Apr 162015
 

GET CHRISTIE LOVE! ABC, made-for-TV Movie,22 January 1974. Teresa Graves, Harry Guardino, Louise Sorel, Paul Stevens.. Screenplay: George Kirgo, based on the novel The Ledger by Dorothy Uhnak. Director: William A. Graham.

   I don’t have access to my copy of the book, and it’s been far too long for me to remember anything about the novel, but it’s fairly obvious that there’s been some changes made. Uhnak’s series character was the police woman Christie Opara, not Christie Love, and I’m sure she was white, not black. The police work in the book was “real life,” and the police work in the movie was “made for TV,” or in other words, sheer flights of fancy, more often than not.

   Which is not to say that the movie is not entertaining, for it is, and the “gimmick,” the surprise that makes the ending work, is probably the same in both the book and the movie – or why else use the book as the basis for the movie in the first place?

   I should start at the beginning. The villain, Enzo Cortino, is a drug dealer, whose activities are recorded, the police discover, in a ledger that Cortino’s girl friend, Helena Varga, keeps in her possession. Christie Love’s assignment, given to her by Captain Reardon, in pseudo-blustery fashion, is to get the ledger.

   Some general comments follow, more or less in the same order as they struck me while watching the film, which is available on DVD. While Graves had a limited range of acting ability, mostly smart to sassy, she is easy on the eyes and more-or-less convincing in close hand-to-hand (karate-related) combat with various of Cortino’s minions, one of whom goes over the balcony on the losing end of one of rough-house struggles she finds herself in.

   In one of the opening scenes, introducing her to the viewer, she is (of course) posing as a hooker in an attempt to nab a guy who’s been bad to prostitutes. One guy whose overtures she turns down calls her a nigger in frustration. Her retort, as she sashays off: “Nigger lover.” My jaw dropped.

   This was an era (1974) when cops were routinely called “pigs,” and so they are here. As a cultural artifact, this is a gem in the rough. The background music is typical 70s jazz, or what passed for jazz at the time, in suitably ersatz-Mancini fashion. It’s most noticeable during car chases and other moments of great importance.

   Christie’s own mode of transportation is a yellow Volkswagen convertible, and as soon as you realize that that’s her car, you begin to wonder if it will survive the movie. You will have to watch to find out, as critical plot points like this should never be revealed by reviewers in advance.

   The most important plot detail that also surprised me, and for whatever reason, it’s the one that has stuck with me over all the years since I watched this movie the first time, is the semi-love interest between Christie and the interminably shaggy Reardon. She archly refuses his semi-advances until perhaps the closing scene.

   Hints are all we get, but a black and white romance, in 1974? That’s all that we could get. (When did Kirk kiss Lt. Uhara? Sometime in the 60s, I’m sure, but – as I recall – one of the two was possessed by an alien entity, and so it didn’t count.)

   Harry Guardino did not survive the cut and did not appear in the follow-up television series, which lasted only a year, nor as I recall, was there any more hanky-panky between Christie and her superior(s), nor even the hint of any. I have not been able to locate, so far, any of the shows from the TV series on either video or DVD, but I watched them at the time, and strangely enough, I enjoyed them more than Angie Dickinson’s show, whatever it was called.

— July 2004


 Posted by at 2:33 am
Apr 052015
 
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   I own very few European crime novels in both their original language and in English, but one of those is Der Richter und Sein Henker or, as it’s known over here, The Judge and His Hangman (1952; U.S. edition 1955), the first novel of Swiss playwright Friedrich Duerrenmatt (1921-1990).

   I read it in both languages many years ago and again last month. It’s about Hans Bärlach (whose last name in English is missing the umlaut), Kommissär of the Swiss police, a man clearly near death, and his 40-year-long struggle against a sort of existential criminal who committed a motiveless murder in front of the Kommissär’s eyes and dared Bärlach to pin it on him.

   More than sixty years after its first publication the book is still a compelling read, and the German edition (designed for students who are learning the language) adds several dimensions to what readers of the translation are offered, including two maps that make clear the relationship to each other of the various small towns near Bern where much of the story takes place.

   Reading the German side by side with Therese Pol’s English version also reveals where Pol now and then goes her own way. At the end of Chapter 11 (Chapter 8 in the translation), the diabolical Gastmann breaks into Bärlach’s house beside the Aare River and steals the Kommissär’s file on him. “I’m sure you have no copies or photostats. I know you too well, you don’t operate that way.”

   A procedural this novel ain’t. He throws a knife at Bärlach, just missing him, and goes his way. “The old man crept about the room like a wounded animal, floundering across the rug on his hands and knees…, his body covered with a cold sweat.” He moans softly in German: “Was ist der Mensch? Was ist der Mensch?” This simply means “What is man? What is man?” but Therese Pol expands it to: “What sort of animal is man? What sort of animal?”

   That’s not too much of a stretch compared with the last chapter where Bärlach learns that his young assistant Tschanz “sei zwischen Ligerz und Twann unter seinem von Zug erfassten Wagen tot aufgefunden worden,” meaning that between two of the villages shown on the first map he was found dead under his car, which had been struck by a train.

   In English the report is simply “that Tschanz had been found dead under his wrecked car….” The train has vanished, but at least Ms. Pol doesn’t make up Duerrenmatt’s mind for him on whether Tschanz’s death was an accident or suicide. Such are the joys of reading a book in two languages at once. If only my French were good enough to allow me to read Simenon in his own tongue!

***

   You don’t need to be a linguist to catch some amazing blunders in the versions of Simenon that we get to see. In L’Affaire Saint-Fiacre, first published in French in 1931 and first translated by Margaret Ludwig as The Saint-Fiacre Affair HE SAINT-FIACRE AFFAIR in the double volume Maigret Keeps a Rendezvous (1941), a threat on the life of a countess brings Maigret back to the village where he was born and raised.

   Very early in the morning he wakes up in the village inn and, purely for professional reasons, gets ready to attend Mass in the church where he’d been an altar boy. He goes downstairs and, in one of the later translations, the innkeeper asks him: “Are you going to communicate?” Even one who knows no French and nothing of Catholicism should be able to render the question in English better than that.

***

   I don’t remember the title of the novel or who translated it but I vividly recall another Simenon where Maigret wakes up in yet another country inn and phones down for, as he puts it in English, “my little lunch.” Again, you don’t need to know more than a soupçon of French to figure out what the translation of petit déjeuner should be.

***

   As this column is being cobbled together I’m in the middle of going over The John Dickson Carr Companion. And learning some odd trivia about Carr’s novels and stories that had never struck me before. How many of you remember that in the Carter Dickson novel She Died a Lady a gardener claims that on the previous night he went to see the movie Quo Vadis? The book was published in 1943 but, according to the Companion, its events take place in 1940.

   Either way, Carr certainly couldn’t have been referring to the Quo Vadis? that we remember today if we remember the title at all, the 1951 Biblical spectacular that starred Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. There was a German silent version of the same story, released in 1924 and starring Emil Jannings, but what would a German silent be doing playing in England long after silents had been displaced by talkies and at a time when England and Germany were at war? More important question: What was Carr thinking?

***

   The adaptations of Carr’s work dating back to the golden age of live TV drama back in the Fifties are not covered in the Companion, at least not in any detail. I happen to have some information on that subject, and chance has now given me an excuse to share it. Anyone remember Danger?

   It was a 30-minute anthology of live teledramas, broadcast on CBS for five seasons (1950-55). My parents hadn’t yet bought their first set when the series began, and when it went off the air I was a child of 12 who hadn’t yet even discovered Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan at my local library.

   I don’t think I ever watched the program, certainly not with any regularity, but I vaguely remember that one of its shticks was a background score of solo guitar music played by a guy named Tony Mottola (1918-2004). Obviously the producers of the show were hoping to duplicate the success of the CBS radio and TV classic Suspense, and the two Carr tales that were broadcast on Danger happened to be radio plays that he had written for Suspense back in the Forties. “Charles Markham, Antique Dealer” (January 2, 1951), was based on the radio play “Mr. Markham, Antique Dealer” (Suspense, May 1, 1943) and starred Jerome Thor, Marianne Stewart and Richard Fraser.

   The director was Ted Post (1918-2013), who later moved into filmed TV series like Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel and Rawhide and, thanks to impressing Clint Eastwood with his Rawhide work, got hired to direct big-budget Eastwood features like Hang ’em High (1968) and Magnum Force (1973).

   We don’t know who directed “Will You Walk Into My Parlor?” (February 27, 1951) but it came from Carr’s radio drama of the same name (Suspense, February 23, 1943). The script was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September 1945, and collected in Dr. Fell, Detective and Other Stories (1947) and, after Carr’s death, in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983).

   The cast was headed by Geraldine Brooks, Joseph Anthony and Laurence Hugo. Among the other top-rank mystery writers whose stories were adapted for Danger were Philip MacDonald, Wilbur Daniel Steele, A.H.Z. Carr, Anthony Boucher, MacKinlay Kantor, Steve Fisher, Q. Patrick, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Roald Dahl.

   The roster of authors who scripted original teleplays for the series included Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Rod Serling, and among the directors who rose from this and other live teledramas to Hollywood household-name status were John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet.

   The final episode of Danger was a live version of Daphne DuMaurier’s 1952 short story “The Birds,” which Alfred Hitchcock later adapted into one of his best-known films. I can’t imagine anything like Hitchcock’s bird effects being possible on live TV, but either I was watching something else on the night of May 31, 1955 or I went to bed early. If anything from this series is available on DVD, I haven’t heard of it.

***

   Considering the dozens of scripts Carr wrote for Suspense as a radio series, one might have expected a pile of his radio scripts and short stories to have been used when the program became a staple item on prime-time TV.

   In fact only one of his radio dramas and one of his short tales were adapted for the small screen. Among the earliest of the TV show’s episodes was “Cabin B-13″ (March 16, 1949), which starred Charles Korvin and Eleanor Lynn and was based on perhaps the best known and most successful Carr radio drama, first heard on Suspense on May 25, 1943 and collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980).

   The second and final Carr contribution to Suspense was “The Adventure of the Black Baronet” (May 26, 1953), an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story written by Carr in collaboration with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s son Adrian (who according to Douglas G. Greene’s Carr biography did most of the writing) and first published in Collier’s for May 23, 1953, just a few days before the televersion.

   As might have been expected, Basil Rathbone reprised his movie and radio role as Holmes. It might also have been expected that Nigel Bruce would have played Dr. Watson as he had so many times in the movies and on radio. I don’t know why he didn’t, but since he died only a few months later (October 8, 1953), the reason might have had to do with his health. In any event the Watson of this Suspense episode was played by Martyn Green of Gilbert & Sullivan fame.

***

   As far as I’ve been able to find, Carr’s contributions to 30-minute live TV drama are limited to these four episodes. If any of his short stories or radio plays became the bases of filmed 30-minute dramas, I haven’t found them. There are two fairly well-known teledramas at greater than 30-minute length that owe their origins to Carr, but this column is long enough already so I’ll save them for next time.

 Posted by at 2:28 am
Mar 262015
 

CROSSING JORDAN. “Pilot Episode.” NBC. 24 September 2001 (Season 1, Episode 1). Jill Hennessy, Miguel Ferrer, Ken Howard, Lois Nettleton, plus a large ensemble cast. Creator/screenwriter: Tim Kring. Director: Allan Arkush.

   Please forgive the lack of screen credits. This is the only episode of Crossing Jordan I’ve seen so far, and I haven’t yet placed names with faces, nor do I know how long some of the faces will last. I didn’t include any names in the guest cast, either, since most of this first episode was devoted to introducing the characters, not the story itself.

   Which was OK, or maybe even more than that, but if you’ll allow me, I’ll get to that in a minute. The series was on for six years, and I won’t lie to you: I’d barely heard of it before buying a box set of DVDs of the first season. I can’t tell you why it’s been under my radar all this time.

   Or maybe I can. (A) A lack of time to follow everything that’s on TV, even crime-solving shows, and (B) an assumption that new shows won’t last, so why start watching them, but missing one like this one that does catch on, and it’s too late to catch up with the story line, or so I think.

   Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh (Jill Hennessy) is a medical examiner who insists on helping the police solve the cases her dead bodies involve her in, against all of their wishes. She’s beautiful, smart-talking, feisty, has a problem with anger management, and as a direct result, she has run out of places to work until her former boss, Dr. Garret Macy (Miguel Ferrer), convinces his superiorss to hire her back at the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

   I gather her father (Ken Howard) doesn’t stick around for the entire series, but at least during the first season he’s an ex-homicide detective who helps Jordan solve her cases by playing a version of killer/victim to re-enact the crime given the facts as she has them. He’s glad to see her again, but Jordan has problems, in the pilot, at least, with the fact that there is a new woman in his life, Jordan’s mother having been murdered when she was a child. This may explain some of the chips on her shoulder.

   There are quite few others in the ensemble cast, as I said earlier, all of whom get a brief introduction and some exposure in this first episode. The story itself is interesting without being overly memorable. It turns out that a young prostitute, found dead in an alley and suspected of dying of a drug overdose, is actually a virgin. It is then discovered that she came to Boston looking for her father, and — well, I needn’t tell you everything, need I?

   I do like the characters, and so did the general viewing public, given that the series lasted for so long. It’s one I’ll keep watching, at least through the first season, which is all that’s been officially released on DVD. (The problem being rights to the music played in the back ground.)

 Posted by at 3:12 am
Mar 192015
 

WHY DIDN’T THEY ASK EVANS? ITV, UK, 30 March 1980. PBS: Mobil Showcase, US, 21 May 1981, Three hours. Francesca Annis, John Gielgud, Bernard Miles, Eric Porter,Leigh Lawson, James Warwick, Madeline Smith, Connie Booth, Robert Longden. Based on the novel by Agatha Christie (also known as The Boomerang Clue). Directors: John Davies & Tony Wharmby.

   I read and reviewed The Boomerang Clue, the US title of the novel this long three-hour British TV movie was based on not too long ago. And since the TV version so closely follows the book version, I’m going to make it easy on myself and simply summarize the plot by repeating four paragraphs from that earlier review:

    “This one begins with a young Bobby Jones (not the famous one) hitting a golf ball and doing dreadfully at it, trying mightily several swings in succession, but hearing a cry, discovers a dying man lying at the bottom of cliff. He had fallen perhaps, as Bobby and his golfing partner believe, not to mention the police and the coroner’s jury, but we the reader know better.

    “Before he dies, though, the man utters a dying question: ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ We are at page 9 and the end of Chapter One, and anyone who can stop here is a better person than I.

    “Assisting Bobby in his quest for the truth, especially after surviving being poisoned by eight grains of morphia, is his childhood friend, Lady Frances Derwent, whom he calls Frankie. Together they make a great pair of amateur detectives, continuing to investigate the case even after the authorities have written the man’s death off as an accident.

    “The tone is light and witty, as if investigating a murder is a lark, but this intrepid pair of detectives do an excellent job of it, even to the extent of faking an automobile accident and inserting an “invalid” Frankie into their primary suspect’s home.”

   There are a couple of changes that where made in translating the book into film, but only one maybe matters. It is as good as a direct scene-for-scene production as you could ever hope for. (A later British telecast in 2011 wrote Miss Marple into the story and changed all kinds of other things around. From what I’ve read about it, it sounds horrible.)

   On the other hand, while scene-for-scene may sound ideal, it does make for a long production, three hours worth, and viewing it on DVD, I found that watching it over the course of two evening was possible but making it very difficult to remember by the end what had happened at the beginning. Luckily I had read the book only a few months earlier.

   Before pointing out the biggest change, I’d like to say that in the movie version I didn’t get the same light-hearted “let’s solve a murder” feeling the two young sleuths seemed to have in the opening half of the book. They tried, but it just didn’t seem to be there. But many scenes were just as I’d imagined them, especially the opening one, with a body being found on the rocks beneath a tall cliff along the shoreline of Wales.

   The major difference between the book and the movie comes at the end, when the killer (in the book) writes a long letter to Frankie explaining how the murder was carried out and tying up the loose ends.

   In the movie, the two — the killer and Frankie — have a direct confrontation in an empty house. The set-up for this didn’t make sense while I was watching it, but later on I realized that doing it as it was done in the book, reading a letter aloud on a TV screen would have bored everyone, including me.

   I believe but am not positive that this movie was shown in its entirety in one evening. (The video above is only Part 1 of 3.) If it did, the attention span necessary would have to have been even greater, but commercials (in the UK) would have helped considerably in terms of snacks, bathroom breaks and whatever else that would have been needed to get through what was, all-in-all, a very nicely done piece of entertainment.

 Posted by at 4:51 pm
Mar 182015
 

PROFILER. Pilot Episode. NBC, 21 September 1996. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Ally Walker, Robert Davi, Julian McMahon, Roma Maffia, Michael Whaley, Peter Frechette, Erica Gimpel, Caitlin Wachs. Creator/screenplay: Cynthia Saunders. Director: John Patterson.

   I came by the DVD box for this series in part by accident. I saw a large lot of DVDs up for bids on eBay, and not only in the lot were all four seasons of this series, but three seasons of another NBC series that ran at the same time, The Pretender.

   I’d never heard of either series — I wasn’t watching much network TV at the time — but the opening bid was cheap enough ($99 for 65 DVDs) — and lo and behold, no one bid against me. Of the other DVDs in the the lot I kept another 15 or 20. The rest, mostly movies — romantic comedies — from the same time period, I’ll soon be donating to the Local Library.

   What I didn’t realize at the time, but I soon found out, was that basic premise of Profiler is catching another serial criminal every week, not always a killer, but arsonists and other assorted low life. Over and above that, and how it plays out over the entire length of the season I don’t know, is the presence of Ally Walker’s character’s nemesis, a serial killer dubbed “Jack of All Trades,” who notices that Dr. Samantha “Sam” Waters, is back in action again after a three years’ leave of absence.

   Whew. Sorry for that last sentence. I know it’s a long one. Sam is forensic psychologist with the unique ability to personalize crime scenes and “see” the killer, not with extrasensory perception, but by picking up clues that others miss. She’s called into action as this episode begins by her former mentor, Bailey Malone (Robert Davi) when the police in Atlanta run into a brick wall trying to catch a killer who has been killing another beautiful woman every Saturday night.

   I should also mention that “Jack of All Trades,” whom Sam was never able to catch, murdered her husband three years ago, and is one of those serial killers who loves to taunt the police — and Sam in particular — about their ineffectiveness in nabbing him?

   I don’t know how many more in this set I will watch, but I do have four seasons’ worth, so I may. There seems to be a good chemistry between the leading players (see above), which is always a help. On the negative side, a recognized the killer as soon as the character appeared on the screen. Maybe I ought to be a profiler. Either that, or Sam ought to have listened to her own deductions to that point. They were right on target.

 Posted by at 10:35 pm
Mar 172015
 

“HOLLYWOOD.” An episode of Law & Order: LA, 29 September 2010. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Skeet Ulrich, Corey Stoll, Regina Hall, Wanda De Jesus, Alfred Molina. Guest Cast: Shawnee Smith, John Patrick Amedori, Danielle Panabaker, Wyatt Russell, Jessica Lu.
Created by Dick Wolf; developed by Blake Masters. Director: Allen Coulter.

   Actually there was only one season. The series was a mess, and half the cast disappeared before it was over, to be replaced partway through by an entirely new group of attorneys and police detectives. It was a spinoff of the original Law & Order, which had just finished its 20-year run the previous spring.

   I will let anyone who knows more about the problems the series had go ahead and talk about them in the comments. I’ve not seen any more of the series than this first episode, and I confess that I simply wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening back then. (All I know is what I read online using Google.)

   The setting of the first episode was of course a natural, that being Hollywood, which is probably the first place people think of when they think of L.A. They didn’t have to think too hard to come up with a plot, even though it turns out to be a complicated one. The essence, though, is the convoluted relationship a young female actress slash party girl has with her mother, who has been guiding her and mentoring her and (no surprise) trading in on her daughter’s notoriety and fame for quite some time.

   What I really wanted to bring up again, following Michael Shonk’s recent article about 30-minute TV dramas, is that this first episode of Law & Order: LA is only 40 minutes long, after the commercials have been removed. In this case, forty minutes was simply not long enough, especially for a first episode.

   With both cops and later on lawyers involved, not to mention a story to tell, plus a lot of people who are interviewed by the police or otherwise connected to the case, there is little chance for any of them to get more than two minutes at a time of screen time. When the show was over, I knew who did it and why, but of the primary players, I couldn’t even have told you their characters’ names (or the stars’ names either, for that matter; I didn’t recognize any but one of them). One of the leading suspects was on screen for his two minutes early on, and when his character was brought back into it again toward the end, I barely remembered seeing him before.

   The actors have to talk fast to get all of the story in, too fast for me most of the time, and the locations are switched so quickly they have to identified by the equivalent of silent film insert cards. It’s an approach that works fine when viewers have been watching a series for many years, but not for a very first episode of a spinoff, already cramped for time. Not for me, anyway.

 Posted by at 5:16 pm
Mar 152015
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


FATHER BROWN. BBC, UK, 2013 to date. 35 episodes. Mark Williams, Sorcha Cusack, Nancy Carroll, Alex Price, Hugo Speer, Tom Chambers. Created by Rachel Flowerday and Tahin Guner. Inspired by the stories of G. K. Chesterton.

   So, Father Dowling — no, wait, this one is British and there is no cute nun — Father Brown, that’s right Father Brown, is watching this couple making out; Father Brown is climbing over a fence; Father Brown has been poisoned; Father Brown has a broken leg and is being held hostage by a killer policeman; Father Brown pretends madness to go undercover in an asylum; Father Brown is trapped beneath a castle in a dungeon; Father Brown has to stop a bomb …

   Father Brown (Mark Williams) has a nosy housekeeper (Sorcha Cusack), a randy aristocrat friend (Nancy Carroll), her semi-honest roguish chauffer (Alex Price), a full time parish in Kembleford in the Cotswolds (where there are more murders than Chicago and Miss Marple’s St. Mary’s Mead combined) at St. Mary’s, and two policeman whose lives he is the bane of (Hugo Speer and Tom Chambers who replaced him).

   Father Brown is tall, hardy, and about as meek as a truck driver.

   Father Brown wouldn’t know a paradox if it hit him with a lorry.

   They have actually adapted a few stories by Chesterton. Not that you would know it unless you looked at the title, the only thing vaguely resembling Chesterton.

   That awful television movie with Barnard Hughes was better than this. Walter Connally’s wholly miscast Father Brown was better. Kenneth More, seemingly miscast, was brilliant as was Alec Guiness, also seemingly miscast. Mark Williams is just miscast. It is difficult for a man his size to appear to be a meek, blinking, slightly pudgy, and unassuming priest with the power of an Old Testament prophet. This Father Brown has the power of a Jessica Fletcher.

   The time is the 1950’s, God knows why since the stories end twenty years before that. Father Brown, who traveled extensively in the stories, is a parish priest and served in WWII. He deals with ex-Nazis and refugees and once with radiation poisoning. He seldom leaves Kembleford and his church, St. Mary’s. No one much respects him. Flambeau has a British accent, they couldn’t be bothered to hire an actor who could at least fake a French accent.

   You know it isn’t Chesterton because communist and atheists tend to turn out to be innocent. You know it isn’t Agatha Christie because the young lovers almost never turn out to be the murderers.

   This Father Brown never rises to the occasion. He never blinks behind his spectacles while transformed into a figure of Biblical strength. He never simply observes because he knows human nature and intuits the truth. He is never for one instant of film Chesterton’s priest in anything but name.

   It’s an attractive enough series, and I might like it if it wasn’t the only Father Brown we will get. The actors are personable, and the mysteries no worse than usual, but of course it could be so much more, and instead it is, as I said, “Murder, He Prayed.”

   If you are not an admirer of Chesterton’s stories you may not get why I feel such rancor for this unassuming little series. Try to imagine though they made a situation comedy out of The Great Gatsby. Try imagining they cast Pee Wee Herman as Sherlock Holmes. Try to imagine that the only Shakespeare there was to read was the Lamb’s version.

   You are not going to get good television from people incapable of respecting their source. You are going to get this, a series that disappoints week after week, hints at Chesterton (admittedly not easy to film though the More series did it), but never fulfills the promise. You get what seldom happens on series shown on PBS, the lowest common denominator, just like network television.

   This one wasn’t even designed to be shown at night in England. It was an afternoon series according to Wikipedia.

   This might have worked despite all that if they respected the original in any way, if they understood what made Chesterton’s stories work, what made Father Brown a rival of Sherlock Holmes — the rival of Sherlock Holmes.

   This Father Brown isn’t even a rival of Jessica Fletcher.

   If you like it despite all that, fine. But don’t kid yourself that anyone connected to this ever read a single Father Brown story and understood it or what gave it power. Father Brown the comic book would be better.

 Posted by at 10:10 pm
Mar 012015
 

“RABBIT FOOT.” An episode of Schlitz Playhouse, CBS, 9 July 1954 (Season 3, Episode 45). Stephen McNally, Paul Langton, Harry Shannon. Screenplay: Lawrence L. Goldman. Director: Christian Nyby.

   When the series went into syndication, the Schlitz had to go, so they called it Herald Playhouse, under which guise this episode ended up on a DVD of old television mysteries from Alpha Video.

   What’s remarkable, something that I didn’t realize before, is that Schlitz Playhouse was on CBS for eight years, first at 60 minutes, then 30, then alternating with Lux Playhouse for its final season. If I added up the numbers correctly, there were nearly 350 episodes in all.

   I wonder where that puts it in the ranking of longest-running anthology series? It’s a lot of different sets, different actors, and a brand new script from scratch every week. I know there had to be some comedies and straight dramas in the mix, but I imagine a good percentage of the episodes were crime-oriented, such as this one.

   Everyone involved with this episode had long careers in movies and on TV, with the star, Stephen McNally, probably the most recognizable name today. But Harry Stanton has the almost unique distinction of being the only person involved in the making of both Citizen Kane and High Noon, being in the cast of each. (The other is William H. O’Brien, but he almost doesn’t count, since he was an uncredited member of the cast of each; in fact, almost his entire career was uncredited.)

   I’ll leave you to check out the careers of the others in this particular cast. What caught my eye was the name of the scriptwriter, Lawrence L. Goldman, whose name came up on this blog as the author of Black Fire, one half of an Ace Double paperback that I reviewed here not too long ago.

   I should say something about the story, which has only three sets, the couple of storefronts along the main street of a small southern town, inside the local police station, and a swamp somewhere outside of town, filled with bubbling quagmires and alligators, and when you see that at the beginning, I think you know immediately what the ending is going to be.

   And you’d be right. A bedraggled stranger comes into town with a satchel of stolen bank loot, claiming to be a detective from a couple of towns over who has killed the real robber in the swamp. We the viewer sense something is wrong with the story right away, and with less than 30 minutes of running time, it doesn’t take the police chief and his second-in-command to catch on either. But they need proof, and by means of a lucky rabbit’s foot, prove it they do.

   Not so lucky for the rabbit, of course. It never is.

 Posted by at 10:38 pm
Feb 252015
 

“POSSESSION.” An episode of Thriller, ATV, England, 21 April 1973. (Series 1, Episode 2.) John Carson, Joanna Dunham, Hilary Hardiman, Athol Coats, James Cossins, Richard Aylen. Story: Brian Clemens. Director: John Cooper.

   An all-British cast this time — recall that Barbara Feldon co-starred in the first episode, “Lady Killer,” reviewed here — and instead of being an out-and-out Alfred Hitchcockian crime story, this one borders on the supernatural.

   But of course, it’s a crime story as well, with a newly married couple in their new home — an isolated manor, of course — with the body of the previous owner found cemented over in the basement. When the female half of the married couple starts hearing whistling in the house at odd hours, mostly during the night, and the rooms ransacked while the two of them are in bed and the doors tightly locked, that’s when they call in a mystic, who helps them hold a seance, with even more deadly consequences.

   I’m sorry that that last sentence was such a long one, but it happens sometimes. I’m not overly fond of ghost stories, but if I’m going to watch one, the British do them best. I’m not sure why, but England is a country that for some reason, ghosts seem to find a likelier place to not find a final resting place than the US.

   Adding to general overall spookiness of the proceedings is the lighting, very effectively done, plus a very minimal musical score, often non-existent while the camera work focuses on a rack of knives in the kitchen, a set of rickety stairs leading to the dimly lit basement, and of course the whistling coming from seemingly nowhere.

   It is the male half of the couple who is seemingly possessed (John Carson, who sounds a lot like James Mason), while it is left to his wife (the beautiful Joanna Dunham) to look concerned, then worried, then out-and-out frightened. Not everyone leaves this story alive, nor is the ending convincing that all things supernatural in the tale have been entirely explained away (deliberately so).

   Nicely done.

 Posted by at 3:47 am
Feb 222015
 
Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:


  McMILLAN & WIFE. NBC, 40 episodes, 1971-77. Regular cast: Rock Hudson, Susan Saint James, John Schuck, Nancy Walker.

   This TV series, a star vehicle for Rock Hudson, came close to being a fantasy, what with Police Commissioner Hudson personally solving murder cases best left to the homicide detectives. (Quincy had a similar premise.) McMillan & Wife was also too long, an hour and a half to two hours, inevitably leading to a lot of “padding” and “business” that had little or nothing to do with the main plot.

   Sometimes the padding was more interesting than the story — which is hardly a recommendation — with Nancy Walker as the McMillan’s housekeeper stealing most scenes. Still, the cast was amiable even if the stories dragged.

   So it is something of a pleasant surprise to note that several stories by Edward D. Hoch, master of the impossible crime tale, were adapted for this series. The results, of course, were predictably mixed.

“Cop of the Year.” Season 2, Episode 3. First broadcast: November 19, 1972. Guest cast: Martin E. Brooks, Edmond O’Brien, Lorraine Gary, Kenneth Mars, Charles Nelson Reilly, Michael Ansara, Paul Winchell, John Astin. Teleplay: Paul Mason and Oliver Hailey. Director: Robert Michael Lewis. Based on “The Leopold Locked Room” by Edward D. Hoch, EQMM, October 1971.

   In Hoch’s story, it’s Captain Leopold who gets framed for murdering his ex-wife; in the show it’s slightly off kilter Sgt. Enright (Schuck) who’s in a jam. In both cases, the central problem is the same: How could a bullet from the accused’s gun kill the victim without him firing it — and from twenty feet away instead of inches as the forensics data show? While there is some padding, this episode doesn’t waste too much time.

“Freefall to Terror.” Season 3, Episode 3. First broadcast: November 11, 1973. Guest cast: Barbara Feldon, James Olson, Tom Bosley, Dick Haymes, Edward Andrews, Tom Troupe, John Fiedler, Barbara Rhoades. Teleplay: Oliver Hailey. Director: Alf Kjellin. Based on “The Long Way Down” by Edward D. Hoch, AHMM, February 1965.

   A business executive crashes through a window in a high rise and hits the ground — over three hours later. If memory serves, both the story and the show have the same solution. Once again we have padding, such as the attempt on the victim’s life just after the opening credits, but it could have been worse.

“The Man Without a Face.” Season 3, Episode 4. First broadcast: January 6, 1974. Guest cast: Dana Wynter, Nehemiah Persoff, Stephen McNally, Donna Douglas, Steve Forrest, Vito Scotti, William Bryant, Ross Hagen, Catlin Adams. Teleplay: Don Mankiewicz and Gordon Cotler. TV story: Paul Mason. Director: Lee H. Katzin. Based on “???????” by Edward D. Hoch.

   It’s spy vs. spy, with a “dead” espionage agent bumping off former colleagues. This one gets a few points for a plot twist but then loses them for being rather predictable, overlong, and just plain boring.

And there you have it. On Mystery*File a few years ago it was noted: “As prolific as Edward D. Hoch was — with over 900 short stories to his credit — the movie and TV media have made virtually no use of his output. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists just 9 films derived from his works (9/900 = 1 percent). No more eloquent testimony against the obtuseness of Hollywood can be adduced.”

PostScript: I must confess that I have no idea what story the third episode is based on. Could it be “The Spy Who Didn’t Exist,” EQMM, December 1967? Any ideas?

 Posted by at 7:31 pm