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Down to the Welles: Orson Welles Great Mysteries Volume 2 on DVD

  Orson Welles lent his name to many an enterprise as his life went on, largely with the purpose of raising funds for his own projects which stuttered into life - if he was lucky, and if he was luckier, actually were completed. This meant shilling for sherry and frozen peas, among other things, and growing ever more dejected privately at how his career had gone, but every so often he would put that famous moniker, and his booming voice, to good use. Orson Welles Great Mysteries was one of those projects, from British television station and ITV region Anglia, that seemed to suit him down to the ground, topping and tailing literary adaptations and supplying them with gravitas as well as copious amounts of cigar smoke, all self-directed, though the episodes were by other hands.

Thirteen of these twenty-six episodes have been released on DVD, but Network have now followed with Volume 2, completing the set. They kick off with Money to Burn, Margery Allingham's tale of a Frenchwoman (Olga Georges-Picot) in Soho who inherits a restaurant that is in debt to local crime boss played by Victor Buono, an actor as heavyweight as Welles physically, though he was more keen on comedy. He played it straight here, however, as the villain tries to persuade the woman to marry him to pay off the debt, demonstrating he cares naught for the cash she supplies by burning it in front of her. There was a nice pay-off to this, which was guessable, but Buono was always good value, be he King Tut on the Batman television series or reciting his comic poetry. But serious here.

Next was Battle of Wits, from Maisie Sharman's story (credited as Miriam), where a headmaster (Brewster Mason) of a public school receives a visit from an obviously unhinged stranger (Ian Bannen) claiming to be the father of one of the pupils, a boy who has been expelled for stealing and now, according to this man, has killed himself. The father wants revenge, and plans to make it look as if the headmaster has committed suicide too - but is he lefthanded or righthanded? This strangely absorbing little playlet had the distinction of being directed by future head of the British Board of Film Classification James Ferman, back in the days when he wasn't dodging censorship brickbats and was making his own productions. He doesn't do too bad a job, to be fair.

Come Into My Parlour was third on Disc One, where Dana Wynter, best known from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was a successful concert pianist who has always harboured a deep regret that has soured into a hatred for the woman (Anne Jackson) who took her husband away. Therefore she invites her over to her Continental apartment supposedly to discuss and make amends, but actually to give her a rare poison in a glass of lemonade. Will she carry out this crime, or will common sense stay her hand? That was the level of suspense here, but you would be correct to believe there was more going on than the musician realises in this Gloria Amoury adaptation which started with Orson going into great detail about the background to the quiet thriller's plot.

Miriam Allen DeFord was the author of Farewell to the Faulkners, another version of a female writer's efforts and evidence the producers were not going to the same well over and over, despite a telling of The Monkey's Paw in this series. This began with a woman returning to her country house retreat where her sister was meant to be, but finding her vanished, and the rest of the plot concentrated on what happened to not only this first woman, but two others, the answer being unexpectedly bizarre, though more by modern standards than the kind of twist in the tale pieces presented in the seventies. Keith Baxter was the lead, as one of the titular Faulkners whose secret is treated as something to be left aghast by, even more than what befell the women.

The Inspiration of Mr Budd was based on a Dorothy L. Sayers story, she of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and this was fairly lighthearted despite having a brutal murder kicking off the plot. Budd (Donal Donnelly) was a barber who Welles informs us has been a huge success with his boutique, but the reason for that is his involvement with a strange man who entered his first shop years ago sporting bright red hair, beard, moustache and eyebrows (Hugh Griffith). "Are you prepared to die?!" he enquires, then you twig he said "dye": he wants a makeover, because as the headlines in the newspaper say, he is a murderer and needs a new identity. The solution to this problem was, not to put too fine a point on it, wacky, but pretty entertaining in a not-quite comedy.

Far more aimed at the funny bone was The Dinner Party, which initially appears as if it will be a boardroom drama, but then turns into a comedy of manners where accountant Anton Rodgers is invited to the party of the title so the board of directors, who are considering his joining them, want to see what his hitherto unseen wife is like. She was played by Joan Collins in a highly amusing performance as she does everything wrong in polite society, accidentally insulting the other posh guests, making uncouth mistakes of etiquette, and generally showing her husband up for his supposed bad taste in choosing her. Where's the mystery though? The conclusion reveals all, and into the bargain we have enjoyed a top turn from Joan, amply proving her comic timing and delivery.

It was another Hollywood import who graced the studio in Unseen Alibi, an episode given a name that completely gave the game away, oddly, but this starred Dean Stockwell, in his mid-period of not being as hot a property as he had been in the fifties and sixties, but before his renaissance in material like Blue Velvet in the movies and Quantum Leap and Battlestar Galactica on television. What his character was mired in was a murder plot, as he thought he was arriving in London for a romantic liaison, but actually he is there as a "fall guy" for the death of the husband of the woman he was having an affair with - detective Joss Ackland thinks it's an open and shut case and he is blatantly guilty but is he? As mentioned, the title reveals, if not all, then most, in a middling entry.

Once again with the star from across the Pond, as Carol Lynley appeared as the title character in Death of an Old-Fashioned Girl, who as we begin has been fatally stabbed in an artist's studio - the artist she had taken away from his wife when they met at a party, which has been the source of much ill-feeling ever since. The question here was, who performed the killing, and the answer was built up to in flashbacks featuring the likes of Francesca Annis, Jack Shepherd and John Le Mesurier who could all be suspects, though the explanation in this adaptation of a Stanley Ellin story was so ridiculous that it threatened not to prompt the audience into gasps of shock at the revelation, more bursts of laughter. There's also some very intrusive music on the soundtrack; not the best.

There was a reunion of sorts in an Alfred Hitchcock style, as Alec McCowen was reunited with Anna Massey, who had both starred in his thriller Frenzy the previous year, on the big screen. This episode was not very Hitchcockian at all, however, based on a W. Somerset Maugham tale called A Point of Law, and fairly straightforward as far as these things went. Massey played a tubercular woman who has stuck by her wealthy father all her life, but now the end is nigh for them both she wants to make a grand gesture and finally get married, despite lawyer McCowen's objections this younger man is not only unsuitable, but simply keen to get his hands on the family fortune. You don't need a survey to tell you this is a bad idea, so the main hook was seeing the plan's frustration.

Where There's a Will was the unoriginal title of the following instalment, written especially for the series by Michael Gilbert, and once again, tied up with the legal side. In a rather convoluted set of events, lawyer Richard Johnson was left with a client's will to see to and is suddenly plunged into complications when a letter drops out of the envelope with a murder confession written inside. He feels he must go to the police, as the case is still open, but his business partner Hannah Gordon has a more canny head on her shoulders and advises against it, particularly when a fresh twist rears its head. The trouble with this one was it was too contrived to be believable, but as these things went the cast were able to sell it, Bill Maynard showing up in the second half as the detective in charge.

More Americans appeared in The Power of Fear, though this was set in the United States (while filmed in East Anglia): Shirley Knight was a suburban housewife to a fairly well-off lawyer who was away on business when a plumber (Don Murray) needed to be called to attend to a leak in the basement. However, he behaves very strangely, menacingly even, as he goes about the job which takes an improbable three hours, the reason for that being he has a dastardly plan to blackmail Shirl by pretending they were spending the afternoon in bed with each other. She is horrified, and tells him she will call the police, yet it seems he has his scheme all worked out, so can she escape? Based on a story by Lawrence Treat, creator of the police procedural, this concludes satisfyingly.

The penultimate episode was Ice Storm, nothing to do with the film of the same name but a neat little mystery concerning Claire Bloom, art expert, who finds herself stranded in her country house with three other experts - or so they claim. But what she knows is one is a murderer and has just killed an associate, and may do the same to her if he doesn't get a priceless art treasure, so it's up to her to work out who among Thorley Walters, Robert Beatty and Brian Wilde not to trust. Unfortunately, she cannot escape because of the freezing weather, and it all amounted to a tense suspenser with the criminal well-concealed, but perfectly fair in the reveal, in this Jerome Barry story that was a cross between the "frightened lady" genre and the whodunit in a stately home genre.

Finally in this series we were offered an espionage yarn with A Time to Remember, which featured two cult actors of the big and small screen, Patrick Macnee and Charles Gray, pitting their wits against one another. Gray was a Russian Army officer who has apparently defected from behind the Iron Curtain, but the British authorities are not one hundred percent convinced he is who he says he is: could he be trying to pull the wool over their eyes? Macnee, now a businessman (with "Foster Kane Associates"!), is whisked away from his office to meet with Gray, for they knew one another back in the war years, and Macnee should in theory be able to identify him as the real deal or not in an instalment very typical of the Cold War conspiracy stylings that were all over television for years.

Network include an image gallery as an extra, but it is the series that's the major draw, and if you enjoyed the first half of the DVD set from 2019 of Orson Welles Great Mysteries, this 2020 follow-up will entertain as well. Click here to buy from the Network website.

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018