Sunday, October 30, 2022

Murder She Wrote: Night of the Headless Horseman ( 1987 )

Angela Lansbury, that wonderful actress of the stage and screen, passed away on October 11th at the age of 96. She was one of those rare actors who was equally well known for her work in film ( The Portrait of Dorian Gray, The Manchurian Candidate, etc ), in the theater ( Mame, Sweeney Todd ), and on television, where she played one of the most beloved sleuths in television history -  Mrs. Jessica Fletcher in the long-running series Murder, She Wrote

Murder, She Wrote premiered in 1984 and ran for 12 seasons, ending in 1996. There were over 260 episodes made and if you ask fans of the show which is their favorite, few can name just one. In fact, it would be difficult to narrow the choice down to a top ten list. However, since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to share a review of one of the eeriest episodes made and certainly one of my top favorites: "Night of the Headless Horseman". 

"Night of the Headless Horseman" was the eleventh episode from season three, a season that was filled with juicy episodes. It tells the story of Dorian Beecher ( Thom Bray ), a young poetic English teacher at a private school for boys. He is in love with Sarah DuPont ( Karlene Crockett ), daughter of the president of the school, but he has a rival for his affections - the nasty Nate Findley ( Barry Williams ), one of the school's riding instructors. Several times Dorian has encountered a "headless" horseman on the old wooden bridge near the village and he believes the apparition to be Nate playing tricks with him. 

One evening, after having a row with Nate at the local inn, Dorian decides to walk home across the bridge and, once again, the masked rider on horseback comes charging out of the night, this time pushing Dorian down to the ground. 

When he awakes, hours later, the town is abuzz with the news that Nate Findley's body was found near the bridge...with his head cut off! 

Suspicion naturally points to Dorian, but luckily for him, Mrs. Fletcher is there to defend him and uncover the clues to discover the real murderer. 

While all of the Murder, She Wrote episodes featured a murder ( some had as many as three ), none were so ghastly as this beheading. 

"Oh Jessica, if I were going to kill anybody I certainly wouldn't decapitate them. That is really disgusting!" - Dorian

What reason was there to behead, Nate? Was it to embellish the legend of the headless horseman? Could be. But Mrs. Fletcher had an even stranger puzzle on her mind. Nate Findley's boots were on opposite feet when his body was found. 

"Night of the Headless Horseman" has a number of good clues to help television viewers piece together the puzzle but whether you solve the mystery or not, you will enjoy watching this story unfold. 

The setting is picturesque ( a fictional Vermont village in autumn ) and the guest stars are great to see. Hope Lange ( The Ghost and Mrs. Muir ) plays the principal of the school where Dorian teaches. Fritz Weaver is Dorian's employer and the father of his beloved Sarah. Charles Siebert plays a local dentist, Judy Landers a waitress at the village inn, Guy Stockwell a groundskeeper, and best of all, Doug McClure stars as the town sheriff. 

Of course, like in all Murder, She Wrote episodes, it is Angela Lansbury who takes center stage and she is particularly fun to watch in this episode. Knowing that his potential father-in-law is anxious to meet his mother, orphan Dorian brings Mrs. Fletcher out to the school and introduces her as his mother. Angela Lansbury's various expressions of surprise as she is called Mrs. Beecher throughout the episode are delightful to watch. 

Susan Littwin, an editor for TV Guide, was invited backstage to see this episode being made and she wrote about it in the January 3-9, 1987 issue of the magazine. "Putting this almost-movie on the air every week, 22 times a year, is one of the fast-food miracles of television," she writes. Littwin goes on to say that this episode cost a surprising figure - $1.3 million dollars - and involved a staff and crew of 76 and a cast of 14. 

Lansbury worked 12-hour days, nine months a year. It is easy to forget that when you see how effortlessly she plays Mrs. Fletcher. Luckily, with the instantaneous wonder of DVDs and streaming, we can enjoy episodes like Night of the Headless Horseman over and over again and appreciate the work and talent involved. This one in particular is great to watch on an autumn afternoon cuddled up with a warm sweater and a cup of tea. 

1 comment:

  1. Tragic lost to the world of classic movies/TV but what an amazing career she had.