Venerable series gallops into its 200th episode with anotherserviceable murder mystery, this one about horse race finagling and how indefatigable Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher nails the killer. Series, despite preposterous plotting and shorthand characterizations, is a sure thing for 200 more if Lansbury and company want to put down a bet.
Mickey Rooney and Lansbury, who last appeared together in the 1945 “National Velvet,” are reunited in a horsey milieu, with Rooney playing trainer Matt hired by wealthy Don Murray and just-about-broke Tippi Hedren. Their respective offspring are engaged, and the nag has to win or Hedren and daughter Amy Dolenz lose their feedbag.
Horse breeder Stephen Macht has a reason for wanting the horse not to run, and Murray’s son Sean O’Bryan has his reason for not wanting to marry Dolenz — namely, Matt’s daughter Shawnee Smith. The heavily laden script by Robert Hamner plows on as a body eventually hits the ground and various performers, including a full-of-himself sheriff (Blake Gibbons), look either suspicious or baffled — it’s not easy to figure out which. Naturally, Lansbury’s Jessica solves everything with the aplomb of a champ gin player slapping down her cards.
Director Don Mischer handles the traffic with dispatch. The players know their places and their lines.
Secret of the success of “Murder, She Wrote,” besides its cozy appeal to older generations, is the Lansbury touch. And it’s a descendant of 1930s and ’40 s second-bill theatrical mysteries whose plots were basically clustered around a Philo Vance or a Charlie Chan. Their dialogue was direct, characters little more than devices, and the solution, usually sprung at a gathering of suspects, was fanciful.
Formula stills works if shrewdly applied — and if it offers Lansbury as its central figure.