Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope by Don Ward

Originally published in 1948
Adapted from the motion picture Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock which was itself an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play.
This novelization has been widely attributed to Don Ward.

This is the story of a murder – committed without apparent motive, accomplished by a piece of rope, in cold blood and without passion. The only motive of its two bright young authors is the desire for the supreme thrill of proving superior to humdrum everyday human beings.

Brandon is brilliant and arrogant, a young egomaniac proudly convinced of his place in a select group of individuals whose acts are above any moral law. Philip is a gifted pianist, but a weakling, influenced by Brandon to try murder.

But the act of murder is not enough. Because Brandon believes that thrills come only from the experience of great danger, the young men arrange for their “guest of honor” to be present at a dinner they are giving for several guests.

Excerpt from the inside cover “What this Story is about” page – cut short to prevent spoiling the details of the plot.
The map on the back cover of the Dell paperback
Mapback 262: This map of the apartment is hardly essential but captures the space well, though a crucial object, the trunk, is conspicuous in its absence.

A few years ago I came across my first Dell Mapback which kicked off what has become something of an obsession for me. Like many fans of vintage mysteries, I adore a good map and so this series of paperbacks, accompanied by a lovely color visualization of a crime scene or location, quickly became a focus for my book collecting efforts.

When I learned that one of the series was a novelization of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, I naturally wanted to get my hands on a copy. This was not because I expected much from the book on a literary level but purely out of fondness for the source material. I was curious to see what choices the novelist, apparently an uncredited Don Ward, would make in adapting a film which is itself an adaptation of a famous stage play by Patrick Hamilton.

I haven’t really written about Rope here before but certainly do intend to do so in the future, so I hope you’ll forgive me leaving my reasons for loving that film for another day. Those who read me regularly can probably guess many of them anyway. Instead, let me begin by giving you a little background to the story.

Rope takes place on a single evening in “real time” during a dinner party. The story begins moments after a pair of young men, Brandon and Philip, have murdered one of their old school friends, shoving his body into a trunk. Their victim, David, was not killed out of malice (though some of what Brandon says may contradict this) or in a heat of passion but rather because the two young men are keen to experience the sensation of murder which they have come to believe is ‘a privilege for the few’.

To heighten their excitement, Brandon has arranged for a small dinner party to take place in their apartment. The guests include the victim’s father, aunt, girlfriend and her ex, as well as their former schoolmaster Rupert Cadell who was responsible for introducing them to the philosophies that fascinate them while in prep school. All of whom will spend their evening just feet away from the body, the dinner being served off the top of the trunk that contains the body.

Tensions build throughout the dinner as Brandon and Philip find themselves reacting quite differently to their actions, one becoming ever more outrageous and daring while the other becomes jumpy and fearful. As the dinner progresses we wait to see how those tensions will develop and if anyone will open that trunk…

Ward sticks pretty closely to the content of the Hitchcock film, albeit with some minor alterations, the most obvious being that Brandon Shaw is instead called Wyndham Brandon, as in the stage play. This is a pretty cosmetic change but I think calling the character by a last name instead of their given name reminds us of those prep school ties that are so important to this story.

The most significant different though is perhaps a consequence in the change of medium. One of the challenges Hitchcock had with bringing Rope from stage to screen was that the play quite overtly depicts the two young men and their mentor as being gay. Hitchcock’s film could not be as direct and so uses more coded language and visual suggestions, particularly in the aftermath of the murder, to allow the viewer to infer it.

A novel like this, written in an authorative third person voice, allows us some direct insight into the thoughts and mentalities of its characters. This means that inevitably the author has to address and define that relationship, opting to eliminate the sexual angle with the relationship characterized as Brandon having ‘an older-brother interest’ in Philip. The dynamic shifts to become that of one very strong voice dominating their weaker, more malleable but entirely platonic friend. While it would certainly be possible to interpret the relationship in the film that way, it does seem to fly in the face of its most obvious reading.

Ward’s text is quite lean, driven largely by the dialogue. Descriptions are usually quite brief and functional, typically used to convey movement in the space or a character’s body language. He clearly understood that the tension here would come from the conversations and the games that the characters are playing with each other and prioritizes keeping their rhythm to allow that tension to build as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

What keeps me as dismissing this as an entirely functional exercise in converting a screenplay to prose is that there are a few points in the story where Ward does provide us with more, particularly towards the end of the story. These are the moments at which the dialogue slows down and he steps in to fill those moments, capturing the rising tensions quite well. At these points he injects some of his own reading of the story into the book, making it clear what characters know, believe and suspect at key points. Some of those moments may differ at points from the way I had interpreted the scenes but it does show an intention to engage with and interpret that action rather than simply transcribe it, making the work a little more interesting.

It is not enough however for me to suggest that this is a distinct and worthwhile experience in its own right. There are no ways in which this novel is superior to its source material and, at best, it merely reproduces its successes. While the characters are surprisingly vibrant on the page, they still cannot compare with the performances from John Dall or Farley Granger and it does, and I note above, lose some character context and diminishes the complexities of those characters as a consequence.

While I would not recommend reading this ahead of watching the film or experiencing Hamilton’s play (there was an excellent radio version done with Alan Rickman in the Rupert part that is worth a listen if you can track it down), I did find it quite readable and enjoyed it as a supplement to those experiences. Not unlike the experience of reading a Target adaptation of a Doctor Who serial. Hardly essential, but entertaining enough.

Columbo: Publish or Perish (TV)

Season Three, Episode Five
Preceded by Double Exposure
Followed by Mind Over Mayhem

Originally broadcast January 18, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Robert Butler

Plot Summary

When his bestselling author makes a deal to switch to a new publisher, Riley Greenleaf decides to hire a hitman to kill him. Knowing that he will be a prime suspect, Riley decides to lean into that fact while also establishing what seems to be a cast iron alibi. Unfortunately for the punitive publisher, Lt. Columbo is assigned to the case…

Familiar Faces

There are lots of familiar faces on Columbo with genre credits but this episode stands out for casting a crime writer. Mickey Spillane (shown to the left) was one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction in the mid-to-late twentieth century. While the author may not have found success with the critics, he certainly built a huge audience. His Mike Hammer series, which started with I, the Jury, would sell hundreds of millions of copies.

Jack Cassidy makes the second of his three appearances in the series, this time playing publisher Riley Greenleaf. The actor and singer had achieved broadway success, winning a Tony award, before appearing in a string of guest appearances on the small screen in a variety of shows including Cannon, Barnaby Jones and Banyon.

My Thoughts

There is lots that interested and amused me about this episode but top of the list is the decision to cast Mickey Spillane as the victim. It’s not simply a matter of the novelty of putting a mystery writer on screen but I love the way that his character plays off the author’s own personality and image. Allen Mallory, like Spillane, writes supposedly low-brow potboilers that are leaving him creatively unfulfilled. It’s playful and it serves as a sort of shorthand, helping us get to grips with his character in just a handful of scenes.

The episode itself follows a pretty typical Columbo structure of following the killer as they set up the elements of their plan. Often we are left completely in the dark about what will happen, the episode teasing us with those details of the crime to come as we wonder how the elements will fit together. This episode approaches things a little differently.

Right from the start it is clear who the target is and the reason for their murder. We also know the means the killer intends to use and while we may wonder about the involvement of a third party, viewers will quickly realize that the killer intends to establish an alibi for themselves. The exact nature of that alibi will be a secret but rest assured it’s pretty amusing and I do consider it to be a pretty good one.

The sequence in which the murder is carried out is one of the more engaging ones I have encountered up to this point, enhanced by a little creative editing, a highly entertaining rampage from Riley and a rather striking death moment from the victim. At the point at which Columbo enters the story it does seem that Greenleaf has set things up rather nicely and you can imagine he would feel quite safe.

So, let’s talk Riley Greenleaf as I think the success of this episode really hinges on this character and the performance from Jack Cassidy. Rather unusually for a Columbo killer, it seems to me that Greenleaf is not so much acting from a rational motive but rather out of pure vindictiveness. Sure, there’s a mention of a million dollar life insurance policy at one point but as there’s never any discussion of that motive again it feels like it’s just mentioned to give a better excuse than “I can’t have him so you can’t either”.

Cassidy’s performance feels larger than life, veering wildly from moments of suave, seemingly sincere calm to sharp expressions of antagonism. That could so easily feel cartoonish and inconsistent but here I think it fits in well with some other aspects of a character who often seems incredibly unstable, at times treating Columbo’s investigation quite flippantly. It feels different from the vast majority of Columbo killers we have seen up to this point and much more satisfying than the nearest performance I can think of, Roddy McDowall’s in the first season’s Short Fuse.

Given that Riley is not one of the more ingenious killers, it is perhaps not surprising that the structure of this story is not overly complicated. After carefully setting up the details and tidying up a loose end after the murder, there are no major twists or surprises to change our perception of those details. Nor does it feel like Columbo has to work particularly hard to extract the information needed to bust this case open. In fact, it ‘s honestly quite surprising that Greenleaf sustains his act as long as he does given some of the risks he takes both in the planning and execution of his scheme.

One of the most intriguing risks is John Chandler’s turn as an explosives-obsessed Vietnam veteran who dreams of publishing his own book. The performance is certainly colorful and his introduction is a memorable one, lobbing home-crafted explosives into a testing zone. While the performance is a broad one at times, I think it does help to convince that he might really put his trust in someone like Greenleaf. I will say though that I found it much harder to believe that the publisher would be willing to trust that he would be able to pull the action off in the first place.

As for Falk’s Columbo, it’s a solid enough outing though while I enjoyed the performance, little of it is particularly memorable. One bit that is however and which lands really well is a bit of business in a restaurant. While I anticipated the sort of punchline that scene would have, I think it is delivered beautifully.

The gotcha moment is fine enough. I certainly buy the logic of it but felt that given the episode seemed to be quite short, I was a little bit underwhelmed. Still, I am happy to say that I had a pretty good time with this one overall and while I much prefer the similarly-themed Murder by the Book, there’s little denying that he fit the part nicely.

The Verdict: An entertaining episode that seemed to move rather quickly but which delivered a fun performance as the villain from Jack Cassidy and one of the most memorable corpses in the show’s history!

Columbo: Double Exposure (TV)

Season Three, Episode Four
Preceded by Candidate for Crime
Followed by Publish or Perish

Originally broadcast December 16, 1973

Written by Stephen J. Cannell
Directed by Richard Quine

Plot Summary

Dr. Bart Kepple has been on the cutting edge of advertising research for years after publishing several highly regarded books about techniques. Among the secrets to his success is a lucrative blackmail business. When one of his subjects threatens to stand up to him rather than pay, Kepple decides he must act to eliminate them. He has what seems to be an unbreakable alibi for the time of the murder – a room full of people can say he was on stage narrating a film at the time. Unfortunately for the advertising guru, Lt. Columbo just isn’t buying it…

Robert Culp NBC publicity photo
Image credit: NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Familiar Faces

Robert Culp (left) had already featured as a killer twice before in Columbo, once in each of the first two seasons. This would be his final appearance in the show’s initial run though he would return for one last outing as Columbo Goes to College in 1990. He did however also make an appearance in the pilot for Mrs. Columbo in the meantime.

Louise Latham is perhaps most widely remembered for a role in the 1964 Hitchcock movie Marnie but she also has a number of other genre credits to her name on television. These include appearances in Perry Mason, Ironside, Kojak and Murder, She Wrote.

One familiar face making an early television appearance is George Wyner as the film editor consulted later in the episode. Wyner is still active in Hollywood today appearing in shows like The Umbrella Academy and Grace and Frankie. Genre credits include Boston Legal, Bones and several episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Quincy.

My Thoughts

There is a line in this episode where Lt. Columbo says that one of the reasons he loves his job is that he gets to come into contact with interesting people. On a related note, I think that this episode really drove home to me the idea that we love Columbo the show for similar reasons – part of the thrill, at least for this viewer, lies in discovering what background or career path the next antagonist will come from. In the case of Double Exposure we get our first encounter with the world of marketing as Dr. Kepple specializes in the field of ‘motivation research’.

In a recent post I referenced the idea that most of Columbo‘s antagonists share some common characteristics. They are often quite elitist, looking down on the scruffy police lieutenant because of his slovenly dress, clumsy manners and personal habits. Many equate those qualities with a lack of intelligence and so underestimate him, not putting up their guard soon enough.

Dr. Kepple certainly possesses those qualities as well but what strikes me as interesting about this character is that he seems far less wary than most. He is a man who believes his own hype – that his ability to read a consumer and predict their behavior will also lead to him having the upper hand when dealing with the police.

For the role of Dr. Kepple we get the third and final appearance of Robert Culp as a Columbo killer, though he would appear in another part when the show came back in the nineties. He proves an excellent fit for the part, seeming comfortable with the technical requirements of the part (cutting film, repositioning cameras, working the technology, etc) and the dialogue about his character’s profession while also driving home the man’s arrogance and sense of complacency in all of his dealings with Columbo. It is, in my opinion, the best of Culp’s three turns as the killer.

Part of what I appreciate is that Kepple is a distinctly different creation from the previous two killers Culp portrayed. This man is a planner who treats his murder like he is writing the script for one of his promotional films. He intends to create an evidence trail that will tell a story and encourage the police to interpret the crime scene in a particular way. It’s a pretty brazen plan and certainly unusual among the Columbo killers up until this point, marking the character out as a little different. Equally interesting to me though is that I think this is the reason Columbo comes to suspect him in the first place. The story he attempts to present to Columbo is simply too neat and tidy.

Some parts of Kepple’s plan are admittedly very clever and I love that while the episode shows us all of his preparations and actions, the meaning of some of his actions are not instantly apparent. To give one of the strongest examples of this, the means by which the murder weapon is made to appear not to have been used is shown to the viewer yet some (such as myself) may not initially grasp the significance of what we have seen or what it means.

Kepple’s plan here is to construct a seeming unbreakable alibi by creating a situation in which a group of people will all appear to witness him standing behind a curtain on the stage narrating in perfect time to a film reel. This boils down to a variation on an old trick and I think that there are some issues with the plan that would make it impractical in reality (ROT-13: Gurer jvyy or n irel abgvprnoyr fuvsg va fbhaq dhnyvgl orgjrra n crefba fcrnxvat yvir naq n erpbeqvat cynlvat bire n fcrnxre, abg gb zragvba gur zvpebcubar pbhyq jryy cvpx hc ba gur juveyvat bs gur gncr jvguva gur znpuvar). In spite of that however, I appreciated the basic idea and enjoyed how smoothly the character pulls off his murder before returning to the stage without breaking a sweat.

The most interesting aspect of the case however relates quite specifically to the skills and background of the killer and it struck me as quite a novel way of pulling off his plan. It’s one of those situations where I wondered if a viewer in 1973 might have had a different experience from a viewer today as I wonder how well known the technique shown was at the time while the meaning of what Kepple seemed quite obvious to me from the start. Still, I appreciated the originality of that as a method and I appreciated that the script and filmmakers do not try to oversell the idea of how effective that could be. Instead they go for something that feels much more limited in scope but still clearly of enormous importance to his plan.

There are a number of excellent hints dropped about how Columbo will end up putting this case together, helped with some strong foreshadowing. The episode did a good job of drawing attention to each of these clues while keeping the relevance of them hidden until late in the episode, giving the sense of a sudden rush of discovery as we near the point where Columbo can prove his case.

My favorite of these hints relates to an object that Columbo finds as Kepple expected. What struck me as really clever is that while Kepple reads many aspects of the crime scene effectively, doing a fine job of steering Columbo away from the truth with his storytelling, he overlooks something very simple and logical. Watching Falk as he slowly comes back to the significance of that clue and tries to work through every possible explanation is both agonizing and compelling – a little like seeing a bar of soap slip repeatedly from hand to hand. Kepple keeps thinking he’s finally convinced Columbo that he’s on the wrong track only to be told that there is another practical reason why his explanation for the inconsistency simply doesn’t work. It’s great television that shows off how well these two actors could play off one another.

There are other things I love such as the wonderfully seventies banana yellow jacket Culp wears which you can marvel at yourself in the screenshot above or the descriptions of what Kepple’s work actually entails. It is the interplay between Falk and Culp though that I think is the core reason this episode works so well. Each actor anticipates and plays off the other brilliantly, creating a wonderfully antagonistic relationship between them.

While I still feel a little underwhelmed by the idea of an actor returning to play other killers, I do understand why the filmmakers brought Culp back. He got better with each appearance and my only regret is that we won’t see him again in that role. Of course, he wouldn’t be the last Columbo killer to make repeat appearances as we will see next time…

The Verdict: A fun story which pulls a few interesting tricks, not least with regard the murder weapon. Featuring some entertaining antagonistic banter and wonderful performances from the leads, I consider this the best of the Culp as murderer episodes.

Columbo: Candidate for Crime (TV)

Season Three, Episode Three
Preceded by Any Old Port in a Storm
Followed by Double Exposure

Originally broadcast November 4, 1973

Teleplay by Irv Pearlberg, Alvin R. Friedman and Ronald Kibbee
Directed by Boris Sagal

Plot Summary

Nelson Hayward is running for US senator in a special election and appears to be well-positioned to win when he starts to receive threats against his life from the mob, prompting him to receive police protection. His campaign manager is determined to protect his candidate’s chances so when he becomes aware that Nelson is having an affair with a campaign staffer, he steps in to pressure her to quit.

Nelson however plans to have it all and has a plan to rid himself of his meddling manager using the police protection to give himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately for him, Lieutenant Columbo is on the case…

Familiar Faces

Jackie Cooper (shown to the left) had been a Hollywood child star, becoming the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for the movie Skippy. Unlike many child stars, Cooper successfully transitioned to adult roles and had a career as an actor and director that continued until the mid-80s.

Cooper is perhaps best known to audiences today for his recurring role as Perry White in the Superman movies. His other genre credits include episodes of Kojak and Murder, She Wrote while he also directed an episode of Magnum, P. I.

Joanne Linville was instantly recognizable to me for her role as a Romulan Commander in an early episode of Star Trek but she has other mystery genre credits to her name. These include episodes of The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, Kojak, Barnaby Jones and, yes, Mrs. Columbo.

Tisha Sterling was less recognizable to me but also has plenty of mystery credits. These include episodes of Ironside, The New Perry Mason and she appeared opposite Stacy Keach in the 1976 film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

One other familiar face in a minor part is Katey Sagal (shown above), daughter of the episode’s director, who would later star in the hit sitcom Married with Children.

My Thoughts

The third season of Columbo had got off to a rather unremarkable start with its first two episodes. Both featured elements I enjoyed quite a lot but each also had flaws. One was that both episodes’ crimes were unplanned, spur of the moment affairs that saw businesspeople on the verge of losing their empires lash out and then engage in a hasty, contrived cover up. Thankfully Candidate for Crime offers a change of pace and style, giving Columbo a carefully planned, premeditated murder to investigate.

My appreciation for this episode begins with its initial setup with the politician Nelson Hayward receiving police protection because death threats have been made against his life. There is a lot to love about this as a setup, not least that it means that Columbo is already involved in the case before the murder even takes place streamlining that awkward part of the episode where he gets to know characters we already met.

What I like most about it is that it sets up expectations for the viewer and for the other characters. While longtime Columbo viewers may expect Hayward to be the killer, the suggestion that he might be the victim could give pause for thought. Is this going to be a story about how a killer gets past security? That thought would be partly correct, though Hayward will be the one to give them the slip in order to carry out the murder.

The episode has some fun with these expectations, having Columbo turn up at the crime scene convinced that Hayward himself must be dead. So often when we see him looking frazzled in episodes, I feel Falk is playing it as though Columbo is putting on an act so it’s interesting to see him genuinely lost and confused. If anything it makes the contrast with those other moments more pronounced, inviting the viewer to compare them and see the careful thought the character is putting into his attempts to seem careless.

Jackie Cooper plays Hayward and is very credible in the part. He is slick and confident and though I did not find the character particularly likable, I could see him charming and convincing the people around him. There is no attempt made though to have the audience sympathize with him – Nelson Hayward is as cold and ruthless a killer as we have come across so far in the show.

I also appreciate that Nelson’s plan is a pretty neat one. He has planned ahead and done a pretty good job of it, carrying out a murder pretty close to flawlessly and setting himself up with what appears to be an unbreakable alibi. The means by which he sets up the murder is quite cunning and I love that he takes what might be the biggest barrier to his achieving his goal, the police protection, and ends up using it to his advantage. It’s a ballsy sort of killing given how things might have gone wrong but the type I could absolutely believe that a man of his type could commit.

If there is an issue with the setup, it is that I think the motivation to kill is not spelled out quite as clearly as in some other stories. Given how much the man has to lose, it seems crazy to think that Nelson would risk it all, no matter how much he loves the young woman he is having an affair with. I think though this is a case where the real reason may not be directly expressed but can be inferred – this is as much about maintaining his independence and control politically as it is maintaining that affair.

I enjoy the interactions between Cooper and Falk and appreciate that the dynamic here feels a little different than the stories that came immediately before it. Cooper is not as colorful a figure as Pleasance’s Carsini and unlike other killers who aim to befriend the detective, he is rather prickly and aloof from the start. It seems he is confident he has thought everything through and it is only when Columbo starts to ask some difficult questions that he begins to pay much attention to him.

One game I always enjoy playing while watching these episodes is trying to figure out the moment at which Columbo decides that he knows who the killer is. Often it is close to instant with the detective appearing to notice some immediate tell that prompts his interest. In this case however the background to the situation complicates things and there is a sense, at least in his first couple of interactions with Nelson, that he is not yet thinking of him as an adversary. I think it is only when he starts to think through the physical evidence of the crime scene and talking over it with Haywood that he begins to find himself looking at him more closely.

Rather than hinging on just one detail, Columbo’s cat and mouse game with Nelson has a number of steps. My favorite is also the most comedic in which the detective finds himself trying to get some information out of a tailor at a very high-end establishment, in large part because of the very entertaining performance from Vito Scotti. I love too that this isn’t just an exercise in comedy (like an earlier bit with Columbo’s car getting inspected) but that it has a serious implication for the case.

Beyond the two leads, I also ought to draw attention to the performances of the two actresses who play the women in Nelson’s life. Joanne Linville’s portrait of a wife who has long suspected her husband of infidelity and has perhaps taken to drink is compelling and surprisingly subtle. She is always interesting to watch, particularly in those little moments in her performance where she reacts to Nelson, appearing to wonder if she has misjudged him as well as those others where she notices oddities in his behavior.

Tisha Sterling’s Linda gets a little less screen time and is a more credulous figure. Nonetheless, I liked the earnest sincerity she brings to the part and found the few moments where the two women interact to be interesting to watch.

The episode’s conclusion is really entertaining and does a great job of making sure that the viewer is aware of the movements of both men. We know what Nelson is planning and we can see what Columbo is doing, even if we are not entirely sure what he has in mind. It then plays out and resolves quite quickly, delivering a very satisfying moment of deflation as the killer, certain that they have won, suddenly sees that he has been outsmarted.

I should also note that while I sometimes query whether Columbo could make an accusation stick, in this story the evidence that is assembled by the end seems conclusive. This is a story that really demonstrates Columbo’s ability to construct a really tight case and reminds us that he can think through a case too.

That satisfying conclusion brings to an end an episode that I regard as the first classic of the show’s third season. While Cooper is not the one of the flashiest or most colorful villains, I think he fits his part well and, as a cat and mouse detective game, I think this has to rank among the very best I have seen up to this point. It leaves me excited to see what else this season has in store…

The Verdict: An excellent case from setup to conclusion offering a clever scenario and showcasing Columbo’s brilliance at piecing the truth together.

Columbo: Any Old Port in a Storm (TV)

Any Old Port in a Storm title card

Any Old Port in a Storm

Season Three, Episode Two
Preceded by Lovely but Lethal
Followed by Candidate for Crime

Originally broadcast October 7, 1973

Teleplay by Stanley Ralph Ross
Story by Larry Cohen
Directed by Leo Penn

Plot Summary

Adrian Carsini is a wine connoisseur who enjoys impressing other enthusiasts from the Wine Society both with bottles from the vineyard he runs on behalf of his brother and those he collects. He is horrified when his brother tells him that he intends to sell the property to a mass-market winery and instinctively strikes out at his brother. He quickly devises a plan to stage an accident while giving himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately he didn’t count on Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…

Familiar Faces

Donald Pleasance (shown to the left) had a lengthy and varied career on stage and screen, both big and small. His quiet, offbeat and sometimes understated performing style helped made him a memorable villain. He is perhaps best known for his performance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice and as Loomis in the earliest Halloween movies. Though prolific, he is not an actor I particularly associate with the mystery genre but he did apparently appear in an episode of Mrs. Columbo which I will, no doubt, get to in time…

Julie Harris was a five-time Tony Award-winner and also won an Emmy, a Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar. She was best known for her stage work but she had starred opposite James Dean in East of Eden and had starred in the horror film, The Haunting, which adapted Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Peter Falk and Donald Pleasance

My Thoughts

Every episode of Columbo ultimately lives and dies based on the quality of its killer. Good plots have been derailed by a performance that misses the mark while sometimes a poorer story can get a lift by strong casting.

Adrian Carsini is not a particularly extraordinary character as written. He is a snob but then most Columbo killers (at least in the episodes I’ve seen) would seem to fit that label. His backstory of resenting his brother who is going to take his pride and joy to pay for yet another marriage is certainly understandable but it’s also pretty rushed, being covered in just a couple of scenes early in the episode. Yet in spite of being a pretty run-of-the-mill villain on the page, Carsini as realized on screen is anything but. The reason is Donald Pleasance.

Pleasance is a perfect fit for many aspects of Carsini’s personality. His performance suggests he is frequently forcing himself to restrain his temper and sense of control. Clearly there are points in this story where he fails to do that and, when he does, the shift of temper feels as credible as it is sudden. Composure is quickly reasserted and he once again exudes an easy sort of charm.

It is an unpredictable performance, sometimes playing slightly off the material and taking it in unexpected directions. This makes him the perfect foil for Peter Falk’s Columbo whose own approach can be similarly playful and when the two share the screen they spark wonderfully off one another. Their relationship isn’t as directly antagonistic as some others but rather focuses on how Columbo has unsettled his quarry – most memorably in the episode’s excellent dinner sequence.

The murder sequence itself offers little visual or even dramatic interest as it seems to happen so quickly and, as with the previous episode, boils down to a sudden bludgeoning. What interests me, though it is underplayed, is that while Carsini injures his brother badly he is not instantly dead. He chooses instead to set his brother up to not be found for several days and die. What added interest for me was that Carsini, being in the middle of entertaining several guests, immediately resumes his activities and goes back to the gathering. That coldness and quick-thinking sets him a little apart from some of the other killers that Columbo has matched his wits with.

Carsini’s plan is to create confusion by giving himself what seems to be an unbreakable alibi both by his behavior with his wine society friends and later by taking a trip out of state to attend an auction. The challenge for the viewer is to figure out exactly what Carsini has done to disguise the time of death and spot how Columbo might be able to break it.

The best Columbo resolutions work as a moment of sudden deflation as a killer, full of confidence, suddenly realizes that they have given the whole game away. This episode contains a superb example of that as it is perfectly constructed to feed into and play off the background and personality of the killer. It makes for a splendid moment as Carsini seems to not be taking in the significance of what had just happened, his reaction being slightly delayed. As gotcha moments go, this is one of the most entertaining.

Were I quibbling, I might suggest that making Carsini’s confession stand up later in court could be tricky – it would certainly have bothered me in other stories. Here though I think it makes sense given what we know of Carsini’s character and it does lead to one of the most enjoyable scenes in the whole episode.

Looking beyond Pleasance and Falk, the rest of the episode is quite competently realized. Julie Harris is very good as Carsini’s secretary but the other cast members struck me as fairly unmemorable. There are no bad performances but nor are there any that really stood out to me.

Thankfully though that doesn’t matter as the central game of wits is so entertaining that it drew and held my attention throughout. Whenever I come to do my ranking of Columbo killers (which will either be when I reach the end of the original run or the series overall including the later specials), I feel pretty confident that Pleasance’s Carsini will be somewhere near the top. This will not reflect so much on the character as written but rather the quality of the performance which really serves to elevate the material taking this from a pretty standard premise to being one of the more memorable episodes of the series.

My Thoughts

A triumph of good casting, this episode works as well as it does thanks to the wonderful performance from Donald Pleasance and a very clever resolution that perfectly plays into that character’s personality.

Columbo: Lovely but Lethal (TV)

Lovely But Lethal

Season Three, Episode One
Preceded by Double Shock (Season Two)
Followed by Any Old Port in a Storm

Originally broadcast September 23, 1973

Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Story by Myrna Bercovici
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Plot Summary

Viveca Scott’s cosmetics company Beauty Spot is facing increasing financial difficulties. Keen to turn her company’s fortunes, Scott has pinned a lot of hope on a promising new anti-wrinkle cream after an early, successful trial but when later tests prove disastrous she learns that a young chemist has stolen the formula and is planning to sell it to her greatest rival, David Lang.

She calls on Karl Lessing, that young chemist, at his home but when he refuses to sell the formula to her at any price and taunts her, she grabs a nearby microscope and strikes him on the head, killing him instantly. Unfortunately for Viveca, Columbo is assigned to the case…

film screenshot (Allied Artists), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Familiar Faces

Vera Miles is probably best known for her performance as Lila in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Other genre credits include three episodes of Murder She Wrote, the Hitchcock docudrama The Wrong Man, Cannon and Ellery Queen.

Vincent Price (shown to the left) was one of the most famous faces – and voices – in Hollywood during the mid-twentieth century. He is most associated with the horror genre and for collaborating with director Roger Corman on his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. This blogger however best remembers him for playing Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective.

Already a familiar figure from television, a month after this episode aired Martin Sheen could be seen in Terrence Malick’s Neo-noir film Badlands. Towards the end of the decade he would star in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The role I first knew him from however was President Bartlet on political drama The West Wing.

My Thoughts

It has taken me far longer than I had intended to get back to writing about Columbo. I had actually watched this episode last year when I was in the middle of my Jonathan Creek project, working under the assumption that I would be alternating seasons of the shows. In the end though I got caught up in the idea that the finish line on that project was in sight and so I never wrote anything about the episodes I watched. Fortunately I was more than happy to rewatch Lovely but Lethal.

My enjoyment of this episode begins with its cast which is wonderful. Columbo episodes often feature familiar faces – in fact one of the biggest challenges with these posts is narrowing down who I want to highlight – but this episode features some favorites.

Vera Miles, wonderful in Hitchcock’s Psycho, is quite compelling as the ruthless beauty queen who is quite content to use everyone around her to get what she wants. Unlike some Columbo killers, she does not act with premeditation but in a moment of fury. It’s a sloppy crime – perhaps not the most intricate puzzle that Detective Columbo will ever have to unpick – and her relationship with him is more battle of wills than battle of wits. Still, the exchanges between them are quite entertainingly sharp and I really enjoy how much he obviously tests her patience. To me, this is one of those cases where the character is elevated through the performance.

Martin Sheen has a much smaller part as the victim, but he is equally entertaining and injects lots of energy and bile into just a handful of scenes. The moment right before his character is murdered in which they mock Viveca is so sharp and unpleasant that you can understand that surge of anger she feels in that moment. In terms of the victims in this show, he is one of the most memorable I have encountered to date.

If you’ve looked at the images I’ve illustrated this post with though I suspect you’ll know which member of the cast I enjoy most of all. Vincent Price is an actor I always enjoy watching but he’s absolutely perfect for the part of the rather smug and sneering rival businessman. His character’s cutting remarks to Viveca can be pretty entertaining and the performances of Price and Miles do a good job of convincing that this is a long-standing rivalry. My only regret here is that he isn’t on screen for longer or more central to the story as he is great fun.

The episode does a good job of setting up its points of conflict in its opening few minutes, quickly pushing forward to the murder scene. That moment, while it works for me in terms of the performances leading up to it, struck me as a little underwhelming visually. Part of that is the choreography and the camera placement as we look at a wide view of the room. This not only seemed to rob that moment of its immediacy, it also emphasizes that the murder involves less physical force than you might think would be needed, no matter how heavy the object. Even with a rare dribble of blood, I am a little unconvinced…

The investigation is the meat of the episode however and I love what this does with the cat and mouse game between killer and detective. While there is nothing particularly revolutionary or even special about those elements, I love that this story handles it with a light touch and has some fun with both characters. The script seems to find a great amount of fun in putting Columbo in an environment he is somewhat uncomfortable in, culminating quite memorably with the opening of a door to comedic effect.

I described the initial crime itself as being rather simple which the episode does attempt to address with a development that occurs later in the episode. This is a smart choice not only because it clarifies the ill-intent of the killer making us all the more pleased to see them captured but because it also adds to a sense that pressure is building around them fast.

Which brings me to the matter of how Columbo will reach his conclusion. Sadly I feel the episode underwhelms a little on that point, not only because it seems rushed but because the explanation for how they are caught seems a little unlikely both to occur but also to lead to any kind of a conviction. I have, of course, leveled that complaint against episodes before but here I feel it is all the more frustrating because a defense feels so obvious.

Still, while I am a little underwhelmed by the conclusion, I still enjoy this episode. The beauty empire setting, coupled with a few strong guest appearances and a very effective performance from Falk, make for an entertaining mix and left me with plenty to enjoy. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend this to a newcomer as the show to sell them on Columbo, I think it has some points of charm for those keen to explore more.

The Verdict:

Lovely but Lethal may not be the most thrilling episode of Columbo but it is often quite entertaining.

Nightcap (Movie)

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000)
Also titled Nightcap in English translation
Written by Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol, adapted from ‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ by Charlotte Armstrong
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronic and Anna Mouglalis

When I read and reviewed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb close to a year ago I had nothing but praise for the book, calling it one of the best reprints to have appeared in Penzler Publishers’ American Mystery Classics range to date. Little wonder then that when I learned that there was a French film adaptation, I had to seek out a copy.

Nightcap is faithful to much of the original novel’s situation, making only a few minor changes which I will discuss in a moment. The premise of the story is that a young woman learns that at birth there was an incident at the hospital in which she was mixed up with another child. The parents insisted on switching the children and nothing more was said but when she learns that the identity of the other father, she is fascinated as they are one of the leading figures in her field of study. Determined to meet them, she forces an introduction at his home, meeting his wife and son who all learn the story.

During that meeting she sees that his wife takes an opportunity to purposefully spill a container of hot chocolate that she had just prepared for her stepson. Our heroine is curious why someone would do that and, suspecting foul play, she decides to return to the house in the hope of stopping what she believes will be an attempt at murder.

As I noted in my review, I think that this is a wonderful concept for a story that blends suspense with a howcatchem-type inverted mystery. What I love most though is that this is a concept that sees a heroine knowingly step into an incredibly dangerous situation to protect a relative stranger – in this case, a young man who is quite cold and bitter toward her. Being aware of the dangers to come makes that decision all the more impressive and made me like the young woman – named Jeanne in the film – all the more.

Most of the differences in the initial setup of the story are quite minor and reflect the relocation of the story from America to Switzerland. Perhaps the most significant change is the decision to alter the subject Jeanne is studying from art to music – a decision that makes a lot of sense in the context of the shift of medium. Art would naturally work in a visual medium but the use of music allows for the engagement of an additional sense while retaining the opportunity for a mentor-mentee relationship to develop with the man who could have been her father.

The film does a good job of introducing us to the various characters and explaining the rather complex scenario in its opening few minutes. This is the most convoluted part of the story and I had worried that it might seem all the more artificial when seen played out on screen. To my pleasure however I found that the decision is made to play Jeanne’s choice to meet the family she might have had out of curiosity rather than a sincere belief that she was really his daughter. Similarly, I appreciate that the film chooses to have André be excited about the prospect of a mentee rather than taking the idea too seriously.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film experience is that while we are privy to the thoughts of Ione, the stepmother, we are kept more distant from Marie-Claire. We observe her actions but do not learn why she is doing them. This is not just because we have lost the internal monologue – the film never fully explains the story even in retrospect, trusting the viewer to piece the material together.

It is, for me, a rather unfortunate decision as I think it prevents the film from building a sense of suspense as effectively as the novel. I had loved the way that the reader was given knowledge of Ione’s intentions in the book, raising our anticipation to see whether her plans would come off. Without knowledge of that inner voice we are kept from knowing exactly what she has in mind or why, which not only prevents the viewer from anticipating developments but it also means the viewer will likely have questions at the end of the movie, particularly in relation to her motives.

That is a shame because in other respects I quite enjoyed Isabelle Huppert’s performance. It is a little flatter and colder than I had imagined Ione in the book but it fits this setting quite well, making an interesting contrast with Jacques Dutronc’s warmer and more expressive André. Both give strong performances and I appreciated that each underplay their parts, seeming very convincing alongside each other.

The film’s production values, like the performances, are a little understated and few would suggest that this offers much visual appeal. The camerawork and editing is quite simple, favoring long takes observing actors rather than quick cuts – a choice that gives the performances more room to breathe. There are a few moments of sloppiness however, such as a boom mike dropping into shot during a scene between Huppert and Brigitte Catillon. Given this took place in long shot and goes nowhere near the actors, I have no idea why it wasn’t spotted in the edit and a tighter crop or alternate take used.

The biggest changes made between the book and the film all take place in the denouement and naturally, I don’t want to discuss them in any detail for fear of spoiling anyone. The alteration is significant because it changes the context of the ending and means that the movie ends on a somewhat different note, arguably touching on some slightly different ideas. The change itself didn’t bother me but the choice to have everything play out off screen and relayed to us in dialogue did feel a little disappointing.

This is a shame because I think the movie otherwise does a pretty solid job of adapting the source material to the screen. It is easy to imagine how this movie could have indulged itself too much in its premise, losing sight of the characters’ humanity. Instead I was pleased that the movie grounds itself in its characters, focusing on their emotional states as they respond to one another.

The lack of a strong ending, both in terms of the tension created and also the sense of resolution, keeps this from being a really great adaptation of the source material. Still, I liked the casting and performances a lot and I commend it for managing to sell the baby swap scenario so well (it actually adds a little to the novel, helping make sense of that plot strand a little better).

The Verdict:

Nightcap does not match its source material for tension, particularly in its conclusion, but in most other respects it is a very competent adaptation. While I strongly suggest starting with the novel, this is certainly worth a look.

Niagara (Film)

Poster for Niagara

One of my favorite recurring features I have on this blog is my Why I Love video series in which I discuss aspects of crime-themed films I find interesting. The idea of those posts is to celebrate a film so while I have been wanting to discuss the 1953 noir film Niagara, I realized that probably wouldn’t be a good fit. The reason is that while it is an interesting film, I think it is a fundamentally flawed one.

The story was an original one, apparently developed in response to an idea from producer Charles Brackett. He wanted a movie set against the backdrop of the majestic falls. It was apparently screenwriter Walter Reisch who added the murder scheme.

Polly and Ray Cutler are visiting Niagara Falls on a belated honeymoon. When they arrive to check in to their reserved cabin, the manager reveals that the couple occupying it have not checked out as they were supposed to. The manager goes to hurry them along but when Rose tells them that her husband, a Korean War vet who has recently been discharged from an army hospital, has been sick for some days and is finally asleep, Polly offers to switch to a less desirable cabin and allow them to stay longer.

Polly and Ray soon notice signs that the marriage between Rose and George Loomis is far from ideal. During a visit to the Falls, Polly notices Rose in a passionate embrace with a man who is not her husband and later that evening George behaves erratically, storming out of the cabin to snatch and break a record his wife was playing. What they don’t know is that Rose and her young man are plotting to take care of George so that they can be together.

It’s a pretty promising setup for a suspenseful murder story. The early parts of the film use the space of the holiday camp well, contrasting Rose’s warmth and outgoing nature with George’s isolation and seeming misanthropy. We repeatedly see him look through the windows, watching his wife yet not really engaging with her, building up this sense of an isolated and perhaps rather troubled man.

The actors cast for the pivotal roles of Rose and George were Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. They make for an interesting and somewhat mismatched pair. She is youthful, sensuous and beautiful – he seems sharp, bitter and tired. One of the mysteries that this film never quite gets around to explaining is how the pair ended up together in the first place, dropping a mention that she had been a barmaid. Did she love him but tire of his behavior or was she mercenary and unfaithful from the start? Why is murder necessary rather than just divorce? The film never answers those points clearly.

Both actors exude star power though in quite different ways. Monroe’s career was well established by this point but this film marked a transition to an even bigger level of stardom, amplifying the perception of her as a sex symbol. This is sometimes shown in overt moments such as a shower scene and several scenes that take place in and around bed but it is clear throughout much of the rest of the film as well as the camera seems to linger on her, often for several beats after the dramatic content of a shot has been concluded. Some moments, such as when she dreamily sings along to that record she puts on, seem to strain the pace and can feel a little self-indulgent. They can be charming but they do little to tell the story or to enhance our understanding of the character.

Marilyn Monroe in Niagara
Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (20th Century Fox)

The editing and cinematic choices place a focus upon aspects of Monroe’s sexuality which may cause some to overlook the quality of the performance she gives. While Monroe fits the femme fatale archetype well, she also makes some interesting acting choices that tease out aspects of Rose’s character. Unfortunately however the character as written feels quite limited, at least in terms of what he gives her to say and do, and so while we spend quite a bit of time with her, I never felt that we really get to know her completely.

Joseph Cotten is one of my favorite actors from this era of cinema which no doubt reflects that he had starred in my favorite film of all time just a couple of years before this was made. Like Monroe, he feels like a star and while his performance feels quite constrained at times, perhaps reflecting that he spends much of the film alone or isolated from the characters other than Rose, whenever he is on screen he had my attention, even if he wasn’t the person talking.

The problem in this film is that while Cotten gives a fine rendering of his character’s bitterness and inner turmoil, he feels too big for this part as it appears based on what we know of it. The film needs us to make assumptions about how the film will go and what will happen for a moment late in the film to have its full impact. Instead of surprising however it ends up feeling like an inevitable development, undercutting the power of that moment.

Playing opposite them are Jane Peters as Polly Cutler (who is superb) and Max Showalter as her husband Ray. Their youth and playfulness makes a striking contrast with the personalities of the Loomises, though I found Polly’s warmth and gentle teasing far more pleasant than Ray’s rather tiresome expressions of his jovial nature (which only get worse when the similarly demonstrative figure of Mr. Kettering shows up).

Perhaps the real star of the picture is the view. Niagara Falls is rarely out of sight for much of the film and there are several scenes that show it off to startling effect, made all the more remarkable by the luscious Technicolor film. While I have seen it on film before, it is fascinating to see it so many years ago when the tourism industry was in its infancy. These shots are quite startling and do a lot to convey the power and majesty of the falls which will be important to later developments in the story.

After establishing the characters and the premise, we then observe as Rose and her lover prepare to go through with their plan. One of the things that struck me about this is that while we know their intentions, Hathaway never shares the details of their plan, nor do we ever get to know her lover. As with her relationship with George, this left me with a number of unanswered questions. How did they meet? Was this plan developed now or was it always their intention to murder him? Is Rose serious about him or does she intend him to meet a similar fate in the future?

While I don’t mind that the film is enigmatic on those points, I feel that the distance between us and the plotters prevents a later shift in direction from having the impact it might have done had we been more involved with their plan from the start.

When that moment of transition in the story does come however it feels quite masterful, setting up a pretty effective final act which not only incorporates quite a bit of action, it also features some rather powerful emotional moments too. It’s a pretty effective thriller ending but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t quite fit comfortably with the material that had preceded it.

That sense that the different elements of this film are not working in harmony is a large part of the reason I think it ultimately fails to hit home the way it should have done. The concept here is good and the film often looks really striking, even close to seventy years later, but the balance of those elements unfortunately feels a little off and a moment that the film is meant to build towards falls flat, feeling a little obvious.

It’s not bad. Just not as good as it could so easily have been.

Niagara (1953)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Written by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters

Jonathan Creek: Daemons’ Roost

Episode Details

Originally broadcast December 28, 2016
TV Movie
Preceded by The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

It is hard to know exactly what to say Warwick Davies is known best for. He has been involved in a number of enormous franchises in significant roles, not least Star Wars and Harry Potter. There is also the film Willow which he starred in and he will also star in the TV series which is supposed to be released in 2022.

Ken Bones has a lot of notable credits to his name. In addition to appearances in Medici and Versailles, he has appeared in several genre pieces including Midsomer Murders, Father Brown and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.

Jo Martin has been a regular for the past couple of years on the BBC’s hospital drama Holby City but I recognized them for their appearance in the most recently-broadcast series of Doctor Who.

The Verdict

If this is to be the final episode of Jonathan Creek, it is a good one that sends the show off with style.

Plot Summary

A film director calls his daughter back to the family home after years of estrangement following the deaths of her mother and siblings to tell her something. Unfortunately before she can arrive he has a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak. Jonathan had assisted the daughter’s husband years earlier when he was accused of murdering his first wife and is now asked to help discover the truth of what happened and what the message might have been.

As it happens, those deaths are not the only terrors associated with Daemons’ Roost. There is a legend that a hundred years ago a sorcerer named Jacob Surtees was able to open a fiery portal and throw his victims into it using telekinesis. Before the case is over Jonathan will have to also explain what Surtees did all those years ago…

My Thoughts

So, it seems I have reached the end of my journey. It’s a bittersweet moment, not least because soon I will have to confront the problem of figuring out what on earth I’ll be posting about on the weekends now. I do hold out some small hope though that my declaring I have reached the end of the project and recorded a lengthy video ranking the entire series (it’s not up yet) will prompt Renwick to dash off another series or two just to force me to start over.

If this is the final installment of Jonathan Creek, I am very happy to say that the show concludes on a bit of a high with a story that reminded me of much of what I loved most about the series and particularly the specials. We have a blend of historic and the modern-day crimes for Jonathan to investigate. The mystery of the fiery inferno in particular struck me as a wonderfully visual puzzle and I enjoyed the gothic elements associated with that story enormously.

There is also a strong sense that the show is consciously alluding to its past throughout the episode. It’s not just the blatant references to past cases dropped in by the Reverend Wilkie, played with gusto by the marvelous Warwick Davies, but there is also a crazed killer from a previous case intent on revenge against Jonathan. These elements do a lot to remind us about the show’s history and make this feel like an intentional effort to pay homage to the show’s past.

Still, though the episode does feel like it pays tribute to the past, it doesn’t completely neglect what was then the show’s present. For one thing, this once again features Polly and while the action may take place in an unsettling and mysterious estate, we still spend plenty of time in the village and absorbed in its concerns – namely the need to create a scarecrow for a village festival. For another, I think that the ending of the special with its allusions to Jonathan’s past and his history with his brother, rather than providing closure, seems to open up new possibilities. Details about Jonathan’s early life have been fairly scant over the series and the sudden decision to flesh out his backstory and explore his memories could easily have been taken further had other stories followed.

The mysteries that Jonathan has to look into here are both interesting though I think the modern-day case suffers a little from not having a clear focal point or question that Jonathan has to answer. That has been a complaint I made about the previous three episodes and I can certainly see it reflected in the difficulty I had describing the plot above.

Still, while the problem itself may not be tidily described, the broader scenario is quite intriguing and illustrates a few things that I really like about the series and about the direction in which the series was headed in its flawed final few seasons. For the main one you’ll have to check out my coded spoilers section below but I do like that the scenario Jonathan is investigating is not a conventional crime – at least at first. Instead I appreciate that he is looking into something to help a woman settle some daemons from her own childhood.

Given the lack of a clear and engaging problem, I found this story thread fairly effective and I felt that the explanations provided had some interesting components and ideas to them. I felt that the explanation for the letter was particularly satisfying and worked rather nicely. There are a few weak points – not least the explanation for the estrangement and Alison being sent away from the home which didn’t quite add up for me.

The more interesting puzzle to me was the mystery of how the fiery inferno trick works. Here I will confess to being quite handily beaten by Renwick and I am happy to report that I think he set things up quite fairly. The solution is simple and wonderfully visual once shown on screen.

I have seen some express disapproval for an aspect of how the scene that confirms how the trick was worked ends up playing out. I can understand that the sequence certainly leaves Jonathan in a rather uncomfortable place, even if I think there is some justification for the choices he makes. While it certainly puts him in a somewhat different place than we usually see him, I felt that the scene fundamentally works.

The connection between the two cases is clever and, I felt, broadly satisfying. Even the rather silly bit with the scarecrows at the end didn’t bother me too much and I think it was delivered rather well. I have one reservation which, once again, can’t be discussed without spoiling the story but while I think it reflects a little untidiness in the plot, it didn’t sour me on the story as a whole.

I feel that I could make a more generalized version of that comment to sum up my feelings about this story overall. Daemons’ Roost is certainly not the tidiest or most compact episode of Jonathan Creek ever made but I think it is broadly successful nonetheless in marrying the elements of the show’s past and then-present to deliver an intriguing and entertaining ninety minutes of television. It isn’t vintage Creek, but as a last hurrah it gave me pretty much what I wanted.

Aidan Spoils Everything


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Jonathan Creek: The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 14, 2014
Season Five, Episode Three
Preceded by The Sinner and the Sandman
Followed by Daemons’ Roost

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

June Whitfield is a British comedy legend. Among her most famous roles were playing opposite Terry Scott in the long-running sitcom Terry and June and for Absolutely Fabulous. Mystery fans will also be aware though that she played Miss Marple in a series of BBC Radio adaptations that this blogger holds in high regard!

Josie Lawrence is a comedienne and actress who was best known at the time for her improvisational comedy on shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, her work with the Comedy Store Players and a stint on Eastenders.

The Verdict

A rather messy story in which the mystery element of the story takes far too long to present itself.

My Thoughts

It’s hard to know quite where to begin with The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. While most episodes of Jonathan Creek can be easily boiled down to one or two clear and gripping problems, the nature of the impossibility here is a little harder to discern. This is not helped by the fact that it is introduced surprisingly late in the episode, meaning that the viewer will spend much of the episode unclear exactly how Jonathan will get involved with the various situations we see unfold.

The episode begins by showing the abduction of Lindsey Isherwood, a successful analyst and the wife of a cabinet minister. After two episodes which played out on a relatively small scale, I welcomed what seemed to suggest a return to some of the broader, more expansive storytelling of previous seasons. It soon became clear however that while there was a crime with possible national security implications, our focus would instead fall upon the comedic boudoir antics of the Creek family’s undersexed cleaner.

When said cleaner, Denise, finds a bronze lamp that reminds her of the one from Aladdin she gives it a rub and expresses her wish that some of her needs might be met. Later that day she stumbles onto an internet ad for an escort agency and, thinking her wish has been granted, makes an appointment.

When Kevin turns up on her doorstep she is pretty taken with him but the evening turns sour when she finds him dead in her bathtub. Panicked she calls Polly and persuades her to help her dispose of the body to avoid her husband finding out about it. When she wakes the next morning however she is shocked to find a priceless woman’s watch in the bed next to her. What makes it all the more odd however is when Jonathan identifies it as a one-of-a-kind piece belonging to Lindsey Isherwood, bringing us back to the kidnapping story thread.

It is only at this point, halfway through the episode, that anything approaching an impossibility or even just a puzzle for Jonathan to solve is introduced to the story. The problem here is in understanding how a priceless piece of jewelry managed to find its way into the bedroom of a woman with no apparent connection to the crime when we had seen it on the victim’s wrist when she was brought into the bunker.

I find this unsatisfying as a problem for several reasons, not least that I think it is introduced far too late in the story to allow for any serious investigative efforts to be made. One of the most striking aspects of this episode for me was just how little investigation Jonathan seems to do, instead wrapping up the case after a bit of a chat with the police and a trip to scout out a location. I cannot think of another episode of the show where Jonathan seems to do as little work on a case and this served to diminish the sense of accomplishment when it is resolved.

The other major issue I had with it as a problem was that it relies rather heavily on us accepting that an item would be unique and also recognizable enough as the property of the kidnapped woman for Jonathan to notice. Of course people do possess one-of-a-kind items and I can accept that such an item would be needed for this story to work and that coincidence can happen, yet the steps required for it to appear in that bed feel really quite contrived and I was left feeling rather unconvinced that they would have done so.

Prior to the problem being laid out, our attention is focused on two comedic subplots. The more minor of the two concerns a possible murder plot being hatched by two identical twins played by the marvelous June Whitfield. The explanation of the events feels startlingly obvious from the start but I enjoyed the performance enough that it was easy to view this as a piece of comedic color and appreciate it on that grounds. Don’t expect anything deep or raucous from this and you won’t be too disappointed.

The other is Denise’s botched attempt at an affair with that male escort. The tone and setup for this part of the story struck me as a little odd – as accommodating as Polly can be, it’s hard for me to imagine her as someone who would tolerate Denise’s oversharing, let alone help her hide a corpse. Comedically it all feels a little awkward (if not rather insensitive), though I did appreciate the performance from Josie Lawrence who presented a strong interpretation of the character.

The matter of the titular lamp however struck me as entirely convoluted, existing really only to allow Renwick to utilize the title of one of Carr’s novels. Unfortunately Renwick’s sequence feels more silly than moving and so, much like the previous episode, we once again find ourselves with a story that feels like it is written primarily to justify a title rather than because each of those developments make sense.

This story concludes the fifth season of Jonathan Creek on something of a low note. While Renwick’s attempts to play around with some new ideas and structures were commendable, I think that the execution of those ideas was often not ideal with the episodes suffering from the lack of focus on a single impossible problem. Were this the last episode of Jonathan Creek I think I would have felt that something else was needed to give us a proper sense of closure on the series. As it was we still had Daemons’ Roost, the most recently produced story to date, to come and give the series a much tighter conclusion. Join me next time as I share my thoughts on it and, in the process, complete this journey…