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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—19 March 2010

Glenn Kenny

On The Cinephilic Pleasures Of...Murder, She Wrote: Those among you who read my blog cloesly, and with any regularity, have by now discovered that My Lovely Wife and I are completely, well, gaga over Angela Lansbury. I think she's totes hot in Gaslight, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and especially The Harvey Girls. And My Lovely Wife loves...Murder, She Wrote. That's right, the long-running (1984 to 1996!) TV series created by Richard Levinson and William Link, who were also the fathers of television crime fighters Columbo and Mannix, TV crime drama's fastest parallel-parker. And I'll tell you what: I love Murder, She Wrote, too, and if you have a problem with that you can say it to my face and I won't much care.

Last week we had tickets to go see Lansbury, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, in a Broadway production directed by Trevor Nunn. As "supplemental material," I ordered the ninth season of Murder from Amazon. I had received the first eight seasons gratis during my comped-DVDs-rich days at Premiere, ah. Anyhoo, Night Music was spectacular—if you're in New York during its run, you absolutely must go—and Lansbury was first among equals in a wondrous cast (okay, that's not entirely accurate, but the overall experience was so wonderful one doesn't want to quibble); and once back home, we set out for more Lansbury and kicked in the first disc of season nine. This was the second season of the series to be produced by J. Michael Straczynski (who would later go on to create Babylon 5 and script Clint Eastwood's Changeling), which episodes took Jessica out of Cabot Cove, the bucolic New England town where the series had been set, and into a peripatetic mode wherein she solved mysteries worldwide.  One of the episodes was set in Ireland, and called The Wind in the Tower. It was particularly weird for me to watch, as one of its female guest stars was Shirley Anne Field, whose younger self I'd been looking at in Joseph Losey's These Are The Damned, soon to be released on DVD. 30 years on and Field was still a handsome woman, but it was odd to see these two versions of her in close proximity to each other. And talk about random, and relatively obscure.

But that's actually one of the great pleasures of the series, aside from the incredible sexual tension generated in the relationship between Jessica Fletcher and Cabot Cove sawbones Seth Hazlitt (William Windom): the fact that it wasn't just, like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, sort of an employment clearing house for older Hollywood stars, but that it was also likely to feature more offbeat faces and names. Cyd Charisse? Absolutely, but also Kathryn Grayson. Patrick Bauchau, star of Rohmer's La collectioneuse and friend of Andrew Sarris and Eugene Archer. Samuel Fuller stalwart Gene Evans. (In two episodes!) Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren. B favorite John Ireland. Henry Jones, Tony Randall's foil in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and James Stewart's tormentor in Vertigo. Once and future cult favorite Robert Forster. Raoul Ruiz  collaborator Vic Tayback. Frank Zappa collaborator Theodore Bikel. The real-life Melvin Belli, later to be played by Brian Cox in David Fincher's great Zodiac. Leonard Frey, from Friedkin's The Boys In The Band. Not to mention early work by such future stars/favored-of-auteurs-performers as George Clooney and, um, Jackie Earle Hailey.

The series was chockablock with such names and faces and talents, all of them performing at the same general temperature as the cast regulars—that is, with a casual enthusiasm that more than suggests they're not taking the enterprise all that seriously. Not every episode is particularly rich in talent of particularly cinephilic interest; the one we're looking at tonight boasts John Rubenstein, the ur-Peter MacNicol, as its biggest guest star. But once you're hooked, you're hooked.


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