Category: Telefilm Review

Telefilm Review: A Nero Wolfe Mystery: Christmas Party

“Christmas Party,” is set in the 1950s. Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton) agrees to create a fake marriage license to allow an enchanting dancing partner to press her boss and hot and cold romantic interest to give her a firm answering on marrying her. She invites Archie to the Christmas party of the design company her boss owns. When his boss, legendary private detective Nero Wolfe gets too pushy in insisting Archie instead drive him to an appointment, Archie to uses the license to make Wolfe believe he’s about to get married and to Wolfe’s horror, bring a woman to live in Wolfe’s house or leave Wolfe’s employ for good.

Things go wrong for Archie when the boss is murdered and the license (which could prove Archie a forger) is missing and could be found by police. It’s only when he arrives home that Archie finds how bad things are and that the honor and dignity of Nero Wolfe are at stake if they don’t solve the murder…and quickly.

This is a bit of an oddity in my Christmas viewing habits. I tend to go for uplifting traditional feel-good Christmas stories. However, “Christmas Party” is in the words of the froggy-voiced victim, “My secret public vice” entertainment-wise as I mention watching it on Twitter nearly every year.

Part of the pleasure is having an excuse to touch base with one of the best TV mystery series ever. I’d argue it’s the last great faithful adaption of old school detective fiction that we’ll ever see. The high points of the series are all present in this episode: There’s the stylish costuming and generally elegant set design that gives the series an authentic feel. There’s the marvelous ensemble cast that make up the bulk of guest characters each week. And there’s the writing that faithfully conveys Stout’s stories with a minimum of tampering.

As for the plot itself, it’s a pretty standard Rex Stout plot. Stout is the master of creating all these little worlds (usually within the realm of New York City) which are civilized on the surface but one homicide away from all the pent up hostility and petty rivalries within the group exploding to the surface. The solution is stylistic and bold, but not particularly brilliant. What makes this story standout is the Wolfe-Goodwin relationship. Despite Archie’s constant ribbing and the way they get on each other’s nerves, it transcends the mere employer-employee relationship. Mentor/mentee and Surrogate Father/Son are certainly fair ways to describe it. This story highlights the hidden warmth of what’s often a tempestuous relationship in a way that’s true of the clever subtlety of Rex Stout, and that aspect does more than anything else to make it fit the season.

There are minor quibbles to be had with it. The portrayal of Lilly Rowan, a semi-important recurring character in the books, as jealous of Archie having a dance partner on another night is far from book-accurate, although it does serve to provide the episode a nice TV original bookend. And of course, the plant rooms appear and reminds fans of the one way the early 2000s series fails in comparison to its much less-regarded 1980s predecessor: in its portrayal of Wolfe’s famous room full of orchids.

This doesn’t detract from its status as a solid entry in the TV show.

Rating: Satisfactory

Note: In a crime against great television, A Nero Wolfe Mystery is not available legally on any streaming service and the DVDs are all out of print. However, the series is worth seeking out however you can find it whether through your local library, an eBay auction, or fan-posted YouTube video.

Telefilm Review: Matlock: The Hunting Party

In honor of the recently departed Clarence Gilyard, I decided to check out his first appearance on Matlock as Conrad McMasters.

“The Hunting Party” was a two-part episode that originally aired as a TV movie. In the series, a veteran journeys to Manteo, North Carolina to confront a member of a hunting party who killed his brother. They get into an altercation that’s broken up by Deputy Tyler McMasters. When the other man is killed, the veteran is charged with murder, and Matlock (Andy Griffith) heads to North Carolina to find the real killer and clear his client.

There’s a lot to like about this episode. The mystery is fun, even if a bit convoluted. As often happened with longer-form Matlock stories, there was an entirely different mystery that had to be solved before they could get to actually solving the murder. There are some good surprises along the way and it’s always fun to watch Griffith playing detective.

The guest cast is solid, with a few standouts. In addition to Gilyard, the “The Hunting Party” also features former Watergate Committee lawyer-turne-actor and later U.S Senator and later failed Presidential Candidate Fred Thompson really flexing his acting muscles … by playing a local politician and lawyer. Gilyard is a delight. He plays very well off Griffith and there’s genuine warmth between them. Because Griffith was involved in Matlock, it was one of the last shows that would frequently have guest characters show off musical talent for reasons totally unrelated to the plot. While entertaining Matlock in his apartment, Conrad plays country music on his guitar and even adds some yodeling, talents that I wasn’t aware that Mr. Gilyard possessed.

I also have to say the setting is an added bonus, as several scenes are filmed near the “Lost Colony of Roanoke.”

The story has some pretty typical flaws for Matlock. The villains, despite their elaborate plans, are none too bright. At one point, they decide to try and make it look like Matlock is a cocaine dealer, a ludicrous idea that does yield a hilarious scene where Matlock loses his cool in court during his arraignment after repeatedly admonishing his client for his outbursts of temper. The courtroom scenes are more ridiculous than I remember. It’s best to turn off your brain and watch as Matlock tries to make up for ignoring every rule of criminal procedure by employing pure unadulterated charm and folksiness.

While I love Conrad McMasters, it has to be said that his role in the story doesn’t make sense. Why is a County Deputy sheriff operating as a private operative for the defense counsel? His decision to move to Atlanta and become a private investigator is not given any plot justification. I think it probably makes more sense in real life where the actor who played Matlock’s original investigator was fired due to substance abuse issues. It seems likely that Conrad was a one-off character but became full-time with the need to replace the departed actor, which would explain why the end scene with Conrad arriving at Matlock’s office felt tacked on.

Despite these minor issues, this was still a fun mystery movie with a lot to commend it.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

“The Hunting Party” can be watched for free on demand on PlutoTV.

Telefilm Review: The Magician

The Magician was a 1973 pilot film for a TV series starring Bill Bixby (The Incredible Hulk, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.) Bixby plays a stage magician who solves mysteries. The pilot has a 70-minute runtime as opposed to most later pilots that opt for either a forty-five-minute regular pilot episode of a series or a TV Movie length. This was aired over NBC which was doing the “Mystery Wheel” format at the time with rotating 90-minute mystery movies being aired, so that’s the reason for the odd length.

Tony Dorian*(Bixby) is sought out by a mother who’s daughter supposedly died in a plane wreck after a man who had been on the plane (and also was supposed to have died) has a spontaneous heart attack at Dorian’s performance. Dorian has to find out what happened to the woman’s daughter and thwart the very dangerous and powerful people who want to stop him.

The 1970s was a golden age for the TV Detective. The Magician has a lot of gimmicks that make it stand out from its contemporaries.. The wealthy playboy aspect of Dorian’s character is somewhat reminiscent of Banacek but Dorian’s different style plus the fact he cared not one whit for money makes that comparison strained. From this movie, the best comparison I could make is that Dorian is the Saint, if the Saint were a magician.

Bixby’s performance is good. He was superb at playing characters with a kindly nature. At the same time, he manages to play the mystery and the ultimate coolness of his character in a way that’s relatable and pleasing to watch.

With a name like The Magician, the series promises magic and spectacle and delivers. We get the same magic trick twice, but it’s an impressive and fun illusion to watch. 1970s was also a great era for chase scenes in detective shows and this featured one of the best-filmed and most-fun ones to watch (even if the logic of why the chase is done is a bit elusive.)

The series also cast a solid actor to play the first guest villain in Hollywood veteran Barry Sullivan. Sullivan could still really bring a sense of menace to his character and he made a great foil for Bixby.

The theme tune is a solid fit for the era and a good listen, with some real complexities in the composition. It’s great to listen to, though I doubt it’s an earworm that sticks with you unless you grew up with it.

The plot of the episode was a bit convoluted and had a couple holes such as the puzzling actions of the security team pursuing our hero in the final act.

The movie’s biggest fault is it may try a little too hard. We learn our hero lives on a plane piloted by Jerry (Julian Christopher) and is also friends with a sophisticated but unconventional columnist named Max (Keene Curtis) who lives with his wife and computer genius wheelchair-bound son Dennis (Todd Crespy.)  We also get quick exposition explaining that Tony’s life is a real-life version of the Count of Monte Cristo. 

Some of this may have benefitted by a feature-length pilot episode, but there’s too much going on for a series like this which is always going to focus mostly on Tony investigating the case on his own. When that’s going on, the film is a lot of fun to watch. At other times, it just feels like we have too many characters on-screen that we hardly know anything about.

If you like Bill Bixby’s acting, or enjoy a 1970s detective series with a little bit more flash, this film is worth watching.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The telefilm is included on the Complete Series disk for The Magician. 

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Telefilm Review: Cannon/Barnaby Jones: The Deadly Conspiracy

A young woman who works at an oil company calls a congressional staffer promising to blow the whistle on her employer. This is overheard by the head of public relations who plots her death. A wine delivery man with a record is set up at the patsy for raping and killing the woman.

Frank Cannon (William Conrad) is hired by the an attorney for the accused, while the Congressional staffer hires Barnaby Jones (Buddy Ebsen), thus setting up a rare crossover between two TV detectives. Cannon had appeared in Barnaby Jones’s first episode.  Both programs were produced by Quinn Martin who used Cannon’s presence to jumpstart Barnaby Jones. Here the two detectives have both been on multiple seasons and would in effect be sharing star billing and solving the case together. 

This is a good story. Like many Quinn Martin detective shows, it was not a whodunit. Who is pretty clear from the start. However, there are all kinds of mysteries to solve along the way such as why, and what the goal of the titular “Deadly Conspiracy” is.

I liked a lot about the conspiracy. Their goal is complex, but it makes sense and also seems realistic and believable. While the conspirators are willing to kill for their goals, unlike other villains, they don’t just kill. They’re able to throw roadblocks in front of our heroes in ways that don’t involve homicide, which I think makes for a more interesting plot.

Both Conrad and Ebsen are given a chance to shine, and overall the team is very well-balanced with both playing nearly equal parts in the action and detective work. The guest cast is a notch above the typical guest cast with a lot of recognizable  actors including Diana Douglas and Francis De Sales.  Barry Sullivan shines as the chief villain.

There are two versions of the story available. The Season 5 DVD of Cannon contains a modified version of the story that’s trimmed down to a single episode of Cannon with an alternate (and in my opinion inferior) ending. The Season 4 DVD of Barnaby Jones collects both episodes and I recommend that version. While several episodes of existing programs were backdoor pilots for possible detective programs, this was the only crossover episode for two established 1970s Detective programs. It does its job well and deserves to be seen in its complete form.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

What Works:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Doesn’t Work:

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

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

Overall:

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

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

Rating 4.25 out of 5

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