MODs of the Week: Mysteries for Valentine's Day with William Powell, Steve Martin, Harry-O and more
Mysteries for Valentine's Day? Well, the ways of the human heart have always been a bit of a puzzle, whether in regards to romance or malice, and both Warner Archives and Columbia Choice Collection have a slew of crime cases for you and your beloved (or intended) to deduce over a Whitman's sampler or two. The best of the lot is David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner (1997), a swell Chinese box of a thriller with Campbell Scott (The Amazing Spider-Man) as a naive developer whose priceless but unpatented industrial process makes him the target for an array of nefarious upscale types, including his own boss (Ben Gazzara), a tart-tongued secretary (Mamet's wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon) and a wealthy stranger (Steve Martin, playing well against type). Though Mamet's dialogue strikes an odd balance between a sort of meta-hardboiled grit and the distinctive language of his stage work, the picture's key appeal is the intricate curves and hard corners of the plot, which enfold and entrap Scott, placing both his invention and life at risk. The cast is also top-notch (though Pidgeon remains an acquired taste), with the great magician/author/actor Ricky Jay, Ed O'Neil and Felicity Huffman all offering quality support.
More modern detective work is on display in the second and final season of Harry-O (Warner), starring David Janssen as the titular San Diego cop turned private eye. Though praised by critics for its adherence o realism and character over action and flash, and for Janssen's world-weary turn, which drew directly from the Chandler/Hammett playbook for its quasi-poetic voice-overs, the show was never a ratings hit, which prompted several makeovers by ABC during its brief network run in 1975 and 1976. Orwell finally got his long-suffering Austin-Healy out of the shop where it had resided for most of the first season, forcing him to take the bus (!) to many investigations, while a spin-off was attempted with Les Lannom's naive PI Lester Hodges and Keye Luke as his mentor. Though ratings picked up in its second season, Harry-O was unceremoniously yanked to make room for Charlie's Angels (starring Farrah Fawcett, who had a recurring role as Harry's neighbor/girlfriend). Season Two of Harry-O preserves what made the show a cult favorite, most notably Janssen's interaction with foil Lt. Trench (Anthony Zerbe, who won an Emmy for his performance), which crackles with the chemistry between these two fine actors.
Lastly, Columbia has A Matter of Wife... And Death (1976), which was planned as a pilot for a series based on the 1973 action-thriller Shamus, with Burt Reynolds. Rod Taylor takes over Reynolds' role as rough-and-ready PI Shamus McCoy, whose investigation into the murder of another detective brings him into contact with a mob-run gambling ring. The production aims for the same sort of low-key aesthetic as The Rockford Files, even tapping Joe Santos to play a role similar to his character on the James Garner series. And while it doesn't quite reach Rockford standards, Matter is still a very watchable TV effort, thanks to Taylor's typically charismatic turn and a supporting cast of solid character actors, including John Colicos, Luke Askew and Cesare Danova, as well as Lynda Carter and Anne Archer in the early stages of their careers as McCoy's romantic interests. -- Paul Gaita