The Show That Launched
Mystery! on PBS Arrives
On DVD from Acorn Media
Mystery! on PBS Arrives
On DVD from Acorn Media
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In Robert Altman’s startling multiple narrative structured Short Cuts and Ray Lawrence’s unsettling Jindabyne-- two cinematic adaptations which drew from author Raymond Carver's dark short story So Much Water So Close To Home-- the filmmakers stared deep into the heart of contemporary apathy as fishermen ignore a dead body and go about their day.
While Altman, Lawrence, and Carver all illustrated one extreme of inhumanity, there is an entirely different extreme used to draw in Malcolm McDowell's hero Richard Chandos into a web of murder and deceit upon discovering a body while fishing in the 1922 French Pyrenees set She Fell Among Thieves.
Essentially a British tourist on holiday who’s worried about being held for months by the French police if he reports a deceased man flowing quickly downstream when all he has as evidence is a shoe-- while Richard initially decides to grow through political, diplomatic channels involving the consulate and British higher-ups, soon enough and without a whole lot of logic, he decides to get involved himself and solve the mystery.
And, of course while amateur sleuths provide entertaining fodder and anyone familiar with McDowell’s turns in projects such as Clockwork Orange or Heroes (or anything in between), realizes that the man who brought author Anthony Burgess’ most wicked creation Alexander DeLarge to life for Kubrick’s Orange is more than capable of taking care of himself—in the case of She Fell Among Thieves-- we’re not exactly dealing with the benign and low-key crimes of most classic British drawing room mysteries.
The 17th episode that aired in 1978 as part of the British television series, BBC2 Play of the Week, She Fell Among Thieves also has the lofty distinction of being the first BBC drama to launch PBS networks’ wildly successful and long-running series, Mystery! upon its 1980 air-date.
Adapted by Tom Sharpe from Dornford Yates’ novel for veteran and award-winning television director Clive Donner, the “mystery” element of the work is virtually nonexistent as right from the start, we recognize that Thieves actually seems more at home in the genres of high camp or Gothic B-movie horror.
The made-for-television movie is anchored by a ferocious and devious portrayal by Eileen Atkins as Vanity Fair (not to be confused with the novel or Mira Nair’s film starring Reese Witherspoon) as a cross between Norma Desmond and Baby Jane looking gaudy and frightful with blood red lipstick and twilight blue eye shadow that appears on her face twenty-four hours a day. And with Vanity Fair, we're presented with one dastardly stepmother who would easily give Snow White’s Wicked Queen and Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent a run for the title of a much more literal version of Queen “B.”
While she would never stoop to something as cliched as a veritable “shotgun wedding,” Atkins’ twisted widow who bosses around a lowly group of villains is more than happy to do whatever it takes to ensure that her beautiful, young stepdaughter breaks the contractual obligation stipulated in her deceased father's will by marrying before she comes of age.
With time running out and millions on the line that would fall to the lovely Jenny (Mary Poppins and Three Lives of Thomasina star Karen Dotrice), thereby taking away Vanity Fair's power as the Mistress of Chateau Jezreel—Vanity steps up her plan of torturous action trying to drug Jenny and any available groom into the shackles of matrimony.
Screenwriter Tom Sharpe tries his best to inject Thieves with some much needed dark humor, not to mention some very thinly disguised irony about the idea of marriage being worse than death. And while a few of the henchmen do provide a laugh-- Atkins chews the scenery with the best of them in a campy take that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would’ve seriously found amusing and enviable.
However, the plot becomes unnecessarily complicated, filled with foolish doppelgangers, some head-scratching twists, and increasingly ridiculous situations as it hurries along Brides of Fu Manchu style, all the while drawing confused giggles and questioning by viewers asto just why McDowell’s character would’ve voluntarily agreed to go undercover in this haunted house of loony creeps.
Although it’s safe to say you’ve never seen a BBC mystery quite like this as Thieves goes for Gothic camp over the traditional Agatha Christie modeled fare with which we’re usually treated and the actors all give it their best even when the final act seems to draw from fairy tales and a pre-Princess Bride reminiscent setup involving a high tower no less—ultimately, one wonders why this particular 17th episode was selected to first bring to American viewers.
Intrigued by the high quality of the BBC and its fine productions—it would be nice to see tales from the two complete seasons of BBC2 Play of the Week and in spite of its flaws, Acorn Media did a great job of dressing up the 1978 production with subtitles and Dolby Digital surround.
Retaining its original full-screen 4:3 aspect ratio and without much improvement on the picture quality in its digital transfer, you may have to adjust your television settings to find the ideal presentation of it but PBS Mystery! buffs who have the patience may indeed get a kick out of exploring the origins of their favorite long-running network series… at least for the novelty of watching McDowell play a good guy.
Although, I think you’ll agree, there’s got to be a happy medium between Carver’s nonchalance and apathy and McDowell’s overly-eager decision to turn into a Hardy Boy—or in other words, when you see a dead body-- call the police!