Tag: mixed review

Four Difference Between the Original and Later Columbos

Columbo in the 70s
Columbo 90s

Note: A version of this article was published in 2015.

Peter Falks had two runs as Columbo. The first ran from 1971-78 over NBC as part of the network’s Mystery Wheel. Columbo returned in 1989 over ABC in a series of TV movies, with the last airing in 2003.

There were four key differences between the newer Columbo films and the originals:

1) Length

Most of the original Columbo films had a 90 minute time slot on air which made them about 70-75 minutes without commercials. The new Columbo films took up 2 hours and had a running time of approximately 90 minutes. I have to admit, in general, this was a case of “less is more.”

One key example was the second ABC Columbo, “Murder, Smoke, and Shadows” where the film started strong but dragged on too long and at the end of Columbo’s denouement we had (and I kid you not), the police coming out and doing a musical number when they announced the arrest.

The old Columbos worked because of their limitations. They didn’t go on forever, and when there was a longer case thrown in such as with, “A Friend Indeed,” the time was well-spent while the only new film that I think benefited from the longer running time was, “Agenda for Murder.”

2) More Adult Content

Columbo in the 1970s remains a tasteful family-friendly TV show. The latter Columbo had a lot more sex in the plot and a lot more skin on the screen. A few episodes featured lurid plots and disturbing murder scenes. Of course, this isn’t to say that all of the latter Columbos were strictly adult affairs but quite a few pushed the envelope.

With one exception, the added sexual content and violence tended to detract rather than add to Columbo. At its core, the strength of Columbo are great characters and their interactions, and the episodes that had the most adult content such as, “Uneasy Lies the Crown” and “Murder: A Self Portrait” tended to sacrifice quality for titillation. If there was an episode that seemed more “grown up” that did work, it was, “It’s All in the Game” starring Faye Dunaway as a suspect who is trying to seduce Columbo to keep him off her trail but that works because of the character interactions.

3) More Experimentation

Of the forty-four 1970s Columbo films, only one messed with the formula of Columbo being an inverted mystery (Season 5’s “Last Salute to the Commodore.”) Of the twenty-four revived shows, there were half a dozen different attempts to break with the formula. These variations ranged from following the killer up to the point of the murder and finding someone else had already committed the murder, not showing the murder and then planting doubt as to the killer’s guilt, and then there were two adaptations of Ed McBain novels.

“Last Salute to the Commodore” was one of my two least favorite 1970s episodes, but some of these later experiments aren’t too bad. “Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo” begins with the funeral of “Mrs. Columbo” and is told through flashback from the point of view of a woman seeking revenge on the good Lieutenant by murdering his wife. The McBain novel adaptation, Undercover” is a fine thriller if you can get past the fact Columbo’s behavior is inconsistent with everything we know of the character. “Columbo Cries Wolf” also had some good moments,.

The other three are more problematic, but not for messing with the formula. Still, while some of the revived Columbos that go in other directions can be entertaining, they still can’t beat the best of the “normal” Columbo episodes.

4) Less Star Quality

The original Columbo was known for the amazing casting. Among the actors who played Columbo murderers in the old days were Anne Baxter, Robert Culp, Leonard Nimoy, Roddy McDowell, Martin Landau, Dick Van Dyke, Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalban, Ruth Gordon, and so many more. Peter Falk was a fantastic actor and had great chemistry with so many guest stars and that chemistry made the 1970s episodes so memorable.

The new series had a virtual power outage, particularly in 1989 and 1990. Of the first eleven villains, the only actor in Falk’s league was McGoohan. The second best of the group was Fisher Stevens. That’s a big gap.

The series did get better guest stars between 1991-94 when Columbo cut back from 4-6 films a year to between 2 and 3 films. The results were among the best of the new run as Faye Dunaway was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Glove for her appearance. Dabney Coleman, George Hamilton, and Rip Torn turned in memorable and satisfying performances in their turns against Columbo.

Of course, not even a good guest star could save some films. A mustached William Shatner is miscast in Butterfly in Shades of Grey. Tyne Daley did the best she could with a fairly stereotypical flirty lush role in A Bird in the Hand but deserved far better as a Columbo villainess.

Conclusion

There did seem to be a fair share more stories in the later years that strained credulity in terms of motive or were plain derivative (i.e. “Strange Bedfellows.”)

Yet, the one thing that remained the same was Peter Falk. Some episodes felt like the only thing good in the movie was Columbo but almost always that still made it worth watching. There’s so much in every moment when Falk’s on the screen that he can carry the show by himself which was a good thing because he often had to.

By almost every measure, ABC’s Columbo was an inferior product to its predecessor, but it provided two dozen opportunities to see Peter Falk in action as his greatest character and that makes most of them worth viewing.

You can watch the 1970s episodes of Columbo on IMBD TV and all episodes of the series are available for viewing on Peacock.

DVD Review: Fast Company/Fast and Loose/ Fast and Furious Triple Feature

This DVD features three films from 1938 and 1939 following a rare book seller and amateur sleuth Joel Sloane and his wife Gerda. The series began after the first two Thin Man movies were released and this series was definitely in that same vein.

Each of the three films featured a different pair as the two leads which made it hard for the series to gain traction.

The first film Fast Company is the best. It stars Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice. It features a solid mystery with a lot of twists and turns. While I’d never heard of Douglas or Rice, they had great on-screen chemistry.

The second film Fast and Loose is also pretty good and has the best known leads in Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. The mystery was still pretty enjoyable.

The third film Fast and Furious is the most mediocre of the three. Ann Sothern, who’d be best known for the Maisie films, does a good job with the material given her, but the overall plot is not as interesting. Franchot Tone as Joel is adequate as a detective but doesn’t have that the same chemistry with Sothern. It’s not a bad film, but it’s the weakest of the lot.

Despite having the name “fast” in the titles, these films move at a cozy, leisurely pace. While many B pictures were around an hour, these films were 73-75 minutes in length which leaves plenty of time for investigations, questioning suspects, romancing, and a few good gags.

Overall, if you enjoyed the first few Thin Man sequels, these are worth checking out. Their quality could be better, but still they make for three fun evenings of viewing for fans of 1930s detectives.

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TV Episode Review: The Hardy Boys: Welcome to Your Life

The new series of the Hardy Boys kicks off with the episode, “Welcome to Your Life.”

The series makes a lot of changes to the Hardy Boys formula and characters. For those who have never read the books, the Hardy Boys were two teenage boys: Frank (age 18) and Joe (age 17) living in the upstate New York town of Bayport. Their father is Fenton, a private detective, and their mother is Laura, a librarian.

Frank and Joe are not complex characters in the book. They are distinct. Both are smart and physically capable, however Frank is more of a geek and more cautious, and Joe is more physically capable and more given to making rash, impulsive decisions.

The TV series takes things in a different direction. It looks to be set in the late 1980s where Frank and Joe (Rohan Campbell and Alexander Elliott) live with their parents in “the city.” Frank is sixteen and Joe is twelve. Frank is a nerd, but he’s also a good baseball player. We spend the first few minutes of the series seeing the boys interact with their mom who is then killed in what appears to be an auto accident. On top of that, their father Fenton (James Tupper) decides to move them back to their mother’s hometown of Bridgeport for the summer. At first blush, this seems incredibly insensitive, but its for their own safety due to information it’s implied he’s hiding.

In Bridgeport, they meet their grandmother (Linda Thorson) who is glad to see them and eager to go about the business of micromanaging their lives. They also meet the townsfolk who are mostly friendly, even though we’re given some hints of something suspicious a few times. And both a flashback prologue and a couple moments later on hint at the ongoing mystery the Hardy boys are eventually going to resolve to solve.

This first episode doesn’t do a lot for me. There’s definitely room to flesh out the Hardys and make them more three dimensional. However, the writers seemed to have approached this using the most cliched methods of modern storytelling. Killing off a parent as a plot point and in order to make the characters more relatable is the most overused tool of modern writers. And here it’s handled in such an uninspired way that it feels obligatory.

At the same time, the change in ages also changes the dynamic in ways that don’t work well. In the book, Joe and Frank were peers. Plus they’ve made Frank not only a genius nerd but a talented athlete, leaving Joe’s defining characteristic as “the younger one.” Which is a bit of a step back from the balance in the books, not a step forward.

Probably, the biggest problem with this first episode is its length. It’s over forty minutes and feels padded. It ends on a strong note, but in order to get to that note, it has a lot of time where it’s dragging through its runtime to get to the punchline. This particular episode would have been better at 20-22 minutes, which is more typical for a kid-centric TV series. Based on this episode, I’m also skeptical that the writers have enough mystery and enough twists to justify the thirteen-episode, season-long plot arc.

That said, no performances were bad. The interesting clues left me a bit curious to see what will happen next. I’ll watch at least one more episode to see if the series picks up its pace and moves beyond all the set up in this first episode. This may turn out to be a good series when it’s all said and done, but this first episode was rough.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

DVD Review: Forgotten Noir and Crime, Volume 12


Forgotten Noir and Crime, Volume 12 collects another three rare low-budget films.

First up is The Treasure of Monte Cristo: A seaman (Glenn Langan) on shore leave is swept up into romance and marries a mysterious woman (Adele Jurgens) and then finds himself framed for murder. This is a clever plot and it’s gutsy for a low-budget film to try to write a modern-day sequel to one of literature’s great classics. There are nice location scenes and Langan and Jergens (who would later marry) are both pretty good. The rest of the acting is uneven and some plot points are not well-realized, including a confusing escape sequence. Still, this is a fun story.

The second film is Roaring City, the second of the Dennis O’Brien films which adapted two Johnny Madero radio scripts per film. Hugh Beaumont does seem to settle into his role as the tough talking private eye, strolling casually through scenes pipe in hand and finding a way to deliver the over the top hard boiled lines with as much credibility as he could muster. Similarly, Edward Brophy settles into his role as sidekick/roommate/drunk Professor Schicker.  The film is fun and breezy but not without errors. Outside of Beaumont and Brophy, the acting is so-so and there’s a pretty significant continuity error in the second half. O’Brien tells the Professor he’s agreed to go on a date and pretend to be a woman’s husband before he goes on the date and then after he’s inevitably framed for murder, he tells the Professor all over again as if he hadn’t told him the first time. Still, if you can get past hiccups like this, it’s not a bad way to spend about an hour.

The final film is Sky Liner, which is about a murder occuring mid-flight and being investigated before the plane lands. This is a film with silliness that includes ridiculously fast autopsies, but it’s a good setting and with a breezy pace that’s a tad under 50 minutes. There is a longer version of the film that includes a juvenile song number and a subplot about a newlywed couple. I can’t help but feel that this is probably the best cut of the film.

Overall, these are pretty good, low-budget films. They’re quirky and fun. There’s plenty of flaws to be found, but also fun elements that will bring a smile to the face of classic film buffs.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 8

The eighth volume of Twilight Zone radio dramas features six more stories adapted from the classic TV series.

“The Long Morrow” is about an astronaut who is chosen for a long-term deep-space mission because he has no attachments to anyone on Earth. Right before he’s scheduled to leave, he goes on a date, meets a woman, and falls deeply in love with her. He’s to go into a stasis capsule and not age during the whole voyage. There’s a lot I like about this story. The romance and character stuff is engaging, but they also explore some interesting sci-fi concepts that a lot of the “going into stasis until you arrive on a new planet” stories kind of ignore. It’s an all-around solid listen.

“The 7th is Made of Phantoms” is about an Army National Guard Unit in the 1960s that’s on maneuvers and finds itself interacting with the Battle of Little Big Horn. This is one of those stories that I just don’t get the point, the moral, or the lesson. There’s no explanation or hint of one, so it’s a very unsatisfying story.

“Mirror Image” is a really unsettling tale where a woman with an apparently poor memory at a bus station comes to believe she has a doppelganger who is trying to take her place. There’s little atmosphere or real explanation of what’s going on, but it really builds tension and atmosphere to make it a worthwhile listen.

“A Thing About Machines:” A man who lives alone seems to be constantly at war with his machines and for his machines, the feeling appears to be mutual. This one doesn’t work for me because the machines only go so far, and since we’re not dealing with like a computer or artificial intelligence, it’s just a bit silly.

“The Last Night of Jockey”-A disgraced jockey gets one wish and wants to make himself a big man. This is an interesting story and it works as a morality tale. It’s an interesting theme that the Twilight Zone examines where a protagonist thinks they need just one break in order to escape their failed lives, they get a break, and ultimately they prove that fundamentally their own character flaws led to their downfall.

“The Fever”-A tightwad (Stacy Keach) is afraid his long-suffering wife will get hooked into out-of-control gambling when they win a free trip to Vegas. So, of course, it happens to the husband instead. This has been a pretty common plot, though this has a supernatural twist. The success of the production ultimately comes down to Keach’s performance.

The stories in this set are fine, but I’d only say “The Long Morrow” and “Mirror Image” are very strong pieces. This is one collection where it may make sense to go on audible or the Itunes store and purchase your favorite episode as a standalone, because the quality in this set is a bit mixed.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 6

The Sixth Volume of Twilight Zone radio dramas features six radio dramas that recreate classic episodes.

The Dummy: Bruno Kirby plays a ventriloquist who believes his dummy is alive. Trouble starts when he decides to replace his dummy with a new one.  Ventriloquist dummies are great in creepy stories, and I think they work particularly well over audio.

No Time Like the Past: Jason Alexander stars as a scientist who tries to change history three times to make a better world before giving up and deciding to go and live in history, where he falls in love with a woman who is fated to die. Some of the emotional beats in this story work, but the logic of both the scientist and the story are a bit strained. His attempts to change history were haphazard at best and doomed to failure due to his lack of planning. A theme of this episode is that history can’t be changed, but the overall point can be taken as, “History definitely can’t be changed if you don’t actually think through your plan.”

Still Valley: Adam West plays a Confederate sergeant who is given a chance to win the war through witchcraft. I do love Adam West, and he puts in a very good performance, and the story goes in a direction I didn’t expect. There’s some great atmosphere and nice music. This is a really easy listen.

King Nine Will Not Return: The story focuses on the pilot (Adam Baldwin) of a crashed bomber searching for his crew in the dessert.  The story itself is pretty good, with a nice twist, and a bit of unexplained spookiness at the end. But what makes this a standout is Adam Baldwin’s performance. This is his second Twilight Zone and once again, he’s got nearly all the lines and his performance is superb. These two plays convince me that Baldwin’s talents are underrated. If radio/audio were as huge in America as it used to be, Baldwin would be the guy I’d want to listen to all the time.

I Am the Night Color Me Black: A man (John Ratzenberger) is about to be executed for killing an abusive racist when strange things begin to happen. This one was definitely a very moody, suspenseful, and surrealistic play. It’s definitely a different role for Ratzenberger, who is best known for his work in comedies like the TV show Cheers. It’s well worth listening to.

The Incredible World of Horace Ford: A toymaker (Mike Starr) is literally transformed back into a kid when he visits his old neighborhood. This isn’t a bad story. It deals with the idea of the dangers of living an idealized past, and the importance of living your life in the present. It’s a recurring theme in the The Twilight Zone. But that also means its a story they’ve done in more interesting ways. In particular, I think of, “Walking Distance.” (Done on Audio in Volume 5.) This feels like a slightly inferior exploration of the same theme and a little too on the nose.

Overall, this is a pretty strong set. While the stories aren’t perfect, these feature a couple of my favorite stories so far, and everything else is fine.

Ratings: 4 out of 5

DVD Review: Forgotten Noir, Volume Seven

Forgotten Noir, Volume 7 collects three B-movie mystery/adventure films from the 1950s, all of which had interest to me as a fan of old time radio.

The first is David Harding, Counter Spy. Based on the long-running Phillip H. Lord radio series, the film has a framing device of a commentator who blasted the government, having the idea of counter-espionage explained to him through a story that occurred during World War II as a Navy Lieutenant Commander is called in to find out how information is being leaked from a torpedo manufacturing plant. The framing device is unnecessary and the film has a few slower moments, but this is the best film in the set as it was made as a studio B picture for Columbia rather than as an Independent release.

Next up is Danger Zone. There’s some confusion around this movie. Some say it’s based on Pat Novak for Hire starring Jack Webb. It’s actually based on the Pat Novak for Hire ripoff Johnny Madero, Pier 23 also starring Jack Webb. Future Ward Cleaver Hugh Beaumont stars as Dennis O’Brien, who is Johnny Madero by another name. This movie adapts two different stories made over radio with little to link them, apparently to allow the option of splitting them to air on television. One of the stories adapts an existing radio episode, “The Fatal Auction” and follows the plot beat for beat.

The biggest change is that rather than having his confidant be a waterfront priest, Dennis’ go-to guy, Professor Frederic Schiker, is a Jocko Madigan-type drunk who lives with O’Brien, which does save on scene changes. I did miss the character’s chiding (which was a feature of both Pat Novak and Johnny Madero) and without that the performance is a bit flat. The stories are decent, but the acting is a bit off. Even Beaumont, true pro that he was, seemed to not totally believe the off-the-wall hard boiled lines he was being asked to deliver. It does make me appreciate the unique quality that allowed Jack Webb to deliver those lines with as much conviction as he did.

Finally, we have The Big Chase. I was interested in this film as it starred Mystery is My Hobby and Stand by for Crime star Glenn Langan and his wife (and Stand by for Crime co-star) Adele Jurgens as a rookie policeman and his expectant wife. The story does have some nice features. Langan’s character is given depth as we learned why he joined the force and why he wants to get into the juvenile division. Langan does a good job and plays his part without the more refined voice he does his most famous radio voice in.

The story features better talent than you’d expect with a film like this with Lon Chaney, Jr. playing one of the bad guys and Douglas Kennedy playing our hero’s police Lieutenant buddy. It also featured Joe Flynn (of McHale’s Navy fame) in one of his earliest film roles as a reporter in yet another unnecessary set of framing scenes. The film is called the Big Chase for a reason. It has a twenty minute chase scene that’s a lot of fun. It involves cars, trains, a helicopter, boats, as well as some fisticuffs, and gun play. It’s not perfectly executed but makes up for it with some nice location shooting which can cover a multiple of film-making sins for many fans.

The big problem with the film is that it is severely padded. It runs a little over an hour and has enough interesting material to fill somewhere between 25-35 minutes. The chase really gets started nearly 40 minutes in, and prior to that the pacing was positively glacial.

I was glad to watch the films, but this is one of those ones I couldn’t recommend for everyone. This is a film that you have to be an OTR buff to appreciate. We have a well-known radio series coming to film, an obscure radio series coming to film, and a star of two lesser known radio series playing a policeman in a slow, dull film that gives way to an impressive low budget chase. As the saying goes, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you would like.

Rating: 2.75 out of 5

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