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.