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Wellspring presents
Dick Francis Mysteries (1989)

"Asking questions is part of my job. Sometimes I'm not too subtle about it."
- David Cleveland (Ian McShane)

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: August 13, 2003

Stars: Ian McShane, Patrick MacNee
Other Stars: Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lloyd Bochner, Heath Lamberts, Lyman Ward, Niall Toibin, Stephen Brennan, Kate McKenzie, Barbara Rudnik, Amadeus August, Peter Sattmann, Kenneth Welsh
Director: various

Manufacturer: Ritek Global Media
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 04h:47m:00s
Release Date: May 20, 2003
UPC: 720917801728
Genre: mystery

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Since he hung up his riding crop 46 years ago, professional jockey turned mystery writer Dick Francis has penned 38 novels and acquired a legion of loyal fans, most of whom don't seem to mind that all his whodunits deal with a single subject—horseracing. How he's managed to devise fresh plots and intriguing angles on the same tired theme for more than four decades remains one of Francis' rare unsolved mysteries, much to the delight of readers worldwide. Like any prolific author, he's cranked out a few stinkers, but peers and public alike continue to recognize him as a true literary thoroughbred.

Having never read a Francis novel, I dove into Wellspring's Dick Francis Mysteries, a trio of 1989 made-for-TV adaptations, eager to get a taste of the master's magic. And while avid readers will admit that any film rarely equals the book upon which it's based, Francis aficionados will be doubly disappointed here. For not only are Twice Shy, Blood Sport and In the Frame anemic, predictable movies that lack tension and suspense, but I also discovered (thanks to a Dick Francis website) they bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Major plot and location changes afflict all three films, but the biggest crime of all is that chief detective David Cleveland (Ian McShane) doesn't appear in any of the corresponding books. The producers "borrowed" him from another Francis novel for the sole purpose of linking these films together. While viewers accept, and often expect, some creative license in the adaptation process, these liberties seem excessive.

Of course, it's doubtful even Francis' original stories could have salvaged these shoddy, hastily produced efforts. None of the films pass muster, but if pressed, I'd anoint Twice Shy as the collection's best, edging its teammates by a nose. The story finds Cleveland investigating the murder of his nephew's friend, who dies in a grisly rock-climbing "accident." The victim's cryptic computer files lead Cleveland to uncover a foolproof horseracing betting formula stored on a couple of highly coveted floppies. The program's author is deceased, but his kindly widow (Geraldine Fitzgerald) just might hold the key to the killer's identity. Twice Shy contains a few more layers than its companion films, as well as a lovely cameo by Fitzgerald that boosts the last act.

In Blood Sport, Cleveland helps a rich family recover a kidnapped stallion by infiltrating a Canadian dude ranch. Along the way, he romances his client's daughter, while keeping her love-starved stepmom at arm's length, and continues his fruitless quest for Italian mineral water (a running gag that's never explained). In the Frame adds the world of art and fine wine to the racing motif, as Cleveland tracks down a band of swindlers who sell clients fake merchandise, then steal it back—along with everything else in their homes. Cleveland's journey takes him from Canada to England to Germany, yet all the locations look suspiciously alike. The synthesizer-heavy soundtrack only accents the film's many cheesy elements.

Cheap production values, amateurish direction and downright horrific performances make these mysteries resemble student films instead of slick thrillers. McShane labors valiantly, but his supporting cast (all graduates of the Dynasty school of acting) betrays him with weak, laughably ineffective portrayals. Even the venerable Patrick Macnee, wasted in both his appearances, looks befuddled and bewildered, probably hoping Diana Rigg will swoop down and rescue him. Only Fitzgerald truly shines, and her all-too-brief appearance seems so out of place one might think she wandered in from a better film.

Dick Francis Mysteries will test the patience of even the author's staunchest fanatics, who will surely find ferreting out any original plot points more fun than the whodunits themselves. For those unfamiliar with and possibly intrigued by Francis, some sage advice: Read the books instead.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: All three films suffer from similar video maladies, largely due to the inferior source prints and overall low budget look of the productions. An annoying fuzziness predominates that obscures medium and long shots, although close-ups possess better clarity. Plenty of age-related grit, scratches and odd markings appear throughout, and faded colors rob the exteriors of any lushness or depth. At times, backgrounds shimmer as well, adding another distraction to the set's lengthy list.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The badly balanced mono track sounds hollow and flat, as if it were recorded in an abandoned warehouse. Both the upper and lower registers exhibit distortion, especially on the bombastic synthesizer-based music of In the Frame. Dialogue is often a bit muddled, but on the whole comprehendible. While I wasn't expecting much from this set's audio, it delivered less than I anticipated.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 48 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Cause Célèbre, The Old Man and the Sea, The Haunting Passion, Captain Jack
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: I usually criticize skimpy extras, but after slogging through the mediocre mysteries, I possessed neither the energy nor inclination to explore much else. A nice insert detailing Francis' careers in the saddle and behind the typewriter is included, providing welcome background information on the jockey/author. While Actor Biographies looked promising, a click yielded pathetically brief blurbs on McShane and Macnee—and no one else. Four trailers of other made-for-television films top off the paltry supplements.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

Dated, stiff and utterly unsatisfying, Dick Francis Mysteries won't inspire many viewers to storm the local bookstore in search of other Francis titles. These listless whodunits don't win, place or show, finishing several lengths behind similar films in the mystery genre. Anyone with horse sense will certainly avoid this ragged collection.


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