BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Aug 3rd, 2008 •

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For much of my life I have been an aficionado of the mystery. I consider the “cozy” English mystery the height of escapist pleasure, and I was really looking forward to viewing the six independent episodes of the “Time for Murder” series. Made for British television during the 1980s, these little stories have much, on paper, to recommend them: each was written by a different, well-known British writer, each one tells a complete tale in just under an hour, and the casts are peopled with fabulous actors—including Clare Bloom, Sylvia Syms, Trevor Howard, Charles Dance, etc. Unfortunately, on the whole they did not meet my expectations, but upon reflection I think it is because my expectations were misguided. English “cozy” mysteries require someone like Miss Marple or Inspector Poirot to come along and set things right. In “Time for Murder” the audience gets a chance to witness the unfolding crime and discover who the murderer is, but there are no figures of authority or moral certitude.

So, these stories are more like small tales of horror, or like little Hitchcockian “gotchas!” Of the six, four are based upon the idea that the desire to murder other people is an inherited trait, and in the other two, broken hearts lead to mayhem. The question for the audience is rarely “Who done it?” It’s more, who is going to get killed and what preposterous plot twist will the author reveal at the last minute to justify it.

The first disc contains BRIGHT SMILER by Fay Weldon, THE MURDERS AT LYNCH CROSS, by Frances Galleymore, and MISTER CLAY, MISTER CLAY by Antonia Fraser. In BRIGHT SMILER, Janet Suzman plays screenwriter Avon Eve who goes to a health spa for a week of rest and recovery. There she encounters the masseuse Sonia (Jane Asher), whom she thinks of as a “bright smiler”—one of those genteelly impoverished English ladies who smile bravely and act upbeat no matter how bad their luck is. As Sonia kneads Avon’s muscles, she chirps away, cheerily telling an increasingly disturbing story of lost love and betrayal, which eventually turns into a desperate plan for revenge. What is sort of fun about this film is that you don’t know where it’s going to go, and it’s also comic to watch Suzman’s character try to relax while enduring deep massage mixed with sociopathy. What is less fun is the pacing and the framing. It feels rather stiff and clunky, as do most of the films in this series. It looks much more like a soap opera than say, one of those imported British mysteries that they show on PBS nowadays.

THE MURDERS AT LYNCH CROSS starts out exactly like an Agatha Christie mystery. Harry Scott-Forbes (Terence Alexander) and his wife Vivien (Sylvia Syms) are turning their remote, mansion home into a small hotel. A group of apparent strangers (or are they?) are invited to be guests of the proprietors for the opening the weekend. Outside, a snowstorm rages, cutting them of from civilization, and a murderer may have escaped from the local women’s prison. Then all the guests are locked into the dining room, and nearly poisoned by the unlit gas fire. To tell you the truth, although my interest was held for a while as I wondered who would be bumped off next, I never fully figured out who was allied with whom, and in order to understand the end one had to endure quite a bit of exposition as well as a leap of credulity. Again the style of the production and the filming seemed soap opera-ish, the characters came across as stock types, rather than as people.

The third offering, MISTER CLAY, MISTER CLAY, I thought was the best on the disc in terms of story and character. This one takes place in an English boarding school, and the little tykes, sitting in chapel and raising their posh-accented, treble voices in song provide a nice atmosphere. Matthew Clay (Aden Gillett) is a young master at the school—a very ineffective one. His very being seems to goad the children into misbehaving, and the headmaster (Edward Hardwicke) is down on him. The only bright spot in his world is fellow teacher Max Donaldson (Ian Ogilvy). Max has charmed the whole school, especially Matthew and the female staff, and he’s also borrowed money from them all, in an attempt to keep up with his gambling debts. When one of the students (Simon Bowen), who has been particularly vicious to Mr. Clay, turns up dead in a closet, the school is thrown into a state of alarm—who committed the murder and who will be next?

The most interesting aspect of this film is the obvious (if implied) sexual sway Max holds over Mr. Clay. The ending’s kind of a downer, tragic but a little too primly moralistic. And the sound for this episode was particularly muffled. Still, I enjoyed the writing and thought the actors did a credible job of embodying their characters.

Disc two is all about the inherited murder gene. In LIGHTNING ALWAYS STRIKES TWICE, teacher James Latimer (Charles Dance) is asked by Lady Penwarden (Claire Bloom) to tutor her daughter Sarah (Amanda Root). Sara has been educated at home, but now that she is nearing college age, her family supposedly wants her to be prepared for admission to Oxford. However, Mr. Latimer’s observations of Sara’s sketchbook, her behavior during thunderstorms, and her relationship with her black sheep brother Lawrence (Simon Shepherd) leads him to believe that the family may have a secret agenda.

This story is told in flashbacks and flash-forwards. It starts after a murder has been committed, as Latimer is being interrogated by Chief Inspector Dryden (Emrys James), and it takes the viewer a while to figure out who has been murdered, and much longer to figure out how inherited madness fits into the rather convoluted plot. Unfortunately, the Chief Inspector, who is integral to the flashback structure, is not part of the denouement, which I thought was a real flaw. And again, the flow of the piece, in spite of the flashbacks, feels creaky.

In THE THIRTEENTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, by Gordon Honeycombe, the question isn’t who the murderer is, it’s where will he come from and when will he strike? It’s the holiday season, and Gilbert Smith (Patrick Allen) and his wife Evelyn (Elizabeth Spriggs) are about to discover that their mentally fragile son Richard (John Wheatley) is even less stable than they thought he was. Voices tell him what to do, he communes with his pet snake, and he sees his father taunting him from the television screen. I have to admit, it was harrowing to watch this guy being goaded by his own internal devils, and anxiety-producing to wait for him to strike. Once again, madness in the family is the culprit, but it doesn’t really matter. The purpose of this exercise is definitely its “gotcha” factor.

Finally, the film I actually liked the best, DUST TO DUST, by Charles Wood, is sort of a dark take on the ARSENIC AND OLD LACE story. Margaret Tutting (Patricia Hodge) is a lovely, middle-aged woman who runs very discreet personal ads in the newspaper. When the proper gentlemen respond, she corresponds with them and eventually invites them over for dinner and demise. She is helped in this endeavor by her lumpish servant Strapp (William Simons). Rounding out the household is her crippled harridan of a mother Hermione (Judy Campbell), who probably dispatched Margaret’s father in a similar fashion. Into this fetid household strides Austin Tupp (Michael Jayston), a wily respondent who quickly realizes what’s afoot.

The reason I liked this episode the best is that, in spite of the fact that the characters may seem a bit stock in the way I have described them, I did not think they were in the playing. Sure, the whole story is overwrought, but I thought the actor’s filled their roles really well, and that they were specific and charismatic, especially Judy Campbell and Michael Jayston. The framing of the actors, and the way in which key lighting was used, also helped this effect. The writing contained some character monologs, too, and I thought those were unique, and not typical revelations for the genre. The ending had some surprising twists and turns, but the finale was an over-the-top apocalypse that seemed a bit of a cop out to me.

All of these films were shot on video, which definitely does not help the already low production value. The picture is often soft, and the colors bleed. The sound isn’t great and if you have any trouble with British accents, some of this will sound noisy and impenetrable. The sets seem cheesy, although I’m sure they did their best with a limited budget (and obviously the same sets were used and redressed for at least some of the episodes). I am shocked to say this, but eighties fashion no longer looks out-of-date, it now looks like period costuming (“Oh, yes, back in the eighties their was an actress named Farrah Fawcett, and her stylist did things with a hairdryer that all fashionable women attempted to emulate”).

There are no extras to speak of on these discs, only a filmography for about half of the actors. Since this information is available concerning most of the actors at IMDB, it hardly seems necessary.

Although there were things about these discs that were interesting, I cannot really recommend this product, except in two instances. If you have a summer house, with one of those rooms full of discarded books and things that people love to look at on a rainy day, you might want to consider adding a DVD player and a pile of DVDS like this one. It will the pass the time, just as a moldy mystery or banged-up Monopoly board might. And if you’re big fan of gothic soap operas, particularly the old “Dark Shadows” soap operas from the sixties and seventies, I think you might really get a charge out of this.

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