TV mysteries


PERRY MASON “The Case of the Restless Redhead.” CBS, 21 September 1957 (Season 1, Episode 1). Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, William Talman, Ray Collins. Guest Cast: Whitney Blake, Ralph Clanton, Gloria Henry, Vaughn Taylor. Teleplay: Russell S. Hughes. Based on the novel by Erle Stanley Gardner. Director: William D. Russell. Currently available on DVD and streaming on Paramount Plus.

   When a waitress comes home from work, she finds a gun in her cigarette case sitting on her coffee table. In her shoes, what would you do? I’m sure you would call Perry Mason’s office, the same as either you or I would, am I right? Even though it’s late at night, she heads out by car to meet him in his office.

   She’s followed by a car driven by a man with a pillow case over his head, with holes cut out for his eyes. When he tries to run her off the road, she uses the gun to fire two shots at him. She misses, but one shot hits the car, which seems to swerve off the road. Telling her story to Mason, he decides to drive out to the spot where all this took place.

   Would you be surprised if I told you the police are there first? You shouldn’t be. They are, and they’re trying to find a way to hoist a car up a steep embankment. The driver of the car, found inside, Mason is told, is dead. He has been fatally shot in the head.

   The Perry Mason novels always begin with extremely catchy openings, and this first episode of the Perry Mason TV show follows the pattern to perfection. Other familiar themes follow. Mason is not sure whether to believe the girl’s story or not, but when Lt. Tragg comes calling, he has no recourse but to take her on as a client. Della Street is there to comfort her and provide everyone with coffee. (It is now three o’clock in the morning.)

   As for the gun, Paul Drake soon discovers that is one of a pair, both bought by the same person at the same time. Mason maneuvers himself into the case personally by obtaining the other of two guns, putting a notch in the barrel with a small file, then shooting it a couple of times at the scene of the crime.

   This little trick comes in handy at the preliminary hearing, which ends up with D. A. Hamilton Burger completely befuddled. Now I posit this, if I may. Can you think of a better story line than this to demonstrate to TV audiences everywhere in the country what the rest of the series is going to be like, based on this very first episode? Nor can I.

   This synopsis so far does not include the following: Perry’s client was recently acquitted of stealing some jewelry from a movie star who just happens to be the fiancée of the man who bought the two guns, who is being blackmailed by the former husband of the movie star who claims the divorce never went through, and the husband and wife who run the motel where the theft of the aforementioned jewelry took place act very strangely when Mason comes asking questions.

   And do you know what? You can actually follow the plot, even with all of these players, and without a scorecard.
   

AGATHA CHRISTIE’S PARTNERS IN CRIME “The Affair of the Pink Pearl.” BBC, 16 October 1983 (Season 1, Episode 1). Francesca Annis (Tuppence Beresford), James Warwick (Tommy Beresford). Guest Cast: Dulcie Gray, Graham Crowden, Noel Dyson, Arthur Cox. Screenwriter: David Butler, based on the stories “A Fairy in the Flat,” “A Pot of Tea,” and “The Affair of the Pink Pearl,” by Agatha Christie (all three included in her collection, Partners in Crime). Available on DVD; currently streaming on BritBox.

   While this was the first episode of the 1983 series on the BBC, it was preceded the week before by a standalone showing of that same network’s adaptation of The Secret Adversary, starring the same two players as Tuppence and Tommy. (I tell you this because it confused me for a while, but I see no need for you to be, should it ever come up.)

   The first portion of this true first episode serves as an introduction to the characters and their first case, as chronicled in “A Fairy in the Flat” and “A Pot of Tea.” Fairly rich (I am assuming) and bored, the married couple are delighted with the opportunity to take over the International Detective Agency. (It may be that Tuppence is the more delighted of the two.) Their first case is a slam dunk (in today’s terminology), as they are hired by a young man of the upper class whose sweetheart, a shop girl, has gone missing. I will not tell you why it is a slam dunk, though.

   The titular tale is more of a challenge, as it involves a valuable pink pearl which has disappeared after some careless handling of it during a dinner party, which means, luckily for the viewer, lots of suspects, including the servants and other staff, all of whom need questioning as to who was where and when. I didn’t think the showing was quite fair to the viewer, though; perhaps the original story was better in this regard.

   The setting is bright and cheerful, and the dialogue very witty. As it is too long since I have read the books, and then only N or M? within the last ten years, I cannot tell you how well Francesca Annis and James Warwick fit their roles. N or M? was published some twelve years after the story collection, so of course it is natural that I pictured them that many years older.

   One thing I do remember about the books is that each story in its telling parodied another of Ms Christie’s contemporary authors at the time. “Pearl,” for example, used R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke as a model for the pair to emulate. That particular aspect of the stories seems to have been dropped from this particular television version.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

DIAGNOSIS MURDER. “The Last Resort.” CBS, original air-date: 19 November 1998 (Season 6, Episode 9). Dick Van Dyke (Dr. Mark Sloan), Victoria Rowell, Charlie Schlatter, Barry Van Dyke (Steve Sloan). Guest star: Joe Penny. Written by Paul Bishop. Director: Christian I. Nyby II. Series available on DVD. Not known to be currently streaming online.

   I used to love Diagnosis Murder. When I was eleven and twelve years old, my mum would record (on VHS!) the daily afternoon repeat while I was busy enduring institutional betrayal at school. It may not have been the coolest television programme around, but it was light-hearted and often reasonably exciting, with a nifty mystery plot and maybe a bit of action too.

   As I’m sure everybody here knows, the show revolved around ebullient sixty-something Dr Mark Sloan (Dick Van Dyke), the Chief of Internal Medicine at Community General Hospital in Los Angeles, who also doubles as an amateur sleuth and eventual consultant for the L.A.P.D., often working alongside his homicide detective son Steve (a permanently purse-lipped Barry Van Dyke, Dick’s real-life son).

   Assisting Mark are a couple of young, attractive medical colleagues, sensible and assertive Dr Amanda Bentley (Victoria Rowell) and boyishly enthusiastic Dr Jessie Travis (Charlie Schlatter), though all three are often hindered by the fussy, fulminating hospital administrator Norman Briggs (Michael Tucci), who believes they should remain focused on their patients instead of trying to solve crimes.

   The series depended almost disproportionately on its star and the good-will he had accrued from his eponymous sitcom and triptych of big-screen musicals from the early-to-mid 1960s. Like Andy Griffith, that other wholesome ’60s comedy lead who turned to the less demanding mystery genre in old age, Van Dyke was able to carve out a niche, catering to a more mature audience and working as a sort of counter-programming to gritty police procedurals like NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street.

   Stylistically, it was a less twee and ever so slightly more plausible Murder, She Wrote, without ever becoming a similarly solid ratings champion. Indeed, Diagnosis Murder sputtered every year into almost reluctant renewals by a higher-brass who knew how appealing the older demographic was to advertisers compared to the younger, more impecunious generations proceeding them.

   Whereas many episodes had a minor, frivolous subplot to offset all the murder and petty revenge, there was a small shake-up in the sixth season when things occasionally became a little bit darker than regular viewers might ordinarily expect. “The Last Resort” was one such episode, and there’s nary a chuckle to be had in its forty-four minutes, beginning with Steve apparently losing his professional perspective and attacking a suspect during interrogation – even throwing a chair through the one-way glass.

   The sudden meltdown, after five years of watching this wearily workmanlike detective harrumphing his way through a slew of homicide investigations, is surprising, particularly as we’re told that he was supposed to be a calming influence on his new partner Reggie.

   An abrasive, confrontational cop, Reggie Ackroyd (Joe Penny) is constantly on the brink of getting fired or even arrested himself, only justifying his erratic behavior with the dubious assertion that his wife and daughter were kidnapped by a criminal named Sykes. Things get even worse for the pair when Steve inadvertently kills an unarmed rapist and reluctantly allows Reggie to cover it up.

   After further trouble, the men are strong-armed into attending a psychiatric rehabilitation program at Community General Hospital – a “Betty Ford clinic, except it’s for cops” – and struggle through sessions of group therapy led by the bluntly incisive Dr Sinclair (Reginald Val Johnson).

   While Steve is weighed down by guilt of the cover-up, Reggie begins losing all sense of reality, the frustration and anger over his family’s supposed capture uncoiling into a series of vividly disturbing hallucinations.

   Will he find them? Or is there something even more sinister going on?

   A dark story, with one of its biggest surprises being the absence of a breezy tag-scene which typically closes every episode, and the decision to let its grimly unsettling final fade-out stew in the viewer’s mind. Joe Penny, formerly of the now almost-forgotten Jake and the Fatman (a series which originated the Mark Sloan character in a one-episode guest turn, though Penny plays another role here), is excellent as the cold and mercurial Ackroyd, a man driven to insanity from rage, remorse and the pressures of a police career.

   To my eyes, at least, he looks like Sylvester Stallone, with a similar, moodily masculine persona to match. Barry Van Dyke, meanwhile, is subtly effective, though mostly this is due to the unexpected novelty of a more personal plot-line for the character rather than a genuinely compelling performance.

   Elsewhere in the episode, there’s a more conventional mystery sub-plot which keeps the other two regulars occupied as they investigate the locked room murder of a lab technician. For once, Jessie confront the culprit, and in a slyly charismatic manner too, demonstrating how a puppy-ish medical prodigy can lull any criminal into a false sense of security.
   

STAGE 7. “The Long Count.” CBS, 27 March 1955 (Season 1 Episode 9). Frank Lovejoy (McGraw), Joan Vohs, Ted de Corsia, Biff Elliot, Nestor Paiva, Mel Welles, Richard Deacon. Screenplay by Federic Brody, based on a story by John Roeburt. Director: Alvin Ganzer. Currently available on YouTube.

   Research on the early days of network TV is still spotty at best. There is an individual entry for this episode as being shown on Four Star Playhouse, but when you look at the episode list for that series, it is nowhere to be found. Yes, Frank Lovejoy played PI-for-hire McGraw (no known first name) at least twice on that series, but this particular episode (with all of the same stated crew and cast members) is also listed as the ninth episode of Stage 7 for its one and only season.

   These early episodes for both series preceded, of course, the series Meet McGraw, which ran on NBC during the 1957-58 season. For a more on that series, check out Michael Shonk’s overview of it for this blog several years ago. (Follow the link.)

   In “The Long Count,” McGraw is hired by a prizefighter’s behind-the-scenes manager to keep him away from dames before an upcoming bout, but the guy slips out on him and manages to get killed by a hit-and-run driver. The boxing business being what it is, there are a lot of suspects, but McGraw manages to name the killer well within the 30 minute running time.

   The dialogue is fine, the production values quite acceptable, especially for the era, but the plot is a little threadbare and to me, Frank Lovejoy seems a little tired of the whole thing. One bright spot is the suitably sexy Joan Vohs, who both narrates and plays the manager’s girl friend. Only problem with the latter, storywise, is that “Pretty Boy” Mendero (a well-cast Biff Elliot) has an eye out for her, too.

   In any case, there are a few other adventures of McGraw online, either from Four Star Playhouse or the Meet McGraw series itself. Given time, I enjoyed this one well enough to watch some of the others.

   

GABRIEL’S FIRE “Pilot.” ABC, 12 September 1990. James Earl Jones, Laila Robins, Madge Sinclair. Director: Robert Lieberman. Currently available for viewing on YouTube here.

   Gabriel Bird is a former cop who has spent the last twenty years in prison. The details remain fuzzy in this first episode, but it seems as though he killed a fellow officer during a botched raid. When his best friend in prison is killed, Victoria Heller, that friend’s lawyer (Laila Robins), comes calling on him for help, but he refuses.

   Ms Heller, a do-gooder who insists on doing good, manages to get him out of prison, which alienates him even more. It takes a while to persuade the cranky old man to help her solve the case, but he does and even more, by the end of the show, ends up agreeing to become her chief investigator, but only, he warns, “one case at a time.”

   Critics loved the show (well, liked it a lot) but audiences didn’t. It lasted one season (22 episodes) and resurfaced the next year under a new name, Pros and Cons, and lasted 13 more episodes before being cancelled at mid-season.

   Speaking personally, but who better, I found this, the pilot, not particularly easy to like. It’s burdened with a premise that’s confusing (why does this guy want to stay in jail, anyway), and the story line too dark. I have read that in the second season they tried to lighten things up, but there’s no way to independently verify that. Only this, the pilot of the first season seems to exist, and no one seems ready to pick up the rest of the series for streaming or release on DVD.

   

CHANDLER & CO. “On the Job.” BBC1, UK. 12 July 1994 (Series 1, Episode 1). Catherine Russell as Elly Chandler, Barbara Flynn as Dee Tate, Peter Capaldi as Larry Blakeson. Written by Paula Milne. Director: Renny Rye. Available in the UK on Region Two DVDs. This episode can be seen online here.

   Over the course of two seasons Chandler & Co. tells the story of a two-woman detective agency in London, starting of course at the beginning, with “On the Job” being the first episode. There is a little bit of back story that needs to be told ahead of time, though, and while it’s complicated, here it is: Elly Chandler is now divorced from her ex-husband, while Dee Tate is the man’s sister, who suggests to Elly (there are still close) that starting their own agency might help her through the breakup of her marriage.

   They realize that they are rather new at the game, however, so they call on Larry Blakeson to mentor them through the rough patches as they get started. Larry is the PI who Elly hired to get the goods on her now ex-husband. We’ve all been in situations such as this before, haven’t we, so we can relate.

   Their first two cases in “On the Job,” as they test their wings, involve marital infidelities – the kinds of cases that male PI’s always say they don’t take, and after watching this first episode, you can see why. The two ladies decided to take up the PI business because they like helping people, but after getting themselves involved in other people’s lives as much as they do in these two case, they are not so sure how much help they provided. In fact, there is a rift between them at the end of the show that is so severe that it makes the viewer wonder if there will be an episode two.

   But of course there was.

   All three of the main characters were extremely well chosen for their roles, and their roles were extremely well defined — an excellent show all around. It makes you wish that more episodes were available, just to be able to see the three of them in action more often. (In fact Peter Capaldi is not on often enough in this one.)

   It is also an interesting episode in another regard, which is to say that it starts out in semi-comedic fashion. The two women are klutzy at first, and getting some assistance from a real PI is obviously sorely needed. But as the episode goes along, the comedy aspects gradually disappear, as their choices of a new career start to look as though it were a big big mistake.

   Or in other words, very very interesting.

   

SUSPECTS “Alone.” Channel 5, UK, 12 February 2014 (Series 1, Episode 1). Fay Ripley as Detective Inspector Martha Bellamy, Damien Molony as Detective Sergeant Jack Weston, Clare-Hope Ashitey as Detective Constable Charlotte “Charlie” Steele. Director: John Hardwick. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

   If you prefer your standard gritty police procedurals on TV to concentrate on the case and nothing but the case, then Suspects may be the show for you. Of the three main stars and police officers they portray, there is nothing in this first show to explain who they are, what their backgrounds may be. There is even no personal interaction between them.

   They are fellow officers in the same London police station, otherwise not identified. This first case involves a young girl, a toddler only, who has been taken from her bed overnight while everyone in the house was sleeping: her father and her older brother. Other suspects are her mother, now separated from her father, her grandmother, and the clerk at a beverage shop down the street who has a prior record as a sex offender.

   The filming is done documentary style, beautifully photographed, and (I am told) with much of the dialogue improvised. It certainly makes for a forceful, haunting viewing experience, that I can vouch for personally. So much so that I doubt anyone would care to binge watch this show. Certainly not I.

   The show did prove to be popular, though. It consisted of five series, ending in August 2016, with only one major cast change for the final season.
   

MR. & MRS. MURDER “Early Checkout.” Network Ten, Australia, 20 February 2013 (Series 1, Episode 1). Shaun Micallef as Charlie Buchanan, Kat Stewart as Nicola Buchanan, Jonny Pasvolsky as Detective Peter Vinetti, Lucy Honigman as Jess Chalmers. Director: Shirley Barrett. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime (until January 31st.)

   As detective mysteries on TV go, or even books, it’s a premise that’s a natural, but even so, it’s one I don’t recall ever being used before, except maybe in comic books. Who’s job is it to come in and clean up the murder scene after the cops and crew are done with it and the victim removed? Charlie and Nicola Buchanan, that’s who, having set themselves up as specialists who do exactly that.

   Of course it helps to have helped a homicide detective on previous cases, even though “Early Checkout” is the first episode of thirteen of the cases they help solve. In this one a natural hero turned self-help guru (if, as noted, that is not a contradiction in terms) is murdered in his hotel room. As a detective story in and of itself, it’s a good one, with an abundance of clues, suspects, motives and opportunity.

   But what makes the difference between this and other series with same desire to make a successful detective mystery series is the sprightly rapport between the two leading players. Imagine, if you will, a married couple who actually like each other, with plenty of cheerful banter between them and playfully zapping each other and appreciating it when one gets the better of the other, if only for the moment.

   I will do my best to watch the other twelve episodes before Amazon pulls the plug on the series at the end of the month. If there were only 13 episodes in the series, I can only hope it was because the writers ran out of settings for possible stories for murder clean-ups to take place in. If Australian audiences didn’t care for the series and stopped watching it, then boo on them.

   

MR. & MRS. NORTH “Weekend Murder.” CBS, 03 October, 1952 (Season 1, Episode 1.) Barbara Britton (Pamela North), Richard Denning (Jerry North), Francis De Sales (Lt. Bill Weigand). Guest Cast: Margo Wood, Rita Johnson, Paul Cavanagh, James Kirkwood. Writer: DeWitt Bodeen, based on the characters created by Frances & Richard Lockridge. Director: Ralph Murphy.

   The TV version of Mr. & Mrs. North lasted for two seasons, the first on CBS from 1952-53, and the second, only 18 episodes long, on NBC in 1954. They were also on the radio from 1942 to 1954. Alice Frost and Joseph Curtin had the title roles for most of the run. And of course before that, there were the books, 26 of them, before Frances Lockridge’s death in 1963. After her passing, her husband Richard continued writing, but he never produced a Norths novel on his own.

   It surely must have helped that so many people knew who the Norths were, because this, the first TV episode jumps right into the story without so much of an introduction. (I think this was common, however, back in the early days of television.) In any case, it is Jerry, a book publisher who has to be persuaded by his wife Pam to take a weekend off and spend it at a famous actress’s country home, somewhere outside Manhattan and their usual city environs.

   But as chance would have it, when they all arrive, the housekeeper is missing and there is a dead man in the kitchen closet. As in all the books and their other adventures, it is Pam who decides that she needs to solve the case. Jerry would just as soon let the police handle it. I don’t know whether (or how many) other married sleuths tackled their cases in this same particular way, but this was the usual Norths’ modus operandi, with Pam always sticking her neck out a little too far along the way. And so it is here.

   I don’t think that most readers of the books had too much to complain about in terms of the casting. Richard Denning does ham up the comedy a little too much for my tastes, but that’s just me. As for the case itself, the clue to the killer is way too obvious, although the writer does try to gloss it over as it happens. Not enough so for a long-time TV crimesolver such as myself, though.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

COLONEL MARCH INVESTIGATES. Criterion Films, UK, 1953. Starring Boris Karloff as Colonel March. Screenplay by Leo Davis, based on three stories written by John Dickson Carr. Director: Cyril Enfield.

   The master of the locked room mystery was, inarguably, John Dickson Carr, one of the most popular crime writers of the Golden Age. His masterpiece, The Hollow Man (1935), retains an almost legendary status among crime fiction fans, but he is now sadly forgotten by the wider public. The books have long been out of print in the UK, and I’m always hoping that some publisher will bring them back.

   Perhaps they are so obscure because Carr’s most famous sleuths, Dr Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, never made it to the screen. One of his lesser characters managed it, however, in the early 1950s, with the television series Colonel March of Scotland Yard.

   Carr had used the character only in his 1940 short story collection The Department of Queer Complaints, in which there is a subdivision of Scotland Yard that specialises in crimes of a curious or apparently impossible nature. The series was financed by the Americans and starred international film star Boris Karloff – famous for playing the Chinese-American detective Mr Wong and, of course, even more so, Frankenstein’s Monster.

   At this point in his long career, Karloff was a frequent guest on American radio series and even had his own show for children in which he read stories and told riddles. In 1952, he returned to England and made three episodes for ITV which acted as pilots for a longer series. Eventually, twenty six were produced, all of which were a brisk 25 minutes long.

   The first three made were stitched together for release to cinemas in 1953. This was not uncommon for a TV show at the time and the practice would continue into the next decade, particularly with The Saint.

   Colonel March Investigates is a taut 70 minute anthology of three slight, though entertaining, mysteries with the twinkly-eyed Karloff. He gives the character an eye-patch, which he didn’t have in the stories, but it adds something to the character, as we can imagine he may have lost it in the First World War. This, perhaps, is someone who has witnessed untold horrors and has come to terms with the world by engaging with its more whimsical wonders.

   Unsurprisingly, there is a framing device which helps tie the three tales together, in which March stands in his office and inspects a cupboard stocked with souvenirs of his cases before leading the audience into the corresponding story.

   The first of these, aired as “Hot Money,” revolves around a bank robbery in which a clerk is incriminated. He follows the criminal to an office, where the money is seemingly stored. However, when the place is searched, the money has apparently disappeared. Despite the clerk being framed in the silliest of ways, the resolution is pretty decent, but nothing too special. Joan Sims appears here in an early role, and March reveals a John Steed-like umbrella sword!

   The second story was aired as “Death in the Dressing Room,” which is probably the weakest of the three. Set in a nightclub, it features an exotic dance routine which acts as a clue, while the always reliable Richard Wattis plays the manager. The running time to these is so short that there is virtually no time to set up a number of suspects, so the culprit tends to be the person who has been in it the most.

   No matter, as it’s all about how March gets his man, which he does here in a tense confrontation. As usual, March’s sparring partner is the Scottish Inspector Ames (Ewan Roberts), though you wonder why he’s there as March seems to be a famous genius.

   The third story, intriguingly titled “The New Invisible Man,” features a peeping tom who has apparently witnessed a pair of animated gloves committing murder, and a scene of a crime with no evidence of a crime. It’s the best one, I think, though there are a couple of problems. We get the opportunity to see the gloves in action ourselves, but it doesn’t look much like the way it’s shown to us in the reveal.

   The trick is good, nonetheless, and it certainly had me baffled. The reason behind it all is pretty shaky, however, and involves stolen paintings and, eventually, a kidnapped March. It’s all good fun, though, which is what I’d call the film as a whole. And an interesting peek, as ever, into bygone England. Eight episodes of the series itself are available on DVD. It’s just a pity the complete series isn’t available.

Rating: ***

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