvement in “The Falling Angel Mystery” and “The Perfect Couple Mystery.”

The show isn’t preachy but it makes the characters more believable. Characterization is also better for Sister Steve. She’s still resourceful and frequently ditches her habit to go undercover. However, this doesn’t happen every episode. Unlike in season one, where she seemed to be super-competent at everything, she fails at a couple of her tasks. Sister Steve doesn’t make a good skater, and doesn’t win at every video game. Thus she’s much more of a real person. This is also helps as we learn that she has a hoodlum brother in “The Sanctuary Mystery,” and that her father was an alcoholic in “The Passionate Painter Mystery.”

The supporting acting shifted as subplots became more about Father Prestwick (who works for the Bishop) than their cook Marie. I didn’t like this as much, as I prefer Marie as a character. Still, the officious and demanding Father Prestwick is more effective as a comic foil for Father Dowling.

The guest cast is mostly solid, although a couple of scenes in “The Perfect Couple Mystery”  were painful to watch.

In terms of the plots, they’re mostly okay. Many of the episodes feel more like adventures rather than typical mysteries, and some were not all that clever, such as “The Ghost of a Chance Mystery.” Some of the better ones were “The Visiting Priest Mystery,” where a mob hitman tries to go undercover as a visiting priest at Saint Michael’s; “The Exotic Dance Mystery,” which ends up with Steve going undercover as a card shark; and “The Confidence Mystery” and “Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery,” both of which have some clever twists, though the similarity in plot made airing them both in the same season a dubious decision.

This season also featured “The Falling Angel Mystery,” where a scruffy angel named Michael (not the archangel) shows up with a warning for Father Dowling. I was dubious about the plot as it could have been cheesy and there were some problems with the story. However, James McGeachin does a good job in the role and the twist is one I didn’t see coming. Of course, Father Dowling’s criminal twin brother Blaine has a return appearance, much to Father Dowling’s chagrin.

Ultimately, the plots were not all fantastic. What holds it together is the characters are incredibly likable and a joy to watch.


Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0


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DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season One

A version of this article was originatlly published in 2014.

The Father Dowling Mysteries was a delightful mystery series starring Tom Bosley (Happy Days) and Tracy Nelson as Chicago-based Father Frank Dowling and Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, a priest and nun who constantly find themselves in the the thick of mysteries. The duo first appeared in a 1987 TV movie before joining the 1989 NBC line up as a mid-season replacement before moving to ABC in 1990 for another mid-season replacement season and its only full season. Having aired on NBC and ABC, the DVD release, of course, comes from CBS Home video. Father Dowling was a character created by Ralph McHenry in a series of popular novels, but the novels really don’t appear to have come much into play in the stories.

The first season set collects the 1987 movie, The Fatal Confession, as well as the seven-episode first season of Father Dowling.

Ultimately, this isn’t a series made by the cleverness of its mysteries, or by bone-chilling suspense, or by CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonists, and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.

Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating the balance that’s required in a clerical detective. Dowling is clever, but he’s also compassionate. He cares about catching the bad guy, but he also cares about people’s souls and lives. In so many ways, Frank Dowling is a bit of a throwback to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He is truly good and kind, and also doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Sister Steve is street-smart but also very compassionate. The biggest flaw with the way the series played the character was that in each episode, they had to have her do something you wouldn’t typically expect a nun to do, mostly in the line of duty but sometimes not: beating the neighborhood boys at basketball, playing pool, fixing a car, mixing drinks at a bar, or teaching an aerobics class. It was all in the line of work. Sometimes, it was humorous, though at times it could get goofy and a little repetitive. The first few episodes had her being able to do every single thing well. Thankfully, in the “Face in the Mirror Mystery,” they finally had her undertake a task she couldn’t do well: rollerskating.

Rounding out the regulars were Father Dowling’s cranky housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) and the very particular Father Phil (James Stephens), who would appear in the first and last episodes of the 1989 series before becoming a regular.

As for the episodes themselves:

The Fatal Confession had some good moments in it as Father Dowling looks into the apparent suicide of a former parishioner, but the last quarter of it or so is just too much like a soap opera

“The Missing Body Mystery,” the feature-length first episode of the 1989 series, begins with a man stumbling into St. Michaels and dying. When Father Dowling returns after calling the police, the body is gone. His stability is called into question and the bishop wants to relieve him and replace him with Father Phil. It’s a great story and a solid beginning.

“What Do You Call Girl Mystery” is a story about a slain high-priced call girl that manages to tell a good story without being exploitative or sleazy.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery” is probably the only clunker in the first season. Steve’s ex-fiance (played by Nelson’s then-husband William Moses) witnesses a murder, but when he shows up with the police, the body’s gone. Even worse, someone’s trying to kill him. This story not only has a similar plot to a much better episode that aired two weeks previously, as a well as a weak conclusion, but it tries to create dramatic conflict over Steve’s decision to become a nun and fails.

The main problem is that we’re told that Steve was almost ready to marry her ex when she ran off to the convent to become a nun. Why would a young woman make this very radical decision? All of the reasons Sister Steve gives, such as, “It was the right thing for me,” don’t really ring true. It’s impossible to believe that the Catholic Church would allow someone with such weak reasons, or inability to articulate them, to become a nun at all. Of course, treating the subject realistically may have required too much religiosity for network TV executives’ liking. But if you can’t do it well, why do it at all? Why try to introduce a dramatic subplot that’s not believable?

The season got back on track with the two part “Mafia Priest Mystery,” in which Father Luciana, the son of a mafia family, becomes Father Dowling’s new assistant. He’s trying to make a break with the family business, but is drawn into an effort to help his brother Peter go straight, and finds himself framed for murdering the DA. This is a great story with a lot of tension, suspects, and situations. We do learn whodunit about halfway through the second episode, but there’s still some great suspense including a delightful train chase. I also appreciate how the episode highlights both Frank and Steve’s compassion as they deal with and minister to members of the crime family even while trying to find the killer.

“The Face in the Mirror Mystery” is actually a pretty decent story despite the fact that the premise of an “evil twin” of the main character has been done to death. This is a great cat-and-mouse game between Father Dowling and his twin brother Blaine, though the payoff scene is a little silly.

The season concluded with “The Pretty Baby Mystery,” which has a woman chased by armed men, leaving her baby in the church. Father Dowling and Steve try to find the mother and end up getting arrested by the Feds. This is another episode that really respects the characters’ vocation and differentiates them from the typical TV detective. The episode also marks the return of James Stevens as Father Phil, who has become the Bishop’s assistant.

Overall, the first season of Father Dowling was thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to be a mostly well-written, family-friendly detective series with likable characters. It treats its main characters with respect, but also manages a great deal of humor and warmth. I’ll look forward to future seasons.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Streaming Review: No Escape

Note: Having done a lot of research for more recent Bob Bailey series, I decided it’d be worthwhile to review a couple of things I viewed starring Bob Bailey as part of the research.

No Escape is a 1953 film noir set in San Francisco. The theme of the film is that because of its geography, once the police get a bead on you and set up a dragnet, there’s no way out. The poor unfortunate sap who finds himself in this situation is John Howard Tracy, a talented piano player plagued by alcoholism. The girlfriend (Marjorie Steele) of a tough San Francisco cop (Sonny Tufts) is the prime suspect of a murder, and Tracy could provide key evidence that could implicate her. However, her boyfriend decides to frame Tracy, who has to find some way to prove his innocence while avoiding capture.

There’s a lot to like about this film, starting with Lew Ayres’s performance. Lew Ayres is perhaps most familiar as Dr. Kildare, the titular character of the television show, and he is a bit past his prime in that series. This film is nearly a decade earlier, and Ayres delivers a charismatic performance and creates an interesting character in Tracy. The art direction of the film is good, too. The music of the film is above average, and the use of some real location shots of San Francisco, while not exclusive to No Escape, enhance the pleasure of it considerably.

The plot is the weak spot. The mystery at the core of the story is predictable and the big surprise twist I’d figured out well in advance of the end.  Still, it’s an enjoyable and diverting film even if it’s not a great one.

Bob Bailey’s Role

Bob Bailey’s role is credited as “Detective Bob,” and in the film he delivers functional dialogue. If some police officer needs to say something like, “Look, he’s over there,” this will be the type of line that Detective Bob will get. Bailey does what’s expected but there’s really no opportunity to do anything with the role.

The obvious reason for Bailey taking on this part is the money. He was about to step away from his starring role in Let George Do It to focus on screenwriting. The money he got for the film would make a good nest egg.

If the film served any purpose, it showed that Bailey could indeed play a detective. Despite the insistence by TV execs that Bailey didn’t look the part of George Valentine or Johnny Dollar, Bailey looks perfectly believable as Detective Bob. Then again, his problem was never reality, but Hollywood standards for what a private detective should look like.

Overall, the film is not a bad little noir to watch, and offering a chance to see Bob Bailey, even in a limited role, may be an added enticement.

Rating 3.5 out of 5 Stars

No Escape can be streamed for free by Amazon Prime subscribers.

Streaming Review: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

In the 1948 film, Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House, New York City advertising executive Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) shares a cramped apartment with his wife (Myrna Loy) and  his daughters. In a fit of inspiration and pique, Blandings decides to move his family into a beautiful old house in rural Connecticut about an hour from the city. However, Murphy’s Law hits in force and before Blandings knows it, he’s having to build a new home from scratch.

While this film is seventy-five years old, it’s still charming. While both Grant and Loy were veterans of more uproarious screwball comedies in the 1930s, Mister Blanding Builds His Dream House‘s comedy is different. It’s down-to-earth, subtle, and relatable. Anyone who’s gotten themselves into the stressful and complicated process of a real estate transaction should be able to relate to the Blanding’s plight, though the situations are amped up for comedic effect. Long-suffering family friend and lawyer Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) is both a great voice of reason and delivers the best comedic lines in the film. The film also has a serious point and character arc for Jim that really only becomes apparent in a surprise end towards the end of the picture..

The film did have points that seemed underdeveloped. In particular, Jim’s struggles to develop a slogan for Wham! (an obvious ripoff of Spam) because a predominant plot point in the last quarter of the movie. Having Cary Grant read off lame slogan ideas isn’t exactly comedy gold and we’re given little reason to care about him coming up with this whole issue. The threat of losing his job could have gotten me to care if done right, but there’s no reason to think he doesn’t get another job just a s good in two weeks.

Still, this is a very enjoyable film  when it sticks to its strengths aa  a story of love and real estate.


Rating: 4..0 out of 5.0

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TV Series Review: Banacek

A previous version of this review appeared in 2018.

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 makes 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 seventeen episodes were released.

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

Banacek was portrayed as God’s gift to women, at least for 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 is 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 tries to thwart Banacek with the help one of his own investigators, Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford), who tries 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 works cold cases that haven’t been solved in sixty days, and the executive comments 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 of the pilot, they ended up out all the money they paid the investigators plus the reward.

Peppard plays Banacek differently in the pilot. He is a quieter, less flippant character. He spends a good fifteen minutes straight at one point, on screen but saying nothing. He speaks with conviction, explaining why he hadn’t changed his last name to something less obviously Polish.

Jay and Carlie are also in the pilot. Jay is quite different. He owns a limo rental business based in Dallas rather than being Banacek’s employee, and simply drives him around. He also pulls a classic double-cross when he bribes the operator to listen in on Banacek’s phone call and overhears 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.

Availability: Banacek is now easier to watch. When I last posted a review of the series five years ago, it was very hard to get a hold of. Today the Complete Series is now available on DVD. For a sixteen-episode series and a pilot, the $54.99 price tag is a premium price compared to most other 1970s detective shows, even when taking into account the longer length. However, for fans of the series or Peppard, it may be a worthwhile purchase.

If you’re curious about the series, you can watch the series for free (Pilot not included) with ads as part of Amazon’s Freevee service by clicking here.

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DVD Review: A Night to Remember

In the 1942 film A Night to Remember,  mystery writer Jeff Troy (Brian Aherne) and his wife Nancy (Loretta Young) move into their basement apartment one night and the next morning find a body in their garden. Even worse, the Mystery writer got into a fight with the dead man the night before. The couple discovers their apartment is full of secrets and a mystery worthy of one of the writer’s novels, but will they survive it?

The film has a lot going for it, with a solid cast in back of it including Lee Patrick and Sidney Toler in a non-Charlie Chan appearance as the local police inspector. It also has a good premise and a good dose of atmosphere, with some tense moments.

At the same time, A Night to Remember has some weak points including some pacing issues and leads who just don’t make you care that much about their characters as a couple, although Loretta Young is fun on her own. The mystery can also be a bit complex and hard to follow.

However, what may make A Night to Remember so forgettable is that it’s a very subtle satire of the amateur detective genre. It was from an era where comedies were often very broad. Neither Jeff or Nancy are the sort of broad comedic characters you’ll find in screwball comedies or the later satires Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective. The Troys are ordinary everyday people, with Jeff having a slightly above-average understanding of mystery solving. Thus they don’t bungle their way through the case is some uproariously hilarious way but rather in very subtle, everyday, ordinary ways.  One example is when Jeff does as so many amateur sleuths do, and suggests that the police pick up a suspicious character, he finds that the police had already picked him up. Having the police just do their ordinary work in believable ways and show up the mystery writer is one of the movie’s great sources of humor.

One critic said the film is hard to hate and I think that’s a fair description. It’s not a stupid or very offensive film. It’s an hour and a half of diversion that’s different from a lot of its peers but in a way that makes it forgettable. If its sort of low-key, subtle approach is something you’re curious about or if you’re a fan of either Aherne or (especially) Young, it’d be worth watching.

If you seek out the film, be warned: 1) A 1958 film about the sinking of the Titanic has the same name, and 2) The only legal way to purchase the film is a DVD from Collector’s Choice which lacks even the sort of menus that Warner Archive provides with their releases. Instead, the film auto plays all the way through and will continue to do so until you act to stop it.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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