Banacek: Season Two (Part 1)

Continuing our look at TV’s impossible-crime specialist of the early 1970s. Entries on Season One are here and here.

“No Stone Unturned” by Stephen Lord, Robert Van Scoyk, Lee Santley and George Sheldon Smith.

What seems to happen: a three-ton statue disappears from the art gallery where it was about to be unveiled, even though nobody could have come near it with the kind of equipment needed to move (or destroy) it. 

Like last season’s “The Two Million Clams of Cap’n Jack”, this episode has a surprisingly large number of people sharing writer credit, and like “Cap’n Jack,” it’s a really good one. The solution is both ingenious and fairly clued. I also have to give my younger brother full marks on this one; he was able to spot how it was done when I couldn’t. At age ten. Sometimes I hate my younger brother. 

“If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” by Robert van Scoyk.

What seems to happen: a supercomputer disappears from a locked, guarded building overnight. 

You can tell this episode was written during the era of movies like “I Could Never Have Sex With Any Man Who Has So Little Regard For My Husband” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”. The solution is not a bad one, but somehow I found it a letdown.

“The Three Million Dollar Piracy” by Stanley Ralph Ross, Robert Van Scoyk (this guy got around, didn’t he?) and Jack Turley.

What seems to happen: A coach (the kind drawn by horses), studded with valuable jewels, is packed in a protective crate and loaded into the hold of a ship. When the crate is inspected before the ship can sail off, the coach is gone, and the only clue is a hole burned into the side with a blowtorch – one far too small for the coach to have gone through.

Another very good one, with some great misdirection. You can usually find a similarity between a Banacek solution and at least one story written earlier, but the mechanics of this one actually remind me of a later mystery written by an author who knows his way around an impossible crime. I won’t be any more specific than that!

“The Vanishing Chalice” by Morton Fine.

What seems to happen: As in last season’s “A Million the Hard Way”, something valuable is on public display and in full view of lots of people. When they all take their eyes off it for a brief moment, it disappears.

Not a good one. I don’t believe for a moment that the method could work, although the identity of the culprit was well-concealed.

To be concluded with the last four Banaceks in due course!

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Banacek: Season One (Part 2)

Concluding my look at the first season of Banacek, the ’70s series about the insurance investigator who specialized in solving impossible thefts. Part One is here.

“A Million the Hard Way” by Stanley Ralph Ross (who also wrote one of the best Columbos, “Swan Song”). What seems to happen: A Las Vegas casino keeps guess-how-much in cash in an unbreakable display case as an attraction (“Have your picture taken with a million dollars!”). A distraction causes everyone in the vicinity of the case to look in another direction for a few seconds; by the time someone looks back, the money has disappeared.

Clever, but I’m not convinced the vanishing method would work so smoothly in real life. In retrospect, it’s hilarious how low-rent the casino looks compared to the glitzy palaces they have in Vegas nowadays.

“To Steal a King” by Stephen Kandel. What seems to happen: the owner of a collection of ten rare coins locks them in a hotel safe overnight; when he opens it again in the morning, the coins are gone. It’s a time vault, so no one could have opened it as he slept.

An impossibility with a solution you have probably seen before, but may still fail to recognize till Banacek explains all. A very enjoyable episode.

“Ten Thousand Dollars a Page” by Paul Playdon (who wrote some of the best episodes of the 1960’s Mission: Impossible). What seems to happen: a rare book vanishes from a vault despite security cameras being on it the whole time. 

Like “Project Phoenix” in Part One, this one has an overcomplicated solution that failed to dazzle me.

“The Greatest Collection of Them All” by Theodore J. Flicker (co-creator of Barney Miller). What seems to happen: a collection of paintings is loaded into a panel truck, but when the truck arrives at its destination, only one painting is still inside.

Another echo of “Project Phoenix” – in this case, because again something disappears from a vehicle during a nonstop journey – but with a completely different and much neater solution. 

“The Two Million Clams of Cap’n Jack” by Stanley Ralph Ross, Shirl Hendryx (who wrote a top-notch Columbo, “A Stitch in Crime”), Pat Fielder and Richard Bluel. What seems to happen: a security guard, carrying a satchel containing two million in stock certificates, enters an elevator. When the car stops on another floor after an uninterrupted ride, the satchel is still there, but the guard and certificates aren’t.

I’m a sucker for a good elevator-based impossible crime, but seeing that four people wrote a screenplay gives me a bad feeling – too many cooks, and all that. Well, I don’t know why “Cap’n Jack” needed so many writers, but this is one of the best Banaceks, with an awesomely simple solution. The first season ended on a high note.

I will get to the second and last season eventually…

Banacek: Season One (Part 1)

A while back I said that the Columbo TV show was the finest series of inverted-detective mysteries ever. Banacek, another NBC mystery-movie series from the 1970s, isn’t the finest series of impossible-crime mysteries ever, but insurance investigator Thomas Banacek is still well entitled to hoist a glass of his preferred beverage in Detectives’ Valhalla with Dr. Fell, H.M. and Dr. Sam Hawthorne. 

Banacek only lasted two years on the air (1972-74), with 17 episodes in all including the pilot. In The Columbo Phile, Mark Dawidziak speculates that the show didn’t stick around longer because while the puzzles were often first-rate, Banacek himself was a little bland compared to Columbo. He contrasts this with Magnum P.I. (I guess I now need to specify the original Magnum P.I.), which didn’t have particularly distinguished plots, but had a lead with charisma coming out of his ears. 

(As an aside, this theory would also explain why Levinson and Link’s Murder, She Wrote did so much better than their Ellery Queen series that preceded it by a few years.)

I agree with Dawidziak, except I’d take it further: even as a pre-teen boy watching in 1972, I found Banacek hard to take. Partly it was that he usually seemed a little smug, even if as a brilliant detective he had good reason. Partly it was the silly “Polish proverbs” he quoted (i.e. made up)… but mostly it was his sexist attitudes towards women. No need to go into the details here, but if you’re going to watch the show, you just have to accept Banacek’s misogyny as part of the package. Of course, you can also opt not to watch it at all.

Anyway! The shows always had the same pattern: at the start of the episode, something valuable disappears under apparently impossible circumstances. The insurance company, standing to lose a lot of money, hires freelance detective Banacek to investigate, and after the requisite number of suspect interviews and fistfights, he recovers the item and explains who stole it and how (usually in a voice-over as we see the crime being pulled off in a silent flashback.) The 75 minutes or so between the crime and the explanation offer clues, guest stars who were famous in the seventies, and Banacek’s chauffeur inevitably coming up with a wrong solution, but of course it’s the ending that makes or breaks an episode.

So how do those endings stack up? Well, as with certain classic impossible-crime stories from decades ago, the mysteries may not be as baffling to experienced detective-story readers as they were to the average NBC viewer when the shows were first broadcast. Still, you probably won’t always beat Banacek to the solution, and even if you do, working out the “how” will usually be a lot of fun. So here are my mini-reviews of the first half of Season One:

“Detour to Nowhere”, by Anthony Wilson. Some TV series pilots differ significantly from the series that follows. This isn’t one of them, except that it’s two hours instead of 90 minutes. What seems to happen: an armoured car carrying a load of gold bullion veers off the desert road it was travelling on, leaving a clear set of tracks in the sand that end suddenly with no car or gold in sight… just the murdered bodies of the driver and guard who’d been inside.

Not a bad way at all to start the series, but this is one impossibility the experienced reader is not likely to have much trouble with.

“Let’s Hear It for a Living Legend”, by Del Reisman. What seems to happen: during a televised football game, a bunch of players pile on the opposing team’s star halfback. When they get up again, the halfback’s helmet is still there, but the rest of him has vanished. Soon enough, a ransom demand arrives…

The solution, if not very original, is still clever, and it’s audacious to have an impossibility take place in front of a TV audience of millions… but there is one thing Banacek (or someone who was watching the game) should have spotted right away that would have turned this into a 10-minute-long episode. 

“Project Phoenix”, by David Moessinger. What seems to happen: a prototype car is loaded onto a train flatcar, but when the train arrives at its destination after a non-stop journey, both the car and the flatcar are gone.

A good Banacek is one where you can explain the gist of the solution in one sentence. This one is the opposite; even after watching the ending multiple times, I can never remember how the bad guys pulled their heist. One of the weakest.

“No Sign of the Cross”, by Robert Presnell, Jr. and Howard Browne. What seems to happen: in transit between a Mexican monastery and an American collector’s estate, a valuable crucifix disappears from an attache case that was in the care of couriers the whole time.

If “Project Phoenix” is one of the weakest Banaceks, this may be the best one of all, with a solution I didn’t see coming and that can indeed be explained in one sentence. Even if you don’t want to check out the entire series, this is a good one to give you a sample of the show at its best. 

To be continued eventually…