TV mysteries


         Friday, February 6.

NERO WOLFE. “Wolfe at the Door.” NBC, 60m. Season 1, Episode 4. Cast: William Conrad as Nero Wolfe, Lee Horsley as Archie Goodwin, George Voskovec as Fritz Brenner, Robert Coote as Theodore Horstmann, George Wyner as Saul Panzer, Allan Miller as Inspector Cramer. Guest Cast: Richard Schaal, Mary Frann, Eugene Peterson. Based on characters created by Rex Stout. Teleplay: Lee Sheldon. Director: Herbert Hirschman.

   I’m a little surprised to find myself saying this, but the people chosen to play Rex Stout’s famous characters are starting to grow on me, miscast as much as some of them are. Archie is too young, Wolfe too short, Panzer too silly-looking, and Cramer??

   But Archie has the smirks, Wolfe has the orchids and the yellow pajamas, Panzer is not the wimp he was in the first episode, and Cramer???

   Obviously the show will never appeal to Wolfian purists, nor to those who have never heard of Nero Wolfe, but — there is a lot of middle ground in between, and maybe, just maybe, the show will catch on.

   Last week I thought the third episode [“Before I Die”] had been the best, the most enjoyable so far, and after tonight, I have no reason to change my mind. I don’t recall the story, entitled “Wolfe at the Door,” as being one of Stout’s, but then, I’m not the expert in the crowd [I was right. It wasn’t.]

   It seems that both Archie and Wolfe are being impersonated in order to fool some prospective clients, the purpose being to obtain possession of a certain green lacquer box. Right now I don’t think that any of the rest of the plot made any sense, but it did make for good television, if that makes any sense. (All right, I’ll explain. Don’t ask questions, turn your mind off, and sit back and relax.)

[UPDATE]   There were only 14 episodes in the run, the last being shown on June 2, 1981. About half of them were based on Rex Stout’s novels and short stories. The series is available on DVD. Released as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe: The Complete Series, it includes all 14 episodes and the 1977 pilot starring Thayer David.


KILLER WOMEN “La Sicaria.” ABC, 07 January 2014. Season 1, Episode 1. 60 minutes. Tricia Helfer (as Molly Parker, a Texas Ranger), Marc Blucas, Alex Fernandez, Michael Trucco, Marta Milans. Guest star: Nadine Velazquez. Written by Hannah Shakespeare. Director: Lawrence Trilling.

   Tricia Helfer, previously seen to good advantage n a regular basis as Number Six, a ultra-sexy humanoid Cylon on Battlestar Galactica, plays newly appointed Texas Ranger Molly Parker in this short-loved series taking place in the San Antonio area. Only six of eight episodes that were filmed for the first season were ever aired. There was no second season.

   The premise for the series was that every week Molly is assigned cases of murder all of which were committed by women. In “La Sicaria” (the feminine form of the word “sicario,” or “hit man”), the killer of an ADA immediately after she says “I do” in church on her wedding day is easily identified. The question is, given that her stated motive doesn’t make sense, why did she do it?

   The series didn’t fare will with the critics and was ignored by TV audiences, but I thought at was well done, and I enjoyed as many of the episodes as I was able to watch at the time. That Tricia Helfer makes a Texas Ranger’s uniform as well filled out as a Texas Ranger’s uniform ever could be might have had something to do with it. Plus she has the swagger of a Texas Ranger down pat. You might even call it a sashay. Poetry in motion.


BOOMTOWN. “Pilot.” NBC, 29 September 2002. Donnie Wahlberg, Neal McDonough, Mykelti Williamson, Gary Basaraba, Lana Parrilla, Jason Gedrick, Nina Garbiras. Creator-screenwriter: Graham Yost. Director: Jon Avnet.

   The movie Pulp Fiction (1994) showed that film audiences could accept movies that were not shown in linear fashion. That audiences could follow stories that curled back, overlapped itself, and jumped ahead again — if done well, and Pulp Fiction most certainly was.

   But TV audiences, apparently, were a harder sell. Despite the approval of critics, ratings for the first season were low and the cast was considerably reshuffled for a quickly aborted second season, which also lost the basic concept of a single crime per episode being investigated from different perspectives and time frames.

   I’ve only seen this, the first episode of season one, and I found it very well done. I had no trouble following the story, but a second time through made it abundantly clear how well the script was written and directed.

   The story is about the drive-by Los Angeles (Boomtown) shooting of two young schoolgirls. On the scene and tackling the case from a wide array of differing angles are the D.A., a female reporter) also the D.A.’s secret girl friend, a female paramedic, and three police officers, of whom Donnie Wahlberg appears to be the primary lead in the rest of the series as well.

   Each one of the above has their own back story, much of which is shown, albeit sometimes briefly, as the investigation unfolds. It makes for a bit of a clutter in this, the opening episode, but making the characters individuals rather than faceless ciphers also makes for very enjoyable watching.


Introduction: In my review of Jack Finney’s short story, “It wouldn’t Be Fair,” I noted that it had been adapted for TV as am episode of a series totally unknown to me, one called Rebound.” Michael has done some research on the series, and this is was he has found so far:


A TV SERIES OVERVIEW BY MICHAEL SHONK:


REBOUND (COUNTERPOINT). Syndication. TV Film. 30 minutes. Produced by Bing Crosby Productions. Sponsored by Packard automobiles. There were at least 26 episodes (2 seasons – 1952-53) of this suspense/mystery themed anthology series. Produced and Directed by Bernard Girard. Dick Dorso (PERRY MASON) was also involved in the production.

   The following information is from various issues of BROADCAST magazine.

   The series was scheduled to start airing the first week of February, 1952. Among the reported 24 stations carrying the syndicated program were the five ABC Owned and Operated stations that scheduled it at Friday at 9pm (Eastern). This lead to the show being called an ABC show, despite ABC having nothing to do with the production of the series.

   On November 21,1952 DuMont agreed to air it on alternate weeks. This added DuMont to the list of 18 stations carrying REBOUND, the stations included KTTV (Hollywood), WABD (New York) and WGN (Chicago). And yes, this is when it is considered a DuMont TV series, despite DuMont having nothing to do with the production of the series.

   REBOUND had three titles. The original title, according to BROADCASTING) was CRY OF THE CITY and it was replaced by REBOUND before the series aired (more about this later). United Television Programs (UTP) had the rerun rights and aired it under the title COUNTERPOINT. The ads for COUNTERPOINT (REBOUND) claimed “a national award winner with tremendous adult appeal.” I don’t know what the award was or what it was for.

   Over at IMDB you can find a few more details. For the episode called “It Wouldn’t Be Fair,” the teleplay was by Jackson Stanley, the story by Jack Finney and was directed by Harve Foster. In the he cast were Frank Ferguson as Lt. Ryan, Jeff Donnell as Annie and Todd Karns as Moss.

   IMDB claims there were 32 episodes, and “It Wouldn’t Be Fair” is one with no known airdate. IMDB also includes an episode called “Cry of the City” without details. CRY OF THE CITY was the series original title and might not have existed as an episode or more likely it could have been the series pilot.

   While UTP syndicated 26 episodes of reruns as COUNTERPOINT, more original REBOUND episodes might have been made. From BROADCASTING – the series was filmed in six episode bunches.

   In the July 21, 1952 issue the sale of Bing Crosby Production to CBS TV-Film (CBS’s syndication company). REBOUND was included.

   United Television Programs that had the distribution rights to REBOUND for the 26 episodes kept the right to sell the second run episodes of REBOUND and renamed the series COUNTERPOINT.

DAN AUGUST “The Murder of a Small Town.” 30 September 1970. Season 1, Episode 2. Burt Reynolds, Norman Fell, Richard Anderson, Ned Romero, Ena Hartman. Guest cast: Ricardo Montalban, John Marley, Anna Navarro. Writer: Robert Dozier. Director: Harvey Hart.

   As a follow up to my review of The House on Greenapple Road, the made-for-TV movie that became the pilot film for the Dan August television series, I have now watched the first two episodes of the series itself.

   The first episode, “Murder by Proxy,” had its moments, but overall was no better than the average cop or PI series of the time. Burt Reynolds acquitted himself well, and perhaps if I hadn’t been looking for them, I might have missed the occasional screen shots in which they asked him to look pensive about the case while at the same time looking a bit like Marlon Brando. (I believe someone pointed this possibility out in the comments to the earlier review.)

   The overall gimmick to the episode and hence (I assume) to the series being that Dan August was now a cop in his own medium-sized home town, a fact which causes him some difficulty, dealing as he must with people he’s known all his life. Now of course it is under totally different circumstances. He, in fact, happens to have had a personal altercation with the murder victim the week before, suggesting to some that he might even be a suspect.

   The story in episode two is very different, and I thought even a bit daring. A strike by the Hispanic orange grove workers in town has gotten ugly, and when an accident to a school bus injures several children, with one small girl killed, all Mexician-Americans, tempers threaten to burst out of control. Anglos vs. Spics, the signs say.

   At opposite poles are John Marley, the owner of the town’s orange groves, and labor organizer Ricardo Montalban, with Dan August right in the middle, especially when it looks as though someone deliberately tampered with the bus’s brake lines. A small plot thread involving a romance between Marley’s daughter and Montalban seems forced and unnecessary, and is thankfully dropped.

   A lot of anger that’s been simmering in the town pf Santa Luisa is shown. This is definitely not your usual TV cop show. While the incident with the bus is resolved, the writers and producers of the show could not solve the larger problem, not even in the hour’s time they were given.

THE HOUSE ON GREENAPPLE ROAD. Made-for-TV movie. ABC-TV, 11 January 1970. Pilot film for the Dan August TV series. Christopher George (Lt. Dan August), Keenan Wynn, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Tim O’Connor, Walter Pidgeon, Barry Sullivan, [Peter] Mark Richman, William Windom. Based on the novel by Harold R. Daniels. A Quinn Martin Production. Director: Robert Day.

   I don’t know the background behind the making of this far better than average TV movie, whether it was considered a “pilot” film for a possible series from the very start, or or if after did well in the ratings, and only then, they (the people at the network) decided to see what they could do to take advantage of its success.

   Which I believe it was. For one thing, just look at that cast. Some standard TV stalwarts, to be sure, but some actors whose names were big enough to catch anyone’s attention. True, the production was TV level, not big budget movie level, but it wasn’t running in pinch-penny mode, either.

   Of course when it came time to cast the part of Dan August for the series, they chose Burt Reynolds. I have never seen any episodes of the series, but Reynolds’ usual cheeky if not cocky screen presence is to my mind quite the opposite of Christopher George’s calm and sedate portrayal of the role. (He reminded me at times of Jack Lord in that other series you may know about.)

   Lots of people will remember this one for its opening scene. A young blonde girl, maybe 10 or so, comes skipping home from school, calls out for her mother. No answer. She goes into the kitchen, sees broken dishes all over the floor, and a huge amount of blood smeared on the walls and the refrigerator. No one home, she realizes, and off she goes next door to stay with her aunt.

   Suspicion falls immediately on the woman’s husband, even though there is no body to be found. August’s leisurely investigation, in spite of hurry-up pleas from the mayor himself, turns up the fact that the lady was pretty much a tramp. Flashbacks show in detail the missing woman’s various affairs, giving August plenty of other suspects.

   There is a twist in the story, which is a good one — which includes the possibility that there is no twist, so I’m not giving anything away — and the acting is top notch all around. It’s pretty much a routine investigation, but it’s also one that builds in tension as it goes, and it’s told well.


REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


THE HAT SQUAD. CBS / Stephen J. Cannell Productions / Columbia Pictures Television, 1992-1993. Cast: Don Michael Paul as Buddy, Nestor Serrano as Rafael, Billy Warlock as Matt, James Tolkan as Mike Ragland, Shirley Douglas as Kitty Ragland in the pilot, replaced by Janet Carroll when the show became a series, and Bruce Robbins as Darnell. Creator & Executive Producer: Stephen J. Cannell. – Executive Producer: Bill Nuss. Supervising Producers: Jo Swerling Jr. and Charles Grant Craig.

   Stephen J. Cannell is best remembered for his work on THE ROCKFORD FILES, but he is also responsible for some of the worst TV series ever to air. Remember BROKEN BADGES? I reviewed it here.

   Cannell was a popular and successful producer from 1970s-90s, specializing in over the top fantasy hero with a gimmick.

   THE HAT SQUAD was a fantasy cop drama about a detective squad of three adopted brothers who wore hats. Each of the brothers came from a different set of parents -– all victims of violence. Growing up they had been inspired by the stories of the LAPD’s Hat Squad told to them by their adopted father Police Captain Mike Ragland.

   There really was a “Hat Squad.” The four huge men (Max Herman, Clarence A. “Red” Stromwall, Harold N. Crowder and Edward F. Benson) were not related but all were best friends. They worked in the Los Angeles Police Robbery Division in the 50s-60s, and were respected and feared by criminals and remain legends in the LAPD. Each was over six feet tall and 220 pounds. They wore fedoras and expensive suits to add to their intimidating look.

   I recommend you click and read the LA Times article (March 29, 1987) interviewing two of the surviving members. It is a little thick on the hype but it is more entertaining than any of the TV episodes linked below.

   The movies took the characters of The Hat Squad and made MULHOLLAND FALLS. TV writer/producer Stephen Cannell made them perfect heroes. Then in typical 90’s Cannell style, he created a cheesy fantasy where the boys grow up and create their own Hat Squad with their adopted Dad as their supervisor.


PILOT. September 16, 1992. Written by Stephen J. Cannell/ Directed by Rob Bowman. GUEST CAST: Sam J. Jones, Stacy Edwards and Darlene Vogel. *** The Hat Squad goes up against a super villain Victory Smith who is visiting Los Angeles to rob a bank. While he makes his plans, he terrorizes the public and escapes the attempts of the Hat Squad to catch him.

   The pilot made several unwise choices in setting up the TV series premise and characters. The most damaging was making the villain more intimidating than the Hat Squad. Having the bad guy kick the Hat Squad butt repeatedly might have followed proper heroic drama format rules (hero loses until all hope is lost then defeats evil), but it was not how the real Hat Squad got famous. When a bad guy showed fear to Buddy when he put on his hat I laughed out loud, and even the actors looked embarrassed by how stupid the moment was.

   Looking back at Cannell’s work it is sadly disappointing how cartoonish and absurd his writing could get. The way Cannell has the Hats capture the villain in the pilot was more appropriate for a bad movie serial of the forties than network prime-time TV of the nineties.

   LA Times Howard Rosenberg was one disgusted TV critic. You can read the entire review of the pilot here.

   Rosenberg’s first line was right on the mark. “THE HAT SQUAD is prime time’s new propeller beanie, an example of just how comically infantile and moronic television can get.”

   The pilot episode aired September 16, 1992, Wednesday at 8pm to 9:30pm (Eastern). According to “Broadcasting” (September 28, 1992) THE HAT SQUAD finished in 43rd place in the Nielsen ratings. NBC’s UNSOLVED MYSTERIES was 12th, and SEINFELD was 30th, ABC’s FULL HOUSE was 44th and HOME IMPROVEMENT aired two episodes, the first finished 27th and the second episode (opposite SEINFELD) finished 3rd, and FOX’s MELROSE PLACE finished 74th.


FAMILY BUSINESS. October 28, 1992. Written by Stephen J. Cannell. Directed by Kim Manners. GUEST CAST: Ron Ely and Mark Pellegrino. *** Darnell’s encounter with a bully at school leads the Hat Squad to a family gang that specializes in violent crime.

   This episode aired on Wednesday at 8-9pm. Nielsen ratings (“Broadcasting” November 9, 1992) had NBC UNSOLVED MYSTERY at 11th place, ABC WONDER YEARS at 33rd and DOOGIE HOUSER at 37th, FOX BEVERLY HILLS 90201 at 59th, and THE HAT SQUAD at 74th.

   According to “Broadcasting” (August 9, 1993) Cannell blamed the failure of the series to CBS programming it at 8pm rather than 9pm or 10pm. The cause of the series failure was more due to Cannell, but CBS did not do THE HAT SQUAD any favors with its scheduling. The series had three different time periods. From the pilot airing September 16 until November 11 the series aired on Wednesday at 8-9pm.


REST IN PEACE. December 9, 1992. Written by Charles Grant Craig & Bill Nuss. Directed by Bruce Kessler. GUEST CAST: Rebecca Staab, Pat Bermel and Gianni Russo. *** Buddy heads to Vegas to get the proof a local mobster killed his father.

   TV series with multiple leads usually have episodes featuring one of the leads while the others stay in the background. This episode belong to Buddy as we got his back-story and he got to “meet cute” a gorgeous blonde by having their cars bang into each other.

   This episode was the only one of the series to air at 9pm on Wednesday. Ratings were better, finishing 51st (“Billboard” December 21, 1992). ABC’s HOME IMPROVEMENT finished 5th and COACH was 15th. NBC’s SEINFELD was 38th and MAD ABOUT YOU ended up 56th. FOX with BILLBOARD MUSIC AWARDS finished 61st.


   The next episode would not air until January 2. 1993, when THE HAT SQUAD moved to Saturday at 10pm and back to last place in its time-period. ABC had THE COMMISH and the better Cannell series out-rated HAT SQUAD every week. With few exceptions THE COMMISH would win the timeslot and NBC’s SISTERS finished a close second. Fox did not (and still doesn’t) program for the 10pm time period.

   Production values and directors aided and abetted the series over the top style. They loved their fog machine, or since this was Los Angeles, their smog machine. The music was by Mike Post, who was admired for his work then, but today is more a source of earworms than music. This is the 90s so there were silent scenes illustrated by some awful pop song.

   The cast gave forgettable performances burdened by stereotypical characters defined by role rather than any real human characteristics, such as Kitty the boys’ adopted Mother, a character who only existed as the old fashioned Mom who would tell her grown son to get a hair cut (he does) and give them hugs when they were sad.

   The exception was James Tolkan who played the father Mike, a man devoted to family and a strong set of values. Tolkan is best known for his many roles as an authority figure that is a jerk. It was a nice to see him give a strong performance as a softer nicer character.

   The three members of the Hat Squad were miscast as badly as their characters were written. The real Hat Squad was made up of gentle giants that terrified people by just walking into the room. The three adopted brothers were more average looking guys that looked silly rather than threatening wearing fedoras.

   The oldest son, Italian-American Buddym was overprotective and bossy of his younger members of the Hat Squad. The middle son, Puerto Rican Rafael, behaved like Pepe LePew around women. The youngest of the Hat Squad, Matt, was the cute one who was studying to be a lawyer. There was a fourth adopted brother Darnell, a black teenager who kept this angelic family rainbow approved.

   The last episode of THE HAT SQUAD aired January 24, 1993. That left two of the filmed thirteen episodes unaired. One of those episodes was “FRANKIE STEIN.”

   This episode has an ironic twist the writer probably did not intend. Of the real Hat Squad, three were lawyers while they were cops. Max Herman quit the force before he had earned his pension to become a defense attorney. Reportedly, Herman handled over thirty murder cases and none were convicted of the original (more serious) charge. The other two (Stromwall and Crowder) that had become lawyers would end up as judges.



FRANKIE STEIN. Never Aired. Written by David Greenwalt. Directed by Kim Manners. GUEST CAST: David Morse, Sondra Nelson and Linda Darlow. Matt questions his desire to become a lawyer. The Hat Squad has to deal with a violent criminal who was let out of prison early after he had agreed to be a test subject for some government experiments.


   This was a fantasy cop drama, the good guys are pure at heart and obey their Mother and Father, and bad guys are pure evil who would steal a little boy’s baseball card. The fantasy plots could only happen in the make believe land of Stephen Cannell, where everything is simple including the stereotypical characters, cliché motives, hokey dialogue, over the top action, and the bad guys who get all the breaks until a happy ending where comic book justice prevails.

   As a former professional TV critic in the late 70s and 80s who admired Cannell’s work in such shows as TOMA, CITY OF ANGELS (my review here ) and TENSPEED AND BROWNSHOE, I am finding myself embarrassed as I re-watch Cannell’s old series now. It is like looking at a picture of you in the past, seeing yourself in the stylish clothes and hair of the day and wondering, “What was I thinking?”

RICHARD GALLAGHER – Cannon: Murder by Gemini. Cannon #1. Lancer 74783, paperback original; 1st printing, 1971.

   As I imagine everyone reading this already knows, Cannon was a TV series that lasted for five years on CBS, from 1971 to 1976. Playing Frank Cannon was a decidedly rotund movie, radio and TV actor by the name of William Conrad, and it’s my opinion that much of the success the series had was due to his down-to-earth but still somehow debonair personality. It wasn’t his good looks, that’s for sure.

   It’s difficult to describe on screen charisma, and the preceding sentence is the best I’ve been able to do. Richard Gallagher seems to have had the same problem in writing this book, an early novelization of the series. Forced to use only words on the page to flesh out Frank Cannon, author Richard Gallagher makes an occasional reference to his weight, but little more. The Frank Cannon of the book could be any fictional ex-cop turned PI, of which there are hundreds.

   I also found it a bit curious that instead of L.A., Cannon’s usual place of business, almost all of the book takes place in Wyoming, in Grand Teton territory.

   The puzzle presented by the story itself is based on an interesting question. If a murder is committed by one of two identical twins, but an eye witness can’t identify in a lineup which one it is, the police have no choice to let both of them go free, including the one who is actually guilty. What else can they do?

   Cannon is called on to investigate, but he quickly finds himself stumped as well. Most of the book is filled with local lore and three increasingly narrow escapes from attempts on his life.

   It might have made for good television — though I don’t believe this is based on an actual episode — but in terms of a book to read, there’s not a lot of meat in this particular sandwich.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE. NBC, 1963-1965, 60 minutes:

      “One Tiger to a Hill.” Season 2, Episode 8. 03 Dec 1964. Barry Nelson, Diane McBain, James Gregory, Peter Brown, Warren Stevens. Teleplay: Robert Hamner. Directed by Jack Arnold.

      “Four Into Zero.” Season 2, Episode 15. 18 Feb 1965. Jack Kelly, Martha Hyer, Robert Conrad, Sue Randall, Joe Mantell, Jessie White, Bill Quinn. Teleplay: Don Brinkley. Story: Milt Rosen. Directed by Don Weiss.

   What these two episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre (syndicated under the title Crisis) have in common is the fact that both are caper stories, and in both cases ones with happy endings. Not that the anthology series didn’t have its fair share of crime does not pay tales like any other series from the sixties, but at least these two episodes are different.

   “One Tiger to a Hill” opens with a jewel thief breaking into a safe and relieving it of close to half a million in goodies. That draws the attention of the head of the Burglary division. James Gregory who is enjoying a bit of fine dining and a good cognac when he receives the call — only to find that sharing the restaurant with him is jewel thief extraordinare Colin Neal (Barry Nelson) and his girl Diane McBain, making Gregory Neal’s alibi.

   Neal and Gregory are friendly adversaries, Gregory the only cop to ever catch Neal and Neal the only thief to ever elude Gregory. Not so much Gregory’s subordinate Lt. Hadley (Warren Stevens) who wants nothing so much as to put away all thieves — in any condition he can catch them in.

   The secret to Neal’s latest success is bartender Peter Brown who is his apprentice and pulled the latest caper in Neal’s style. There are complications though. Aside from Hadley and the much smarter and more dangerous Gregory, Brown is ambitious. He not only wants Neal’s career, he wants his woman, and he isn’t above framing Neal for a crime he never committed. Even worse he shoots a policeman while committing it.

   Now Neal has to stop Brown, recover the stolen gems, and get the increasingly driven Hadley off his neck while not getting caught by Gregory.

   This could all be done darkly and in a noirish mood, but it is much more a low budget TO CATCH A THIEF, and thanks largely to good players and a light script, it doesn’t pause long enough to let you question the obvious gaps in the story, and it works for what it is.

   Next up is a somewhat more serious caper. “Four Into Zero.” Jack Kelly is the husband of wealthy Martha Hyer, tired of feeling as if he has been bought by his beautiful wife and determined to do something on his own. The something is a heist, and on a moving train across country from Chicago to Los Angles.

   The train will be carrying the currency plates for a new banana republic in South America, and the plot is lift the plates being shipped from Chicago from the baggage car, use a printing press built by failed artist and engraver Jessie White to print a million dollars in the new currency, and return the plates unsuspected for delivery. Also mixed in the job is Robert Conrad, whose fiance has been working for the South American dictator and unwittingly providing all the details needed for the job.

   Joe Mantell is the final part of the scheme, an alcoholic circus performer Kelly rescued from the gutter and dried out for a vital part of the caper, crossing the top of the train while it is moving with the plates.

   And complications ensue as you might expect. Kelly’s wife and Conrad’s girl (Sue Randell) are suspicious, and when they meet decide to fly to Los Angles to meet the boys. Meanwhile railroad cop Bill Quinn is taking the same train on vacation, and there is this annoying little boy who keeps seeing men climbing outside on the train …

   For once the caper goes fairly smoothly, until Mantell breaks his wrist, ironically on a crate of whiskey, and Kelly has to replace him on the final leg of the heist. It ends fairly happily with Kelly and Conrad rejecting their part of the spoils for love, and a nice ironic touch (actually foreshadowed in the script for once) ends the episode.

   Everyone gets at least one good scene, and what more could television actors ask?

   Neither the best or the worst of the series, this is your parents comfortable sixties television done with professionalism and style. Both episodes could easily have been expanded to features and both make for a tightly packed forty-eight minutes.

   I can’t say either generates much actual suspense, but both are fairly handsomely done and the dialogue is intelligent and revealing in both, making you wish they had been more interested in the suspense end of the thing.

   Of the two “One Tiger to a Hill” is the standout, but I recall seeing “Four Into Zero” when it first aired and surprisingly remembered almost every detail when I watched it again for the first time, so there is more here than may meet the eye

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


THE GREAT MERLINI “The Transparent Man.” Syndicated by United Artist Television, 1951. G&W Television Production Inc. Cast: Jerome Thor as the Great Merlini, Barbara Cook as Julie, Robert Noe as Inspector Gavigan, Howard Smith as Belmont, E.G. Marshall as Comell and Michaele Myers as Josephine. Original Story and Adapted by Clayton Rawson. Produced by Felix Greenfield and Robert Whiteman. Filmed at Fletcher Smith Studio, New York. Directed by Ted Post.

   Question, who was the first Fictional Magician Detective to appear on television? Really, if you know tell me.

   It may be the Great Merlini who made his TV debut in the episode “The Great Merlini” for the NBC-TV series CAMEO THEATRE (May 23, 1950). The thirty-minute anthology series featured plays performed live in the round. Chester Morris (film’s Boston Blackie) was the Great Merlini. From the plot as described and with author Clayton Rawson credited as one of the writers, the episode was probably an adaption of Rawson’s book FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING.

   As far as I know, no copy of this episode of CAMEO THEATRE exists. However the second and maybe the last TV appearance of the Great Merlini is available to watch. A pilot film for a proposed TV series THE GREAT MERLINI, the episode was entitled “The Transparent Man” and was written by Clayton Rawson.

   Created by Rawson for a series of books and short stories, the first, DEATH FROM A TOP HAT, was published in 1938. Two movies were adapted from the books, MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939; directed by Tod Browning, based on DEATH FROM A TOP HAT) and Michael Shayne film THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE (1942) starring Lloyd Nolan based on the book NO COFFIN FOR THE CORPSE.

   Clayton Rawson is considered one of the greatest writers of locked room mysteries and includes John Dickson Carr and Fred Dannay among his greatest fans. He would help found the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and served for many year as managing editor for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (1963-71).


“The Transparent Man.” When a famous thief announces his plans to steal a priceless necklace, it is a crime for the police, but when the thief has been dead since 1798 it becomes a job for The Great Merlini. He must solve how an invisible thief opened a locked door and stole the necklace from a room full of people.


   For TV viewers “The Transparent Man” is an entertaining but flawed TV show, however fans of the books may find this TV episode disappointing. It is more an “impossible crime” story than a locked room mystery.

   Rawson’s books and short stories even today are considered among the best of the locked mystery genre. Arguably the greatest flaw in Rawson’s books is the slow pace and the enormous amount of pages it takes to develop the locked room mystery. With time limited the TV version settled on a weak solution, faster pace, and more attention to the character Great Merlini.

   Jerome Thor (FOREIGN INTRIGUE) played the Great Merlini with the confident flare one expects from a stage magician. The eccentric Merlini enjoys the challenge of solving impossible mysteries, and he is amused that his talent to deal with crime is in more demand than his stage act as a magician. There is no mention of owning a magic store.

   Ross Harte, the Watson to the Great Merlini, was not in the TV pilot. Replacing him was Julie, Merlini’s talented Magician’s Assistant girlfriend with a wry wit. Barbara Cook played the role well, so it is a surprise that the IMDb claim this was her only role in television or film.

   Director Ted Post would go on to a long successful career directing a variety of TV series including PERRY MASON, GUNSMOKE, TWILIGHT ZONE, and COLUMBO. He also directed films such as BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and MAGNUM FORCE.

   But this was one of his first attempts at directing television and it shows. The direction here is awkward, a clumsy mix of close-ups and medium shots with a missed shot or so. But much of the awkwardness could have been covered with a background soundtrack.

   Robert Noe captured the essence of Inspector Gavigan. The suspects included two actors still remembered today. Howard Smith, who had a successful career from vaudeville to films and may be best remembered for his TV work (HAZEL), looked uncomfortable and lost. E. G. Marshall, a successful actor on Broadway and film (12 ANGRY MEN) is also best remembered for his work in TV (THE DEFENDERS), did only an adequate job with his small role.

   Felix Greenfield and Robert Whiteman produced this pilot for a GREAT MERLINI TV series. I can find nothing about Robert Whiteman, but Felix Greenfield was best remembered as a publicist for Warner Brothers for over 30 years.

   Greenfield was also a stage magician (mentalist) who starred in his own radio shows in New York during the 40s. His only other TV producer credit in IMDb was for the “Great Merlini” episode of CAMEO THEATRE, but according to his obit in the New York Times, he also was a technical consultant on magic for several TV series including THE DEFENDERS.

   This show was filmed in 1951 and near the end of the wild days of television. The networks were still young. NBC and DuMont began in 1946 and CBS and ABC would join in 1948. Independent TV stations many doing their own programming were growing all over the country and everyone needed programs to fill the time.

   How crazy and forgotten was that time for television? Wikipedia does not even mention United Artist Television existed between 1948 and 1952 instead claiming it began in 1958.

   From Broadcast (March 19, 1951) UA’s TV Director John Mitchell announced, “United Artist Television, New York has been appointed national distributer of the GREAT MERLINI, new half-hour TV film series produced by G&W Productions and filmed at Fletcher Smith Studios, New York. Ted Post of CBS is director of the show. The program is to be distributed on the basis of local and regional sponsorships.”

   John Mitchell was an early pioneer of television in how companies marketed TV programs to early television stations and networks. In 1952 he became one of the first three employees of Screen Gems.

   Among the joys of watching old television shows are the many stories and questions behind the making of the program. Is the Great Merlini TV’s first Magician/Detective? Where did this attempt for a GREAT MERLINI TV series air? Why couldn’t I find an American TV series to feature a Magician/Detective before THE MAGICIAN (CBS, 1973-74)? And was “Transparent Man” the last TV appearance of the Great Merlini?


BONUS FROM YOUTUBE:

Clayton Rawson as the Great Merlini performing the “Floating Lady” trick with family and friends.

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