Tag: good review

DVD Review: Red Skelton Whistling Collection


The Whistling Collection from Warner Archives features all three MGM films from the 1940s in which Red Skelton played Wally Benton, an actor/writer who plays the Fox, a radio detective who comes up with his own plots.

In Whistling in the Dark (1941) , Wally, his girlfriend Carol (played by Ann Rutherford), and the sponsor’s daughter are kidnapped by a racketeer who wants to murder a man who is en route to New York. Wally poses a threat to the racketeer’s plans to lay claim to a wealthy woman’s fortune. Wally is forced to come up with a perfect murder plot and he has to figure out how to save his life from it and the life of the two women with him, as well as an innocent man set to die. He does so in a way that’s both ingenuous and hilarious, and it involves a brilliantly madcap fight with the thug Sylvester (Rags Ragland).

In Whistling in Dixie (1942), Wally and Carol travel down South to investigate mysterious goings on in a Southern town including the disappearance of a young man. There the Fox seems to have found Sylvester working for a local judge but it turns out to be his not so evil but just as dub twin brother Chester (also played by Rags Ragland.) There’s a genuine mystery, political corruption, a Confederate treasure, and lots of shenanigans involving twins.

In Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), Wally is framed as Constant Reader, a murderer who has been sending notes to a politician after committing his crimes. Wally has to prove his innocence and his efforts including going undercover as a pitcher on a Major League baseball team in which every player wears a beard. Several real-life Brooklyn Dodgers appear, including then-manager Leo Durocher. Ragland returns as Chester. The whole thing ends up in another madcap fight scene, this time aboard the ship.

Overall, the Whistling movies are a lot of fun. Unlike some lesser comedy detective mysteries, they never seem to forget that the lead isn’t just supposed to be funny, he’s supposed to be a detective. Throughout Wally shows  clever thinking, although his good plans occasionally go wrong. Skelton and Rutherford have strong chemistry. No one will confuse them for William Powell and Myrna Loy, but they make a nice on-screen pairing.

The stories’ take on the radio drama of the era is fun and cute. The first two stories have quite a bit of cleverness behind their plots. The third is a bit more thin. The way Wally is framed weak, and like the second movie is centered on him and his girl trying to get married even though there wasn’t a reason why they wouldn’t have married after Whistling in Dixie. The final third of the movie is funny, but essentially it’s two very long slapstick scenes at the ballpark and aboard the ship with the only breaks being people taking cabs to get one from scene to another. Nothing against slapstick, but I preferred the style of the other two movies better.

Still, all three films are good, and they all work with good performances from the returning cast and nice gags throughout. If you love detective movies with a dash of comedy or just love Red Skelton, this is a great collection to purchase.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

f you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

Movie Review: Smart Blonde

In the 1930s, a lot of detective movie series were made, particularly as “B” features. The Torchy Blane series was notable for featuring a female lead.

The first film in the series is Smart Blonde which was released in 1937 and introduced Torchy (played by Glenda Farrell) and her hotheaded boyfriend Police Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton Maclane). It centers around the owner of a night club and several sports establishments wanting to sell out and live an honest life with his fiancee.  He’s run his businesses honestly and called in a friend who’ll keep them honest to buy his businesses. However, when the would-be buyer is killed, Torchy sets out to solve the case.

The beginning of the film is one of the best character introductions you’ll see in a “B” movie. It used the era’s trope of newspaper headlines to reveal Torchy Blane wrote big stories, hard news stories, front page stories, and then immediately we have Torchy speeding up in the back a cab which drives up near a moving train which she then jumps on to. Really, with her saying very little, the film establishes Torchy as this intrepid, no-nonsense reporter.

She’s a fascinating character and Glenda Farrell plays her beautifully with a mix of charm and pure grit, determination, and energy. The film moves at a very fast clip.  Smart Blonde clocks in at fifty-nine minutes, so it’s got a short time to unravel its mystery, but it does with snappy dialogue and a plot that doesn’t slow down much at all.

The story isn’t a screwball comedy, as so many early detective features were, but it is played for comedy and perhaps at times a bit overplayed. Steve McBride is a comic relief cop in the mold of Captain Street form the Mister Wong movies and he has an even more comical cop as his chauffeur and sidekick.  Some of the comedy is weak and there are unintentionally funny aspects of the film such as the costuming department had policemen in one scene wearing an entirely style of uniform from policemen in another. And of course, there’s a little bit of underworld sentimentality mixed in.

Still, it’s a fascinating bit of B-movie making that’s a cut above most B-films, particularly in this era. It gives Farrell and Maclane the opportunity to play the leads and the result is a fun and pleasing hour of entertainment that should dispel the idea that a “B” movie automatically means a “bad” movie.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

DVD Review: The Last Detective, Series One


Dangerous Davies, the Last Detective (played by Peter Davison of Campion and Doctor Who fame) isn’t your usual crime drama lead character. His estranged wife Julie describes him to one of her many boyfriends as “Dangerous because he isn’t…” ” He is “”The Last Detective’ because he’s the last man they’d put on anything important.”

His boss tells him, “The last detective, that’s what you are, Davies. The last detective I’ll ever think of for a job. Unless it’s a crap job; then you’ll be the first.”

Of course, PC Davies is far from incompetent. Whatever task he’s given, he takes on with relish and shows competence and intelligence. He’s easy to underrate and gains people’s confidence. He’s kind of like Columbo (most of his episodes are about the length of a 1970s columbo episode) except instead of being assigned every celebrity murder case, he goes out and investigates the report that a jeweler has shot a duck.

This first series collects four episodes including the feature-length TV movie, along with the episodes “Moonlight,” “Tricia,” and “Lofty.”

The TV movie is a great story as he takes on a cold case murder investigation without telling his superior based on a clue he came up with in a far less desirable case. It’s a well worked out procedural that does a great job showcasing the character and his overall decency. It’s probably the most traditional mystery of the four, and also the most engaging.

“Moonlight” is an odder story as Davies investigates the disappearance of an elderly man with a shady past, and an often tempestuous relationship with his wife. The story has some character moments and solid guest performances, but gets tedious in a few spots with the same themes harped on repeatedly. That and a less than a satisfying conclusion make this my least favorite episode of the season.

“Tricia” has Davies experience the downside of being a personable and caring person. He ends up taking on a case of a woman who claims to have been assaulted and robbed. The story shows Davies being shrewd and cautious as he figures out Tricia is falling for him and begins to discover what a bad thing that can be.

“Lofty” is the second strongest episode of the story. The episode begins by showing Davies’ friendship with an eccentric old man named, “Lofty.” When Lofty dies under mysterious circumstances, the police don’t care much, but with a word from her social worker, Davies presses. Believing the case to be a waste of time, his boss gives it to him. What follows is a solid investigation leading to a great mystery involving World War II and a ring. There are some red herrings thrown in, but I found this to be a very engaging story.

Overall, this was a strong series.  The mysteries are not concerned with big sensational “ripped from the headlines” crimes but rather with jobs that many policemen might look down upon. What makes Davies so admirable as a character is that any serious job, he takes on with serious dedication and determination. Finding how Lofty died or investigating Tricia’s robbery will not earn him plaudits from “the man upstairs,” however the way he approaches his work ultimately gives importance to it that supersedes the dismissive attitude of his superiors and gives the cases weight and dignity.

While the series has comedic elements, the comedy isn’t played broadly. Indeed, he’s a character you feel sympathy for because he’s a genuinely nice and decent person who it feels like life itself has turned against him with an estranged wife who (though not divorced) tells him about her boyfriends, and mocks and belittles him to his face,  younger colleagues who act like they’re in high school, and a series of unfortunate incidents that happen to him like he’s being followed by a rain cloud.

There are also two very important relationships. His friend Mod (Sean Hughes) provides a non-policeman sounding board for Davies in his investigation and the two have some wonderfully fun interactions and it’s with Mod that most of the real comedy occurs. And then there’s Detective Inspector Aspinall, who  has a complex relationship with him. While Aspinall rides him and saddles him with essentially meaningless cases, he also has some moments that are more respectful and rebukes the younger detectives who seem bent on finding new ways to make Davies’ life unpleasant.

Overall, this first series is a great start, showcases the fine acting talents of Peter Davison, and tells some great human mysteries.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

 

Book Review: Morality for Beautiful Girls

In the third No. 1 Ladies Detective novel, Mma Ramotswe is planning to consoldiate the office space for her Detective agency with her fiance Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s garage. However, he’s ill and his sluggishness turns out to be depression. So quickly Mma. Ramotswe finds she has to manage the affairs of both the garage and detective agency. This is all complicated when a high-ranking government official hires her to take a case out in the country.

This third book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective series retains all the charm of the prior installments. Author Alexander McCall Smith seemlessly takes his readers to this place and captures the thoughts and feelings of a culture foreign to most of his readers.

Having Mr. Matekoni get depressed is a definite loss to the book as his presence and point of view were so great in the first two novels. However, this clears this way for Mma Makutsi to establsih herself as a main character. In the original book, she was really a side character. Smith tried to increase her role by making her Assistant Detective but the case she worked wasn’t all that compelling and the change felt forced.

Here, Smith does succeed in making Mma Makutsi a compelling character. At the start of the book, before he took ill, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni suggested getting rid of her as Mma Ramotswe’s agency wasn’t making a profit. However, she proves her worth by taking over and successfully managing the garage in Maktekoni’s absence and when Mma Ramotswe’s out of town she has to investigate a case that can bring money to the agency when a beauty pagent director hires the agency to investigate the contestants to make sure a morally strong woman wins the pageant. We also find out that Mma Makutsi has an ill brother who is staying with her and this adds to the character.

There are two mysteries in the book. Overall, they’re not bad cases as far as they go. Mma Ramotswe investigates a case of government bureaucrat who fears his brother’s wife is poisoning his brother while Mma Makutsi investigates the beauty contestants. The first case has a solid enough solution but her explanation to the government man is laden with a bit too much pop psychology. And Mma Makutsi’s looking into the beauty contestants’ character is fascinating and offers social commentary on these pagents everywhere, not just in Botswana, but in the end I thought the solution was a tad too pat.

I also thought there were some dropped threads from the previous book, but overall I enjoyed the story even if it wasn’t quite as good as the first two.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

Audio Drama Review: The Death and the Life


The Death and the Life is another one-man play starring Roger Llewellyn and written by David Stuart Davies adapted by Big Finish Productions. The story is a mix of fact and fiction as it centers upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts to rid himself of his most famous creation once and for all with the writing of “The Final Problem” and failed.

The play imagines Holmes and his fellow characters reacting to Doyle’s actions and scheming. Doyle’s disinterest is reflected in a hilarious scene where Holmes describes a madcap adventure to a snoring Watson. The story is bolstered by the use of Doyle’s own journals and letters. Another great scene is the one which Holmes learns he’s a fictional character from his arch-rival who is not too pleased that he’s been created by Doyle as a single-use plot device.

With its light comedy and heavy symbolism, The Life and the Death  is a story about a literary creation whose popularity transcended the writer who created him. The play is helped by another strong performance from Roger Llewellyn who manages to perfectly portray all the characters and angles of this very deep and well-written play. Overall, this is another story that’s a wonderful listen for fans of Sherlock Holmes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

 

 

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

Audio Drama Review: The Last Act

The Last Act brings Roger Llewellyn’s long-running, Sherlock Holmes, one-man play to audio. The story finds a somber Holmes reflecting on his life and career after Watson’s funeral. It’s an emotional and occasionally heartbreaking performance as Holmes reflects on his friend and his career. “You never appreciate the best things, the best people, until they’re gone.”

Not every moment is somber. There are humorous moments as Holmes will reflect on one of his friend’s oddities or on Lestrade’s unremarkable career that saw him never rise above Inspector.

The play covers a variety of ground. From “The Abbey Grange” to “The Speckled Band” “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House” and The Hound of the Baskervilles and many more, Holmes offers his reflections on his cases and it’s a Tour de Force performance.

I enjoyed the second half far less as it offered insights into Holmes’ dark secrets, including his little discussed childhood. On one hand, this explained Holmes being merciful in one particular case. On the other, there’s a certain modern conceit that tries to explain everything anyone does as a result of some childhood trauma to provide motivation. This can be seen in superhero fiction where so many characters’ origins are being rewritten reflect that sort of trauma. It becomes somewhat monotonous in fiction when no one ever does anything good, noble, or heroic unless a parent was killed or was abusive, or some other trauma occurred to explain it.

I also didn’t like the way Holmes’ drug use was addressed. In the books, Watson claims to have weaned him off cocaine. However, the play insists Holmes’ use continued unknown to Watson and it leads the play into a dour place. While some would argue this is more realistic than the books (which removed the cocaine habit as it became socially unacceptable) and it might be clever to undermine audience expectations by moving from downbeat to depressing, I wasn’t pleasantly surprised by the turn.

Still, the play is well-written even if I have issues with the tone, Llewellyn’s performance as Holmes (and twelve other characters) is pitch perfect and thoroughly engaging. He captures Holmes as a man trying to come to terms with the greatest loss in his life as a lifetime of emotional restraint begins to ebb away. I only wish the play had a more satisfactory conclusion.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase

TV Series Review: Ellery Queen


While four television shows bore the name of Ellery Queen, one incarnation is the undisputed best. The series starred Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen with David Wayne as Inspector Richard Queen.

Hutton first played the master detective in the 1975 Telefilm, “Too Many Suspects” which then led to a 22 episode run in the 1975-76 series.

The series was set in Post-War New York City with Ellery as a mystery writer often called in by his father on various cases. Only one suspect ever cried foul on this odd process.

The mysteries are well-written and well-crafted and very traditional, trying to provide a sense of fair play and usually succeeding. Though in one case, “The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne,” I don’t think anyone could have come up with a proper solution based on what was shown on TV. Still, following the tradition of the book and the golden age radio series, before the solution was revealed, Ellery issued his challenge to the viewers to see if they could solve the case.

There was great chemistry between Hutton and Wayne who made a solid and believable team, and played off each other beautifully.

In the majority of episodes, Queen wasn’t the only one trying to solve the case. He had a rival who was also collecting clues, sharing some findings with Ellery and hoping to come to a conclusion. Several times he faced off with the Suave and sophisticated Simon Brenner (John Hillerman) who was a criminologist who played himself on the radio but also tried to solve real life mysteries. He’d come up with very clever and well thought out solutions that always turned out to be wrong. When Brenner wasn’t around, resourceful newshound Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford) would often try to solve the case from right under the police’s nose.

The program featured an embarassment of riches when it came to its guest stars. Adding to the 1940s atmosphere, many great stars of the Golden Age radio appeared in the series including George Burns, Dana Andrews, Don Ameche, Lloyd Nolan, Rudy Vallee, Vincent Price, and Arthur Godfrey. In one episode, Eve Arden (best known for Our Miss Brooks) played the star of a radio soap who was murdered. Beyond the radio stars, such classic TV and film stars such as Ken Berry, Eva Gabor, Tom Bosley, and Bob Crane featured.

The series did a good job capturing its era with the vehicles, the cultural references, and the overall feel although it did occasionally deal with issues that were emphasized less during the era itself such as payola. Some of the portrayals of how radio drama worked were more played for comedic value than for realism. Still, this was a very wonderful period series.

Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after a single season, losing its time slot consistently to ABC’s Streets of San Francisco. Despite how well beloved by fans, it faced two challenges.

The 1970s was a great era for the TV detective, similar to the late 1940s for radio detectives. Ellery Queen began airing in the era of Columbo, McCloud, Mcmillan and Wife, Rockford, Kojak, Canon, and Barnaby Jones. However, its period feel and strict puzzle story format made it different from its competitors but perhaps they were too different.

As a postscript, the creators of 1970s Ellery Queen TV Series, Richard Levinson and William Link, waited eight years and then did another program featuring a Mystery writer as the main character and found great success with Murder She Wrote. Star Jim Hutton died at a young age, but his son, Tim would go on to star in a Nero Wolfe mystery as Archie Goodwin. Suggesting that the attraction to doing well-made but short-lived, great period detective television shows ran in the family.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchase