Saturday 25 May 2019

Quincy M.E. season 2 (1977)

There’s considerable disagreement whether the 1977 second season of Quincy M.E. really does constitute a second season or whether the first and second seasons should be regarded as a single season. The exact point at which season two begins could also be debated. What matters is that there certainly were some significant changes that roughly coincided with the switch from feature-length to one-hour episodes.

Quincy’s girlfriend Lee (Lynette Mettey) disappears fairly early on. I think that’s a pity. Her presence served to make Quincy a bit more sympathetic and human and added a much-needed lighter touch to a series that often takes itself much too seriously.

Much more signifiant is Dr Asten’s personality change. Dr Asten is Quincy’s immediate boss at the Coroner’s Office. In the first season he was a somewhat contemptible figure, a typical careerist who was more worried about not rocking the boat than actually finding the truth. He was a bit of a weasel and a bit of a moral coward. In this second season he becomes a much more complex and nuanced figure, a man genuinely struggling with the difficult task of watching the budget, dealing with political pressures and ensuring that the job of properly investigating suspicious deaths gets done properly. He has mysteriously grown a backbone and is on occasions prepared to back Quincy even when it might entail risk to his own position. I think this change is a welcome one. The new version of Dr Asten is quite an interesting character.

The other supporting characters remain substantially unchanged. Sam Fujiyama is still the loyal but long-suffering assistant to Quincy. Lieutenant Monahan is still bad-tempered, overworked and constantly exasperated by Quincy. Danny is still the faithful friend who just wishes Quincy wouldn’t park his car, with Coroner’s Office prominenty displayed on the door, outside his bar.

At this fairly early stage in the series (which eventually ran to eight seasons) some major problems are already starting to become apparent. There are already too many episodes that seem much too much like lectures rather than entertainment. There’s too much of a tendency to allow the focus to shift away from forensic pathology into social crusading.

The biggest problems are Quincy himself, and Jack Klugman’s performances. When Quincy is doggedly following a chain of tenuous forensic clues his abrasiveness and obsessiveness can be quite enjoyable, but when he dons his social crusader’s cap he can become irritating and even obnoxious. And Jack Klugman’s acting is not exactly subtle. A little bit of Jack Klugman tends to go a long way.

Episode Guide

Quincy is attending a convention of forensic pathologists in a resort hotel when the guests start to succumb to a mysterious illness in Snake Eyes. Quincy’s main concern is that whatever the illness is it could be infectious but the hotel management are more concerned about a panic among their guests. It’s a good episode with the focus firmly on forensics.

Even better is ...The Thigh Bone's Connected to the Knee Bone... in which Quincy has one bone with which to work. From that bone he intends to identify the victim, discover how he died and who killed him. This is Quincy M.E. at its best with Quincy doggedly following a tenuous trail of evidence.

In Visitors in Paradise Quincy and Danny take a fishing vacation and Quincy finds himself trying to solve a previously unsolved case but someone is determined to stop him. A reasonably good episode.

The Two Sides of Truth sees Quincy pitted against his old mentor, a brilliant man but Quincy suspects that he’s sold out. Not a particularly good episode.

Hit and Run at Danny's concerns a hit-run case and a body pulled from a car that ended up in the sea. The identity of the victim is kind of complicated. And Danny could lose his liquor licence as an indirect result, which strains his friendship with Quincy. A fairly decent episode.

Has Anybody Here Seen Quincy? is a Quincy M.E. episode without Quincy and not surprisingly it doesn’t work at all.

A Good Smack in the Mouth is another misfire. Quincy suspects that a child has been abused. Quincy goes into full-on social crusader mode and it all gets very preachy and very contrived and very tedious. This series is always at its best when the focus remains on forensic pathology and unfortunately there’s virtually none of that in this episode.

The Hot Dog Murder makes four lousy episodes in a row. The ingenious murder method isn’t ingenious at all and it’s revealed right from the start. In fact everything is obvious right from the start. Quincy not only gets preachy but indulges in some ethically very dubious practices. A failed episode.

An Unfriendly Radiance is a welcome return to form. Quincy is faced with a very odd death. The man died of radiation poisoning but there was absolutely no way he could have been exposed to radiation. This one works because it concentrates on forensics and on crime investigation rather than social crusading. A very good episode.

Usually it’s Quincy trying to convince Lieutenant Monahan that a case is worthy pursuing but in Sullied Be Thy Name the shoe is on the other foot. A priest is found in a hooker’s bed, dead of a heart attack. Since the priest is an old friend of his Monahan is keen to clear his name. Quincy is faced with a lack of evidence but presses on regardless. This episode has a genuinely clever plot and lots of good forensics stuff. A very fine episode.

Valleyview is a sanitarium and there seem to Quincy to be just too many unexplained deaths of patients there. When a nurse dies suddenly as well Quincy is convinced his suspicions were justified. A good mystery plot here with some effective misdirection. Very good stuff.

Unfortunately it all starts falling apart again with the final episode of the season, Let Me Light the Way. Quincy is determined to bring a serial rapist to justice. The story is not necessarily bad but the treatment is heavy-handed and manipulative and Quincy’s crusading zeal becomes embarrassing and very irritating. It’s all rather unconvincing and contrived.

Final Thoughts

I’m afraid that Quincy M.E. is a series about which I have increasingly mixed feelings. There are some very good episodes here but alas there are just as many clunkers.

And when this series is bad it’s very very bad. The tendency to preachiness is something that afflicts most American television of this era to some extent. In Quincy M.E. that tendency gets out of hand rather too often.

My biggest issue with this series is that Quincy as a character rubs me up the wrong way. I find it hard to be too sympathetic towards him since he alienates people in unnecessary ways, even people who are actually well disposed towards him.

Although it’s by no means all bad I would definitely recommend renting a few episodes first before risking a purchase.

Friday 17 May 2019

McMillan and Wife, season 3 part two (1973-74)

Edward D. Hoch was a prolific writer of mystery stories. While most people have never heard of him he has a very strong following among fans of classic puzzle-plot mysteries. One of his specialties was impossible crime stories, of which he wrote vast numbers. Several of Hoch’s stories were adapted for the very popular 1970s NBC mystery series McMillan and Wife. Two of Hoch’s crime stories were adapted for the third season, Freefall to Terror and The Man Without a Face.

Freefall to Terror features a spectacular impossible crime. Billy Calm (Dick Haymes) is an old friend of McMillan’s. He’s a very successful and very ruthless businessman and his methods have become steadily more ruthless. And he’s accumulated a lot of enemies. It comes as a surprise when Billy commits suicide by throwing himself out of his 17th floor office window. When Commissioner McMillan and Billy’s private secretary Maggie Miller (Barbara Feldon) burst into Billy’s office after hearing him threaten to kill himself they find the office empty. The window has been smashed. Obviously Billy has either hurled himself out of the window or he’s been pushed. The puzzler is that there is no body. No-one on the ground saw a body exit through the window. No body landed on the pavement. So is Billy dead or not?

When that question gets answered it just makes things even more puzzling and even more impossible.

The problem with locked-room and impossible crime mysteries is that the solutions do often turn out to be either excessively far-fetched and improbably contrived or wildly implausible. In this case, while the setup seems bizarre the solution is quite simple and elegant and it’s perfectly plausible.

Overall it’s a very successful and very clever episode.

The Man Without a Face is a spy thriller story. Mac gets a very cryptic message which turns out to be from an old colleague from his intelligence days. Those days are in the distant past, or are they? Maybe the past isn’t really gone, or maybe it has left some ghosts behind. And maybe the past can still kill you.

Now there’s a murder to be investigated but not everyone wants that to happen. There are people who need to be told things and there are other people who don’t want them told. The trouble with spies is that you just can’t trust them, even when they’re on your side. In fact especially when they’re on your side. And even when a spy isn’t lying he’s likely to tell the truth in a misleading way, merely by habit.

There’s a very cool, and very complicated, dying clue in this tale.

A bonus is the carnival background to much of the action. There’s a nice scene involving peril on a ferris wheel and knife-throwing plays a important rôle as well. So there’s plenty of fun here.

This is a very complex plot with roots going back decades and with double-crosses that might go back just as far.

So two interesting Edward D. Hoch adaptations, and now for the final two episodes in this season.

Reunion in Terror is a reunion of a college football team in which Mac had played. It seems that the members of that team have suddenly started dying violently. In fact it appears that someone might be intending to kill the whole team.

But why? It’s unlikely that the murderer could be an outsider - it surely has to be a member of the team. Who else could have a motive? But what kind of motive would explain the slaughter of a whole football team?

It also seems possible that the members of the team are not being killed randomly but according to a pattern.

The guest cast is headlined by comic Buddy Hackett and whether you enjoy this episode will depend a lot on how well you tolerate Buddy Hackett. I can’t tolerate him at all so this episode was at times a bit of an ordeal for me. It’s also an episode in which the McMillan’s housekeeper Mildred plays a more prominent rôle than usual. I find that a little bit of Mildred goes a long way.

On the plus side Michael Ansara, one of my favourite character actors of this era, is also in the guest cast but unfortunately he’s not given enough to do.

The plot is OK with some reasonably decent misdirection.

Overall this is not one of my favourite episodes. It’s not terrible but it’s not overly interesting.

Cross & Double Cross makes use of one of the most tired and overused of all plot devices, the double. That’s bad enough, but McMillan and Wife has already used this idea in season two and with Rock Hudson playing identical dual rôles.

Commissioner McMillan has to assume the identity of his exact double, a charming hoodlum, in order to infiltrate a gold smuggling racket. Rhonda Fleming, a competent actress in her heyday, plays an ageing femme fatale who seems to be the key to the racket. McMillan gets to jump out of an aeroplane a couple of times but enough that doesn’t generate sufficient excitement to save this one.

There’s nothing wrong with Hudson’s performances in his dual rôles, it’s just that the basic idea has been done way too often and there’s nothing here to add any worthwhile original twists to the idea.

Season three really is all over the place. The first four episodes are all very good and very enjoyable but then it ends with two real turkeys. If you’re a fan of the series then the four good episodes are enough to justify picking up the season three set.

Thursday 9 May 2019

Man with a Camera, season one (1958-59)

Man with a Camera is a half-hour crime series that ran on the American ABC network from 1958 to 1960. In those days a typical season comprised at least 30 and often as many as 39 episodes. There were however only two shortened seasons of Man with a Camera with a total of 29 episodes being made.

This series gave Charles Bronson his first starring role. Bronson plays photographer Mike Kovac. Of course a series about a photographer going around taking photos wouldn’t be all that exciting. Obviously he has to get mixed up in crimes and other dangerous activities. But at the same time photography has to be a key element on those crime stories. Man with a Camera manages to do these things fairly well and it makes an interesting variation on the usual private eye series. Kovac spends so much time unravelling crimes that he might as well be a private eye.

Bronson already has his screen persona pretty well set. He’s a tough guy with a rather forbidding manner but there’s also a surprising degree of rough charm. Bronson could adapt this persona for playing heroes or villains. In this case he is obviously very much a hero.

The Episode Guide

Second Avenue Assassin reunites Mike Kovac with an old friend, but the reunion does not go smoothly. Joey Savoyan is a boxer and within the next few days he’s going to get his shot at the title but he’s earning himself an unsavoury reputation. In fact there’s something sinister going on at Joey’s training camp and only a photographer can hope to uncover the truth. Not a bad way to start the series. It establishes that Kovac is very tough, very stubborn, rather impulsive and completely honest.

In The Warning Mike is manipulated into photographing a murder. And then the police manipulate him into being bait for a trap, something that makes him very unhappy. A solid enough story.

Profile of a Killer is bizarre but intriguing. Kovac gets kidnapped by an armed robber who wants him to take his publicity photos. This young hoodlum is totally looney tunes and his ambition is to be famous, even if he’s only famous as a killer. This is a fine example of the clever way this series uses the photography angle and there’s another great example at the climax. A strange one, but on the whole this is an excellent episode.

Closeup on Violence is quite clever. Kovac is taking pictures at a fire only he’s more interested in the spectators than the fire. He takes a picture of a very striking girl (she’s very striking because she’s played by Angie Dickinson) and then his camera gets stolen. It’s something to do with that girl, and with a bunch of young hoods only there’s no obvious connection between these cheap punks and such a classy young woman. The makeshift composite photo idea is cute. A very good episode.

In Turntable Mike gets mixed up in a battle between a crooked gambling house operator and a crusading politician. It all hinges on some very innocuous photos Mike took, and the far from innocuous composite photos someone else made from them. Another solid episode.

In Double Negative a murdered woman is still alive and Mike has the photo to prove it and to save a man from being convicted for her murder. Photos can be faked but Mike took the picture himself so he knows it’s genuine. And yet something doesn’t add up. A pretty good story.

Another Barrier is presumably an attempt to do something slightly different. It’s a non-crime story in which photography plays only a very peripheral part. I prefer the crime/photography oriented episodes but this is an OK story about a test pilot.

Blind Spot has Mike doing his own private investigation into the death of a fellow press photographer and old friend. It appears that the friend was involved in some shady activities but Mike can’t bring himself to believe it. Not a bad story and the hidden camera (which the viewer knows about from the start) is quite nifty.

Two Strings of Pearls sees Kovac taking photographs at a garden party. The hostess is a charming young lady with whom Kovac had had a romantic entanglement but she claims that she’s never seen him before in her life. There’s some kind of con going on but Kovac just can’t see how it can possibly be worked. It doesn’t make sense. A very clever little story and very well executed.

Six Faces of Satan is a silly hysterical story about mob violence. A terrible episode Excruciatingly bad and embarrassing.

In Lady on the Loose Mike has an almost-romance with an heiress who is running away from, well she’s running away from being an heiress mostly. The romance angle doesn’t really convince and the episode has not much else to offer.

The Last Portrait demonstrates that maybe the camera can’t lie but it can certainly kill. In this case a camera is used to assassinate an Arab leader and Mike is caught in the middle and the only person who can help out of the mess is a faded movie star. A good episode.

The Face of Murder is the face of a convicted killer about to be executed. Everyone says that Bray is one of those rare criminals who is absolute evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Mike Kovac isn’t so sure but he wants Bray’s picture anyway. Bray has been a loser his whole life but he’s prepared to try one more throw of the dice, which could get a bunch of other people killed, including Mike Kovac. A fairly good episode even if it tries to get a bit philosophical at the end.

Mute Evidence is totally crazy. There’s a crazy reclusive doctor who has taught a deaf girl to talk using a camera. And there’s his crazy assistant. When the craziness leads to murder the only witness is the mute girl Susan and she can’t communicate without her camera. All Mike knows is that Susan is the key. I wouldn’t say this is a good episode but it’s fascinating in its weirdness.

In The Big Squeeze Mike gets on the wrong side of big-time gangsters by trying to help out the widow of Johnny Rico, a small-time hood who’s just had an unfortunate encounter with a guy with a machine-gun. Mike ends up with some photos that are dynamite but they’re more likely to get him killed than make him famous. The girl could get him out of this spot but she’s too busy with her own agenda of revenge. The pressure is on everybody - everybody is squeezing everybody else. A pretty decent episode to end the season.

Final Thoughts

This is a clever inventive series that deserved to be a bigger success. Bronson already shows glimpses of the qualities that would eventually make him a huge star.

The first half of the first season is particularly stronger with some very clever plots. Overall Man with a Camera is a fine series and is highly recommended.

Wednesday 1 May 2019

The Saint revisited - six B&W episodes

The Saint is in my view a more interesting series than it’s usually given credit for. One of the reasons it’s interesting is that the source material is so fascinating.

The Simon Templar of Leslie Charteris’s stories is unique among fictional action-adventure heroes in the extent to which he evolves over time, and the extent to which his evolution is logical and plausible. Superficially the Saint of the later adventures is still a young man but if you look at his behaviour and his outlook on life he clearly matures.

William Vivian Butler in his marvellous book on gentleman rogue action-adventure heroes identifies no less than five distinct phases through which the Saint passes.

The most intriguing is what Butler calls the Mark V Saint who made his appearance in 1949 in Saint Errant. He is clearly a very different man from the Simon Templar of the early tales but he’s also clearly a logical evolution of the young Templar. He is now older, wiser and a tiny bit sadder, and somewhat lonely. The early Saint had a collection of pals who functioned as his assistants/accomplices/partners-in-crime/disciples/followers or whatever you might like to calk them. They don’t all appear in every story but you can be sure that at least one will up up in every story. And the young Simon Templar has Patricia Holm, the Great Love of his Life, his perfect woman. All these supporting characters disappeared during the course of the 40s and by the time Saint Errant appeared the Saint was entirely alone, and remained alone.

The character in the TV series is based entirely on the Mark V Saint. Now while I would dearly have loved to see a series based on the Mark II Saint of the early 30s it could only have been done as a period piece. There were very sound reasons for choosing the Mark V Saint. What’s really cool, if you’re a fan of the books, is that the TV series captures the tone of the later Saint stories remarkably well. The TV Simon Templar has friends, but no close friends. He has women, but he doesn’t have the one woman who mattered to him. There is the subtle touch of melancholy that you find in the 1950s Saint stories and there is the slight sense of less and loneliness. Roger Moore captures these qualities in the character surprisingly well.

The other important thing about the Mark V Saint is that he was a man out of his time. The devil-may-care adventurer of the 1930s found himself in a world that had no place for devil-may-care adventurers. He was also a restless rootless character, a citizen of the world who was truly at home nowhere. The Saint of the TV series is definitely a man slightly out of place in the 1960s. He is dashing and debonair, but in a decidedly old-fashioned manner. He is a gentleman in a world that no longer has any respect for the code of the gentleman.

Since I’ve just finished reading Saint Errant and I’m just about to post my review at Vintage Pop Fictions and since no less than six of the nine stories in the collection were adapted for the TV series I thought it would be fun to review those adaptations.


Judith retains the Montreal setting of the original story, the first in the collection. Montreal’s richest citizen, Burt Northwade, is about to become even richer by selling an important new invention to a major car maker. There does however seem to be some dispute about whether the invention is actually Burt Northwade’s to sell. Morally it seems that the invention should belong to his brother Frank, who was actually responsible for the invention. Frank’s daughter Judith certainly thinks so and she’s planning a spot of larceny to put things right.

Judith is just the sort of woman Simon Templar likes. She’s young and beautiful and she’s criminally inclined (she is played by Julie Christie, just a couple of years away from major cinematic stardom). No self-respecting buccaneer could resist volunteering to carry out the burglary for her. Of course it’s going to turn out to be far less simple than Simon imagines. It’s a neat little story with a rather nice twist at the end.

While the story has had to be expanded a little the essentials are pretty much unchanged. And it’s one of the TV episodes that shows the Saint quite unequivocally carrying out a crime, even if it’s ultimately for a good cause. The tone of the episode matches that of Charteris’s story pretty well - lighthearted and witty. A very good episode.


Iris is an actress in a play that is about to open. The only reason the play is going to open at all is that Iris’s husband Rick has put up the money for it. Rick, being a successful gangster, has  plenty of money. Rick does however have a problem. He is being blackmailed by Simon Templar. This is news to Simon Templar. Not only is he not the blackmailer, blackmail is something of which he very strongly disapproves. He is determined to find out who the real blackmailer is.

The television adaptation moves the scene of the action from Chicago to London. It also makes Rick a slightly less colourful character. Unfortunately it also makes Mr Stratford Keane, the director of the play, much less colourful. Patricia Holm is of course eliminated from the story. The Saint of the TV series has to remain a loner and cannot possibly have a full-time lady love. On the plus side Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal is added to the story.

Iris was not one of the better stories in the Saint Errant collection and it isn’t one of the stronger episodes of the TV series. It’s OK, but not great.


The first obvious change from the Lida short story is that the scene of the action has been moved from the Quarterdeck Club in Miami to Captain Kidd’s Club in The Bahamas. The second change is that the Saint’s long-time lady love, Patricia Holm, has disappeared from the story. The adaptation also adds some action, obviously essential for TV.

Joan Wingate is worried that her sister Lida Verity is in trouble and asks Simon Templar to help her. Unfortunately it’s too late. Lida Verity is found dead, of a gunshot wound. The universal assumption that it must have been suicide does not satisfy the Saint. Lida had a very wealthy husband. Any gambling debts incurred at the club would have been of little consequence to her. He is convinced the answer can be found at Captain Kidd’s Club.

The sequence of events has been changed a little and some extra characters added. One of them is played by the always entertaining Aubrey Morris, this time playing a more sinister character than usual. The original story has had to be expanded quite a bit but this is done very successfully. The vital plot elements are still those of Charteris’s short story and they still work. A very fine episode.


Charteris’s story Jeannine takes place in New Orleans but Terry Nation’s teleplay moves the action to Paris. A glamorous but apparently murderous female head of state, Madam Chen, owns a very very valuable pearl necklace. The police assume that the Saint will try to steal it. The Saint is most interested to find out that Madam Chen’s PR lady is none other than Judith, a beautiful but extremely larcenous young lady he has encountered before, but now she calls herself Jeannine. He assumes that Jeannine is going to try to steal the pearls and he’s right but in fact it seems like every second person in Paris is trying to steal that necklace.

It’s unfortunate that Julie Christie was by now becoming too big a star to reprise her rôle as Judith. Sylvia Sims however does a pretty decent job. Jacqui Chan does some glorious scenery chewing as the cruel but lecherous Madam Chen.

The twist ending which Leslie Charteris pulled off so adroitly in the short story is still there in the TV adaptation and it still works but it’s not done with Charteris’s skill. The subplot involving the opposition to Madam Chen is entirely Terry Nation’s invention but it does provide an echo of Simon Templar’s motivation in the original story. It’s still a very good thoroughly enjoyable episode.


Teresa is set in Mexico, as was the original short story. Like most of the stories in Saint Errant Teresa was a fairly brief and deceptively simple short story with a clever sting in the tail. A woman, Teresa, is searching for her husband who disappeared a couple of years earlier. For TV the story had to be expanded very considerably with scriptwriter John Kruse adding a backstory in which the husband has carried out a failed assassination attempt on the President of Mexico. He’s also added a fun circus background. The extra material is effective and entertaining.

Eventually right at the end we get to the core of Charteris’s story, with Teresa and Simon Templar finding the bandit El Rojo who holds the key to the mystery.

The episode works extremely well and it’s a fine example of the successful and almost seamless integration of library footage (the circus scenes) with new material. There are a couple of dodgy process shots but for me that adds to the fun.


Luella is a tale of blackmail. The action is moved from Los Angeles in the original story to London. Big-time American banker Bill Harvey and Simon are old friends. While Bill’s wife is in Paris he decides to sample the London night-life and gets himself set up by blackmailing gang. Luella (played by the luscious Sue Lloyd) is the bait in the trap. Worse is to come when Bill’s wife finds out about his little misadventure. Somehow Simon has to come up with a scheme to get Bill off the hook, and put the blackmailers out of business.

One interesting feature is that the original story specifically mentions the Saint’s practice of returning stolen or extorted money to its rightful owners, less a commission for himself. That commission is not mentioned in the TV episode - it would after all have made the Saint appear to be profiting from crime.

While a tongue-in-cheek flavour is fairly standard in this series this episode is rather startling and unusual in that it’s played as out-and-out farce (and with occasional forays into slapstick). It works more successfully than one might have expected although I’m glad it was an experiment that wasn’t tried too often.

As was the case with Lida Patricia Holm is eliminated from the story in the TV adaptation. Since she played an important part in the story the plot had to be altered so that Bill Harvey’s wife Doris becomes the Saint’s accomplice in his plan to checkmate the blackmailers.

David Hedison, who later the same year (1964) would achieve major TV stardom in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, guest stars as Bill Harvey and displays a totally unexpected enthusiasm for farce.

Final Thoughts

These are all fairly brief short stories which rely on having one really effective twist at the end. Leslie Charteris happened to be rather good at providing such twists. All six stories had to be expanded for television, in some cases dramatically expanded, and in general the additional material is entertaining even if it sometimes slows the pacing a little.

The more I see of this series the more I grow to like it, and the more I find myself appreciating Roger Moore’s performance. These six episodes range from fairly good to extremely good.