Thursday 27 September 2018

The Rockford Files (season 2, 1975)

The first season of The Rockford Files had been a huge success. The ratings took a major nosedive during the second season and never really recovered. Both Universal Television and NBC insisted that the series lost huge amounts of money.  It’s one of those series that became more and more popular with the passing of the years.

As to why the ratings crashed, it has to be said (as much as I love this show) that there were certain ideas that the series used way too much. Rockford seems to get arrested every second episode. Apart from the fact that it gets a bit old after a while it also makes him look like a loser. The original concept of the series is that it would be an updated version of Maverick. Which was a great idea. Now Maverick was a guy who got himself into trouble pretty frequently but somehow he never came across as a loser. He always seemed to be pretty confident of getting himself out of trouble. There are times when Rockford just seems a bit too easy to set up as a patsy. Maverick could be outsmarted occasionally but it was something you really had to work at. Sometimes Rockford just seems to put his head on the chopping block.

Now the idea of a private eye who is unglamorous and unheroic and not always totally successful is great but in the second of The Rockford Files it did get overdone just a little. The most enjoyable episodes are the ones like The Farnsworth Stratagem in which Rockford is the one calling the shots and pulling the strings.

Of course even when Rockford does get set up as the patsy he’s always smart enough to extricate himself eventually, but the fact that he keeps getting set up in the first place and that even when he gets himself out of trouble he usually ends up not being paid might have led some viewers to see him as being a bit ineffectual. It’s not something that bothers me all that much, the series has plenty of strengths to compensate for one or two minor weaknesses, but the weaknesses are there.

The second season opens with The Aaron Ironwood School of Success. Jim Rockford gets a strange request from an old friend. Actually Jim and Aaron Ironwood are more than just friends. Jim’s dad Rocky more or less raised Aaron after Aaron’s parents died so Jim and Aaron are more like brothers. Now Aaron wants to give Jim his company, a company worth $200 million. Had it been anyone but Aaron making this request Rockford would have been suspicious but Aaron is like a brother and if you can’t trust a brother whom can you trust? Even if Aaron’s business schemes have always appeared to Rockford to be a little on the carnival huckster side of the street.

The plan starts to seem like less of a good idea when it tuns out that mobsters are involved.

The Farnsworth Stratagem is a story of a con man being conned, not a wildly original idea but it’s rarely been executed with so much wit and style. Rockford’s buddy Detective Becker gets burned in a clever hotel investment scam and Rockford sees a way to turn the table on the con man, with involves a great deal of fun as he masquerades as a larger-than-life oil man. Linda Evans guest stars as Audrey, another victim of the scam, or is she?

Rockford has $10,000 stolen from him in a small desert town and in the process of trying to get it back he stumbles across the The Great Blue Lake Land and Development Company, a rather outrageous real estate scam. He also stumbles across a murder.

In The Real Easy Red Dog Rockford gets sent on a wild goose chase by another PI, Tina Dusseau (Stefanie Powers), chasing up a suicide that might have been a murder but in fact it really was just a suicide all along. Except that Rockford isn’t so sure. He also isn’t so sure he wants to work with Tina Dusseau but maybe they won’t have a choice. The fact that someone tries to kill them does tend to support the theory that they’ve stumbled onto something big. It’s the kind of “was it suicide or was it murder” story that was pretty old even back in 1975 but it’s done reasonably well and James Garner and Stefanie Powers work well together.

Resurrection in Black & White brings Rockford a pretty blonde client, which is not unusual since most of his clients seem to be pretty blondes. This one’s Susan Alexander, a journalist digging into an old murder case. She’s convinced that an innocent man was convicted. Rockford is equally convinced that the whole thing is nonsense and that Susan is getting conned by the murderer but on the other hand it is slightly odd that people keep trying to kill Susan. So he takes the case and it leads to a reasonably satisfying mystery and a reasonably satisfying solution.

Chicken Little Is a Little Chicken is a complicated tale of multiple swindles. Jim’s old cell-mate Angel has landed himself in a major jam and now he’s landed Jim in the same jam and they have two separate parties of mobsters wanting to kill them as a result. Rockford has a really clever plan for getting them out of trouble. It just can’t fail. A fairly enjoyable episode.

2 Into 5.56 Won't Go starts with Rockford’s old commanding officer from his service days in Korea contacting him out of the blue and wanting help. This is more than a little surprising since Rockford and Colonel Daniel Hart Bowie were never exactly bosom buddies. Then the colonel dies in a traffic accident and his daughter wants Rockford to look into it since she suspects her dad was murdered. It’s a particularly bizarre and ingenious conspiracy that the colonel had stumbled into. This is a fine episode with Rockford being not overly happy about revisiting the memories of his less than distinguished military career.

In Pastoria Prime Pick Rockford finds himself in a whole lot of trouble in the town of New Pastoria. In New Pastoria it seems that crime does pay - at least it pays as far as New Pastoria is concerned. This town has what you might call an entrepreneurial market-driven criminal justice system. Another very good episode.

The Reincarnation of Angie throws Rockford into the middle of a complicated stock fraud and it’s made more complicated by his client, a pleasant enough young woman whose brother may have been mixed up in the fraud and now he might well be dead and she’s not dealing too well with any of that. Plus the Feds are taking an interest and Rockford has to tread carefully because he’s taken a bit of a punt on this case and if he’s guessed wrong he’ll have a lot of explaining to do. So it’s a typical Rockford Files story, but it’s a good story as well.

In The Girl in the Bay City Boys Club Jim has ostensibly been hired to check out whether the illegal card games organised by the Bay City Boys Club are rigged or not, but Jim’s client has lied to him and in fact pretty much everyone seems to be lying to him. The Bay City police don’t seem anxious to help (Philip Marlowe always had problems with those Bay City cops as well).

An overheard conversation gets Jim’s dad Rocky into big trouble in Gearjammers. Now there are some very nasty and very serious people trying to kill him. The trouble is that Rocky didn’t actually overhear the conversation so he has no idea why these guys are trying to kill him. The eventual explanation of the scam he has stumbled into is pretty clever.

The Hammer of C Block brings Rockford a rather unwelcome client in the person of Gandolph Fitch (Isaac Hayes), an old acquaintance from prison who has served twenty years for murder and now wants to prove his innocence. Innocence and guilt turn out to be complicated concepts.

The No-Cut Contract sees Rockford being pursued by several sets of hitmen. They’re after some tapes which Rockford knows nothing about. Unfortunately third-rate pro footballer King Sturtevant (Rob Reiner) has told the mobsters that Rockford does have the tapes. The FBI also think Rockford has the tapes and they’re making his life a misery a well although at least they’re not actually trying to kill him. It all gets horribly confused in an inspired and very entertaining way. An excellent episode.

A Portrait of Elizabeth has a fiendishly twisted plot. Jim’s lawyer Beth brings him a client who suspects shady financial dealings involving stolen cashier’s cheques in the company he works for. There are shady dealings all right but they’re a whole lot more complicated than stolen cheques and there are multiple double-crosses going on. Oh, and there are also a couple of murders and the bodies are in Jim’s trailer and the victims were shot with his gun. This gets Jim into difficulties with the cops and into even nastier difficulties with the Feds. This is typical Rockford Files stuff with Jim getting arrested and facing charges for crimes he had nothing to do with for about the 200th time in the show’s run. Jim gets cast as the patsy on a regular basis but this time he can kind of see it coming. It’s a routine episode but it’s nicely executed.

Joey Blue Eyes is an ex-gangster but he’s tried to go straight. And in fact he has gone straight. He now has a very successful restaurant business. The only problem is that Joey has been conned by some sharp operators and now he realises he doesn’t own the restaurant. He doesn’t own anything. Beth happens to be friends with Joey’s daughter and she persuades Rockford to help. Within five minutes Joey and Rockford want to kill each other. But Rockford can’t turn down the case because Beth would be mad at him and that’s a risk that is not worth taking. This is one of the episodes in which Rockford comes up against con-men and turns the tables on him. And nobody can execute a con with quite the same style as Jim Rockford.

This episode stars Michael Ansara as Joey. Michael Ansara is one of my favourite character actors. He was Syrian so he got tossed into the Miscellaneous Ethnics basket which meant he was never short of work and got lots of really interesting roles as everything from Italians to Native Americans to Arabs to aliens from outer space. He was a great tough guy but usually not a thug - he had a certain dignity that made more suited to slightly more complex roles than thugs.

In Hazard involves Jim’s lawyer Beth in something that is obviously pretty big. Big enough to make it worthwhile trying to kill her. The theft of documents from her safe indicates a connection with one of her clients, but which one? A good solid story.

The birds in The Italian Bird Fiasco are sculptures and they are masterpieces, or they would be if they were originals. In fact they’re early 19th century copies but they’re still quite valuable. Art dealer Thomas Caine hires Rockford to by one of the birds at auction. At the auction he meets another dealer, Evelyn Stoneman, who wants the bird very badly. There is a possibility that the birds are not copies but are actually the originals, in which they’re fabulously valuable. But the people who are after the birds (and are prepared to use violence to get them) seem curiously uninterested in the sculptures themselves. There are multiple double-crosses going on and nothing is what it seems to be and no-one is who he or she seems to be. While you’re probably going to figure out what is really going on before Rockford does it’s still a lot of fun.

Where's Houston? involves a kidnapping but the kidnapping makes no sense because the target has no money. But the one thing Jim Rockford is sure of is that the case definitely involves money. It has to. It’s a pretty solid episode.

Foul on the First Play has Jim teamed up with an old buddy. Only Marcus Aurelius Hayes (Louis Gossett Jr) isn’t actually a buddy. In fact Jim can’t stand him. Hayes used to be Jim’s parole officer and Jim has good reason to dislike him. But fate has ordained that Jim and Marc are going to work this case together. Working the case together means, as far as Marc is concerned, doing everything to ensure that Marc Hayes gets the rewards and that all the costs are borne by Jim. Marc never misses an opportunity to try to pull a scam but Jim Rockford knows all the scams and manages to stay one step ahead. This tense relationship provides plenty of thrills and plenty of humour and Garner and Gossett work beautifully together. A very enjoyable episode.

A Bad Deal in the Valley see Jim get set up as a patsy once again, by an old flame. She’s obviously trouble but he doesn’t see it coming. So he gets arrested, but he gets arrested every second episode so that’s no big deal. This is not a simple con but a whole web of cons and the spider just keeps on weaving that web. A good episode to end the season.

The highlight of the special features on the DVD release is an extremely good interview with the show’s co-creator Stephen J. Cannell. He talks about the battles with the network to maintain the show’s essential flavour which of course the network hated - they wanted something much blander and less original.

Was The Rockford Files really the greatest of all American private eye TV series? I think it probably was. Season two is definitely recommended.

Thursday 20 September 2018

Thriller presented by Boris Karloff (1960-62), three more episodes

Some more episodes from the second season of the excellent American horror anthology series Thriller, hosted by the one and only Boris Karloff, which was screened on NBC in 1961-62.

Guillotine is an early second season episode which was originally screened in September 1961. The credits include some interesting names. Charles Beaumont, who wrote some of the best-remembered episodes of The Twilight Zone, wrote the script. It was based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, a writer whose delightfully twisted work has formed the basis for countless movies and TV plays in the thriller, horror and film noir genres. The director was Ida Lupino. A major Hollywood star in the 40s she went on to have an extremely busy career as a director, mainly in television, while continuing to do fine work as an actress.

Guillotine is set in France in 1875 and concerns convicted murderer Robert Lamont (Alejandro Rey). He has been condemned to death but he thinks he has found a way to avoid his appointment with Madame la Guillotine.

There is a kind of unwritten law that if the public executioner dies shortly before an execution is scheduled then the next man in line for the guillotine will be pardoned. All Robert Lamont has to do is to make sure that the executioner, Monsieur de Paris (Robert Middleton), dies at the correct time. Robert ids languishing in prison and obviously cannot kill him, but perhaps Robert’s wife Babette (Danielle de Metz) could do something about the problem.

We do naturally feel some sympathy for Robert. He’s not a thug or a cut-throat. He committed murder but it was a crime of passion. He may well be right in believing that he was very unlucky that the court did not see it that way. And we always tend to feel sympathy for the underdog or for someone in imminent danger.

On the other hand we feel some sympathy for Monsieur de Paris as well. He’s actually quite a pleasant and decent fellow. He has a passion for gardening and he is, in his private life, a kind man. But if he lives then Robert dies, and in order for Robert to live Monsieur de Paris must die. We can’t help feeling a bit torn. We’d really like both of them to live. We also feel some sympathy for Babette who is trying to save her husband’s life but she is planning to commit murder. This story rather neatly sets up all kinds of mixed emotions in the viewer, about all the characters.

Given that it’s based on a Cornell Woolrich story we expect that the sting in the tail will be a nasty one, and it is.

Lupino builds the suspense pretty well. We feel Robert’s agony - he believes he may be saved but he cannot be sure and the time of his execution draws steadily nearer and he still does not know.

There are solid performances from the three leads with Robert Middleton being especially good as the jovial headsman. A good well-crafted episode.

A Wig for Miss Devore 
A Wig for Miss Devore is a second season episode based on a short story by August Derleth, a rather underrated writer. Derleth and Donald Sanforth did the adaptation. It went to air in January 1962.

Sheila Devore (Patricia Barry) is a big Hollywood star. Or at least she a big Hollywood star but that was quite a few years ago. Now she’s forgotten, but sh’s planning to relaunch her career. She even has a script picked out for her comeback. She selected the script with Herbert’s help. Herbert Bleake is her devoted admirer, companion, indeed her slave. All he now has to do is to give Empire Studios chief Max Quink (Herbert Rudley) the good news.

Max doesn’t think it’s good news at all. Sheila Devore is a has-been and he has no intention of putting into a new film. Unfortunately Max doesn’t have a choice. You see Herbert is a book-keeper at the studio and he knows some interesting thongs about certain financial arrangements that are perhaps not entirely legal. So Max is going to have to give Sheila her comeback movie.

Sheila has selected The Legend of Meg Peyton to resurrect her career. It’s the story of a beautiful woman executed for murder and witchcraft. In order to inspire her performance Sheila intends to wear the actual wig worn by Meg Peyton. There’s a curious story about this wig and if Sheila had heard the story she might have had second thoughts about wearing it.

It’s not too difficult to guess what’s going to come next. Horror doesn’t really need to be original to be effective. It’s the execution that matters and in this case the execution is faultless. And knowing what’s going to happen next, or at least having a pretty fair idea what’s going to happen next, can add quite considerably to the horror.

Patricia Barry relished the opportunity do some outrageous overacting, and really there is no other way she could have approached this rôle.

If there’s a weakness to this story it’s the fact that Meg Peyton gets sidelined a bit. We assume that she possesses any woman who wears the wig but we don’t really get much of an insight into her motivations. We know she was a witch and that she was also accused of being a multiple murderess but that’s all we ever learn. Seeing the change that comes over Sheila when she puts the wig on does give us some clues but it’s not quite clear how much of her personality is her own and how much is Meg’s. Sometimes it’s an advantage not to over-explain things but in this case I’d have liked to know just a bit more about Meg.

Director John Brahm had enjoyed success as a feature film director in the 40s with horror and other dark themes being a bit of a speciality of his. Although he was inclined to take his time he made quite a successful career in television.

There’s nothing particularly original or startling about A Wig for Miss Devore but it is superbly executed and it works.

God Grante That She Lye Stille
God Grante That She Lye Stille went to air in October 1961 and it’s another tale of witchcraft, and it’s yet another of those witchcraft stories featuring a witch about to be executed pronouncing a curse which will have its effect several centuries later.

Notorious witch Elspeth Clewer is burnt at the stake, taunting her executioners. She had been condemned as both a witch and a vampire. We then move forward to the present day and find that Lady Margaret Clewer is being disturbed by nocturnal visitations. She sees a face at the window, but it is her own face.

Dr Edward Stone (Ronald Howard) is the village physician and he’s more than a little disturbed by the case. Lady Margaret’s symptoms are puzzling. Her moods are subject to wild swings. And then there was the blood on her face. Equally disturbing are the doctor’s feelings for Lady Margaret.

The vicar (played by Henry Daniell) has a remarkable knowledge of the events three hundred years earlier involving Lady Margaret’s ancestor Elspeth.

It’s obvious that Elspeth, dead three hundred years, has some kind of hold over Lady Margaret. It might be simply a psychological fixation in Lady Margaret’s mind. In fact as far as Dr Stone is concerned it must be that. He is a man of science. He turns to an eminent psychiatrist for help. Perhaps he should have listened more to the vicar.

This is another example of Thriller taking a fairly clichéd idea but doing it so well that the lack of originality is not a problem. A good episode.

Friday 14 September 2018

Thriller - Won't Write Home Mom, I'm Dead / The Crazy Kill (1975)

Won't Write Home Mom, I'm Dead was the third episode of season five of ITC’s extremely successful psychological horror anthology series Thriller. Dennis Spooner wrote the script from a Brian Clemens story. In the US it was given the very dull title Terror from Within.

The story takes place in a village in the English countryside that has been taken over by hippies, mostly American hippies. The hippies are all wealthy, living on generous allowances from their families. Being rich they despise materialism. They have turned their backs on the empty values of their parents, and have broken off all contact with their families (except of course for collecting their monthly allowances).

Abby Stevens (Pamela Franklin) isn’t like that. She’s a rich kid but she’s old-fashioned and family-oriented and has the quaint idea that if your parents are supporting you financially then perhaps you owe them some debt of gratitude. She has arrived for a brief visit to look up her half-cousin Alan Smerdon (Oliver Tobias). There are some amusing exchanges between the two half-cousins. It’s clear that Spooner and Clemens regard these hippies with derision and dislike and who can blame them?

Maybe it’s a personal flaw in my makeup but I immediately found myself looking forward to the prospect of seeing these hippies meet some kind of very unpleasant (and hopefully painful) fate.

Abby’s real purpose in arriving at the commune is to find her boyfriend Doug. He set out for Britain two months earlier and hasn’t been heard from since but Abby knows he came to the hippie village because she and Doug have a psychic link. Oddly enough the hippies vehemently deny having ever seen Doug.

The most overtly disturbing of the hippies is Frank (Ian Bannen). He isn’t American and he isn’t rich and he has a violent temper. He scares Abby right from the start.

There are other things disturbing Abby. The psychic messages from Doug were very confusing. She’s also worried about the red Rolls-Royce. The hippies all assure her there is no red Rolls-Royce, but she’s sure it exists and she’s seen it. There’s also the problem of the elm trees. There are five elms but there should be six.

Pamela Franklin appeared in a couple of episodes of Thriller. This was during her scream queen phase in the 70s. She’s largely forgotten now (she retired from acting in the early 80s) which is perhaps a little unfair. She was not a bad actress and she does a fine job here. Ian Bannen is pretty good as well. He overacts but I think he’s justified in doing so. Oliver Tobias is certainly convincing as the kind of guy who might well be running some weird hippie cult.

This is an odd episode. Thriller did occasionally venture into the field of supernatural horror but usually in a tentative manner, with the supernatural elements sometimes turning out not to be supernatural after all. This is an episode in which the viewer definitely cannot be sure whether or not there’s going to be anything genuinely supernatural. I quite like that kind of ambiguity.

The best thing about this story is the atmosphere. The village is creepy and the hippies are creepy. They might pretend to be into peace and love but the overwhelming feeling that Abby gets (and I think most viewers will agree with her) is that this is a bad scary place in which evil things might well have happened, and the hippies might well have been the ones perpetrating the evil.

Won't Write Home Mom, I'm Dead is better than its reputation would suggest. It’s not a complete success and it’s not one of the great Thriller episodes but it has its moments of creepy weirdness and it’s worth a look.

The Crazy Kill is another Thriller episode written by Dennis Spooner from a Brian Clemens story. In the US it was given the dismal title Fear Is Spreading.

It’s a setup that has been used countless times. Two criminals have escaped from prison and now they’re holed up in a very comfortable country house and they’re terrorising the owners, heart surgeon Dr Henson (Denholm Elliott) and his wife. The criminals are hoping to evade detection while a huge police manhunt is underway.

The convicts are Garard (Anthony Valentine) and Filton (John Moreno). Filton is nasty but he’s small time and a coward and not overly dangerous. Garard is a very different matter. He’s a psychopath and a killer. He’s also intelligent and charming. He’s about as dangerous as they come. Oh and by the way, he also has a shotgun.

Superintendent Brook (Alan Browning) knows just how dangerous the situation is. The chances of recapturing Garard peacefully are zero. It’s going to be a tense cat-and-mouse game between the police and the convicts and an even more tense time for the unfortunate doctor and his wife whose chances of coming out of this alive are not all that promising.

So as I said it’s a story that has been done many many times, except that that is not the real story. The real story is a quite different one and we’ve had a few tantalising hints early on as to what it might be. The viewer is not the only one who is going to be surprised by the way the ending plays out.

Garard is the kind of rôle that Anthony Valentine did supremely well. In fact I don’t think anyone has ever played such rôles with quite the same effortless and chilling menace. Denholm Elliott is almost as good as the very nervous surgeon. They’re the stars and they have the meaty parts and they give it their all. The game played out between them is a joy to behold.

The supporting players are solid. Alan Browning adds a bit of depth to Superintendent Brook, a man under enormous pressure. He knows that if that if he makes a mistake with a man like Garard then people will die.

The studio-bound feel doesn’t matter in this one. Only a few sets are needed. The writing and the acting are the only things that count in this episode and they’re both top-notch.

The Crazy Kill is a great Thriller episode.

I reviewed the first two episodes in this season in an earlier post.

After seeing the first four episodes I have to say that season five is turning out to be very very impressive.

Friday 7 September 2018

three Ellery Queens

For this post I’m going to take a look at a couple of episodes of the excellent 1975-76 Ellery Queen television series which starred Jim Hutton as Ellery and David Wayne as his father Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD.

The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express is a episode that seems to be generally highly thought of, and with good reason. It features an impossible crime and as a bonus for hardcore Ellery Queen fans it also includes a dying clue.

Newspaper publisher Henry Manners takes the private elevator to his 12th floor office. The elevator opens, it’s empty, it opens again on another floor and there is Henry Manners’ body. The difficulty is that no-one could have gained access to the elevator therefore he must have been shot by somebody in the elevator but there was nobody else in the elevator.

There are plenty of suspects. As Manners’ editor remarks you can judge the worth of a newspaperman by how many enemies he made and Henry Manners was one hell of a newspaperman. A lot of those enemies were in the Daily Examiner office at the time of the murder and none of them have much in the way of alibis.

The bitchiness, the backbiting, the ruthlessness and the amorality of the newspaper world give a nicely cynical background. Just about everybody connected with the Daily Examiner would cheerfully commit a dozen murders if it would further their interests. And they’re all very willing to spill the dirt on each other.

The trouble with impossible crimes is that the solutions do often tend to be just a bit on the far-fetched side. That is definitely not a problem here. The solution is clever but it’s very simple. And it’s very plausible. Ellery’s solving of the case is also entirely plausible - the clues to the killer’s identity are there and puzzling out the mechanism of the murder is just a matter of eliminating fanciful theories and concentrating on explanations that might have actually worked in the real world.

Overall the decision to set the series in the late 1940s works very well. I’m a particular fan of the early Ellery Queens so I guess I’d have preferred a 1930s setting but the important thing is that they realised that a period setting was essential. Setting it in the mid-70s would have been a disastrous mistake. In this particular case the period setting works wonderfully for a story with a newspaper background. A superb episode.

Murder mysteries involving archaeology and ancient civilisation, and especially ancient Egypt, are something I’m inordinately fond of so The Adventure of the Pharaoh's Curse sounded pretty promising.

Wealthy businessman Norris Wentworth has managed to track down and buy a very important Egyptian sarcophagus for a major museum. Naturally he is warned about the curse attached to the mummy, a curse that has already claimed the lives of six men. Sure enough Norris Wentworth becomes the seventh victim. But is it death from natural causes, is it the revenge of the mummy or is it murder? Ellery is inclined to suspect murder but if that’s the case the murder method is puzzling indeed.

This is one of several cases in which Ellery is in competition with radio detective how host  Simon Brimmer but of course we know that Simon will almost certainly come up with a plausible solution which is totally wrong. Which adds some humour. It also adds a bit of interest to a plot which is not, to be brutally honest, one of the more ingenious plots of the series. That’s not to say that it’s a poor episode. It’s just perhaps not quite up to the very high standards of the series as a whole.

It does have its cute moments though with some ingenious clues.

Cult TV fans will be excited by the presence of Ross Martin (from The Wild Wild West) and June Lockhart (from Lost In Space).

The Adventure of the Chinese Dog is an attempt to capture the rustic appeal of the Ellery Queen Wrightsville novels. Ellery and his father head off to Wrightsville on a fishing trip. There’s a surprising amount of drama in the usually sleepy town. There’s a fiercely contested election for Sheriff, and there’s a murder (an event almost unheard of in these parts).

The murder weapon is a gold Chinese temple dog worth a cool half million dollars.

The plotting here is intricate and ingenious, with clues that are obvious enough except that they don’t mean what you expect them to mean.

While the murder is unusual the solution is plausible and it is the only solution that can explain the major oddities of the murder method.

While the murder investigation proceeds Inspector Richard Queen is pursuing a vendetta with an old enemy. The enemy in question is a big old fish in the local river and it’s become Inspector Queen’s White Whale. As is usually the case in the Ellery Queen series the comic relief is handled with discretion and is never allowed to become intrusive or irritating. It’s gently amusing and it serves its purpose.

So overall, out of the three episodes, two turned out to be exceptionally good and the other is still pretty solid. Two of the three incorporate one of the major trademarks of the Ellery Queen novels - the dying clue.

All three episodes involve rather unsympathetic murder victims.

Ellery Queen was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable of all American whodunit TV series  and it was remarkably consistent. Great stuff.

You might also like to check out my reviews of some of the classic Ellery Queen novels such as The French Powder Mystery and The  Chinese Orange Mystery.

Saturday 1 September 2018

Columbo, Forgotten Lady / A Case of Immunity

The fifth season of Columbo went to air in late 1975 and early 1976.

Forgotten Lady kicks off season five and it does so in a slightly surprising way. Normally there is no need to worry about spoilers when discussing Columbo since the killer’s identity is always known right from the start. Forgotten Lady is one of the rare exceptions - there is a vital aspect to the case that is only revealed gradually and there is a crucial late twist and to reveal these things really would lessen their impact and spoil the episode.

What’s important is that these are things that Columbo is not initially aware of and it’s important that the viewer, like Columbo, should not learn them too early.

This is also a rare Columbo episode with a surprise ending, and it is very surprising - it’s not at all what we expect from Lieutenant Columbo. It could have been gimmicky but it works due to the great performances by Peter Falk and by the two guest stars, Janet Leigh and John Payne.

Janet Leigh is Grace Wheeler, a forgotten star from the great era of Hollywood musicals. She intends to make a comeback and has persuaded her old co-star, Ned Diamond (John Payne), to help her. But first she will need to get rid of her husband.

A major bonus for classic movie fans is that Grace Wheeler spends much of her time watching her old movies which means we get to see Janet Leigh watching footage of herself in classic musical roles.

This is an episode that could have been shipwrecked by sentimentality but that peril is avoided, largely by Leigh’s intense and sometimes prickly performance. The last thing Grace Wheeler wants is pity and Leigh manages to give a very moving performance without any self-pity. In fact the character, as played by Leigh, simply does not have the capacity for self-pity. John Payne is every bit as good.

Judging by the first two episodes there does seem to have been an attempt to do something just a little different in season five. Forgotten Lady had unexpected plot twists while A Case of Immunity has an unusual setting. The murder takes place within the legation of the Kingdom of Suari. Which of course means that technically the murder did not take place on U.S. soil. A further complication is that Columbo knows from the start that the murderer must have been a member of the legation and would therefore have diplomatic immunity. Columbo will have to tread very very carefully.

It’s not that Hassan Salah (Hector Elizondo) is necessarily any cleverer than the average murderer. His plan is ingenious but flawed. He is however very much aware that he has diplomatic immunity so he is very confident indeed that even the annoyingly persistent Lieutenant Columbo poses no threat to him.

It really looks like this case might be a failure for Columbo, that he may solve the puzzle but be unable to make an arrest.