Category: Telefilm Review

Telefilm Review: Kraft Suspense Theater: Twixt the Cup and the Lip

We continue our reviews that focus on Batman actors in other detective and mystery programs as part of our Amazing World of Radio Summer Series, focusing on their old-time radio work. This week, our focus is on Ethel Merman.

She guest starred in a 1965 episode of the anthology series, The Kraft Suspense Theater, in “Twixt the Cup and the Lip,” a comedic heist story. A gallery employee (Larry Blyden) is fired by his employer for being far too honest, after telling two gallery patrons that a $2 million scepter was overpriced. He’s given two weeks working notice before his employment is terminated. His fiancee complains that he’s a doormat. So the employee does the only things he can do: start taking long lunches and coming in late now that the boss has fired him anyway. He dons a turtleneck sweater and cap (a sure sign in the mid-1960s of a heel turn), and hatch a multi-person conspiracy to steal the scepter with the aide of a corrupt ex-cop (Charlie McGraw), his landlady (Merman), a washed-up actress, and her daughter (Lucille Burnside), a wannabe actress.

The episode is fairly entertaining. It’s easy to sympathize with most of the characters to an extent except the sleazy ex-cop. Merman adds to every scene she’s in and manages to make the most of a small part. The plot itself has a few turns, as some of the co-conspirators begin plotting double-crosses. At least one of these felt a bit forced. The ending is fun, but a little bit too pat. Still, Larry Blyden turns in a really earnest and fun performance as the protagonist, and Ethel Merman adds just a touch of star power to make “Twixt the Cup and the Lip” a thoroughly watchable bit of 1960s television.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Telefilm Review: The Chevy Mystery Show: Enough Rope

Peter Falk first played Columbo in 1968. However, the character first came to television in 1960, played by Bert Freed in a one-off episode of The Chevy Mystery Show a 1960 Summer Anthology show. This original television performance made its way onto the Internet. (More on how that happened later on.) So I took a look at the OG Columbo story.

“Enough Rope”, the episode featuring Freed as Columbo, would later be expanded by writers and Columbo co-creators Richard Levinson and William Link, first into a stage play and then as the mystery movie that would introduce Falk as Columbo – Prescription: Murder. The basic plot of both “Enough Rope” and Prescription: Murder is the same. Dr. Roy Fleming (played by Richard Carlson in “Enough Rope”), a New York psychiatrist, murders his wife and, with the help of his mistress, gives himself a perfect alibi. He arrives to find the bumbling police Lieutenant Columbo (Freed) investigating the case, and it becomes apparent as the episode goes on that Columbo knows Fleming did it.

The biggest surprise about this episode is that it’s in color, which was rare for television in the 1960s. Although given the relatively small number of color sets in the US at the time, it’s safe to say most people who saw it watched it in black and white. The color is great and a real treat for this episode. The episode was not aired live, but it was recorded live, so that if a line was flubbed or a minor mistake was made, the cast just moved on. This gives the production a bit of a stage play feel.

There’s a temptation to compare Freed’s performance to Falk’s iconic take on the character, which isn’t fair. Not only wouldn’t Falk take on the role until 1968, the fairly unrumpled NYPD detective Falk portrayed in the first Columbo film, Prescription: Murder, bore little resemblance to how we think of the character today. That character wouldn’t be really formed until 1971. So given that Freed’s performance came before Falk’s,  and before Thomas Mitchell’s stage performance, it deserved to be evaluated on its own merits.

Freed was a skilled character actor and does a great job creating a detective character for which there wasn’t much precedent. On first impression, Freed seemed a lovable chubby oaf of a detective, only to show more and more flashes of his true cunning. You can also see some of the genesis of the ideas that would define the Columbo character.

I like Carlson as Fleming more than Gene Barry in the same role in Prescription: Murder. He’s a little more believable as a psychiatrist. He runs the gamut of emotions nicely as the walls close in and he finds himself in a battle of wits with Columbo.

While Freed and Carlson are terrific, the rest of the cast is just okay. The series was hosted by Walter Sleazak in those early days when TV anthologies had hosts. Some, like Ronald Reagan on the General Electric Theater, added charm and warmth. Others, like Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock added a bit more atmosphere to the strange tales they told. Sleazak adds nothing. He’s just a guy having a smoke while recapping the episode so far for anyone tuning in late.

The ending to the story is a bit mixed for me. I’ve always felt that Prescription: Murder, with its feature-length runtime, is too long. With “Enough Rope”, I find myself thinking that an hour is a bit short for this mystery. The length of Columbo episodes during the 70s is really just right. The result in “Enough Rope” is relatively simple, although in style, the final clue definitely has the feel of some later Columbo episodes. I don’t quite care for the clinching moment which resolves the battle of wits between Flemming and Columbo in a less satisfying way. It’s not bad for a 1960s Mystery Anthology show but it gives me more appreciation for the far better ending that Levinson and Link gave Prescription: Murder.

Overall, “Enough Rope” is a fun mystery for the era and really represents a chance to witness the first draft of Columbo and what was already there before Peter Falk came along. So it’s of interest to fans of Columbo or fans of TV mystery drama and is worth watching…while you can watch it.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

How This Got on the Internet

The Paley Center at UCLA held a live online screening of “Enough Rope” in April 2021. The event was to be live and not subject to being rewatched. The portion they archived included interviews with experts. The episode showed up last year on the Internet Archive with the UCLA branding attached and was posted to YouTube. The video I’ve linked above is titled a “Remaster.” Whether this removed the UCLA branding or perhaps is from another rare copy of this program, I don’t know. The copyright on “Enough Rope” was not renewed, and so this episode is in the public domain. I’m not certain what recourse anyone could have. But it’s early days and the circumstances of the release of the episode leaves me uncertain whether this will remain on the Internet forever.

Streaming Review: Tales of Wells Fargo: New Orleans Trackdown

Synopsis

Tales of Wells Fargo is set in the 1870s and 1880s. This episode came from a sixth and final season where the show expanded its format to an hour and went from black-and-white to color.

In “New Orleans Trackdown,” a Wells Fargo stage is held up by two robbers. They are defeated by a passenger who uses a form of foot-fighting martial arts. However, just as stage driver Beau McCloud (Jack Ging) thinks the day has been saved, his rescuer knocks him out and takes a box from the mailbag.

It turns out that the jewelry box contained a necklace that was insured for $250,000 (nearly $7.5 million in today’s dollars, assuming the episode was set in 1880). Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson) recognizes the description of the technique used by the second robber as a gentlemanly foot fighting technique used in New Orleans. So Hardie grabs his fanciest outfit and travels to New Orleans.

There he interviews the jeweler (Bob Bailey) who sent the necklace and insured it. He finds that it was purchased from a prominent and formerly wealthy New Orleans family who isn’t doing as well after the Civil War.

Review

Confession: I’d never seen an episode of Tales of Wells Fargo before watching this, and I can’t recommend this as an entry point, though not because the story was hard to follow. It was probably a much better show than this in its early days. In its first two seasons, Tales of Wells Fargo was a top ten show. This episode’s quality is far below that.

The most interesting thing about this episode is the oddity of seeing Bob Bailey, the voice of the most noted insurance investigator of them all, playing a beneficiary of a big insurance policy. The initial stage robbery was also pretty good.

After that, the episode really seems to move at a glacial pace. We learn that Beau McCloud got a promotion (yay, I guess) so that the series could retool for its last twenty episodes with other characters. The scenes in New Orleans are tedious, focusing on the family that sold the jewels and their inability to let the wheel-chair bound matriarch of the family know that they are no longer filthy rich. There is a point to be made there, but the show is awfully long-winded in making it.

The show could have worked with a little less time spent on the family and a little more intrigue and mystery over what happened to the necklace. However, the series undermined the sense of mystery with a character who seemed to exist to make clear who the bad guy was. It felt like the writers were unsure what to do with an hour-long run time, and the result was meandering and tedious.

As for Bob Bailey’s performance, he was fine, but there wasn’t a whole lot to his character. The writing gave Bailey little to work with.

The later episodes of Tales of Wells Fargo are only available with the Starz app. If you subscribe to Starz or can get a free trial to watch it, and you’re curious to see one of Bob Bailey’s last acting roles, than maybe it’s worth watching.

Otherwise, I can’t recommend it. “New Orleans Trackdown” is a below-average show of once-solid TV series.

Rating: 2.0 out of 5.0

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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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Death Takes a Curtain Call

Jessica goes to a performance of the Russian Ballet in Boston along with her friend Leo (Hurd Patterson) and there towards the end of the performance she finds out that Leo is attending so that he can help his great niece and her boyfriend defect. They get away but their plans are complicated when a KGB Agent is murdered backstage with them being the prime suspects.

Jessica believes the couple is innocent and sets out to prove it while getting Ethan to hide them back in Cabot Cove. To keep the couple safe, she’ll have to stay ahead of Major Anatole Karzoff of the KGB (William Conrad.)

What Works:

William Conrad is great as Karzoff. He manages to maintain the right combination of charm and menace. On one hand, he’s almost a flattering admirer of Jessica’s work, even though she receives no royalties because, as Karoff explains, ripping off authors is a Communist value.

At the same time, it’s clear Karzoff is a tough man to be reckoned with. He has the local police arrest Leo at one point just to rattle Jessica. Conrad had a long history of playing Russians and KGB men going back at least to the radio series I Was a Communist for the FBI and his Russian accent was never much better than so-so. However, he always sells it through his authoritative voice tone.

Conrad and Lansbury have wonderful performance chemistry and that makes this episode very fun to watch.

For her part, Jessica takes everything in her stride. It’s part of what makes her character work. She finds herself plunged into hiding two suspects from the FBI and KGB, is followed by a KGB man, and has her phone bugged, and she adjusts. One of my favorite scenes is when she decides to place a call and someone asked her why she didn’t use a closer phone, she responded calmly, “That one’s not tapped.”

This sort of character can becoming annoying or a Mary Sue but Jessica doesn’t because she’s not cocky or over-the-top, just calm and cunning. She just keeps her head about her and pushes through each new challenge.

Her outsmarting the FBI in the search for the missing couple makes perfect sense given that it’s been established that she knows Cabot Cove better than anyone including Sheriff Tupper.

I also think the KGB is at just the right threat level. Karzoff is ruthless, but in the United States his efforts are limited. A lot of Cold War films portray the KGB operating far too brazenly to be believed on American soil. This felt more grounded.

Sheriff Tupper is played mostly for comic relief, but he does work. He’s clearly in over his head with dealing with international intrigue, and mainly helps to expedite some matters for Karzoff and the FBI with his local knowledge. A search warrant is executed for the missing couple and Tupper evidently thought they might be in Jessica’s latest pie as Tupper cut off a piece just to be sure. I do suspect he was trying to frustrate the official investion just a tad, though that’s open to interpretation.

What Doesn’t Work

The story has an over-the-top anti-communist protester who storms onto the stage and disrupts the ballet performance shouting about communist plots. She seems to be in this story for two reasons. First, for the showrunners to say, ‘Yes, Communism can be terribly oppressive but we’re not crazy like this lady.’ The second is that she’s alleged to be the killer. The first reason doesn’t justify such a shrill and annoying character. The second doesn’t work because she’s an obvious red herring.

Of Note:

Dane Clark (Crime and Peter Chambers) appears as the FBI agent investigating the murder but is overshadowed by Conrad.

This was Claude Akins last appearance as Captain Ethan Clagg in the series.

Overall thoughts

This is easily my favorite Cabot Cove episode so far.  William Conrad is great, the mystery is pretty good, and Jessica has a lot of great moments. This tale of Murder, She Wrote meeting the Cold War is well-worth watching.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: We’re Off to Kill the Wizard

While visiting her niece somewhere in the Midwest, Jessica is invited to the opening of the latest amusement park by mogul Horatio Baldwin (James Coco) Baldwin wants to open a grisly theme park based on Jessica’s books, an offer Jessica refuses. Later Baldwin is found dead with a gun in his hand behind his locked office door. When the coroner finds he was killed by a blow to the head before the shot, the local police ask for her help.

What Works:

James Coco is marvelous as Baldwin. The first big scene is at a ceremony for Baldwin’s latest theme park where he plays a monk being hanged in a scene that’s played with perfect hammyness. Later, we get to see Baldwin as he tries to negotiate with Jessica. He treats everyone horribly, something Jessica doesn’t miss. When Jessica refuses his initial offer, he presses a button that locks the door so she can’t leave. When she threatens to press charges, he lets her go and sets out to dig up blackmail on her.

Jessica plays marvelously off Baldwin. She knows exactly who she is and what she’s about. Baldwin makes a great target for her moral indignation as his park is seeking to present violent and gory material to children. I thought it would be fun to watch these two battle over the course of the episode, but alas Baldwin was the designated corpse.

Jessica may have the best fan relations of any author ever. She not only signed Baldwin’s secretary’s book, but helped with the investigation to help clear herself as she disappeared after the crime was committed.

I also like the police motive for inviting her in. They’re neither in, “This is a police investigation, stay out” mode or “Please, we are helpless, solve the mystery,” mode instead Captain Davis (John Schruck) concludes that since they have a locked room mystery, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask a mystery writer for her opinion.

While this episode doesn’t have golden age Hollywood legends, the episode contains actors who appeared in other mystery series including Christine Belford (Banacek) and James Stevens (The Father Dowling Mysteries.)

What Doesn’t Work:

The killer came up with an ingenuous plan involving altering the office phones. Jessica is only able to solve the mystery because the killer stupidly failed to fix the phones, which is an inconsistency.

Speaking of inconsistent, there’s a bizarre detail put in by the writers. She disguises a roll of film as microfilm containing blackmail information collected by Baldwin and then announces that it was film from her vacation the previous year to Spain. It was jarring. Why would she take an undeveloped role of film from a trip year ago on a flight to see someone else? Why not just say it was from this trip to see her niece.

Overall:

“We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” is a well-done episode. Yes, the mystery has flaws and the story is not as fun after Baldwin is killed, but it manages to have some nice scenes of Jessica sleuthing mixed in with a few moments of light gunplay to keep the story engaging.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Hit, Run, and Homicide

In the middle of a baseball game at the Cabot Cove Founder’s Day Picnic, a car chases a wealthy out of town businessman, hits and disappears. Several witnesses testify that no one is driving. The same car then runs down the businessman’s partner.

The businessman claims they were there at the invitation of a disgruntled former employee Daniel O’Brien (Van Johnson) who wanted to meet with them. O’Brien is an inventor who had made plans for a driverless car and jumps to the top of the suspect’s list.

What Works

Murder by remote controlled vehicle is a novel murder method particularly for 1984.

Cabot Cove is very much a work in progress at this point as the show tries to grasp the feel of it. There’s a nice scene that captures the spirit of many small towns when a grocery store clerk points out O’Brien is an out of towner and Jessica points out that he’s lived there six years which leaves the clerk unimpressed.

It also feels like they’re still establishing Sheriff Tupper, who is a bit out of his depth about the whole case. I like the scene where Jessica provides him a gentle and respectful nudge that gets him to stop spinning his wheels.

O’Brien has a former colleague (June Allyson) as a house guest and the two have very\sweet chemistry together.

There’s a fun discussion about driverless cars and technology that’s fascinating if just a bit quaint for modern viewers in a time when driverless cars are starting to become a reality.

What Doesn’t Work

Let’s start with the murder. The business partner is killed on a road with two sides and he faced a choice. He could run up a hill with an impossibly high grade on his left or he could run down a hill into a forest filled with trees. Our victim chooses to run up the hill which he can’t climb and the car hits him, when if he had run into the forest he would have been fine.

While I can believe the victim panicked and did something stupid, it makes the killer’s plan look a bit haphazard because the whole thing could have been avoided with common sense.

In the scene that made the teaser for the episode, Jessica is trapped in the remote controlled car as it careens towards the edge of a cliff. It looks exciting but in context it makes little sense.

Tupper had spent an entire day searching for anywhere the car might have gone, hadn’t found it, and decided to go with the theory that a large truck had driven it away. Jessica points out there’s a place that Tupper hadn’t looked. Tupper refuses to go check, complaining about his budget, and so Jessica goes off by herself, finds the car, and gets inside it. The killer’s watching it an ominous van, remotely locks locks Jessica in, and guides the car down the highway, following it through Cabot Cove and heads it towards the edge of a cliff over the ocean…and then stops it.

This is a scene where nothing makes sense. Tupper was unrealistically stubborn. Jessica has no reason to get in the car and get behind the wheel. The killer had no reason to send Jessica on a scary ride through Cabot Cove unless they were going to kill her, which they weren’t.

It’s true the car needed to be found as part of the killer’s plan but once it was found, mission accomplished. They did the remote controlled chase for no good reason and exposed the van they were driving in to scrutiny. You can interpose your own reason for this such as equipment failure or the killer losing their nerve, but that’s the audience having to fix the writer’s mistake as you won’t find it in the episode.

The clue to solve the case is simple, but a little bit too simple. I pretty much had guessed the involved parties already but didn’t feel too smart for doing so.

Overall: This episode is flawed and continues an odd streak in Murder She Wrote’s first season where episodes set on the West Coast are way better than the East Coast stories.

Still, it’s got one of the more interesting premises so far and you also have June Allyson and Van Johnson bringing some golden age magic. So despite its flaws, this episode is far more entertaining than it deserves to be, and makes for good view.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Lovers and Other Killers

In “Lovers and Other Killers,” Jessica travels to Seattle as a guest lecturer at an University. While there she hires a young man named David Tolliver (Andrew Stevens) as her secretary to help her keep up with her writing. When Tolliver is accused of murdering an elderly woman, Jessica takes an interest in the case.

What Works

One recurring thing done in Television shows, movies, and comics of the area is that someone is that a man is looking for a Doctor, a scientist, or other important person and is given either their title and last name and initials and last name. They go to meet them and gasp (dramatic music)it’s a woman. Given that this trope is used so often, it’s interesting to see it reversed as Jessica is confused and a bit uncomfortable at a man applying to be her secretary.

I really enjoy Andrew Stevens as Tolliver. He plays the character just right. He’s got good looks and a certain amount of charm, but you also have a sense that this guy is bad news. He professes a lack of interest in women his own age, saying he prefers older women. His receipt of gifts and money from the woman who was killed are consistent with that of a gigolo, but he insists it was her way of making it up to him for causing a car accident. However, he also has a bit of a liar, so you can’t take that too seriously.

Jessica has mixed feelings on Tolliver. On one hand, she appreciates, his efficiency and seems to like him. On the other, she’s clearly uncomfortable at how familiar he gets with her. She arrives from a morning appointment to find him in her hotel room and tells him never to do that again. He does it later in the episode and claims to have forgotten.

However, Jessica continues to maintain that despite David being a conman, he’s not a killer. Yet, we’re given reason to doubt throughout. Is David really attracted to Jessica or is he a predator that she’s well-rid of? The answer is never spelled out in black and white, even by the time the episode ends.

Peter Graves put in a typically solid performance as an old flame of Jessica’s who’s now a college professor who is clueless that his long-time secretary is in love with him.

I also liked Jessica’s first lecture session as we got to see a little bit of Angela Lansbury’s acting versatility.

The plot is well-done with a lot of twists and mis-directions and a genuinely surprising reveal of the culprit. Jessica also faces more peril in this episode than in any other this season.

Other Notes:

When Jessica picked up at the airport she by Grave’s character, she’s hold a baby which she hands off to two nuns from China. Had nothing to do with the episode, but my wife pointed out. there’s a major story there.

The title of the episode is a play on the 1970 comedy film Lovers and Other Strangers, though nothing in the plot of that film seems to tie into this one.

Overall:

A very good episode. While the police foil isn’t great, there’s a bit of life in Greg Morris’ portrayal of Lieutenant Andrews. He’s mostly functional but that’s an upgrade over the unnamed Sheriff from last week.

And that functional performance is more than enough with a great mystery and solid work by Andrew Stevens and Peter Graves.

Rating:4.5 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: It’s a Dog’s Life

While Jessica is visiting her horse-trainer cousin down South, her cousin’s wealthy employer dies and bypasses his money-grubbing relatives to leave the bulk of his estate to his beloved dog. The dog is then accused of biting a neighboring farmer and then the dog is accused of a bizarre murder.

What Works

Dan O’Herlihy is only in this a few minutes as the wealthy patriarch who dies, but he plays a likable if eccentric old guy who’s beset by vultures. His delivery and timing in the video gives maximum impact.

Jessica remains likable and shrewd in her method of solving the crime. Suspicion her cousin is the murderer gives her a solid incentive to be involved in the case.

While the whodunit is made obvious, the how and why of the murderer’s plan are more interesting and Jessica unravels those well.

With Southern stereotypes abounding in this episode, I appreciated a scene where one character told another to stop acting like a stereotypical hillbilly.

Fans of A Life in Your Hands will appreciate when Jessica acts as Amicus Curiae at a Coroner’s Inquest so she can confront the murderer in a Perry Mason style.

What Doesn’t Work

The episode does rely a bit on stereotypes of Southerners including the somewhat dense Deputy Sheriff.

While in each of the previous episodes, I’ve commented (mostly positively) on Jessica’s police foils, the Sheriff in this story doesn’t make any impression at all. He’s generic (we don’t even learn his name) and aloof, and little more than a dumb local cop Jessica has to clean up after.

The same could be said of most of the characters. Even good actors like Dean Jones and Forest Tucker are given little material to work with. Other than the deceased millionaire, no character stands apart from stereotypical murder suspects. The most interesting character is the supernaturally-obsessed Morgana (Cathryn Damon.) However, she could easily become annoying if overused.

The identity of the murderer was obvious with every red-flag clue calling out one person. It didn’t help that the will made the SPCA the secondary beneficiary if anything happened to the dog. So while I could believe most of the family would gladly kill a family member or frame a dog for a few hundred thousand dollars, the entire situation made motive less plausible. Though not much less plausible than the motive we were given.

Interesting Note:

Two former cast members from F-Troop: Tucker (Sergeant O’Rourke) and James Hampton (Corporal Dobbs) appear together in one scene.

Overall:

Did Murder She Wrote go to the dogs in this episode? No It’s a serviceable hour of mystery which highlights Angela Lansbury’s ability to engage even on a weak script.

However, this episode is the weakest so far. The script and characters feel mailed in when compared to more interesting and better-developed episodes that preceded it. Still, thanks to Lansbury, it still offers a decent forty-five minutes of entertainment.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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