The Hound of the Baskervilles – Movie Adaptation (1959)

Movie Details

Originally released in 1959
Screenplay by Peter Bryan based on The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Terence Fisher

Key Cast

Peter Cushing is probably most known to audiences today for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars film but he was also a frequent performer in the Hammer Horror film series where he played roles such as Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein. This was his first appearance as Holmes but he would revisit the part a decade later, including this same story, as part of a BBC television series.

Christopher Lee was one of the most prolific and well-known faces in cinema, often portraying villains such as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Like Cushing, he was also highly associated with the Hammer Horror films. A few years after this film he performed in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, another Terence Fisher production, this time as Holmes himself and would play the role again twice in the early 90s.

The Verdict

This atmospheric adaptation highlights the horror of the premise quite effectively. Cushing is very good as Holmes, though he is even better in the later television adaptation.


My Thoughts

The 1959 film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles is interesting in several respects. It was the first Sherlock Holmes film to be made in color and while it shows some signs of its budgetary limitations, the location filming adds a sense of scale that benefits the tale. It is also the first appearance of Peter Cushing as the Great Detective – a part he would reprise a decade later for a television series which included a feature-length adaptation of the same story. This means that we have the rather unusual situation of having two takes by the same actor on the same story and can observe some differences between them.

The film opens with a rather lusty and quite lengthy rendition of the Baskerville family legend. While the period details don’t exactly scream English Civil War to me, the general beats of the tale are there – a young woman is chased across the moor by the brutish Sir Hugo Baskerville who, moments after stabbing her, is savagely torn to pieces by a giant, devilish hound. While rather overblown (and overacted), this sequence serves two purposes – firstly to emphasize that this is a Hammer film and that the horror and action of the story will be emphasised, and secondly it limits the length of the consultation scene in which Dr. Mortimer will explain the matter to Holmes by showing us what happened rather than telling us in conversation.

From this point we switch to the consultation in which we get our first sense of Holmes and how Cushing will play him. He is certainly cold and rather imperious in these scenes which suits the tone of the production (he is a little warmer and more humorous in the television version) and there is a sense of a great energy that I consider an important part of the character. This is particularly obvious in later sequences in the film in which we see him actively examining a location as he moves quickly across the space. Perhaps most striking however is just how closely he resembles the Paget illustrations, especially in the prominence of his cheekbones and the deepness of the eyes.

While the consultation and the scenes that follow in London are certainly considerably abridged from the novel, the story does follow the basic structure. Dr. Mortimer explains why he fears for the life of the last of the Baskervilles and entreats Holmes to advise Sir Henry on whether he should go to the Hall. They visit him in his hotel, witness some signs that further emphasize the danger he is in (including a rather ridiculous animal-based assassination attempt that thankfully is quite brief), and make arrangements for Watson to stay with him for his protection while Holmes has to stay in London.

The great problem of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Holmes vehicle is, of course, that the Great Detective is hardly in it. That is one reason why the actor playing Sir Henry was billed above Sherlock Holmes in several of the earlier film adaptations. This version keeps that structure which makes the casting of Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville all the more important as they will have to carry the mid-section of the film.

André Morell plays Watson and offers a good counterbalance to Cushing. He is not as warm as some other versions of the character but he comes over as dependable and competent, if not blessed with Holmes’ deductive genius. While he will have some clumsy misadventures during his time on the moors, they come about because of his desire to protect others rather than because he is an inherently bumbling type and he retains his dignity throughout.

Christopher Lee portrayed Sir Henry and it is rather interesting to see him in a role that is rather more heroic than he normally got to play. Indeed, as he notes in an interview that is included on the Twilight Time blu ray I watched, this represents one of the very few films in his career where he played, against type, a romantic lead. It’s a rather solid performance although that romantic subplot is rather rushed (though that clearly is not his fault) and he plays very nicely off both Cushing and Morell.

The film does a good job of capturing the scale of the moor and making it a threatening location, both in terms of suggesting that it is being stalked by a giant spectral hound but also by emphasizing its marshiness. This is most clearly shown in a sequence in which Watson falls in while trying to protect a woman. This not only creates a moment of peril, it also establishes the dangers of the crossing the mire which is an important point for later in the story.

It should be said that while the film does keep many of the plot beats of the original story there are a number of changes made, some small and some bigger. Some of these struck me as a little silly – the aforementioned assassination attempt at the hotel and a sequence involving a mine shaft are clearly there just to add visual peril as well as some suggestion of some satanic rites being performed on a body – but I feel the simplification of the villain’s role and plan is a pity. That character feels much flatter than in most of the other versions of this story I have seen as a result, making them seem less impressive as an adversary.

While this adaptation may not be as faithful as I might like, I should say that it is more faithful than I expected. The film captures a lot of the elements that I like about the story and works hard to evoke an atmosphere of dread, often with success. Most of the roles are cast well and I think Cushing proves to be a very impressive Holmes, though I personally prefer his subsequent TV portrayal where he gets to show some lighter, warmer sides to the character along with the sometimes stern and aloof characterization we see here.

It may not be the perfect adaptation of this novel but it is an entertaining one and worth a look if you are already a fan of the story.

Jonathan Creek: Black Canary (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast 24 December, 1998
1998 Christmas Special
Preceded by Mother Redcap (Season Two)
Followed by The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish (Season Three)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Rik Mayall makes his first appearance as DI Gideon Pryke, a Police Investigator who is every bit as brilliant as Jonathan. Mayall was one of the stars of Britain’s alternative comedy movement in the 80s, featuring in some of the decade’s most popular shows such as The Young Ones, Comic Strip Presents and The New Statesman. This was apparently his first acting role after he experienced a traumatic quad biking accident that had left him in a coma for five days. He would make a further appearance in show around fifteen years later in the episode The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb.

The Verdict

The first TV special feels deserving of that title, giving Jonathan a brilliant rival to spar with and a pretty challenging case to solve.


My Thoughts

Marella Carney was one of the stars of the magic circuit, performing as the Black Canary, before a tragic accident led to her early retirement. Marella’s daughter contacts Jonathan to ask for his help in explaining the strange circumstances surrounding her sudden suicide. We learn that Marella’s wheelchair-bound husband Jerry was dozing in the conservatory when he woke to see her standing in the snowy garden arguing with a limping man. Suddenly she brandishes a shotgun, causing the man to run away, before turning it on herself moments later and shooting herself. Distraught, Jerry tries to get outside and when he does he notices that the only footprints that have been left in the snow are Marella’s…

Throughout its first season and most of its second Jonathan Creek stories were about fifty minute, standalone stories. The exception to that was a two-part story in the second season (The Problems at Gallows Gate) which I regard as fundamentally misconceived with many of its problems arising from the change in running time and issues of pacing. Black Canary, the show’s first Christmas special, would also be essentially double-length and could very easily have fallen into many of the same traps that Gallows Gate had. Instead Renwick delivered a story that not only felt tailored to its running time but also actually deserving of the label “special”.

To describe why this works I think it is important to pose a question: What do we want from a Jonathan Creek TV special?

The answer couldn’t simply be more Jonathan Creek. The show had by this point established a pretty solid rhythm and formula with an impossibility mixed with some comedic material and some will they/won’t they banter between Jonathan and Maddy. The Gallows Gate two-parter had shown that simply adding more running time into a story doesn’t make it more baffling or compelling.

Instead I think the answer lies in using that extra time to create a story that is bigger and more complex than you can typically tell. That doesn’t necessarily mean bigger in terms of the stakes of the show but bigger in the sense of telling Black Canary takes just such an approach and goes a step further by introducing a character who is capable of disrupting the show’s typical pacing, allowing for a different tone and unsettling the usual dynamics within our investigative team.

Much of my love for this episode stems from this character, DI Gideon Pryke, who represents a brilliant challenge to Jonathan. Pryke is, like Jonathan, incredibly brilliant with an ability to quickly assess and process information and see small details that would pass others by. As a consequence of that he is frequently one step ahead of Jonathan meaning that he has genuine competition to solve this case. It is, for the most part, fairly cordial although Jonathan is clearly frustrated by Pryke’s initial patronizing dismissal of him as the amateur who must be tolerated. Yet by the end their deductions are feeding each other, spurring each other on to crack the case. It is a really fun dynamic and one that I think enhances rather than diminishes Jonathan as a sleuth.

Rik Mayall gives a superb performance in the part, managing to not only portray Pryke as a good rival to Jonathan but ultimately a very effective detective. While the character is certainly arrogant, an attribute found in many of Mayall’s most celebrated characters, he is also surprisingly charming and ultimately quite gracious. This friendly rivalry reminded me somewhat of the one between Poirot and Giraud found in Murder on the Links although there is less of a stylistic difference between Creek and Pryke.

Turning to the actual details of the case, Renwick also makes some very smart choices in the way he sets up this story. One of the reasons that I have been rather vague about the details of this story in this post is that at the start of the story he leaves us with a lot of intriguing threads and pieces of information to think about. The seasoned viewer is likely to make some solid deductions from some of these and may feel that they are far ahead of the sleuths, only to find that there are a number of early reveals, some of which actually spin the story off in different directions.

This is the real benefit of the expanded running time – Renwick has the option here to develop clues that lead to other clues or sometimes cause you to rethink the way you are looking at them. The result is a story that feels much more complex than any Creek has tackled up until this point, building a sense that this story is more complex than it appears.

That feeling is borne out by the solution which is, for the most part, quite clever and logical. While the means by which the impossibility is achieved is not directly clued, I feel the viewer can infer what happened from some of the other clues around the crime scene. I enjoyed the way in which the solution is revealed with the two sleuths working in tandem to deliver the explanation which felt a rather charming way to not only close out the mystery but to show that the two had come together and a respect had formed. It is a nice moment that made me wish he had been brought back sooner so we could see more of that tag-team sleuthing that I found so enjoyable to watch.

While I think most of the mystery plot works well there are a few elements that I think are less successful. One aspect of the storyline, Jonathan and Maddy’s betting about whether Pryke’s assistant is male or female, feels pretty inappropriate and does not reflect brilliantly on those characters. It is another instance of the comedic elements of the show feeling really dated, though unlike some of the other examples I have pointed to this would not have been unusual content for the era it was produced in.

The other element that I think wouldn’t be written in exactly the same way today is Adam Klaus’ misbehavior with a costume designer working on his show. In particular, his behavior with a small recording device without her knowledge. Clearly we are intended to view this as a boorish and sleazy behavior when it is more of a violation of her body. Aside from that initial scene however I think that story thread does have some very amusing moments that I do think serve as a nice balance to the much more serious mystery material while the eventual payoff to that thread stands up pretty well.

With the exception of those two issues, I think much of the rest of the episode holds together really very well and proves that the show could work in a longer format. I think the hook of the disappearing footprints is fun and handled pretty well and I do enjoy the sort of haunting, spooky quality the episode channels at several points with the camera often dwelling on that rather eerie statue of Marella by the stairs.

The biggest reason I hold this episode in such high regard though is Mayall’s performance as Pryke. The character fits alongside Creek perfectly and, revisiting this episode, I found myself wishing that we had seen him more often. It is, in my opinion, one of the best guest performances on the show and I think that difficult relationship is perhaps the episode’s most memorable elements.

Which brings me to the end of my current run of Jonathan Creek posts. I plan on taking a short break from writing about the show until after the New Year when I plan on offering up some thoughts on The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish.

Jonathan Creek: Mother Redcap

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 1998

Season Two, Episode Six
Preceded by The Problems at Gallows Gate (Episodes Four and Five)
Followed by Black Canary (TV Movie)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Keith Washington

Key Guest Cast

Brian Murphy is best remembered by this writer as George from the seventies sitcoms Man About the House and its spinoff, George and Mildred. While he has had a long career, this is one of his few crime credits.

This is one of Nicola Walker’s earlier TV performances. She had a long-running role on the BBC spy drama Spooks (MI-5 in the US) and, more recently, appeared as a lead in Unforgotten. She also gave a standout guest performance in an episode in the first season of Luther.

The Verdict

This story is excellently paced, doing a good job of balancing a cold case and a case in the present day. A strong ending to this second season.


My Thoughts

A judge involved in the sentencing of a gang of Chinese criminals is given police protection when a threat is made that he will be dead by the morning. The windows are barred and police are placed throughout the home and on the grounds to offer protection. The bedroom door, the only entrance to the room, is under observation from a pair of police officers at all times throughout the night.

At 6am a crash is heard from inside the bedroom and the police run inside. The judge is lying on the floor dead with a small wound in his chest which is covered in blood. As the doctor confirms the murder can only have occured moments earlier yet there is no sign of a weapon or a killer anywhere inside the room or on the grounds. The only thing that is found is a torn piece of fingernail.

Meanwhile Maddy is approached by an Estate Agent who asks her to collaborate with him in an investigation into a series of mysterious deaths that took place in a bedroom above a London hostelry, The Mother Redcap, in the 1940s. Seven men died after looking out of a window, each apparently being scared to death by what they saw. The pub has been on the market for decades but its reputation has made it impossible to find a buyer.

These two strange cases will inevitably overlap – the question is how and why.

The first thing to say about Mother Redcap is that it represents a quick return to form for the show after the messy two-part story that preceded it. This is noticeably tighter and much more focused on developing its core puzzle, with remarkably little padding. While I do have a couple of issues with a few details of the plot, I think this matches the quality of the first three episodes in the season very well and were it placed on the other side of The Problems at Gallows Gate I would clearly be talking about a run of four excellent stories.

Given that today’s Hallowe’en, let’s start by discussing the rather spooky events at the Mother Redcap pub. This represents a new sort of case for the show – the cold case – and it is introduced pretty effectively. There is a strong sense of atmosphere both in the recounting of what happened and in the subsequent visits to the derelict building, helped by some strong low-light cinematography. While I would suggest that this plotline skirts the edge of being fair play based on a piece of information being provided only a few moments before the solution, the viewer certainly is given enough to work out the general idea of what may have been done and the motive, even if the exact method or mechanism used can only be an educated guess.

While the episode in general is less comedic than any of the others in the season, this story thread is the source for the most overtly comedic aspects of the plot. Namely Maddy’s uncomfortable interactions with her estate agent source who she fails to listen closely to when he tells her he is a nudist. I have complained about several of the comedic subplots in this season but this one, while not exactly hilarious, at least feels in balance with the other elements of the story and nicely parallels Jonathan’s own disappointing interactions with a possible romantic interest later in the episode.

As for the main mystery, I think the episode is once again very effective in setting out the constraints in which the crime took place. This is done very economically in the opening with a montage that demonstrates that it should be impossible for someone to get in and out of that room undetected, particularly with the judge’s wife sleeping somewhat restlessly next to him. Even though I remembered much of the solution, I still found the puzzle to be compelling on repeat viewing with several points of interest for Jonathan to consider when he is pulled into the case.

In most respects I find the solution to this to be quite satisfying. The few issues I have all relate to small, spoilery points and none were significant enough to seriously impact my enjoyment of the story.

ROT-13: Gurer ner frireny nfcrpgf bs gur cybg gung vaibyir yhpx – obgu tbbq naq onq (qrcraqvat ba jurgure lbh ner Wbanguna be bhe xvyyre). Sbe vafgnapr, gur qebccvat bs gur svatreanvy vf rabezbhfyl hayhpxl sbe gur xvyyre naq vf gur bayl yvax Wbanguna unf orgjrra gur gjb ybpngvbaf. Fvzvyneyl, gur xvyyre unf n fgebxr bs yhpx va svaqvat bar bs gur srj crbcyr jub pna rkcynva gur xvyyvat zrgubq hfrq nyy gubfr lrnef ntb gubhtu V fhccbfr gung vf nppbhagrq sbe va gurve univat orra vaibyirq onpx gura.

With the exception of these small issues, I found Mother Redcap to be another strong entry in what I still regard as the show’s best season. I think it is very atmospheric, close to perfectly paced, features a strong secondary mystery and it does a fine job of integrating the comedic subplot into the main storyline so that they complement each other.

Both of the cases are clever and explained quite effectively. Indeed – I think I appreciate how well constructed this story is all the more on repeat viewing as I noticed some of the small details (ROT-13: Gur jnl bhe xvyyre vf njner bs gur gvzr gung gur nynez jvyy tb bss naq gvzrf gurve npgvbaf gb or ba gur fprar juvyr qrynlvat gur bgure cbyvpr gb znxr fher ab bar bofreirf gur fgnoovat).

Jonathan Creek: The Problems at Gallows Gate – Parts 1 & 2 (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 14 and 21, 1998

Season Two, Episodes Four and Five
Preceded by The Scented Room
Followed by Mother Redcap

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Keith Washington

Key Guest Cast

Clarke Peters plays the supposedly blind pianist Hewie Harper. Since filming this episode Peters has appeared in several crime-themed productions including the recent Partners in Crime adaptation, The Wire and season two of The Tunnel.

Perhaps the most famous face though in the production is Amanda Holden. She is probably best known now for her role as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent and, as an actress, for her role in Cutting It. Genre fans may also be familiar with her from the Marple episode What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw.

The Verdict

Heavily padded to make it a two-part story and easily my least favorite case up to this point in the show’s run.


Plot Summary

The story begins with a large party that takes place at a country house. Birthday boy Duncan greets Felicity, a late arrival, who gives him a gift. Later that night Duncan enters Felicity’s bedroom where he finds her in bed with his friend Neville. She tells him to get over her rejection of him but instead he walks towards the balcony, climbs on the stone fencing and jumps. His friends rush to the balcony where they see him lying bloodied on the ground below and when an ambulance is called he is pronounced dead and buried.

Later Felicity is found murdered in her cottage by Adam Klaus’ sister Kitty who was in the area along with Jonathan and Maddy. When she speaks to the police the man she describes a man exactly matching Duncan’s description as the murderer – something that clearly should be impossible.


My Thoughts

In my previous post about Jonathan Creek I shared my belief that the first three episodes of the second series represent the strongest run of episodes that the show ever pulled off. I did hedge that praise a little however by noting that I may find I like some of the later episodes much more than I remember on revisiting them. I feel far more certain of my ground with this story however in saying that I think it is one of the poorest stories the show ever did.

There are a number of problems with this story but I think the problems begin with the decision to structure this story as a two-parter. That is not because the show cannot work in a feature-length format – I am pretty confident that I will be singing the praises of such a story relatively soon – but because this particular plot is not substantial enough to justify that extra time and, as a consequence, the two episodes feel heavily padded.

One indication of this is that Jonathan and Maddy are not introduced to the central storyline or its cast of characters until the very end of the first episode. Instead they are engaged in a secondary plotline in which Adam Klaus tries to persuade Jonathan to keep his sister Kitty occupied during her visit so she will not interfere with his dating life or from getting in the way of their attempts to recruit the supposedly blind pianist Hewie Harper to take part in their next big show.

Putting aside the question of whether this comedic material is successful or not for the moment, it seems utterly bizarre to spend an entire episode of a detective show without any actual detection taking place. Instead this first forty five minutes is a mix of setup and padding with all of the serious sleuthing restricted to the second part. A problem that is only exacerbated by the apparent simplicity of the case leaving me wondering why this story was envisaged as a two parter at all.

The best episodes of Jonathan Creek present us with an impossibility that is structured like a magic trick. Several of the earliest stories directly reference that, having Jonathan work with a little set to demonstrate the deception. To be really successful however the story must engage in some sort of sleight of hand. Each of the previous three stories does this to some extent, framing the crime in such a way that our attention can be drawn to the wrong elements. I feel that this impossibility misses the mark because there is really only a single logical way to pick apart what has happened.

The central impossibility here is a variation of the person being seen in two places at once, albeit one of the two places here is six feet underground. It is also rather reminiscent of the problem we saw just two episodes earlier in Time Waits For Norman which presented it with a much cleverer twist. The difference however is that in that story we have actual observation in two places at once – here the corpse clearly cannot be observed and the episode has already demonstrated that a burial can be faked courtesy of a sequence involving Adam Klaus. In short, we can be pretty confident that for Duncan death was not the end – the only questions that are left to solve is how the trick was worked and why.

The question of why feels really insubstantial, the reason seeming quite clear from what we observed in the first few scenes of the first part. The mechanism by which it was done is more complex but more mechanical than intellectual. While perfectly serviceable as a solution to this type of story, it is nowhere near unusual or complex enough to justify it being told as a two part story.

ROT 13: Nethnoyl guvf fvzcyvpvgl vf, vgfrys, n gevpx qrfvtarq gb yhyy gur ivrjre vagb guvaxvat gurzfryirf pyrire naq srryvat fngvfsvrq bapr gurl ernpu guvf fbyhgvba. Gung zvtug jbex rkprcg gung V guvax vg orpbzrf pyrne gbb rneyl va cneg gjb gung fbyivat gur vzcbffvovyvgl jvyy abg erfbyir fbzr bs gur bqqvgvrf bs gur pbggntr zheqre, znxvat vg pyrne gung jr ner ybbxvat sbe fbzrbar ryfr gb or gur xvyyre.

Which brings us to the content of the story’s padding: the supposedly blind musician and Adam’s sister Kitty. Sometimes a comedic plotline in an episode doesn’t work for me but it can be easily ignored – here we get so much of it, particularly in that first episode, that it feels like the focus. And unfortunately this episode’s material really doesn’t work for me.

Part of the reason for this is that the tone of some of that material feels really quite unpleasant – when Adam Klaus womanizes it is clear that while he may objectify the women he pursues, they are consenting. Hewie’s ‘accidental’ groping however is on another level and I found those scenes very uncomfortable to watch. This is, of course, intentional to some extent but I think the nature of the ‘punishment’ he receives struck me as neither satisfying nor particularly funny. Once again I do find myself wondering if this story, made again today, would handle this plotline quite differently (or, more likely, omit it altogether).

The Problems at Gallows Gate could have been a decent story. The problem is entirely one of its pacing – having an extra forty five minutes only gives the viewer more time to recognize the trick that is being pulled on them. Stripped of its secondary plots, I think this could have been a pretty entertaining forty five minutes of television. Unfortunately I found my viewing experience was defined heavily by the story’s padding and viewed in the context of the previous three episodes, each of which was much tighter, did it no favors at all.

Jonathan Creek: The Scented Room (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 7, 1998

Season Two, Episode Three
Preceded by Time Waits for Norman
Followed by The Problems at Gallows Gate (Parts One and Two)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Bob Monkhouse was a standup comic who was a familiar face as a daytime television host on shows like Celebrity Squares and Wipeout.

Geoffrey McGivern makes his final appearance in the show as Maddy’s agent Barry (presumably he would have continued had Quentin come back). Best known for his role as Ford Prefect in original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, McGivern has performed in a wide array of comedy roles.

Finally, Peter Copley plays the small role of Eric the spam sandwich-loving guard here but will be known to fans of Cadfael as Abbot Heribert.

The Verdict

There are more complex or thrilling cases but this is the one I have watched most often. A clever puzzle which is filmed very effectively.


My Thoughts

A group of schoolgirls are being led on a tour of the home of theatre critic Sylvester Le Frey and his wife, Lady Theresa Cutler. While they bicker near the pool, a group of eight girls are led into a small room by a guide to see his El Greco while Eric, the security guard, keeps an eye on the group while nibbling on a spam sandwich. The group looks at the painting for a few moments before leaving, the painting still visibly on the wall. The door is closed and the other half of the class are gathered to be led in. As the guide opens the door she is shocked to find that the painting has been cut from the frame. There is no other way in or out of the small viewing room – the walls are solid and the skylight is built not to open. In short, it seems impossible that the painting could have been stolen in the space of thirty seconds with everyone stood outside and yet its disappearance is clear for all to see.

Jonathan detests Le Frey having been the subject of one of his acidic reviews in the past and so when he is tricked into visiting his home to check out the scene he is unwilling to be helpful, though he takes delight in telling Le Frey that he knows how the painting was stolen – he just won’t explain it to him.

In some of the comments on my posts about the first couple of episodes of this second season of Jonathan Creek I mention how the first three episodes make up my favorite run of stories from the show. At least, assuming my feelings about some of the later stories haven’t changed. While this story is perhaps less audaciously plotted than the two preceding it, the incredibly tight timetable in which the impossibility is worked makes the trick all the more impressive to me.

The opening to this episode is very effective, establishing not only the characters and the situation but the geography of the building. The camera is placed to give us clear shots of exactly what has happened, allowing the viewer to feel that they can survey the whole of the crime scene, both at the time of the crime and also as Jonathan will see it when he arrives at the house. That only raises the excitement of this particular case for me, making it an even more direct challenge to the viewer – Jonathan says right from the beginning he can work out how the trick was worked based on the exact same things we are seeing making us aware from the start that as impossible as the crime seems, the trick must be a simple one.

That turns out to be the case – the trick is a fairly simple one. Jonathan even gives Maddy a clue as to exactly how the trick was worked that is the type of one that is oblique enough that it is unlikely to help the viewer solve it yet clear enough that we can all marvel at how smart the sleuth is at the end of the story. Compared to the stories surrounding it however this does not feel noticeably slighter or less interesting in its plotting, particularly as the questions of who pulled off the heist and why remain unclear for much of the episode and are just as interesting to me as the how of the crime.

Adding to the situation is Jonathan’s resentment towards Le Frey. His reluctance to get involved in the case is quite understandable and so Maddy’s attempts to persuade him to help becomes a significant subplot for the episode. This, for me, is the least successful part of the episode as I find the business with the policeman more silly than funny, though I do at least enjoy Jonathan’s reaction to what happens and I appreciate that he does not budge in his conviction to not give Le Frey the satisfaction of an explanation, even when he comes to solve the case.

Speaking of Le Frey, I should probably take a moment to express my appreciation for the casting of Bob Monkhouse. This character is not a particularly complex one, nor is much asked of the performer in terms of showing much range or subtlety – he is there to be an obnoxious, arrogant blowhard and Monkhouse gives us exactly that. I am always a fan of seeing pomposity punctured and given how very, very pompous Le Frey is it is little wonder that I enjoy the grumpy interactions between him and Jonathan. Monkhouse’s performance is broad but entertaining, fitting his role perfectly and making this a favorite guest appearance on the show for me.

All of which brings me to the episode’s conclusion which I think is great. The resolution to the case involves an element of reenactment and I think this is done very well, reminding us of why the crime appeared so mysterious and giving the viewer one final opportunity to work out exactly how it was done before all is revealed. It is a fun scene visually, once again shot very efficiently, and I love the way it caps some of the relationships and themes we have seen developed in this story.

Of all of the Jonathan Creek stories, this is the one that I have the strongest memories of enjoying on first viewing. I remember feeling really surprised about the explanation of the crime and how it was worked, and I have found that my enjoyment for it hasn’t waned much on frequent repeated viewings. While I think there are some more complex or thrilling cases, I find that I love to revisit this story because of its clever premise and for the antagonism with Le Frey and have done so often over the years.

Jonathan Creek: Time Waits for Norman (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 31, 1998

Season Two, Episode Two
Preceded by Danse Macabre
Followed by The Scented Room

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Dermot Crowley who plays the time-obsessed Norman in this episode has been a recurring character on Luther since its first season playing Martin Schenk.

Deborah Grant who plays Norman’s wife played a recurring part in the long-running crime show Bergerac.

The Verdict

I have some issues with aspects of the conclusion but the explanation of what happened is clever.


My Thoughts

The second season of Jonathan Creek opened with a really strong impossible murder and continued in a similarly impressive vein with this story which is a version of the person seen in two places at once impossibility. The titular Norman is a time-obsessed man who is so concerned with the idea that it is being wasted that he insists that all of the clocks in their home have their hands removed. His working time is split between two offices – one in Britain and the other in the United States – and he has worked at both locations long enough that everyone knows him well.

Norman has just returned to his home in the UK when he and his wife Antonia receive a visit from an employee at a Wimpy Burger. That man produces Norman’s wallet and insists that he had dropped it the previous morning while eating a burger – something that would be out of character for him. The wallet is definitely his but Norman claims that the man is talking nonsense and when she calls her husband’s office in the US Antonia is told that he had been in a meeting at exactly that time. Not knowing how to explain it, Antonia reaches out to Maddy for advice and she, in turn, solicits Jonathan’s help.

One of the things that appeals to me most about this story is that it seeks to broaden the scope of the show’s impossibilities. Each episode of the first season had involved a murder, as had the opener to this second season, so it made for a nice change to be dealing with something odd rather than deadly. It makes for a nice change of pace and tone as those somewhat lower stakes allow for a little more of a focus to fall on the will-they, won’t-they relationship between Maddy and Jonathan.

Renwick’s script does a very good job of laying out the details of the sightings and establishing that the US office genuinely exists (although the rather odd accent that the first person Antonia speaks with may have you doubting that fact) and that multiple individuals remember Norman being at the meeting that day. With lying excised as a possibility, we know that the answer to what happened has to be something more inventive than simply “they lied”.

When we get that explanation it does mostly satisfy me, although like most tricks there is always a sense of deflation when you realize how easily it is worked. While this went over my head when I first saw it I think anyone who approaches it logically may very well be able to work out what happened from just my summary above. For once I think the more interesting question here is not how but why and I think the answer given to that feels broadly credible.

I am less convinced by the episode’s secondary plot which features Jonathan finding himself entangled in an uncomfortable relationship with a woman he feels unable to break up with. While I recognize its purpose in being used as a reason to provoke jealousy and explore Jonathan’s discomfort, the actual content of those scenes falls flat for me and fails to make me laugh – hardly ideal for a plotline whose main purpose is comedic. I would also add that I don’t think those scenes ever really do a good enough job of exploring how the woman feels about the way she is seen and treated which ought to be a consideration.

The other characters fare better however and I think the reason that this episode works is because of the characters of Norman and Antonia Strangerson. These characters not only have interesting backgrounds and personalities, you also understand how the mistrust between them has begun to simmer and why Maddy and Jonathan need to uncover the truth.

Does that mean I love the ending? Not at all. In fact I think that once we get past the explanation of what happened, the episode really struggles to put forward a clear idea of how the viewer should be feeling or reacting to what they have seen. While I think that there is something realistic and honest in its conclusion, there is also something quite unsatisfying about how the episode ends.

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In spite of those complaints, I do appreciate the cleverness of the problem’s solution and I think both Crowley and Grant are excellent guest stars. Is it quite as good as I remembered? Well, no. But the clever ideas are really clever and make this one of the better Jonathan Creek adventures.

Jonathan Creek: Danse Macabre (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 24, 1998

Season Two, Episode One
Preceded by The House of Monkeys (Season One)
Followed by Time Waits for Norman

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Peter Davison is one of the most familiar faces on British television first becoming known for his role in All Creatures Great and Small before replacing Tom Baker in Doctor Who. He has also been a frequent face in genre productions, memorably playing Margery Allingham’s Campion, Peter Lovesey’s DC Davies and making several appearances as Inspector Christmas in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries.

The Verdict

This story was one of my favorites on original broadcast and remains my go-to pick when I am wanting to revisit the show. Great concept, explained well.


My Thoughts

As much as I enjoyed revisiting the first season of Jonathan Creek, my strongest memories of the show lie in its second season. I remember several of the stories in this season quite vividly and, of those, none sticks in my memory more than Danse Macabre.

The episode begins with Maddy receiving a visit from Stephen Claithorne, a priest who wants her help to understand a strange event that took place at his home. His mother-in-law, the famous horror novelist Emma Lazarus, was visiting along with her husband and bodyguard and while he had to attend a meeting, the rest of the family took part in a fancy dress party. They return to the house where an intruder takes her husband’s skeleton costume and shoots Lazarus dead in her bedroom.

Her daughter Lorna runs to the bedroom where she is knocked unconscious. Caught by surprise as the household stirs, the disguised figure picks up Lorna and carries her to the garage where she uses her unconscious body as a human shield, closing the garage door as the police pull up and surround the building. When they open the garage door they find Lorna stirring but no sign of the skeleton figure at all. This begs the question – who was in the skeleton costume and how did they escape?

This central problem fascinated me at fourteen and even now, knowing the solution, I continue to find it very appealing. Certainly a big part of that lies in the horror trappings, both literal – as in the corny costumes the characters are wearing for the party – but also the idea of the home invasion and a vanishing act that seems to suggest the figure was a ghost or spirit. I think the real reason though that this continues to delight me is that when you revisit it with an awareness of the solution you can admire just how effectively the trick has been worked.

One of the things that struck me watching this again was that had I paused frequently and made notes, I could have solved several aspects of the case early on. In a sense the episode acknowledges this by having Jonathan solve many aspects of the question of how it was worked without him ever setting foot in the house. Assuming that the camera is not lying to us, we should have a pretty good idea of who is in that garage as it closes. The reason I think it works is that this action plays out with a considerable sense of pace, never really allowing the viewer the time to pause and think the problem through.

How clever is the solution to what happened in that garage? Well, I think it is rather ingenious and explained quite effectively. Like many impossibilities you can see how it could all have gone horribly wrong and yet you can also understand exactly how the vanishing was achieved and appreciate the audacity of the idea.

The episode even includes a second mysterious and rather gruesome mystery concerning the disappearance of something from within a coffin. Here I feel the episode perhaps leans into its horror theming a little too much, particularly given its somewhat hokey explanation, though it does add an additional layer of complication at a moment in the story where everything might otherwise seem to be getting a little clearer.

The performances from the guest cast are fine with Peter Davison standing out as Claithorne from the moment he first appears. He not only recounts the strange events well, he also has to serve a sort of moral role in this episode as the one figure who is definitely outside of the whole affair. While Claithorne is a rather dry individual, Davison does at least draw out a little humor in his reactions to the characters around him and injects a role that might otherwise have seemed quite flat with life.

In addition to the main mystery plot, Jonathan is having to deal with the demands of his irresponsible, egotistical boss. This is the story that brings Adam Klaus back, now played by Stuart Milligan, and I was struck by some of the differences in the portrayal compared with Anthony Stewart Head’s performance. Where Head came off as cocky and suave, Milligan shows him as rather more inept and bragadocious. Still a pig, certainly, but one we can count on usually ending up on bottom when difficult situations arise.

His storyline here makes for a solid reintroduction to the character and while his bedroom behavior is hardly unexpected, those elements of the story are executed pretty well. It is hard to imagine how he thinks he can get away with it all however and it is nice to see another character really put him on the ropes in an episode.

Overall I am happy to say that this first episode of Season Two lived up to both my expectations and my memory. The answer as to how the trick is worked is really quite clever and visually I still find this to be one of the most convincing stories in the series. Do I entirely buy the motivations for what happens? Probably not though I think that reflects the imagination of the crime itself which is, in my opinion, this case’s biggest draw and one of the reasons this remains one of my favorite episodes.

Luther: Series One

Series Details

Originally broadcast May 4, 2010 to June 8, 2010
Starring Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves, Indira Varma and Paul McGann.
All episodes written by Neil Cross.

The Blurb

Luther is a near-genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can’t always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions.

The Verdict

Dark and gritty inverted crime stories. Some plots appealed to me more than others but this series boasts some excellent performances from both the regulars and guest cast


My Thoughts

When I first became interested in inverted crime stories I did a little research. There were two television shows that were recommended to me as the best examples of the subgenre on the screen. The first was Columbo which I have been working my way through quite steadily over the past few months and will return to again soon. The other was Luther, a much darker and grittier show that I had been aware of but avoided watching out of concern that it might be a little too grim for my tastes.

Have I suddenly become less squeamish? Absolutely not. In fact, I will freely admit that the two serial killer episodes definitely were a bit much for me. Still, I wanted to watch them because it is one of the most prominent examples of the subgenre and I do want to cover as wide a variety of examples of this subgenre as possible.

The premise of the show is pretty simple – John Luther is a Detective Chief Inspector working for the Serious Crime Unit. When we meet him he is chasing down Henry Madsen, a kidnapper and serial killer who has hidden a victim away somewhere. This is the result of months of hard work and Luther’s obsession with catching Madsen has led to his separation from his wife. Luther confronts him and Madsen ends up hanging from a ledge. Desperate Madsen gives up the location of the victim but Luther chooses not to help him up, allowing him to fall several stories. The impact is sufficiently strong to put him in a coma and Luther, suffering a breakdown, ends up on suspension.

After this prologue we jump forward to the point where Luther is told he can resume duties. We follow him as he attempts to catch criminals whose identitites will be known to the viewer from near the beginning of most episodes and typically Luther is hot on their trail. Most of the episodes can be categorized as howcatchem stories with Luther using psychology and manipulation to try and expose a criminal’s guilt.

Luther is portrayed by Idris Elba who really delves into the character’s complexities and contradictions, making him someone who cares a lot about justice but perhaps not about following the letter of the rules. He is brilliant but emotionally unstable, reflecting both his sense of guilt about Madsen and also his frustrations about the state of his marriage. He reads people really well, noticing inconsistencies and behaviors that do not quite match the situation.

I know that the emotional detective is a trope that some have tired of but where I think Luther sets himself apart from some other misanthropic sleuths is that he seems to have hope, even if it is lodged in an idea that seems impossible. He also manages to maintain some pretty positive work relationships and I think it is telling that several other characters seem to go out of their way to support him and help him work his way back and cover for him when he does cross the line.

The show has a good recurring cast with Elba receiving excellent support from Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Paul McGann and Saskia Reeves. It is a great ensemble and even though some characters get more to do than others, I felt that each have moments in which they shine – particularly Wilson.

Overall I have to say that I enjoyed the series, even if there were a few moments that were a little intense for my own taste. Some cases interested me more than others though even the lesser cases benefit from being cast well.

While each episode does present its own case or scenario (with the exception of the finale which picks up on events from the preceding story), the series as a whole does have a strong character arc that means you really should watch them in order. For that reason I decided I would not write individual episode reviews but rather make specific comments about each story below.

Please note that while the episode-specific comments below do not spoil subsequent episodes, they will contain spoilers for some of the preceding stories!

Episode One

Ruth Wilson plays Alice Morgan, a brilliant astrophyicist who calls the police to report that she found her parents and their dog murdered in their home. Alice appears to have an alibi as she was seen buying groceries only minutes before placing the call and no gun is found anywhere on the property. Luther quickly comes to suspect that Alice is responsible, he just needs to work out how it was done and how she was able to dispose of the murder weapon.

As the first episode of the series, this has a lot of ground to cover in just an hour. It establishes Luther’s character, his situation with his suspension following his breakdown during another case, his estrangement from his wife and the feelings about members of his department towards him. With so much ground to cover, the case he looks into is relatively contained with a single suspect and not much physical evidence to consider.

Instead much of the episode is made up of psychological games between Luther and Alice. Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson are both quite compelling in these scenes and I was fascinated to see the power in their relationship shift thoroughout the episode. There are a few really memorable confrontations, particularly the one on the bridge, and I thought that the episode ending was surprising and sent an interesting message about what to expect from the series.

Episode Two

A man calls the police to report a body in an underpass. When two officers arrive on the scene he jumps up, shooting them both. This is the first in a series of a number of police killings across the city, each with increasingly high body-counts. While Luther is able to identify a likely suspect, the police struggle with how to catch him when he always seems to be one step ahead of them.

After giving us a relatively contained first episode, this second story significantly widens the scope to present us with a criminal who will keep killing until they achieve their goal. This creates quite a bit of tension which is only elevated by the secondary plot involving threats to Luther’s wife. This storyline feels equally important as the case itself and I felt added depth to her relationship with Luther and gave us a greater understanding of exactly how that marriage came to fall apart.

The episode touches on some interesting discussions about the challenges many servicemen face returning to civilian life though the person responsible is ultimately not very sympathetic, although played very well by one of my favorite actors. The action sequences are shot very well, particularly a fight near the end. I would however have liked a moment with the villain following that fight to provide a fuller sense of closure to that story.

Episode Three

Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys) kidnaps a young mother, leaving messages daubed on the walls of her house in the blood of a woman he had murdered a decade earlier. He had been suspected of that crime but successfully sued the police for damages after an undercover officer used brutality against him, using the funds to set himself up with an occult bookshop. The police do not doubt he is responsible but, keen to avoid another press fiasco, have to make certain they can prove it before they approach him.

I have mentioned before that I find serial killer stories hard so the opening of this episode was quite uncomfortable for me. Suffice it to say Rhys’ portrayal of Burgess is suitably repulsive and what he does to his victim here left me squirming. Adding to the complications Luther faces is that he is under investigation by internal affairs after he is accused of hiring a group of girls to beat up Mark outside his home.

While I may have struggled a little with the start to the episode, I felt that this story was the most compelling so far. There was a clear element of a race against time which causes Luther to go over the line on several occasions. While the previous stories do establish that idea, here we follow Luther through that entire process. This generates some interesting conflict between the characters – particularly with DS Ripley (Warren Brown) who gets more to do in this episode than in either of the two previous ones.

The most successful part of the episode though are those scenes shared with Elba and Rhys. When I first read about the series I had seen some people compare it to Columbo and while there were moments in the first episode particularly that reminded me of that, I think that comparison is much clearer here. This is a genuine cat and mouse game complete with elements of mental trickery that parallel moments in that series. Certainly the subject matter and tone is much, much darker (famously Columbo never shows blood which is definitely not the case here) but I think what appeals most about that series – the idea of pitting two really compelling actors opposite each other for these two-hander scenes – is also present here.

Episode Four

A serial killer has been targeting young women walking home alone at night and the attacks seem to be escalating. At the most recent killing the killer removes a necklace from the body which he presents to his wife as a birthday present. Luther soon identifies a suspect but realizes he will need the wife’s cooperation to catch the husband. Meanwhile news that Henry Madsen, the serial killer who Luther allowed to fall, wakes up from his coma…

Much like the last episode this one had me squirming although those moments all occur in one incredibly tense sequence towards the end. The characters here all feel credible with Rob Jarvis giving a really intense performance towards the end while Nicola Walker is really emotive, connecting powerfully to this character and making you feel their discomfort and pain.

Interestingly there really are no moments shared between Elba and Jarvis which gives this episode a rather different feel than each of the ones that precede it. Instead Luther focuses on connecting with and manipulating his wife, a different sort of tactic than we have seen him use so far. This certainly leads to a powerful conclusion but I do wonder if the script really has an opinion on whether he did the right thing or not by doing that. I personally feel Luther is rather responsible for much of the damage done in the last third of the episode and yet there is no picking apart of what happens after the fact.

The secondary plot with Mark and Zoe is well acted as always – both Indira Varma and Paul McGann are superb performers and play their scenes with sincerity – but I do feel that they are being quite passive in their reactions to Alice’s manipulations. Given how freely Mark has reported incidents to the police so far and her threats in the previous episodes, it seems strange we haven’t had a moment where the characters really address the question of how to protect themselves from her.

Though it generates quite a bit of suspense, particularly in the end, I did find this episode to be the least enjoyable up until this point. That may just be my inherent squeamishness and it may just reflect how much I was creeped out by Jarvis’ performance.

Episode Five

An art dealer is about to leave the country with his wife but before they can leave they are attacked by a group of gangsters who demand a set of valuable diamonds. They cut his wife’s tongue out and tell him that they will kill her if he cannot produce them by a deadline. He heads to the police looking for help saying that he cannot produce them, leading Luther to devise a plan that he hopes can save her life or at least keep her alive long enough for them to track down her location.

With both this and the final episode it is really difficult to discuss much of the episode without spoiling them. Suffice it to say that this story takes a turn, pushing Luther into some new territory. There are two really significant developments in this episode. What I will say is that the first reveal confirmed suspicions I had from the beginning of the show and felt properly set up as a moment. The second much less so, feeling rather sudden and designed to spin a finale rather than because it offered a satisfying end to that particular storyline.

The case itself though makes for a needed change of pace from the serial killer stories that feel like they have dominated this first series. This storyline once again taps into the question about whether it is acceptable for police to operate outside rules and regulations to save someone’s life and incorporates some surveillance work – an aspect of policing we haven’t really seen depicted up until this point.

Ultimately though it is those longer term developments that will have the most impact on the viewer and the episode has to be judged by those. Whatever my misgivings about the way the episode ends, I do appreciate that it does set up a really powerful premise for a season finale.

Episode Six

Just another reminder that I will spoil the ending of episode five. If you haven’t already watched this show I would strongly suggest skipping this until you do so.

The final episode of the season picks up right after the end of the previous one with Luther on the run accused of murder with the real killer orchestrating the police campaign to capture him. It is a compelling situation in which everything seems to be stacked against him but he uses his wits to not only stay one step ahead of them but to attempt to bring that person to justice. The reality of the chase lives up to its promise and builds to a powerful conclusion, even if I could predict how the episode was likely to end.

The performances in this last episode are uniformly excellent. The pace steps up to match the tension of the situation with everyone acting with a sense of urgency. I particularly liked that this episode really forces everyone to make a decision about whether or not they trust Luther which feels like it is paying off episodes of steady build-up.

I don’t have much else to say about this except that I think it delivered a really solid conclusion to the themes of the season and left Luther in another really interesting situation. I am really interested to see where the character is headed in the second season (which I have not watched yet at the time of writing).

Perry Mason: Season One (TV)

Series Details

Originally Broadcast 2020
Starring Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin
Available on HBO Go

The Blurb

An infant boy is kidnapped and an exchange is set up. The parents will provide a $100,000 ransom to get their son back. They make the drop and rush to their son only to find him dead.

Perry Mason is an investigator working for a lawyer defending one of the parents against claims that they orchestrated the affair for their own personal gain. With the media spotlight falling heavily on the case and a District Attorney keen to use the case as a springboard to higher office, the odds seem to be firmly stacked against their efforts…

The Verdict

Though it starts slow, the show hits its groove by midseason. The casting is excellent and the characters’ journeys are compelling.


My Thoughts

While millions of viewers will have grown up watching episodes of the long-running Raymond Burr series on television, my encounters with the character to date have been confined to the printed page. I have read and blogged about five of his earliest adventures on this site, finding them to be highly entertaining and engaging stories.

For those who haven’t read the Mason books of that era, our hero is less a courtroom performer than a scrappy, backroom lawyer. He is smart, resourceful and has principles though he is perfectly willing to cross the line and behave in ways that might well get him disbarred in the search for justice for his clients. This series leans heavily on this rough-around-the-edges interpretation of the character but is set several years earlier, exploring how he became that man.

Mason begins the series as a washed up shell of a man and he is not a qualified lawyer. Instead he is working as an investigator for the lawyer E. B. Jonathan, struggling to deal with the effects of his broken marriage and his harrowing experiences during the war. While I know that it was a shock to some that Mason isn’t even a lawyer at the start of the show, this first season does explore the way that he transitions from being in this washed-up state to becoming a lawyer himself. Think of it as Perry Mason Begins with us getting to see the pieces falling into place and how some of the things he has experienced cause him to practice law differently than many of the other lawyers around him.

Matthew Rhys is well suited to portraying this character at every stage of that evolution. His face is enormously expressive, allowing us to see what he is feeling and he seems to physically shift throughout the series, appearing more confident and powerful by the end. It is an impressive and nuanced performance, emphasizing the character’s humanity and the ways the details of this particular case come to affect him.

The case in question is that of the kidnapping of Charlie Dodson, an infant boy who was kidnapped from his parents’ home. A ransom demand was made for $100,000 which Matthew Dodson, the boy’s father, was able to get from his own father, the enormously wealthy Herman Baggerly. The parents follow the kidnappers’ instructions but when they rush to their son they find him dead with his eyes stitched open.

This tragic death is the starting point for the series as Mason is engaged as an investigator to look into the matter by the lawyer E. B. Jonathan who is working for Baggerly. The nature of the case is so shocking that it stirs up an enormous press and public interest. Maynard Barnes, the district attorney sees the case as a springboard he can use to launch his campaign to become Mayor of Los Angeles. E. B. Jonathan and, by extension, Mason sit on the other side of the case, defending those who are suspected to be guilty of orchestrating the crime for their own benefit.

The first few episodes are rather slow and ponderous, focusing on establishing each of the characters, their relationships to each other and building our understanding of exactly what the case against E. B.’s client will be. It probably doesn’t help that Mason can feel rather peripheral to the main story, particularly in the first episode which contains a rather tedious subplot where he and a colleague try to catch Chubby Carmichael, a prominent comedy film star, in flagrante.

I felt that the story became significantly more engaging following the conclusion to the series’ third episode. This is not a twist but rather a moment that heightens the tensions and serves to make E. B. Jonathan’s job all the harder. The episode that followed seemed to find a sharper focus than those up until that point, binding the different plot strands together much more closely and clearly.

While I am keen to avoid spoiling the various developments in the case, I can say that I found the final explanation of who orchestrated the kidnapping and why it went wrong to be both effective and convincing. Like the legal process itself, the case is sometimes rather slow-moving but that reflects both the workings of the court system and also that our focus is as much on the way the characters are affected by that process and how they interact with each other as it is the details of the case itself. I felt like each character was thoughtfully developed with several lingering in interesting gray areas.

One of the most interesting characters to me was Sister Alice played by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). She is a preacher who leads the Radiant Assembly of God, whose meetings are rather reminiscent of those run by Sister Aimee during the 1920s and 30s incorporating lavish theatricals and acts of faith healing. Those sequences are gorgeously designed and performed, standing out as really colorful and lively, drawing an effective contrast with the otherwise quite muted color palette we see in Depression-era Los Angeles.

Her motivations for her actions throughout the season are often quite ambiguous and one of the biggest questions I had while watching was what her motivations were for interfering in the case. Maslany leans into that ambiguity very effectively, at times appearing quite helpful and sincere while at others her actions only seem to muddy the waters and make it harder for Mason to defend the client. While ambiguity can sometimes be frustrating in a mystery, here I felt it was used very effectively and I felt that by the final episode I had a strong handle on her character and the reasons for her various choices thoroughout the season.

I was similarly very impressed by Gayle Rankin, an actor who I had previously admired in Netflix’s GLOW (she plays Sheila the She-Wolf in that show). I felt she did a superb job of bringing to life the various conflicted feelings that Emily would feel as Charlie’s mother as she struggles to cope both with her grief and also her feelings of guilt that her own actions may have made the kidnapping possible. Rankin is able to portray different facets of each of those feelings, creating a character that feels both dimensional and credible even when we don’t agree with her actions, making her more than simply a victim.

John Lithgow is rightly being celebrated for his performance as E. B. Jonathan, a lawyer at the end of his career who is frustrated by his inability to protect his client. He really draws out the character’s humanity, creating a character whose frustrations we feel and share. Equally deserving of praise is Stephen Root as Barnes, the District Attorney who sees an opportunity to engage with voters’ sympathies and ruthlessly pursues it. I really enjoyed seeing these two actors playing off each other, particularly in the scenes that take place in court.

Finally I have to give praise to Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk, the actors playing Della Street and Paul Drake. Where all the other series characters have to shift to fill their eventual roles, Della is essentially in place at the start of the series working as a legal secretary, albeit for E. B. rather than Perry Mason. This role is enormously important to the series however as she is ultimately responsible for the really inexperienced Perry stepping into a courtroom and helping him through that process. She also gets to make several important contributions to the shaping of the case.

One alteration that is made to the character is that she is portrayed as a lesbian, living secretly with her girlfriend in a boarding house. This does not sit entirely with the flirtations and jealousies towards Perry we see Della engage in during these early books, particularly in The Case of the Velvet Claws, though I am personally not too worried about that sort of continuity. The core of the character, particularly her values, her comptence and her willingness to tell Perry what she thinks are all present and correct and I am excited to see how the character continues to develop in the second season.

I was more familiar with Chris Chalk who had appeared as Lucius Fox in Gotham, the Batman prequel series. Paul Drake begins the series as a uniformed cop who is told that he will never make detective in spite of his aptitude for the job because of his race. Like Mason, Drake has to find his place and realize what he values and who he wants to be. I thought that the character had an interesting journey and that Chalk plays well off Rhys once their paths cross. I am looking forward to seeing him take a more central role in future seasons.

The final aspect of the show that I want to mention is its visual style. It is an impressive evocation of the era and place in which it is set. Depression-era Los Angeles is brought to life with plenty of atmosphere and period detail. As I previously alluded to, the color palette tends towards black, gray and sepia tones which feels appropriate both to the setting and the tone of the piece. It also means that when you do see splashes of color they stand out all the more.

Between the cinematography and costuming, the characters and performances I found a lot to like in this first season and I am glad that it has already been renewed for a second. It does get off to a slow start but I felt it found its groove by the fourth episode, finishing strongly with compelling seventh and eighth episodes. I think the core elements put in place here are strong and bode well for future seasons. The one thing I’d love to see is for the show to mimic the way Gardner would setup the next case at the end of last, giving us an image or idea to hook our interest in that next client.

Confession of Murder (Film)

Film Details

Originally released in 2012 as 내가 살인범이다
Released as Confession of Murder in English translation in 2013

Written by Jeong Byeong-gil and Hong Won-Chan
Directed by Jeong Byeong-gil
Starring Jeong Jae-yeong, Park Shi-hoo, Jung Hae-Kyun, Kim Yeong-ae, Choi Won-young, Kim Jong-goo

The Blurb

He’s a killer. He didn’t get caught. And he’s about to be famous.

When the statute of limitations expires on a series of high-profile murders, a handsome and mysterious young man emerges with a tell-all book, taking credit for the crimes. As he seduces the media into following him to book signings and televised debates, the officer who hunted him falls deeper into obsession, and the victims’ families plot their own revenge.

The Verdict

A decent action thriller with an entertaining concept and a very good performance from Park Si-hoo.


My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog know that I am always on the lookout for inverted crime stories so when I stumbled onto a copy of Confession of Murder, a Korean crime film made in 2012, I hoped I was onto a winner. I soon realized that this would actually be more of a cat and mouse style thriller with heavy action elements but I was interested enough with the scenario to stick with it and see how the situation would be resolved.

The film begins in 1990 and introduces us to Choi Hyeong-goo (Jung Jae-yeong), a detective who is trying to catch a serial killer who has already killed ten women and suspected of kidnapping and killing another. After tracking them down a chase ensues across rooftops and through back alleys, leading to an intense fight that leaves the killer with a bullet in their shoulder and Hyeong-goo with a deep scar across one side of his mouth.

We then jump forwards in time to the point at which the statute of limitations on these murders has expired. Hyeong-goo is still working for the police but he cannot move past his failure to solve this case, drinking heavily. He learns that a handsome young man, Lee Doo-seok (Park Si-hoo) has released a memoir I Am The Murderer in which he claims responsibility for the crimes, revealing details that were unknown to the public. He even reveals a scar and a bullet matching those fired from Hyeong-goo’s gun in his shoulder during his televised book launch. This creates a media sensation and he receives plenty of press coverage as he makes public visits to the homes of each of the victims’ families to kneel and beg for forgiveness.

Hyeong-goo refuses to believe Doo-seok’s account, questioning what happened to the abducted and presumably murdered final victim’s body. Doo-seok meanwhile claims that this was carried out by a copycat, only accepting responsibility for the first ten crimes. Did Doo-seok really commit the crimes? If he did not really do the murders, how did he learn those undisclosed details and why is he coming forward?

It was these questions about Doo-seok’s motivations in coming forward and the way he seems to get under the skin of Hyeong-goo in their early interactions that really drew me into the film. While I have seen versions of the serial killer manipulating the detective investigating them before in other films and television series, I was intrigued by the ambiguity as to whether he really believes Doo-seok is telling the truth about the murders – something that is sustained very effectively until the film’s conclusion.

It helps that Park Si-hoo (shown above, right) gives a superb performance that successfully plays on that ambiguity. An example of this comes in an early sequence where he visits the father of one of the victims to beg forgiveness. Both the direction and performance of that scene do a great job of conveying what the media covering the event can capture and what the only man facing him can see in his body language. Moments like this are done very well and help establish him as a compelling antagonist for the detective.

One interesting idea that is hinted at but perhaps underdeveloped is that the media’s discussion of a case and the public’s reaction to it may differ based on the personalities or the physical attributes of the people involved. We do get several glimpses at the media executives who are choosing how to develop and portray their coverage of the incident. There are several points where we see that Doo-seok is treated with surprising sympathy in the interviews he gives with the implication being that he is presented that way in response to his appearance while it is disturbing to see some crowds gathering where people are holding signs and banners expressing their admiration for him, clearly based on the way he looks.

One interesting difference from the usual structure of these sorts of cat and mouse thrillers is that where typically we tend to view these sorts of stories being about two people or groups in opposition to each other, this film introduces a third actor who influence and interfere with the case. Early in the film we are introduced to a group of family members of the victims who have banded together to plan and execute their own plan to kidnap Doo-seok and exact their vengeance on him.

The introduction of this third group adds interest to the setup, often creating complications for both Hyeong-goo and Doo-seok. One of the most memorable set pieces in the film involves all three groups as we see the families try to put their plan into effect only to find that Hyeong-goo accidentally becomes caught up in them when he crosses their path. Though I felt sure I knew how this piece would ultimately end, it did provide some additional excitement and unpredictability along the way.

The abduction sequence is, for me, the most successful of the film’s action set pieces. Firstly, because it presents the action and movements from the perspectives of each of the three groups clearly, making it clear not only what is happening but what each group thinks is happening. While I think some of the elements of their plan are a little wild (specifically involving the use of a group of animals), this does lead to some really striking shot composition while the high speed vehicle chase that follows features some really impressive camera and exciting stunt work, even though the movements shown often strain belief.

The film’s other action sequences offer varying levels of interest and technique. Typically these are well-shot in the sense that you can always follow what is happening in spite of the quick pacing and use of multiple elements but the attempts to add artistic flourishes to some sequences can fall a little flat. There is a repeated use of a camera that follows a crossbow bolt in slow motion towards its target that feels videogamey while some camera movements struck me as unnecessarily convoluted and sometimes unintentionally comical.

While I think that the tone of the piece is dark and moody, there are a few moments that I think represent deliberate attempts at comedy. Most of these are along the lines of seemingly bizarre and unexpected developments as part of a chase or action sequence along the lines of those found in Bond action sequences. There is one overtly comedic sequence though which I feel really doesn’t work where a character is attacked while urinating in a field, in part because of the gross out element but also because the action sequence that follows is one of those that feels particularly overdirected.

Though I think Confession of Murder does a good job of exploring its characters’ feelings around a theme, those characterizations are often quite shallow, particularly beyond the two central characters. This is most clear in the case of the victims’ families who are portrayed with humanity and feeling but are given little development beyond a signature quality or skill they have (animal handling, archery, driving an expensive car, knife skills and having lots of money). This is not unexpected for an action thriller but it is a little disappointing given that these characters should surely have deeper feelings about their experiences and loss. What little we do get is presented retrospectively, suggesting that the storytelling focus here is on the plot rather than character development.

In spite of those complaints, I did find quite a bit I enjoyed about the film. The performances are generally good and I did get caught up in trying to figure out exactly how the story could be resolved. The solution is obvious in retrospect but because of the film’s pace, it is easy to get swept up in the action and miss hints that point to some of the twists and reveals.

While Confession of Murder was perhaps not the film I was expecting, I did find it entertaining and I am curious enough that I may well go and seek out the Japanese (Memoirs of a Murderer) or South Indian (Angels) versions to see how they compare.