Thursday 22 February 2018

Columbo season 4 (part two)

This is a follow-on from my earlier post dealing with the first part of the fourth season of Columbo.

Playback, written by David P. Lewis and Booker Bradshaw,  is notable for being an early disappearance of what would become a popular trope in both mysteries and spy thrillers - the use of videotape to create a false alibi. There’s also lots of fun mid-70s high-tech stuff. The perpetrator is a genius inventor and he’s used the family mansion as a kind of showcase for his security and surveillance gadgetry.

Oskar Werner makes a fun villain, a basically nice enough guy who has been pushed around by his family. Now he’s to be eased out of his position as head of the family’s electronics company and he’s had enough. Murder seems to be the only solution to his problems.

He’s a convincing and gently amusing tech geek type who loves his gadgets more than he loves anything else.

The vital clue in this case is very ingenious.

Watched today this episode loses a little of its impact since the central idea has been used in other movies and TV shows but it’s still pretty solid.

A Deadly State of Mind, written by Peter S. Fischer, deals with one of my favourite subjects - evil psychiatrists. In this case the psychiatrist is Dr Mark Collier (George Hamilton) and he’s having an affair with a female patient, Nadina Donner (Lesley Ann Warren). Naturally she’s married and her husband Carl finds out. The husband threatens to ruin Dr Collier and it’s no idle threat - Carl Donner not only knows about the affair (and of course having sex with a patient is highly unethical) he also knows about Dr Collier’s treatment methods (which are even more unethical). Not altogether surprisingly Carl Donner ends up dead.

Speaking of unethical, Columbo sails a bit close to the wind in his final confrontation with the suspect. It’s just as well that suspects on television shows are usually too cocky to have a lawyer present when being questioned by the police.

In this episode the usual battle of wills between Columbo and his chief suspect is a little different, being conducted somewhat indirectly.

To my way of thinking there’s only one thing better than an evil psychiatrist story and that’s an evil psychiatrist story that involves hypnosis so this episode ticks all the right boxes for me.

One odd thing is that this is one of the very few episodes in which we don’t see Columbo’s Peugeot 403, even though the fact that he drives a Peugeot turns out to be important.

A Deadly State of Mind is another good episode.

So overall the fourth season of Columbo is pretty satisfying. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Francis Durbridge Presents - The Passenger (1971)

The Passenger is a British crime/mystery thriller serial written by Francis Durbridge and originally screened in 1971. It was one of the many serials that were broadcast by the BBC under the umbrella title Francis Durbridge Presents.

David Walker (David Knight) is a partner in a toy company about to be taken over by a larger competitor. David is not terribly happy about this but he soon has other much more urgent matters to worry about. He discovers his wife Evelyn (Melissa Stribling) has been having an affair with smooth-talking driving instructor Roy Norton (James Kerry). David decides to spend some time in the country to think things through and while en route to his uncle’s house in Cumberland he picks up hitch-hiker Judy Clayton (Beth Morris). Judy is young and pretty but gives the impression of being perhaps a little flighty. Not that it matters since it all amounts to nothing anyway. David’s car runs out of petrol, he sets off on foot to get some petrol from a garage a couple of miles away and when he returns to the car Judy has gone. A very trivial incident and soon forgotten.

The incident doesn’t seem quite so trivial to Detective Inspector Martin Denson (Peter Barkworth) when he is assigned to investigate the murder of Judy Clayton. Her body was found not far from the point at which David’s car ran out of petrol. She had been strangled. David Walker now seems like an obvious suspect but Inspector Denson soon finds himself with several more suspects who seem every bit as promising. Oddly enough they all seem to be connected with each other.

There are several women mixed up in the case as well and they’re all part of the same interconnected web. Even Inspector Denson’s estranged wife Sue (Joanna Dunham) seems to be linked to this strange assortment of people.

One thing that seems clear to Inspector Denson is that most if not all of these people are lying to him. Unfortunately that’s the only thing that is clear. They could be lying because they were involved in Judy Clayton’s murder but they seem to have other equally plausible reasons for being less than frank with the police.

The physical evidence is just as puzzling. There’s a note that is important but the authorship of this missive is uncertain. There’s a camera and some photos but they don’t help much as there is no way of knowing who was in possession of the camera at the time the snapshots were taken.

The more Denson investigates the more evidence he finds and it all points in one direction, but he has a strong feeling it’s the wrong direction. Meanwhile the web of unlikely people who were all involved in each other’s lives just keeps getting more complex and more difficult to make sense of.

This is a BBC production and it has that characteristic BBC made-on-the-cheap look to it.

Peter Barkworth was a fine actor and gives a nicely understated performance as a man who likes to keep his feelings to himself but finds it increasingly difficult to keep those feelings under control. Joanna Dunham is quite adequate as Sue Denson. Some of the supporting players are very good but some are not quite so good and are just a little stiff. This is pretty unusual for British television of that era which always seemed to have a limitless pool of acting talent on which to draw.

Michael Ferguson is perhaps not the world’s most inspired director. It does have to be remembered that 1971 was still the era of British television shot on videotape in the studio with very limited location work and with the BBC not being known for being over-generous with budgets he was working under definite constraints. And he handles the action climax quite competently (it’s quite possible that most of the budget was actually spent on this climax).

What this serial does have that really matters is a script by Francis Durbridge and that’s more than enough to compensate for a few minor weaknesses in other areas. This time Durbridge has come up with a gloriously elaborate plot that throws so many clues at us that we remain as mystified as poor Inspector Denson.

I think it’s fair to say that Durbridge plays fair with us. There’s one clue that is the absolute clincher but with so many clues to keep track of Durbridge could feel fairly confident that its significance would not be noticed.

There's also a romance sub-plot as Martin Denson tries desperately to resurrect his failed marriage.

The Passenger is included in the excellent Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 2 DVD boxed set released in Australia by Madman. The set contains no less than five complete Francis Durbridge serials, including Bat Out of Hell and The Doll (which are both definitely worth watching). The only extra is an episode of the (extremely good) Paul Temple TV series. The transfers are very good and the set represents outstanding value.

The Passenger is a delightfully convoluted murder mystery. Very entertaining and highly recommended.

Saturday 3 February 2018

Star Blazers, The Quest for Iscandar (1979)

Star Blazers was a 1979 American adaptation of the 1974 Japanese anime television series Space Battleship Yamato. There were three seasons and they were followed by various movies, sequels and remakes. The first season was The Quest for Iscandar.

Apart from being dubbed in English the original Japanese series was edited somewhat, with the violence toned down and sexual references and content that could be construed as anti-American being removed.

Space Battleship Yamato can be regarded as an interesting transitional stage in the history of anime. It was clearly aimed at an older audience than earlier anime TV series like Astroboy and Prince Planet. It has a more grownup tone and it has more of a genuine science fictional feel. Not only are there girls, there is also obvious sexual interest between male and female characters (even in the censored US version).

It was also the first anime series with an overarching story arc to achieve success in western markets.

It has a more sophisticated look than earlier anime series although it’s still a lot less ambitious than the anime that came out later in the wake of the international success of Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion in the late 80s.

In the year 2199 the Earth is doomed. The war against the invading Gamillon race has not gone well and the planet is pretty much a radioactive wasteland with the population forced to take shelter in underground cities. Within a year even the underground cities will be uninhabitable.

Then the human race is given one last hope of survival when a message is received from a distant planet. This alien race can offer the technology needed to save Earth but first Earth must build a new highly advanced engine in order to cover the incredible distance to the alien world of Iscandar.

For some curious reason the new engine has to be installed in the hulk of the ancient battleship Yamato. The real Yamato was a super-battleship sunk by the Americans in 1945. The story of the historical Yamato is one of the elements that is largely edited out the US version but happily Madman’s Region 4 DVD release includes the cut footage as an extra.

In the US version the Yamato gets renamed the Argo after its conversion to a spaceship. The US networks must really have been hyper-sensitive to any references to World War 2!

The science is delightfully silly with some great technobabble. Of course it’s possible that the science makes slightly more sense in the Japanese version but goofy technobabble is always fun anyway. The scientific goofiness is reminiscent of 1960s Japanese anime kids’ series but it’s combined with some reasonably in-depth characterisation and some good interaction between key characters (the distrust of the hero for the Yamato’s captain being a case in point).

There are of course lots of super-weapons, such as the dreaded wave-motion gun.

What’s interesting is that the Gamillons don’t really have superior technology. They have some immensely powerful technology but so does the Argo and the two sides are fairly evenly balanced which makes the many battles a lot more interesting.

There's plenty of action as the Yamato comes under attack even before it can be relaunched as a space battleship, and the action just keeps on coming. The Argo has to make the immensely long voyage to Iscandar and return, all within a single year. And the Gamillons will be doing everything they can to stop the Argo.

One amusing aspect is that much of the action is basically World War 2 naval warfare in space, with aircraft carrier battles and even submarine warfare. The echoes of naval warfare are appropriate given that the Argo is in fact a converted World War 2 battleship. The Argo does look pretty cool especially when it’s firing its main guns just like an actual battleship.

There’s not as much emotional complexity as you find in more recent anime but there is at least some attempt to give the characters a little depth. There’s also an interesting relationship between the main hero, Derek Wildstar, and the Argo’s Captain Avatar. Derek thinks the captain may have been at least partly responsible for his brother Alex’s death. Derek is also not entirely sure he’s up to the responsibilities that are suddenly forced upon him.

There’s considerable focus on the psychological strains suffered by the Argo’s crew. Some crew members deal with the pressure well, others not so well.

Even the chief villain, Leader Desslok of Gamillon, is not quite a simplistic villain.

I believe the original Japanese version, with subtitles, is available on DVD. This edited English-dubbed version is still great fun. Recommended.