TV mysteries


PAINTED LADY. Joint production of Granada Television (UK) and PBS (US). Broadcast in the UK, December 1997. Two-part mini-series, approximately 3 1/2 hours without commercials. Broadcast in US on Masterpiece Theatre, April-May 1998. Helen Mirren, Iain Glen, Franco Nero, Michael Maloney, Lesley Manville, Iain Cuthbertson, Barry Barnes, Michael Liebmann, John Kavanagh. Writer: Allan Cubitt. Director: Julian Jarrold.

   From what I’ve read about this particular production, this was designed to be a showcase for Helen Mirren’s acting talents after she’d finished five years of playing DCI/Supt. Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect.

   And display them she does, with Mirren first appearing as Maggie Sullivan, a more-or-less involuntarily retired folk-rock singer staying in Ireland in the lodge house of her benefactor, Charles Stafford, then after his murder, transforming herself into a (supposedly) wealthy Polish countess Magdelena Kreschinskaá in order to enter the fast-paced world of fine art in London.

   Her objective: to track down the only painting that was stolen in the aborted robbery that turned tragically to Stafford’s death. Supporting her with the funds to begin the masquerade are her half-sister and her husband, both notables in London’s art circles, and agreeing to her plan only with amusing doubts. Her purpose: to obtain the money Stafford’s son owes a local Irish gangster, and the reason the robbery was staged in the first place.

   The actors, the photography and the setting are all top notch — a statement that includes Franco Nero as a Italian art dealer whose path crosses that of the countess in more ways than one — a fact that accounts for the rave reviews this TV mini-series has gained from most, but not all sources.

   And therein I also am in the minority. Those of us who prefer stories that make sense, that aren’t wrapped up in five minutes at the end after watching a slow and deliberately paced work of television for well over three hours, and yes, dare I say it, more bloody violence than I expected to see in a very elegant tale of high art and sophisticated people.

   The latter could be forgiven, though, if some effort had been into making a coherent whole out of a lot of very nice pieces, and I do mean mean nice. Some scenes are extremely well done. I wish I could be more positive about this, but in all honesty, I can’t.

THE LADY VANISHES. BBC, UK, made-for-TV movie. First broadcast: 17 March 2013. Tuppence Middleton, Keeley Hawes, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Sandy McDade, Pip Torrens, Stephanie Cole, Gemma Jones, Benedikte Hansen, Jesper Christensen, Selina Cadell, Tom Hughes, Alex Jennings. Screenplay: Fiona Seres, based on the novel The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White. Director: Diarmuid Lawrence.

   The original version of this film, the one done by Alfred Hitchcock back in 1938, is generally considered to be a classic, and with one or two reservations, I think rightly so. There was an earlier remake of the movie in 1979 with Cybill Shepherd, Elliott Gould and Angela Lansbury, but I’ve never seen it. (I’ve been tempted, but should I?)

   The basic story is this, in both the Hitchcock version and this most recent one. A young girl gets on a train somewhere in eastern Europe, having been hit on the head before boarding. With her as a companion is a lady she’s just met who’s also heading back to England, after having worked as a governess for a wealthy family in that country for several years.

   After having tea together, they go back to their compartment, the girl falls asleep, and when she awakens, the lady is gone. She has vanished completely, without a trace.

   The other passengers in the compartment claim they have never seen her, including a sinister looking baroness. Even worse, no one else on the train says they saw her either. What comes next is the crux of the tale, including a good-looking young man who comes to the assistance of the even better-looking young woman, and eventually even comes to believe her.

   The Hitchcock version is often described as a comedy-mystery, and I’ve never felt all that comfortable with many of the scenes that that are meant to be amusing. In contrast, this latest made-for-TV version is fairly serious all the way through. No Charters and Caldicott, for example, the two potty British gentlemen who claim not to have seen the missing woman on the grounds that if there is a delay, they will not get home in time for some important soccer matches.

   In their place this later version does have two dotty ladies who need to get home to attend to their roses, but their later role in the movie is negligible, unlike Charters and Caldicott.

   The underlying plot, the reason for this elaborate charade, is slightly different in the two films, and I think the later one is the better one. In neither movie does the conspiracy make sense, however. How could the perpetrators be sure that everyone else on the train would have reasons to say the had never seen the lady?

   The landscapes in the second film are more lovely (Croatia, supposedly), the scenes on the train are better filmed, as the protagonists make their way up and down the corridor. Truth be told, though, the movie may rely a little too often on visuals, leaving the viewer (at least this one) wondering on one or two occasions what happened, or why.

   The ending epilogue is a bit lame in both, so in that regard the two stories come out even. I’m glad to have seen the second. The players are all fine, although none were known to me at all before a watching. I hope this isn’t out-and-out heresy, but when it comes down to a final summing up, I enjoyed this film more than I did Alfred Hitchcock’s version, mostly because of the sinister, less humorous approach, which I suspect is closer to the book. (I’ve not read it. I wonder how many people actually have?)

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


THE INVESTIGATORS. CBS/Revue Production/MCA Studios, 1961. Cast: James Franciscus as Russ Andrews, James Philbrook as Steve Banks, Mary Murphy as Maggie Peters, Al Austin as Bill Davis, Asher Dann as Danny Clayton, and June Kenny as Polly. Guest Cast “The Oracle” (12 October 1961): Lee Marvin, John Williams, Audrey Dalton.

   Today the CBS TV series The Investigators has been forgotten except for fans seeking the lost work of director Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy). I have been able to find only one surviving episode of the series and tragically most of the credits for the episode “The Oracle” are missing (including the writer and director credits). Like many of the forgotten TV series of the past, information about The Investigators is incomplete and misinformed.

   The Investigators told the story of a major investigation firm that worked for various insurance companies around the country (or maybe the world). Investigators, Inc. was run by Russ Andrews and Steve Banks and located in New York. Among the staff of investigators were Maggie Peters, Bill Davis and Danny Clayton. The firm also employed a receptionist named Polly Walters.

   Current information about the series is wrong (oh so so very wrong) when it comes to the character of Maggie Peters. She was not a secretary or some Girl Friday occasionally helping the men with the cases. She was a full time licensed PI and equal to Bill and Danny. She was referred to as “one of our investigators” and treated as an equal to Bill and Danny.

   Fiction female detectives have existed for nearly as long as their male counterparts, but there has been a notable shortage of woman as licensed PI on TV. I have looked at television’s female PIs before. Until an earlier example is uncovered — The Investigators (October 1961) — Maggie Peters is TV’s first license PI predating Honey West (1965).

   Considering Mary Murphy’s resume (The Wild One, The Desperate Hours), especially compared to male stars James Franciscus (Naked City) and James Philbrook (The Islanders) at the time, it should not surprise that Murphy received equal billing. While the episode I have of the series is missing most of its credits, it does have its opening theme and credits for the series stars. First is James Franciscus name and side profile of the actor’s face, then James Philbrook, then Mary Murphy and finally the title The Investigators.

   The fall of 1961 was not the time to be a crime drama. The FCC, after radio’s payola and TV game show scandals, was getting more and more involved in local stations renewals and networks programming. Network executives and TV studio producers were spending more and more time in front of Congressional hearings defending its programs such as ABC’s The Untouchables and NBC’s Whispering Smith.

   In the summer of 1961 the possibility of government getting involved in the programming of the public airways had become a real threat to the networks. As the studios worried about the bottom line and the networks covered its butt, it would be the action and crime dramas of the 1961-62 Season that paid the price.

   “The Oracle” was The Investigators’ second episode and aired October 12, 1961. In the episode the staff was divided up for two cases. Steve and Bill remained behind to deal with another case while the episode focused on the case worked by Russ, Maggie and Danny. Russ leads the team to Los Angeles to check out Nostradamus, a West Coast prophet who is very successful convincing rich women to donate to his cause. An insurance company hires Investigator, Inc. to check out Nostradamus before one of their clients gives him a quarter of a million dollars.

   Miscast Lee Marvin (M Squad) played Walter Mimms, a small time drifter who all women fall in love with at first sight. In a nice twist, older conman Joseph Lombard (John Williams, Dial M for Murder) cons and manipulates Walter turning him into a front for a big time con. But Walter’s power over women was also his weakness as he fell for the women as they fell for him. Walter was convinced he was in love with the latest mark, Constance Moreno (Audrey Dalton), the woman our detectives were hired to protect.

   Constance loves Nostradamus but after a visit from Russ and Maggie, she tests his love and because of Lombard’s orders to Walter he fails her test and she leaves him taking her first check with her. Lombard then kills Constance for the check (and the trouble she is causing with Walter) telling Nostradamus she committed suicide over him. As Nostradamus grows more and more unstable, Maggie, backed up by Russ and Danny, goes undercover.

   While James Franciscus and James Philbrook turned in their usual professional but nothing special performances, Mary Murphy was excellent as female PI Maggie Peters. The character of Peters reminded me of Della Street (Barbara Hale in Perry Mason) or Casey Jones (Beverly Garland in Decoy), women who are respected professionally by men while remaining feminine.

   The script showed signs of great potential with the nice twist of the con man being conned, the depth of the character Walter Mimms, and the interactions between Walter and Lombard. But the script had problems most likely caused by the anti-violence times and the limitations of 1961 television.

   In “The Oracle” when Constance is murdered we hear her scream off camera but don’t learn what happened until the next scene when we are told she died in a “fall” out of her apartment window. Not seeing her death diluted the dramatic shock the scene needed.

   While much of the action took place off stage, too much of the exposition did as well. Instead of showing people following Nostradamus next mark, the undercover Maggie, and how Nostradamus got his information to impress the mark at the séance, Maggie told Danny (and us) about it.

   Virtually all the information about The Investigators claims Joseph H. Lewis directed the series, so lets credit him for “The Oracle.” This episode benefited from Lewis creative use of the camera especially with forced perspective, a technique used by such director as Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File and Jerry Thorpe in Harry O.

   Most directors use a standard master shot to establish a foundation for the scene then cut to other angles to enhance the dialogue or action. The master shot is like looking at a theatrical stage from the audience. Now picture the left and right side move closer to each other and the characters and setting uses the space up and down (closer and farther from you) instead of left and right. The look can reduce the stagey look of the typical master shot by giving a feeling of more depth to the 2-D picture. Lewis liked to stay in the shot and let the characters interact and move around the set before isolating the characters with camera angles such as a close-up.

   In the scene where Lombard and his thugs kill Constance, there was a wide shot with Constance and Lombard near each other, behind Constance silently stood the two thugs. It was that framing of the four characters in forced perspective that gave the scene depth and its needed tension as the audience began to sense Constance was in danger despite what Lombard was telling her.

   Lewis’s creative camera work never distracted from the story instead he made the episode something CBS refused to let the writer do, he made the story visually interesting. Fans of his work are justified mourning the loss of this otherwise average TV series.

   The series aired from October 5, 1961 through December 28, 1961. The thirteen episodes were 60 minutes long and filmed in black and white. It aired Thursday at 9pm opposite My Three Sons and Margie on ABC and the last half hour of Dr. Kildare and Hazel on NBC. Once cancelled The Investigators would be replaced with Tell It to Groucho at 9:00 – 9:30pm and Mrs. G Goes to College (aka The Gertrude Berg Show) at 9:30-10PM.

   The Investigators is worth remembering for the work of director Joseph H. Lewis and giving TV its first female licensed PI Maggie Peters. However it, as many other action and crime dramas during the 1961-62 Season, was doomed by the changing times.

         Episode List:

“Murder on Order” (October 5, 1961)
“The Oracle” (October 12, 1961)
“New Sound for the Blues” (October 19, 1961)
“I Thee Kill” (October 26, 1961)
“Quite a Woman” (November 2, 1961)
“Style of Living” (November 9, 1961)
“In a Mirror, Darkly” (November 16, 1961)
“De Luca” (November 23, 1961)
“Death Leaves a Tip” (November 30, 1961)
“Panic Wagon” (December 7, 1961)
“The Mind’s Own Fire” (December 14, 1961)
“Something for Charity” (December 21, 1961)
“Dead End Man, The” (December 28, 1961)

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Shall we go over my homework assignment for last month? The 1949 live TV version of “Goodbye, New York” was interesting to watch and certainly captured the Woolrich mood of desperation. But the scenes that are the heart and soul of the story, the ones that take place on the street, on the subway platform, on the IRT train, in Penn Station — how could they possibly have been done live? Even with the help of silent film clips that gave the actors time to run from one set to the next, there’s no way this pioneering live teledrama could do justice to Woolrich. What a shame that the story was never adapted for a 30-minute filmed series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents!

***

   “Goodbye, New York” appeared in print at least four times while Woolrich was alive: first in Story Magazine (October 1937), then in The Story Pocket Book, ed. Whit Burnett (Pocket Book #276, paperback, 1944), later in EQMM for March 1953, finally, as “Don’t Wait Up for Me Tonight,” in the Woolrich collection Violence (Dodd Mead, 1958).

   I happen to have all but the first of these, and for some unaccountable reason I decided a few weeks ago to compare the texts of the three versions on my shelves and see what I could see. What I found was what I’ve discovered many times before: all sorts of interesting attempts to update the story as time went by.

   The first of these relates to home entertainment. In the Pocket Book version the female narrator says that figuring out precisely how deeply she and her husband were in debt “had given us something to do in the evening, in place of a radio.” Fred Dannay left this sentence untouched when he reprinted the story in EQMM, but in Violence the last phrase morphs into “in place of TV.”

   The next has to do with the price of a daily newspaper. In the Pocket Books version we read that “the morning paper only came to two cents a day….” In 1953 Fred changed this to “a few cents” a day, and Violence follows his change. Then comes the cost of a man’s suit. The narrator purchases one for her husband, paying for it with a $50 bill he stole from the man he killed, and the salesman in the Pocket Books version “returned with fifteen dollars change….”

   In the era of post-WWII inflation Fred knew that a suit couldn’t be bought in Manhattan for $35 and substituted “with the change…,” which is how the phrase appears in Violence five years later. (Could a suit be bought in 1953 for less than fifty bucks? Dunno.)

   Finally come a couple of alterations connected with the New York subway system. The fare in 1937 was five cents — as we know from the Woolrich classic “Subway,” which first appeared in 1936 as “You Pays Your Nickel” — and the woman puts two such coins in the slot, telling her husband “I’ll leave a nickel in for you….” In EQMM the nickel grows to a dime, and in Violence it becomes a token. Having just returned from New York, I can report that today you can’t enter the system without an electronic fare card, from which a staggering $2.75 is deducted for each ride.

   A bit later in the Pocket Books version we are told that a subway clerk “wasn’t obliged to make change for anything greater than two dollars.” Two-buck bills were still common back then. Fred changed “greater” to “bigger” but kept the dollar amount as it was. In Violence it’s cut to one buck.

   I also discovered two sentences in the Pocket Books version that didn’t survive into later printings. Penn Station is described as “The one place where they [the police] could count on anyone who wanted an out in a hurry showing up to get it.” Why Fred cut this is unclear. Perhaps because Grand Central Station was unaccountably ruled out? The second expurgated line comes after the woman watches her husband carefully deposit some trash in a station wastebasket. “God, neatness at such a time!” she thinks.

   Such are the joys of comparing different versions of the same story. With or without changes, I still think “Goodbye, New York” is one of Woolrich’s finest even though Suspense didn’t do justice to it.

***

   This column began with a TV drama from 1949 so shouldn’t it end with a novel from the same year? Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985) wrote something like 110 mysteries, under his own name and as George Bagby and Hampton Stone.

   Recently I pulled down Coffin Corner (1949), as by Bagby, which I’m sure I read decades ago but had forgotten almost completely. The body of a legendary athlete who in his diabetic declining years has been working as scout for a pro football team is found at the base of the team’s uptown home stadium, and medical evidence soon convinces Bagby’s series character Inspector Schmidt that he neither jumped nor accidentally fell off the stadium’s parapet but was murdered by a massive overdose of insulin.

   The rest of the book takes place in less than 24 hours and in one setting, a huge apartment atop the stadium which is surrounded by an even larger terrace complete with outdoor swimming pool and other athletic niceties, and the small cast of suspects includes the team owner, his wife, and various players and wannabees.

   The backstory which led to the central murder takes a bit of believing but I found the book highly readable, packed with insights into diabetes and pro football (which more than one character calls a racket) and with those unique sentences, long but not convoluted like Faulkner’s, which are a Stein trademark.

   Aaron wrote for half a century but never really hit it big. Many of his 110 novels were reprinted in paperback or as book club selections but none became movies or radio dramas and, to the best of my knowledge, only one made it to live TV. “Cop Killer,” based on the 1956 Bagby novel of the same name, was seen July 9, 1958 on Kraft Mystery Theatre, a 60-minute version starring the long-forgotten Fred J. Scollay as Schmitty and featuring Paul Hartman and Edward Binns. I remember watching this summer replacement series regularly but can’t recall whether I caught this episode.

   Beginning in 1946 after returning from service as an Army cryptographer, Aaron wrote four or five books a year, usually in a few weeks apiece, and spent much of the rest of his time traveling in odd corners of South America and other parts of the world, many of which show up in the novels published under his own name. In the early 1950s Anthony Boucher described him as the most reliable professional detective novelist in the country.

   I’ve been partial to his books since my teens and continue to revisit them now and then in geezerhood. I came to know him well in the Seventies, when both of us served on a University of California library board and he autographed many of his books for me. After his death I was invited, whenever I visited New York, to stay in the co-op on Park Avenue and 88th Street which he’d shared with his sister and her husband, and thanks to that invitation I enjoyed the unique experience of reading some of his late novels in the room where he wrote them. I still remember him fondly.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Thanks to being on the road – -among other places, in New York where I’ll attend the MWA annual dinner and find out if I’m going to be the proud recipient of a third Edgar — I need to hold this down to a mini-column. It’s an ancient tradition that when a professor has to miss a class or two, one leaves a homework assignment for the students. You’ll find mine in the next item.

***

   What an amazing age we live in! I never thought anything could be added to the checklist of adaptations of Cornell Woolrich stories from the golden age of live TV drama that appeared almost thirty years ago in my FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE. Now I’ve just stumbled upon a Woolrich-based teledrama that I had never heard of before.

   Not just a reference to it but the episode itself, and one whose origin was a Woolrich tale I had never known was adapted for TV. It’s available on DVD (SUSPENSE: THE LOST EPISODES, COLLECTION 3) and on YouTube to boot.

   “Goodbye, New York” was based on the first-rate Woolrich story of the same name (Story Magazine, October 1937). A Web write-up of the DVD describes it as evoking a mood of “grim…noir-esque despair,” which certainly makes it sound faithful to its source. Meg Mundy starred in the 30-minute drama, which featured Gage Clarke, Philip Coolidge and an unbilled Ray Walston.

   Like 90-odd other SUSPENSE episodes, it was directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989), who later helmed dozens of filmed episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. (Stevens died in his late sixties after being robbed and beaten by unknown assailants.) As shown on YouTube the episode doesn’t include an air date, but according to other Web sources it was the pilot for the series, broadcast on January 6, 1949, which apparently means that it’s the earliest TV version of any Woolrich tale.

   YouTube claims that Woolrich’s story was also the basis for the 1952 Hollywood feature BEWARE, MY LOVELY, starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino, but this is flat-out wrong; the literary source for that picture was Mel Dinelli’s “The Man” which, funnily enough, also first appeared in Story Magazine (May-June 1945).

   Here’s your homework assignment: When you’ve finished reading this column, watch the YouTube video and see if you agree that perhaps the earliest contribution to TV noir has been unearthed.

   If you have it handy you might want to read the Woolrich story too. It closes with lines that come as close as anything to capturing his world in a few words. “Two doomed things, running away. From nothingness, into nothingness….Turn back we dare not, stand still they wouldn’t let us, and to go forward was our destruction at our own hands.”

***

   There’s just space for a couple of bits of information that I promised to include this month, dealing with adaptations of John Dickson Carr for 60-minute broadcasts during the golden age of live teledrama. The first of these was seen on the CBS anthology series STUDIO ONE the night of January 7, 1952. “The Devil in Velvet” was directed by Paul Nickell from a teleplay by Sumner Locke Elliott based on Carr’s 1951 historical thriller of the same name. The stars were Whit Bissell, Phyllis Kirk and Joan Wetmore.

   Apparently there were no more hour-long Carr adaptations until more than six years later when another CBS anthology series presented a version of by far the best known and most popular Carr radio play, “Cabin B-13″ (CLIMAX!, June 26, 1958). Shortly after a newlywed couple board a luxury liner for their honeymoon cruise, the man vanishes along with the fortune his wife gave him as a wedding present.

   She reports his disappearance to the captain and is told that there’s no record of either herself or her husband as passengers and that what she claims to have been their cabin doesn’t exist. Heading the cast were Barry Sullivan (Dr. Edwards), Kim Hunter (Ann Brewster), Alex Nicol (Robert Brewster), Hurd Hatfield (Morini) and Sebastian Cabot (Capt. Wilkins). The original Carr radio play is easily available both in audio and script form.

***

   Apparently the last hour-long live Carr adaptation on American TV was aired on NBC’s DOW HOUR OF GREAT MYSTERIES, a short-lived series that aired once a month for seven months during the last year of the Eisenhower administration, by which time live TV drama was pretty much dead.

   Second of the seven episodes was “The Burning Court” (April 24, 1960). The adaptation of Carr’s classic 1937 novel of the same name was by Audrey and William Roos, who were well known for collaborating on whodunits as Kelley Roos. Paul Nickell once again directed. The cast boasted four top names: Barbara Bel Geddes (Marie Stevens), Robert Lansing (Edward Stevens), George C. Scott (Gordon Cross), and Anne Seymour (Mrs. Henderson).

   I can’t remember a thing about this show, probably because I was watching MAVERICK or something that night.

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


MRS. COLUMBO. NBC / Universal Television / Gambit Productions. 26 February 1979 to 9 March 1979 and 9 August 1979 to 6 September 6 1979; 5 episodes. Cast: Kate Mulgrew as Kate Columbo, Lili Haydn as Jenny Columbo, and Henry Jones as Josh Alden. Executive Producer: Richard Alan Simmons.

KATE LOVES A MYSTERY. NBC / Universal Television. 18 October 1979 to 6 December 1979; 8 episodes (one not aired). Cast: Kate Mulgrew as Kate Callahan, Lili Haydn as Jenny Callahan, Henry Jones as Josh Alden, and Don Stroud as Sgt. Mike Varrick. Executive Producer: Bill Driskill

        * Credits above from Variety reviews and website “Totally Kate.”

   Perhaps the most infamous TV mystery series ever made was MRS. COLUMBO. The story behind MRS. COLUMBO and KATE LOVES A MYSTERY is an epic farce of clueless decisions, confusion among the involved, and the ineptness of a troubled TV network that could not stop shooting itself in the foot.

   COLUMBO time on NBC was ending. As for why, that depends on who you are asking. Let the confusion begin!

   Variety in its review of MRS COLUMBO first episode “Word Games” (which can currently be viewed below) claimed Peter Falk had walked off the series to enjoy his growing theatrical career. But according to an article in American Film Institute (June 1979), Falk as well as COLUMBO creators Richard Levinson and William Link claim all were still interested in continuing the series. One point of view claimed NBC and Universal had grown weary of Falk’s demands and the rising costs of the series. Another view was NBC no longer wanted the series. Note, NBC was now run by the same TV network executive that had cancelled HARRY O before its time.

   It was the 1970s, a decade when the name Fred Silverman meant genius TV programmer. Silverman had run CBS while it was number one in the ratings. He left CBS for ABC and quickly made the network that had been the laughing stock of television since the DuMont network left the air and made ABC number one in the ratings. NBC hired Silverman in 1978 with hopes Freddie could go three for three.

   From all accounts it was Silverman’s idea to do a TV series featuring Lt. Columbo’s never seen wife. The AFI article linked above goes into great detail about what was happening in pre-production and the involvement of Link, Levinson, and Peter Fischer (the three who would end up creating MURDER SHE WROTE in 1984). A script was written, but the problem was who would play Mrs. Columbo.

   Silverman had turned ABC around by aiming its programs at the younger audience. So it was no surprise he preferred a younger actress. Silverman’s choices varied from Carol Wayne to Brenda Vaccaro. Vaccaro would have been my choice but she turned the role down and ended up doing DEAR DETECTIVE (CBS, 1979). As for Levinson, Link and Fischer, they wanted a woman Peter Falk’s age, mid-forties to fifties and ethic looking such as Maureen Stapleton or Zohra Lampert. Ugh.

   And that is why the series was doomed. Silverman never understood the magic of Mrs. Columbo was: she could exist in whatever form the viewer wanted.

   The network ordered a six-hour five-episode long mini-series pilot from Universal, the studio that produced COLUMBO. NBC would air the mini-series pilot during the 1978-79 mid-season then decide if it wanted to add MRS. COLUMBO as a weekly series for the fall 1979-80 season.

   The inverted mystery (where we know the killer and the drama is watching the detective catch the killer) is one of the hardest forms of television drama to write. Even COLUMBO run by Levinson and Link had scripts problems.

   NBC and Fred Silverman continued to show a lack of understanding of the creative process and quickly drove the people behind the success of COLUMBO off the project. The network would eventually turn over the production to Richard Alan Simmons who produced the final season of COLUMBO on NBC (1978) and would executive produce COLUMBO return to TV on ABC in 1989.

   The premise was not a bad one – a young mother tries to raise her child while her cop husband is always off screen. To fill her time she writes for a local throwaway newspaper and solves murders. But for the wife of our hero Lt. Columbo this was a terrible idea. The addition of the daughter ruined our view of the fun-loving marriage between two independent adults with their own lives but still devoted to the other.

   Not surprisingly the audience was curious and eager to see the mysterious wife of its favorite detective. The two-hour episode “Word Games” aired February 26,1979 on NBC Monday Night Movies and did well with a 34 share opposite ABC’s HOW THE WEST WAS WON (26 share) and CBS lineup of MASH (38 share), WKRP IN CINNANTI (33) and LOU GRANT (29).

   Robert Culp played a brilliant defense lawyer with a problem. He doesn’t love his wife, and she loves him too much. A divorce would destroy her, so he asks a killer he saved from a murder charge to kill his wife.

   And don’t think the plot can’t get worse. Mrs. Columbo had installed a new intercom system that picks up the intercom of an unknown neighbor (guess who). As Mrs. Columbo listens into her neighbors’ private conversations, she hears the lawyer and killer discuss the wife’s murder.

   All of the episodes of the mini-series are currently on YouTube minus opening themes and closing credits. “Word Games” is shown in two parts.

       and

   Much of the audience was not pleased. This was not the Mrs. Columbo they knew and loved. Beyond the fans feelings of disappointment and betrayal was the fact the show was not very good.

   “Murder is a Parlor Game” aired March 1, 1979 in its regular timeslot of Thursday at 10pm to a rating share of 27 opposite of ABC’s FAMILY 33 share and CBS’ BARNABY JONES 31 share. While “Word Games” finished 18th in the ratings that week, “Murder is a Parlor Game” was 45th.

   The audience had tried and rejected MRS. COLUMBO. The reported refusal of Peter Falk to get involved even in a guest appearance made it apparent one would hope to even NBC that the series link to COLUMBO was a mistake.

   And now the farce truly began. The mini-series pilot had ended. It was unlikely MRS. COLUMBO would be picked up for the fall season. In fact, according to the AFI article above, on March 8th NBC announced it had “dropped” MRS. COLUMBO. Did that mean the show was cancelled or at least in the terms of the day “not renewed”?

   But NBC was desperate for programs to fill its upcoming fall 1979-80 Schedule. Silverman decided to add KATE COLUMBO to the fall schedule in the same Thursday at 10pm time slot. There it would go up against ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’ BARNABY JONES.

   NBC decided to rerun MRS. COLUMBO in August and September. Why NBC reminded everyone of the mini-series hated by so many is probably the same reason NBC was in such ratings trouble.

   NBC continued down it epic path of self-destruction. This time thanks to its bungling promotional department who couldn’t decide on the series title and sent out promotional materials using the different titles (KATE COLUMBO or KATE THE DETECTIVE) and character’s name (Kate Columbo) for KATE LOVES A MYSTERY with character Kate Callahan. The promos can be seen here.

   By now the press was having too much fun with NBC bumbling behavior to not add public ridicule to the situation. And NBC press department helped. Note the name differences on promotional material continued into the run of KATE LOVES A MYSTERY.

   Without on air titles and credits it is difficult to confirm what changes, if any, were made in the production staff. But changes were made to the series. The most important was the change made in the mystery format as KATE LOVES A MYSTERY abandoned the inverted mystery used in COLUMBO and MRS. COLUMBO for the average action TV whodunit format.

   Kate divorced someone whose name is never mentioned and called herself by her maiden name Callahan. She and Kate Columbo shared the same young daughter and the same boss who now ran a daily newspaper Valley Advocate. The change that best showed how much the creative side tried to flush COLUMBO out of KATE LOVES A MYSTERY was the addition of Sgt. Mike Varrick (Don Stroud) as Kate’s police contact and potential boyfriend.

   The changes in the opening themes reflected the different styles of the two series – Kate Columbo as Mom and amateur detective in MRS COLUMBO versus Kate Callahan as Mom and serious reporter in action mystery KATE LOVES A MYSTERY.

       From MRS. COLUMBO episode “A Puzzle For Prophets”

       From KATE LOVES A MYSTERY episode “Feelings Can Be Murder”

       All of the KATE LOVES A MYSTERY are currently available to watch on YouTube minus its openings and closing credits.

   “Ladies of the Afternoon” was the first episode of the new weekly series with all the different titles and aired 10/18/79 opposite of ABC 20/20 and CBS Barnaby Jones.

   Fearless reporter Kate tries to uncover who is behind the group of housewives turned hookers and how it was connected to the murder of a women Kate knew from the PTA. How far away from COLUMBO is this show? How about a long pointless car chase with Kate and the cops to end the episode?

   Here is a link to the Variety review.

   Deservedly, KATE LOVES A MYSTERY quickly made itself home in the bottom ten of the ratings. In December (Broadcasting, 10 December 1979) NBC cancelled KATE LOVES A MYSTERY.

   Today there are some COLUMBO fans still in denial who claim Lt. Columbo’s wife has never been seen, that the series featured a woman married to another Lt. Columbo.

   But check out the NBC ads promoting the first three episodes of the mini-series pilot that left no doubt this was the Mrs. Columbo and wife of the character played by Peter Falk.

   However, despite NBC’s mishandling of the two series and popular character Columbo, we can claim the mini-series pilot failed and ended MRS. COLUMBO. While we can’t explain why Kate Callahan and Kate Columbo shared the same daughter and home we can see the intent of those producing KATE LOVES A MYSTERY (except for NBC which wanted it both ways) was to remove all COLUMBO connections from KATE LOVES A MYSTERY including Mrs. Columbo.

   Three episodes from the mini-series MRS. COLUMBO are available on DVD, “Murder Is A Parlor Game” is on COLUMBO COMPLETE THIRD SEASON, “Riddle For Puppets” is on COLUMBO COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON and “Cavier With Everything” is on COLUMBO COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON.

GET CHRISTIE LOVE! ABC, made-for-TV Movie,22 January 1974. Teresa Graves, Harry Guardino, Louise Sorel, Paul Stevens.. Screenplay: George Kirgo, based on the novel The Ledger by Dorothy Uhnak. Director: William A. Graham.

   I don’t have access to my copy of the book, and it’s been far too long for me to remember anything about the novel, but it’s fairly obvious that there’s been some changes made. Uhnak’s series character was the police woman Christie Opara, not Christie Love, and I’m sure she was white, not black. The police work in the book was “real life,” and the police work in the movie was “made for TV,” or in other words, sheer flights of fancy, more often than not.

   Which is not to say that the movie is not entertaining, for it is, and the “gimmick,” the surprise that makes the ending work, is probably the same in both the book and the movie – or why else use the book as the basis for the movie in the first place?

   I should start at the beginning. The villain, Enzo Cortino, is a drug dealer, whose activities are recorded, the police discover, in a ledger that Cortino’s girl friend, Helena Varga, keeps in her possession. Christie Love’s assignment, given to her by Captain Reardon, in pseudo-blustery fashion, is to get the ledger.

   Some general comments follow, more or less in the same order as they struck me while watching the film, which is available on DVD. While Graves had a limited range of acting ability, mostly smart to sassy, she is easy on the eyes and more-or-less convincing in close hand-to-hand (karate-related) combat with various of Cortino’s minions, one of whom goes over the balcony on the losing end of one of rough-house struggles she finds herself in.

   In one of the opening scenes, introducing her to the viewer, she is (of course) posing as a hooker in an attempt to nab a guy who’s been bad to prostitutes. One guy whose overtures she turns down calls her a nigger in frustration. Her retort, as she sashays off: “Nigger lover.” My jaw dropped.

   This was an era (1974) when cops were routinely called “pigs,” and so they are here. As a cultural artifact, this is a gem in the rough. The background music is typical 70s jazz, or what passed for jazz at the time, in suitably ersatz-Mancini fashion. It’s most noticeable during car chases and other moments of great importance.

   Christie’s own mode of transportation is a yellow Volkswagen convertible, and as soon as you realize that that’s her car, you begin to wonder if it will survive the movie. You will have to watch to find out, as critical plot points like this should never be revealed by reviewers in advance.

   The most important plot detail that also surprised me, and for whatever reason, it’s the one that has stuck with me over all the years since I watched this movie the first time, is the semi-love interest between Christie and the interminably shaggy Reardon. She archly refuses his semi-advances until perhaps the closing scene.

   Hints are all we get, but a black and white romance, in 1974? That’s all that we could get. (When did Kirk kiss Lt. Uhara? Sometime in the 60s, I’m sure, but – as I recall – one of the two was possessed by an alien entity, and so it didn’t count.)

   Harry Guardino did not survive the cut and did not appear in the follow-up television series, which lasted only a year, nor as I recall, was there any more hanky-panky between Christie and her superior(s), nor even the hint of any. I have not been able to locate, so far, any of the shows from the TV series on either video or DVD, but I watched them at the time, and strangely enough, I enjoyed them more than Angie Dickinson’s show, whatever it was called.

— July 2004


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