When I started this episode playing I noticed that the running time was a bit shorter than usual for this crime series, at just over 50 minutes instead of the usual 60-ish. I was hopeful that it might be an indication of some tighter, more focussed storytelling, with a pacey script. Unfortunately, it was instead an indication of a simpler plot than usual. I’m not sure how anyone could have stretched another ten minutes out of this one anyway.
The story will be very familiar to anyone who has watched a few crime dramas. It’s about money, status and jealousy. The identity of the murderer is revealed after just a few minutes, along with the person who has paid him to do it. There is really only one twist along the way, the involvement of a co-conspirator, which surprised me although it really shouldn’t have done, but other than that there is no mystery here after the first few minutes. So basically this is a prototype Columbo, with the whole point of the drama being the suspense as to how and when the detective will catch the murderer.
Inspector Mann is no Columbo, though. Bizarrely, considering the short running time, there is quite a bit of padding while he interviews all the local known criminals, although it does allow for some cameo appearances from some very good actors, and Richard Shaw as criminal Bill Cross gets to play an unconventional assistant to Mann for a little while. But Columbo would have known that the culprit is always the first person who comes to speak to him, and is always somebody closely connected with the victim. It takes Mann ages to figure out that this isn’t just the burglary it is supposed to look like, with a robber surprised by the victim and shooting in a panic, and yet he is told very early on that Strickland was shot through the heart, which is highly unlikely to happen from a distance with a revolver unless it’s a deliberate murder attempt. Bernard Lee of course puts in a solid performance as Mann, but he definitely had more to get his actorly teeth into with Superintendent Meredith in Clue of the Twisted Candle. You just get the impression this was an unchallenging and slightly dull role for him. Some of the other actors have much more interesting things to do, and are a lot more fun to watch, especially the murderer and his paid assassin, and the two teenagers who accidentally get involved by stealing the murder weapon and trying to sell it. By the way, there’s a great little appearance from a very young and oddly bearded Nicholas Smith as the pawn shop assistant (if the name’s familiar but you can’t think why, then I’ll help you out: Are You Being Served?)
Although this is a simple story, there is much to enjoy. The murder itself is atmospheric and creepy, very well directed with the murderer stood as a shadowy figure against the windows. Mann solves the case through luck rather than ingenuity, but the whole theft of the gun is a really fun part of the story. There are lots of good actors, so anyone who is a fan of 60s film and television like me will get a lot of enjoyment out of simply watching a group of mostly familiar actors putting in solid performances. Finally, the film really springs to life near the end, with the final showdown between all the major players in the narrative taking place at a scrapyard, which is a great location. These films were made as B movies, so the budgets couldn’t have been huge, but the people making them seemed to manage to get every penny spent to work for them and show on screen. There is a lot of really good location filming, and it all ends with a big bang, to say the least. It won’t exercise the brain much, but it’s solid entertainment. RP