In the middle of season three of Murder, She Wrote is another episode about newsmen. This time it’s TV news rather than newspaper news, but other than that, it’s much the same.
Unusually for Murder, She Wrote the title card has a person in it. This is the titular anchorman, no less. His name is Kevin Keats and he’s a hard hitting reporter and also a self-important jerk.
He is conducting what is ostensibly an interview about art with Ronald Ross, who has one of the finest private collections of abstract expressionism in the country. This lasts for a few seconds, then Keats starts accusing him of being a drug dealer. Ross says that he’s very disappointed, because he loves to show off his art collection. He walks off, and his enforcer, Gerald Foster, a big bald man, signals that the interview is over by blocking the camera.
The TV that’s being watched in this shot belongs to Mr. Ross, btw, who is watching it with his enforcer. As a side note, I love the close, personal friendship that crime bosses almost invariably have with their enforcers. It’s so helpful for the casting departments of TV shows and movies that crime bosses never have intermediates so as to have plausible deniability if their enforcers are caught in one of the many criminal assaults they commit. Also nice to know that enforcers aren’t, generally, unpleasant psychopaths who enjoy hurting people but rather cultured and sophisticated gentle souls who by preference would discuss art and are merely willing to do the dirty jobs that someone has to do, out of a deep sense of loyalty to their best friend and employer.
The show cuts to Kevin Keats talking about how he’s got new and explosive information to reveal next week. Mr Ross throws a towel at the television and shouts at it, “You’re a dead man!”
I wonder if, in the whole history of Murder, She Wrote, the murderer has ever shouted a death threat at the victim? Certainly, I can remember no instance of it. Granted, we’re only three seasons in at this point so it’s harder for the audience to be sure that Mr. Ross’s threat entirely exonerates him of the murder soon to take place, but even at this point in the series it’s a good bet.
The end of the show is interesting, btw.
When they’re done they sign off in a curious way. Keats says, “Goodnight, Nick.” Nick replies, “Goodnight. And goodnight, Paula.” She looks up at the audience and says, “Goodnight, America.”
It reminds me a bit of how 60 Minutes ends, though it’s been decades since I saw the show and I can’t easily find any clips to verify that they sign off like this. My recollection is that it did have a bit of a Waltons feel (“Good night, John Boy”), but I’ve no idea if that’s accurate. Either way, I suppose that this is at heart a callback to Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night and good luck.”
I often confuse Edward R. Murrow with Walter Cronkite, who was, back in his day, “the most trusted man in America.” In hindsight, that was largely a testament to how gullible Americans were in the post-war period. From what I’ve gathered from family stories, Murrow was regarded in a similar way, though Murrow acquired a halo of sanctity around him, granted by marxists in the media, because of his supposed role in the takedown of Joe McCarthy (how much of an influence Murrow had is a subject of debate, but popular history will always be simplified history). Be that as it may, the real news had, in this time, acquired a tone of faux-familiarity that was very ingratiating. I suspect that this pretense of being part of the family watching—together with other things, such as the relatively few television channels, the imprimatur implicitly granted by the US government in its fairness doctrine, and many other reasons—was part of why so many people now in their sixties and older regard the news with a completely unreasonable level of trust.
The faux news show in this episode, coming, as it did, in 1986, is in an interesting time. Older people still regarded the news with obsequious gullibility, but children (I was not yet ten) did not, and even in this show one can see a certain amount of cynical realism about the news starting to creep in even to the way it’s presented here in Murder, She Wrote. News was, by this time, a business. Nick, the old man of the three, represents the old time, respected news. Confidential audience research suggests that audiences don’t like him nearly as much as his two younger, better-looking co-stars.
(As a side note, the sub-plot of the network wanting to replace him with a younger, more attractive reporter is a bit silly. It was at the time, and even still is, common practice to have at least one older, respectable-looking character on a show to reflect respectability onto the younger, prettier ones. It would be far more realistic to move him to a small part where he’s often visible but not doing anything of substance.)
The show, Scrutiny, presents itself as beyond reproach, but we do catch a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors, and the sausage making is not attractive. But I’m getting ahead of the episode. Before we see the inner workings of the show, Paula Roman pitches a feature on Cabot Cove to Jessica Fletcher.
Apparently Scrutiny has down-to-earth, gentle segments, and Paula does those. That feels quite dissonant with the segments that Kevin Keats does, but perhaps Nick does some sort of middle-ground which acts as the glue for these two very different kind of segments. Anyway, Paula insists that unlike Kevin’s mean-spirited exposés, her segment will be like a television post card.
Jessica isn’t sure, but Paula’s assurances that the interview will be a gentle, lovers’ caress of Cabot Cove makes Jessica say that she’ll bring it up with the town council and see what they think (spoiler alert: they love the idea).
Then we get a plot twist!
In a meeting with the producer, the anchors, and the guy whose job it is to liaise with the “network” (his title is “vice president in charge of the news”), after they abuse the network guy for thinking about the people who pay for everyone’s fun and he leaves, it turns out that they’re killing part 2 of Kevin’s show about the drug dealing art collector and instead he’s going to be doing Paula’s Cabot Cove segment. She’s been reassigned to do a story on a boy who joined a girl’s basketball team.
Oh, and it comes out that the “network” is very concerned about the shows’ ratings. Nick is an American institution and Kevin and Paula are young and attractive, but the show is not doing so well anyway. This will be a major plot point, later, but it does feel a bit dissonant. Within TV-land, what is the show supposed to do to get higher ratings?
In reality they need to move more niche and pretend that the world is constantly about to end and only watching their show will save it. Even that is a short-term solution as TV news is constantly slipping in ratings to the point where many brand-name news shows have lower viewership than some of the bigger YouTube channels, but that would make for a very different episode. And TV news’ falling ratings doesn’t seem to result in personnel changes anyway.
But what are they supposed to do in TV land? Usually there is some unsavory alternative presented, such as bringing on women in bikinis or covering more sensational events even though they aren’t as Important. This show already covers sensational things that aren’t important. I suppose they could have Paula wear a bikini, but nothing like this is mentioned. It’s just left in the air that things aren’t great despite Scrutiny being a smash hit that enough people watch that Kevin Keats’ face is almost as well known as that of Ronald McDonald (this is mentioned later in the episode).
This being left completely unresolved, we move to Cabot Cove, where the residents are getting ready for their closeup. Interestingly, this episode, despite being in Cabot Cove, does not feature Seth Hazlet. Filling in for him while he’s visiting his sister is Wylie.
Wylie is only in two Murder, She Wrote episodes. The other is Dead Man’s Gold. (The actor, Robert Hogan, showed up in two other episodes, one as Lt. Bergkamp and one as FBI Agent Guilfoyle.) He’s a fun character. He’s got Seth’s crusty cynicism, except with more charm. He notes that the town is going crazy with the coming of the TV show. Then we get the gag of the TV news crew overwhelming Jessica’s house with TV equipment (mostly lights).
I really wonder how realistic this is. It’s made by a TV show who knows how to film outdoors, so I expect they could use very realistic equipment if they chose to. On the other hand, I doubt they would have chosen to. For one thing, not a single one of those lights is like the other and real lighting has a tendency to be symmetric about the subject it’s trying to illuminate. For another, I suspect that the crew who set up would have found it funny to make the lighting as unrealistic as possible. Also, these aren’t the days of technicolor with its huge light requirements because they’re exposing three films, one with a red filter in front of it, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter. How many lights do they really need outdoors on a sunny day, for a TV show?
Jessica demands that they get the lights out of her flower gardens (you’d think, if they were setting up, they’d have wanted to get her flower gardens as background), and Kevin Keats introduces herself.
We then cut to Amos Tupper, in an ugly brown suit which he apparently bought just for the occasion, driving along the coast road. (I’ve got a screenshot of the ugly brown suit later on.) He pulls over when he sees a helicopter descending towards a stretch limo. The helicopter lands…
…and out of it steps the drug trafficing art collector’s enforcer, carrying a suitcase. He runs to the stretch limo.
As soon as he’s in, the stretch limmo tears onto the road, wheels screeching.
All of this sure attracts Amos’ attention, but it serves absolutely no discernible purpose. There is no reason for the enforcer to be in such a rush, or at least no reason that we are ever told about. There’s no obvious reason for the guy to have taken a helicopter when there’s an airport near Cabot Cove that everyone else uses. There’s no reason for him to have a stretch limo waiting in a field for him. There’s no reason for him to run from the helicopter to the stretch limo. There’s no reason for the stretch limo to tear onto the road so fast its wheels squeak. Literally the next thing we know that the enforcer does is to show up the next morning at the docks. There is absolutely no plausible reason for all of this haste. Moreover, if the enforcer is here to murder Kevin Keats, he would need to wear one of those one-man-band outfits with all of the instruments tied to him in order to draw more attention to himself. It’s almost a small thing, in comparison, that there is no way (we know of) for the enforcer to know that Kevin Keats is in Cabot Cove. It was in no way the obvious place to look for him, and with them worrying about death threats against Keats, it’s a bit odd that they’d publicly mention where they’re filming taped segments.
However improbable, though, this dramatic appearance moves the plot along. Amos shows up in the middle of Kevin Keats interviewing Jessica and tells her all about the big ugly bald guy, which makes Keats request the Sheriff (in private) to quietly hire a boat for him.
I don’t want to entirely skip over that interview, though. We come to it as Keats is asking Jessica, “It makes you wonder, J.B. Fletcher, how you came to buried in a tiny town in the back of Maine where the people are, if you’ll forgive me, hardly your intellectual equals.”
Her intellectual equals? She’s not a philosopher, or even someone who is reputed to write Great American Novels about people without principles or religious beliefs being depressed that life is meaningless and full of suffering. (Those aren’t, in fact, intellectually great, but I would at least see why a pretentious TV news anchor would treat them as if they were works of agonizing brilliance.) She’s a mystery writer! She writes whodunnits where a law student from the deep south catches a murderer because his friend who is accused of the murder claims he didn’t see a light flashing on an extension when he was hiding in the music closet. Mystery stories are actually quite deep, at least when done well, but it’s implausible in the extreme Kevin Keats would regard them that way. The detective being a Christ figure who descends into a world broken by the misuse of reason in order to, by the right use of reason, restore right order to it, is not something it is slightly plausible Kevin Keats would appreciate.
Besides, if she was living in an apartment in New York City she’d be likely to have a corporate lawyer on one side of her, a banker on the other, and the personal assistant to an executive across the hall. Why on earth would these be her “intellectual equals”? People in big cities like a variety of ethnic foods, unusual shops, fornication, committing crimes, and stepping over homeless people to get to all of these things. They would be far more urbane than Jessica’s Cabot Cove neighbors, but why on earth would he think that they’re intellectually superior? If you’ve ever encountered city dwellers, plenty of them can go several weeks at a time without having a single thought in their heads that a dog would not. Liking varied entertainment is not at all the same thing as being intelligent. If anything, it’s a symptom of intellectual weakness to require constant variety in order to sustain interest.
None of which Jessica says because she’s written by people who live in a big city (Los Angeles). Instead she tells Keats that if he’s going to insult her friends and neighbors, he’s going to have to do the segment without her. He apologizes and they do it over again. He asks roughly the same question but without the insults, and she talks about how this is where her roots are, and how she’s lived for decades in that old, drafty house with Frank…
I really wish she gave an answer that had something to do with loyalty and how each place is good in its own way, and she’s good at appreciating the goodness of this particular place. Of course, the problem here, too, is that she’s being written by Hollywood writers, which means people who gave up their roots to move to Los Angeles in order to pursue their dreams of fame and fortune. That is, they are nearly the worst people in the world to answer this question, and not nearly imaginative enough to think of how someone unlike them would answer it for real. All they can do is give the pat answer, “I’ve had lots of experiences here.” I doubt that it’s ever occurred to Hollywood writers that there actually are people you couldn’t pay to move to Los Angeles.
Anyway, Amos Tupper interrupts this interview which Jessica has to know is going to be cut up and mangled, but goes along with anyway, because he’s got extremely important news that just can’t wait. There’s a not very funny bit where he pointedly ignores Keats and tells Jessica about the guy he just saw get out of a helicopter and into a limo.
Amos doesn’t even notice when Keats tells the TV crew to cut the film. Eventually he asks who this fellow is. It’s mildly amusing, but I don’t think it was worth sacrificing Amos’s manners for. It’s also nearly the only time I can think of where Amos was in a hurry for anything. Anyway, he eventually finds out that it’s Kevin Keats, and is embarrassed, though not very embarrassed. He shakes Keats’ hand and says that he looks a lot taller on TV.
The scene is very odd because Amos bought a new suit to show off for the TV cameras and yet doesn’t care about them and even partially looks down his nose at them. I don’t know what to make of it; I guess they just had to stitch the next plot element to the current scene and wanted to get through it as quickly as possible (when writing). It does, at least, do that; we’re now on to the next part of the plot.
Oh, almost. We have a few things to get out of the way, first. It’s now night time and Kevin Keats’ estranged wife calls him at his hotel to vaguely threaten him.
That phone call over, it’s time for Dough, the producer, to walk in and have a fight with Kevin in front of the hotel manager.
“This assignment was a change of pace. A fresh approach. Don’t take it personally.” “Oh, but I do. Scrutiny is a hit for one reason, and you’re looking at him. They toss out producers like so many empty beer cans but I keep rolling along. So you get off my back, before I do something you’ll regret.”
Scrutiny is a hit but the network is worried about the ratings. OK, whatever. This publicly-witnessed threat session over with, we can finally get to the important part: in the morning Kevin gets on the boat the Sheriff Tupper rented for him. Sheriff Tupper then turns around and sees the bald enforcer standing by the dock, watching Kevin. He shouts to him to hold it, whereupon the enforcer runs away and Tupper sighs in disappointment since running after the man is clearly out of the question.
Kevin Keats’ boat makes it about 100 yards away from the dock and then we get the murder.
It was kind of whoever planted the bomb to put it on a timer after the ignition started so that it wasn’t right next to the dock when it exploded. Sure, he destroyed an innocent man’s boat, but at least he didn’t cause unnecessary damage to the dock, which having the bomb go off as soon as the ignition was started would probably have done.
Anyway, we go to commercial and when we came back the big bald enforcer calls the art collector from a phone in the limo and tells him that the situation has resolved itself. The art collector replies that he’s late—he’s watching Paula Roman live, from the scene of the explosion.
I find this perplexing since it entirely rules the enforcer out as a suspect. We’re seeing him in a private conversation where he would have no motive to lie. So what is the point of these characters? If they’re not suspects, why spend time on them? I suppose they could be trying to suggest that the art collector actually carried out the hit without telling his enforcer and was using the enforcer as a blind, but neither appears again in the episode.
We go to Paula Roman, live on the dock only an hour or so later. After she signs off, she talks to Jessica. She claims that she took the first flight over. Jessica looks dubious, but says nothing. They leave together.
They get to the hotel, where Paula doesn’t recognize the busy-body hotel manager, and he directs them to the private dining room where the “TV folks” have set up a temporary field office.
Nick is there, running things in the absence of anyone else. Paula asks where Doug is and Nick says that nobody knows. He checked into his hotel late last night, left early this morning, and nobody has seen him since. He’s probably off climbing a mountain somewhere. This being a potentially identifying personal detail in a Murder, She Wrote, you can bet that it will be significant before the end of the episode.
Paula and Jessica have coffee, and Paula asks about the look Jessica gave her when she said she flew in on the first flight this morning. Jessica tells her that she was on the air a half hour before the first flight from NYC landed in Portland. Paula then admits to having flown in the night before with Doug, the producer. Jessica knows that Paula spent the night with Kevin because she didn’t recognize the hotel manager, which meant that she didn’t go to her own room. We also learn that Richard Abbott, the vice president in charge of news, is also missing (back in NYC).
Some comic relief later, Jessica calls the hotel manager on the phone and asks about the phone call from Keats’ wife. She wasn’t calling from California, it turns out, she “left a local number”. It’s the phone number of a nearby motel. How she left a number when the hotel manager never talked to her other than to say “hello” is unclear. This is before the days of caller ID and the phone had no caller ID screen on it anyway. It’s useful information, though, because it enables Jessica to go interrogate Kevin Keats’ wife, which she does.
It turns out that she came to Cabot Cove in order to try to reconcile with her husband, but he saw Keats with Paula and realized that there was no chance of it when she saw the look of love in his eyes when he looked at Paula. This makes the timing a bit suspect, since Paula arrived with Doug the producer but Mrs. Keats called her husband both after she saw Paula with Kevin but also before Doug walked in the front door.
Plot holes aside, Jessica is busy rudely observing that now that Kevin is dead Mrs. Keats will get all of his assets when the bartender says that there’s a call for a Jessica Fletcher. It turns out it’s Wylie.
He asks Jessica to ask Mrs. Keats how many toes her husband has. Jessica asks, and before she can relay the answer, Wylie tells Jessica, “Unless she said eight, the fellow I’ve got lying here on my table is not the late Kevin Keats.”
Amos, Jessica, and Wylie meet to discuss this new development. Amos, as usual, takes the changing of facts personally. He saw Kevin Keats get on the boat, and doggone it, it’s not fair that it isn’t Kevin Keats who’s dead. Poor Amos. Life as a small-town sheriff is supposed to be simple.
Incidentally, it’s definitely the case that whoever it is on the table didn’t lose the toes in the explosion, they were surgically amputated some time ago. Also, Wylie checked with Seth (who, you will recall, is on vacation) and no one in Cabot Cove is missing those toes. Jessica then brings up another mystery, in addition to whose is the body: where is Kevin Keats? (Apparently it doesn’t occur to anyone that there could have been two people on the boat and Keats was in fact killed but his body not found because they stopped looking after finding the first body.)
Curiously, the next thing we see is where Kevin Keats is.
To be fair, it takes a minute to actually show us Kevin; he’s watching the news where somebody or other is interviewing Cabot Cove’s mayor, but eventually we pan over to him on the motel’s bed.
I love Kevin’s outfit. It’s the pointless leather patch on the flannel shirt that really makes it, for me. That said, the bag of potato chips and the drink in a red plastic cup really pulls the shot together. That’s about it, though. All of the action takes place in the newswoman asking the mayor questions and him not having answers. Then Kevin picks up the phone and dials someone as we fade out.
I’m very unclear on why this scene exists; all it serves to do is to remove the mystery about what happened to Kevin Keats only a few seconds after the mystery was raised. In that way it’s reminiscent of the scene in which the bald enforcer calls his art collector boss and tells him that he didn’t have to kill Keats after all. Is this meant to be a help to the audience? Does Murder, She Wrote have a maximum amount of mystery it’s supposed to maintain in order to not be too confusing to the viewer? I don’t know if that’s the case but it’s an interesting thought. This is television, probably at its height in terms of numbers of viewers of an episode—at that time when an enormous number of people were watching but there were not, yet, hundreds of TV channels competing for viewers. According to Wikipedia, at its height Murder, She Wrote had about forty million viewers, and even in its eleventh season it had about fifteen million viewers per episode. Perhaps in order to be most comfortable to a general audience they wanted to keep the number of things the audience had to keep track of to a minimum.
The next scene has the vice president of TV news, Richard Abbot, walking into the make-shift office in the hotel in Cabot Cove. He and Nick argue, though it’s difficult to characterize what the argument is about. Nick is mad that Richard was missing, and Richard is angry that… I don’t know. He seems annoyed that Nick is annoyed, as much as anything else. Jessica walks in and interrupts them to say that Kevin Keats is very much alive—a thing she doesn’t actually know, btw, unless she knew it by reading the script. It certainly has not been proven yet.
Nick asks whose body was pulled out of the water. Jessica hypothesizes that it’s actually Doug Helman, the producer, because earlier Nick joked that Doug was probably off climbing a mountain, which she free-associated to frostbite, and then noted that the body was missing two toes on its left foot. No one actually knows whether Doug was in fact missing any toes on his left foot, but this is taken as sufficient evidence to conclude it definitely was Doug. (And see, I told you that it being a random personal detail, it would definitely come up again!)
Paula walks in when Richard is asking where she is and she says, “so it was Doug.” Nick tries to get her to work on the rewrites that they have to do but she only wants to talk to Jessica. Nick grabs her by the elbow and tries to pull her to the typewriter, saying “Listen, Helman didn’t even want you up here, the only reason you came is because Kevin insisted, now come on, now let’s get to work.” This being a Murder, She Wrote episode, a random bit of detail about someone other than the person speaking must be a clue. They do a halfway decent job of disguising it by putting it in a heated moment, but it doesn’t really fit very well. The biggest thing is that it stands out for not really being in character, in the sense that there were far more persuasive things that Nick could have said which would also have been far more natural for him to say. If this wasn’t a murder mystery, he’d have given some speech about journalists having to put aside their feelings for the sake of the public, or some such. That instead of that natural thing he went for irrelevant detail is a huge red flag.
There’s also the problem of this not really being in character. Nick’s motivation to drag Paula in is very slight. Granted, he seems to be angling for the producer job by filling in for Doug in this pinch, but Paula isn’t a writer and isn’t even an investigative journalist. Her beat is doing TV postcards of small towns. It’s pretty far fetched that he even wants Paula at a typewriter. It would be different if he needed her pretty face to go in front of the camera, but that’s not what he wanted. Paula refuses, and she and Jessica leave.
As they’re walking, Jessica tells Paula that Kevin called her. Paula asks how Jessica knew, and instead of referencing Paula’s inflection when she said “so it was Doug Helman who was killed on the boat” which would have been decent evidence for it, she instead said that Paula trusts Jessica, and who would Kevin trust? His mistress isn’t entirely implausible, but you’d think he’d have a few friends, too. Paula’s reaction was much better evidence, but oh well. Jessica talks Paula into talking Kevin into coming forward to the Sheriff because staying in hiding could be too easily misconstrued. You’d think that Jessica would know Amos by now. We’re not at the end of the episode, so no matter what Kevin did, Amos would misconstrue it. It’s what he does.
It turns out that the fight Doug had with Kevin over reassigning Doug to Cabot Cove was a put-on. They’d planned it together. The goal was to fake the drug dealing art collector into thinking that the series was dropped (how the art collector was supposed to know this is anyone’s guess) when in reality he was in Cabot Cove because there was a witness in New Hampshire who would only talk to Kevin. The boat thing was “cover”; he wanted people to think that he was on a boat in the harbor when he was really driving to New Hampshire to see the confidential witness.
Augie Wilkin had the only boat in town for rent, and the Sheriff couldn’t get in touch with him until about eight O’clock that night. Once he told Kevin about it, Kevin called Doug and told him to get up to Cabot Cove on the double. Doug must have gotten in very late if he didn’t know he was going to be taking a plane to Cabot Cove until after 8pm. Still, this was before 9/11 and was probably doable.
The fight between Doug Helman and Kevin Keats in front of the hotel manager was staged. “Just another part of the act.” Why there was this is act is… very unclear to me. I’m not sure what could be gained by convincing the hotel manager that Kevin Keats and his producer were fighting. If they were on the best of terms, it wouldn’t make the dropping of the drug dealing art collector story any less plausible. It also wouldn’t make him supposedly running away by boat any less believable, either, which was all he really wanted to disguise. It feels like the sort of thing that’s normally in a story that features people worried about there being a mole in the organization, and so they had to deceive everyone because they didn’t know who it was. Except, there was no mole. There was no reason to not tell Paula and Nick about the plan to disguise Kevin’s going to a secret informant. Also, given that they were keeping up this pretense of a fight, why on earth did Kevin insist that Doug bring Paula up to Cabot Cove with him? He couldn’t keep his pants on for one whole night? From all of the other precautions they took, Paula could only get in the way of the plan. Besides that, no one was covering the boy on a girl’s basketball team in Nebraska. From Kevin and Doug’s perspective, someone should have been covering that, no? They expected there to be a show that would air the next week.
This story is pretty much nothing but loose ends, which makes me somewhat sympathetic to Amos for arresting Kevin. He reasons that whoever planted the bomb had to know about the boat, and since only Kevin and Doug knew about the boat, that means it had to be one of them. It being Doug seems unlikely, so by process of elimination, it had to be Kevin. For once, Jessica has no objections.
Paula visits Kevin in jail and they talk. It comes out that Nick and Richard haven’t sent a lawyer to get him out on bail because they figure it will be better for ratings, at least when the special which is the former Kevin Keats eulogy is broadcast. The Sheriff has even kindly given his permission to let Kevin tape his segment in the jail cell! Amos is nothing if not thoughtful. Why Kevin can’t hire his own lawyer is never said.
Next we see Jessica go interview Mrs. Keats one last time.
I’m not sure if the writers are trying to keep her alive as a suspect or are just using her to give the next clue. She does give a clue, anyway—she thinks that Kevin was about to be fired because the network had just done confidential audience research. The writers really can’t decide whether Scrutiny is more famous than apple pie or going under. Why on earth he told his estranged wife about this, I’ve no idea. She described it as “in a fit of paranoia,” though trying to make her think that she couldn’t get much out of him in divorce would have been more plausible.
Jessica goes and takes this up with Richard Abbott (the vice president in charge of news). He’s cagey, but she gets out of him he didn’t want to discuss the confidential network research in front of the anchors because it concerned one of them. Also, when Doug Helman was killed he (Richard) was in NY having breakfast with the president of another network. “You see, in television land, when the canoe springs a leak, one doesn’t bail water, one just looks for a new canoe.”
And now we go to Jessica’s house, where she’s playing chess with Wylie.
In a Murder, She Wrote episode a scene unrelated to hunting clues, this late in the episode, means that all of the clues we’re going to get have been given. It’s time to guess who the murderer is.
Wylie puts Jessica in check, with mate in one. Usually she beats Seth, so Wylie was able to beat her because she’s distracted—she can’t stop thinking about Kevin Keats’ story. Wylie says that there had to be an easier way to slip out of down, and Jessica says that she didn’t remember telling Wylie about Keats’ plan. “You didn’t. I overheard you talking to Sheriff Tupper on the phone.” And now Jessica realizes who the murder is. She just has to go the jail to be certain.
In jail, Jessica goes over the phone call with Kevin, and indeed Doug had gone over the time table in detail to make sure that he got everything right. Keats was sure that Doug would never have talked about it with a third party present, but Jessica asks, “What if he didn’t know, or care, that there was a third party present?” She means what if it was a third party that he didn’t care about, but it was badly phrased coming right after Kevin saying that he was certain that Dough would never have discussed their plan in front of a third party. Anyway, the scene closes and we open on our murderer, who Jessica visits, alone.
That’s right, it was Nick Brody. He’s working late on a rewrite. Jessica tells him about the confidential audience survey, whose result was that the audience preferred the younger Kevin and Paula to him. Why this means that he needs to be fired is not explained, but that’s OK. Jessica informs him that he was there when Kevin called Doug and worked out their plans, a fact proved by his knowledge that Paula was only in town because Kevin insisted—which they had only ever discussed on the phone.
This is the only actual piece of evidence which Jessica has. It’s a bit like an Encyclopedia Brown case where there is literally one clue, and if you pick up on it you can solve the case and if you don’t, you can’t. It’s an interesting balancing act, but I think it probably gets back to the issue of having such a large, general audience. Too many clues and a large fraction of the audience will think that the mystery is too easy. (Fewer than one clue and the mystery will be too hard, and not just for some people.)
Anyway, it’s enough, and he admits it. Jessica asks how he got to Cabot Cove and he replies that he drove all night. It’s only 350 miles. (Averaging 60 miles an hour, that would take just under six hours. If he left at 9pm he’d have gotten in at the earliest at 3am—he should be tired!)
It’s curious how they deal with the question of how Nick got the bomb. “Oh, about the bomb? Well, you don’t get to be a 63 year old reporter without learning something.” I doubt that there were any reporters of any age in 1986 who could put together a bomb with the explosive power of a few pounds of TNT on a moment’s notice, late at night. Or worse, in the middle of the night in Cabot Cove.
Jessica asks him why he did it—Doug was just following the network’s orders. Nick’s reply was interesting, so I’m going to quote it in full. He said:
Without Helman, I had a better than even chance of staying with the show. I had more experience than any of them. To hell with the audience research. So I wasn’t young, vicious, or even pretty. But I was the one who could talk sense to them. I’m a news man. I’m not a performer. I tried to tell Doug that. And whatever he started out believing, in the end he bought the idea that the wrapping paper—the wrapping paper!—was more important the package.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish this rewrite while we’re waiting for the Sheriff. Just dial 9 for an outside line.
One of the unusual things about Murder, She Wrote is that its star was not young. Born in 1925, Angela Lansbury was 59 when the show started and 61 when this episode aired. The primary recurring characters in Cabot Cove were not spring chickens either. The guest stars were frequently actors who had been famous twenty or thirty years before, and now were getting small parts as older people. What’s true of the actors is true of the viewers, as well. The audience of Murder, She Wrote famously skewed much older than for most of prime time television. My mother remembers the commercials frequently being for things like denture creams while I remember them as being for life insurance that you can’t be turned down for no matter how old and sick you are. The final episode of Murder, She Wrote was even titled Death By Demographics.
(To be fair to the networks, they didn’t care. It was advertisers who paid top dollar for younger viewers and much less for older viewers, quite possibly because younger viewers bought more things and also were more malleable; if you could turn an eighteen year old just starting to buy his own toothpaste onto your brand of toothpaste you might have a loyal customer for decades.)
The theme of Nick’s monologue is that, despite being old, he’s still, in reality, valuable. More than that, he’s actually the most valuable. This is a theme that resonates with an older audience, but especially with an older audience in the 1980s. People born in the 1920s and 1930s saw truly enormous amounts of change in the world by the 1980s, not just technologically but even socially. The worship of youth was (partially) socially dominant in the 1970s, with people proclaiming that one should never trust anyone over 30. With the advent of the birth control pill and labor-saving devices like washing machines, traditional restraints and traditional divisions of labor seemed to many pointless and anachronistic. The future was in plastics, as the uncle in The Graduate foretold. The future was in computers, as many people told Jessica when suggesting she replace her old typewriter with a word processor. What place was there for people who vividly remembered horse-drawn milk delivery and wartime rationing?
Nick’s impassioned speech proclaims that there is a place for them, that the world hasn’t actually changed that much. I think this is why Jessica doesn’t say anything. You can see in her face that she agrees with him, but he crossed the line in blowing Doug up. She slowly walks over to call the Sheriff, and he goes back to typing, then pauses a moment in thought.
I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be thinking about. At first it looks like he’s pausing to regret getting caught, but then his look of consternation is replaced by a very slight smile. The music is sad, though.
(Incidentally, the story was by Bob Shayne who was born in 1941 and the teleplay was written by Robert van Scoyk who was born in 1928.)
There’s also the curious theme of this lionization of news. He’s not this new breed of reporter, who is all glitz, he’s a News Man! As if the news was some deeply respectable thing, back in his day. Back in the days of Edward R Murrow (hah!). It is interesting to consider the timing, though. People born in the 1920s and especially the 1930s were young when radio and later TV news journalism were new. Growing up they might have felt that they were so much better informed because of the increased immediacy of these things. One didn’t have to wait for a newspaper, an authoritative voice would boom them over the radio or television might even show you pictures of the things as they happened! There were not many channels and they were more regulated than the newspapers were; it seems plausible that some reasonable fraction of people growing up then might have thought of themselves as better informed than their predecessors, and better informed than younger people today who watch news that’s all about sensationalism and glitz.
Incidentally, this is a separate issue from Baby Boomers who trust the news. They were young adults during the era when TV news was turning glitzy. Someone born in 1946 (approximately the oldest baby boomer possible) would have been forty years old in 1986. Chad Everett, who played Kevin Keats, was born in 1937. In 1986, when this episode was filmed, he was 51 years old. Granted, TV actors usually play younger than they are, but not usually more than about a decade down. In other words, the youthful TV anchor was supposed to be the same age as the oldest baby boomer watching and was, in reality, a decade older than them. (Mark Stevens, who played Nick Brody, was born in 1916. He was 70 playing 63. Kathleen Lloyd, who played Paula Roman, was born in 1948, making her 38 at the time of filming—young enough to be Mark Stevens’ daughter, but no spring chicken.)
Looking back from the vantage point of the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2020, the view of news as something that was once reliable but is now turning commercial and unreliable is quaint to the point of being laughable. The multiplicity of viewpoints expressed when cable television was just getting off of the ground is nothing in comparison to what news is like these days, with each news source trying to cater to its very specific niche, which largely means that the reporters are just being somewhat honest about their biases. Moreover, as a remove from the events sheds light on the biases of the newsmen of old, the rosy view which people had when there were only three major networks seems more like gullibility. Still, we’re all prone to such myopia; to not seeing what is not easily within our horizon.
One other interesting thing about this episode is how much Jessica does not believe in sexual morals at all, or if she does, she keeps them entirely to herself despite being willing to criticize people for all sorts of lesser moral failings or things that aren’t even moral failings but she just dislikes (such as violence in movies and other entertainment). Paula Roman is sleeping with a married man. Even worse, she is getting in the way of that married man reconciling with his wife, which his wife was trying to do. Jessica fawns over Paula like a dear child when Paula is, in fact, very much an adult and actively engaged in adulterating a man’s marriage. Jessica doesn’t even bat an eye. She’s supposed to be a small-town retired English teacher but she’s really a big-city cosmopolitan socialite.
So, all that said, what’s good about this episode?
It has interesting characters. Not all of them, but at least the trio of reporters from Scrutiny are. The character of Richard Abbott, though under-developed, is also interesting for his extreme calm and forthright cynicism about his business. Wylie is great as the doctor. Tom Bosley as Amos is always fun for his manner.
OK, but this is the stuff which comes from good casting, rather than good writing. What about the story?
It is difficult to praise the story because, in part, it’s really a bunch of unrelated stories happening near each other and with some minor relationships to each other. At that level of abstraction, it’s merely the description of a mystery story with red herrings, but these don’t really feel like red herrings because of the way that they are almost serial in their presentation.
The sub-plot of the drug dealing art collector is at the start of the show and gets things in motion, but then is dropped as soon as the murder happens. The sub-plot of a small town preening itself for the cameras and not getting what it hoped is also dropped before the murder happens. We then get a sub-plot of a small town overrun with TV news crews because a famous TV man was (supposedly) murdered in it, but this never really goes anywhere. We have the sub-plot of the vindictive estranged wife who had wanted to patch things up with her husband, but that never really goes anywhere. (I don’t think that she’s ever a realistic suspect.) We get the sub-plot of the two anchors who are romantically involved with each other, adulterating the one’s marriage, but this only really serves to get Kevin Keats out of hiding, and then goes nowhere. The sub-plot of trying to get over to a confidential witness results in a cockamamie scheme whose time table is highly questionable, and in any event it’s linked to the story about the drug dealing art collector, and that plotline being dropped, this one goes nowhere too.
The upshot is that the episode is interesting while it happens, but since all of the sub-plots go nowhere, it’s disappointing once it’s over. Even the theme that was raised of the big city versus the small town ends up nowhere. Jessica is really part of the big city, so the small-town end of this theme has to be held up entirely by Wylie, which he stops doing as soon as there’s a body for him to examine.
About the one thing I can say for the story—rather than the characters, acting, sets, etc—is that it does have an interesting premise of outsiders bringing their troubles someplace else in order to settle them by being unknown in the place they’ve gone to. That is a structure that can be quite interesting. It’s the premise of my favorite Cadfael story, Saint Peter’s Fair. It’s the premise of my third and upcoming Brother Thomas novel, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. It’s an interesting premise. It’s disappointing when an interesting premise isn’t used to its full, but it’s still something just to have the interesting premise.
Actually, there is a second thing I can say for the story. It does have a nice twist partway through. The corpse being identified as someone other than Kevin Keats was interesting, both simply as a twist and also as a way of changing who the suspects were. Or, rather, raising the question of who the intended victim was, and whether this changes who the suspects were. (It didn’t really change who the suspects were because the suspect who might remain—the enforcer—was already ruled out by the time of this reveal.)
That’s probably about the best that I can say for this story. Like so much of television, it had a lot of promise that it didn’t fulfill, but it was fun while it seemed possible that the promise would be fulfilled. Also like so much of television, it gains quite a lot from having interesting people and interesting sets. Television is a very visual medium, and this (legitimate) visual interest can make up for a lot of weakness in writing.
Murder in a Minor Key is a very special episode of Murder, She Wrote, because it’s the only episode in which we actually get to find out what murder she wrote. Unlike the typical episode it doesn’t even start with the title card. After an establishing shot of Jessica’s house, we begin with Jessica walking down the stairs.
But she’s not just walking down the stairs. She’s talking to the camera. She tells us that she had changed into something more comfortable as she has a long night of reading ahead of her because her publisher just sent her the galley proofs for her latest book, Murder in a Minor Key.
She adds that she doesn’t know why they bother sending her the galley proofs as she’s the world’s worst proof reader. I can’t help but wonder what sort of English teacher she made if that’s actually true. (Jessica had been an English teacher for decades before retiring.)
Jessica then walks over and sits in a comfy chair and says that it’s so good to sit down. She spent half the day on her feet at the power company, trying to get her last bill sorted out. Meanwhile, the audience is wondering why Jessica knows we’re here and why she is telling us about the minutiae of her day as if we’re old friends. Those of us who watched Mr. Rogers as a kid might have been wondering if she had recently installed any model trains. But wait, it gets weirder.
Jessica not only is wearing “slippers” with 2″+ heels and pink ostrich feathers, she calls our attention to them and explains that she is wearing them because they’re actually very comfortable, though she only wears them around the house when no one else can see them. For bonus points, her nephew Grady gave them to her.
Jessica laughs about this, then gets down to business. She starts telling us about her book. She’s very pleased with it—it’s a “nice little puzzle” about some young students at a southern California university.
This is certainly not what I expected Jessica to be writing about. What does she know about young students at a southern California university? Aside from book tours, teaching university courses in NYC about crime writing, visiting dozens of nieces and hundreds of wealthy and/or famous friends, she’s spent her entire adult life in Cabot Cove, Maine. I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to write about a fictional small town in Maine, but then I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to not write about that, if you get my meaning. At the very least I would expect her books to feature a consistent detective.
Jessica introduces us to three friends who will be the main characters. There’s Michael Prentice, who’s a “bright, budding music composer”. His best friends are Chad Singer, a law student from the deep south, and Jenny Coopersmith, a quirky young lady from New York. As a testament to Angela Lansbury’s stage background, she delivers the exposition in one take, which is no mean feat as it’s comprised of several different topics. Anyway, our main characters introduced, we finally get to the title screen. Oh, but before we do, fun fact: Shaun Cassidy, the actor who played Chad, previously played the character of Joe Hardy. That was eight years before this episode, on a Hardy Boys TV series. Shaun Cassidy only acted for another year, then a few years later started producing shows. Anyway, we finally get to the title.
The trio goes to a night club that has a singer who also plays the piano. Even in the 1980s, this feels a little odd. Perhaps it was more common in southern California, though. Anyway, the singer says that she’s got an advance copy of a song from a broadway musical. She starts to play and Michael recognizes the music as his. He goes to the piano player and looks at the sheet music, then hands it to her and sits down and plays several measures. He asks how he’s doing and she says that he hasn’t missed a note.
Michael storms off and confronts Professor Tyler Stoneham, who is a music teacher. Stoneham is conducting a quartet, and icily says that he and Michael will discuss the sheet music in his office, in half an hour, but in the meantime will he cease being rude and let Stoneham finish his rehearsel. Michael accepts this for some reason, and the next scene is in Stoneham’s office.
Stoneham denies any wrongdoing and tells Michael that if he goes to the Chancellor nothing will come of it. Irate college students who feel that they’ve been wronged are a dime a dozen, and besides it’s Michael’s word against Stoneham’s. This admission of guilt made, Michael issues some threats as Professor Papasian (played by Rene Auberjonois) walks in in order to witness the threats and Michael holding a tuning fork in a threatening way.
The next scene is at Professor Stoneham’s house, at breakfast with his wife.
Her hands tremble while she pours herself tea and he asks her “What the devil is wrong with you, Christine?” She replies, “are you being solicitous, Tyler, or merely polite?”
Eating breakfast at opposite ends of a long dinner table is effective symbolism for the state of their marriage. She accuses him of infidelity when he’s been away on business trips and she can’t reach him, and he laughs at her fears. He seems genuinely amused that she was worried he was dallying with other women when he was actually engaged in non-sexual criminal enterprises.
That said, the very next scene is of a woman being called on the phone by her friend to draw her attention to a picture in the newspaper.
The picture is of professor Stoneham, and she clearly recognizes it as the man she worked with. So, it turns out that the composer she had worked with—and, it is implied, slept with—who called himself Alden Gilbert turned out to be Professor Stoneham. (Alden Gilbert is also the name on the sheet music which had Michael’s music in the earlier scene with the piano.)
This brings up the question: why did Stoneham find the idea of him cheating on his wife so funny? He actually was. Was that supposed to be a bluff? But I thought that the joke was that she was worried that he was cheating on her when in fact he was engaged in criminal fraud, so what amused him was that for a moment he thought she was on to him and then it turned out that she was way off. If that wasn’t it, it was a very missed opportunity.
The scene now shifts to the campus, at night, where there’s a protest going on creating a lot of noise, making it a great night for murder as no one would be likely to hear a gunshot so the murderer can easily get away.
That makes it a bit strange that the victim is actually killed with a tuning fork. I mean, that’s strange even on its own. A tuning fork is not exactly easy to kill a man with. It’s blunt, so the speed and force required to make it pierce skin would be enormous. And then, well, it’s blunt, so how is it supposed to kill? It’s not very likely to sever blood vessels, and I really don’t believe that a human being is going to be able to hit someone else with a tuning fork with enough momentum to kill by trauma. Then again, given where it was, perhaps it cracked the sternum and a sharp piece of bone severed an artery.
Be that as it may, death by tuning fork isn’t the sort of thing one needs loud noise to cover. Perhaps it was just to cover the killer’s voice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
During the protest Michael goes into the music office building to raid professor Stoneham’s filing cabinets to get his music back. However, Stoneham is still there so Michael hides out in a music room that has an open window to the protest outside and also a dashboard that shows when the phones in the nearby offices are getting used. Actually, it’s a shared phone, presumably so one can receive a call in the music room during a class, park it, then pick it up in one’s office. Either way, it’s convenient that one of the primary suspects was able to keep close surveillance on the victim’s phone usage.
Stoneham makes a number of phone calls and is also visited by a drunk professor Papasian who is angry over not getting credit in their new music dictionary. Stoneham promises him the headship of the music department, whenever he decides to leave, if he still feels like it, then.
Clearly, no one is going to miss Stoneham after he’s gone. Which will be quite soon. The next sequence of events isn’t quite clear, but eventually Michael hears Stoneham’s door close, waits a little bit, then goes and burgles the professor’s office using the narrowest flashlight I’ve ever seen.
Seriously, that tiny circle of light wouldn’t be big enough to illuminate the whole area one plans to put one’s foot, to say nothing of where one is going. Perhaps owing to his flashlight, Michael goes into Stoneham’s office with laser-like focus to the filing cabinets and doesn’t notice Stoneham’s corpse near his chair. He’s interrupted by a security guard who, on account of turning on the lights, does notice the corpse.
I just want to note again that I really doubt that tuning fork could have been a deadly weapon, to say nothing of it having killed Stoneham so quickly that he was unable to cry out, go for help, etc. What was he even supposed to have died of? Clearly it wasn’t blood loss. The wound looks too low to have punctured either the lungs or the heart.
Let’s take another look at that tuning fork, when Michael was holding it in a threatening manner.
Let’s do that thing where the computer enlarges and enhances.
Hm. It usually works better in the movies. Still, we can pretty clearly see that the ends of this are not sharp. They might be rounded or like most tuning forks end abruptly because a change in width would cause a change in resonant frequency. Either way, it would take enormous power to drive those 6″ tongs 4″ deep into a human body through a sweater and a broadcloth shirt, no less.
I suspect that I’m just going to have to let this one go.
We now cut to Jessica pouring herself a cup of tea and talking to us about the story.
This bouncing back and forth between the story and Jessica talking to the audience is really weird. Don’t get me wrong, Angela Lansbury pulls it off. But it’s still really weird. And it was completely unnecessary, too. She could easily have had a friend come over who wanted to hear about her latest book.
Jessica says that when the security guard came in and found Michael then saw Stoneham’s body, he put two and two together and came up with five. Granted, Jessica does deal with a lot of people who leap to bad conclusions, but under the circumstances I don’t think that we can blame the security guard for holding Michael until the police arrived.
The next scene is back to the story, with Chad talking to Michael in prison. Chad asks for all of the details and Michael asks why. Is Chad going to represent him? Chad says no, but it’s like his uncle always said, “Finding a fox in the hen house don’t mean a thing. Unless the fox is picking feathers out of his teeth.” What does this have to do with Michael and why Chad wants to know all the details? Your guess is as good as mine.
Chad then talks with Jenny and they agree to investigate the crime together. Jenny makes the observation that it seems like Professor Papasian must have killed Stoneham, since Michael didn’t and Papasian was the last one to talk to Stoneham before Michael went in (that they know about at the time). The counter-evidence to this is that Papasian claims that Stoneham was alive when he left and he passed a polygraph test with flying colors, while Michael’s polygraph test was inconclusive. They agree to investigate together, Chad on campus and Jenny on broadway. This part of the story is quite solid.
Chad next goes to read back-issues of the campus newspaper, which seems to be a pretty major affair.
Chad’s friend at the paper has his own desk, and it’s only one of several. The room itself is quite large, what you see in the image above is only one corner of it. It’s only a slightly scaled-down version of the sort of set Murder, She Wrote would use for a full-blown newspaper. Chad asks to read through their files to dig up old information, and the mustache guy makes giving him an exclusive interview about Michael a condition. Why the school newspaper has secret files that only some students have access to, we are never told. In fact, I’m unclear on why the mustache guy is a character at all. (He showed up in an earlier scene about the protest and it possibly being because of an editorial he wrote in the school newspaper, but I didn’t find it worth mentioning at the time.) The idea that the school newspaper has such a huge effect strikes me as a bit silly. Granted, I went to college about 10 years after this episode was written and in a small school rather than a large state school, but I can’t even remember clearly if we had a school newspaper. I do remember we had a student-run radio station that more people DJ’d for than listened to and a student-run local TV show that I never heard of anyone watching. I assume that we had a school newspaper. Looking it up, it turns out that we did. I can’t remember ever seeing anyone read it and I have a lot of trouble believing that anyone could stir up trouble with an editorial in it. (Also, looking it up, it seems like the school newspaper came out about once a month, not daily, as the newspaper in this story seems to.) Why it is that TV shows in the 1980s (and 1990s) took newspapers of all kinds to be enormously important affairs, I’m really not sure. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
Be that as it may, Chad gives his interview than does his research and goes off to question people. He starts with the vice-chancellor, who he gathered from back-issues of the school newspaper used to be something of an item with Christine (the now-widow of professor Stoneham). The school newspaper was apparently so complete it even had a gossip column, I guess. Chad said something about seeing them in photographs together, but this strains credulity. Anyway, the vice-chancellor admits that he and Christine were friends, but nothing more, and he remained on excellent terms with Christine and Stoneham after their marriage.
He then interviews professor Papasian. They start out in the room that Michael had hidden in the night before, which turns out to be an instrument storage room. A call comes in which Papasian answers and it turns out to be for professor Stoneham, from someone who doesn’t know he’s dead. Papasian then explains that Stoneham’s phone also rings in the instrument storage closet because professor Stoneham use to spend a lot of time there, noodling around on the piano.
I find this explanation a bit thin, for two reasons. The first is that this is a terrible room to noodle about on a piano in. The acoustics will be terrible and there will probably be sympathetic noise from many of the loose instruments. Second, when trying to compose music one presumably does not want to get interrupted by every phone call that comes in. However, it’s necessary to set up how the killer is caught, so I guess we have to let Jessica have this one. Professors of music do get tons of important phone calls that they have to take, after all.
Chad and Papasian talk a bit. Papasian said that it was a great pity that Michael killed Stoneham, as Michael was a great guy. In the ensuing conversation Chad mentions the fight that Papasian had with Stoneham, and Papasian says that it was a disagreement, not a fight. To borrow a line from the MST3K episode of The Dead Talk Back: and another brutal interrogation scene… peters out.
We next see Jenny talking to someone named Rhoda.
I really love the shoulder pads on her sweater. I know that there was a time in the late 1980s where shoulder pads were high fashion for women, but Jenny looks like she just got back from football practice and didn’t have time to take off her armor before she had to throw on a sweater and make some phone calls. Either that or she does a truly impressive number of lateral raises and no other exercises.
Jenny’s idea of fashion aside, she dug up some info through the grapevine of her network of girlfriends (she comes from NY, you will recall). It turns out that there is a broadway play called Blue Lights and the producer is a man named Max Hellinger. She even got a phone number for Hellinger, though he is out of town for a while. There was no number of Alden Gilbert, he always called Hellinger, not the other way around. All correspondence went to a P.O. Box in Westwood, NY. Chad concludes that Stoneham was living a double life.
Next he goes to visit Mrs. Stoneham at her mansion.
OK, mansion might be an exaggeration, but the home is clearly large and impressive. This might possibly be intended to suggest that Stoneham had more than a professor’s income, but I have a hard time believing that he could really make all that much money selling his brilliant students’ compositions to broadway producers. Christine—Mrs. Stoneham—invites him in. She reminisces that Stoneham and Michael used to work together all the time in their music room. That was in the past, though. Lately he had been travelling to San Diego very frequently for… school business.
Anyway, time to question the suspect. He asks her if she talked to her husband that night, and she said that she called him and he said he was waiting for Professor Papasian to drop off the galley proofs of his new book. He asks what time she called and she works out that she called at about 9:45 because it was during a commercial break in a comedy show she was watching that started at 9:30. They talked a bit more, she did some crying about having lost her husband, then he bid her adieu, though not before commenting on how Mr. Stoneham must have been from a wealthy family because it’s one heck of a house.
Curiously, right after Chad leaves the vice-chancellor walks down the grand staircase and remarks that it was a strange visit.
I really can’t tell if the shirt collar and vest being unbuttoned are meant to indicate that he was in the process of taking off his clothes, or in the middle of recently putting them back on again. That said, it was about three seconds between when Chad rang the door bell and when Christine opened the door, so she had to be almost next to it when he rang the bell. The vice chancellor could have taken longer to get dressed than she took, but even so it was a bit odd for them to have been on completely separate floors no matter what the reason. I’m inclined to say that the two are meant to have recently slept together and the writers were a bit sloppy with the details.
Before we go to the next scene, Christine mentions that she got the impression that Chad thought that she might have been involved in her husband’s death.
Next we go back to Jessica, doing something with a pet bird I don’t think we’ve ever seen before or will see again.
Birds are terrible pets for people who travel a lot and by season three (which this episode is from) Jessica was travelling a lot, including teaching courses in a NYC university. As an interesting tie-in, the bird is yellow, and during the episode in which Angela Lansbury played both Jessica and Jessica’s English cousin, the English cousin sang the song, “Hello, Little Yellow Bird.”
Jessica notes that the vice-chancellor had claimed to only be friends with Christine, but then why was he hiding out in another room? If you ask her, it was hanky panky of the highest order. But she’s the writer! It’s up to her whether it was hanky panky or not. Literally. She can choose to make it either one. This isn’t a reminiscence she’s telling, it’s her own invention. She’s the creator. And if this was hanky panky, why is she telling us this only moments after hinting about it? Is she relaying what the narrator of her book says, or is she adding commentary on her own story as she goes? And what sort of mystery writer is she, giving away plot points partway through telling someone about the story???
Oh well. Having done taking care of the bird she walks back to her favorite sitting chair, plops down, and gets us back into the story.
Professor Papasian has just been promoted by “the board,” whoever they are, to professor Stoneham’s job, whatever it is. His celebrations are cut a bit short by Max Shellinger rifling through Professor Stoneham’s filing cabinets. He’s looking for two songs that Stoneham composed under the name Alden Gilbert. Upon learning that Papasian is now the head of the department, he makes him a proposition.
Why Shellinger is dressed like Sherlock Holmes (minus the deerstalker cap) is unclear, and it seems to put Papasian somewhat on edge. When he hears that Shellinger will give him “five big ones” if Papasian can find the other two songs that Stoneham owes him, his ears perk up, though. He agrees to help.
Next Chad goes back to the apartment he shares with Jenny, where she’s playing and singing one of Alden Gilbert’s songs. She gets to musing who wrote the lyrics, because it sure wasn’t Stoneham, and it definitely couldn’t have been Michael either. Chad deduces that there must have been a lyricist. The next day Jenny is going to use a contact she has in the business office to check all of Stoneham’s outgoing calls with a 619 area code to see if they can find the lyricist (since Stoneham had spent a lot of time in San Diego). There’s an odd moment where Jenny is reluctant to do more investigation and demands that Chad bribe her with sex in order to get the information he wants. Jessica’s small town mores are, shall we say, a bit questionable.
Next we get a scene where professor Papasian is burgling the Stoneham house, but clumsily, so Christine hears him. She takes a gun and goes to investigate. He runs out through a large window in the music room and she shoots at him.
The next day Chad pesters Professor Papasian, whose right arm is clearly almost useless. He then offers to shake his hand, which Papasian reluctantly agrees to, then he winces in tremendous pain at the handshake. Frankly, it was rather unkind of Chad, as Professor Papasian was obviously injured, going to great lengths to use his left hand instead of his right hand.
Chad then tells Papasian about the events of the previous evening, and Papasian admits that it was him. I guess he figures that the injury is sufficient evidence, and he hopes to keep Chad quiet. It’s a plausible enough reason to talk, though talking is risky. Anyway, he says that he was looking for the songs because of an offer from Max Hellinger.
Chad meets Hellinger coming from police headquarters where he wasn’t able to see Michael. Chad and Hellinger go to a bar, where they talk. Hellinger admits that he knew Stoneham must have been taking someone else’s music because up till now he had been giving Hellinger mediocre-at-best songs, then suddenly this. He had arrived in town the evening that Stoneham was killed, but all he did was phone him at about 9:30 to make a breakfast date, but Stoneham didn’t show up then Hellinger found out why.
It was a pretty reasonable fact-finding interview. He got Hellinger to talk by semi-accusing Hellinger of the murder (after showing that he knew Hellinger had arrived that evening and was not in NY as he had claimed). It’s an odd trope that a detective can get a person to tell everything he knows by accusing the person of the crime. It seems to me far more plausible that a person would take offense and moreover decide that if they say nothing, they cannot be caught in either mistakes or lies. That said, it is a common trope so it mostly won’t be noticed if employed.
Also, if Stoneham had mostly composed shlock until he started stealing from Michael Prentice last year, how did he manage to afford his gorgeous house? There’s no indication that they had moved into it just a few months ago. And if writing shlock for broadway really paid that well, why bother stealing Michael’s work?
Be that plot hole as it may, Chad returns home, where Jenny has the lyricist (Reagan Miller) sitting on the couch with her.
It turns out that Reagan is a big fan of shoulder pads too.
Anyway, she doesn’t have much to tell that we don’t already know. She wrote the lyrics but Stoneham took credit for them. She came to the campus to confront him but couldn’t find his office, then the police showed up. She then excuses herself because she needs to go home to tape an real estate commercial that she wrote a jingle for. This prompts Chad to go into a deep trance. Jenny tells Reagan to ignore him, he gets like this sometimes, then goes over, snaps her fingers in front of his face, and asks if she gets a prize. He replies, “Darling, you’re not going to believe this, but I think I just figured out which fox got in the hen house.”
We then get interrupted by Jessica again.
“Well how about you?” she asks. “Have you figured out who killed the good doctor? You can’t be hurting for suspects. Heaven knows, there were plenty of people with motive and opportunity. But if you’ve been paying attention there’s one particular clue that should pinpoint the guilty party.”
This is quite a change in tone from her commentary on how the vice chancellor hiding in another room in the Stoneham house probably meant that hanky panky of the highest order was going on. If we were supposed to be guessing who did it, why was Jessica commenting on the story, earlier, as if she was trying to figure it out too?
It’s also curious that this makes very explicit the murder-mystery-as-game. That’s not everyone’s idea of what a murder mystery should be, and it’s only somewhat an aspect of Murder, She Wrote. It is, I maintain, why Jessica typically solves murders by inspiration, often from some innocuous phrase that someone says—that’s to give people time to solve the mystery themselves after all of the clues necessary to do it are in. If Jessica solved it immediately, there’d be no time (or at least very little time) for people to guess. Worse, it would drive home what the clinching clue was. By delaying Jessica coming to the conclusion, it both avoids highlighting the clinching clue and also gives the audience time to guess or even to discuss with the other people watching who each person thinks did it. Here, that time is provided by Jessica asking who did it. It’s weird—which may be why they never did it again—but it does kind of work.
Then we fade back to the campus, where Chad has organized a recreation of the events of the night. Each person who was involved is supposed to do and say what they did the night of the murder. They even bring Reagan, who didn’t say or do anything so she’s supposed to not do that… again. The recreation of the events is pretty long (four minutes of screen time) and frankly it drags. The climax comes when Christine uses the payphone to place the call to her husband she placed that night, and Michael Prentice comes out of the instrument storage closet to say that the phone call going through at that moment didn’t happen the night of the murder.
Everyone looks at Christine and Chad says, “that’s right, Ma’am. It never rang. The call you said you made to your husband during the commercial break never happened… a fact I believe will be validated by your next month’s phone bill. It’s a toll call.”
For those too young to remember this, it used to be the case that people only got free telephone calls (made over landline phones) to regions within a mile or two, and calls more than a short distance away were “toll” calls, i.e. calls for which one paid by the minute, though not very much. (More expensive still were long-distance calls, such as calls between states.) Since toll calls were charged by the minute, phone bills would have an itemized list of what numbers were called, when, and for how long.
Christine does not respond until Chad says, “The only thing I don’t know is: was [the vice-chancellor] in on it with you?” Christine angrily replies, “No. No he wasn’t… Tyler was my problem.”
The police detective who was there in custody of Michael then walks toward her to (presumably) arrest her and we fade back to Jessica, who is still in her kitchen.
“Poor Christine,” she says. “It was only a little slip, but those are the ones that get you. She’s come to the office to surprise her husband, they fought, and long-suffering Christine finally went over the edge.”
And this slender woman in her fifties who looks incapable of lifting a full bag of groceries then plunged a tuning fork four inches into her husband’s chest, instantly killing him. Somehow.
I know I’m a bit obsessed with this, but seriously. I’m a reasonably large guy—I’m 6 feet tall, my best deadlift is 385 pounds (for 5 reps) and my best bench press is 300 pounds—and if you handed me that tuning fork to kill someone with and for some crazy reason I actually needed to kill them, I’d go for the eyes then throw the tuning fork away, get behind the person, and strange them with my bare hands. In all honesty I think that a large music textbook would have been a more plausible murder weapon. Even a small music textbook used to give someone a paper cut on the jugular vein would have been more plausible, though admittedly that’s in the same ballpark as the tuning fork.
OK, that aside, Jessica’s explanation of what happened seems very hard to reconcile to what Christine said about how Tyler was her problem. That really makes it sound like she killed him in order to get rid of him in order to enable her affair with the vice-chancellor. Further, how are we supposed to reconcile her affair with the vice-chancellor with the fight she had with Stoneham over his frequent business trips and shutting him out. A woman with a lover would welcome her husband going on frequent business trips where he was completely out of contact. She might or might not feel jealous about there being another woman, but if she’s at the point of murdering her husband in order to get rid of him—and Stoneham really seemed like the sort of person who wouldn’t even notice if his wife divorced him—another woman would probably be welcome news because it would make it easier to get rid of him.
Christine as the killer just makes no sense, no matter how you cut it. If she wanted to go with her lover, she would have just divorced him. If she was content having a lover on the side, she wouldn’t show up to his office to surprise him, nor, having done so, would she have fought with him and killed him in a fit of rage.
Leaving that aside, her “little slip” was also astonishingly unnecessary. Why on earth did she make up a story about calling him during a commercial break in a TV show when she didn’t and the phone records wouldn’t back her up. It would be one thing if she had set up some device to place a phone call at that time in order to establish an alibi (and actually picked the phone up herself, in the office, in order to complete the call to give herself the alibi), but she did the exact reverse. She invented a falsifiable story that served no purpose. OK, not precisely no purpose—it did provide an alibi that would have been difficult for the law student with no authority talking to her to have disproved. But he also could not have even superficially confirmed it, either, and she didn’t need to give him an alibi. Saying that she was home watching TV would have worked just as well.
The other problem with the demonstration was that—if we take Michael’s word for how many calls there were—all it proved was that of the several people who claimed to call him, one of them didn’t. They were not precise enough about the time of their calls to say it had to happen during the few minutes Michael was in the closet. He got there while a call was already going.
The timing of this murder is also really weird. On the night of the murder, Michael leaves off listening to Papasian and Stoneham shouting at each other to go to the window to look at the protest outside, and is attracted back when he hears Stoneham’s door closing. Given that he was an aopen window with a lot of noise, it needed to be slammed shut for him to have heard it, which would be a weird thing for Christine to do as she’s leaving the office after just having murdered her husband. Anyway, these two events are less than 60 seconds apart. That’s not much time for Papasian to storm out, Christine to come in, them to fight, Christine to stab him with the tuning fork in a fit of rage, wipe her fingerprints off of it, and run away. Doubly so when you consider that she either had to walk down the hallway past the music storage room or Papasian did, in order for them to not meet on the stairs Papasian took to go to Stoneham’s office. As a side note, she also had to fly home in order to be there when the police found her husband’s body only minutes later then came to notify her.
When you put this all together, this seems like very sloppy plotting by Jessica, doubly so with there being no evidence of any kind that points to Christine except for a lie she told for minimal reason. Worse, she either would already have been interviewed by the police or would be soon, and she surely would not have told them such a disprovable lie as having made a phone call she didn’t make. So she either told them an obviously disprovable lie or gave them a different story than she gave Chad. Either way stretches belief.
Leaving all that aside, this is still a really strange story to be her latest book. I really would have expected to meet her world-famous detective. That said, established authors will occasionally create a new detective. Agatha Christie gained her fame with Hercule Poirot, but she also created Miss Marple and also Tommy and Tuppence. Still, it’s kind of odd that this is merely her “latest book” when it’s got an all-new detective. She should be nervous about this change of direction. Instead, she mentions that she’s been noodling around with an idea for a sequel where, on the way to Mississippi to meet Chad’s parents, they run into a defrocked priest and a professional wrestler. She interrupts herself and says, “maybe we just better wait for the sequel”.
“Thanks for dropping by, and goodnight.”
The whole episode is weird. It’s tempting to think that Angela Lansbury had some time commitments and so they didn’t have time to film a real episode with her, and that would explain some things. On the other hand, they had plenty of those episodes, featuring all sorts of other detectives (my favorite were the ones with the ex-jewel-thief who worked for an insurance company; IIRC his name was Dennis). Maybe this was an unsuccessful first attempt? Frankly, it is a bit odd that they never got into what Jessica’s famous stories were, besides this really weird episode.
Anyway, I think that the lessons are clear: if you’re going to write murder mysteries about a murder mystery writer, invest some time in giving the detective some good stories of his own. And either way, if you’re going to stage a recreation of the night of the murder, don’t make it drag on with everyone complaining about it, with the denouement hinging on the word of the police’s prime suspect. Also, have the victim killed with a weapon that could plausibly kill a person without them having superhuman strength. Seriously, a tuning fork???
Update: I forgot about the missing song sheets that Stoneham owed Hellinger. There was absolutely no resolution on those. Who has them? Why were they missing? So far as I can see, absolutely no one had a motive to hide the missing song sheets. And the thing is, this isn’t a minor point. The missing song sheets drove much of the plot. Michael was looking for them in Stoneham’s office and was still there when the police came in because he didn’t find them. Max Hellinger flew to California in order to get them. He met professor Papasian because he was rifling through files in the school office looking for them. Papasian was shot while burgling the Stoneham residence in order to find them, which led to him telling Chad about Hellinger. Hellinger talked with Chad in the bar and gave him information because he wanted the song sheets. And then… nothing. The missing song sheets are completely forgotten about. (Papasian says that he suspects that Stoneham had put them in a safe deposit box, but we’re given zero evidence that this happened, there’s no obvious reason for it to have happened, and either way we get no resolution on it.)
Speaking of things being completely forgotten, Professor Papasian having been shot in the arm and unable to use his right arm or hand was completely forgotten about during the re-creation. He waves his hand around and at one point carelessly stuffs it into his pocket. Earlier that day he couldn’t move it enough to start to take his coat off. Perhaps he took some extra strength aspirin which he kept in his desk drawer at work.
Late in Season 3 of Murder, She Wrote we get an episode set in a Denver TV sation called The Bottom Line is Murder.
As is fairly common with titles, it’s something of a pun on the episode itself—the TV show in the enter of the episode is called The Bottom Line.
It is a hard-hitting investigative journalism show which focuses on faulty consumer products. The show feels like a reference to something, but as it originally aired in February the year of our Lord 1987, I don’t know what it was referencing. I wasn’t even 10 at the time the episode originally came out, and even if I remembered much from that time I wouldn’t have watched the sort of TV shows this was referencing.
I was tempted to say it this was a generalized Dateline: NBC, as I have a vague memory of them having done the sort exposé journalism that The Bottom Line does, but Dateline: NBC first aired in 1992. Even if the writers could be that prescient, they would not have referenced something their audience wouldn’t know for another five years, so that possibility is right out.
It does seem like it was quite prescient, though. I looked up Dateline: NBC on Wikipedia and there was a section about a show that Dateline did about a GMC pickup truck purportedly exploding on impact because of poor design. The only problem was that their demonstration was completely fabricated. They planted remote control incendiary devices on the truck that they crashed and those were what caused the explosion that Dateline showed the public. An investigation actually found the burned husk of the vehicle in a junkyard and did analysis on it, finding that the fuel tank had remained intact. As a minor detail, they drove the truck into the barrier at about forty miles per hour but lied and said that it was at thirty miles per hour. It turns out that sanctimonious people are not always honest.
Actually, the entire format has a problem designed into it. A show which is focused on finding outrageous things can only find as many outrageous things as the world produces; if this is fewer per year than the number of episodes the show has, it must either cancel episodes or fabricate outrages. Worse, if someone looks at thirty outrages a year (one per week), they will become numb and require a higher dose to achieve the same level of outrage. Since the world can be relied upon to not produce ever-growing levels of outrageous material every week, either honesty or the show will have to give. (It should be noted that this also forms a selective pressure for bad judgement, which is more effective than outright dishonesty.)
Anyway, the show opens with a graphic demonstration of a bulletproof vest that doesn’t stop bullets.
The only problem is that the vest does stop the bullet, which causes the host doing the demonstration, Kenneth Chambers, to go into a meltdown. In fairness to him, though, he claims that they tried it ten times before filming and the bullet went through every time when the cameras were off. He then yells at everyone for everything, establishing that he’s a self-centered egomaniac without manners or human kindness. In other words, we establish who is 98% likely to get murdered in this episode.
We’re then introduced to a few more characters:
The guy on the left is Steve. He’s the producer of the show. The woman has a name I’ll remember at some point but she’s played by Adrienne Barbeau, which is far more memorable. (If you confuse her with Sigourney Weaver, you’re not alone.) This is Ms. Barbeau’s second (and final) appearance in Murder, She Wrote. She’s a tough-as-nails career woman who doesn’t like anyone and isn’t afraid to let them know. A few moments later we get introduced to another character, Ryan, but even though his introduction establishes that he was probably dallying with a female staffer in a closet, he’s so minor I’m going to use the shot which only shows the back of his head. We almost never see his face again, anyway:
Adrienne chews Ryan out and sends him to Mr. Chambers. Ryan is some sort of assistant and Mr. Chambers clearly needs assistance. Then we finally find out what Jessica has to do with this bunch of people:
The woman driving the car is Dr. Jayne Honig. It’s likely that Jayne isn’t one of Jessica’s many neice’s as there’s a reference made to Jayne’s wedding seven years ago and how she rescued Jessica from a dance marathon with Jayne’s Uncle Buck. Jessica also asks “how is your dear husband” which suggests that of the two it’s Jayne she knows better.
This question brings up an awkward moment, apparently the couple are having trouble related to Steve constantly being stressed and working late. Jayne has given up her career as a psychiatrist to be a full time wife in order to save the marriage, though why this is necessary as the problem is that Steve is never home is unclear.
Also, it turns out that Jessica is in town because she’s going to do a book review segment for the TV show. It’s not spelled out, but presumably this is a favor to Jayne. This was during the days of broadcast television when local TV stations were common and KBLR (the name of the station) certainly seems like a local affair. Maine to Denver is an awfully long way to go in order to review books on a local TV station.
Next we get more establishing of what a sleazeball Kenneth Chambers is. There was a segment where the police chief, acting as an expert for the show, said that while the Acme bulletproof vest (the vest from the opening of the show) is cumbersome, in a dangerous situation it’s the best safety equipment he knows. Kenneth had “the boys” do some editing, and he changed the testimonial around to have the police chief say that in a dangerous situation, he wouldn’t put it on his dog.
Steve objects that this is dishonest and unethical. Kenneth asks who cares, because it’s great television. Steve, defeated, says that he cares. Apparently no one stopped to think that this is the sort of thing which can generate lawsuits and, if nothing else, make an enemy of the chief of police which doesn’t seem like a great strategy.
Adrienne Barbeau then walks in saying that after weeks of intensive effort, she has finally dug up the evidence on some cheese producer that will “throw them into the fondue, as it were”. Kenneth declares that the story is dead, which does not please Adrienne.
Kenneth walks out, Adriene storms out, then Jessica and Jayne walk in. As a side note, these offices are really huge. It takes Adriene twelve steps to get from Steve’s desk to the door of his office. Adriene Barbeau is 5’3″ tall, so if we assume she has a 5′ stride, that makes it 30′ from the desk to the door. My house, which admittedly is not large, is shorter than that from one side to the other. This is one heck of an office.
“*Ahem* Got a minute for a famous author?” Jayne asks. Warm greetings ensue, and then we meet the final character who will make up the suspects cast. His name is Robert Warren and he is the station manager. He begins by asking Jayne when she’s going to leave Steve for him, and then remarks, after some banter, that when your best friends steals the love of your life it’s either “Laugh, Clown, laugh” or slit your wrists, and he had no blood to spare. He then charms Jessica, kissing her hand and saying that if there’s anything she wants, she has but to command. The character is played as flamboyant and over-the-top, but even so the professions of love for Jayne are far too sincere to just pass over. It’s a clue, of course—if someone is not the main suspect, background information about them is just about guaranteed to be a clue—but it’s not that well disguised. Especially because a TV station manager couldn’t plausibly be that light-hearted and unserious.
He then offers to take Jessica on the “fifty cent tour”. I’m genuinely unsure whether that’s meant to be a grand tour or a meagre one. Throwing fifty cents from 1987 into an inflation calculator, that’s worth approximately $1.15 now (it would be worth $1.19 if we use 1986, presuming that the script was written at least two months before it aired, but what’s $.04 between friends?). On the other hand, it sounds like a throwback phrase, though to when I’m not sure. If we were to go all the way back to 1925, it would be the equivalent of a $7.44 tour today. At the end of the day I don’t often go on tours that I have to pay for, so I’m out of my element here.
Either way, Jessica goes on the tour. She’ll soon get to see how unpleasant Kenneth Chambers is for herself, but first we get the semi-obligatory scene of a tough guy threatening the victim.
The tough guy, who is the owner of toy bears that Mr. Chambers is going to do an exposé on, demonstrated on the bear how he would touch Chambers if Chambers did a show about his bears. This character does show up again, but not as a suspect. For the most part people who were heard to threaten the victim are only suspected by the police if they are a friend of Jessica’s.
Shortly after this we get a scene of Mr. Chambers yelling for his assistant because his assistant was supposed to fix his TV.
This is a clue, of course—I would be hard pressed to think of a time in a Murder, She Wrote episode where a piece of technology was broken that wasn’t a clue—but it is disguised fairly well as a scene of showing just how awful Kenneth Chambers is by how he is short-tempered and yells at his subordinates.
There’s an argument that Robert Warren has with Chambers about the toy bears, saying that the tough guy (his name is Rinaldi) spends a lot of money advertising with the station and maybe they should cool it with the antagonistic episode. Chambers stands firm on principle. Then we meet someone who is, technically, a member of the cast, but she so consistently seems to be unambitious, reactive furniture that it’s impossible to consider her a suspect.
She lets it slip that she has a romantic relationship, as well as a business relationship, with Kenneth Chambers because she calls him Kenneth and then corrects herself to Mr. Chambers. This is something of a dated way of letting that information slip, since even at the time the transition from last names to first names in workplaces in America was well underway. In this case it’s especially strange since she appears on the show with Chambers, helping out in his demonstrations. Being both a mousy secretary and an on-air personality is really weird, almost to the point of saving on casting. I suppose giving her a romantic relationship with Chambers gives her some sort of motive for killing him, making him a suspect, but I don’t think that at any time it’s plausible. (Of course, the very fact that it’s implausible can be a red herring; one should always be on the lookout for the least suspicious person in a murder mystery.)
There’s some small talk, Mousy Girl says that Mr Chambers has been looking forward to her coming because he’s such a fan, etc. Then we get another clue. Kenneth leans back into his chair, knocking over the cup of coffee that Ryan the assistant was holding while fiddling with the knob on a sound system in order to get the VCR to give a video signal to the TV.
I know I always hold coffee while fiddling with nobs. How else would the detective be able to tell two identical chairs apart? There’s an attempt to disguise this clue by having Chambers fly off the handle and fire Ryan but if you’re at all familiar with the habits of Murder, She Wrote, there’s no missing this clue.
What the clue means is a different matter, though. You know that this chair and another chair will be switched, but—credit where credit is due—you don’t know why they will be switched.
Next we see Jessica, Jayne, Steve, and, for some reason, Robert, at a restaurant. Jessica works it into the conversation that Robert was a former patient of Jayne’s. Steve says, speaking of a racketball game he played with Robert, that Robert is competitive to the point of compulsion. Jessica then says, “Oh, perhaps your former psychiatrist could give us some insight into that.” But Jayne demures, saying that there are strict rules about doctor-patient confidentiality. Yeah, no kidding. Of course Jessica knows that; I don’t think that the attempt to disguise this clue as dinner banter works at all. The actors do a good job making it feel like trading wit but it really stands out.
Steve excuses himself because he has to go back to the station to work. Kenneth Chambers has demanded it, though how Chambers is in a position to demand it is not clear, since Steve is, in theory, Chambers’ boss. Shortly afterwards Robert says that he can commiserate with Steve, having worked at the station every night for the past week he can say that the station is a very lonely place when you’re the only one there. Robert then goes off home to get a good night’s sleep.
As he drives off, Jessica notices that Jayne looks upset. Asked, Jayne says that Steve had said he had worked late at the station every night that week, but Robert just let it slip that he had been there all alone.
In the next scene George Takei, sorry, Bert the janitor, discovers Kenneth Chambers slumped over in a chair. He turns the chair around and then is horrified, though of what we can’t see. It’s dark, and the bullets didn’t seem to penetrate through to the front of Chambers, so we don’t see any blood.
In the next scene Jayne is driving Jessica to the station in the morning.
Curiously, they both forgot to wear their seatbelts. This is consistent with other times that they’re shown in the car. I wonder if it was deliberate or if the actors just forgot because they were filmed in a stationary car with the driving just being a rear-projected film. The rear projection is pretty good, except that they’re on a two-lane highway that ends in the parking lot of the TV station without any kind of turning off. The station parking lot is filled with police cars and camera crews, so Jayne and Jessica discover that something happened.
We then meet Lieutenant Lou Flanagan, the police detective for the case. He turns out to be the expert that Chambers had dishonestly edited, though he never actually learns this and nothing comes of it.
He tells the reporters that Chambers was shot twice, and Jessica manages to get out of him that Chambers was shot between 10pm and midnight before he asks who she is. She is familiar, but he can’t place her, but thinks that she’s part of the media. She says no, she’s just a friend, but when he loses interest in talking to her, she pretends to be a reporter (though with plausible deniability in her wording) and was impressed that he “saw through” her.
Steve shows up from a run he was on—the man is certainly dedicated to exercise. Despite having gotten to be after 1am, he was up in the morning before his wife so he could go on a run in a sweatsuit. It’s a bit of an odd choice to do that early morning run and return to the office in need of a shower, rather than to return home, take a shower, then go to work. Nothing really comes of it, though, since it was his absence the night before which makes him a suspect. (He’s a friend of Jessica’s with no alibi, so the Lieutenant is, of course, convinced that he did it.)
During the investigation, Lieutenant Flanagan helpfully shows an ashtray with a large cigar ash in it to the camera, but it’s so blatant an action that even Jessica notices.
He then blows on the cigar ash (for good luck?) and puts the ashtray back on the desk. It’s instincts like that for bringing clues to the attention of other people which got him all the way to Lieutenant!
Then another clue turns up. The murder weapon (a revolver) was found in the back seat of Steve Honig’s car! A deputy spotted it when he looked in the window!
Flanagan asks if Steve has a permit for the gun, but Steve dismissively says that it isn’t his. Flanagan doesn’t believe him, and Jessica has had enough. She goes on a tirade about how there’s no common sense here. Why would Steve, if he was the killer, come to the scene of the crime with the murder weapon in plain sight in his car when he had hours to dispose of it?
Before he can answer, Robert Warren shows up in an exercise outfit that puts Steve’s to shame.
Warren asks what’s going on and Flanagan says that he is taking Steve into custody on suspicion of the murder of Kenneth Chambers. Apparently Flanagan has a very short memory. Warren says that he will send a lawyer along with Steve.
We’re almost halfway through the episode and the middle of a Murder, She Wrote rarely contains any clues. I think that this is to give the audience some time to think over the clues that they were already presented with. We’re given a bunch of suspicious stuff, of course. Jessica asks Jayne when Steve actually came home and it was around 1am. Adrienne Barbeau talks the blond assistant to become the new host of The Bottom Line.
Jessica walks onto the set of the new The Bottom Line and talks with Adrienne, who is the new producer. She observed that Steve never wanted the job anyway. He really wanted to be the producer, but Kenneth Chambers had made sure that Warren got that job. This might have been an interesting sub-plot, but we never learn any more about it.
Jessica talks to the blond assistant, but not much comes out. The subject of Rinaldi (the teddy bear thug) comes up. They look for the tapes of the show, but can’t find them. Jessica Fletcher talks to Rinaldi about the missing tapes, and he tells her that he paid Chambers twenty five thousand dollars in cash to buy the tapes and kill the show. This leads to a scene of a bunch of people standing around while Lieutenant Flanagan opens a safe in what I assume was Chambers’ office.
It turns out that Kenneth Chambers accepted bribes to kill stories. The cheese maker story that was killed towards the beginning of the episode was also in the safe. The blond assistant is disillusioned, and Adrienne Barbeau is excited because now she knows why the story was killed and as the new producer she’s going to run it.
This new evidence should have opened up the possibility of Chambers being killed for some reason relating to his criminal enterprise. It doesn’t, though. Flanagan gives Jessica a ride to somewhere and while riding they talk about the case and Flanagan comes up with the theory that Steve planted the tapes and money to smear Chambers’ good name and Chambers surprised him to Steve had to shoot him. How Chambers ended up sitting in his chair and turning his back to Steve isn’t mentioned, and the idea is so absurd Jessica just asks to see pictures of the crime scene instead.
Jessica notices that the chair was shot in the back, meaning that his back had to be to the door. Unfortunately for this revelation we already saw it when George Takei found the body. Flanagan says that he must have been watching TV, but Jessica points out that this is impossible since his TV was broken. Somehow it never occurs to either of them that he could have been shot while facing another direction then his chair rotated afterwards, e.g. to make people think that he was doing something so as to delay the finding of the body. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case so our sleuths not thinking of it doesn’t matter.
The next morning Jessica talks with Robert Warren to get some more information. It turns out that it was Adrienne Barbeau’s idea to revive the show with the blond assistant as the star. Warren went on to say that Chambers wanted to take the show to the national network and leave everyone behind, but with him dead everyone comes out ahead, especially the blond assistant. Personally, I don’t think that this red herring is very plausible based on the character herself, but I do have to admit that the motive was a decent one and innocents with big doe eyes have turned out to be murderers before and will again.
Jessica then steps in to watch the filming of the new Bottom Line, with the blond assistant as the star.
Claire flubs a line and they move on to another scene. Jessica runs into Ryan, who Chambers had fired by Adrienne Barbeau re-hired. Jessica says that she finds it perplexing how much better off everyone his. Ryan tells her the secret of show business. “The secret to this business is hustle. Any boob can do these jobs. You just have to make sure that you’re the any boob who gets hired.” There’s another minor interaction, but that’s the last we see of this character. He had a good line before we went, at least.
Now we finally move on to the last act before the denouement. Jessica meets George Takei, who has a bunch of evidence to give her. Jessica tries to throw away her coffee cup but George grabs it before it lands in the garbage.
It turns out that he has a collection of trash from famous people, which he offers to show her. Jessica agrees to see it because she would like to talk to him. Pleasantly, he not merely collects trash but he preserves it in a way that sanitizes it.
I thought that the embedding the trash in lucite was a nice touch. (He also bronzed an apple core someone threw out.) I suspect that this would have been funnier back in the late 1980s because there was more of a trend for preserving things in bronze and lucite back then—more typically things like baby shoes and comic books—but it’s still amusing now.
During the course of the conversation George reveals three important clues. The first is that he cleaned Steve’s office when Steve and Kenneth were fighting. The second was that Steve actually was working late every night for the past week. The third was he spilled coffee from his coffee mug, making Jessica think to look for the chair with the coffee stain, which turns out to be in Steve’s office.
Jessica runs over to police headquarters and gets Lieutenant Flanagan to let her look at the murder chair.
No coffee stain! That proves it!
What does it prove? We’ll have to wait for Jessica to set a trap for the killer to find out.
George helpfully plants the bait. He very conspicuously says that the chair in Steve’s office needs to be replaced because of the terrible coffee stain that no power on earth can get out. So, of course, the killer will come to take the chair away at night once everyone has left in order to… OK, I’ve got nothing. Once it’s publicly known that the chair had an awful coffee stain, removing it will accomplish precisely nothing. Still, someone has to go to the trap and threaten to kill Jessica to hush her and her flimsy evidence up.
Jessica actually waited in the chair, in the dark, for the murderer. You’ve got to give it to her—when she sets a trap, she’s willing to use herself as bait. And the murderer turns out to be…
But, there’s a twist. He wasn’t trying to kill Kenneth Chambers, he was trying to kill Steve Honig. All those things about being madly in love with Jayne? Yeah. It turns out that they were true. Robert wanted Jayne for himself and tried to kill Steve to make room for himself. But when he discovered that the man he shot in Steve’s chair was actually Kenneth—who was watching Steve’s TV because his own was broken—he figured that framing Steve for the murder would serve the same purpose.
Steve does what any Murder, She Wrote killer does when Jessica presents him with extremely flimsy evidence alone, at night—he announces his intention to kill her.
He doesn’t say it, but one gets the distinct impression he’s planning to strangle her with his necktie. Jessica asks if his solution is to kill her too, and he replies that it shouldn’t be too hard to find another writer for their book review show.
Jessica then says that he needs help. Specifically, help from Jayne. I really don’t get that last part; she’s given up her practice and a man who is madly in love with his psychiatrist probably should get help from just about anyone but the object of his fixation. However that may be, as is the case in about 9 out of 10 episodes, Jessica has witnesses waiting in the wings to hear the killer’s confession. As is often the case, one of them is the police detective.
Oddly, the other witness is Jayne. This is a very odd choice for a witness, but it gives her the opportunity to talk to him. She says that violence didn’t work before, and it won’t work this time.
Yeah, no kidding. That’s kind of the meaning of that police offer standing there in the background looking glum.
He says that she shouldn’t be there and she asks why. Would he kill her too? Then she caresses his face.
This seems wildly inappropriate no matter which way you look at it—as a psychiatrist or a married woman or the woman he murdered someone for or the wife of the woman he framed for the murder. Maybe that’s why, when she looks over at Jessica, Jessica just looks down.
The next morning Jessica talks to Steve and Jayne on the front stairs of the television station and explains why she set the trap. Steve says that he can’t thank her enough, both for getting him off of the murder charge and also for the brilliant interview she gave. Apparently they didn’t bother talking about what happened the night before until after they filmed her book review show. That’s show biz for you, I guess.
Lieutenant Flanagan then walks out of the station, followed by a gaggle of reporters. What he was doing in the station or why the reporters were in their with him, I cannot imagine. He stops at the top of the stairs and tells the reporters that it takes a trained eye to spot something like the switched chairs because of the coffee stain. He’s going to take credit for it but then spots Jessica. However, she gives him her blessing to take credit.
Which he does, with aplomb. The episode ends with Jessica, Jayne, and Steve laughing when Flanagan said, “I said to myself, ‘mere furniture? I think not.'”
The Bottom Line is Murder is, overall, a strange episode. It is very memorable, but not really for the mystery, which was not all that well crafted. Don’t get me wrong, it holds together well enough, minus it being a bit strange that the janitor didn’t hear the gunshots and the direction the chair was facing in no way being an indication of the direction it was facing when the victim died. The coffee stain indicating the switched chair was solid enough, though it was extremely contrived that the chair had a coffee stain. Likewise the broken TV causing the victim to be in the wrong place was fine, if the significance of the broken TV was a bit telegraphed. (Also fairly coincidental. It isn’t very plausible that Chambers would have had hours of footage to watch, so the odds of catching him in Steve’s office, sitting down and watching, would not have been very high. Granted, it’s fine for coincidence to be involved in the murder itself, but only up to a point.)
I think that what really makes the episode so memorable is that it has so many talented actors playing well defined—if not always sensible—characters. Adrienne Barbeau’s tough, ambitious producer leaps off the screen, even if she is barely related to the plot. Barry Corbin’s Lieutenant Flanagan is, despite his foibles, deeply likable. Judith Chapman’s Jayne makes you feel all of the trouble and pain her character is going through; one believes that she was a magnificent psychiatrist before she gave it up. She is plausible as a woman worth killing for. George Takei’s janitor was a fascinating character. He’s almost like a happy grouch, with a completely unrelatable love of garbage. One might almost want to see his collection of immortalized trash. Even Pat Klous’s blond assistant was a vivid character—so innocent, fragile, and trusting. That makes no sense for a woman who was romantically involved with a man like Chambers, not to mention being both his secretary and an on-air co-host makes absolutely zero sense. Still, she was a vulnerable almost-child, and you felt that. And then there’s Morgan Steven’s Robert Warren. He is plausible as a charming psychopath, especially the charming part.
So, ultimately, the story structure doesn’t make much sense but the setting is great and the actors are phenomenal. To some degree they’re under-developed because there are so many great characters, development takes time, and there is only 47 minutes divided by the number of characters available to develop them. None the less, it makes for a very memorable episode. I am almost fixated on structure, so I have trouble regarding it as a really good episode, but it is certainly an extremely memorable one.
I also have to say that I found the set decoration very interesting in both Steve and Kenneth’s office. (It was pretty clearly actually the same set just redecorated, with the TV/sound equipment on the back wall not even being different.) The cavernous office was so large it had quite a lot of furniture in it, so there was plenty to look at. Wall sconces, art on pedestals, five varieties of things to sit on, statues, paintings—there was a ton of visual interest. It was just an interesting place to watch a murder mystery.
I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Red Circle. There were a number of changes from the original short story, as there inevitably are in translations of Holmes stories to the screen.
Some of these changes make perfect sense—these are generally of the form of filling in the minor actions which can be elided in prose, or creating dialog which was merely described. Of the former, an example might be greetings exchanged with a servant, the giving of hat and walking stick, etc. Of the latter, an author may write “he gave his consent enthusiastically,” but an actor must actually say specific words. These sorts of things are just a necessary act of translation of the written word to the performed word.
Some of these changes are mere additions. One such are things done to set the scene and tone. Examples of this might be showing the man merely described as a teacher actually teaching a class, or showing a blacksmith working iron. Another mere addition is padding. This is often an issue in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes based on short stories, as the short story really gave material for about half an hour, while the TV episodes were an hour. It varied from episode to episode, but some of them involve a fair amount of padding. A good example of this might be from the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle—the TV episode begins with showing the lady who owned the gemstone coming to her hotel after shopping, going to her room, order a bath to be drawn for her, and finally discovering the stone to be missing. None of this appeared in the short story itself, but as presented it was congruent with it. It also served no discernible function beyond avoiding the credits being twenty minutes long.
Padding can be done well, though in later Jeremy Brett episodes the padding often consisted of revealing a good chunk of the mystery right at the beginning. An extreme example of this is the Jeremy Brett version of The Three Gables, in which the opening depicted the relationship between the dead man and the rich lady which was the reveal toward the end of the short story. I don’t think that there’s really any defense of this which can be given; it makes no sense to turn a Sherlock Holmes story into an episode of Colombo. That said, this is just a question of execution; padding need not hurt the story that is being added to.
And then we come to the changes which make no sense, in which something that appeared in the original story was removed and something else substituted in its place. I will draw my example from The Red Circle, since it’s what inspired this blog post. In the short story, Holmes meets inspector Gregson on the street as Gregson had been working with a Pinkerton detective to follow and try to arrest Black Gorgiano of the Red Circle, and Black Gorgiano was after the lodger that Sherlock Holmes had been called in to investigate. In the TV episode, Holmes met Inspector Hawkins (who replaced Gregson, presumably for casting reasons) at the murder scene of an invented character named Enrico Formani, and then the two joined forces. It might be argued that this was done in order to pad the story out, though, so I will move on to another, though shorter, change, as my example.
In the TV episode, Inspector Hawkins insists that Emilia and her husband Gennaro must be tried for the murder of Black Gorgiano, though he expects that they will not be convicted because it was self defense. He even takes tickets for departure on a ship from Gennaro. (There is also a post-script by Watson which says that they were aquitted and lived happily ever after in Australia.)
In the short story, Emilia surmises that it was her husband who killed Gorgiano and tells the story of what happened—how Gorgiano was following them to murder them, and how he must have come upon her husband and he defended himself. At the end, she asks, ” And now, gentlemen, I would ask you whether we have anything to fear from the law, or whether any judge upon earth would condemn my Gennaro for what he has done?” Here’s the rest:
“Well, Mr. Gregson,” said the American, looking across at the official, “I don’t know what your British point of view may be, but I guess that in New York this lady’s husband will receive a pretty general vote of thanks.”
“She will have to come with me and see the chief,” Gregson answered. “If what she says is corroborated, I do not think she or her husband has much to fear.
There was absolutely no need to change the ending in this way. It might be argued it followed from the earlier change of pushing the explanation from the scene of the death to Holmes going into Emilia’s room, but that change did not entail this one. Emilia could just as easily have asked if they had anything to fear this way. This change accomplished nothing except to slightly dehumanize the character of the inspector and create an element of fear for the couple which was immediately put to rest by Watson’s postscript.
I can think of no explanation for this sort of change except to try to make the story feel a bit more like a cookie cutter TV episode. The mantra of the time, in television (though more in the US than in the UK) was to “raise the stakes”. This was, more often than not, bad advice, though it made sense in the context of an era in which people had recently gained remote controls for their television and, with a much larger number of available channels than two decades before, people growing restless and changing channels was the TV writer’s greatest fear.
(Less talked about, but also interesting, was the concomitant effect on TV episodes that the writers had to bear in mind that the viewer at any given moment may not have watched the episode from the start and thus cannot be relied upon to remember what happened before the current scene. Keeping a viewer from losing interest and changing channels was of utmost importance, but keeping a viewer who lost interest in his original show and changed channels to yours was also very important, and this definitely had an effect on how TV shows were written.)
There’s an interesting complaint about what might be the most famous plot twists of all time: Luke and Leia being brother and sister, and both being the children of Darth Vader. The complaint, which is not entirely illegitimate, is that, though interesting, this also takes a galactic adventure story and turns it into a family feud.
There is, of course, an element of truth to this, but in another way it is actually a mistake. It is not true that everyone is related to everyone else, and by the time of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader, Luke, and Leia are actually somewhat minor characters, with regard to the fate of the galaxy.
This is not as true in A New Hope, though even there, it’s mostly because Leia had been entrusted with the plans to the death star and Luke takes the critical shot which blows up the death star. If one doesn’t pay attention, it’s possible to get the idea that Leia is in charge of the rebellion, but it’s really not the case. Even Vader says as much; he objects to Leia saying that she was on a diplomatic mission for Alderaan by saying “You are part of the rebel alliance, and a traitor” (emphasis mine). She’s not the head of it.
Luke does take a critical role in blowing up the death star, and there’s no getting around that. However, his role fades after this. He spends much of The Empire Strikes Back training on Dagoba, then gets his ass handed to him by his father. (Not literally; it’s actually his hand which gets handed to him, except he doesn’t catch it.) His major contribution to the rebel alliance is to blow up a couple of AT-ATs, which doesn’t accomplish much as the AT-ATs destroy the shield generator anyway. In terms of his importance to the galaxy in this movie, he has none. In Return of the Jedi, it might be argued that Luke trying to save Vader distracted the Emperor, which is why the Rebels were able to destroy the second death star and kill the Emperor, but that’s actually quite unclear. The emperor was not omniscient, and everything had been proceeding as he had foreseen right up until it didn’t. The only thing we really know for sure is that Luke saved his father’s soul. (I will grant that he did help to save the team sent to blow up the shield generator from the ewoks, but for the most part all he did was levitate C3PO so that the ewoks would take his anger seriously; there probably was another way to get them to take C3PO seriously.)
Vader has a very interesting roll in the Star Wars trilogy. On the one hand, he is the apprentice of the Emperor and his right hand man. On the other hand, he only sort-of is even in the military hierarchy of the Empire. In A New Hope he takes orders from Grand Moff Tarkin (“Enough of this pointless bickering. Vader, release him.” “As you wish.”). Even Leia remarks on this, “I should have known I’d find you holding Vader’s leash.”
In The Empire Strikes Back, we are told that Vader is intent on pursuing the rebels as a sort of monomania because he is obsessed with finding young Skywalker. He is free to direct some imperial star destroyers, but not that many. He’s even forced to employ bounty hunters. He is a major character in this movie and a major driver of its events, but The Empire Strikes Back is, on a galactic scale, a very small movie. The rebels seem to be able to fit on a single planet, and not very much in the way of imperial resources have been dedicated to hunting them down at this point.
In Return of the Jedi, Vader has an even smaller role. He shows up at the new Death Star to oversee its construction. Other than that, he’s present when Luke surrenders and the Emperor tries to tempt Luke to the dark side. In galactic terms, he basically does nothing.
Leia’s ark is somewhat similar to Luke’s, though in a different direction. She starts out smuggling plans to the death star in A New Hope. In The Empire Strikes Back she’s clearly important, but at the same time doesn’t seem to be in charge in a highly practical sense. She spends most of the movie being chased aboard the Millennium Falcon. On a galactic scale, big whoop. In Return of the Jedi, she joins the special ops team led by (now general) Han Solo. The team does important work, but Leia is only a small part of that work, and not really critical to it.
So, when we really consider it, yes three major characters from the first movie turn out to be closely related to each other, but the curious thing about this is that while they loom large in the story, it’s because the story zoomed in and wasn’t so big. After A New Hope, no one in the Skywalker bloodline did anything of any real galactic importance, at least that would not likely have happened without them, and shortly afterwards.
Which is, actually, fine. The truth is that it’s people who matter, not nations or empires or republics or even rebellions.
I think that it was a mark of brilliance on the part of George Lucas that it was Lando Calrissian who fired the shot that destroyed the second death star, and with it, the Emperor. He wasn’t even in the first movie. This is, indeed, what life is often like. Most of the time, people only make one big contribution, and after that they tend to only help the next guy who makes the huge accomplishment. And Lando wasn’t even a major character in the second or third movies. He wasn’t in the movie poster for The Empire Strikes Back and barely made it into the poster for Return of the Jedi. And yet, he’s the guy who destroyed the second death star.
Earlier I mentioned I got the book Hollywood Rat Race by Edward D. Wood Jr. of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame. I don’t have time for a full review now, but I do want to say that for people interested in the history of film, it is definitely worth reading.
It’s a weird book, which I suppose is no great surprise because it was written by a very weird man. Equally famous for Glen or Glenda, a semi-autobiographical movie about crossdressing in which understanding for people so afflicted is pleaded to the audience, Hollywood Rat Race more than once comments fairly negatively on men and women who dress in such a way that one cannot tell the difference between them, and also on men who wear women’s clothing. There’s something very curious there, because Ed Wood had publicly admitted to wearing women’s underwear many years before he ever started writing this book, so it’s not like he could have been trying to draw attention away from himself. (A lot of public hypocrisy around moral issues is frequently much less about actual hypocrisy and more a smoke screen by the vicious in the hope that publicly condemning their vice makes them less likely to ever be suspected of it.)
This is but a small part of the book, though. The various ways in which people who want to be stars are taken advantage of when they get to Hollywood is the main subject, at least by page count. It’s actually primarily financial predation, though he does talk about other types, as well. This is intermixed with advice on practical matters like having a 24 hour messaging service because you can’t carry your phone around with you in your pocket and how to get room and board cheaply. Some of this includes very practical advice, like taking into account the cost of gasoline to go to a further away grocery story with slightly better prices.
Also quite interesting is a section on just how great movies are. It begins by being against actors, writers, etc. who rail against Hollywood, and this section really shows just how much Ed Wood loves movies. I think that this is why people like me who love Mystery Science Theater 3000 so enjoy laughing at Ed Wood’s movies—we’d love to make movies too and if the best we could afford to do was a movie in which the grave stones are cardboard and the airplane steering wheels are artfully cut paper plates, we’d make that movie. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, a thing worth doing is worth doing even if you can only do it badly. In laughing at Ed Wood’s movies, we’re laughing at a friend, and in so doing, we’re laughing at ourselves.
There’s also a very curious reminiscence of when Bella Lugosi felt bad because he learned fans didn’t know whether he was alive or dead, and so Ed Wood put together a public appearance for Bela, who used it as a springboard into comedic performances in Las Vegas. Just how much Ed Wood loved Bella comes across.
It’s a very quirky book. I’m not sure if it was ever edited past basic grammar. I believe it was unfinished at the time of Ed Wood’s death. For example, there’s a chapter in it which consists of three paragraphs, none longer than three sentences, all of which fit on a single page.
There is no earth-shattering insight in this book, but I none the less recommend it, at least if you like movies. It’s an unfinished and not-well-organized book about a bygone time, but it is very personal about a curious figure.
I’ll write about it more soon, but I do have to say that Hollywood Rat Race is an interesting book. It gives some interesting insight into Ed Wood. He’s definitely a far more sympathetic figure from this book than just from the movies. Something else which comes across very clearly is how much he loved movies. You can see it in the movies themselves, of course; he would do anything to make movies and that included making bad movies, if that’s what it took to make movies. I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s often misunderstood epigram, “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
Much of the book is a warning to people not to come to Hollywood, for one reason and another. The last two lines in the book are very interesting, especially in light of just how much movies were Ed Wood’s life:
But that’s the extent of it. That’s the Hollywood as an insider knows it. Trouble. Problems. Heartaches…
Believe it or not, your life is more real than the Hollywood scene.
I was recently thinking about how awful a movie The Least Jedi is, and how much better a movie Plan 9 From Outer Space is, except in the visual aspects—costumes, props, sets, lighting, photography, and special effects. I’ve joked that I want there to be a $150M shot-for-shot remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space to be used as the yardstick by which all sci-fi movies are judged.
Then it occurred to me that in lieu of this to suggest to people that they watch Plan 9 but imagine all of the bright colors, amazing special effects, and so on. Curiously, I could not picture anyone even trying. “Why should I have to do that work for them, that’s their job?” I can hear my interlocutor say. And yet, such people want me to do the exact same thing with the plot. They want me to imagine the motivations, the extra dialog we didn’t see, the equipment we weren’t told about, the things we don’t know anyone did—in short, because the thing is pretty, they want me to do the work of the writer and think that this is quite reasonable to expect me to do, while they are utterly unwilling to do the work of the special effects department.
I think that this suggests that for many people, movies are an extremely visual medium. Perhaps there is even a fraction of the population with a very weak imagination for whom movies are vicariously indulging in having a powerful imagination. If a weak imagination is coupled with a poor memory, that would explain a lot about what movies tend to be mega-blockbusters.
(Note: I’m not, here, criticizing people who were not given as much of some natural virtues as I was. Rather, I think that this makes liking truly awful movies more forgivable and perhaps, even, a little understandable.)
In the not too distant past, a relative gave me a copy of the book Hollywood Rat Race. What’s really notable about it is that it was written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (If the name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s famous for such movies as Bride of the Monster, Glenn or Glenda, and most of all for Plan 9 From Outer Space.) The text on the back bills it as “part how-to manual, part memoir,” and certainly the beginning certainly seems like a how-to manual.
I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to read it, but it can’t help but be interesting. Curiously, the beginning is actually fairly reminiscent of some dialog in the Ed Wood movie The Sinister Urge.
Something else curious is that the book was written mostly during the 1960s, but wasn’t published until twenty years after the authors’ death. (Wood died in 1978, at the age of 54, and the book was first published in 1998.)
The second episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote, is titled, When Thieves Fall Out. It’s a very unusual episode of Murder, She Wrote.
The episode begins with the owner of a car dealership firing a drunk salesman. After that we meet a rather enigmatic character. I’m not sure whether to call him the protagonist or the antagonist, and in many ways the episode isn’t sure, either.
His name is Andrew Durbin. It’s a bit complicated, but we learn his backstory: he just got out of prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit 20 years ago. He had been a hitchiker, and a wealthy businessman was giving him a ride. A car swerved almost into their lane and they swerved to avoid it, crashing. The businessman was injured and Durbin ran to a nearby farmhouse for help, but they didn’t hear his banging on the door. When he got back someone had bashed the businessman’s head in with a rock, and $100,000 in bearer bonds were missing. At that moment the police showed, and he was taken to be the murderer, and was convicted.
He’s back in Cabot Cove because he recognized a kid in the car (in a prom outfit; it was prom night) that ran them off of the road, and he wants vengeance and to know who the driver is.
The kid turns out to be Bill, the owner of the car dealership.
Somewhere around here, the car dealership owner recognizes that some weird things are going and her husband is very scared, so she goes to Jessica for help.
Andrew Durbin goes to the car dealership and says that there seems to be some electrical trouble with his car.
Bill says that he’s busy and will need some time to get the repair done. He suggests that Andrew come back at 9pm to pick up his car. Andrew agrees. Jessica shows up and talks to Bill, but not much really comes from this. He denies everything. Jessica leaves, and Bill calls a confederate—presumably the other person in the car, that fateful night.
Interestingly for a Murder, She Wrote episode, while we’re pretty sure that someone is about to be murdered, we don’t really know who.
It turns out to be Bill, which is an interesting turn of events because it leaves the field so wide open for who the murderer could be. One obvious suspect is the man with whom he had an appointment at around the time he was killed, Andrew Durbin, but it turns out that Durbin has an air-tight alibi. He was eating dinner for 2 hours at a restaurant where several reliable witnesses could vouch for him.
The alibi is useful, structurally, but it’s also very curious that Durbin never showed up to the appointment. It’s somewhat implied, later in the episode, that this was really a setup; he expected this to stir up Bill’s confederate and get him to kill Bill. It’s never explained in detail, and doesn’t make all that much sense as a plan. Unless he figured that Bill’s killer would be sloppy and get caught, this plan would most likely result in the trail going cold and Durbin’s only hope of justice being extinguished. That said, for whatever reason he does it, he never shows up and is careful to have an excellent alibi for before, during, and after the murder is committed.
Convinced that Durbin is both innocent and telling the truth, Jessica interviews Bill’s old high school friends who were with him that night.
They lie to Jessica, of course, in order to protect Bill’s memory, and say that he was with them the whole time. Eventually it comes out that Bill was drunk and left early. There’s some further investigation and a sub-plot where one of Bill’s old football friends who is pretending to have been crippled in a car crash and is suing Bill turns out not to be crippled and to only be scamming.
I probably should have mentioned earlier that high school football was a big theme. All of Bill’s male friends from high school were on the football team with him, and they were the only team from Cabot Cove who ever won the state championship. This is important because it turns out that the driver, and the murderer both of Bill and of the driver 20 years ago was the beloved high school football coach.
There was actually a pretty good line from his confession, when he talked about how the business he had invested his share of the $100,000 into went bust almost immediately: “I guess I should have known that nothing good would come of that money.”
What really makes this episode special, though, is that it doesn’t stop here. Later that night, as Jessica and Amos are having dinner, Andrew Durbin shows up at Jessica’s doorstep to thank her.
Jessica says that she wishes he wouldn’t. She acknowledges that he was telling the truth and spent 20 years in prison unjustly, but he knew what would happen when he came. He replies that he did warn her that he was after justice.
“I can’t help but think that justice could have been served in a better way.”
Then he gets one of the all-time great lines in Murder, She Wrote.
“Oh? Well you give it some thought, Mrs. Fletcher, and when you figure out what could have been, let me know.”
Jessica is at a loss for words. He turns and leaves, and she closes the door. She then leans against it, thinking.
And there the episode ends.
Something I touched on in my blog post about how Jessica Fletcher is an oddly libertine scold is that she has an extremely strong but highly selective sense of indignation. She deplores violence but not, in general, any of the things which tend to make it necessary.
She dislikes, tremendously, that people she cared about were made to suffer. This is understandable, but it is a fault in Jessica that she didn’t rise above her feelings and stick to her principles and acknowledge that Durbin was in the right. Instead, she resents being made to be the one to find them out. In short, she is entitled to grieve, but not to be indignant, and Durbin’s final line points out to her how little she is entitled to her indignation.
Jessica does not learn from this moment, of course. First, because she’s written by television writers. Second, because Murder, She Wrote was episodic, with episodes not being related to each other. Frankly, I think it’s really more the former than the latter, though. All that said, it’s pretty satisfying for Jessica to get a comeuppance, for once.
Apart from all this, it’s an interesting episode. Detectives investigating long-ago mysteries is interesting, because the evidence is so limited (at least when people don’t oddly good memories about things long-past to which they hadn’t attached any great significance at the time). This is done much better in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, but it’s an unfair comparison. That was a novel; a 48 minute long TV episode cannot be as good. It does partake of some of what made that novel so good, though, even if it takes the easy route and uses photographs instead of people’s partial memories.
One White Rose For Death is the fourth episode in the third season of Murder, She Wrote.
It’s not one of the most memorable episodes, probably because the setup of Jessica being used to help a classical performer from behind the Iron Curtain to defect while on an American tour was used in the first season (Death Takes a Curtain Call) and had the extremely memorable Major Anatole Karzof of the KGB. That said, this is a fun and interesting episode.
The plot is very different; instead of a former Russian defector and relative of the performer, who brought Jessica to the theater, being the one to help the couple, it’s a British secret agent they met at the theater, and instead of hiding out at Jessica’s house they end up hiding out at the British embassy in whatever country they’re in (most everyone has a British accent, but they hide out at the British embassy so the one country they can’t be in is Great Britain). It’s this later part that makes the episode so interesting: since the murder is committed inside of the embassy, it becomes a closed-mansion mystery.
There is the added tension from the defection story; only the brother (Franz) defected—he had been a spy for the British after the secret police murder his wife—while his sister (Gretta) was dragged along and isn’t happy about it. Then they find out that the East German secret police is holding their parents hostage. This spy-thrilleresque thread vies with the murder mystery thread to be the main plot; it keeps the tension up for the entire episode.
The murder victim gives us a clue—his dead hand clutches the titular white rose.
Jessica overheard the victim asking spy headquarters for information on a mission that had been called White Rose. Fortunately, Michael, the spy who got Jessica into this mess, knows what it was about—it was a failed mission to protect an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, ten years before. (The activist was assassinated.)
The victim was also a spy, in fact Michael had recruited him into the spying business, so he took the murder very personally. He came from a long line of stuffy bankers and his “banker’s face” made him perfect for the spy businesses. The most important thing about being a spy is to be able to pass oneself off as anything, such as a tradesman.
Fortunately for everyone, not least of all the audience, because everyone in the embassy is a suspect, the diplomat in charge of the embassy gives Jessica free run to investigate the murder. I didn’t quite follow his logic, here, but it’s always more pleasant when the detective has the right to investigate, so I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Initial investigations turn up that:
the doctor had ties to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa
the diplomat’s wife is from Rhodesia
the victim’s fingernails and eyes show “moons”. He was killed with a fast-acting poison, which Jessica takes to mean a poisoned weapon.
#3 means that the murder weapon was probably professional; not many people besides professionals carry poisoned stabbing weapons. With the white rose connection, it seems likely that the victim recognized the assassin from operation White Rose. #1 gets dismissed fairly quickly because he was on the wrong side to have assassinated the activist being protected in operation White Rose. #2 bears more investigation, which happens fairly quickly.
The diplomat and his wife come clean.
While she came from Rhodesia, she was the daughter of a light-skinned servant who had been raped by one of her white masters. She was taken from Rhodesia as a child and grew up in England; she hadn’t been near South Africa in over a decade when the assassination happened. The diplomat was stationed in Hong Kong back then. They had been secretive and not forthcoming with their alibis because they wanted to keep the wife’s background a secret due to the diplomat’s needing social standing for his job. After this is revealed Michael walks in with the news that the doctor can be ruled out too because he was in prison (for having participated in a peace march) the day that the activist was killed.
Michael declares the theory that the victim was killed because he recognized the assassin a bust. “I mean, what would a professional assassin be doing here at the embassy?” This question is the spark which gives Jessica the answer. “Unless here is not where he was supposed to be,” she replies.
At this point we can figure out who did it by simple process of elimination. There’s no way it could be the East Germans, so the only person left is the literary agent who met Jessica at the airport and accompanied her to the concert.
There’s a brief scene at the beginning where we meet the literary agent who escorts Jessica and he apologized for the person, Jeffrey, who she expected wasn’t able to meet her because he got tied up in some meeting. Jessica reveals that she just called her agency and they knew nothing about Jeffrey being on any sort of assignment. The police went to his apartment and found him strangled in bed.
The literary agent pulls out his pipe, which the secret agent grabs from him. It turns out that there was a secret stiletto blade in it, presumably poisoned. Later on, we see him arrested. Jessica complains to the British spy that the faux literary agent used her to try to get at the Prime Minister to assassinate him, and it would have worked had the British spy not brought them to the embassy at gunpoint.
The setting of this episode is really excellent. Especially when it comes to a TV show, the embassy of a reasonably rich country like Great Britain makes for a spectacular setting. It’s one of the few places where you can have an ornate, old-fashioned mansion outside of England. Even more, it’s one of the few places where you can have a sealed mansion in America that’s not on a private island. It’s a really great setting. It’s not surprising that embassies are a popular place to set a murder. Really, it’s only surprising that they’re not more popular. After all, there are a lot of embassies in the world.
The construction of this episode is interesting. The dramatic event of an East German trying to defect to the west is merely the setting for the murder. This complicates the plot and serves as an excellent distraction. Further, it does a very good job of hiding the murderer to have him brought along at gunpoint to where he would rather not be. As Chesterton put it:
A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious.
Now, the device of the murderer having to improvise a murder because he was recognized by someone he was thrown together with by chance fulfills this criteria exceedingly well. It does so with a trade-off, of course. That trade-off is that there is exceedingly little that could point to one person instead of another as the murderer. Structurally, the murderer could be anyone since he has an entirely secret relationship to the victim. There is no alternative to examining each person in turn and arriving at the correct conclusion by a process of elimination.
The best the author can do is to eliminate all of the suspects, in which case there is some deductive work to do in figuring out which suspect should not have been eliminated. The second best one can do is what was done in this episode, where it merely seems that all of the suspects have been eliminated because there was one we never thought of.
There is a difficult question which comes up here of giving the murderer an opportunity to murder the victim. This is difficult precisely because it must be done in a way that the reader sees, but not in a way that he notices.
That was done in this episode by an exchange where the faux literary agent demanded to leave and when he was told that he was not yet free to leave no matter who in the home office he knows, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. This exchange was colorful and mildly humorous, which seemed to explain its presence. It did put him alone for a time, which gives him opportunity, but it didn’t give him much opportunity. The body is discovered about two and a half minutes later in the episode, which is close to what it would have been in the story. There’s only one scene break, and it’s Jessica going to find Gretta—they discover the body together after their conversation. This gave the faux literary agent very little time to find his man, stab him, and make his escape. Other than that very brief time, he was always in the lounge, at least as far as we can tell, and always with one or more others there with him. It was enough time, but only if he was lucky and ran into his man, alone, almost immediately.
One thing that was never explained—and possibly because this would have been difficult, never questioned—was what the victim was doing in the garden. We last saw him trying to dig up information on operation White Rose on the telephone. There’s no obvious reason for him to go into the garden. And the body was not hidden, so it pretty much had to have been killed in the garden. If the body was moved to the garden, it would have been hidden. The last thing that the faux literary agent wanted was for the body to be found. The garden was clearly large enough to hide a body such that it would take a while for people who weren’t looking for it to find it. Where it was, Gretta only found it by tripping over an extended foot. (Also, had the body been moved, the killer would presumably have removed the white rose which pointed to him.)
The final thing to discuss, I think, is the choice of killer and victim. The killer was a professional assassin and the victim a professional spy. Granted, the professional assassin murdered the victim only in order to protect himself from being recognized and not because he was being paid for it, but it still removes the murder from those ordinary motives and passions which make murder mysteries morality plays. It’s just difficult to relate to someone being able to identify one as a professional assassin when one has never killed for money.
(Also, come to think of it, how on earth did the victim recognize the killer? The activist who was killed during operation White Rose was stabbed to death, but the assassin escaped into the crowd “before anyone knew what had happened”. That’s not really the sort of circumstance under which one will get a really good look at the assassin, to recognize him 9 years later in a completely different context. And, given that the victim did recognize him, why did the victim let him get within stabbing range in the garden? He was stabbed in the chest, not in the back. A solitary garden, even in the dark, is a sub-optimal place to sneak up on a man to stab him in the chest. I suppose he could have sneaked up on the victim from behind and at the last moment the victim heard him and wheeled around, too late to defend himself.)
Overall, I think that the plotting and structure of this episode are above average for Murder, She Wrote. It’s a fun episode, though of course part of that is the setting. That said, the setting is a choice, and it was a good one. A good setting can go a long way to making a good plot easier to pull off.
I first watched Murder, She Wrote when it aired on television and had seen more than a single season before reaching my tenth birthday. Most episodes, though enjoyable, are not all that memorable, but some really stick with me. One such episode is The Night of the Headless Horseman.
It’s an episode in the middle of the third season and borrows heavily, as the title implies, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s a very interesting episode and I’m going to discuss its plot and characterization, but first I’m going to give a brief recap of the plot in the reader has not watched this episode recently.
We begin by being introduced to Dorian, a tall, gaunt poetry teacher in a rural boarding school/horse riding academy. He is very much Ichabod Crane. He is reading a poem to the lady he’s courting, Sarah, who is the daughter of the wealthy owner of the school/riding academy. She, too, is very much Katrina Van Tassel (Ichabod’s love interest, if you don’t remember).
The school is set in the south, at least to the degree that the actors can do southern accents (it varies), so we even have the plot element of Dorian being a Yankee outsider (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow it was a Dutch settlement). Further borrowing from the famous story, as Dorian walks home, he is comes to a covered bridge:
And then, to pay off the title, out of nowhere a headless horseman carrying a jack-o-lantern rides up.
The rider chases Dorian onto the bridge and throws the jack-o-lantern at him. As the rider rides off, Dorian shakes his fist and exclaims, “Damn you, Nate Finley!”
So far, we have a remarkable homage to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. We’re only about three minutes in, however, and things will begin to diverge, as they must, when Jessica arrives. Speaking of which…
The scene now changes to Jessica arriving from Cabot Cove via the train; Nate picks her up at the station. They begin to catch up, then in what is ostensibly an explanation of what Dorian is doing at the prestigious Wenton Academy (the school/riding academy), we get some obviously important backstory.
Dorian has the job because over the summer the previous poetry teacher, a beautiful young woman named Gretchen, died under mysterious circumstances. The daughter of the Academy’s stable master, she drowned in the river, and—hint, hint—rumor has it that there was a man with her who was the one behind the wheel. If you can’t guess that the earlier mystery will drive the murder we haven’t seen in this episode, you clearly haven’t been watching Murder, She Wrote for long. They do work it in as backstory and gossip well enough that you can feel clever for spotting it, though.
Next, Dr. Penn Walker, the town dentist, shows up:
In this encounter we learn two major things:
The doctor has a strong interest in jewelry; it’s a hobby of his.
He thinks that Jessica is Dorian’s mother.
On the car ride from the train station, Dorian tries to stall Jessica with conversation, in which we learn that the good doctor was engaged to Gretchen, the poetry teacher who died under mysterious circumstances. Also, he was in Europe when it happened. (This simultaneously clears the doctor of being the man behind the wheel and also sets him up with a very strong revenge motive.)
After these important details, Jessica forces Dorian to come clean, and he admits that he’s fallen in love but his intended fiancé’s father has a fixation with pedigrees and so, being an orphan, he wanted to present at least one parent and so lied that Jessica is his mother. This conversation is interrupted by Nate Finley, who rides his horse in front of their car for no reason, then laughs at them.
Clearly, we’re not meant to feel sorry for him when he turns up dead.
(Nate Finley does match the character of Abraham Van Brunt, in being the other suitor for Sarah’s hand and a far better physical specimen, though less socially adept. His character does depart from Van Brunt’s, though, as we’ll see.)
Jessica and Dorian get to the school where some awkwardness ensues as Jessica isn’t sure whether to play along with the lie of being Dorian’s mother. We then get introduced to a trio of boys who play a prank on the stablemaster (driving the horses off, out of the stable). The stablemaster appears to be German; he is named Van Stottard and has a thick German accent, anyway.
Nate Finley happens to be around and threatens the stablemaster that he will find a new stablemaster if the current one cannot keep control of the horses. It’s a noble effort on the part of the writers to distract from the characters just introduced by highlighting what a bad guy Nate Finley is, but one of the problems that Murder, She Wrote writers labor under is that they don’t have the budget for unimportant characters. That said, they do at least have the freedom to make characters important for surprising reasons, so we don’t really know what part the boys play in this.
Dorian accuses Nate Finley of being the headless horseman, which he doesn’t deny. Finley then rides off.
In the next scene, we get the owner of the school telling the headmistress that he wants Nate Finley fired.
This is an unusual move for a television show; ordinarily bullies on TV have the unconditional support of authority figures. The headmistress tells him to calm down; he knows as well as she does that Nate Finley is as good as they come in the saddle, and their riding program is, for some reason, of the utmost importance to the school. Why, is never explained. Even in the 1980s it was a bit of a stretch that wealthy parents would choose to send their children to a boarding school primarily on the basis of its riding program.
The headmistress surmises that the owner is afraid for his daughter, and suggests he should look out for the new English teacher instead. Some more introductions are made and the stablemaster barges in holding all three boys we met earlier. He charges them with committing pranks and they do not deny it; the headmistress says that she will deal with them later.
That night, the headmistress interrupts Nate Finley saddling up his horse to tell him to stay away from the owner’s daughter.
“I want you to stay away from Edwin’s daughter. Satisfy your needs elsewhere.” “Is that an order, or an offer?”
This dialog is a bit odd in that we learn moments later that the two were involved with each other; she threatens to fire him if he doesn’t stay away from the owner’s daughter and he threatens to tell the owner that they were together. Either way, though, Nate Finley clearly deserves the murdering he’s about to receive, and I suppose that this scene serves to establish the headmistress as a possible culprit.
The next scene moves to a restaurant in which the wait staff dress up in period costume for some reason, and we meet the waittress, Bobbie.
She seems to be set up almost as a love interest for Dorian, except that he never really pays any attention to her. The dentist comes in and sits down with Jessica and Dorian. He notices Bobbie’s neclace, and asks where she got it. She replies, “Nate Finley, Doc. Guess he figures it will get him somewhere, which it won’t.” And before anyone else has a chance to speak, Nate Finley walks into the bar. Jessica warns Dorian not to start anything, but in vain, because Finley starts it.
Finley tries to warn Dorian off of Sarah, but Dorian punches him in the mouth. They fight for a while, and Dorian gets shoved against the wall where he knocks down an old saber. He picks it up, as several of Nate Finley’s friends are standing around him.
If you think that there’s any chance that Dorian isn’t holding the murder weapon, you haven’t seen Murder, She Wrote before. Nothing happens here, though, because the Sheriff—who had been conveniently on his way to dinner, I suppose—breaks up the fight.
The fight over, Nate mentions that he thinks he broke a tooth, and a raw nerve in his mouth being exposed, he does the logical thing and asks for a stiff drink from the bartender.
Dorian leaves. As Jessica leaves, she notices the leader of the three trouble-making students feeding Nate Finley’s horse. She says hello to him, but he just walks off.
Dorian goes to Sarah’s house, but no one is home. On his way back, right before the covered bridge, Nate Finley’s friends show up in a yellow pickup truck. He asks them for a ride back to the academy but instead they give him the murder weapon.
They drive off. Dorian only makes it a few more steps before the headless horseman rides again. Dorian tries to defend himself with the sabre…
…but only gets knocked down. His head hits a rock and he falls unconscious.
The next day the stablemaster and headmistress are concerned about Nate Finley’s horse. He had been ridden hard but not cleaned. The sweat has dried into his fur. (This is a problem for horses because the tack the wear—bridle, saddle, etc—will tend to rub the sweat into their skin, causing irritation. Any good horseman will always clean his horse after riding him, for the horse’s sake.) The attentive viewer will infer that Nate Finley has finally been murdered, though the characters don’t catch on just yet. This does yield an interesting problem for the viewer, though, since as far as we know Nate Finley was the headless horseman, and the headless horseman was the last person we saw alive.
Dorian stumbles into the stable and announces his intention to get even with Nate Finley. No one knows where Finley is, though.
Jessica, out on her morning bike ride, runs into the police who have found Nate Finley’s body. The Sheriff asks if Jessica knows where “her son” is, but she doesn’t. No sooner has she said this than a car pulls up with the headmistress and Dorian in it. Dorian launches into a complaint at the Sheriff about how Nate Finley had attacked him the night before. The Sheriff is interested, and asks questions that don’t seem entirely related. Jessica puts two and two together and realizes that Nate Finley has been killed. They see the body under a tarp, or possibly a black cloak. Jessica notices something about the feet:
The boots are on the wrong feet! I’m not giving anything away here, at least by more than a few seconds, as Jessica starts pointing this out to anyone who will listen almost immediately.
It is revealed that Nate Finley was decapitated, so the Sheriff arrests Dorian as having recently threatened Nate Finley with a saber. Curiously, it never occurs to anyone to ask whether a wall decoration at a restaurant was actually sharp. It’s actually pretty rare for wall decorations to be kept in fighting condition. I suppose we’re meant to assume that it was, since the saber is later referred to as “bloody”.
Jessica argues with the Sheriff, pointing out problems with his case, and finishes with the fact that Dorian has sworn that he didn’t do it. That’s supposed to hold weight because Dorian doesn’t lie. When the Sheriff points out that of course she thinks that, being his mother, Jessica accidentally admits that she’s not his mother. As he puts Dorian into the jail cell, he tells Jessica that it’s encouraging to hear that Dorian doesn’t lie.
In the next scene, Jessica and Dorian talk over the situation.
A little bit is added to what we already know. Dorian saw the owner of the school driving off from his house in a hurry. When Jessica talks to Sarah about it, Sarah claims to be the one who drove off, but is obviously lying. The owner comes out and admits to being the one who nearly ran Dorian over. He had gotten an anonymous note that the headmistress was embezzling funds, so he waited until his daughter was asleep and drove off in a hurry to confront her. He did, she denied it, the owner said he would retain an independent auditor, then returned home. (The owner also asks her to tell Dorian to stay away from his daughter or there would be another killing.)
Back at the academy, Jessica runs into one of the three boys, but he runs off when he’s questioned. She runs into the stablemaster, but he refuses to answer questions, except to say that he had no reason to kill Finley but there are others who did. He walks off when Jessica asks if he meant the headmistress, perhaps. So, on to the headmistress.
We get a small scene of the three boys in a secret room at the top of the stables, where one says that they need to tell someone, and the ringleader says that they won’t tell anyone. What won’t be told is, of course, suggestively left off.
When Jessica talks with the headmistress, she says that there is a problem but she’s not the thief. Jessica wonders who knew about the problem and the headmistress gets defensive, asking if she’s trying to implicate her in Nate Finley’s death. Jessica deflects by asking if she’s seen the note.
The spelling is so bad it could even be written by a German! (The stablemaster, you will recall, is German.)
The next scene takes place at the restaurant; it turns out that Dorian has been released from jail, though whether on bail or what is unclear. The waitress, Bobbie, comes over and tells Dorian that she believes that he’s innocent, but if he did kill Finley she could totally understand. It comes out that Bobbie saw Nate riding through town with his black cloak and black floppy hat pulled down low. This was at 11:30, but the Sheriff said that Nate was at the restaurant until 10:30. What happened in that missing hour?
Dorian then breaks a took on an olive, which necessitates a trip to the dentist.
It turns out that he only loosened a cap, which the dentist can re-cement for him. Jessica asks if the doc noticed anything odd about Nate’s dress last night, as he was found with his boots on the wrong feet. The doc observed it would be hard to walk like that; perhaps he had gotten undressed and re-dressed in a hurry. He heard Nate did that quite often, usually with an irate husband in the vicinity.
Jessica then notices a picture on the Dentist’s bureau.
(The inscription reads, “Love Forever, Gretchen”. It’s curious how often people in TV murder mysteries give each other signed headshots as keepsakes.)
That night we see a fight between the owner and his daughter, then one of the three boys spies the stablemaster burying something in a horse stall.
The next morning Jessica is with the headmistress, who tells her that it is the stablemaster who stole the money. Jessica goes to talk to him, but can’t find him. She does, however, hear the boys in their secret loft in the stables, and goes to investigate. She uses the secret knock she heard earlier, then as she opens the door tells them, “When I was a little girl, if you knew the secret knock it entitled you to enter.”
She talks to the boys and they admit to having been the headless horsemen who harassed Dorian the first time, but had nothing to do with the second time. Also, one of them saw the stablemaster bury something (he took to be Nate’s head) in a sack.
In the next scene the Sheriff has his deputy digging up the spot. As the Sheriff goes to open the box that had been buried, Jessica shields the boys from the terrible sight, but it turns out that the box contains only money. The stablemaster had been embezzling money in order to pay a detective to investigate the death of his daughter. He hands over the file that the detective had assembled. There was nothing of value in it, but for some reason it did include another headshot of Gretchen.
Luckily for Jessica, this time Gretchen was wearing a necklace. Jessica recognizes it and solves the puzzle.
In the next scene the dentist comes to visit Jessica in the restaurant which hasn’t yet opened. Dorian told him that Jessica wanted to talk to him.
This can mean only one thing. If you hadn’t figured it out from the clues or by simple process of elimination, the doctor is the killer.
She realized that the necklace Gretchen was wearing in the headshot was the same necklace that Nate Finley had given to Bobbie. The dentist, who makes jewelry as a hobby, had made it and given it to Gretchen and recognized it when it was on Bobbie’s neck. He couldn’t help but know what it meant—that Nate Finley had been the man with Gretchen when she died. (Presumably he snatched the necklace off of her neck before swimming to safety and leaving her to drown.)
Finley had complained of a busted tooth after his altercation with Dorian, and presumably went to a dentist about it. A lot of things in the case didn’t make sense, like the severed head, unless there was something about the head that would instantly point to the killer, such as fresh dental work.
The dentist broke down and told Jessica what happened. Finley did come, and, seeing the picture of Gretchen, started laughing and telling the dentist all about how he had been drunk and drove the car into a lake and abandoned Gretchen to die. Finley was apparently very drunk, because in the re-enactment, he found the whole thing very funny.
At his bragging about leaving Gretchen to die, something snapped in the dentist and he jammed a pick into Nate’s neck. He died quickly. The dentist then figured that he had to make it seem like Nate died elsewhere, so he stripped Nate, put on the clothes, and rode Nate’s horse out of town, making a lot of noise to ensure he would be noticed. He ran into Dorian and knocked him out, then got the idea to frame Dorian using the saber Dorian was holding. The rest, we already know.
The use of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow setting is definitely very interesting, but it faded pretty quickly. Really, after the first few minutes the only thing that was left was the headless horseman. To some degree this was inevitable as they made the horseman the victim, rather than the murderer. That is simply unrelated to the original story.
Now, variation from Sleepy Hollow was inevitable, since that was not a murder mystery. However, I can’t help but think that they didn’t really make as much use of the headless horseman as they could have. First, I’d like to explain why, then I’d like to talk about how they could have made more use of it.
The big problem that the writers had was that in the original story, Ichabod Crane was not the hero. He was wooing Katrina Van Tassel for her money, not out of love. Worse, Katrina didn’t love him, either. The original story isn’t explicit, but it is very strongly hinted that Ichabod proposed marriage to her and she rejected him. It is further implied that her reason for encouraging Ichabod was to stoke the interest, by jealousy, of Abraham Van Blunt. Van Blunt is not as smart as Ichabod, nor as socially graceful, but he was the man Katrina wanted. This, coupled with Ichabod’s mean motive for wooing Katrina really make him a thoroughly unsympathetic character. So right off the bat, making Dorian the underdog-hero of the story creates a lot of distance from the original.
Further, the structure of the story just isn’t paralleled, because the headless horseman (a decapitated Hessian soldier) was a local legend and Ichabod Crane was an extremely superstitious man. Van Blunt used the legend and Ichabod’s cowardice and superstition to drive him out of town. Indeed, for all of his quicker wits, Ichabod was in a way the intellectual inferior for being superstitious. It’s an evocative story in which a pretentious man was shown up for what he truly was. Except for the way that Dorian is a bit full of himself—which is portrayed in a sympathetic way by the writers—none of this comes forward.
To now consider how it could have been used: the more traditional approach to dealing with this sort of thing is for the murderer to try to use the legend or story which everyone knows and to use it to divert suspicion onto the person who most fits the villain of the original legend or story.
If this were a Scooby Doo episode, then someone could pretend to be the headless horseman in order to try to get people to believe that it was actually the headless horseman who committed the crime. Since this isn’t Scooby Doo, we would need the Ichabod Crane figure to be the victim and the Van Blunt character to be the suspect.
Now, obviously the setup in this episode is nothing like that, but that’s why the episode didn’t really live up to its first few minutes. In fact, they stuck to it too closely at the time of the murder—it really makes no sense for the victim to have knocked the killer unconscious immediately prior to his own murder.
There is, admittedly, something interesting about the idea of the headless horseman turning up to be really headless, but I don’t think that idea can really be made to last any longer than the words necessary to describe it.
The other typical way to handle something like this would be to have someone who rides as the headless horseman then try to frame the victim as the headless horseman, and frame someone else for the murder, as revenge.
This approach would still entail a large divergence from the original story, but it would at least keep up the appearance of being related to the original story, and on purpose. The killer would need to benefit from getting rid of both the victim and the person he frames for the death, of course. This motive would be obscured behind the bigger grudge between the victim and the one framed.
This approach could have been made to fit much better with the setup, though it would need to be the horse instructor who was Jessica’s friend, not the Ichabod character. The doctor, instead of seeking revenge for his dead (unfaithful) fiancé, would be in love with Sarah, too. The doctor would have ridden as the headless horseman, possibly two or three times, then would have killed the Ichabod character. The riding instructor friend of Jessica would then come under strong suspicion of the crime, and she would need to clear his name. The gullible Sheriff could actively point to the legend of sleepy hollow, and how it pointed to the riding friend as the guilty party. If they wanted, they could even have made the parallel stronger by making the death accidental, with the doctor only meaning to scare off the Ichabod character and instead frightening the coward into jumping into the river, where he drowned because he couldn’t swim, or the river was too fast, or whatever. His original plan could have been to just frame the riding instructor for being mean to the poet, and using that to make Sarah dislike him as a suitor, with the homicide and subsequent framing of the riding instructor for murder being accidental.
All that said, this is a very memorable episode, owing largely to the first few minutes and how well they remind one of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. However much they could have done better, it is a testament to the power of being evocative that this episode sticks with one.
Give people something to remember you by, and they will probably remember you.
As I’m getting started on the third Chronicle of Brother Thomas, He Didn’t Drown in The Lake, I can’t help but think of one of the classic Murder, She Wrote episodes. I’m not entirely sure why, but I still have fairly vivid memories of the first time that I saw A Lady in The Lake.
I’m going to discuss the construction of plot of this episode, but because I suspect most people don’t remember it as well as I do, I’ll give a brief recap of the plot so everyone can follow along.
Jessica goes off for a writing retreat at a lakeside resort near Cabot cove. There she meets an assortment of guests—a wealthy, older, overbearing husband (Howard Crane) and put-upon younger wife (Carolyn Crane), an older man who is devoted to bird watching (Burton), a young woman who loves to run naked in the forest (Joanna), and a younger husband and wife where the husband (Kyle Jordan) likes to go fishing and the wife (Betty Jordan) likes to fool around with the boat house manager (Jack Turney) while her husband goes fishing. Not entirely surprisingly, at least given how much screen time the overbearing husband gets, while on a morning bird-watching walk that Burton invited her to, Jessica sees Howard and Carolyn in a boat, wrestling with each other. She calls out, but the wrestling continues then Carolyn goes into the water.
Apparently she doesn’t come back up; what happens in the immediate aftermath happens off screen. Sheriff Tupper arrives soon afterward and looses no time in jumping to the conclusion that Howard Crane murdered his wife.
Jessica isn’t so sure, but doesn’t say much. Kyle Jordan approaches the Sheriff and gives some damning evidence. He had asked the Cranes to go fishing many times, but the they always declined. He thinks Howard couldn’t have meant to go fishing otherwise the Jordans would have come with them; clearly this meant Howard needed them out of the way to commit the murder.
Worse, the previous night Kyle and his wife overheard the Cranes having a loud argument in their room. Carolyn wanted a divorce but Howard said that she wouldn’t get a penny of his money.
After this, Sheriff Tupper goes to the room where Doctor Hazlet is tending to Howard Crane (he jumped in the lake after his wife, which apparently requires medical attention for some reason) to interview him.
Doctor Hazlet gave him a sedative (apparently, getting wet in a lake takes a lot out of you and rest is important), so the interview will need to be short. Howard says that his wife just went crazy and jumped out. He jumped in after her and tried to save her, but he can’t swim so he had to keep a hand on the boat and thus couldn’t reach her. In answer to a question, he says that not only could Caroline swim but she had actually won medals for it in school.
Jessica and Sheriff Tupper confer, and Jessica thinks that Howard’s version makes more sense than the idea that he tried to kill his wife. Inspiration strikes and Jessica goes to look at the boat. In the boat room she finds Betty Jordan and Jack Turney kissing. Betty is bold, saying that her husband doesn’t mind how she amuses herself so long as she doesn’t disturb his fishing, but Jack hopes that Jessica won’t mention it to Betty’s husband. Jessica assures him that she has no intention of telling anyone, anything. She then examines the boat and finds a hook on the bottom of it.
Jack has no idea what that’s doing there, nor when it got there. Some time passes and Sheriff Tupper and Jessica confer. Sheriff Tupper’s research confirms that Carolyn was a champion swimmer, which he takes to mean that Howard must have held her under the water.
Jessica points out that it’s implausible that a non-swimmer would try to kill a champion swimmer by drowning her in a lake. It occurs to Jessica that another explanation would be that Carolyn had made the thing up, to pretend that her husband tried to kill her in order to get a big divorce settlement. This tête-a-tête is broken up by the discovery of Carolyn’s body. It was on the north side of the lake, which apparently is pretty far away from where the resort is (they never say that they’re on the south side of the lake, nor how big the lake is). Sheriff Tupper says that this blows Jessica’s theory out of the water and clearly Howard killed as Tupper had been saying all along. Jessica asks him how the body got to the other side of the lake so quickly, to which Sheriff Tupper has no answer.
Some time later, Jessica is investigating something in a bird book.
What she is looking up we are almost conspicuously not told. This leads to a conversation with the owner of the hotel, who we find out is also a widow. Jessica asks to look at the reservation book, and makes an interesting discovery: Joanna and the Cranes both made their reservation from the same telephone number. Jessica goes and confronts Joanna.
It turns out that Joanna was Howard’s mistress. Howard had been talking like he was going to divorce his wife and marry Joanna, but then this trip came along. It turns out that the trip was actually Carolyn’s idea, and Joanna made the reservations for Howard to prove that there were no hard feelings. She did, however, make reservations for herself and come up early, to disguise her connection to Howard.
Jessica surprises Burton, who was taking (poloroid) pictures of birds, and asks to borrow one that also has a picture of Jack Turney in it. They then see the Sheriff arresting Howard, and Burton says that Howard won’t like jail, as he can’t stand to be cooped up.
Jessica accompanies the Sheriff and Howard Crane back to Cabot Cove. On the car ride it comes out that Howard is claustrophobic, and he accuses Jessica of having talked to his psychiatrist.
It also comes out that Howard is indeed rich, but has no living relatives. He was an only child and his parents are dead. His only uncle and aunt are dead. Even his cousin Arthur died a few years ago, or at least so he’d heard.
Back in Cabot Cove, Jessica, Dr. Halzet, and Sheriff Tupper confer over the autopsy report.
It turns out that Carolyn Crane did indeed drown, but she hand mud in her lungs. Further, she had bits of glass embedded in the skin of her skull. Also, she was wearing a bathing suit under her dress.
At this point a deputy comes in with the information that Jack Turney is a wanted man, for blackmailing married women with whom he’d had affairs and even for assaulting one of them.
We then jump to a scene between the Jordans.
It turns out that Mr. Jordan tried to surprise Mrs. Jordan on her bike ride, only to find out that no bicycles had been taken out that day. He asks her what is going on, then figures out that she’s having an affair with Jack Turney. Apparently, he does actually care how his wife amuses herself while he’s fishing.
There’s some very unimportant events that happen where Jessica and Sheriff Tupper talk to the owner of the inn, where it turns out that Jack Turney is her brother and she’s been protecting him, but didn’t know the extent of his crimes. We then move to the boat house where Mr. Jordan is threatening to kill Jack Turney.
Sheriff Tupper and Jessica arrive, and we have the denouement. Jessica explains the whole thing, though only after a series of misunderstandings and jumped conclusions by Sheriff Tupper.
It turns out that scuba equipment was missing, which Jack Turney had forgotten to mention. Carolyn Crane had a lover, with whom she had planned to fake an attempt on her life by her husband. She had attached the stolen scuba gear to the bottom of the boat via the hook she had installed, then when she was sure of her witness she wrestled with her husband and jumped out of the boat. She put on the scuba gear under water and leisurely swam, under water, to the north shore of the lake. There, her lover met her, but instead of love and support he killed her. He hit her with a pair of binoculars, the only weapon he had to hand.
It turns out that Burton is actually cousin Arthur—that’s how he knew that Howard was claustrophobic—and had planned the whole thing from the start, including killing Carolyn. Howard’s father had accused Burton’s father of embezzling money and had stolen the family business from him. Burton went through the whole elaborate murder scheme in order to get the money he was owed back.
Later on Jessica is asked what made her suspect Burton was not just an innocent birdwatcher, and she replies that he said that he would look for the nest of the yellow bellied flycatcher in a tree. They nest on the ground, she confirmed in the book on birds in that scene where she conspicuously didn’t say what she found.
This is a very fun episode, and takes advantage of what may be one of the cardinal rules of murder mysteries: have a beautiful setting that the reader (or viewer) would love to visit. It’s also got a great setup, and takes a number of well-paced twists and turns on its way to the ending. Something is clearly up with Jack Turney, and they play out the discovery of this at a fairly good pace to distract from the main murder investigation. The reveals on Jack Turney with Betty Jordan work especially well in this regard, as it does hint at the possibility he might have been involved with Carolyn, too. Additionally, the simple human drama of it is distracting.
Speaking of human drama, I didn’t hit on it much in my plot summary, since I was focusing on the murder, but there was a sub-plot in which the widow who is renting the hotel is trying to figure out what to do with her life and whether she wants to run the inn. It’s done sparingly, but comes up often enough to introduce a thread of human interest which pretty clearly as nothing to do with the murder. This is a good move, I think, because it helps to leaven the murder story. It keeps the story more anchored; murder mysteries tend to be better when real life goes on during the murder investigation.
The big problem is the ending. It doesn’t make sense, and ignoring that, it has a significant plot hole in the murder. Ignoring that, a key piece of evidence is very contrived.
I’ll start with the contrived evidence, which is Burton saying, as he and Jessica watched Sheriff Tupper taking Howard into custody, “Howard is not going to like jail. He can’t stand to be cooped up.” There was no earthly reason for him to say this. No one likes jail. It was just volunteering information, that he shouldn’t have had, for no reason whatever. It’s almost on par with the bad guy in Encyclopedia Brown saying, “I never looked inside the kid’s box. I certainly didn’t eat the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies with just a hint of cinnamon that were in it!” It’s one thing when the murderer reveals something he should have known to further his own ends, such as telling a fact he shouldn’t know that implicates someone else in the murder. The distraction of framing the other person can cover for the fact that he shouldn’t have known it. At the very least, there was some temptation for him to do it. Here, there was no reason for Burton to have said anything.
Let’s move on to the plot hole. According to Jessica’s theory of the murder, Cousin Arthur, that is, Burton, planned the whole thing before any of them ever got to the inn. He was, therefore, fulfilling his plan to murder Carolyn when he met her at the shore. Why on earth were his binoculars the only weapon to hand? Had he only put a single minute into the planning, he could have picked up a rock or a stick. Several minutes of planning might have yielded a better weapon still. When it comes to murder weapons, one’s own pair of binoculars, which one not only has been seen with but even drew attention to, is a terrible choice. And without the binocular glass embedded in Carolyn’s skin, there would have been no physical evidence linking him to the murder.
The other problem with the ending is even harder to get over—why on earth did Cousin Arthur kill Carolyn? Both Jessica and Burton seemed to talk as if he would inherit Howard’s money, now that the only other possible heir was dead. The problem, however, is that Howard Crane was still alive, and would presumably remain so for decades. The worst that would happen to him would be that he would be convicted for murder and go to prison for a long time. A person going to prison keeps their money. It does not get disbursed to heirs. (For those curious, the state of Maine abolished the death penalty—for the final time—in 1887.)
In Maine in the 1980s, framing Howard for the murder of Carolyn would mean that Cousin Arthur would never see a penny of the money he believed to be rightfully his. In fact—assuming he didn’t murder Howard—the only way for Cousin Arthur to have gotten his hands on any of Howard’s money would be to keep Carolyn very much alive and marry her after she got a large divorce settlement.
This feels almost like someone ripped the plot off from a British golden age detective story in which a man being convicted of murder would mean that he was hanged within a few weeks and thus framing a man for murder was an effective means of inheriting money from him. In that context, this ending—apart from volunteering private information about Howard and using binoculars as a murder weapon—would make sense. In Maine in the 1980s, it’s quite a head scratcher.
I’ve written before about the movie America’s Sweethearts. I would like to add to those thoughts, since I’ve watched it a few more times since then. (It’s one of a handful of movies I watch while debugging code because it helps to keep me from getting distracted while I wait for compiles, and because I know it so well it doesn’t distract me from doing the work because I always know what happens next.)
One of the very curious things about the movie America’s Sweethearts is that all of its characters are bad. (For those who are not familiar with it, America’s Sweethearts is a romantic comedy.) The show opens with the information that the titular couple of Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison has split. During the filming of their most recent and now last movie together, Time Over Time, Gwen took up with a Spanish actor and left Eddie. Eddie went crazy and tried to kill them, then retreated to a sort of faux-hindu wellness center and stayed there.
This is recapped fairly early on; the plot of America’s Sweethearts begins with the director of Time Over Time refusing to show the movie to the head of the studio until the press junket, when the press would see it at the same time as everyone else. This causes the head of the studio to panic and re-hire Lee, the studio’s publicist who he had fired as a cost-saving measure, to put together the junket because his talents really do match his salary. The only other major character is Kiki, Gwen’s sister (it’s unspecified who is older; they might even be fraternal twins, which would help to explain shared high school experiences). She’s a mousy creature whose life is mostly taken up pleasing the whims of her famous sister, but she’s played by Julia Roberts so you know that won’t last through the end of the movie.
We now have all of the major characters: an adulterer, a lunatic, an unscrupulous businessman, a wimpy woman who lets herself by tyrannized by her awful sister, a publicist who follows the line which Hercule Poirot’s friends said of him: he would never tell the truth if a lie would suffice.
And what’s really weird is that they’re a loveable cast, and it’s a really enjoyable movie, even though it is not a redemption arc for most of them.
I think that part of what makes it work—apart from the massive charisma of all of the actors, which cannot be understated as a causal element—is that the characters’ vices, while not repented of, are not excused, either.
The movie has something like a happy ending for about half of the characters in it, but it is very fitting because it’s a very small happy ending. The head of the studio gets a movie which has a lot of legal liabilities but which might make enough money to cover them. The publicist has what is probably going to be a successful movie. The adulterer is embarrassed, but she stays with her Spaniard for whatever that is worth. Eddie and Kiki wind up together, but shortly before they decide to give it a try, Kiki prognosticates that it’s never going to work, and she might well be right.
I think that ultimately what makes the movie work is the subconsciously stoic theme that vice is its own punishment, and so successful vice is still punished vice. America’s Sweethearts is all about people who do not deserve their natural virtues—beauty, fame, wealth, power—who are punished by getting to keep them. But—and this is an important but—the movie is so short that one is left with the hope that the punishment may serve its purpose and the people may in time learn to repent.
This may be the formula for all successful movies about vicious people (that is, people who practice vice). At least where they do not repent. Redemption stories are probably better. But if a story about vicious people is not going to be about their redemption, I think the story of how they are punished by success may be the only other option for a good story.
I recently watched the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie, The Woman in Green. Released on the 27th of July, 1945, it was the eleventh Sherlock Holmes film in the series starring Rathbone and Bruce.
Interestingly, there were fourteen films in the series and they were released between 1939 and 1946. Though it wasn’t on a perfectly regular schedule, that’s an average of one movie per 6.85 months. It’s also curious that this ran from very slightly before World War II to very slightly after it—it’s curious in particular because the second world war is generally taken as the end of the golden age of detective fiction. With it, tastes changed.
In fact, the Wikipedia article on the series says something about this—the first two films were made by 20th Century Fox while the remaining twelve were made by Universal Studios, and part of the explanation given for why Fox lost interest was:
their decision to withdraw from further productions was also because the Second World War meant that “foreign agents and spies were much more typical and topical than the antiquated criminal activities of Moriarty and the like”.
Anyway, it was very interesting seeing the series I’d heard about before, with Basil Rathbone being the definitive Sherlock Holmes until Jeremy Brett came along. Supposedly there are those who still prefer Rathbone, but for my money Jeremy Brett perfectly captured the Holmes of the stories. Or at least in the first two series; Brett’s declining health did negatively affect the later Holmes films.
But even with Jeremy Brett being the better Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone had a larger impact, and in that sense was definitive. This is especially true of references in other works, including parodies and spoofs; people who have never seen Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes have seen imitations of it. It’s probably also a large contributor to the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” being well known (since it never appears in the original stories).
The Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies are especially curious, as the definitive Sherlock Holmes, because they’re not at all faithful to the original Conan Doyle stories. They sometimes borrow plot elements from the original stories, but are mostly just original creations.
Also very interesting is that after the first two, they were updated to modern times—modern at the time they were made, that is. People drove around in cars, rather than horse-drawn cabs, and made frequent use of the telephone. This has a curious effect since the mid-1940s is a time which is now a historical setting for us. Instead of being in the distant past of the Victorian times, it’s in the distant past of the 1940s; it still feels quite old. In fat, 1945 is 55 years away from 1890 but 73 years away from March of 2019, in which year I’m writing this post. The updated setting is still closer, culturally and technologically, to the original stories than it is to the modern day.
As to the specifics, I think that Basil Rathbone does a good job as Holmes. I do dislike the bufoonish character that Watson was turned into, though Nigel Bruce did play that character well.
The story is a curious one. Since readers will have had at least 73 years to have seen the movie, I will not withhold spoilers. And there isn’t much of a point to it; figuring out what’s going on takes up only about the first third of the story.
There is a series of murders of young women going on in London, with nothing to connect the women except that in each case the right forefinger is surgically removed after death. The police can make nothing of it and call Sherlock Holmes in to investigate. As Inspector Gregson is talking with Sherlock Holmes over a drink in a particular bar, they see Sir George Ferrick with a young lady. He leaves with the young lady, goes to her (remarkably luxurious and spacious) apartment, they talk over music and wine, and then Sir George wakes up in a cheap boarding house right next to the scene of one of the murders. He goes back to the apartment of the young woman and asks what happened last night. She tells him that he seemed offended and left in a distracted mood. Then a man enters the apartment and talks with Ferrick. He claims to have seem Ferrick murder the young woman and returns something which he claims Ferrick dropped when putting the severed finger into his pocket. He blackmails Ferrick.
Then a young woman who turns out to be the daughter of Sir George comes to Sherlock Holmes and tells him the story of her seeing her father bury something in the garden and how she dug it up and it turned out to be a woman’s finger, and she’s worried, and won’t he come to help. He does, but it’s too late—Sir George was murdered in his library, clutching a packet of matches from the establishment where Holmes saw him with the young woman.
Holmes deduces that the murders are set-ups to blackmail men who are somehow made to believe that they committed the murders, and that professor Moriarty is behind it.
This is about halfway through the movie, the rest of the movie is about how Holmes catches professor Moriarty.
Catching professor Moriarty involves a visit from the professor at Sherlock Holmes’s apartment, an attempt on Sherlock Holmes’s life by a hypnotized sniper from the empty building opposite, a visit to the Mesmer club, meeting the young woman who lured Sir George into the trap and hypnotized him, pretending to let her hypnotize him, and then the police rushing in to save the day, followed by Moriarty’s off-screen demise while trying to escape.
The main mystery of the story is an interesting device. The question which occupies a good ten minutes of the film—I still find it a little odd that the mystery is only half the movie, if that—is what could possibly connect these seemingly random murders. And the answer is a curious one: what connects them is nothing about the victim, but rather about the marks—the people who are being set up to be blackmailed for the crimes. It’s a clever and a workable mystery, though its solution depends almost entirely on Sherlock Holmes happening to have witnessed the titular woman in green seducing Sir George Ferrick. It does at least happen prior to the knowledge doing Holmes any good, but it’s still pure happenstance, which makes it not very satisfying.
Ultimately, the movie is not really about the mystery nearly so much as it is about showing off Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock Holmes. Which works for a movie, since Basil Rathbone is very charismatic.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the movie except for historical purposes, but I will say that it is quite interesting for those purposes.
I finally broke down and saw the movie The Last Jedi. It’s bad. It’s quite bad. It’s not quite as bad as Battlefield Earth but I unironically prefer Space Mutiny to it (and I mean without Mike and the bots to help). But since I am diverted by human folly, let’s go through this train-wreck of a film, train car by train car.
First, there’s the title. Not the subtitle, The Last Jedi, but the title: Star Wars VIII. One way of considering this film is as the eighth movie in a series, and thus a sequel to seven other movies. Considered that way, however, it is far worse than Battlefield Earth and worse even than Monster A-Go-Go. Considered as a sequel, it’s probably worse than The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Gave Up Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies. Since I think that reviews are always more enjoyable when they take the movie in the best light possible, I’m going to pretend—for the sake of this review—that The Last Jedi is a stand-alone movie. This removes a long list of contradictions, out of character actions, and sheer stupidity from needing to be mentioned, while not detracting from the movie in any way, shape, or form. (Actually, I’m going to cheat this slightly and assume the audience is familiar with what the one reference in the film actually refers to. Because even with inconsistency that favors this film, it’s awful.)
This means I don’t need to bother talking about why The Last Jedi was an absolutely awful title following shortly after Return of the Jedi. (If you’re really curious, I did a video on why it’s an awful title.)
So, we start with the opening word crawl:
The FIRST ORDER reigns.
OK, so the First Order is in charge. Got it.
Having decimated the peaceful Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy.
OK, so given that the First Order is presently in charge, and Supreme Leader Snoke is presently deploying his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy, we can safely conclude that the name of the peaceful republic is The First Order.
Only General Leia Organa’s band of RESISTANCE fighters stand against the rising tyranny,
Why are these people the Resistance if the tyranny hasn’t yet taken over? Aren’t they a proper military at this point, then? And why is the First Order not resisting the rising tyranny? When the writer called the First Order a “peaceful republic,” do they mean that it was pacifist and had no military? So General Leia Organa—if the peaceful First Order Republic had no military, who made her a general?—has a band of resistance fighters standing against Supreme Leader Snoke’s attempt to overthrow the First Order and, presumably, install the Second Order. This is a little odd—if the first pan-galactic government was so peaceful, why was Supreme Leader Snoke the first to try to take it over?
certain that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker will return and restore a spark of hope to the fight.
(OK, I’m going to cheat a little and assume that we know what a Jedi Master is.) So, to be clear, the resistance is, at present, completely hopeless. Except for the hope that they will one day have a spark of hope.
Supreme Leader Snoke has not, yet, overthrown the First Order, but they’re completely hopeless anyway. Then why are they still fighting? Do they think that their deaths will serve some purpose despite their certainty that they won’t? Is it their hope that they will one day have a spark of hope that keeps them going?
This reminds me a bit of that insipid church hymn in which we “dare to hope to dream God’s kingdom anew”. (Or words to that effect, I don’t remember the exact phrasing.) Leaving aside the highly questionable theology, since within Christian theology God is creating his kingdom and we’re invited into it, we’re not actively making it in a primary sense, it’s just so extraordinarily tentative. It’s the slightest shade away from not actually doing anything.
In the same way, hoping that one day a spark of hope will be restored is—basically just being hopeless.
But the Resistance has been exposed.
OK, someone needs to explain to the dufus writing this that “the resistance” are the people within a conquered land who are making life harder for the conqueror, and possibly collaborating with a foreign power who will attack from without and overthrow the conqueror. Snoke has not yet taken over, so they are not—yet, anyway—the resistance. They are an opposing army. Or opposing band of guerilla troops. As such, they should not have been in hiding to the point of Snoke not even knowing that they existed. He should have been aware that the opposing military existed—especially when they were his only opposition, what with the peaceful First Order being pacifists and all.
As the First Order speeds toward the rebel base,
Wait, so the First Order has a military after all? And they’re speeding toward Snoke’s base? Are they collaborating with General Leia Organa’s band of guerilla “resistance” fighters? And why the turn of heart for this pacifist republic? And doesn’t his contradict Leia Organa’s band of resistance fighters being the only one standing against Snoke’s rising tyranny? Shouldn’t this have been described as a turn of events?
the brave heroes mount a desperate escape….
Wait, so Snoke and his merciless legions are brave heroes? What?
OK, I think I’ve let the joke of reading the word crawl as it was written go long enough. The First Order is actually the name of Snoke’s organization, and the word crawl simply contradicts itself as to whether Snoke has already won or is still working on winning. General Leia Organa is in fact not the leader of a resistance but the head of the military of a pan-galactic government which has mostly fallen.
In fact, they’ve fallen so much that in the opening scene—why do we get sounds of zooming as the camera zooms by cargo shuttles in space?—the entirety of the military of the Republic now fits on a single space cruiser. They are evacuating their base because Evil Lord Snookie is coming to get them. How do they know this? Your guess is as good as mine. We are never told.
And here we come to a problem with taking the movie as stand-alone. In The Force Awakens, it is set up that Leia is actually the head of an unofficial black ops team operating within the territory of the First Order, who are the remnants of the original Galactic Empire driven back to a small collection of worlds in the outer rim of the galaxy. If caught, Leia’s team will be disavowed by The New Republic and (presumably) (lawfully) executed as spies or traitors. They were exposed because at the end of the previous film the First Order had discovered them becomes of events which happened in that movie. Having just destroyed the mega-weapon of the First Order, the Resistance must flee because the First Order still knows where they are, even if its ultimate weapons is now destroyed. This makes certain things in the opening crawl make more sense, but at the expense of much of the movie.
If you actually know that these guys are not the last hope of the galaxy but a small private guerrilla force operating behind enemy lines, the entire movie is unimportant to the story set in motion by the first movie. The same could be said about the crew of the Millennium Falcon in Empire Strikes Back, except that movie was explicit about it being a small story and the people involved were honest about trying to save their own skins. Plus, Leia was actually (more-or-less) in charge of the rebellion and Han was working to ensure her safety for the sake of the rebellion. And they didn’t give speeches about how they were the last hope for the galaxy. And things happened. Plus it wasn’t entirely them running away. And they were clever. (More on all this later.)
The other major problem is that if you admit that this movie is a sequel to The Force Awakens, you’ve got a plot hole bigger than some of those regions of completely empty space between galaxies which are millions of light-years across. The plot of TFA was driven by the map which had been left behind showing how to get to Luke Skywalker if he was needed again. The Last Jedi just ignored the existence of the map, and had Luke wanting to never be found. This cannot be reconciled; on balance it is much worse to consider TLJ as a sequel to TFA. So let’s proceed as if it weren’t.
As the resistance is loading cargo, they see Star Destroyers come out of hyperspace above the planet they’re on. This is accompanied by a loud popping sound, despite it happening in the vacuum of space. The character who had just been saying that they didn’t have time to load munitions says “oh no”, despite the fact that they are in fact packing up the very last transport and are literally seconds from getting away from their base. Something like “Couldn’t they have waited just one more minute?” would have been far more appropriate. People’s reactions being completely wrong to what they know at the time will be a theme in this movie.
We are then treated to some comic relief. This happens at approximately the same length into the film that we get our first spoken joke in Space Balls, which was actually a comedy film. (It was also a much better action movie than this film is.) Ace pilot Poe Dameron stands alone in an x-wing before the mighty dreadnought of the EmpireFirst Order, and places a prank call to the commander of Lord Snookum’s fleet, General Hux. Hux, despite being in a different ship, takes the call rather than having the x-wing shot because, presumably, the actor had always wanted to be in a Verizon commercial, and wasn’t going to waste this opportunity to sneak in an audition tape. There’s no plausible reason for the character to have done it. Hux monologues about how there will be no terms and the rebelsresistance will all be executed. He could have made this point much more effectively by simply having the x-wing destroyed without answering its phone call, but Rian Johnson apparently believes in tell, don’t show.
Poe pretends to not hear Hux and says that his message is for Hux and he will wait. Hux becomes confused and asks whether the guy on the other end of the call can hear him. This unfunny bit is repeated for a while until Poe finally makes a yo-mama joke at the expense of General Hux’s mother. Hux then, finally, orders the x-wing destroyed, but for some reason no one fires. I suppose not one of his crack bridge staff thought to be ready to fire on the enemy vessel they had come to destroy? That said, they’d probably have just missed, anyway. Competence is not the theme of this movie.
Eventually it is too late and Poe’s plot device is fully charged. Poe presses the button which uses the video-game power-up that had been charging and his special power turns out to be moving really fast for three seconds. Once the power-up’s timer is over, he returns to normal speed. In space. Where there’s no friction.
Not knowing how outer space works is going to be a theme in this movie.
Poe is now too close for the turrets of the Imperial Dreadnought to track his movements quickly enough to hit him and he begins to systematically destroy the turrets. That turrets can’t move fast enough to track small vessels is well established in the Star Wars universe, and even if we take this as a stand-alone movie, this feels somewhat reasonable since big things tend to move slowly. Whether they would move that slowly is a different question, but I think that this is on the edge of allowable.
Once Poe destroys all the turrets, he summons the bombers which had been waiting just off screen where the star destroyers couldn’t see them since we, the audience, couldn’t see them. Apparently the bombers were reclaimed from a junk yard where they were found without engines and lawn mower engines had to be used, because the bombers move absurdly slowly. They crawl across the screen. I’ve seen turtles cross a road more quickly than these bombers. At this point, since the dreadnought has no turrets left, the First Empire is forced to scramble tie fighters.
At this point the one somewhat likable character—the command officer of the Dreadnought—mumbles under his breath that the tie fighters should have been scrambled five minutes ago. And, indeed, this is true. I think it’s meant to make Hux look incompetent—which it does—but this is a strange goal since it:
Makes the villains look like bumbling fools and not threats
Reminds us of the terrible scene we just endured where Hux auditioned for a Verizon commercial
Apparently the Empire Order forgot, at this point, that they still had working turrets on the several star destroyers which were right next to the dreadnought. The whole point of destroying the turrets on the dreadnought was that they would have made short work of the bombers, since the bombers maneuver like tranquilized hibernating bears. But it’s never explained what’s wrong with the turrets on the other star destroyers. If anyone in the entire First Empire fleet had the least idea of how a military works, they’d have gone and stood between the dreadnought and the t-wings.
Actually, they were never actually named but I assume that they’re called t-wings both because they look kind of like the letter T and because they’re slow as tortoises. Unfortunately for them, they’re not armored like tortoises, however; one shot from the smallest tie fighter takes them out. If a star destroyer thought to put itself between its disarmed comrade and the danger it would have destroyed the bombers in, perhaps, 5 seconds.
I mention this not so much to complain about the First Ordpire, but to point out that Poe Dameron is a complete idiot whose daring plans should have led to the certain death of everyone in his command. This is not the proper sense in which a daring hero is daring. A Daring hero should take risks which would be grave for a normal person but reasonable for him given his extraordinary skill. He should take risks that will go terribly wrong if he makes a single mistake, but reliably succeed if he does everything right. He should not be daring in the sense of taking risks that depend on his enemies being complete incompetents.
Please note: this is assuming that the range of a star destroyer’s turbo-lasers is too short for them to have just shot the t-wings from where they were. There’s no reason to believe this was the case, given that they could fire on the Resistance’s heavy cruiser from quite far away. And there were certainly several star destroyers which had a clear shot on the t-wings from where they were.
Please further note that the Firstperial Order never moves its star destroyers close enough to the one heavy cruiser that the Resistance have in order to engage it. Apparently, they’re just there to watch. And the one ship which is actually going to do anything, the Dreadnought, initially targets—not the one heavy cruiser which is the Resistance’s only means of escape—but the empty base that the Resistance has had many hours or days to evacuate into the heavy cruiser. It’s a comparatively small point, but since the star destroyers come out of hyperspace while the cargo ships are still traveling into the heavy cruiser, it would have been a sitting duck or would have had to abandon many cargo ships to certain death. Apparently New Imperial doctrine is to attack the stationary targets first and the mobile targets at your leisure.
Somewhere around here, the attack on the dreadnought is too late and it fires on the rebel base, but that’s OK since the last transport was already leaving when the blast came in. Since everyone is now safely in the air and about to be safely tucked away in the heavy cruiser, PrincessGeneral Leia orders Poe to bring the rebel fleet back so that they can escape. Poe argues that this is the one chance that they’ll get to destroy the dreadnought, which is a fleet-killer. Why that’s important—given that the only people with a fleet of ships are the Emp Order—is never explained.
Also never explained is why the bombers were sent in the first place if they were not intended to attack the dreadnought. In a different movie they could have been sent as a diversion, to force the dreadnought to defend itself and so delay it’s attack on the rebelsistance base in order to give them time to escape. But they didn’t need time to escape. Further, the dreadnought took absolutely no actions to defend itself. It kept going merrily about its business of shooting the abandoned base while tie fighters defended it. Leia orders the retreat of the fighter/bomber craft as if some sort of goal had actually be accomplished by them, yet they did precisely nothing so far, nor could they have done anything.
Leia reiterates her order and Poe turns off his radio. Why Leia does not reiterate her order directly to the t-wings, we are not told. I like John C. Wright’s suggestion that Poe’s hotshot button, instead of turning off his speakers, turns off her microphone. I suspect that the actual answer is that Rian Johnson, the writer/director of this disaster of a film, literally never even thought of the possibility. Or possibly he hates the idea of character development. It would have been easy enough to have her relay the order and for the t-wing pilots to respond that they’re casting their lots with Poe because the dreadnought needs killing. But then Leia would have had to show real leadership. From all appearances in this film, we couldn’t have that.
To forewarn you, dear reader, the next few minutes contain a somewhat higher level of stupid than usual in this movie.
Poe goes to destroy the final turret on the dreadnought but his x-wing takes some damage and his weapons stop working. He then asks the billiard ball robot BB-8 to “do his magic”. So the plucky robot drops down into the area underneath where he normally sits and starts trying to fix a large circuit board.
Let us pause for a moment to note that if an x-wing had a large cavity capable of fitting the astro-mech droid which pilots the ship, that’s where the astromech droid would normally be. There is absolutely no reason to have the droid exposed if there is room to fit him inside where there is at least a modicum of protection. In the original Star Wars, from which this movie obviously drew some minor inspiration, the x-wings were inexpensive and used an astromech droid instead of having their own navigation computer to save on cost. They were extremely light fighters which were lightly armored and barely had room for the droid, so it was forced to sit exposed because, at least, it wouldn’t suffocate in space. One can take some issue with the original x-wing design for not giving the droid so much as a windscreen to protect it from debris in space, but shoe-string budgets can explain the absence of a great many desirable features. If there was a big hollow space into which the droid could be dropped, however, this excuse entirely goes away. But that pails in comparison to what happens next.
The problem appears to be that the electricity is leaking out of the circuit board (more or less as if it were water, except with an animation of sparks), so BB-8 then sticks a mechanical finger onto the circuit board to plug the leak and restore the electricity-pressure which the system needs to function. Unfortunately, with the pressure restored, another damaged section gives way and more electricity leaks from the circuit board. BB-8’s finger sprouts a sub-finger, which then plugs that leak. This is repeated a number of times until BB-8’s mechanical finger looks like a candelabra plugging all of the electricity leaks.
And if you thought that it was not possible for this scene to get any stupider, well, buckle in, because Rian Johnson still has some aces up his sleeve. When a new electricity leak pops, BB-8 is finally out of sub-fingers in his mechanical finger. Is all lost? No! BB-8 removes all of his fingers and then slams is round head into the flat circuit board, plugging all the leaks despite clearly not making contact with most of them.
Because Rian Johnson is either complete idiot or hates the audience with the burning passion of a million death-stars firing simultaneously, this works. The electricty-pressure is finally restored in the circuitry and the x-wing’s weapon system comes to life again. Poe drives it and destroys the last turret, allowing the t-wing bombers to approach. Presumably BB-8 remains with his head rammed into the circuit board until they get back to the cruiser since the electricity leaking out of the circuit board means the x-wing cannot move. This joke is not called back to, however, so we can only guess. Perhaps BB-8 has a spare head he can use for his normal piloting duties while the first head is keeping the electricity inside of the circuit board.
We now get to see what the t-wings are like. It turns out that they are shaped like the letter T because they store bombs in the bottom shaft. Now, when I say “store”, that might conjure up an image of tightly packed munitions, ready to be launched. Instead, picture many rows of extra-large christmas ornaments, all painted black, hung from the walls. They sway when the t-wing moves. Why it never occurred to anyone to hold them in place, lest they take damage from knocking around, no one knows.
At this point, they arm their bombs. I suspect that Rian Johnson literally doesn’t know what it means to arm a bomb. Perhaps he thinks it means something to the effect of turning on lights pointing at the bombs. Maybe he thinks it’s a meaningless phrase that’s just cool to say, like screaming “Geronimo” while jumping out of an airplane. That said, he’s true to the meaning of this phrase, because the least bit of damage to a t-wing causes all of the bombs in it to explode, sending shrapnel into other, nearby t-wings which cause them to explode, too. It seems like the point of this suicide run was the suicide, not the damage caused to the enemy. This is weapons-grade stupid, almost literally.
Next, as they get ready to drop their bombs—more on that in a moment—they open the bomb doors. At this point I should mention that there is a ladder from the bomb area to the cockpit of the ship. And there is no door on the cockpit. There is also a turret-operator on the bottom of the ship who is directly connected to the bomb area, too. Why they do not asphyxiate when all of their air rushes out into the vacuum of space is not mentioned. It could be argued that there was a force-field used to keep the atmosphere in, much like the force fields on the Death Star we saw the imperial transports traverse through into the large cargo bays. We get a clear view of the relevant section of the t-wings, however, and they have no such force field. And if they did, they’d have no need for bomb bay doors.
Perhaps the t-wing crew drink liquid oxygen into their lungs before going on their bombing strolls, then put a tight collar on which doesn’t allow it back up again. Since this is intentionally a suicide run, perhaps they’re just holding their breath because they only expect to live a few more seconds. Who knows? Once the lone bomber that survived the excruciatingly slow crawl to the weak spot on the dreadnought gets over it, there’s a stupid sub-plot involving the pilot being dead and unable to drop the bombs and the gunner needing to climb the latter and retrieve the cartoonish remote control with a single “drop all the bombs at once” big red button to push it. (Note: “big red button” is not a metaphor; the button is large and red.) Somewhere in her attempt she falls down the shaft onto the catwalk at the bottom of the bomb area and breaks her back. She is only able to use her arms, twist, and kick things with great force with her legs. It’s a very specific kind of spinal injury.
There is, however, a very curious thing that happens during it. When she finally manages to get the remote to fall by kicking the ladder with the remote at the top, despite it having been perfectly centered on her, it falls to her side and out the open bomb doors. We very clearly see it at least several feet past the catwalk on which the paralyzed gunner lies. And then we cut to her having just caught the remote. This is the sort of thing which normally should have a commercial break inbetween since its only purpose is to increase the tension so you don’t switch to another channel during the four minutes of commercials which are about to play. In a movie, it serves absolutely no purpose. It didn’t increase the tension, and because it showed two contradictory shots immediately next to each other, only served to destroy all possible suspension of disbelief.
It’s almost inconsequential that her catching the remote is kind of absurd. If you doubt this, have a friend climb with a remote control onto the roof of your house, lie facing up on a bench, have him drop the remote control next to you, and see how often you catch it before it hits the ground. Oh, did I mention that you need to catch it on your right side with your left arm? What is especially egregious about this ridiculous feet is that, given where they showed us the remote before it fell, it should have landed safely on her belly. This is a weird sort of fixing one terrible decision with another when just doing it right would have been far easier.
And then things really get dumb.
When she finally presses the button, the bombs all fall in unison onto the dreadnought below. In space.
Now, in charity I should mention that there is a way to explain this absurdity, though only in some other movie than this one. The star destroyers et al were shown to be in geostationary orbit, but only a few hundred miles up. Geostationary orbit on earth is approximately 22,000 miles up. D’qar, the planet in question, is perhaps a bit smaller than the earth, but still, they are way too close to be in a natural geostationary orbit. So they might be just using repulsor beams to keep themselves up from the planet. (Repulsor beams which constantly change angle in the case of tie fighters, x-wings, etc.) Thus when the repulsor-beam-held-aloft shit stopped holding onto the bombs, they would have dropped in the gravitational field of the planet below.
(The difference in gravity between the surface of a planet and a few hundred miles above the surface of the planet isn’t very high; it’s the difference between being 5,000 miles from the center and 5,200 miles from the center; this isn’t a large change in distance.)
The reason this explanation cannot be used in this movie is that the dreadnought and the ships were not oriented at all correctly for this. And even in general, this would mean that the bombers only work in a gravitation field, since in deep space their bombs would just hang motionless once released, making them rather curiously specific-purpose ships.
So, yeah, that attempt to defend this aside, the bombs fell in what people are calling space-down. It’s the downward direction of whatever visual reference is located nearby in a movie frame.
Compared with this nonsense, the fact they drop every bomb simultaneously—effectively carpet bombing a tiny area—seems almost a minor detail. Dropping the bombs this close together should result in what’s technically called fratricide—the explosion of one bomb not being strong enough or correctly shaped enough to set off the next bomb, but only rearranging it into a shape incapable of detonation. Since these are bombs which need to be armed, they clearly have some sort of detonation mechanism, which would then probably be destroyed by being caught in the explosion of another bomb a few feet away from it. On the other hand, we’ve seen that they can be set off by space junk knocking into them, so I suppose you can take your pick of which part of the movie you want to believe.
One is tempted to assume that Rian Johnson chose to have the bombs dropped in this fashion because—though it was dumber than a bag of Tarquelian numskulls—he thought it looked cool. This is a matter of taste, but the closest analog I can think of is when on a TV game show a bunch of balloons are dumped from a net onto a contestant. If you think that looks really cool, perhaps you’ll think that this was worth it.
There was the further problem that the bombs, forming something of a line up from the target because of their fall, propagate the explosion up and to the bomber, destroying it. Or perhaps the explosion from the Dreadnought destroys the bomber. Either way, it gets caught in the explosion which it caused as parts of its mission, and not because anything happened differently than was planned. From the very beginning, there was no way that the crew would have survived. This was a suicide mission. There was no reason for it to be a suicide mission—they could have planned to drop their bombs from further “up”. As far as we can tell, the rebels are just idiots with a death wish.
Somewhat surprisingly—given that the theme of this movie is unrelenting failure—the bombs actually fall onto the dreadnought and blow it up. No space-wind sweeps them harmlessly away. Why the dreadnought has neither shields nor armor over the part of it where a small explosion will cause the entire thing to explode, no one ever said. Given that the person who dropped the bombs did so as soon as she could, and a while after she was supposed to and they nearly passed the vulnerable spot, this was not a case of a hyper-precise shot being required. Given this obvious weakness in the ship, one is forced to wonder why it didn’t retreat once its defenses were destroyed. It’s not like Poe disabled the engines before the t-wings started their crawl.
Before finally passing on from this wretched scene, there’s one final question I feel duty-bound to ask. Given that the t-wings’ approach was to go in a straight line to a point over the dreadnought and drop bombs onto a football-field sized target, why did they bother with pilots? A droid could do that. Heck, the autopilot program on the t-wings itself should be able to do it. Even pointing them in the right direction, leaving a brick on the accelerator pedal, and then having a timer cut a string holding a hammer above the cartoon button would have accomplished the same thing, but more reliably. What was the point of the human pilots in all of this? And not to harp on it, but why did a cash-rich-but-manpower-poor organization like The Resistance switch from self-piloted weapons like torpedos to manned weapons like bombers?
Not a single thing about this opening makes sense. That’s going to be a pattern.
Once the Resistance ships jump to hyperspace, a hologram of Supreme Leader Snookums (His actual name is “Snoke”, but I’d like to give the character some dignity) appears as a giant floating head and tells General Hux that he did a bad job by utterly failing to destroy the resistance. Though first, he force-chokes Hux, force-slams him to the ground, then force-drags him 10 feet across the dais then lets him go and reprimands him there. Perhaps the actor who played Hux has missed his mark and Snookums was helping? Anyway, despite being force-choked, Hux manages to gasp out that they have the resistance on a string, the implication being that his failure was not complete.
For some reason instead of asking killing Hux and letting his newly promoted second-in-command explain what Hux meant, or just asking Hux what he meant, he then summons Hux to a personal audience. Why they took the time out of chasing the resistance to have Hux travel to a different ship which wasn’t there, isn’t explained. How long this took is not mentioned. Presumably it took a while because Snoke’s ship was not nearby. That’s OK, though, because after this scene is over Rian Johnson promptly ignores it and Snoke’s ship is just with the fleet and no time is lost.
Be that as it may, the next thing we see after Hux said that they have the resistance on a string is Hux standing in Supreme Leader Snookums’ throne room with Snookums congratulating Hux on his brilliant plan. “On a string, indeed” were, I think, his words. This serves to establish that Snookums didn’t know about the hyper-space tracking device which Hux had used, though it doesn’t explain why losing the Dreadnought was completely inconsequential. Perhaps Rian Johnson had already forgotten that it had happened. So why didn’t Snookums know that his fleet had developed a hyperspace tracking device? Did no one think to mention this amazing invention to their Supreme Leader? Did they just assume that with his force powers he should have known? Speaking of which, why didn’t he know it with his force powers? But that’s OK, this plot hole is about to be covered over with another plot hole.
Hux leaves and the the darth-vader wannabe, Kylo Ren, comes in and kneels before Supreme Leader Snookums. General Hux actually sniggers at how stupid Kylo Ren’s costume is as they pass on the bridge connecting the throne room to the elevator. Kylo Ren just takes this in stride because, apparently, Hux’s impression of him is accurate.
Once Hux is out of the room, Supreme Leader Snookums explains to Kylo Ren the gaping plot hole of why Hux is still alive.
You wonder why I keep a rabid cur in such a place of power? A cur’s weakness, properly manipulated, can be a sharp tool.
At first, I thought that Snookums had said “rabbit cur.” That wouldn’t make a ton of sense, but Hux had minced his way through all of his scenes up to this point so it would at least have been an intelligible metaphor. “Rabid cur” just makes no sense. Here’s the definition of “cur”:
1a : a mongrel or inferior dog b : a medium-sized hunting and working dog with a short coat that was developed in the southern U.S. and is sometimes considered to comprise one or more breeds 2 : a surly or cowardly fellow
Here is the definition of rabid:
1a : extremely violent : FURIOUS b : going to extreme lengths in expressing or pursuing a feeling, interest, or opinion rabid editorials a rabid supporter 2 : affected with rabies
The only way these two things can go together is if Snookums means definition 2 of rabid, i.e. afflicted with rabies, and was referring to the way that rabies victims exhibit a fear of water. And, to be fair, there were was not so much as a water cooler on the bridge of Hux’s ship. Perhaps Snookums means that at a crucial moment he’s go to drive Hux into a furious rage by threatening him with a squirt gun?
That possibility aside, this explanation makes no sense. It comes after Hux’s loss of the dreadnought ship at he hands of a tiny rebel force. Hux wasn’t cowardly, he was incompetent. Snookums is saying that he keeps an incompetent fool in charge of his military because, properly managed, an incompetent fool can be quite competent. This might have had some slight hope for making sense if we didn’t just see that it was false. Depending on whether we count The Force Awakens, the First Order just lost either the most powerful weapon in their fleet or the two most powerful weapons in their fleet, both under Hux’s watch, and within hours of each other. Frankly, the excuse that he has the Resistance on a string should actually worry Snookums more. If they were to catch up to the Resistance while Hux is still in charge, they’d probably lose even more ships. (In fact, come to think of it, they do lose more ships because they caught up to the resistance with Hux in charge.)
Then we get to one of the more perplexing scenes in the movie. Snookums tells the kneeling Kylo Ren that he’s a pretentious punk who hasn’t amounted to anything. So far as I can tell, this is strictly accurate. The scene tries to portray Snookums as a cruel and heartless dictator, but it seems to just be tough love.
Then Kylo Ren speaks. I forget his exact line, I think it was “But I’ve given everything to you”. Fortunately I had the subtitles on when I was watching the movie because Kylo Ren sounded like he was talking through a poorly made child’s walkie-talkie. It was genuinely difficult to understand what he was saying. Now, I understand that this serves to “show, not tell” that Kylo Ren is an even more incompetent fool than Hux. It does serve that purpose; Kylo Ren is clearly shown to be a simpering, whining child wearing an unlicensed Darth Vader Halloween costume because he (wrongly) thinks it makes him look cool.
OK, fair enough. It does accomplish that. But this is just saying that the movie is intentionally bad.
And then we come to the incompetence of making it hard for the audience to understand what a main character is saying. If making the fearsome bad guy seem immature, foolish, vain, and stupid was really a goal, they should have borrowed yet one more thing from Spaceballs and had Kylo Ren do a fake deep voice when his mask is down. This would literally have been better a better decision than having him talk through a cheap child’s walkie talkie. It would be in no way less serious, and at least then we wouldn’t have needed subtitles to know what he was saying.
And it seems that, on some level, Rian Johnson realized this. Why he decided to hang a lampshade on it rather than just forget about the mask—given that he forgot about the map that formed the core of the plot of the previous movie—is inexplicable. But I will admit that it was somewhat satisfying to see the mask smashed on the ground when Kylo Ren left the elevator. It’s not like one could possibly have suspended their disbelief during this ridiculous movie anyway.
Oh, one other thing: while Supreme Leader Snookums was entirely correct that Kylo Ren’s mask was ridiculous, he was in no position to say it. He was wearing a cross between a smoking jacket and a bathrobe, in shiny gold lamé. Plus he was bad CGI when he could easily have been a guy in makeup. He’s the last person who should be talking about bad character design.
Some time later, back on the Resistance ship, the ex-storm-trooper named Finn wakes up and bonks his head on a clear plastic dome over his head and shoulders in what appears to be a storage closet which had been hastily converted to a hospital room. (Actually, I can’t be sure of that. We’re never given a wide-enough angle shot to see whether there are brooms lined up against the wall.)
Finn then does what any sensible person would do—instead of looking around to figure out where he is and what’s going on, he pushes the plastic dome off and jumps up out of bed. Presumably these are his storm-trooper instincts since he was raised from birth as one. I can see why they would want storm troopers to hop up and disturb the medical equipment immediately upon waking up in sick bay.
Finn then pratfalls out of bed and various colors of medical liquid squirt in different directions. This is a little later than the unappealing-liquids joke would have been made in a Mel Brooks parody, but not too far off. What it’s doing in an ostensibly serious movie, I haven’t a clue. Perhaps the actor personally offended Rian Johnson and this is his revenge.
There are no medical personnel, medical droids, or even a little bell that goes “ding” to get someone’s attention. This is consistent with storing the injured fellow in a hastily converted broom closet because it was an emergency, but not very consistent with them later being said to have a medical frigate among their three ships. Why was the injured man not put aboard the medical frigate? If they put the injured people in broom closets on the main cruiser, what do they put on the medical frigate? Is that where they store their brooms?
Be that as it may, Finn then wanders out of sick—well, not bay, it’s too small for that; let’s say sick-room, and looks about for someone to explain where he is and what’s going on. Apparently whoever stuck him in the room and forgot about him didn’t so much as write him a note saying which side’s ship he was on.
We now come to the subject of what Finn is wearing. I’m not sure that human language is capable of expressing just how dumb it is; if you picture the bastard child of a water bed and a sumo-suit, you won’t be far off. Except that it has many tubes coming off of it, all of which are leaking. Oh, and it’s made of transparent plastic, so if the camera did not artfully frame it out you would see Finn’s genitals and buttocks. And since the camera does artfully put Finn’s crotch out of frame, Poe mentions this so the audience knows just how funny the scene is. I’m almost surprised the movie didn’t have a laugh track.
Next we see Leia slapping Poe Dameron and telling him that he’s demoted. Her exact words were, I believe, “you’re demoted”. To what, she didn’t say. Who was replacing him as commander, she didn’t say. I honestly think that the idea was that his duties and responsibilities weren’t changing, he was just getting a pay cut. I think this because, as far as I can tell in the next scene, his duties and responsibilities didn’t change. We’re never shown his pay stubs, however, so they may not have followed through on the pay cut, either.
There’s some discussion about how one can’t solve every problem by getting in an x-wing and blowing things up. This is true, but since Poe was directing the t-wings, somewhat irrelevant. His coordinated strategy might have been dumb as a box of brainless fish but he was executing a strategy that coordinated the workings of many people. He didn’t just jumping in an x-wing and think he could do everything himself. This part of the dressing-down of Poe by Leia was, so far as I can tell, cribbed from some other movie in which the hotshot doesn’t wait for his team but instead takes extraordinary chances by doing everything himself. It’s a pity that’s not the movie we’re watching—it’s almost certainly a better one than this is.
But, taking the scenes in this movie as being in this movie, the doctrine that one can’t solve all of one’s problems by using military spacecraft to blow things up is a very odd doctrine for a paramilitary group of guerrillas whose only reason for existence is to solve problems by blowing things up. If Leia really thinks that diplomacy is superior to war, why is she a general instead of a diplomat?
But even that is from a different movie, where people argue over war versus diplomacy. In this movie, Leia’s point seems to be that one often solves one’s problems by running away. This is actually sometimes true in real life but ridiculously out of place in an adventure movie set in space. In real life it is sometimes the most effective strategy to not answer the phone when the bill collectors call, or to skip town and take up a new name in order to avoid child support payments. We don’t go to the movies to see real life.
Now, to be fair, it would be possible for Leia to have told Poe (for what we get the impression is the hundreth time) that they are not yet part of the military force which stands a chance of direct combat against the First Order and their job, right now, is to bleed the First Order by striking and running away. She could have told him that he knew this when he signed up; that guerrilla fighting is not glorious but it is effective and that what they need right now is success, not glory. That would have been possible, but it was not what actually happened. Nor would it have made sense in this movie, given that he sacrificed about a dozen people’s lives in order to remove a weapon which would have easily killed tens of thousands of people on their side. What he did is exactly the sort of thing guerrilla forces are for. So what we’re left with is a scene from another movie that was portrayed badly, and if done well, still wouldn’t have fit in this movie.
That said, I think that this cribbing of scenes is a better explanation for what’s going on that the idea of it being an expression of misandry. If you pay attention to this cinematic disaster, it consists almost entirely of tropes which the writer didn’t understand. This scene reads to me exactly like the early scene where a hotshot doesn’t work with his teammates but pulls victory out of the jaws of defeat anyway, expects to be lauded for being so awesome, and is torn a new one by his commanding officer for relying on luck rather than executing the far more reliable plan that he was supposed to only be a part of. It’s not easy to recognize because it’s so badly executed, but structurally, that very much seems to be what it thought it was.
You can see this in the next moment, actually, because when the star destroyers jump out of hyperspace next to the rebels, Poe asks, “Permission to jump in an x-wing and blow things up?” and Leia gratefully replies, “Granted.” If you look, you an recognize a lot of Top Gun (with Poe Dameron as Maverick) in The Last Jedi. Not stolen well, mind you, but you can see the influence. For example, later on, Vice-Admiral Holdo (the purple-haired woman in the evening dress) takes the role of Tom Skerritt’s character, Viper. She is in charge and alternates between tough-as-nails and fatherly. Well, motherly, but hopefully you get the point. Rian Johnson doesn’t seem to understand how human interaction works so he’s limited to stealing from movies he saw in his youth.
When the star destroyers come out of hyperspace Supreme Leader Snookum’s personal ship, The Supremacy, is with them. How, is never explained. It wasn’t with them when they tracked the rebel fleet jumping into hyperspace. This is a minor point, or rather, would be, if the location of the hyperspace-tracker were not a major plot point later on, where it is established that the tracker is on Snookum’s ship. It’s not stated whether Hux had a tracker standing at the ready to install on Snookum’s ship as soon as he actually told Snookums about the technology or whether he had secretly installed it on Snookum’s personal ship beforehand. Either is ludicrous, and they exhaust the possibilities. (Unless, of course, the characters who infiltrate Snookum’s ship later on were completely mistaken and were breaking into a storage closet. In this movie, that’s a real possibility.)
Also, why is The Supremacy shaped like a giant delta kite? I half expected to see a droid in the bottom of the screen holding onto a string which was attached to it. Star Wars heavy ships are normally longer than they are wide, presumably because the amount of energy necessary to push a ship through a hyperspace conduit goes up with the square of the cross-section, or some such. The only exception I can think of in large ships is the Death Star, and that was built at the height of the Empire’s power as a show of force. The First Order is a tiny shadow of what the Empire was; why are they indulging in wasteful projects to build one-off megaships?
Further, the design of The Supremacy might have been understandable if the leading edges of the wings were covered in large guns. There was no indication of this. In fact, for all that I can recall, The Supremacy might have been unarmed.
At this point, Poe and Leia consider the significance of the ImperialFirst Order fleet jumping out of hyperspace only moments after them. They were tracked! This means that if they were to jump to hyperspace again they would just be tracked again and the First Order will just show up moments later, again! Also, they only have enough fuel for one more jump to hyperspace!
That last part was, I suspect, intended to head off the idea of just jumping to hyperspace over and over again until they lose the Imperial Order fleet. But consider what it means: the Resistance, a guerrilla force behind enemy lines, kept their ships almost empty of fuel. The principle doctrine of guerrilla warfare is to dash in to a target then dash out to safety. So either the Resistance is failing in basic competence as a guerrilla organization, or they are so badly funded that they can’t afford the basic tools of their trade. So either they deserve to be destroyed or the EmpireFirst Order is redundant because they were about to collapse anyway. The fact that they didn’t have a next base lined up means that they didn’t have any contingency plans for what to do if their current base is discovered, which points to gross incompetence. Still, either way is bad.
But wait, it gets worse.
When they came out of hyperspace and before the First Order arrived the Resistance only had enough fuel for one more jump into hyperspace. They’re not, at that point, anywhere they want to be. The establishing shot of their location makes it look like they’ve just jumped to a random place in the middle of space. And, in fact, they don’t even know where it is they want to go next—Leia said that their next step is finding a new base. That means that the new base needs to have a ready supply of hyperspace fuel or they’re going to be marooned at it unable to take part in galactic warfare ever again. Either they’re going to have to establish their new base on a populated world or their next stop is actually at a spaceship gas station. The fact that they don’t mention this suggests that they were actually unaware of it. It’s a funny image to think of the resistance showing up to some uninhabited planet, setting up a base, then realizing when they next want to do some guerrilla attack on the First Order that they are marooned and must now become farmers to try to get through the coming winter.
Which would, sadly, be a better story than what actually happens.
Incidentally, why they want a base at all is never explained. If everyone fits aboard their one capital ship (plus a medical frigate and some other little ship) it would make far more sense for a band of guerrillas to base themselves from it rather than tying themselves down to a planet. This is of small importance compared to all the other idiocy going on but it’s worth noting lest one think that anything about his movie makes sense, on any level.
After his tough-love session with Supreme Leader Snookums, Kylo Ren had gotten in an elevator and smashed his mask into bits. This scene was poorly shot and poorly acted but, other than that, did make a sort of sense. Kylo Ren was an ineffectual loser who showed promise but so far hasn’t amounted to anything, and he’s turned his back on his idiot attempts to look cool which only resulted in people laughing at him. That’s more appropriate to a movie like The Goonies—actually the children in The Goonies were more mature than Kylo Ren, but hopefully you get my point—but it is actually a legitimate bit of character development. Unfortunately, it is not alluded to in any other scene (except, perhaps, the assassination of Snookums) so it’s hard to consider it as character development. At least he’s not wearing a stupid mask that it makes it hard to tell what he’s saying, though, so it’s a net win.
Kylo then storms off and shouts to two random officers who were standing outside of the elevator to get his ship ready. It might have been interesting to learn whether he knew who they were, they knew what he meant, or whether they in fact had anything to do with getting his tie fighter ready. Presumably as the second most important person in the EmpireFirst Order, he has more than one ship. And no one but Hux and Supreme Leader Snookums know that they’re actually tracking the Resistance through hyperspace. However, if this was just his way of covering his tears to officers he didn’t even recognize, it might have been trivially significant. Or at least mildly interesting.
But, whoever those characters were, Kylo Ren is next seen aboard his tie fighter—the cool kind, with curved wings—rushing at the main ship of the Resistance. He flies at the main ship, strafing the surface, then flies down the launch tube for the resistance fighter planes. Apparently no one ever thought to put a door on the tube or even some laser turrets inside this unarmored opening in the ship. He launches a missile and in one strike destroys all of the Rebels’ space fighters.
Then presumably he backs out of the tube? It would have been hard for him to go forward then turn around inside the hanger he just destroyed. I’ve got no idea since the next we see him is targeting the bridge of the same cruiser. He then senses by the Force that his mom is on the bridge and, for no obvious reason, doesn’t fire. Given what a big deal he made about killing his father without hesitation this seems out of character, but I suppose it’s meant to show how he’s conflicted. Later on, Snookums says that he stoked the conflict in Ren’s soul, so perhaps that’s meant to refer to this.
It doesn’t matter, however, because other tie fighter pilots shoot the bridge for Kylo Ren. I’m tempted to side with Mr. John C. Wright when he said that’s because no main character is going to be allowed to achieve anything, however small, in this movie. However, I think that the actual explanation is that this is yet another attempt to lift a meaningful scene from another movie and transplant it here. In particular, the scene where a character who is flirting with evil considers doing an evil deed, then holds back from it but it’s then done by someone on his side, and he sees just how evil he was considering being. Often he will then strike down the member of his own side for doing what he was going to, then almost invariably he repents of being on the bad side and turns to the good side. Like most tropes that Rian Johnson is trying to use, this one is hard to recognize because he doesn’t follow through. He subverts all of the tropes that he uses, so that the audience is in a state of constant surprise. The problem with this is that tropes exist because they encode human meaning efficiently. By subverting all of his tropes Rian Johnson ends up making his movie meaningless. It’s a constant surprise because you constantly expect the movie to be leading somewhere; every thwarting of expectations is not from one meaning to another, deeper meaning, but from meaning to meaninglessness.
That said, success can only be judged according to someone’s goals. To give credit where credit is do, I was in a constant state of surprise throughout this movie. About how bad it was, granted. But still, I was continually surprised. So, mission accomplished, I guess.
Be that as it may, the nameless and faceless tie fighter pilots next to Kilo Ren blow up the bridge of the Brave Sir Robin (we’re never told the ship’s actual name, so that will do as well as anything else). This causes explosive decompression to blast Leia, Admiral Akbar, and some nameless Resistance bridge crew into space. This is, of course, unfortunate, but it’s not a terrible way for an old soldier to finally die—with his boots on, in combat. It wouldn’t be great, or even good—since the attack is basically a sucker-punch—but it wouldn’t be a giant middle finger to the fans. So of course Leia does not die like this.
Before we can find out what happened to Leia, the tie fighters are recalled because the rebel fleet, being faster, has outrun the capital ships of the First Order and they are are no longer able to give their tie fighters cover. Why the tie fighters need cover is completely unspecified; it is well established in this movie that small ships move too fast for large ships to accurately target them; the only effective weapons against small ships are other small ships. And Kylo just destroyed all of the Resistance’s small ships.
To add insult to injury, it makes no sense for small ships to be faster than large ships. Large ships can have proportionally larger engines than small ships can; this is why in real life large ships are faster than small ships. Also, the ships aren’t actually faster, they just have a lead. Throughout the next 8 hours or so of the First Order chasing the Resistance, the gap between them never widens.
And then, of course, there’s the massive plot hole which Rian Johnson didn’t even bother to hang a lampshade on. The Resistance fleet is low on hyperspace fuel. The First Order fleet isn’t. While the Resistance fleet is stuck crawling along at sub-light speed, the First Order capital ships could just hyperspace jump next to the resistance ships. Or they could take a page from pack-hunters and have some of their ships hyper-space jump in front of the resistance fleet and some keep following from behind so that the resistance is surrounded. Instead, general Hux decides to stay behind them and just fire uselessly at their rear shields from time to time so that the resistance doesn’t put its guard down. Being a dastardly evil villain, he’d hate for the Resistance to fall into a trap, I guess? I’m not kidding, by the way. He literally says to keep firing “so they don’t forget we’re here”.
Moving on, remember how I said that Leia doesn’t die in combat? Yeah. After some unspecified amount of time long enough for her to form ice crystals on her skin, she comes back to life or wakes up, depending on how you choose to interpret this, and then flies like Mary Poppins back to what used to be the bridge of the Brave Sir Robin. No force power has been established in this—or any other movie—which allows dead force users to resurrect themselves, nor has there been a force power established which works while a force user is unconscious (if you want to stretch things to take that charitable interpretation). Nor does it come up again, nor is anyone impressed by it, nor does anyone seem to care that it happened past being a little surprised and a little glad to see Leia again.
In fact, Leia’s ejection into space followed by her magical space walk has no consequence of any kind in this movie. She could just as easily have been in the hallway on her way back from the bathroom when the missiles hit and bumped her head from the impact; no subsequent scene would have had to be changed in the slightest.
Perhaps the stupidest part of this whole deus ex machina is that, to bring Leia back in, the people on the inside of the ship just open the door. Then she just walks in. Then they close the door again. This is a bit like that joke interview question:
Q: How do you put an elephant in the refrigerator? A: Open the door and put him in. Q: How do you put a giraffe in the refrigerator? A: Open the door and put it in? Q: No, you open the door, take the elephant out, then put he giraffe in.
Except in the joke, the size of the refrigerator is not specified. This movie is (within the story) taking place in a space ship in outer space. And yet the air from inside of the pressurized ship does not rush out and blow Leia back into deep space; in fact, a little bit of air leaks from the vacuum of space into the ship. This makes negative sense.
In comparison to the above, it’s almost nit-picking to note that when Leia was ejected into space, she became a free-floating object, while the ship continued to be using its engines to push itself forward. This means that not only would she be far away from the ship because of explosive decompression, but that she would also be very far behind it and getting further behind it every second. She not only needs to move towards the ship sideways, but needs to be able to accelerate faster than the ship in the direction it’s going. In other words, not only can Leia fly in space without a space suit, she can fly faster than the cruiser which can, itself, outrace an Imperial star destroyer. I bed if Rian Johnson had written himself into enough of a corner, she would have been able to use the force to jump to hyperspace, too.
The inclusion of this scene is absolutely mystifying. It was not just dumb, but fractally dumb. Every part of it was dumb. Every part of every part was dumb. Zoom in: dumb. Zoom out: dumb. On every scale, it’s dumb.
I actually wonder if this scene wasn’t included because Carrie Fisher had some sort of medical problem during shooting and some explanation for her change in ability to stand unsupported was deemed necessary. Frankly, a silent-movie-style text card saying “between filming the earlier scenes and the later scenes, Ms. Fisher suffered a [medical issue] and could no longer stand unaided. She bravely soldiered on, however, and we ask that you use your imagination to help her out” would have been better. Or no explanation at all. Having Leia space-walk back to the ship only to fall into a coma sounds like it was invented by a pair of drunk fratboys competing to see who could come up with the stupider plot to a Spaceballs sequel.
And then, safely aboard the ship, Leia falls unconscious and is rushed to the medical closet which formerly housed Finn. This is yet another nonsensical change in tone since Leia just used a new-found force power without effort to bring herself back from death (or unconsciousness). There was no strain; she was serene throughout. For some reason we don’t even see what she does when she walks in; we just cut to the scene of her lying unconscious on a gurney. Perhaps Rian Johnson couldn’t think of a good line to give General Leia as she casually walked in the door so he just skipped past the scene were it should have been in embarrassment.
Next we have a scene of many people—it’s never established who they are, sitting around while a curly haired woman—it’s never established who she is—explains that Leia is alive but that’s the only good news, much of the rest of the leadership has been killed. She then says that the chain of command is clear—which is exactly the thing to say when it’s not. This is a bizarre choice because its only purpose is to provide a moment for Poe Dameron’s ears perk up, thinking that he might be the next leader.
This micro-subplot makes no sense for the character. He’s supposed to be a hotshot, not an organizational climber. As a hotshot he’s all about results, not getting recognition. Only the most vain of corporate ladder-climbers would be thrilled to get field-promoted on a doomed ship with no weapons, no options, and nothing to do.
Be that as it may, Poe’s dreams of business cards with a better title on them are smashed when Vice Admiral Holdo is introduced. It isn’t explained where she came from. Presumably from either the medical frigate or the other ship that make up the three ships left? Why would they require a vice-admiral? Did they really have a rear admiral to keep in line? The Resistance seems awfully top-heavy.
And then we come to the very strange question of her appearance. She’s got faded manic-panic purple hair from Spencer’s Gifts and is wearing a saggy evening dress. She doesn’t look remotely like a Vice Admiral. Even Poe remarks on this—he’s heard of some amazing military feet she performed and asks out loud if this is really the same person.
So, apparently, we’re getting a don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover theme with Holdo. The problem is that none of the misleading cues have any sort of explanation. Why is a Vice Admiral of a guerrilla force operating behind enemy lines taking time to dye her hair purple? Why is she wearing a sagging evening dress instead of some sort of military uniform? These are very odd choices and moreover they’re counter to the typical don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mis-cues. Those are almost always about what a person doesn’t spend his time doing. Such as, for example, keeping up his appearance. And the reason that works is that the cue suggests that he doesn’t have his life together enough to provide for himself the creature comforts most men work to have. Thus it becomes possible to reveal that he neglects these things because he is too focused on developing his skills to bother with them; essentially, that he is an ascetic.
It is possible to go in the opposite direction—to have a strategic genius who plays a fop as a form of disguise, so that people don’t suspect him of being a strategic genius. The classic example of this is The Scarlet Pimpernel. That doesn’t apply here, though, because Holdo was among her own people—and in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sir Percy dropped the foppish attitude whenever he was in England, among friends.
This seems to be yet another case of taking a trope and reversing it for the sake of novelty. The problem is that you can’t have someone who is so dedicated to her military endeavors that she spends time preening herself and wearing fancy clothes. Intense dedication can make time for doing the normal things, or it can result in neglecting them. But it can’t result in taking time for unnecessary things.
It is possible to play around with tropes to create new things, but they have to be things that actually work. You can’t simply invert a trope and get another good trope, just as you can’t invert a glass of water and have a marvelous new type of beverage holder. But that seems to be what Rian Johnson is all about.
Then again, who knows? Given that this is a low speed chase which people can leave and enter freely, perhaps she was actually at a dinner party when she heard that Leia was injured and the Resistance needed help and she didn’t have time to change before she jumped in from hyperspace? It’s not like we’re told where she came from and equally ridiculous things are about to happen.
Holdo gives a speech about how with 400 people on 3 ships that are obviously doomed the Resistance is never going to accomplish anything but that if at least some of them can survive it will be the spark that lights the fire of hope for the galaxy. There are two major problems with this scene. The first is that it makes their survival purely symbolic. They’re not, apparently, trying to survive in order to accomplish anything, or even just to survive because they want to live. They’re only trying to survive because it will inspire others to do something. But why would anyone care? There’s no reason given why they can’t easily be replaced by another 400 people somewhere else. Aside from Leia, not a single one of them has done anything anyone in the galaxy has heard of. Holdo could have said that they have to keep Leia alive because she is the symbol of hope in the galaxy, but she could have said a lot of things, none of which she actually said.
Second, this is directly contradicted by events later in the movie. Several hours later, it is clearly established that there is no hope left in the galaxy. Which means that their survival is completely and utterly pointless.
Then one of the more infamous scenes of the movie happens. Poe introduces himself to Holdo under his old title of Commander and she reminds him that Leia’s last official action was to demote him to captain. How she knew this, we’re not told. How she knew his new rank when it’s not obvious even Leia did, we’re not told. Poe brushes this away and asks what the plan is. Holdo flirtatiously tells him that she’s known a lot of pretty fly-boys and his job is to do what he’s told.
This scene is infamous because a lot of people have taken it to be the author incorporating a message of misandry—that men and masculinity are inferior and should go away. I don’t agree with this take at all. I believe that Holdo is supposed to be like the character of Viper on Top Gun (played by Tom Skerritt)—a wise older mentor figure who needs to both encourage the younger hotshot but also pull him up short so he can gain the wisdom necessary to be a truly great warrior. The problem is two-fold: this was written as a male part (I think because Rian Johnson can’t write a female part) and then just cast as a woman. But this doesn’t work because women and men don’t talk to each other other like men talk to men or women talk to women. For better or for worse, they simply don’t, and so a woman talking to a man like a man talks to a man feels off to us, like there’s some sub-text which wasn’t originally intended because the writer conceived of it as a man talking to a man. It’s a similar sort of problem to a character calling younger men “boy” and then casting a white man in that roll and a black man in the role of the younger man—it takes on meaning which wasn’t originally supposed to be there.
I think that’s what’s going on with Holdo. If you mentally replace her with a male character in a military uniform, the scene becomes way more normal, and then ties into the scene later where Holdo tells Leia that she likes Poe. It’s an almost standard trope if all of those characters were male, and Rian Johnson seems to think entirely in tropes. Then he subverts them without understanding them and they become meaningless and hard to recognize.
Also, Rian Johnson’s fists were apparently bitten by radioactive hams.
What makes this writing even stupider is that Poe is given a plan just a few scenes later.
And then it gets really stupid.
Finn, now dressed, is sneaking around the escape pods. What he intends to do there is anyone’s guess since it seems unlikely that escape pods come equipped with hyper-drives and they’re in the middle of nowhere. And since the Imperial death fleet is chasing them and shooting anything that gets within range the only plausible outcome of leaving in an escape pod is certain death. But whatever—everyone fails at everything in this movie. Since he must have read the script, it probably never occurred to Finn that he might succeed, so there was no point in having a contingency plan for success.
His ostensible reason for deserting the cause it’s unclear he ever joined is that Rey, having gone to the far-off planet of Achtung in order to find Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, was given a device that can track the wrist-mounted homing beacon which Leia had been wearing on her wrist until she was inexplicably put onto a gurney after her impromptu space walk, at which point it just slipped off for no reason and Finn picked it up.
I’d like to pause for a moment to consider the implications of a wrist-mounted device can transmit with enough power to enable someone to find it from anywhere in the galaxy but without being trackable by the bad guys. Actually, no. I don’t want to consider that. Never mind.
I can’t skip over Finn’s motivation, though. A person he’s grown attached to (perhaps even having fallen in love with?) has left on a heroic journey to get help and bring it back. This would be dangerous for her—that’s what makes it heroic, after all—so he’s trying to take her tracking device away from the people she’s trying to help so that she won’t be able to find them and help them. Let’s be clear about this: his goal is to sabotage his friend’s plan so that she will end up wandering space while her friends die. What would he do differently if he was her enemy?
Then as he’s getting ready to climb into the escape pod, he is spotted by Rose Tico. It’s never established what her job is. We saw an establishing shot of her crying earlier so perhaps she’s a professional mourner?
According to wikipedia she’s a “maintenance worker”, which I think is a euphemism for janitor but perhaps means mechanic? She’s not wearing a recognizable uniform and aside from what might be a collection of screwdriver bits worn like bullets on a gun-belt or what might be an actually collection of bullets, the only tool she appears to have is a space-taser. So perhaps she’s a member of the military police? Or a very misguided fashion police?
She’s utterly star-struck by Finn and his exploits on StarKiller base. This is another instance of something that kind-of works if this movie isn’t a sequel; otherwise his exploits on Star-Killer base happened less than a day ago. How would the janitor have had time to hear about his heroics while everyone is desperately packing up their base before the First Order arrives? Granted, she said that she heard it from her sister Paige. Apparently, the sisters had time to sit around gossiping while while everyone else was desperately packing up to flee for their lives. And what did Paige tell Rose that made her so impressed with Finn, anyway? What actually happened in the previous movie is that he tried to protect Rey but got his ass handed to him in a few seconds by Kylo Ren, and it only took that long because Ren was playing with him. And Paige wasn’t even there to see that.
Rose then explains to Finn that he is indeed a hero, which is a person who doesn’t run away. That’s not much of a definition of hero, but I guess under it Finn does technically qualify. Why she’s star-struck by someone who did so little is not explained. It’s not like Rose ran away, so she’s just as much a hero, by this definition. Anyway, this is in contrast to three cowards who tried to desert earlier that day, and who she had to stun with the space-taser she waves in Finn’s face to make her tasering of them more vivid. I believe that this is supposed to be funny. This is yet another trope which Rian Johnson doesn’t understand. This is funny when a mook or other comic relief idiot is shown to be so incredibly dumb he doesn’t understand what’s going on and the hero manages to sneak past him. It is not funny when one of the good guys is so dumb he doesn’t understand that the hero is trying to desert the good guys in order to undermine his supposed friend’s attempts to save the good guys. Which, come to think of it, would include Rose, so in addition to everything else, he’s trying to prevent Rose from being saved.
The fall of a hero—if Finn can in any way be considered a hero—is not a comedic moment.
Or perhaps Rian Johnson is such a loathsome wretch that he thinks that Finn’s attempt to prevent Rey from saving her friends was actually noble? Since it would more charitable to think him incompetent than evil, let’s assume that’s not it. Man is this guy bad at tropes.
Next, Rose catches a glimpse of Finn’s backback in the escape pod—what did he have in the backpack, anyway? He woke up naked in a strange place. It’s not like he’s got possessions to take with him—and she slowly works out that Finn is trying to desert the rebel army… he never officially joined or made any pledge to. But she works this through, out loud, talking through her thoughts. Oddly, she doesn’t finish her thoughts out loud; she gets out just enough to seem really dumb.
Finn then tries to explain why he’s doing what he’s doing but Rose coldly hits him with her space taser. I say space taser, but it’s probably actually some sort of electrical welding device. It’s pretty obvious by now that no one from the upper echelons of The Resistance put this dimwitted gossip in charge of guarding the escape pods.
The space taser knocks Finn back so hard that he flies 6 or 8 feet back and slams into the porthole of the escape pod. Online sources say that John Boyega weighs 87kg and if we conservatively estimate his as going 4 m/s, a kinetic energy calculator shows him as having been imparted 696 joules of kinetic energy. For reference, the Winchester JHP +P round, which is a common 9mm round fired by guns like the Glock 17, has 617J at the muzzle. The area which a space-taser imparts energy on can’t be much bigger than the area of a 9mm bullet hitting someone so he should have suffered severe, possibly fatal concussive damage to his internal organs. There’s also the minor detail of Finn’s head slamming into the wall of the capsule, then onto the floor of the capsule, likely giving him two concussions in a row.
Since this very serious moment is played as comedy, however, bugs bunny rules apply and Finn is just fine. One has to ask, though: why not go all-in and have an anvil drop on Finn’s head? Since our disbelief is, at this point, suspended only in the sense of having been hanged to death in a noose, there was nothing to lose and it might have actually been funny.
Some time later, Finn wakes up, partially paralyzed, on a cart on which Rose is wheeling him to… wherever she stored the other people she’s zapped. Perhaps she has fashioned a crude oubliette somewhere on the ship and just drops traitors in to die. Or perhaps she kills her victims next to a trash compactor so as to conveniently hide the bodies. Since she clearly wasn’t stationed to guard the escape pods and is only doing it for fun there’s no reason to suppose she’s going to take the “traitors” to an official brig.
Finn, realizing that he may only have moments left to live, tries to reason with Rose. Actually, “reason” might be too strong a word. He at least he talks at her. It comes out that the First Order can track them through hyperspace, at which point Rose assumes that this is active tracking and then claims that all active tracking works the same way. Then Finn and Rose deduce at each other, with a speed that the micro machines fast-talking guy wouldn’t sneer at, that the tracker will only be on the lead ship and that it will have its own circuit breaker. Rose wonders who would know where to find the circuit-breaker room on a star destroyer and Finn reveals that as a former janitor for the First Order, he does.
It should be noted that there is no reason whatever to assume that the tracking technology which the First Empire is using is active tracking as opposed to passive tracking. It should further be pointed out that Lord Snookum’s delta kite of doom wasn’t around the first time they jumped to hyperspace so the tracker clearly isn’t on that ship, wherever it might be. Actually, the idea that it’s on the Delta Kite of Doom is particularly funny because it could only be there by Hux having snuck one on when Snookums wasn’t looking—it having been clearly established that until the Resistance jumped to hyperspace Snookums was unaware of the tracking technology. That said, Finn and Rose have no way of knowing how incompetent the First Order—or the writers, take your pick—were. It should also be noted that no explanation is given for why active tracking would be located on the lead ship. Anyone with even a tiny bit of sense would prefer to put their critical sensors behind the front line so it’s less likely to get damaged. Why the Delta Kite of Doom has only one circuit breaker for its magical active tracking devices, or why it can only handle one active tracking device on the entire ship, is not mentioned.
To be fair, though, none of this actually matters because the plan to turn off the circuit breaker on the magic tracking technology never achieves anything. Technically, it’s not a plot hole if it never actually happens.
We then cut to Finn and Rose explaining to Poe the information which they just created ex nihilo. Finn is now perfectly fine, by the way, because the movie’s theme of “let the past go” applies to nothing so much as it does to the script itself. They probably saved a few dollars by not employing a continuity person and to be fair it’s not that jarring to the average audience member because absolutely nothing in this movie is memorable.
So the plan gets laid out for Poe—someone needs to sneak aboard Lord Snookum’s Delta Kite of Doom and flip the circuit breaker to the tracking device, which the First Order won’t notice for about six minutes, at which point they’ll presumably flip the circuit breaker back on. Apparently Rose and Finn also know that the First Order has no computerized monitoring systems capable of emitting a beep hooked up to their active tracking systems. This, by the way, is preferable to blowing up the ship with the tracker not because—all their weapons having been destroyed—they have no way of blowing up the Delta Kite of Doom but because the First Order would notice the ship exploding and activate the tracker on another ship.
Also, for no reason and not worthy of comment, they have a complete schematic of the Delta Kite of Doom. Perhaps Finn has an eidetic memory and constructed the plans from his years of janitorial service aboard it. If so, it’s a nice touch that he also took the time to animate the fleet jumping to light speed, timed to sync up with when he said it in his presentation. No one comments on this, either to praise Finn for his animations kills or to ask why he thought putting together this presentation was a good use of time. Like most things in this movie, it has no connection either to what came before or what happened after. This movie is just a collection of scenes which the director thought cool on their own. That it’s a movie is just a sort of volume discount where the scenes are cheaper if you buy 250 of them at once.
At this point we get the only good line of the movie. Poe stops in the middle of considering the absolutely insane plan to ask how Finn and Rose met. Finn isn’t sure how to respond and Rose elides to, “Just luck.” Poe asks whether it was good luck or bad luck, and Rose answers, “Not sure yet.”
Granted, the character of Rose never exhibits this amount of self- or situational- awareness again, it was still a good line with good delivery. Also, it turned out to be bad luck. Still, it is, strictly speaking, better than nothing. Unlike the rest of the movie.
Also, this scene is apparently taking place in the medical closet into which Finn had been put, as we pan over to the comatose body of Leia. This, perhaps, explains why C-3PO is in the scene—his presence is really quite inexplicable otherwise. Threepio points out that Vice Admiral Holdo will never approve of this plan. Poe agrees, though he ignores the fact that this is because the plan to sneak aboard a First Order warship which is actively shooting at them in order to throw a circuit breaker which a former janitor thinks he remembers seeing while he was mopping is, in fact, completely insane. And that’s not even the worst part of this plan. If this crazy stunt had any possibility of succeeding, there’s a few dozen things they should be doing in preference to throwing a circuit breaker then running away.
This is something of a theme in The Last Jedi—the big problem is not so much that the impossible happens but that if the impossible is possible within this movie, it should have been completely different movie. In short, the movie never, ever takes itself seriously. “Forget the past” may appeal to lazy narcissists, but it makes for a terrible screenplay. If the movie is really just going to be a collection of awesome but unconnected scenes, it could be way more awesome than this.
Check out Kung Fury if you want to see this sort of thing done well:
(Actually, I say that but Kung Fury still has a more coherent plot with more consistent characters than The Last Jedi.)
Be that as it may, Poe says that the plan is on a need-to-know basis and Holdo doesn’t need to know. He leaves implicit that this is because she would say no since she still thinks she’s in a movie where there’s a point to trying to succeed.
Then the plan somehow manages to get stupider. The first step in figuring out how to sneak aboard the Delta Kite of Doom is to video-call Maz Kanada, who is a yoda-like muppet whose bar was destroyed by the First Order in the previous movie. When we see her, she’s shooting a blaster in what she says is a “union dispute”. Since she is the owner of the bar, this means that she’s shooting her former employees. Fortunately she can multitask while she’s firing them, with a blaster.
What they need to get aboard the Delta Kite of Doom while it’s busy shooting at the Resistance is a “master codebreaker” because the Empire’s military ships are designed with all the security of a website circa 1994. It’s implied that Maz Kanada could do it but is unavailable because she can’t let a single former employee live. Since she’s busy—she must have a lot of former employees—she directs them to the only other master codebreaker in the galaxy who she trusts.
He can be found at a Casino on the one-casino-and-nothing-else planet, playing at the only high stakes table, and wearing a “plom blossom” on his lapel. Maz doesn’t seem to think his name is relevant, but fortunately she has a schematic of a plom blossom on speed dial so she’s able to show them the flower she means.
Not that it’s going to matter—because they don’t actually find the master codebreaker—but this is really strange. No time or date is specified. Apparently the man is just trapped in some sort of gambling hell where he stands forever at the high stakes table, never winning or losing, just playing forever until someone comes to hire his code breaking services. Of course it is possible to supply the world-building where this makes sense because you can find the guy at that table every Thursday night on the casino planet—but that’s the job of the writer. If as an audience member we’re supposed to use our imaginations to fix the movie we’re watching, we could watch Plan 9 From Outer Space—which is considerably shorter and better plotted than this movie—and just imagine good special effects.
Anyway, the gambling planet is called Canto Bight and now we come to the part of the low speed chase where Finn and Rose get into some sort of lightspeed-capable shuttle craft and fly off to the one casino on it. At least, I assume it’s the one casino on Canto Bight, since they are given no other information to find it than the name of the planet it’s on. While they go, the chase continues as if nothing happened. The First Order doesn’t dispatch a ship to follow them. The First Order doesn’t do anything at all. They just don’t care. Like the writer.
This is somewhat reminiscent of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in which Crow and Tom Servo found some hyper war escape pods in a hanger bay and used them to dogfight and crash into the satellite of love, destroying the escape pods, just for fun. After they explain this to Mike, he asks them why the didn’t use the hyper warp escape pods to escape, and, upon consideration, they admit that would have been a better use of the escape pods. “Boy, is my face red” is, if memory serves, what Crow says. The way that Finn and Rose just fly off to Canto Bight on a hyperspace capable ship is much like that, except that no one asks if they should have used their hyperspace escape ship to escape. 400 people on the ship and it never occurred to a single one of them. If their enemies weren’t equally as incompetent, they’d have been dead a long time ago.
Next we get a very pretty establishing shot of Canto Bight and at the end of it we see an alien complaining to some traffic cops that he “told them this was a public beach and they couldn’t park there”. Yes, this is referring to our brave heroes on a secret mission to find the one man in the galaxy who can help them to save their friends. When someone points out that they’re parking where they are not allowed to park they don’t say, “Thanks!” and move their vehicle. They don’t say, “sorry!” and move their vehicle. They don’t even just move their vehicle. Instead they decide… that laws only apply to other people? This crucial plot point and character development happens off-screen so we don’t know for sure. All we know is that they are both stupid and think that laws apply to other people, not them. I’m really starting to wonder if they’re even supposed to be the good guys.
Finn and Rose enter the casino, and Finn marvels at the wealth and opulence before him. Rose hates it, though, because, according to her, the only people rich enough to afford this sort of thing are arms dealers. There are two major problems here, the first being that this is completely insane, and that for two reasons. The first reason that this is insane is that there are all sorts of ways of getting rich besides selling weapons, such as founding and owning a company that makes really good lawn mowers. I bet the guy who owns the company who makes all of the speeders in the galaxy is pretty well off. The second reason that this is insane is that the amount of money required to gamble in a place like Canto Bight just isn’t that high. Granted, this was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but last time I checked, here on earth, you can rent a tuxedo for less than $200 and buy a perfectly serviceable one for less than $500, and a trip to much larger and glitzier casinos in Las Vegas can be done for a few thousand dollars. There just isn’t the sort of wealth on display that marks these people out as more than middle class with a certain sort of taste in entertainment.
The other major problem with every single patron of this casino being an arms dealer is that it means that the code breaker that they’re there to bring back with them is also an arms dealer. If Rose just wants to kill all arms dealers, why did she volunteer for a mission to go get one and beg for his help? This, of course, never occurs to Rose.
She then hears an enormous rumbling and switches from moral scolding to schoolgirl excitement, and runs out to see that the thumping is the racing of space-dog-horse-cats, which are apparently called “fathiers.” This name both sounds too much like “father” and also sounds like someone who operates a gambling table, so it’s perfect for this movie. She’s never seen a space-dog-horse-cat before, and it’s just amazing. Then, to get back to the earlier mood and because declaring everyone on Canto Bight to be an evil arms dealer was too subtle, Rose then directs Finn to look through a pair of binoculars on a pole.
Through them, he sees, in the center of the race track, there is an area where a space-dog-horse-cat is being beaten for no reason. There isn’t even an intelligible reason for why it’s there at all—it’s not saddled and it’s clearly established that the stables are elsewhere. An orphan who mistook which stage his production of Oliver Twist was to be shot on tries to stop the big fat four-armed alien who is administering the beating, and is partially successful, with the alien turning to beat the orphan, instead. Finn then looks at the space-dog-horse-cats that are racing, and it turns out that all of the jockeys are continuously beating the long, graceful necks of their space-dog-horse-cats. This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with making them go faster, so far as we can tell. Presumably it’s just that the favorite pass-time on Canto Bight is beatings; the rich arms dealers apparently love little else but to watch things getting beaten. But even beatings get boring, so it livens the beatings up to have the things getting beaten run in a circle. Perhaps next they’ll teach the orphans to juggle while they’re being beaten.
Rose also says something about her origin story, that she and her sister came from a mining planet. The First Order had used the ore mined from their planet to build weapons which they tested out on the now-used-up mining planet. This is something out of a children’s cartoon, where the insane villain needs to prove to the children watching that he’s evil, so he has his own people killed pointlessly, just because he enjoys watching destruction. That doesn’t really make sense for a galactic-level empire in a show meant for people over the age of ten, since a mere mining planet would be run by a low-level official who is responsible up the chain of command for his use of resources. Aside from it being really hard to completely mine out an entire planet, there will be other mining planets, and moving the people, if not the equipment, to the next mining planet would be a vastly better use of resources. Amateurs think of tactics, professionals think of logistics, and in modern industrial wars you win wars by having more weapons. Wasting industrial resources is the way to lose. The Emperor, or Supreme Leader Snookums, or even Kylo Ren (by the way, why doesn’t he get a “darth” in front of his name?) might be able to get away with this sort of wastefulness, since they don’t really answer to anyone, but not a low-level officer. I’m pretty sure that Rian Johnson just really liked a scene from some cartoon he watched as a kid, didn’t bother to look it up to refresh his memory, and put it in here.
Recall that while they’re taking time to criticize the moral failings of the people on Canto Bight, their friends are being chased—admittedly, at low speed—by the First Order’s death fleet. I suppose this establishes that they had plenty of time to legally park, earlier. Anyway, they leisurely walk back in to get to the life-or-death mission that they’re on, when the alien who had been complaining to the parking police, earlier, identifies them to the same police. Finn and Rose don’t notice, since they are finally laser-focused on their mission, so they don’t see the police walk up behind them and taser them down. Why they are not beaten isn’t explained; perhaps there’s some law on Canto Bight against beating people who aren’t being paid for it.
That’s right; not only do our brave heroes fail in their life-or-death mission to save the resistance, they fail because they couldn’t be bothered to park legally. And, secondarily, because they couldn’t stick to their mission and instead had to gawk and scold and virtue signal.
Finn and Rose wake up in remarkably large prison cell with few beds. Its design is odd; there are beds around the edges and such a large interior space you might be able to fit a regulation tennis court in it. Being a janitor and an ex-janitor on a secret spy mission, they conclude that their best course of action is to loudly discuss their plans, so that if there’s anyone on the other side of the cavernous room, he’ll hear. This wakes up a dirty man who was in the same prison cell, but on the other side of the cavernous space, whose name turns out to be DJ, because that sounds like a Star Wars type name to someone who was very, very drunk, which Presumably Rian Johnson was when he wrote this.
DJ, who couldn’t help but overhear there plans, notes that they need a master codebreaker, which he happens to be. They scoff, because he looks like a drunk bum, but he warns them not to judge by appearances. Why Rian Johnson decided to steal from the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast, is anyone’s guess. It is so ludicrously out of place here, words are insufficient to describe it. Contrary to this weird sort of hand-waving, in fact, there does need to be an explanation for why a master codebreaker who can just waltz through the shields of Imperial star destroyers is filthy and taking a nap in the jail of this casino where he clearly wasn’t in the casino as a customer.
You might be tempted to think that he was actually there to meet them, but no, that’s not it. You might be tempted to come up with something, anything, to give some sort of explanation to this impossible coincidence. But no, there is no explanation. Rian Johnson just thought it would be cool to drag the movie on for no earthly reason, substituting one featureless character for another. Seriously, had they met up with the master code breaker with whom they were supposed to meet up, nothing in the rest of the movie would have had to have been changed, except for shooting the scenes with a different actor. This makes as much sense as the chosen one getting to the temple with the sword stuck in the stone where only the chosen one may draw it out, and then realizing after he can’t get it out that he’s pulling on the wrong thing-in-the-stone. This one is actually a mop that can only be pulled out by a janitor, noble of heart and strong of back. A few feet over is the sword in the stone that can only be pulled out by the chosen one. Come to think of it, maybe this was an homage to the scene in Space Balls where Dark Helmet accidentally tried to read the radar from the Mr. Coffee coffee machine, and then after getting some coffee walked several steps over to look at Mr Radar? It would explain a lot if Rian Johnson, when he was doing his research for this movie, accidentally watched Space Balls instead of Star Wars.
Our brave heroes scoff at the idea that the filthy bum who’s not even wearing his shoes (they’re slung over his shoulders) is a master code breaker, apparently under the impression that the movie that they’re in makes a modicum of sense. Why, since they’re in jail for a parking violation, is anyone’s guess, but perhaps they’re just not very bright.
DJ then accepts their rejection and calmly walks over to the jail cell’s door, pulls out a magic card from his pocket because incompetence is the main theme of this movie and having searched the prisoner before locking him up would have been competence. To be fair, we don’t know that DJ was actually put into the prison cell by the police; perhaps he just thought it felt like home. I doubt even Rian Johnson knows. That’s OK, though, because everyone will forget that it happened as soon as its over.
DJ’s magic lockpick is so magic that not only does his jail cell open, but so do all of the other jail cells on the cell block. Who knows why. Who cares why? No one actually comes out of the other cells, so we’re going to forget that it happened in a second. In a coherent movie this would be to impress Finn and Rose so that they accept DJ, but DJ just walks off, making that irrelevant.
Because no one is allowed to be competent, though, not even the filthy magic bum, the unlocking of the jail cells attracts the attention of a squad of guards. They’re about to (re?)capture DJ, when BB-8 rolls up and knocks all of the guards out by shooting gold coins at them. This is a humorous callback to an early scene in which a very drunk alien in a tuxedo thinks that BB-8 is a slot machine and keeps putting gold coins into his slot. Apparently, whoever designed BB-8 had built a coin thrower into the rotund little robot for just such a situation. It is sufficiently powerful to knock out adults wearing helmets, which is an act of mercy to them since they no longer know what’s going on this idiotic movie.
Finn and Rose may be idiots, but they at least have eyes so they notice that DJ just unlocked the jail cell. Oddly, they don’t go with him, but somehow end up getting chased by guards and going their own way. There didn’t really look like multiple ways available to go from the jail cell, but who cares? It’s only an important plot point that will then be immediately forgotten about. One way or another, Finn and Rose end up in the space-dog-horse-cat stables, where one of them sticks its creepy face out of its stall and looks at Rose. Entranced by the majestic something of this weird CGI beast, she presses the button to open its stall and inside is the orphan who was beaten in an earlier scene. He reaches up to press the close-the-stall button which someone put in the back of the stall because they never once gave a thought to how large animal stalls work. Rose tells him to wait, then shows him her ring. At first it seems like just a piece of jewelry, but then she moves a slider on the side of it and the plain face disappears into nowhere, revealing an insignia that looks like a Klingon bird of prey underneath. Apparently this is the insignia of the rebel alliance, which hasn’t really been a thing for decades so it’s really non-obvious why an uneducated stable orphan slave who’s at most about 10 years old would recognize it.
Frankly, there’s kind of a bigger problem if he does recognize it. This is just a piece of jewelry. There’s nothing magic about it, nor is it unique. If everyone, everywhere, recognizes the rebel insignia as meaning something—what, we’re not even told, since the Rebellion is now the New Republic—you’d have to expect con men everywhere to make lots of fake rebel insignia. There is exactly zero reason the stable orphan has to trust this ring, and if someone as far away from galactic politics as he is recognizes it, he should have a lot of reasons to not trust it.
Also, and this is a comparatively small point, why did a mechanic on a resistance ship have a secret insignia ring? If she was captured on a Resistance ship, it’s not like she’d have any hope of claiming she was just sight-seeing. Was the Resistance in the habit of sending its mechanics on secret spy missions, that it gave them secret spy equipment?
Be that as it may, the dirty little ragamuffin recognizes the symbol and decides to trust it. I think that he’s the one who presses the “open all of the stalls” button, but I forget and can’t find the scene on YouTube to double check. Someone does, and the space-dog-horse-cats charge out of their stalls and stampede through Canto Bight. They tear through the Casino, destroying all of the tables and possibly killing waiters, croupiers, patrons, and others. This is presumably fine since everyone there is an arms dealer—who knows, maybe even the waiters are arms dealers—at least according to the Resistance mechanic with a penchant for violence and no experience of the galaxy, so they clearly deserve to die. They tear through the streets, destroying the speeders of God-alone-knows-who, causing yet more property damage.
Throughout all of this, Finn and Rose manage to ride a space-dog-horse-cat safely. The things jump in odd, CGI-ish ways, but our intrepid duo manages to hold on despite neither of them ever having ridden so much as a pony. Oddly, the animals run at top speed despite no one beating them on the their necks. Perhaps the beatings really are just because the spectators at Canto Bight just love to watch things get beaten. If so, this really makes one wonder why Maz Kanada thought that the only master code breaker in the galaxy that was trustworthy could be found here. I suppose Rian Johnson had already forgotten that part of the script by the time he was writing this part, though.
They manage to steer the space-dog-horse-cat to their illegally parked space ship. How they knew to get there from where at top speed aboard a ridiculous CGI race animal doing parkour through unfamiliar streets is anyone’s guess. I suppose the force was with them. Or at least Rian Johnson was. Up to a point. For some reason the police did not have our heroes’ space ship towed to the police lot. I suppose they were so incensed by someone having parked illegally that they just rushed to apprehend the villains. They didn’t even put a parking boot on the thing, that we could see. They just left it there.
But that’s OK, because, as I said, Rian Johnson was with the dimwitted duo only up to a point. As they’re about to board their ship, the police show up in space cruisers and blow it up. This escalation of force makes a certain amount of sense, given that the police would taser people down without warning over a parking violation, and our heroes may have just been responsible for the deaths of several people and millions of dollars in property damage.
At this point, dear reader, I must confess that I’ve grown weary of The Last Jedi. So as not to end completely abruptly, I will summarize the rest of this awful movie, and its main problems.
So more chasing ensues until the master code breaker shows up in a stolen spacecraft to chase the police off and rescue Finn and Rose. Perhaps he knew where they were because he was a master code breaker and was thus able to tap into the police… something. Or maybe he read the script. Either way, he shows up at the end of the chase and the hapless duo are saved, though not before taking the saddle off of the giant space-dog-horse-cat that they rode, and slapping its rump to drive it off into the wilderness, where for all they know there is no edible food on the planet for it because there’s no reason to believe it’s native to that area, and it will slowly starve to death. Better, I suppose, than a life of constant beatings. Unless it’s paid well for them.
So for no reason the master code breaker decides to help Finn and Rose with their asinine plan to get aboard the ship Finn has never been on yet can conjure the plans to with a single button press to find the room Finn has never been in but can find anyway in order to throw the circuit breaker for the tracking device which will allow the last few rebelsistance ships to jump to lightspeed without being tracked.
The odd thing is that the plan might have worked if the master code breaker didn’t turn out to be a traitor and sell the information about the plan to the empire.
Oh, it turns out that the stolen ship belonged to one of the arms dealers on Canto Bight, but in a meaningless reveal, it turned out that he sold weapons both to the EmpireFirst Order and to the Resistance. Why the Second or (third or Fourth) Order needed arms dealers to sell them tie fighters when they were clearly manufacturing their own capital ships is never explained, because it’s too stupid to admit of an explanation. Also, one wonders where Rose thought that the Rebelsistance got its weapons from, if not from arms dealers. To be fair to her, though, her home planet was apparently used as a test for weapons by the Empire or some arms dealers or someone, because an unarmed mining planet makes a much better testing ground for weapons than does, say, an asteroid or a purpose-built test that actually proves whether the weapons work against their intended targets. Though who knows—in this movie, it wouldn’t shock me if the weapons the miners built for the Empire were anti-used-up-mine weapons. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility in The Last Jedi.
Some time around now the ugly jedi girl (played by a pretty actress, it perhaps should be noted) is spending time with a grumpy old man who answers to the name of Luke Skywalker. It turns out that he’s a feckless loser who abandoned his friends and the universe because he’s a bad man. She wants to be trained as a Jedi, and he agrees to train her to not be a Jedi, which she accepts for some reason. He promises her three lessons, which don’t happen. The first lesson is that the Jedi are bad, which you know because other people do bad things when the Jedi are around. So, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the Jedi are responsible. You’ll see this same asinine idea around super heroes—that super villains would be model citizens were there no superheroes to stop them. Only people who are intentionally stupid say this, so of course it goes into this movie.
At some point ugly girl—I think her name may be Rey—has a vision of the most evil place in the universe, so she goes there to find answers about who she is. She doesn’t find any answers, and it turns out that the heart of darkness is just a warm, comfortable, non-threatening place in which she sees a hall-of-mirrors effect, then sees one more mirror and then it’s over with her learning nothing and never having been threatened.
She relates this odd, meaningless experience to an astral projection of Kylo Ren. They do something that might be flirting with each other if he wasn’t a eunuch and she wasn’t spayed and lobotomized. There’s one kind of cool part where Kylo encourages Rey to acknowledge that he’s a monster, which she won’t, for some reason. She sees good in him, or something. It’s completely unearned, but who cares.
Kylo tells Rey the story of how Luke tried to kill him, which makes Rey go and demand to know from Luke whether the story Kylo told her is true, which Luke confirms. She acts like Luke lied to hear earlier, except he told her that he turned Kylo Ren evil, and she told him that he didn’t, despite her knowing nothing about what happened. Anyway, she fights Luke and in the middle of a fist & force fight pulls out a light saber and threatens to kill him for no obvious reason.
Oh, right, I forgot to mention that when Rey got to the island planet it turned out that Luke had cut himself off from the force, but that’s fine, because he later reconnected himself to the force before his fist/force fight with Rey.
So Rey goes off to save Kylo Ren. How she knows where he is is anyone’s guess, but that’s fine because she finds him. This renders a sub-plot with a subspace beacon that Rey would use to find the resistance completely moot, but who cares? Certainly not the author.
Rey flies to the delta kite of doom where she is taken prisoner and brought before Dark Lord Snookums. He beats her up with the force a bit, then commands Kylo Ren to kill her. In one of the stupidest climaxes I’ve ever seen, Kylo Ren uses the force to point Rey’s light saber—which Snookums had placed on his arm rest—at Dark Lord Snookums. The Dark Lord had closed his eyes to properly savor the sight of watching the girl killed by her would-be lover, and babbles on about how he’s reading Kylo Ren’s thoughts to cover the sound of the light saber at his side scraping against his metal arm rest. As he’s reaching the climax of delight at how he can sense Kylo Ren preparing to strike down his true enemy, we hear a light saber ignite and Dark Lord Snookums suddenly opens his eyes in surprise—he’s got a light saber going through the middle of him.
Kylo Ren then uses the force to pull the light saber towards him, sideways, and despite only having his torso severed from the middle to the front, Dark Lord Snookums is cut completely in half, and the top half topples down to the ground. The gold lamé bath robe which Dark Lord Snookums had been wearing apparently couldn’t save him. And so VoldemortDark Lord Snookums is dead. Because apparently his species kept its brain in his lower torso. Or something.
Then the longest fight of the movie ensues, lasting almost four minutes, as the praetorian guard attacks Kylo Ren and Rey, who team up for some reason. It’s a fight choreography which would do any no-budget high school production proud—making it somewhat odd in a $250,000,000+ movie. In one great scene, a red armored space knight who had been holding two flaming space daggers grabs Rey and the space dagger in his free hand is photoshopped out because there has to be some explanation for why he doesn’t just stab her with it. Anyway, Space Wizards fight a bunch of warriors armed, armored, and trained, to fight Space Wizards, and the Space Wizards helpfully don’t use any space magic, while the people who trained to fight the Space Wizards helpfully only put on their lightsaber-proof arm guards but used the costume chest plates. (If it turns out that the choreography was bought directly from a low-budget Hong Kong Kung-Fu movie from the 1970s and shot with no adaptations whatever, it would not be surprising, except that even low budget kung fu movies from the 1970s tended to have better fight choreographies. But maybe from a Hong Kong high school indie film?)
Somewhere around here vice admiral Holdo finally reveals her plan. They’re going to get into small unarmed shuttles and fly to a planet which happens to be on their way and moreover happens to have an old Rebel base on it. This will work because the Empire is only scanning for large ships, not for small ships. And apparently no one on the imperial ships looks out their windows, despite lots of people standing by the windows facing outwards. Don’t worry, though, the idiocy of the empire won’t result in the idiocy of the resistance working—the master code breaker overheard the plan when it was being told to Finn and Rose, and then told it to the Empire.
Oh, yeah, Finn and Rose. They’re captured, of course. In perhaps the strangest plot twist of the film, the Master Code Breaker is actually paid by the empire and allowed to go on his way. I guess the writer forgot that they were evil?
Anyway, as they execute the plan, General Evening Gown (I can’t remember her name) stays behind because they don’t have the technology to leave a brick on the accelerator pedal. But it’s as well that she does, because the Delta Kite of Doom immediately starts shooting the unarmored transports as they’re going down to the planet.
I do have to ask, at this point, why it was that no one on the Delta Kite of Doom looked at a star chart and noted that literally the only thing near to the straight line in which the resistance ships were traveling was this planet, and that therefore someone might think to go there? Not that it matters since the betrayal of the Master Code Breaker took the place of someone in the First Order having two brain cells to rub together.
So General Evening Gown turns the her now empty-but-for-her ship around and rams it into the Delta Kite of Doom. But not in any sensible way, like at full impulse power. No. She jumps to light speed. The special effects which accompany this are pretty, but the concept is insane. If it actually worked, everyone would use drone ships with light speed drives as a form of torpedo, and capital ships simply wouldn’t exist. It’s gratuitously dumb because ramming the other ship at full impulse would probably have achieved a similar effect, and it’s not like she actually saved the transport ships. Literally only one of them makes it down to the salt planet.
She does, oddly, save Finn and Rose, however. She hits right as they were about to be executed. They take advantage of the confusion to have a fight with a chrome-covered storm trooper who Finn eventually beats by sucker punching, and then they escape down to the salt planet.
The all-white planet is salt, by the way, not snow. They’re very clear about this. Why the imperial troops who land are wearing their snow outfits is unclear, given how clear they are that it’s salt, not snow, but whatever.
The Rebel Base turns out to be a cave with a giant steel door on the front and no way out. (I love Mr. John C. Wright’s observation that having no emergency exit makes the Rebellion less wise than rabbits.) The Resistance calls for help but no one answers. Then the empire lands with what I’m going to call AT-GTs, because they’re quadrupedal like AT-ATs, except that they look like gorillas (their front legs seem to be walking on their knuckles). These land far away from the base with no weapons because the First Order is incompetent. Also, they’re dragging a large cannon which Finn recognizes because apparently all storm troopers are required to memorize the schematics of all First Order ships and weapons. Anyway, it’s “miniaturized death star technology”.
This may be the stupidest part of the movie yet, but by now one is so numb it’s impossible to feel it properly. This makes as much sense as a dwarf war elephant. The only reason that the Death Star was a threat was because it was a normal weapon scaled up to unimaginably immense proportions. The Death Star didn’t have a magic weapon, it just had an energy delivery system so large that it was the size of a moon. Shrinking that down to something small is like a miniature giant—aka a normal sized person.
That said, a cannon which can melt a large steel door requires no great stretch of the imagination, given their other weapons, so it doesn’t much matter.
The resistance mounts a desperate last stand where they use 30 year old war speeders that have an impressively stupid design. In order to get a red/white contrast, the salt is a thin layer atop blood-red rock, and the speeders are outfitted with a single ski at the bottom which has to contact the ground for the thing to remain stable as it flies above the ground. Thus they leave blood-red tracks against the immaculate white. It’s pretty, but really, really stupid.
They attack the approaching AT-GTs and cannon, but then turn back when they are obviously out-matched. Then Finn is going to go on a suicide run to ram the canon directly, disabling it. Except Rose goes on a semi-suicide run to knock Finn out of his suicide run. As he, bloodied but able to walk, holds her broken body, she tells him that they will win, not by destroying what they hate, but by saving what they love. As she says this, the cannon destroys the giant door to the rebel base. Then Rose steels a kiss from Finn. (It happens off-screen, but apparently he then carries her almost-lifeless body across the mile-or-two of battlefield back to the rebel base.)
It was stupid, pointless, and dumb, and in that sense a perfect encapsulation of this movie.
The AT-GTs eventually come to the front door, where they kind of wait. Then out of nowhere—literally—Luke Skywalker shows up. He just sort of walks out of a dark corner of the base, and people are mildly surprised to see him. Except Leia, who registers no emotion whatever. It turns out that he’s an astral projection, but he doesn’t mention this. He does, however, tell Leia that he can’t save Kylo Ren (who is her son), and she says that her son died a long time ago, implying that it’s fine to kill him now.
Luke then walks out of the base, and Kylo Ren flies down on a shuttlecraft to fight him. Oh, wait. First Kylo Ren ordered the AT-GTs to fire everything that they had at Luke. Then as they’re firing all their weapons, he hysterically screams to fire more. He keeps screaming this for a while until his comic relief second-in-command (the one where in the beginning of the movie Dark Lord Snookums slammed him to the floor and dragged him along a catwalk, in order to berate him ten feet from where he was originally standing) screamed at the men to stop firing. Apparently he was appalled at the waste of good ammunition, or something. But Luke is unhurt and only brushes some dust off of his shoulder. Then Kylo Ren flies down from the AT-GT in a shuttlecraft to face his former master alone.
There is then a thoroughly uninteresting battle where Luke dodges a bit because they want to delay the revelation that he’s a ghost. Oh, and Kylo says something and Luke replies that every part of Kylo’s sentence was wrong, except that it was pretty much all correct. But it was a callback to when he said that before during a scene when he wasn’t teaching Rey (and parts of her sentence were correct, too). So, um, yeah. It’s like good writing, in that it involves words put in order.
At this point the Han Solo replacement (I can’t remember his name either) deduces from Luke showing up that there must be another entrance to the base. It turns out that there is, but this is pure coincidence because Luke isn’t really there. Why Luke didn’t tell them this is anyone’s guess. It would have been useful information. Especially because they spent a lot of valuable time watching the “fight” between Luke and Kylo Ren.
But fortunately there are some crystal foxes in the base which lead the resistance fighters to the exit right as Kylo Ren is discovering that Luke is just a ghost. Then Luke disappears and dies for no obvious reason. He was sweating, though, so perhaps he died of exhaustion? The astral projection power was completely new to this movie, so it can have any side-effects the director wants.
Unfortunately the emergency exit / random tunnel the builders of the for didn’t know about is blocked by a pile of rocks. But fortunately for the people we’ve spent the most time watching in this dumpster fire of a movie (perhaps they’re protagonists?), Rey shows up and uses the force to move the rocks. Differently than anyone else had ever used the force to move rocks, of course, because it’s doubtful that anyone involved with the making of this movie had so much as watched another star wars movie.
Then the remainder of the resistance flies off in the Millenium Falcon. It’s perhaps thirty people. I’d say that the resistance is clearly no longer relevant to the galaxy, but it’s far from clear that they were ever relevant. Granted, they did destroy the First Order’s unstoppable super weapon, but only because the First Order brought it right to the Resistance’s remote base. Had they kept using their unstoppable super weapon to fight the Second Republic, they’d have handily won and the Resistance would still just be a few hundred people in the middle of nowhere looking for a semi-mythical Jedi (who it turns out didn’t want to be found despite having left a map to help find him) rather than doing anything useful.
It utterly baffles me that this movie was made. Supposedly Rian Johnson was chosen to write and direct the film because he had the producer Kathleen Kennedy feel safe. Which, given what Hollywood was like, presumably means she believed he wouldn’t rape her. And, granted, not raping her is definitely a good quality in a writer/director. It is not, it turns out, the sole criteria necessary to make a good movie.
I really wish that we could crowd fund a $150 million shot-for-shot remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and use it as the yardstick to measure all future sci-fi movies. Because it’s much better written than this wretched movie, but the better special effects, acting, lighting, costuming, makeup, sound, and photography disguise that fact from some people.