Saturday, 25 September 2021

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine/Murder, Smoke and Shadows

In 1978, after an astonishingly successful run on NBC, Lieutenant Columbo finally hung up his crumpled raincoat for good. Or so it seemed. But it was not the end after all. In 1989 Columbo returned in a series of TV movies, this time on ABC, which continued intermittently until 2003. I approached this later incarnation with trepidation, fearing that it would be a disappointment.

It actually gets off to a pretty good start with an ambitious locked-room mystery, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. It combines stage magic (always a winner in my book), psychic phenomena and some delightful mockery of the CIA.

We have to wait a long time for Columbo to make his entrance but the setup for the murder is extremely clever, genuinely puzzling and thoroughly entertaining. Elliott Blake (Anthony Andrews) is a psychic and he’s being studied at the Anneman Institute for Psychic Research. This time they’re convinced they have a real psychic on their hands and they’re very excited. The Pentagon and the CIA are excited as well - this will give them a vital weapon against the commies (the episode went to air in early 1989 when the Soviet Union still existed).

However the CIA wants to be sure. And what better way to be sure than getting renowned magician and sceptic Max Dyson (Anthony Zerbe) to try to debunk Blake. Dyson has exposed countless fraudulent psychics and phoney mediums and if Blake is using trickery then he’s the man to uncover that trickery. Of course you can see how tis might lead to murder, and it does. And it’s a wonderfully ingenious murder.

The way in which Columbo unravels the mystery is entirely satisfying. The vital clues are provided by a fifteen-year-old aspiring magician named Tommy. Introducing a precocious kid is always a risk but in this case it works. Tommy’s most important contribution comes when he tells Columbo that it’s not that difficult to figure out how a trick is done as long as you always keep in mind that it is a trick.

The murder is almost a perfect murder but there are a couple of tiny details that to Columbo’s mind just don’t quite fit. The plot is excellent, combining intricacy with the expected battle of wits between Columbo and the suspect.

Anthony Andrews is pretty good as the suspect constantly dogged by the rumpled homicide lieutenant. Pretty good, but I can’t help thinking this episode might have worked better with the two major supporting rôles reversed. Anthony Zerbe is a more colourful actor than Andrews and might have been a more formidable opponent for Columbo. Zerbe is an absolute delight as Max.

Oddly enough the one minor weakness in this episode is Peter Falk whose performance seems a bit mannered and a bit overdone. It had been eleven years since he’d played the part and he doesn’t seem entirely convincing. In the 1970s episodes Columbo was an outrageous but believable character, a very smart cop who was a bit eccentric but who carefully played up his eccentricities to put suspects off-guard. In this 1989 incarnation he just seems too obviously an actor. It’s almost as if he’s forgotten how he used to play the rôle and he’s trying too hard.

The magic stuff is terrific and the explanations of how the tricks were worked are fascinating.

All in all Columbo Goes to the Guillotine is surprisingly successful. Maybe not quite equal to the very best of the earlier episodes but still very good and very enjoyable.

Murder, Smoke and Shadows went to air in late February 1989. Once again there’s an attempt to make the setting as colourful, and as artificial, as possible. This time it’s the world of movies. Whizz-kid film director Alex Brady has a problem. A few years earlier when he and his friends Lenny Fisher and Buddy Coates were aspiring film-makers still making ultra low budget movies Lenny’s sister Jenny was killed when a stunt went wrong.  Alex panicked and left her to die. Lenny didn’t know about this but he does now and he’s arrived in Hollywood to wreck Alex’s career. Alex isn’t going to let that happen.

As in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine the murder is devious and ingenious. Alex’s attempts to cover his tracks are less clever. He knows a lot about making movies but as a murderer he’s at best a gifted amateur.

It just hasn’t occurred to Alex that the police are professionals at this sort of thing and they have vast resources. The ability of the police in general and Columbo in particular to piece together the story of a murder is as impressive as Alex’s ability to tell a story on film.

It’s another clever plot even if the theatricality is overdone at times. The ending is very theatrical indeed but it’s in keeping with the feel of the story.

Again Peter Falk’s performance seems not quite right. He just isn’t relaxing into the part they way he used to. Columbo’s malicious glee when he nails his suspect also seems a bit out of character.

A Columbo story depends a lot on the quality of the villain. Fisher Stevens as Alex is quite good but there is one big problem. At twenty-five Stevens was ridiculously young to be playing the part of a film director so well established that books have been written about his films. He looks even younger than twenty-five and comes across as being more like a precocious high school kid than a seasoned Hollywood veteran. Setting so much of the episode in Alex’s private little “boys’ club” hideaway with its train sets and pinball machines and soda fountain just makes him seem even younger. If only Stevens had been ten years older his performance might have worked splendidly - he certainly plays Alex as the kind of self-centred manipulative narcissist you’d expect to find in Hollywood.

Alex is also a Columbo villain who loses his cool quickly and seems cocky in a teenaged way rather than the type of smooth confident murderer who might present a real challenge to Lieutenant Columbo.

Steven Hill plays a small rôle as a ruthless producer whom Alex has made the mistake of crossing and Hill's assured performance, while very entertaining, also serves to make Alex seem like a naughty schoolboy.

So this episode has some problems. It does have its strengths however. The film studio setting is used very effectively and the story is basically excellent. So it’s a mixed bag but still enjoyable.

Was it a good idea to resurrect Columbo? Probably not. Both these episodes are brave attempts and they’re reasonably successful but the magic is not quite there.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Callan: This Man Alone

Callan: This Man Alone is a 2016 feature-length documentary on the classic Callan TV series (arguably the greatest TV spy series ever made). It features interviews with many of the key people involved in the making of the series - writers, directors, actors, producers. There are also brief snippets from audio interviews with Callan creator James Mitchell and stars Edward Woodward and Anthony Valentine. The documentary was clearly a labour of love and it provides plenty of fascinating anecdotes and some good insights into what it was that made Callan great television.

James Mitchell had already written several novels (including spy thrillers under the name James Munro) and had written scripts for several of the best TV series of the 60s (The Avengers, The Troubleshooters) when he wrote the TV play A Magnum for Schneider for the very prestigious Armchair Theatre anthology series produced by Britain’s ABC Television. Even before it went to air ABC felt it had the potential to become a regular series. A Magnum for Schneider introduced reluctant British government assassin David Callan to the world.

One thing that comes through pretty clearly is that if you want to make great television you have to set your sights high. Mitchell certainly set his sights high with Callan right from the start. Once it becomes evident that you’re aiming to make an intelligent provocative television series you’ll have the best writers, directors and actors falling over themselves to work on the show and that makes things a whole lot easier.

An interesting point which comes through in this documentary is the way this series turned setbacks to its advantages. Significant cast changes had to be made at various times. Wth new characters coming into the series (notably Cross but also several new Hunters) the dynamics between Callan and his superior change, and the dynamics between Callan and Cross are quite different from the dynamics between Callan and Toby Meres. This is one of the things that kept the series consistently interesting for the whole of its four-season run.

One of the reasons for Callan’s success was that it was made at the right time, between 1967 and 1972. This was the era in which British TV was shot mostly in the studio and on videotape. This was perfect for Callan - it gave the series a seedy claustrophobic feel. Had it entered production in 1974 (in the wake of the sensation created by The Sweeney) it would have been shot on film and on location and it would have featured a lot more action. Even if nothing else had changed it would have been a different series and it would not have worked half as well. Callan needed a murky enclosed oppressive atmosphere. Everything in Callan looks a bit tawdry. Even Hunter’s office is tawdry. Callan’s flat is tidy (he’s an ex-soldier) but it’s depressingly stifling.

Callan produced numerous spin-offs - a series of original novels and short stories by James Mitchell, a movie in 1974 and a TV movie (Wet Job) in 1981. The universal opinion among those interviewed for the documentary (an opinion which I share) is that the 1974 movie doesn’t quite work. By necessity it had have a bit more action, it had to have a slightly more expansive look and inevitably it lost some of the claustrophobic feel. As a result it’s not quite Callan. It’s by no means a bad movie but it doesn’t have the flavour of the TV series.

To be honest the only original Callan novel I’ve read, Russian Roulette, isn’t quite authentic Callan either. Mitchell was obviously trying to do something slightly different with the novels, which is fair enough, but I really think that the whole Callan concept worked better on TV. Which is logical. James Mitchell created the idea specifically for television, to take advantage of the things that television does particularly well.

If you’re a Callan aficionado then you’ll want to see Callan: This Man Alone. Network have released it in a three-disc pack with new transfers of several of the black-and-white episodes.

You might also want to check out my reviews of Callan: The Monochrome Years, the original version of A Magnum for Schneider, the Richmond File season four story arc and the Callan movie.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Dragnet (1954, movie spin-off from the TV series)

The first television series to spawn a spin-off movie (an actual feature film, not just a few episodes of the series cobbled together) was Dragnet. The Dragnet movie, directed by Jack Webb, was released in 1954 and it was a very substantial hit.

The movie differs from the TV series in being an inverted mystery and of course being in colour with a fair bit of location shooting but overall it captures the tone of the series remarkably well. And of course it features the stars of the TV series. If you're a fan of the series you'll want to see the movie.

I reviewed the television series right here a couple of years ago. My review of the movie can be found here at my Classic Movie Ramblings blog.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Miami Vice, season one (1985)

Miami Vice erupted onto television screens in 1985 and nothing would ever be quite the same again.

This is Miami in the 80s. The decade of greed. The place is swimming in money, almost all of it drug money. It has corrupted everything. Nobody can be trusted. Not the cops, not judges, nobody. If you’re a cop you especially can’t trust cops. The town is filled with local cops, state cops, DEA agents, FBI agents and you don’t know who they are. That drug dealer you just busted might be a DEA agent. None of these agents communicate very well.

There were traces of cynicism in earlier American cop shows but Miami Vice does mark a major cultural change. In this series the cynicism is front and centre. The two protagonists, Crockett and Tubbs, are part of the War On Drugs and it’s a war that is obviously being lost. Crockett and Tubbs know that the war is being lost. They’re still willing to keep fighting but they don’t expect to win. They’re honest but they’re surrounded by people who are dishonest and those dishonest people have all the power and all the money.

Other American cop shows had tried to take a realistic (or at least semi-realistic) view of crime and the difficulties in combating it but with Miami Vice for the first time we have a major network TV series suggesting that maybe it’s all futile.

Miami Vice was very much a return to the world of film noir. People were and sometimes still are misled by the sunshine and the glamour and the glitz and don’t notice how very film noir it is. Visually it is the polar opposite of film noir, but content-wise it’s pure noir. In fact the visuals increase the noirness of the series by contrasting the superficial glamour with the corruption and degradation lurking just beneath the surface.

The series actually has a lot in common with the neo-noir films of the 60s and 70s, especially Polanski’s Chinatown. There’s the same mix of money, glamour, sunshine, decadence and corruption.

Miami Vice is very cinematic. This was obvious enough at the time but it’s even more obvious now when you get the chance to see it on a big-screen TV in high definition. The aim had been to bring feature film production values to television and that aim is achieved. It was a very very expensive series to make and it was money well spent.

Miami itself is one of the stars of the show. It doesn’t just give Miami Vice a different look to the typical cop show shot in LA, it gives it a whole different vibe, making the most of the art deco architecture and the light.

Compared to earlier American cop shows Miami Vice upped the ante when it came to violence, both the quantity of violence and the intensity. It also broke new ground for a network TV cop show in terms of emotional intensity and complexity.

What makes Miami Vice so distinctive is that it combines gritty realism with extreme glamour and it combines extraordinary cynicism and pessimism with extreme style and high fashion. That was a totally new combination for viewers.

It’s also a weird blend of ultra-realism and fantasy. Crockett and Tubbs are ordinary street cops and they’re scrupulously honest (that’s what gets them into so much trouble) and yet they can obviously afford to spend astronomical amounts of money on clothes and Crockett drives a Ferrari for crying out loud.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas make a naturally great team. They get good support from Michael Talbott and John Diehl as Detectives Switek and Zito (who add some lighter touches) and from Saundra Santiago (as Gina) and Olivia Brown (as Trudi), also Miami Vice cops. Edward James Olmos as the dour but oddly sympathetic Lieutenant Castillo rounds off the regular cast.

The cinematic visual style, the radical use of colours (you can’t make a show dark and edgy with a colour palette of pastels but Miami Vice does it anyway and makes it work), the cutting-edge fashions and the music elevated the series to immediate iconic status.

Episode Guide

The pilot episode, Brother’s Keeper, starts with two prologues in which two cops get murdered in drug busts gone wrong, one in New York and one in Miami.

James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) has been working on a case for months targeting a big-time cocaine dealer named Calderone. Everything seems to go wrong on this case, including his partner getting killed. Now Crockett has a new problem. The black dude he just tried to bust is actually a New York cop named Rafael Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). Or at least he says he’s a cop and he seems to be a cop. Tubbs suggest that he and Crockett should team up, which Crockett thinks is a terrible idea. Crockett is already offended because Tubbs has suggested that everything is going wrong because someone in Miami Vice is on the take. The reason Crockett is so angry is that he also thinks one of his fellow Miami Vice cops is crooked but he doesn’t want some cop from out of town pointing this out.

Crockett has relationship problems as well. Like most TV cops he has a failed marriage behind him and he doesn’t know if he’s still in love with his wife or with someone else he’s met. At least his relationship with Elvis is pretty good. Elvis is his pet alligator. With alligators (unlike cops) you always know where you stand.

Elvis provides the moments of occasional comic relief which are needed in a series which could otherwise be a bit too relentlessly bleak.

Heart of Darkness takes Crockett and Tubbs into the porn industry but there’s murder involved as well. Even worse, the Feds are mixed up in it. There’s an FBI agent undercover but he’s stopped reporting in. Maybe he’s gone over to the other side. Maybe he hasn’t. Should Crockett and Tubbs trust him or not? It’s a tough judgment call. A fine episode.

Cool Runnin' starts with a very minor drug deal that takes an unexpected turn when three Jamaicans let loose with machine pistols. Then a couple of cops fall victim to the same gang. The only lead that Crockett and Tubbs have is a fast-talking small-time crook-turned-informant named Noogie who might be able to lead them to the killers. There’s lots of action and there’s lots of comedy courtesy of Noogie but this is Miami Vice so there’s a serious subtext as well. Crockett cuts some corners and pus his informant’s life in unnecessary danger but he feels bad about it and is prepared to take risks to try to get Noogie out of the jam he’s put him in in.

Crockett is being established as a complex character - he can be ruthless and he can be caring as well, sometimes at the same time. Crockett is good at his job but it exacts a toll on him. And Tubbs is starting to find out about the demands of the job as well and how he and Crockett are in a world where being the good guys is complicated. An excellent episode.

Calderone, the big-time coke dealer with whom Crockett and Tubbs clashed in the pilot episode, is back in the two-part story Calderone’s Return. He’s back and he’s hired an international hitman to thin out the competition. And Crockett is on his hit list. There’s lots of suspense and lots of emotional drama as the pressure gets to Crockett and he starts jumping at shadows. He’s also going through a divorce at the time so he’s under extreme emotional stress. Lots of action and gunplay with a memorable shoot-out at the end.

In the second part the action moves to the Bahamas and the boys soon find themselves very very alone. And this time it’s Tubbs who is under the emotional pressure as he discovers just how unpleasant it is to have to use someone you’ve become involved with. Miami Vice switches back and forth between glamour, extreme violence and emotional drama and does so very effectively. This is another story with a strong film noir vibe and it’s a superb episode.

In One Eyed Jack Crockett tries to help out an old girlfriend with gambling problems and finds himself up against a very nasty operator named de Marco but even worse he’s in the sights of Internal Affairs. Crockett and Tubbs come up with a good plan to set up a gambling kingpin but good plans don’t always run smoothly. They also get to meet their new lieutenant and he’s quite something. Another good but dark episode.

In No Exit Miami Vice are trying to nail an illegal arms dealer (played by Bruce Willis). He’s a particularly repellant individual but the Miami Vice cops discover that there are even sleazier people they have to deal with and those even sleazier people work for the Federal Government. A very good but very cynical episode.

The Great McCarthy combines offshore powerboat racing and drug smuggling, and murder. Crockett gets to prove that there’s nothing he can’t do - we discover that he can beat anybody at snooker and he can beat anybody at powerboat racing. Tubbs gets emotionally involved with the drug smuggler’s girlfriend and Crockett is convinced his friend is going to get hurt. Not a bad episode with plenty of cool powerboat racing scenes.

In Glades a vital witness in a drugs case, Joey Bramlette, disappears. Crockett and Tubbs have to find him. He’s gone back to his home deep in the Everglades. They do find him and they discover that the drug lord he was going to testify against has kidnapped his daughter. Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in very unfamiliar territory and up against about twenty Colombians armed with automatic weapons, and all they have is half a dozen gun-toting hicks. And they’re going to have to launch a full-scale assault on the house in which the little girl is being held. The stage is set for an epic gun battle, which is both tense and outrageously over-the-top. There’s quite a bit of fun in this very good and very offbeat episode.

Give a Little, Take a Little sees Crockett and Tubbs up against a crime kingpin who runs both the narcotics and prostitution rackets. Sonny thinks he’s got a lucky break when an informant gives him some key information but Sonny ends in jail when he refuses to name the informant. Gina (the fellow Miami Vice cop with whom Crockett is romantically involved) goes undercover as a hooker and finds out just how you sometimes have to go to maintain your cover. An episode wth plenty of plot but the main focus is on the price that has to be paid for catching big-time criminals. An excellent episode.

In Little Prince the messed-up son of a fabulously rich tycoon is busted for possession of heroin. Crockett is convinced the kid, Mark Jorgensen Jr, could lead them to some major dealers. That expectation is more than fulfilled, but not in the Way Crockett and Tubbs anticipated. This is a character-driven episode and if you can get past the unsympathetic nature of those characters there is some depth to the story. And again Crockett and Tubbs find themselves having to do things they’re not entirely comfortable with. Not much action at all but still an interesting episode.

Milk Run starts with a couple of dumb kids who think they’re going to get rich bringing in drugs from Colombia. Crockett and Tubbs think they’ve managed to scare some sense into the kids but it’s never that simple. Crockett and Tubbs are also investigating an explosion in a coke lab which they think can lead them to a couple of drug king-pins. Crockett is still worried about those two dumb kids, and he has reason to worry. An excellent episode with Crockett showing his compassionate side.

Golden Triangle is a two-parter. It starts with a case involving corrupt cops shaking down prostitutes. That leads on to a bigger case, involving a robbery. The puzzle about the robbery is figuring out what the robbers were trying to steal. When Crockett and Tubbs do figure that out it leads them on to a third and much bigger case. A case which is very personal indeed to their boss, Lieutenant Castillo. A case with roots going back five years, to the jungles of South-East Asia. It’s a case that doesn’t just involve organised crime, it involves the biggest organised crime operation of them all, the CIA. An excellent episode that displays the series’ characteristic disdain for federal agencies such as the FBI and the CIA. I don’t normally like episodes of cop shows in which a cop has a personal stake in a case but in this instance it’s handled without resorting to clichés.

In Smuggler's Blues someone is killing drug smugglers after kidnapping members of their families and it’s obvious that the someone doing the killing works in law enforcement. He could be in any branch of law enforcement. Crockett and Tubbs pose as drug smugglers which takes them to Colombia where they get lots of aggravation but their troubles get even worse when they get bak to Miami. There’s a mail-biting ending. A very good action-packed episode.

In Rites of Passage Diane Gordon has just arrived in Miami where she gets introduced to the world of cocaine and high-class prostitution by a sleaze named Traynor. Diane’s sister Valerie (Pam Grier), a new York homicide cop, has also arrived in Miami looking for her kid sister. Things get complicated for Tubbs since Valerie is an old flame and the romance is soon rekindled. Saving Diane is not going to be so simple. She doesn’t want to be saved. The episode then takes several dark turns. Pam Grier’s guest starring spot is a definite highlight, there’s some good comic relief from Switek and Zito posing as pest exterminators but mostly this is a very dark, and very effective, episode. It’s also one of those Miami Vice episodes that suggests it’s all pretty futile. If they bust Traynor another Traynor will immediately take over. As long as there’s the lure of glamour, drugs and money girls like Diane are going to be seduced by those things.

The Maze
is a hostage drama that starts with a cop getting killed. Crockett and Tubbs think that another cop’s recklessness was to blame. The hostages are held in an derelict apartment building that is like a maze and that’s only the beginning of the difficulties facing the police. And Tubbs is in the building with the hostages. This episode gives us a close look at the seamy side of Miami. An excellent episode.

Made for Each Other is an episode you’ll either love or hate. Crockett and Tubbs hardly appear at all. It’s almost totally focused on Switek and Zito and on informers Noogie and Izzy. And it’s totally focused on comedy. Considering how grim and downbeat Miami Vice could be it wasn’t an entirely bad idea to throw in a comic relief episode very occasionally. What matters is that it is genuinely very funny. Switek’s relationship with his new girlfriend Darlene and the theft of the cement mixer are highlights. I liked this one.

In The Home Invaders Robbery asks Vice for help in investigating a series of violent home invasions. The head of the Robbery detail, Lieutenant Malone, was Sonny’s old boss and mentor. Castillo is convinced that Malone is making a mess of the case. Tubbs doesn’t appear in this episode and Castillo gets to do some action hero stuff. A very good episode with Sonny not being sure where his loyalties lie. Don Johnson and Edward James Olmos really shine in this one, with Crockett being all emotion and Castillo being all ice-cold control.

Nobody Lives Forever involves both love and death. It’s Crockett who’s in love, but maybe that’s not a good idea. He has to try to find a way to make it work without risking both personal and professional disaster. And there are three punks with a death wish but they’re likely to take a lot of other people with them. There’s a lot of romance in this episode but there’s plenty of mayhem as well. A pretty good episode as Crockett has to figure out what he really wants in life.

Evan is a misfire. It’s an example of what happens when political messaging is more important than a coherent plot. On a case Crockett encounters a former colleague who is in deep cover. There’s lots of angsting about their shared guilt concerning the death of another cop. It’s all too contrived and just doesn’t ring true.

Lombard is the season finale. Gangster Albert Lombard has been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. He’s been granted immunity from prosecution, which means he can’t incriminate himself, which means he can’t take the Fifth. He’s going to have to talk. If he talks he’s a dead man. If he doesn’t talk he faces five years in prison for contempt. He can’t win. And the Mob has decided not to take the chance that he will talk. They’ve put out a contract on him. Miami Vice have to keep him alive. This episode is Miami Vice at its best - slightly unpredictable, lots of violent action and fascinating character interactions between Lombard (who becomes a more and more complex character) and Crockett and Tubbs. It ends the season in fine style.

Final Thoughts

Miami Vice redefined the American cop show the way The Sweeney had redefined the British cop show a decade earlier. It made every other cop show on television suddenly look stodgy and quaint. A great series. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

The Hound of the Baskervilles (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson)

The Hound of the Baskervilles was made for Soviet television in 1981, as part of their excellent The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson series. It was directed by Igor Maslennikov, who co-wrote the script with Yuri Veksler.

It is of course one of the many many adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous 1902 novel. It’s a two-part adaptation with a total running time of 154 minutes.

The setting is the moors in Devonshire. Sir Charles Baskerville seems to have become the latest victim of the terrifying beast that roams the moors, the hound of the Baskervilles. It’s a family curse dating back to the mid-18th century.

The adventure begins for Holmes and Watson when a worried young physician, Dr Mortimer (Evgeniy Steblov), turns up at 221B Baker Street with an old manuscript. Dr Mortimer holds grave fears for the safety of the heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry Baskerville, newly arrived from Canada. Holmes of course does not believe in supernatural hounds but he has caught the scent of a fascinating mystery.

Dr Watson is despatched to the Baskerville estate while Holmes attends to certain investigations of his own in London. Watson discovers that Sir Henry Baskerville is a wild-eyed eccentric but Baskerville has a certain charm as well. Watson is used to dealing with eccentrics (Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not eccentric) and he has a vast store of tolerance for odd behaviour.

The death of Sir Charles Baskerville certainly appeared to be another manifestation of the ancient family curse.

Of course like Holmes the viewer will be inclined to look for a more rational explanation. There are lots of romantic complications that could provide clues. There’s the passionate love between Sir Henry Baskerville and Miss Beryl Stapleton, the sister of Baskerville’s neighbour Mr Stapleton. There’s a Mrs Laura Lyons, the slightly disreputable daughter of an eccentric and remarkably litigious old man named Frankland. Mrs Lyons may have been involved in an intrigue with Sir Charles Baskerville.

Old Frankland is crazy enough to be involved in anything.

There’s also an escaped murderer roaming the moors. Sir Henry’s butler Barrymore is definitely hiding something. Dr Mortimer might be hiding something as well. He’s a pleasant young man but he seems rather anxious.

As for the hound, we don’t see it until the very end but we hear it. The final reveal of the beast is extremely effective and genuinely horrifying.

As in the previous episodes I’m struck by the amount of care that went into this production and in particular by the determination to avoid a studio-bound look. The London street scenes were shot in the old quarter of Riga. I have no idea where the scenes of the moors were shot but those scenes perfectly capture the required feeling of loneliness and desolation. And the sense of brooding menace. In some ways the locations used actually work better than authentic English locations would have worked - they’re so wonderfully cold and bleak. It’s almost like we’re on an alien world.

The sets and the costumes are sumptuous. No opportunities are missed to make the look of the production interesting. It’s one of the most visually impressive Hounds of the Baskervilles that I’ve seen. This is a superbly crafted production with some stunning cinematography - not just by 1980s TV standards but by feature film standards.

This adaptation has more of the feel of a feature film than of a TV series. The production values are high.

I don’t think there’s much I can add to what I’ve already said in a previous review about the wonderful performances of Vasily Livanov as Holmes Vitaly Solomin as Dr Watson. Solomin is the best Watson ever. Due to the nature of the plot Vitaly Solomin has to carry a large part of the first part single-handed and he has no difficulties at all in doing this. This is a Watson we enjoy watching, rather than being impatient for Holmes to make his re-appearance.

Nikita Mikhalkov’s performance as Sir Henry Baskerville is amusing. Sir Henry has lived for most of his life in the United States so I assume Mikhalkov was trying to make him seem like a brash American. Actually he comes across as a crazy Russian! But he certainly makes the character seem wildly eccentric and yet rather good-natured.

As is usual for this series the supporting performances are very strong with Aleksandr Adabashyan as Baskerville’s butler Barrymore (a man who seems to know a great deal more than he is willing to reveal) and Irina Jupchenko as Beryl Stapleton being especially good. Beryl may also know more than she is prepared to disclose.

What’s most impressive here is the gloomy, spooky, doom-laden very gothic atmosphere. The moors are pretty frightening even without a supernatural beast lurking in them.

One interesting feature of this adaptation is that whenever a letter or a document of any kind plays a part in the story it is always in English - presumably an attempt to give the production a more English flavour.

This is an adaptation that is not only more faithful to the plot of Conan Doyle’s story it is also more faithful than most to the feel. Readers in 1902 who were familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories would have been aware that this was not going to be a novel of the supernatural. It is a detective story. Sherlock Holmes is a man who takes the mysterious and gives it a rational explanation. Consequently this production downplays the supernatural elements. Neither Holmes nor Watson believes for one second that this is really a case of a spectral beast from the underworld. This is murder, with very real human motives.

If you’re going to watch this production (and you should) it’s better to start with the earlier episodes (which I’ve reviewed here) which will give you a chance to really get a feel for the performances of Livanov and Solomin.

There are those who regard this as the best ever adaptation of Conan Doyle’s novel. They may well be right. It’s certainly one of the very best and it might even qualify as my personal favourite. It’s not a slam-bang fast-paced version. The story unfolds in a leisurely manner allowing plenty of time to immerse the viewer in the atmosphere. Very highly recommended.

The Russian DVD offers a very good transfer with optional English subtitles.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Police Woman season two (1975-76)

Police Woman was not the first American TV series about a female undercover cop. That honour goes to Decoy, made way back in 1957. It was also not the first American TV series to feature an action heroine. Honey West beat it to the punch by a decade. Police Woman, which ran on NBC from 1974 to 1978 does however qualify as one of the iconic 70s American cop shows. And it did pave the way for other female-dominated action series such as Charlie’s Angels.

The first season was released on DVD by Sony in 2006 and it’s now difficult (and expensive) to acquire. The Shout! Factory releases of the second and subsequent seasons are much easier to find without breaking the bank which is why I’m reviewing the second season rather than the first.

It was Rio Bravo back in 1959 which launched Angie Dickinson’s career in a major way but it was Police Woman that made her a household name. As Sergeant Pepper Anderson (no-one agrees on what the character’s real first name is) she’s sexy and brash and tough and fairly hardboiled. She does have her vulnerable side and in one season two episode she’s on the point of quitting because she’s tired of being set up as a target all the time.

Earl Holliman plays her boss (and friend) Sergeant Bill Crowley with whom she has a mostly good professional relationship.

Dickinson and Holliman work very well together. There’s some flirtatiousness, some conflict and considerable respect between the two characters. It’s a slightly more complex relationship than you normally get in a cop show.

The other regular members of Crowley’s squad are Investigator Pete Royster (Charles Dierkop) and Investigator Joe Styles (Ed Bernard).

The first season gained a reputation for being quite violent, an aspect that was apparently toned down for the second season which went to air beginning in late 1975.

The show’s major selling point is of course Angie Dickinson. She was forty-three at the time the show premiered but she was still pretty glamorous. Her considerable sex appeal was heavily featured. And she certainly has charisma.

Police Woman does make some attempt to deal with the particular problems Pepper faces being both a cop and a woman. Not so much the professional challenges (Pepper is good at her job and no-one ever questions her competence) but the more interesting emotional challenges. Personally I think Decoy handled this aspect in a more interesting and complex way but Police Woman does at least try to address these issues.

Pepper Anderson is not a super-woman. She’s a well-trained professional who works as part of a team and her job is not to take on heavily-armed bad guys single-handed. A police woman who tried that would soon end up dead. A male police officer who tried that would soon end up dead as well. Successful cops don’t take stupid risks.

No 1970s American cop show is all that realistic - in the 70s the people who made TV shows understood that too much realism made for boring television. But Police Woman is, by the standards of the genre, at least not too wildly unrealistic.

Of course the emphasis here is on action (whereas for real-life cops the emphasis is on routine policework) and Police Woman provides plenty of satisfying action. This is not a Dragnet-style series about ordinary cops just doing ordinary routine police work. 70s audiences expected plenty of thrills.

Police Woman was considered to be quite violent by the standards of 70s American television. Of course if you compare it to its exact contemporary in Britain, The Sweeney, then Police Woman looks ridiculously tame.

If you want a realistic emotionally powerful TV series about a police woman, watch Decoy. If you want a fun action-packed series about a police woman then Police Woman delivers the goods.

Episode Guide

Pawns of Power is a pretty cynical season opener. Pepper is undercover at a moving casino (it’s in the back of a semi-trailer) but when the cops make the bust they discover they’ve blundered into an investigation by a high-powered state organised crime squad run by the oily Moulton (Roddy McDowall). Pepper has to stay undercover to take the place of one of Mouton’s people who’s been murdered, but Moulton doesn’t care how many people he puts at risk as long as he gets the big bust he wants. He’s quite happy to sacrifice Pepper and she knows it and she doesn’t like it one little bit. It’s a routine story but the depth of the cynicism makes it interesting.

In The Score druggies are dying from speed that is just too pure and too potent. The speed is coming from a new lab but the nice little dealing setup starts to go wrong when a courier absconds with the merchandise because she’s decided that dealing drugs is wrong. This episode is a bit of a mess, trying too hard to capture the drug culture atmosphere.

Paradise Mall is an improvement. A serial killer is targeting blonde women and he leaves the bodies wearing bridal veils. There are several possible suspects, some decent misdirection and a twist ending. It’s a bit contrived but it works extremely well.

Pattern for Evil
involves an attempted Mob takeover of the garment trade. Pepper goes undercover, as a model naturally, which provides opportunities to have her running around in bathing suits. A solid episode.

In The Chasers Pepper gets knocked down by a dry cleaning truck. When she wakes up in the hospital she discovers, much to her surprise, that she’s retained a lawyer. She’s stumbled upon an ambulance-chasing racket. They don’t just take advantage of traffic accidents. They manufacture them. Pepper gets herself involved in order to get the evidence the cops need. The great Ida Lupino guest stars as an oily crooked social worker. It’s standard Police Woman stuff - Pepper right in the middle of things and getting herself into lots of danger, a decent enough script, some smooth villains and some action as the case turns into a case of triple murder. Another good solid episode.

Cold Wind opens with two guys who get shot to death as they arrive for work at a soft drink factory. There’s one promising suspect who has told the police a whole lot of lies and there’s another promising suspect whose car matched the description of one that was spotted leaving the murder scene. Pepper’s job is to get close to suspect number two. He’s a nice young man but a bit strange. There are some literary and artistic clues - a painting and a book, both called The Cold Wind which Pepper is pretty sure represents death. This above-average episode has a very nasty sting in the tail.

A parole officer is shot to death and in Above and Beyond Pepper goes undercover as a parolee. Parole officers tend to make enemies but this particular one was pretty popular. Pepper is offered a one-way trip to Mexico and the guy offering it could be the killer. This one gives Angie Dickinson the opportunity to be a bit hardboiled but she doesn’t overdo it. There are some obvious leads but after all any one of the guy’s parolees could have had some motive. There’s some decent misdirection, a very neat piece of deduction from a physical clue and at least one very good plot twist. A good episode.

In Farewell, Mary Jane the narcotics squad needs help. One of their informers, a former airline pilot named Klein (played by Lance LeGault of A-Team fame) has gone rogue and turned out to be a real bad guy after all and he’s crazy and dangerous as well. Crowley persuades a down-on-his-luck racing car driver to help out and the driver and Pepper pose as big-time dealers. There’s plenty of suspense and it’s a pretty good episode.

Pepper gets caught up in a bank robbery and taken hostage by a hillbilly gang who think they’re reliving some old movie in Blaze of Glory. Vern, the leader of the gang, wants to go out in a blaze of glory like Dillinger. Pepper manages to convince Vern and his brother Charlie Joe that she’s a hooker and that she’s on their side but Vern’s girlfriend Laurene hates Pepper at first sight. It’s a good action-filled chase episode.

In Glitter with a Bullet Pepper goes undercover as a reporter to investigate corruption in the record business. Tommy Donlevy is a big pop star but all is not well with Tommy. His friend and bass player Bobby died and the police suspect it was murder. Tommy’s band is very very 1970s - glitter and spangles. Tommy is being manipulated but he’s too crazy and strung-out to figure out what’s going on. There are some very nasty people around Tommy. If you believe this episode the record business in the 70s was an out-and-out racket, a world of sleazy deals and murder. It’s a bit silly but kind of money although it relies rather too much on clichés (including that old favourite of an attempt to kill the heroine by cutting her car’s brake line).

In The Purge Crowley shoots and kills a fifteen-year-old boy during a bungled raid on a warehouse. Crowley gets suspended and could face manslaughter charges. The sting that Pepper and a retired conman cook up to catch the bad guys is reasonably clever but the problem with this episode is that we’re supposed to be on the side of Crowley and the cops but they really don’t come out of the whole affair looking very good. The moral ambiguities needed to be explored a bit less simplistically but maybe prime-time TV in 1975 wasn’t ready for that.

Don't Feed the Pigeons is about a particularly cruel gang of bunco artists preying on old ladies. Pepper infiltrates the gang. The scam is complicated and requires a detailed explanation which is slotted in reasonably effectively. Personally I always enjoy stories about complex con games so I liked this episode.

In The Hit we have gangsters and boxing, the world’s fattest bookmaker and the world’s most incompetent hitman. This hitman has made a mess of his last two hits but if he keeps trying maybe he’ll actually manage to kill someone. Pepper and Crowley and the squad have to try to make sure that doesn’t happen. A slightly odd but reasonably OK episode.

has what seems to be a simple plot but it gets complicated. A mute girl named Glenna is worried about the disappearance of her sister Beth. She thinks Beth’s husband Julian may have murdered her. Pepper gets involved in the case because she knows sign language. The key evidence might possibly be found at Julian’s cabin on Frost Lake. Pepper stumbles across a clue that suggests that what is really going on maybe be something quite different. A good performance by the underrated Joanna Pettet as Glenna. Quite a good story, with the audience initially having no more idea than Pepper about where the truth lies.

A gang rumble leads to the shooting of a cop in Incident Near a Black & White. This one is a bit contrived and predictable and is mostly notable for featuring a dangerously incompetent senior police officer, and for the suggestion (unusual for 1975) that the police sometimes behave badly. We also get to see Crowley and Pepper in uniform dealing with routine incidents (there’s even an Adam-12 reference).

The Melting Point of Ice starts with a diamond robbery in which everything goes wrong. A jeweller is killed, one of the robbers is shot and then when they stash the uncut stones they get ripped off by a couple of amateurs. Pepper goes undercover selling coffee and burgers from the back of a truck - you won’t be surprised to learn that she sells a lot of coffee and burgers. The cops have to find those hapless amateurs before the professionals do. It’s nothing special but it’s a solid episode.

Pepper goes into business in The Pawn Shop. A well-organised burglary gang has been ripping off the rich folks of Lambert Hills. Crowley has the bright idea of setting up a pawn shop which will appear to be a front for a fencing operation. It’s not a bad story but the presence of Joan Collins as the guest star makes it a must-see. She plays a movie star who takes a shine to Crowley.

In Angela Crowley’s squad makes a big heroin bust but the cop, Larry, taking the evidence to the preliminary hearing manages to lose the evidence. The question is whether he lost it deliberately. No-one wants to think Larry is corrupt but the signs seem to point that way. Especially when it’s discovered he’s been dating a mobster’s daughter. An OK story, and darker and more hard-hitting than the average Police Woman episode.

Wednesday's Child is a pretty routine episode. A cat burglar is facing a long stretch in prison if he doesn’t coöperate. The big problem for the cops is two witnesses who have to kept alive. It’s all just too predictable.

In Generation of Evil clean-cut college kid Steve Glass (played by Barry Williams, yes Greg Brady from The Brady Bunch) is kidnapped. The reason he’s been kidnapped is that he’s the grandson of gangster Morrie Hirsch. The kidnappers want two million dollars. Hirsch won’t co-operate with the police but they have a lead, which leads to Pepper going undercover as a Vegas showgirl so she can get close to sleazy casino operator Lou Malik (played with style by Robert Vaughn).

The most interesting thing about this episode is Morrie Hirsch. He was once a real big shot but now he’s a tired old man and he’s ailing and the only thing he cares about is his grandson. Now he discovers that he has no friends and nobody wants to help him out and he can’t get his hands on the two million and his world is falling down about his ears. He might have been a feared gangster once but now he’s an oddly sympathetic character, too stubborn to ask the police for help but increasingly desperate. So despite a routine plot this is quite a good character-driven episode.

Double Image starts with a blackmail racket, a variant of the old badger game, but it leads to murder. One of the participants in the blackmail scam offers to assist the police and Pete Royster is assigned to protect her. Unfortunately Pete gets much too emotionally involved. This really becomes the main focus of this episode (and it’s a very good episode).

In Mother Love a baby is kidnapped. The identity of the kidnapper comes as a surprise and the bad news is that she’s crazy and she’s prepared to kill to keep that baby. And she does kill. A reasonably entertaining episode with a nice double-cross twist.

Task Force: Cop Killer is a two-parter and it suffers from many of the typical problems of two-part episodes. It takes forever for the actual story to get going. Pepper is persuaded to apply for a paramilitary-style police motorcycle task force. I have no idea why a detective sergeant would want to do something like that. The last thing a detective would want to do is to go back in uniform and go back to issuing traffic citations. Pepper falls for a hot shot motorcycle cop named Matteo. While Matteo is romancing Pepper they’re being watched by a peeping tom, and Matteo know who the peeping tom is.

The motorcycle task force has a few run-ins with a biker gang. There’s a suspicion that a state senator’s daughter who ran away from home a few years earlier is riding with the gang. Finally, after an hour of pointless riding around on motorcycles the plot starts to kick in when a cop gets run over by a van.

The second part is a marginal improvement. There’s an obvious suspect, and there’s a dead girl’s body found in a ravine. Naturally Pepper manages to get herself kidnapped yet again. As a one-hour episode this one might have worked but there’s not enough plot for two hours and the motorcycle task force stuff is a bit creepy. A disappointing end to an otherwise pretty decent season.

Final Thoughts

Police Woman holds up pretty well and it has Angie Dickinson’s star power. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

The Veil (1958)

The Veil was an ill-fated American horror anthology TV series made by Hal Roach Studios in 1958, with Boris Karloff hosting and also acting in most episodes. Unfortunately after ten episodes had been made Hal Roach Studios went broke. The series was consigned, unaired, to the vault.

This series was obviously influenced by the success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents which had demonstrated that an anthology series could be very successful indeed. While Alfred Hitchcock Presents concentrated on mysteries, always with a sting in the tail, The Veil takes an overtly supernatural approach. It's mostly not full-blooded horror but there is never any doubt as to the supernatural nature of the events which unfold.

It’s difficult to judge this series fairly since it didn’t go to air and the producers therefore did not have the opportunity to refine the formula or to discover which types of stories worked and which didn’t. The Thriller anthology seres which Karloff hosted a couple of years later was very successful because in that case the producers spent the first half of the first season trying to get that formula right. As a result Thriller moved more and more into outright horror territory because the first few experiments in full-blooded horror proved to be so popular. Had The Veil gone to air the weaknesses would presumably have been quickly ironed out.

As a result The Veil is rather erratic in quality. The potential was there but it needed to become more focused. Several episodes have great build-ups but they suffer from a failure to provide a totally satisfactory pay-off.

One thing you need to keep in mind is that this series is not aiming for visceral horror. It’s aiming for a subtle sense of mild spookiness. It mostly doesn’t deal with terrifying events but with unsettling inexplicable events. Most of the stories are to some degree left hanging and I have a suspicion that this is quite deliberate. The aim is not to resolve things in a definite way but to leave the viewer scratching his head in puzzlement, rather than scared out of his wits. We’re not supposed to be sure whether what we’ve seen is supernatural or not, in fact we’re not supposed to have any idea as to what the explanation really is. So we get stories that are suggestive, that are hints of odd happenings, rather than fully-developed stories.

Whether this was a wise strategy for the series to adopt is something we’ll never know. Since it didn’t go to air and remained unseen for many years there’s no way of knowing how viewers at the time would have reacted.

The result is that The Veil has an odd kind of feel that you’ll either like or you won’t. If you accept it as a series of atmospheric vignettes concerning strange occurrences then you’ll find that it has a certain appeal, but you do have to accept that the plots usually don’t go in for the kill in the way you’re going to expect.

Karloff tells us in his episode introductions that these are are all stories based on actual events, a claim that the viewer might choose to take with a grain of salt although in some cases it might well be true.

For most viewers the biggest attraction of this series is that Karloff appears in every episode as an actor and gets to play a wide variety of rôles, sometimes villainous, sometimes comic, sometimes as hero or victim. It’s a fine showcase for Karloff’s acting versatility.

The Veil remained lost in obscurity until the 1990s. Since then there have been several DVD releases. The Something Weird DVD release that I have (which is still available) includes the ten episodes that were known to exist at the time. The original backdoor pilot episode, made for another anthology series, and one further episode later came to light.

Episode Guide

Vision of Crime takes place in the late 19th century. A man is murdered in his shop. The somewhat disreputable Albert Ketch was seen running from the scene so he is quickly arrested. It all seems straightforward but it isn’t, because at the exact moment that Hart Bosworth was slain his brother George, hundreds of miles away on a ship bound for France, had a vision of the murder. He didn’t see the killer clearly enough to identify him but he did see enough to know that it was not Albert Ketch. Somehow George has to convince the police that Ketch is innocent but if he tells them he had a vision they’ll think he’s mad. Even his fiancée Julie will think he’s mad.

This episode boasts an impressive cast. There’s Boris Karloff as the blustering and rather inept police sergeant, Willmore, who takes charge of the case. There’s Patrick Macnee from The Avengers as the much more efficient Constable Hawton. And there’s Robert Hardy (who went on to fame as one of the stars of All Creatures Great and Small) as George Bosworth.

The first problem with this episode is the uneasy mixture of spookiness and broad humour. The second problem is the failure to develop the spookiness enough. And thirdly, it just doesn’t have any real suspense or mystery. It’s all too obvious and the resolution falls flat. It’s certainly a very disappointing start to the series.

Girl on the Road
, written and directed by George Waggner, is a major improvement. John Prescott is driving along near Lookout Point when he sees a girl who seems to be having car trouble. It turns out that her name is Lila and she’s run out of petrol. He offers to give her a lift so that they can get some petrol but he takes her to a bar instead. He’s obviously very interested in getting to know her and while she’s understandably cautious (his intentions seem a bit obvious) she seems at least mildly interested in him.

Then things take a slightly strange turn. She gets very frightened, for no obvious reason. She wants to leave, alone, but she does agree to meet him later that night at Lookout Point. They do meet, and things take a much stranger turn after an elderly man named Morgan Debs (played by Karloff) turns up and tells Prescott that Lila won’t be turning up, although she already has turned up. He tells Prescott that he should forget the girl.

Prescott has however become rather obsessed. He is determined to see Lila again. He is sure that she is in trouble. His efforts to find her again lead him to an unexpected discovery about the nature of her trouble.

The payoff is rather low-key and doesn’t have the punch that modern viewers will expect but it works reasonably well. The whole story has a nicely mysterious atmosphere with Prescott becoming increasingly bewildered, and increasingly unsure about what Morgan Debs is up to. I liked this one.

Food on the Table is the tale of a sea captain from 18th century Massachusetts. His most recent voyage almost ended in disaster when the ship was overrun by venomous snakes. Two crewmen died but now the ship has reached port safely. You would think that Captain Elwood would be anxious to see his wife Ruth but he isn’t. He dislikes and resents her (for reasons that will later be revealed). She turns up at the Mariners’ Club when he is carousing with his seafaring buddies. They’re just about to sit down to a splendid dinner when Ruth, n a jealous rage, hurls all the food onto the floor. When they get home we discover that one of those venomous snakes survived the voyage and is lurking in the captain’s luggage.

What happens next isn’t as obvious as you think it’s going to be. The captain’s marital difficulties will however shortly come to a head. And the supernatural will of course make an appearance. It’s a reasonably spooky tale. Karloff’s performance as Captain Elwood helps a good deal. This is not a bad little story.

In The Doctors Karloff plays an elderly Italian doctor, Dr. Carlo Marcabienti, in a small and very backward village. He is much-loved by all. A little girl gets very sick but there’s a fierce storm raging so the doctor’s son Angelo (also a doctor) has to attend the girl. The girl’s family won’t let him treat her because they don’t believe he’s a real doctor.

This is not a horror story. It’s simply a tale of an odd occurrence which seems to defy explanation. This seems to be the kind of story that was going to become a speciality of this series. The downside is that you don’t get a real horror pay-off but the upside is that you get an atmosphere that is mysterious and unsettling. I quite enjoyed it but going for quirky stories with a subtle hint of the supernatural was a risky strategy that would have left some viewers disappointed.

The Crystal Ball is another episode that is too subtle for its own good and again we don’t get a fully satisfying pay-off. Edmond is a young writer in 19th century Paris. His fiancée Marie gives him the big brush-off (she’s going to marry his rich publisher instead because she wants money) but she gives him a parting gift - a crystal ball. She thinks it’s just a harmless bauble but she’s wrong. Edmond sees things in the crystal ball, things that could have disastrous consequences. But consequences for whom?

This is another story that really needed a clever twist at the end (of the kind that Alfred Hitchcock Presents always provided) but we don’t get it. It’s another episode that feels strangely unfinished.

In Genesis an old farmer is dying. He has two sons. One, John, is a devoted son, the other (Jamie) stole some money and ran off to the big city. Now Jamie has returned in the hope of getting his inheritance. It all depends on the old man’s will. Or in this case wills - he seems to have made several wills. The vital clue is connected to a passage in the Bible and John and Jamie are modern versions of Esau and Jacob. It’s another story that involves the supernatural without being a horror story and once again the script needed to provide a bit more punch.

Destination Nightmare is about a father (played by Karloff) who wants his son to follow in his footsteps and take over his aviation business. He’s worried that his son doesn’t have what it takes. The tensions between them rise when the son almost crashes after seeing a vision. Maybe it has something to do with the father’s nightmares about the war. This episode is much more fully developed than most and pays off pretty nicely whilst still retaining that slight edge of uncertainty that was the trademark of the series. A very good episode.

Summer Heat
sees The Veil doing a Rear Window, or at least that’s the initial impression. A mild-mannered New York shipping clerk named Edward Page sees a murder committed in the building opposite his apartment. When the police arrive they find that the apartment in which Page claimed the murder happened is vacant. Page ends ups in Bellevue but the psychiatrist there (played by Karloff) is convinced that Page isn’t crazy. And then we get the twist. This is quite a decent episode.

The Return of Madame Vernoy is set in India and deals with reincarnation. Santha Naidu is a young woman who not only believes that she had a past life, she remembers that past life vividly. She was a woman very happily married to a M. Armand Vernoy. She died in 1927, shortly after the birth of her son. A year later she was reborn as Santha Naidu. M. Vernoy is now a man in late middle age but he is still very much alive. Santha can’t wait to tell him the good news that his beloved wife has been reborn. They can pick up their life together where it left off.

Things don’t go as smoothly as she’d expected. Her son Krishna, now a young man (and played by a very young George Hamilton), refuses to believe that Santha is his mother. M. Vernoy is thrown into an emotional turmoil. He doesn’t know what to believe. This is a fairly typical episode in the sense that there’s no horror, just something that is inexplicable and puzzling and disturbing for everyone involved. It is, typically for this series, very low-key. But it’s not a bad episode.

Jack the Ripper was actually made by a different studio but was acquired by Hal Roach Studios. They added the Boris Karloff intro and outro but Karloff does not appear in this episode. Walter Durst is a professional clairvoyant. Both he and his wife are convinced that his powers of clairvoyance are real. Walter has a dream in which a woman is murdered and the next day the body of Jack the Ripper’s second victim is found, precisely at the spot foretold in Walter’s dream. Walter goes to Scotland Yard but they simply laugh at him. And then he has another vision. This story has quite a similar feel to the episodes of The Veil so including it in that series made perfect sense, and was a nice way of saving some money. Quite a decent episode.

Final Thoughts

The Veil isn’t scary but it does offer a slightly unsettling slightly spooky feel which was what it was aiming for. If that doesn’t bother you then you’ll probably like it. If you’re expecting full-blown horror you’ll be disappointed. Either way it’s reasonably interesting and probably worth a look, especially if you’re a hardcore Karloff fan.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

The Six Million Dollar Man: The Solid Gold Kidnapping (1973)

The Solid Gold Kidnapping, which went to air in late 1973, is the third of The Six Million Dollar Man TV movies. Like the previous movie it was directed by Russ Mayberry. This one was written by Alan Caillou and Larry Alexander.

As in Wine, Women and War this is very much Steve Austin in James Bond mode. The pre-opening credits action prologue is rather Bondian. Even the theme song (sung by Dusty Springfield) is a bit Bondian. And as in Wine, Women and War there’s a lot of rather risqué sexual innuendo which Lee Majors tries to deliver in as Bondian a manner as possible. There are exotic settings (thanks to the copious use of stock footage) and there are three Bond girls (sorry, Austin Girls). And one of them is a beautiful but deadly Contessa. There’s even a casino scene. I keep expecting the hero to say, “The name is Austin. Steve Austin.” And then to order a vodka martini, shaken not stirred.

This time Steve is up against an international criminal organisation, very much like SPECTRE. Very very much like SPECTRE. They specialise in kidnapping high-ranking diplomats and governments officials for immense ransoms. Their target this time is not just a very senior American diplomat (named William Henry Cameron), he is also a man who knows all of America’s military secrets. He should be worth every penny of the billion dollar ransom they’re asking. Yes, a cool billion. In gold.

That action prologue is actually a very good action set-piece in a ruined Mayan temple.

The really cool idea in this movie (and it’s a very science fictional idea) is the method the OSI uses to find the kidnappers. Genius scientist (who also happens to be young, attractive and female) Dr Erica Berger (Elizabeth Ashley) has developed a technique for transplanting brain cells in rats to give one rat the memories of another rat. She hasn’t tested it on humans yet but now she’s going to have to do just that - with herself as the guinea pig. She transplants brain cells from one of the kidnappers who was killed into her own brain. Now that she has that man’s memories she should be able to direct Steve to wherever the kidnappers have stashed Cameron. Which means she’ll have to go with him, offering an excuse for Austin to have a beautiful woman with him on his mission. And for some hints of an emotional attachment. Steve sees Erica as being a bit like him - a human experiment. And the experiment might threaten her humanity.

The US Government agrees to the ransom and the gold is sent by freighter to Rome, with (weirdly) just one guy to guard it.

I thought Lee Majors was fine in the first two movies but I like him more in this one - he seems just a bit more relaxed and more confident. And a bit more convincingly Bond-like.

Elizabeth Ashley gives an effective enough performance, especially when she has to portray the trauma of having someone else’s sometimes unpleasant memories. Luciana Paluzzi is fine as the Contessa, a typical Bond movie female. Richard Anderson is suitably ruthless as Steve’s boss Oscar Goldman, a man who has no qualms about sacrificing people to get the job done.

John Vernon was always good at being cold-blooded and ruthless and he makes a good chief villain. Not quite Bond villain stature but still pretty menacing.

There’s quite a complex plot here and it has some very neat twists. The twist with the gold is very clever. The subplot with Erica possibly losing her mind is handled well without unnecessary histrionics. Steve Austin gets quite a few opportunities to demonstrate his super powers. The opening action set-piece is the best but the speedboat chase is good and there’s some decent suspense.

Wine, Women and War is perhaps just a little better but The Solid Gold Kidnapping plays very well as a cut-price Bond movie with some nifty science fiction elements. This is pretty entertaining stuff and it’s highly recommended.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Decoy (1957)

Decoy was a syndicated 1957 cop drama that has considerable historical interest, being the first American cop series to feature a woman as the lead character. It’s also unusual for American TV of that era in featuring some actual location shooting with some great New York street scenes.

Officer Patricia “Casey” Jones (Beverly Garland) is a New York policewoman. She doesn’t have a regular assignment. Like a lot of her fellow policewomen she gets assigned to various squads when they need a female officer to go undercover.

The series only lasted for one season (of 39 episodes). The obvious explanation for this is that it tried to be fairly realistic. Policewomen didn’t spend most of their time beating up bad guys or shooting them. When assigned to plain-clothes work they just went undercover and tried to blend into whatever environment they found themselves in, either patiently gathering evidence or equally patiently for a criminal to take the bait (the policewoman being the bait). Which means that it’s a much less action-packed series than something like M Squad. The insistence on not making Casey an unrealistic action heroine was admirable but would not have helped the ratings.

It’s not hard to see why none of the networks were interested - they would have had no idea what to do with a series such as this which is too unconventional and low-key to fit neatly into the cop show genre.

The show’s biggest asset is without a doubt Beverly Garland, an extraordinarily talented actress who should have become a major star but it just never happened for her. The format of the series gives her plenty of opportunities to stretch her acting wings. An undercover policewoman like Casey had to be an actress of sorts, constantly playing different rôles which of course means that Garland gets to vary her performances (and she does so very skilfully).

She also has to be tough and she has to be sensitive and occasionally she has to be vulnerable. All of which Garland manages with ease.

It also has to be said that Beverly Garland is very glamorous. And when she gets undercover assignments that require her to play up the glamour she’s very very glamorous indeed.

At the end of every episode Casey breaks the fourth wall and gives us a spiel about the work of policewomen. This sort of thing (along with voiceover narration) was a common but irritating feature of a lot of 50s cop shows. Of course the producers needed the coöperation of police departments so the spiels occasionally sound like public relations releases.

The scripts are, on the whole, extremely strong and despite the half-hour format they have a lot more complexity than you might expect. They’re pleasingly varied - sometimes very dark, sometimes slightly whimsical. And on occasions they’re not afraid to address tricky ethical dilemmas.

It’s fascinating to compare Decoy to Police Woman. Police Woman is a wonderfully entertaining series but Decoy is more interesting, more psychologically complex, more realistic and more intelligent. It can be dark but it can be hopeful as well. And while Angie Dickinson has enormous charisma Beverly Garland is in her own way just as memorable.

Episode Guide

In Stranglehold a sailor has been murdered and a woman, Molly Orchid, has been picked up trying to pawn the dead man’s watch. The police think her boyfriend George did the killing but they know nothing about him apart from his name. It’s Casey’s job to befriend Molly and find out who George is. It turns out to be a much more dangerous job than she expected.

The Red Clown is an episode that offers a clue as why this series only lasted one season. Casey is trying to track down an errant husband so that he can be forced to pay child support. Casey has visions of reuniting father and daughter but finds that putting families back together isn’t so easy. It’s not a bad story. In fact it’s very good. I admire the series for showing a policewoman working the sort of unglamorous everyday cases that a real policewoman would have been involved in. It’s just not a cop show story. There’s no crime, no arrests, no guns, no-one is in any danger. It’s just a cop trying to bring a father and a daughter back together. When you compare it to contemporary cop shows like Dragnet or M Squad you can see why a lot of viewers were going to be alienated or mystified. In TV in that era a series that did not fit genre expectations was going to have trouble finding an audience.

In The Phoner Casey has to trap a man making obscene phone calls to a woman named Betty. It could be more dangerous than it sounds, for both Betty and Casey. An effectively tense episode.

To Trap a Thief starts with Casey on a routine assignment, trying to catch pickpockets. Then gunfire breaks out. It’s the aftermath of an armed robbery. The robbery itself is far from routine. $17,000 was stolen but the thieves only had $7,000 on them when apprehended. What happened to the other $10,000? Suspicion falls on veteran cop Frank Torrino. As part of the investigation Casey poses as a blackmailer but what she uncovers is not what she expected. It’s a solid story but what makes this a typical (and very good) Decoy episode is the compassion for human weakness.

Dream Fix
deals with a junkie, a young woman who might lead the cops to a big-time dealer. Casey goes undercover as a nurse at a rehab hospital. Another typical Decoy episode with the emphasis on the human side of police work.

The Savage Payoff deals with sports betting and rigged basketball games. Casey goes undercover to befriend a player whom the cops suspect is involved. He’s a nice boy and Casey hates to think he might be mixed up in anything dishonest. Another story in which right and wrong is not something straightforward.

Casey finds herself behind bars in Deadly Corridor, posing as a prisoner to solve the murder of an inmate. She might find the answer but she might not like it. This one gives Beverly Garland a chance to do her tough girl thing. Not a bad story.

In Escape into Danger Casey arrives home after a long shift to find that one of her neighbours has committed a murder. Mary Waleski has killed her violent alcoholic husband and now Mary has fled. But there’s something really important that Mary doesn’t know, so Casey has to find her. A good tense story with an interesting twist - the police are hunting a woman they know to be innocent.

Casey is launched into high society in Necklace of Glass. She’s the bait in the trap for the man responsible for a series of jewel robberies. It’s the kind of job she’s done before but you can’t always be sure things will go smoothly. A good episode which gives Beverly Garland the chance to show how glamorous she can be.

In Scape Goat Casey screws up badly. She and a male detective had to go to the airport to take a woman into custody (the woman had been extradited from Canada). Casey followed her instincts and took the cuffs off the woman. Casey was wrong, but she was also right. Her instincts told her correctly that this woman was no ordinary criminal. Now Casey and her colleague are in race against time to prevent a tragedy. This is another Decoy episode focused on the emotional pressures that can lead a person to commit a crime. And it’s another solid episode.

In Two Days to Kill Casey has to act as bodyguard to a 18-year-old named Selma who is a vital witness against her hoodlum boyfriend. It’s only for two days but it’s a long two days for Casey. She and Selma are just not going to get along and Selma is going to be trouble. A darker episode, and a good one.

Queen of Diamonds
takes Casey undercover as a photographer in a night-club. Her job is to find evidence that will break an unbreakable alibi. There’s a complex romantic triangle involved as well, and conflicting loyalties that could play out disastrously. There are complications from the past and the past can haunt the present. A very good episode.

My Brother's Killer starts with Casey getting a very lucky break. An incident that is absurdly trivial could lead to the capture of a man wanted for his part in an armed hold-up that ended in murder. That lucky break isn’t as straightforward as it seemed and the result is a remarkably dark, brutal suspense-filled episode with some real film noir atmosphere. A truly excellent episode, the best of the series so far.

In Bullet of Hate a teenage girl is driven to murder her cruel aunt, or at least that’s how it looks. Casey isn’t so sure. She’s spotted quite a few clues that tell a different story but she’ll have to move carefully to find evidence to support her suspicions. There’s certainly plenty of festering hate in this overheated melodramatic episode. Decoy is usually a bit more subtle than this.

Casey infiltrates a major shoplifting gang in Death Watch. Her job is to find the man behind the operation, which she does only she finds out that he is involved in a lot more than shoplifting. She also has to deal with a punch-drunk young ex-fighter. This episode deals with evil but as usual with some touches of complexity. Unfortunately it’s an episode that should be suspenseful but the suspense falls a bit flat.

In Odds Against the Jockey there’s murder at the race-track. This one has a decent mystery plot and Casey is charmed by a loveable rogue who may be a killer. It’s fairly light-hearted but stylish and slick and overall it’s a very good episode.

A model is murdered in the garment district in New York in Dressed for the Kill. She wasn’t a very popular model. Casey goes undercover as a model to find the killer (there’s no point in having a series about a beautiful policewoman unless there’s at least one episode in which she has to pose as a model). The mystery in this one isn’t too challenging but it’s a decent enough episode.

In An Eye for an Eye Casey goes undercover as a junkie after a female junkie is murdered. The police want the murderer and they want to break up the narcotics ring that was supplying her. It turns out the dead girl’s brother was involved in the drug ring. It’s a story of loyalty betrayed and it’s not bad.

The Challenger is a boxing story, dealing with mobsters trying to take control of a young boxer’s career. Casey gets involved when she encounters the boxer’s wife. The problem of course is that no-one in the boxing game is prepared to talk to the cops but Casey isn’t giving up. A reasonably good and rather dark episode and one which emphasises the difficulties the police face when people make the mistake of thinking they can deal with criminals on their own.

In Across the World an import-export business is dealing in more than just machine tools and the owner of the business is murdered when she finds out too much. Casey goes undercover as the new owner and finds herself in the middle of some complicated double-crosses. And she gets beaten up for her trouble. Not a bad episode.

The Showplace
deals with a bar that is a front for prostitution although this is implied rather than stated outright. One of the girls has been murdered. Casey has to find the killer, preferably without getting herself killed. A decent episode.

Reasonable Doubt is interesting. The police have one suspect for an armed robbery and they want to nail the guy’s brother as well. Casey has to find the evidence to prove the brother’s guilt but she’s not comfortable with the lies and manipulation in which she has to engage in order to do so. It’s rather surprising for a cop show in 1957 to be so honest about the methods of the police. There are several layers of betrayal in this extremely good episode.

Night of Fire is an arson case. The chief suspect is one of the office girls, a former patient in a mental hospital. This one gets just a tiny bit preachy but there’s some good stuff with alibis.

In Saturday Lost Casey has to help a woman who has lost her memory. Her memory loss is real enough but maybe she’s lost her memory because there’s something that she really doesn’t want to remember. A good story.

In High Swing a drug overdose leads the police to a robbery racket and, as so often in tis series, we’re dealing with criminals who are tragic rather than evil. And Casey discovers once again that when you work undercover you get inside people’s lives. A very good episode.

A high-stakes gambling club is the target in Earthbound Satellite, but the operators are very clever indeed. Casey is of course undercover but she’s without backup. There’s some fun 1950s high-tech stuff in this story and it’s another case which for Casey has a rather bitter-sweet ending. A very good episode.

In The Sound of Tears a rich young man is shot by a woman in Central Park. She really wanted to make sure of the job - she shot him six times at close range. A cop on the scene let her get away. There is one clue - a dachshund which may belong to the murderess. Another story that combines mystery and emotional depth.

Ladies Man
starts interestingly - a woman carrying a cardboard box on the subway, but it’s a deadly box. And the man who gave her the box has to be found. There’s a good tense climax in a cabin in the woods. A pretty good episode.

Cry Revenge starts with a woman reporting threatening phone calls from a pair of hoodlums. Casey is assigned to protect her and discovers there’s a complicated family drama going on as well. There’s a daughter who wants revenge and there are illusions that would be better off being shattered. The police case against the hoodlums collapses but that family drama will have unexpected consequences. There’s a crime story here but it’s the family dynamics that really matter, with Casey remaining mostly in the background. Another emotional story but it works.

In The Gentle Gun-Man a cheap hood named Danny gets killed in a bungled robbery but it’s his gun the police are interested in. Lots of similar guns have been used in recent robberies - guns that have been so cleverly doctored that they are completely untraceable. Casey poses as Danny’s widow to try to find the source of these guns and she learns that sometimes criminals can be not just sympathetic - they can be really really nice people. But she still has her job to do. A very good episode.

On the surface Night Light is about upscale jewel thefts but it’s really about the complex relationship between a father and his son. Nick (Martin Balsam) is a crook and a loser but he loses his son. Unfortunately that’s going to be very bad for the kid in the long run. Casey wants to solve the case but as usual she’s more interested in the human cost of crime. And that’s really what this series is all about. A very good episode.

In Fiesta at Midnight Juan Ortega is fresh off the boat from Puerto Rico and now he’s facing a murder charge. He has an alibi but the police can’t find the girl who can confirm it. All Juan can tell them is that her name is Maria and she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. The alibi stuff is handled well and the clue that leads Casey to the solution is clever. A good episode.

The Lieutenant Had a Son is another domestic drama episode. A soldier is looking for the son he abandoned five years earlier. He finds him but the result is a heart-breaking tug-of-love story. These are the stories that Decoy did very well, accepting the complexities of domestic situations in which nobody is actually the bad guy but there seems to be no way to resolve the situation with someone getting hurt. As so often Casey doesn’t see her job as being to arrest people but to persuade them to do the right thing. A fine episode.

In Shadow of Van Gogh someone is producing high quality forgeries of Van Gogh paintings. The forgeries are so good that it’s almost as if they’re being painted by someone who really thinks he is Van Gogh. Which proves to be the case. But Casey’s job is not to find the forger but the man behind the forgeries. This is a reasonably successful attempt to explore the strange world of art. Maybe it’s a bit too respectful of that world but it’s more successful in getting into the mind of a struggling artist. A good episode.

In Tin Pan Payoff Casey discovers that the music business is a world of glamour and excitement but also a world of heartbreak, treachery and murder.

Blind Date starts with a woman involved in a minor traffic accident. The police find $125,000 in her suitcase. The woman was supposed to deliver that money somewhere and now Casey is going to deliver it instead. It’s a good plan, if it works. Another solid episode.

The Come Back is a racetrack crime story involving counterfeit betting slips. Casey thinks she’s figured out how it’s being worked but she has to go undercover, as a crooked cop. This is another character-driven drama with Casey finding as so often that the case revolves around all-too-common human weaknesses. A good story.

First Arrest is a semi-comic episode. Casey is talking to a young policewoman who has just made her first arrest and feels bad about it so Casey recounts the slightly farcical and slightly sordid story of her own first arrest and how it made her feel that she was using and manipulating people (which in fact she was but that’s what the job is all about). An OK episode at best.

The Lost Ones starts with Casey visiting girl just out of reform school. Casey hopes she’s going to be OK now but it’s not to be. Elsa has shot and killed her violent, drunken father. And now she’s armed and on the run. This is a dysfunctional family drama, with the question being whether the dysfunctionality is going to destroy the whole family. As usual with Decoy the emphasis is not on Casey solving a crime but on her attempts to help people put their lives back together.

Final Thoughts

Decoy is hampered a little by the half-hour format but it still manages to be an emotionally grown-up and very engaging character-driven cop drama. And Beverly Garland is terrific. Very highly recommended.