Monday, 13 January 2014

Columbo: Dagger of the Mind

I bought two series of Columbo (from a charity shop, they didn't cost much), wanting to see the episodes in which Patrick McGoohan plays the baddie, in the certain knowledge that the episodes in question were in the first & second series. Of course they're not but I've been watching them anyway. I am perhaps unfairly biased against Columbo, having been forced to watch it as a child because my mother had a pash for Peter Falk. Friends were forbidden to watch Tiswas but I had to because my father had a thing for Sally James, & similarly the Dukes of Hazzard because of Daisy Dukes in the quicksand. I liked Grange Hill, myself, & to this date associate a London accent with everything sophisticated, rebellious & grown up.
All of this is by the by, of course. I've been watching the Columbo episodes though, & on the whole I don't really take to them, but this one catches my eye for two reasons: the first is it has my beloved Honor Blackman playing a wonderfully unlikely murderer, & the other for its interest as an American production set in England. I'll probably regret saying this, but I loooove the way Americans see England & the English.
Blackman cuts an interesting figure in this Columbo episode. When she was first cast in The Avengers somebody - I think a member of the production team, but I've searched & failed to find the source of this comment - cast doubt on her ability to play the role, since he considered her to be a typical Rank-trained starlet, saying everything with a smile. There is more depth to her than that, although the typecasting does seem to have plagued her at various times:
'Signed up with the Rank Organization, Blackman joined several other starlet hopefuls who were being groomed for greater fame. She was initially cast as demure, pleasant young things or "English Rose" types and received dependable but unmemorable co-star billing in films. [...]
'The stress and struggles of advancing her career coupled with a divorce from her first husband, Bill Sankey, and Blackman suffered a nervous collapse in the mid-1950s. After a brief time recovering in a hospital, she regained her health and began rebuilding her career with rather obligatory "B" level fare, at first. This re-entry culminated with a co-starring role in one of the more famous re-tellings of the tragic "Titanic" tale, A Night to Remember. [...]
'[After leaving The Avengers & playing Pussy Galore] This resurgence of popularity should have lead to better film opportunities but did not. Blackman toiled for the most part in low-level melodramas and routine adventures. She earned raves on stage, however, as the blind heroine of the thriller, "Wait Until Dark", as well as for her dual roles in "Mr. and Mrs.", a production based on two of Noel Coward's plays.' (http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0000303/bio)
If you look at videos of her even now it is very evident that she does talk with a smile. To me this is evidently Blackman playing to her good features - she has very good teeth, & there's nothing wrong with accentuating ones good features. Also surely anyone in their right mind would want to avoid the miserable old person syndrome?
Blackman's depths as an actress are actually displayed rather well in this. She gets to play an actress playing a different role, & the role of someone who has committed...well, I suppose technically it would be manslaughter (& who would have been better confessing in reality & taking her chances on the judge's discretionary sentencing for manslaughter in English law), with all of the attendant emotions that go with these different roles. She is particularly good in the role of temperamental thespian at the beginning, having a go at the director. In a sense her role is a gift for any actor, since it asks to be overdone, which she does, but not too much (I knew what I meant when I started this sentence): I particularly love the obviously well-rehearsed account of the night of the murder, told my two characters. I note that Columbo refers to 'that performance you both just gave'! Plot-wise, an actor as a character is also a gift, since if anyone can present a completely false front, & even feel things at will, actors should be able to.
This episode plays on every stereotypical element of England & the English & pumps them for all they're worth. I love the bit where the inspector is explaining to Columbo that the new Scotland Yard building is Scotland Yard & not New Scotland Yard. I love the music. I love Columbo sightseeing. I love Columbo in a gentleman's club saying 'My father was an elk once 'till my mother stopped him'. I love the so-Avengers huge vintage cars. The scenes at the mansion were filmed in California: I assume they couldn't find a stately home so steretypically palatial in Britain.
Now for the things that are so wrong in this episode's depiction of England & the English. The butler criticising Columbo for drinking Irish whiskey before lunch, he'd've kept his opinion to himself. The coffin on a stage (what the hell?). The scene in the pub is just too Eliza Doolittle to bear any resemblance to reality. I actually don't think of these things as faults, they're more in the category of us-as-seen-or-imagined-by-others; I suspect the Englishness was deliberately overdone as befits this so dramatic episode. The cult of celebrity indicated by the crowds at the waxworks. Columbo interviewing the man in the street: the man is too gaw blimey salt of the earth to be true. The audible doorbell on the mansion: if you can afford a house that size you can afford somebody to listen for your doorbell.
I'm aware I'm being contrary in writing about a detective story without writing about the story, but this may indicate the extent to which I don't take to it! I don't like the device where we as the audience know whodunnit & watch the detective working it out. We know what's happened, & it requires nothing to watch the detective veering to & from the correct solution. As it happens it is far from simple in this one, & the majority of the detective work is caused by attempts to cover up the crime. This makes the plot at times way too convoluted.
I think this episode of Columbo may best be enjoyed for its portrayal of a completely unreal England, & its theatrical milieu, which is of course supposed to be unreal. Fans of Blackman will like her in this role, since it allows for real emotional depth & complexity, while also allowing for a completely overblown thespian performance!
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5 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (transatlantically):

Any time I see an American movie/TV show set in England, I always wonder how You Over There are reacting to how We Over Here are portraying Britain.
This goes back years, to when Hollywood attracted lots of evacuated British talent before and during World War II.
Much has been written over the years about Hollywood's British Colony (sometimes called "the Beverly Hills Raj"), many of whom elected to stay in the USA permanently (I understand that British taxation played a major factor in many of those decisions).
In "Dagger Of The Mind", the '70s contingent of the Raj is present in force: John Williams, Bernard Fox, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Hedley Mattingly, Harvey Jason, and I'm missing a couple, but pretty much everyone was there.
As you no doubt suspected, much of this episode was made at Universal City and its environs; the London footage was mainly second-unit (you might have noticed that much of it had no dialogue). The credited director, Richard Quine, had made a feature or two in Britain (the one I remember is The Notorious Landlady, with Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak, and Fred Astaire); he may have supervised that second unit.
I've read that Peter Falk didn't care for this episode; he considered it a "sweeps stunt".
Three times a year, in November, May and July, the Nielsen Ratings Service did special surveys, using larger samples than usual; advertising agencies used these "sweeps" ratings to set national commercial rates for parts of the season.
The networks responded to this by ordering producers to load up these months - but particularly November and May - with specials, bigger-than-usual movies, and unusual episodes of regular series. Sending Lt. Columbo to London was clearly NBC's idea; nobody at Universal really loved it, but who's writing the checks, right?
Richard Levinson and William Link, Columbo's creators, were winding down their involvement in the series at that point; they came up wit the basic story, which they gave to one of their best writers, Jackson Gillis, to turn into a script (Gillis had been writing TV mysteries for decades, from Superman in the '50s, through Perry Mason in the '60s, all the way to Murder, She Wrote in the '80s).
Honor Blackman was, as you may have guessed, this week's Major Get.
Richard Basehart (from Ohio) was a close second.
John Williams was third and paid $2.40.
(Sorry - old joke that I couldn't resist.)

Sidebar:
When he was a kid, Dennis Waterman spent a year in Hollywood filming a sitcom called Fair Exchange.
I recently read his autobiography, in which he recalled (fondly, sort of) his Hollywood experience. He did take note that the "English home life" he made at Desilu bore little if any resemblance to his own real life back home.
Waterman and the other family members were cast in Britain, and flown to the USA; the other british roles were played by members of the Raj.
There was one actor, Maurice Dallimore, who was kind of a Colonel Blimp type; he'd been doing this bit in US movies and TV for years (I think he's in a couple of UNCLEs.
My brother and I were 11 and 12 years old when Fair Exchange was on CBS, and we both loved "Neville Finch", Dennis Waterman's character - he was like us: a smart-aleck brat.
Sadly, my brother passed away a few years back; he never got to see Dennis Waterman become British TV's toughest copper (although that was because none of his shows crossed over to these shores).
In recent times, I've been sort of making up for that ...

OK, I was a little off-topic here, but it is sort of relevant to the post (maybe) ...

'Til next time ...

John said...

Oh it is relevant, because I was watching a Murder She Wrote the other night and they all kept referring to a British character. I couldn't work out who it was for the life of me until I realised I had missed that the American actor playing the character had an accent I'd missed completely!
Which begs the question - does Angela Lansbury sound American to Americans?

Mike Doran said...

Chicago (re)Calling:

Does Angela Lansbury sound American to Americans?

Which kind of American do you mean?

The USA has any number of regional accents spread all over the country.
"Jessica Fletcher" is supposed to be from Maine - that would be a New England accent, but not as pronounced as a Boston accent (there are experts who can tell you all about this; I wish I were one of them).

Actually, Angela Lansbury has lived in the USA for so long that most Americans probably don't realize that she was born in Britain.
(This may be partially related to many Americans still believing that Patrick McGoohan was really British.)

In more recent times, Hugh Laurie has made a splash over here playing American characters with appropriate accents - and he's only the latest.
Back in the '60s, Barry Morse played Lt. Gerard, a Midwesterner, on The Fugitive; when he would appear on talk shows, Morse invariably threw his American hosts with his natural British speech (not to mention his geniality, so different from Gerard's sternness).

As to Murder, She Wrote:
Over 12 seasons, they did 265 shows; could you be a bit more specific about which American/"British" actor you're referring to?
We've had a number of dialect specialists over here, much as you have over there.
Between the two of us, we could come up with pages of examples ...

Over to you:

John said...

Well I thought it was the series 5 episode JB as in Jailbird but typically I can't now find a reference to a British character so I will rewatch it at some point.
You have actually answered the question in my head, though: if US-born people can be unaware she's British, Angela Lansbury sounds like a native!
I do take your point about the different accents, Mike (although I wasn't thinking of that when I asked the question), but I can't tell those accents apart.
Obviously I don't have a dog in that fight, but as I've said here before I'm from Birmingham and *no* actor can do our accent convincingly!
Of course it's interesting you mention McGoohan because all three of his accents sound convincing to me!

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (Triple Play!):

I checked my Murder, She Wrote reference book, specifically "JB As In Jailbird".
The guy you're probably talking about is Len Cariou, who costarred with Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, just before MSW started up.
That wasn't the first time that the two of them worked together.
Being Angela Lansbury's friend was a gateway, though; in its first several seasons, Len Cariou had a recurring part on MSW, playing an Irish secret agent named Michael Haggerty, who would pop up annually to help out his pal Jessica with whatever case she had going.
"JB As In Jailbird" was one of these; Cariou was transitioning from a mostly-stage career to film and TV. All told, Cariou did seven MSWs as Haggerty.
These days, Len Cariou - who, by the way, is of French-Canadian background - can be seen on the CBS show Blue Bloods, in which Tom Selleck plays the Police Commissioner of New York City; Cariou plays his retired-cop father.
Fun Fact: Len Cariou is only five years older than Tom Selleck.
Stranger Than Truth!