Category: DVD Review

Film Review: Who Done It?

Who Done It? is a 1942 Abbott and Costello film in which Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play two soda jerks who aspire to become radio mystery writers. However, their efforts to pitch a mystery get derailed when an actual murder occurs in a program that they’re attending. They leap in to try and investigate like good amateur sleuths, but find themselves running through the station from the police while trying to clear their names, and stay alive.

Who Done It? is a fun Abbott and Costello film with a lot to commend itself for fans of old-time radio detective programs, as there’s a mystery involved and we also get to take a “behind the scenes” look at a radio stations during the Golden Age of Radio. Abbott and Costello had become massively popular thanks to the Who’s on First? baseball routine and they have a good time poking fun at their own success. The supporting cast was solid, featuring future Oscar nominee William Gargan and future Life of Riley star William Bendix, along with a fairly young Mary Wickes.

The movie is definitely one of their more fast-paced films, with the murder mystery serving as a ticking time bomb and also limiting the number of settings. Yet, it still delivers some great laughs, a satisfying solution to the mystery and one of great big over-the-top slapstick finales this early era of Abbott and Costello films was known for.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Who Done It? is part of The Best of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Vol. 1 or Abbott & Costello: Universal Pictures Collection.

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Streaming Review: The House on 92nd Street

While books, films, movies, and radio programs told all sorts of high-flying adventure and espionage stories during World War II, these were almost entirely fiction. Yet, as the war came to an end, many stories could at last be told. The House on 92nd Street was one of the earliest of these to make it to film.

The film starts before the U.S. entered World War II, when a chance traffic accident sets the FBI, led by Inspector George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), onto a Nazi spy ring operating with support from the German Consulate in New York. While they have enough information to capture some members of the spy ring, they can’t identify the leader, a mysterious Mr. Christopher. A college student (William Eythe) who had been recruited by the Germans contacts the FBI, and they encourage him to play along with the Germans and go undercover to help round up the entire spy ring.

The House on 92nd Street was a ground-breaking film, and one of the earliest to utilize the sort of documentary style that would become popular in so many films based on true incidents in the latter part of the 1940s, such as The Naked City and He Walked by Night. Reed Hadley has the perfect voice of authority for a narrator. The story has some very nice, authentic touches. Real FBI agents appear in many agent roles in the film. The rest of the cast is made up of talented character actors. While there are some recognizable names in the cast (Nolan and Gene Lockhart stand out), all are well-suited to character roles and deliver believable performances. The film also features real secret footage of Nazi agents coming and going from the German consulate before Pearl Harbor.

Despite the authentic touches, the film takes its share of liberties with historic events, most of which seem to have been changed to make a more compelling and exciting film experience. And in that, it certainly succeeds, with some great camera work, tense music, and an exciting finale and big last-minute reveal.

House on 92nd Street is a real gem of a film. If you’re interested in World War II, or love a good 1940s thriller or spy story, this is a must-see film. It’s an intriguing film that takes real events and tells a story in a grounded yet compelling way.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

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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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DVD Review: Sorry, Wrong Number

In Sorry, Wrong Number, the wealthy, bed-ridden Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) is home alone and trying to find out what’s delaying her handsome, corrupt executive husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) when she gets a wrong connection and overhears two men plotting a murder. She begins making calls and discovers that her husband may have a secret or two.

As a film, Sorry, Wrong Number is a constantly entertaining viewing experience. Stanwyck received an Oscar nomination and Lancaster was in peak condition and perfectly cast as the charming, albeit weak, husband. The leads are supported by such talented stalwarts as Ann Richards, Ed Begley, Sr., and Wendell Corey. Harold Vermilyea’s role as Waldo Evans was riveting.

Like other noir-ish films of the era, such as The Killers, the Mask of Demetrios, and The Fat Man, much of Sorry, Wrong Number’s story is told through numerous flashbacks, which demand very versatile performances to quickly show character development. The cast delivers in every scene, showing believable character progression.

In addition, the film uses textbook noir storytelling techniques, with its brilliant use of light and shadow, as well as a superb musical score that really serves to drive the mood of the story right to its final climax.

The film is based on the breathtaking, and renowned, radio drama of the same name, and its failings come in the ways it strayed from the radio drama’s key premise. Mrs. Stevenson’s quest to stop the murderers, and find out who was endangered in the murder-for-hire call she overheard, gets waylaid by conversations with people wanting to share flashbacks of things that happened with her husband. Some moments seem silly and with little reflection, such as when Ann Richards’ civilian character, Sally Lord, is able to take her husband, an assistant district attorney, and a trained policeman escort through the heart of New York City without detection, and then also to a far more remote area, where she sticks out like a sore thumb.

However, the film’s flaws don’t stop it from being a solidly acted and directed piece that’s a must-see for any fan of noir films.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Streaming Review: The Glass Onion

A multi-billionaire (Edward Norton) throws a murder mystery party for his closest associates (played by an all-star cast of Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Kathryn Hahn, and Leslie Odom,Jr.). Everyone is surprised when his estranged business partner (Janelle Monae) shows up, along with the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who also starred in the previous film (Knives Out).

The setting, location, and all-star cast are evocative of the great Agatha Christie adaptation films starring Peter Ustinov, particularly Evil Under the Sun. There are some really solid performances, most notably Craig, who really shines in every moment on-screen. Also, the film features welcome cameos by the late Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim, which are sadly brief, but relevant to the plot.

The film is not the equal of its predecessor for a number of reasons.

As a matter of personal taste, I didn’t find setting the story in the midst of the pandemic to be in good taste. It has minor relevance to the plot but wasn’t essential. There’s a reason why the flu pandemic of 1918 was practically forgotten in the public consciousness until COVID-19 hit. It wasn’t a great time to live through and people would rather forget it. This isn’t to say that the pandemic should never be on film, but this is a classic case of “too soon”, particularly for a mystery movie that should have an escapist feel to it. Featuring masks and even having a scene on CNN with mounting death tolls and cases cuts against that.

The movie has a twist that’s revealed more than an hour in that leads the story to cut back and recontextualize some previous scenes. I’ve seen this technique used before but not in a mystery film. I’m not opposed to it, but I think it takes too long in this film and hurts the pacing. It’s also a case where the new context leads to scenes that are less entertaining and interesting than the ones in the original context.

The film also has a problem with its characterization. I blame social media and the illusion it creates, that we “know” people, including famous people, from their Instagram posts and Twitter accounts. In The Glass Onion, it feels less like human beings are getting together and more like social media profiles are. This surface-level characterization shows up in a well-worn plot element being introduced, and again with an even more tired method of saving one character’s life, a method that had been debunked on Mythbusters more than a decade ago. The plot would make this a fitting subject for a YouTube series such as How It Should Have Ended or Pitch Meeting.

Add to that an ending that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I really left with a less-than-stellar viewing experience, despite some high points. I loved Knives Out (review here) but I have mixed feeling about The Glass Onion. It left me pessimistic about getting good detective movies in the 2020s .

Rating: 3 out of 5

 

The Glass Onion is available to streem for free on Netllix.

Telefilm Review: The Rockford FIles: White on White and Nearly Perfect

In this Season Five episode of The Rockford Files, Jim Rocko (James Garner) is hired by an industrialist to find his kidnapped daughter. However, Rocco runs into an obstacle in the form of fellow private eye Lance White (Tom Selleck) who, despite claiming to be there just as “a friend”, becomes Rockford’s partner and annoys him with his almost perfect luck.

The episode is a comedy gem. As a series, The Rockford Files was known for having a somewhat cynical view of the world. Lance’s sunny optimism and classic do-gooder hero status clashes beautifully with that attitude, and Rockford’s annoyance with Lance makes for good comedy. Lt. Doug Chapman (James Luisi) is usually quick to bite Rockford’s head off about being involved as a private investigator in police manners. In this episode, he’s ridiculously chummy with Lance, and Rockford’s incredulity is priceless. Rockford has to deal with this sunny optimism while facing off against dangerous criminals and dealing with a client who is not being entirely straight with him.

“White on White and Nearly Perfect” was inspired by a 1959 episode of the Western series Maverick (which starred Garner as Bret Maverick) called “The Saga of Waco Williams”.

Selleck was a lot of fun in this role. His character was written in an absurd way and he leaned into it, making it a memorable outing. The episode is a treat for mystery fans, as Selleck was only a couple of years away from the premiere of his own hit detective series, Magnum, PI. The series features the most popular detective star from the 1970s with the most popular detective star from the 1980s.

This alone makes this a fun viewing experience for fans of vintage television. Add in Selleck’s comedy and this is a definite winner.

Rating: 4 out of 5

This episode can be viewed for free on Tubi on Freevee

Telefilm Review: Walker, Texas Ranger: One Riot, One Ranger

In the feature-length series premiere of Walker, Texas Ranger, Ranger Cordell Walker (Chuck Norris) hunts down a dangerous criminal who is planning a big job by doing a series of dry runs in Fort Worth. In a bank robbery, Walker’s partner is shot down. He takes on a new partner in the form of rookie ranger Jimmy Trivette (Clarence Gilyard). Together the two set out to discover who is behind the murders, get justice, and thwart their evil plans.

Review (Some Spoilers Follow):

You get all the high-powered action you’d expect from Walker, Texas Ranger, with a lot of big action scenes and even an explosion thrown in for good measure.

The villain is menacing, with a combination of ruthlessness, a CIA background, and a disregard for human life. But he’s also a bit cartoonish and so is his plan. If he has a CIA background, it seems that he should be able to gather intelligence to find the right partners for his big heist, rather than using a series of smaller heists as trial runs that will draw the attention of the police and the Texas Rangers.

Despite the flaw in the villain’s plan, the case is still interesting, as there are a lot of details teased out over the course of the episode, and Walker and Trivette have to figure out the villain’s endgame.

Beyond the main plot, One Riot, One Ranger serves as an introduction to the series’ cast of characters. We get back story exposition from both Walker and Trivette. While not an ideal way to introduce characters, it’s at least done in a way that’s natural, and I think it was actually pretty effectively weaved in, as Walker shared his own trauma to comfort a young lady who’d also been a victim. We get far less time with prosecutor Alex Cahill (Sharee Wilson), but a good performance and well-selected scenes capture the combination of compassion and a passion for justice that are so key to her character. The series also introduces ex-Ranger and barkeeper C.D. Parker (Gailard Sartain) in the pilot episode, who serves as a mentor to both rangers.

Walker’s partner leaves no impression at all in the scenes he’s in before being killed. His inclusion seems like an unnecessary and pointless trip to the cliche-o-matic. Even in the 1990s, if you’re going to make “They killed his partner” part of your hero’s motivation, you have to make some effort to sell the audience on it, either by getting the audience to care about the dead partner, or by showing how deeply it affected the hero. None of that happens here.

While I thought Walker’s character worked well for the most part, the writers had him intentionally mispronouncing Trivette’s last time for the entire episode. Really, I can’t think of any non-illegal behavior that’s more insufferable than that. It’s a weak joke that could have sabotaged the show if other factors weren’t in its favor.

Even in the pre-9/11 days, it’s hard to believe it would be as easy to drop off a bomb at the Texas Rangers’ headquarters as is portrayed in the episode.

Also, while I thought Galiard Sartain did a decent job, I did find myself longing for the late Noble Willingham, who would play C.D. in the main series.

Overall Thoughts:

In some quarters, the original Walker, Texas Ranger is a bit of a joke, and you can see hints of why in this episode. But I think you also see why it remained a ratings hit for most of its eight-year run.

It’s a fun show to watch, the action is good and the characters are likable, even if they have some rough edges. Walker himself is perhaps the most prickly. He’s tough, relentless, and very gruff. Yet, at the end of the day, he lets a rape victim take sanctuary at his ranch in the midst of big investigations, and agrees to a dangerous rodeo stunt, one which landed him in the hospital the last time he tried it, in order to help out orphans.

While some may view the show as corny, the series really seems to be quite earnest. In particularly, Trivette’s story of his own origins, growing up as a fan of The Lone Ranger, reflects the sort of heroic tradition that the series puts its protagonists in. It was a very intentionally a throwback even in 1993.

Fundamentally, viewers approved and liked hanging out with these characters in between the big fight scenes.

The pilot has some weak spots that the series would improve on a little. It’s still a fun way to spend ninety minutes for anyone curious as to how a cultural phenomena like Walker, Texas Ranger began.

Rating 3.25 out of 5

The full episode is available for free on YouTube.

Film Review: Cosmo Jones in the Crime Smasher

Frank Graham created the character of Cosmo Jones for his radio series Nightcap Yarns, where he voiced all the characters in a Monday-Friday program. One of the more recurring stories to emerge was Cosmo Jones, an eccentric little “professor” who solved crimes whether the police wanted him to or not.

In 1943, the series received a poverty row adaptation as Monogram released Cosmo Jones in The Crime Smasher. The main plot centered around a socialite being kidnapped after a gangland killing.

The highlight of the movie was getting an actual on-screen appearance by Frank Graham, who also did radio announcing work and starred in the more serious detective program Jeff Regan, Investigator in the 1949-50 season. He had also served as narrator for a lot of short subjects and animated features (the most famous of which was Disney’s The Three Caballeros)Graham does a great job embodying the character of Cosmo Jones, the small, eccentric professor. He shows some decent physical comedy skills and is fun to watch as far as that goes.

The rest of the movie is weak. It feels unfocused at times. Edgar Kennedy and Mantana Moreland, two Monogram mainstays, were in the film but the script didn’t give them a lot to work with. The story is simple enough, but seems to get sidetracked, and much of the humor doesn’t land. Like many films, they felt the need to tack on a boy-girl romance between two side characters that just isn’t that compelling. It mostly seems to take away from the main attraction of seeing Cosmo Jones work on-screen. The film is not horrible or particularly offensive, but it isn’t good, either.

The film’s an odd curiosity for modern viewers. It’s a movie adaptation for a radio character for whom we have scanty recordings. The one episode we do have from Frank Graham’s run on Nightcap Yarns that features Cosmo Jones includes a fight between Jones and several policemen that would have taken Monogram days to shoot and an elaborate stunt in a museum that would have probably blown their production budget for the entire year. All this occurred in a twelve-minute radio story with nothing more than Frank Graham’s voice and a few sound effects.

As such, this was one of those ideas that would never have worked as a film, but you can’t blame either Monogram for giving it a try in the midst of World War II. I can only recommend it if you’re curious to see Graham act or if you’re a completist fan of either Kennedy or Moreland.

Rating: 2.25 out of 5

Telefilm Review: Garfield’s Babes and Bullets

Garfield’s Babes and Bullets is a 1989 Emmy-Award-winning Television special based on Jim Davis’ book Garfield: His Nine Lives, a book which was based on the premise that cats literally have nine lives and that Garfield has had past lives as a cave cat, a lab animal, etc. The other segments of the book were adapted as a separate TV special, Garfield: His Nine Lives. The Babes and Bullets segment from the book shares only the name of the character and tone. The story for the TV special is different from what was in the book.

In the TV special, it’s a rainy day, and Garfield (Lorenzo Music) goes to sleep in the closet and dreams he’s Sam Spayde, a hard-boiled private investigator. The wife of a recently deceased twenty-three-year-old college professor thinks her husband was murdered rather than dying in an auto accident. Spayde sets out to investigate the case.

The special does a great job capturing the tone, the feel, the style, and the dialogue of a noir film perfectly. The story is a comedy but never becomes a farce. The story is kid-friendly, but the humor is a little less silly than what was being played on the Saturday Morning mainstay Garfield and Friends with that sort of all-ages family comedy feel the Garfield specials went for.

I also appreciate the premise on a conceptual level. Cats spend a lot of time sleeping or perching in odd places and staying totally still. The idea that they’re doing something like daydreaming about being a hard-boiled private eye is a nice premise.

While the “Garfield” framing segments are animated in the typical style of the other TV specials, the Spayde segment is done very well in Black and White, which really adds to the ambiance. The special also has a very nice jazzy theme song and score. Although, if I were to level one criticism at the special, it’s that there was at least one segment where either no music or a different selection might have worked a bit better.

Garfield’s Babes and Bullets is a well-done and entertaining love letter from the late 1980s to the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s and 1950s. If you love Garfield or share the creative team’s appreciation, it makes for an entertaining twenty-four minutes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Garfield’s Babes and Bullets is currently available for free to Amazon Prime Members along with eight other Garfield TV specials.

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