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The Invisible Avenger (1958)
Margo Lane: you are needed!
This 57 minute film is of some historical interest, especially to collectors of films based on comic book characters. The plot is only mildly interesting and certainly not very original, the acting wooden, the production values low budget. In fact, I began to wonder if this was an early made-for-television effort rather than a film for cinemas.
At any rate, it does not follow the original concept except for Lamont Cranston's ability to "cloud men's minds" so that he seems to disappear. He does not don the familiar broad-brimmed hat and cape (although it is shown on the cover drawing), nor does he consort with Margo Lane, "the only person to know the Shadow's true identity." Instead he is in the constant company of a certain gentleman named Jogendra, who is trying to discipline him in the Oriental art of they are practising.
But all this aside, it is really a lot of fun in its own way because of its defects and a good example of how Hollywood had no respect for its sources. I have sought in the recent and in back copies of Maltin for some mention of this item, but it seems to have been forgotten by all except Video Yesterday--for which I thank them.
Murder Must Advertise (1973)
Welcome back after 27 years!
It took only a quarter century to catch up with Lord Peter Wimsey: Murder Must Advertise and I am eternally grateful to Acorn Media for making it available, along with "Clouds of Witness" and "The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club." Yes, "Five Red Herrings" and "The Nine Tailors" are due soon.
Having read the book several times, I can say that the dramatization is not only faithful to the plot but also to the comic tone of the original. Sayers herself did work in an advertising agency and she perfectly catches the chaos, the frustrations, and the high spirits that pervade such an establishment.
Even more on video than in the novel is each character fully realized. When Wimsey (working under an alias) first enters the secretaries' room, the more flamboyant of the women (played by Fiona Walker) is found coffee cup high in the air and sheet of advertising copy low in hand, thereby establishing her character perfectly. She can also quote Latin tags and Shakespeare with colloquial ease. The stuffy head of the firm, Mr. Pym, is played by Peter Pratt, well known to Gilbert & Sullivan buffs as the comic lead at the D'Oyly Carte several generations ago.
The ubiquitous Peter Bowles plays the villainous Major Milligan as a dope dealer to the "bright young things" who still knows when to apologize for rudeness. Mark Eden continues his role as Chief Inspector Parker, now Wimsey's brother-in-law since marrying into the family after the "Clouds of Witness" case. If I cannot warm up to Lady Mary (Rachel Herbert), it is perhaps because of her smugness that tries to be charming but (for me) just misses.
Possibly the best realized character is Bridget Armstrong's Dian de Momerie, the fading sexpot who knows she is doomed by her associates, her drug taking, and the ravages of time. Armstrong turns what could have been an utterly cliched role into a sympathetic and believable one.
And of course, Ian Carmichael is the same bubbling amateur sleuth of the first two mysteries, always ready to apologize for forgetting he has advantages over most of the others.
The plot combines a simple whodunit with a complex howsitdun; and if you pay close attention to the most seemingly inconsequential lines in the first episodes, you will appreciate all the more the solution in the last one. I will reveal none of the plot here, except to say it is a lot of fun.
The production budget is below that of the Poirot series, but the period feel is just as good. By the way, when Wimsey (in disguise) is compared with Bertie Wooster, the script writer might be indulging in an inside joke: Ian Carmichael did play Wooster in a series on British TV and that association nearly cost him getting Wimsey after he himself suggested it to the powers that be!
No, Honestly (1974)
Delightfully goofy, superlatively comedic
Since Colin Wilson's review says much of what I had planned to say, I thought I might expand on some of the details. The reference to Burns and Allen is very apt but with a difference. Burns' timing to Gracie's inanities is slow, letting the audience have their laugh at her line before laughing at his reaction. With this Alderton and Collins, the delivery is rapid-fire; and indeed there are times when I had to ask my wife, "Did you catch that last remark?" because some of the zingers went by too quickly. And of course, those based on British idioms need footnotes for us Colonials.
As with Hyacinth Bucket's family relations, Clara's loopiness is obviously inherited from her parents, who will insist on misinterpreting everything they are told. Into this menage, Royal the super-Jeeves butler fits in perfectly.
The concept of chronological plots in these seven episodes is a good one from their first chance meeting to their (well, it was only 1974!) off-camera wedding night. And, by the way, their reason for not wanting to be known as newlyweds is explained--and fairly logically too, for Clara!--at the start of the episode.
The funniest two of the seven are those based on mistaken identity, that hoary device that goes back to Terence. The 3rd episode has C.D. arrive at his future in-laws just in time to be mistaken for the plumber with predictable results. The 5th episode is more elaborate, when an orphaned C.D. asks two fellow actors to appear as his parents at a dinner given at Clara's, just when her family has to hire temporary help to serve it. Once we accept the silliness of his not wanting to be known as parentless and the premise that no one in these scripts ever really tries to explain a thing in a normal manner, the results are not predictable at all; and this single episode alone is, I think, worth the price of the set.
Now if Acorn Media will only reissue these two wonderful comedians in the "Wodehouse Playhouse" series of "Mulliner" stories, life would be that much more perfect.
Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989)
Very amusing sleuthing at its best
There were many one hour and somewhat less two hour episodes of the Hercule Poirot mysteries shown on PBS; and foresighted fans should have taped them then, because when A&E re-runs them, parts of each have to be removed to make room for all the commercials. Very often, the solution at the end flashbacks to scenes that we never saw because of the abridgments and frankly the value of these episodes are reduced considerably. But now Acorn Media is reissuing them in complete versions, with the two hour features on DVD and the shorter ones on VHS. Both series are a delight. The acting genius of David Suchet is enhanced by his usual supporting cast (Hugh Fraser as Hastings, Philip Jackson as Japp, and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon), the wonderful guest casts, the done-to-perfection ambiance of time and place--the late 20s and early 30s--with all those fabulous art-deco buildings they have managed to find and populate. The first boxed set of 3 episodes contains "The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim," "The Veiled Lady," and "The Lost Mine." In the first, you might spot a bad flaw in the solution. Hint: how long was the playing time of the average 78 rpm disc back then? The second set includes "The Cornish Mystery" (with a genuine "blonde hussy"), "Double Sin" (with a Sweet Young Thing in Distress), and "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat" (with a neat reversal on the plot of Doyle's "The Red Headed League"). And if too many solutions depend on Poirot overhearing by chance some remark early in the story, well that should teach you to be more alert to these things on future viewings. Also if Poirot is not above breaking the law with a little forced entry now and then, well so did Sherlock Holmes. Released at the same time as the DVD edition of "The ABC Murders," ;Death in the Clouds concerns a killing on an airplane during which Poirot himself is fast asleep. As in all Christie mysteries, the red herrings keep coming; but as in few Christie mysteries, not all that many characters have the opportunity to be near the victim at the right time. (Many mystery writers are fond of "the crowded murder scene" in which every character was able to reach the victim at just the right time.) And although you might feel cheated at the solution--and this one is a tad far fetched--you had so much fun up to that point that you don't really feel like carping. The ABC Murders in my opinion is one of the better Poirot mystery novels and it transfers very well to the screen. First of all do not confuse it with the horrible film "The Alphabet Murders" with Tony Randall. This is a fairly faithful adaptation of the Christie novel that has Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp chasing after a serial killer who matches the initials of his victims with the name of the town in which they are killed. And although the murderer turns out to be not exactly the least likely suspect, there are enough red herrings--one gigantic, the rest minor--to keep you guessing until the inevitable scene in which all concerned are gathered in one place to hear how the Master has solved it all There is a bit of nonsense with Hastings' stuffed souvenir of the South American jungles and the last murder is shown but its purpose is not explained as it is in the original. Very amusing sleuthing for one and all--and a very welcome relief to the grizzly "modern" mysteries now being shown with extreme close-ups, whispered dialogue, and as much gore as possible in each frame.
A most welcome release
As many of us that were eternally grateful to Acorn Media for reissuing after too many decades the Lord Peter Wismey "Clouds of Witness," just so many and perhaps more can welcome back The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club with the incomparable Ian Carmichael whose idea it was to film the series in the first place and who almost did not get the part!
Like the other four in this series, this is a low budget, shot mostly in the studio, affair; but it is impeccably "period" in décor, dress, and even idiom. The plot involves at first not a "who done it?" but a "when was it done?" Since the vast inheritance depends on the timing of the deaths of an elderly brother and sister, the hour if not the very minute of the former's demise is the Big Question. Surprisingly, that mystery is revealed half way through the story; but by then we have a murderer to find and.well, I will not spoil things for you and urge you to see for yourself.
Carmichael's Wimsey is ever the aristocrat, here ready to quote W.S. Gilbert and W. Shakespeare (though not nearly as frequently as Rumpole will quote his favorite poets), even though he must apologize now and then for being over the heads of some of his less well-educated acquaintances. In this story the grinding poverty of one of the interested parties is shown in striking contrast to Wimsey's luxurious accommodations and ability to be very generous with his money (which after all was never earned by any workaday sweat of his brow).
As with all of this series, the minor characters are extremely well drawn, right down to a patron of a tea shop who becomes all flustered in meeting "a lord." While the two opposing lawyers might border on the Dickensian, they are both shown to be intelligent and honestly working for the good of their clients. And even the villain is basically a very Good Person in all other respects! But such is the universe created by Dorothy Sayers and it is treated with respect and intelligence in this fine series.
> Now we can only hope that Acorn Media will accelerate the releases of "Murder Must Advertise," "Five Red Herrings," and "The Nine Tailors."
Oh by the way, they are releasing at the same time some of the Poirots that have been butchered by A&E to make room for their insultingly frequent and overlong piggyback commercials. See the webpages for those. And by the way again, a comparison of Poirot and Wimsey would make a fascinating study.
Learning your history the enjoyable way
There was a time when Masterpiece Theatre truly showed masterpieces rather than sordid and foul detective series or more recent novels that are perhaps a notch above Harlequin Romances. One of the better series, I recall, told the story of the life, loves and political triumphs of Benjamin Disraeli; and I have often longed to see it again, knowing full well it went the way of many old films introduced by Alistaire Cooke in the good old days.
Well lo and behold! Acorn Media has made Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic available once more in a boxed set of four one-hour video tapes. It runs at some 220 minutes and is priced at $79.95. This might be a stiff price for individuals (although it would make a superb gift to someone whose intelligence you respect), but I feel that schools and libraries should pay heed to what I say below.
Like most BBC historical recreations, this one-although produced on a modest budget, as one can tell from the absence of crowd scenes-is extremely accurate as to décor, dress, speech patterns, body language, and all those details that so add to our enjoyment and appreciation of the subject matter. Then again we have the grand British acting tradition in which even the smaller roles are played with individuality and an avoidance of stereotyping.
Ian McShane is our Disraeli and viewers of Lovejoy ` and `The Dick Francis Mysteries' just might recognize him. The historically accurate way in which the younger Disraeli overdressed himself as a defense against anti-Semitism is worth the price of the set alone, as are the looks he gets when he changes to almost Puritan black and enters Parliament as a new man. After what we just went through in our nation's capital, it is refreshing to see the story of a truly talented man who acted for the good of his country and when he thought his Party wrong, told them so!
Even when he decided that marriage with a rich widow considerably older than himself was the only way to pay his debts, he spent most of the rest of his life as the happiest of married men. The estimable Mary Anne is played wrinkles and all by Mary Peach, who perfectly portrays the sort of wife that such a man needs. And after seeing the dour Queen Victoria of Judi Dench in the recent film `Mrs. Brown,' it is a bit surprising to see the almost jolly Victoria of Rosemary Leach. Very human, very believable.
Of course, a little boning up on what `Liberal,' `Conservative,' `Tory,' and so on meant back then would help a little toward better understanding the intricacies of the political situation-but this is exactly what I hinted at above. What better way to teach the history of any period than to feed it up in a thumping good story. For myself, I found the social posturing of the times as much fun as the history lesson. By the way, very little of both have changed, since those who do not read their history are bound to repeat its mistakes.
As you watch you cannot help but see how important it was to oppose the party in power no matter what plan they had for the country. The important thing was to act for Your Party, which usually meant fighting the Other Party tooth and nail over everything. If this sounds familiar, you see my point.
Most of all, this is the story of a man taking social prejudices in the only way that works: showing them that he is better than any of them. For example, when Baron Rothchild was elected to Parliament, he refused to take the oath on anything but the Old Testament. When Disraeli wanted to shame the House for their bigotry, he appealed to them as a Christian (he had converted long before that) and reminded them that Rothchild was of the same religion as Christ. In a later sequence, he asked his bitterest opponent to be Viceroy of India because Disraeli thought him the best man for the job. This is what we used to call integrity.
Clouds of Witness (1972)
Superior acting, plotting, decor, dialogue--you name it!
There are several ways for a writer to startle the reader at the end of a mystery. The most overused is "the least likely suspect" solution, a variant being found in an early Ellery Queen novel when a character already proven to be innocent turned out to be the guilty party. Agatha Christie broke all the rules when she made the first-person narrator the killer and again when she made all the suspects the collaborating killers and most outrageously of all when she made the Master Detective the killer. (Contact me if you want the titles of these books.) With Dorothy Sayers we have far better written novels--though not necessarily better mysteries than those solved by Poirot and Marple--with characters far more human and therefore interesting. So when the BBC decided back in 1972 to film several of her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, mostly at the urging of comedian Ian Carmichael, that actor was not even on the short list of candidates for the part since he was too closely associated with Bertie Wooster, whom he had shortly before that played on British telly. But he got the part and the rest is history. Five of the Wimsey mysteries were filmed and shown a year later on "Masterpiece Theatre": Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Five Red Herrings, Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors. They were a smash with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and showed up later with a new series title, "Murder Most British," which included only three of them. The Lord Peter Wimsey website was filled with inquiries from fans panting to get copies of any or all of the fabulous five, but the BBC retained a stony silence. The good news is, as you might have guessed by now, that Acorn Media is releasing four of them and <Clouds of Witness> is now available as a boxed set of five tapes and it is a stunner. My only quibble is that more than one of the 45 minute episodes could easily have been accommodated on a tape; but I am so delighted to have it at all that any such monetary objections must fall by the wayside. Without revealing the ending, let me say it is of a type not already mentioned in my opening! Lord Peter's brother Gerald is accused of murdering a man he had just argued with that evening and steadfastly refuses to say where he was at the time of the killing, although he was found bending over the body and his own gun was the means of death. So with too many clues to help him and a certain major character making up lies all the way, Lord Peter is chased by a vicious dog, nearly drowns in a bog, barely makes a stormy trans-Atlantic flight to save his brother, and unlike the more cerebral Poirot, bumbles now and then in his conclusions in a very human way. In fact, all the characters are quite human. When the well-read Wimsey tosses a reference to "Manon Lescaut" to his Scotland Yard companion and brother-in-law-to-be (played beautifully by Mark Eden), the impatient detective retorts, "I never read Manon Lescaut," and drawing an apology from the somewhat abashed Lord. Even the Duchess avoids stereotype with her upperclass-cool remarks concerning the proceedings, suggesting in a deep contralto a "nice cup of tea" at a crisis during her son's trial. As with the BBC Poirot series, the 1920s décor is impeccable and adds greatly to the amusement. Indeed it is for the acting and the art design that I will return many times to view this and the other tapes. I can only hope that The Nine Tailors will find its way into the series once the other four are out for sale. Acorn Media, who has already given us "Mapp and Lucia," "Disraeli," and the Canadian Gilbert and Sullivans already reviewed on these pages, is to be thanked for making this new series available to seekers of the finer style of mystery recreation.
The Sorcerer (1982)
Possibly the best G&S on film or tape
First of all, this version seems absolutely complete in both songs and dialogue. It is ever so Victorian, as G&S should be for its fullest effect, done absolutely straight-faced, and has the best Sorcerer I have ever seen. The Chorus, at least, may be pre-dubbed, and may consist of dancers lip-synching the voices of unseen singers. With this BBC series it is hard to tell; but if lip-synched, it is done very well. Since there is only one available recording of this operetta on Decca label (and that might be fast going out of print), I made a cassette of the sound track of this video to play in my car. The overture is also given complete, though the Director decided to play it during the final credits--which, by the way, show Wells in heaven! Altogether a superior treatment of what might be the least known of the major Savoy works. Note: there will soon be a version of this very tape with sub-titles! Keep an eye open for that gem.