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Monday, May 28, 2012

MURDOCH MYSTERIES: SEASON 4 -- DVD review by porfle

With all the CSIs and their ilk jamming the airwaves, we seem to take for granted the fact that, long ago, somebody had to come up with all those brilliant forensic investigation techniques that hasten the resolution of all those baffling murder mysteries.  And that somebody, according to MURDOCH MYSTERIES: SEASON 4, is a Victorian-era Toronto police detective named William Murdoch.

He's back in this 4-disc DVD set from Acorn Media with 13 more episodes of delightfully droll and absorbingly interesting mysteries to spin the cogs of his wildly inventive mind.  It's Canada of the late 1890s--the "Age of Invention"--and Murdoch is on the cutting edge of it all, to both the delight and bafflement of his tough but indulgent boss Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig). 

As wonderfully played by Yannick Bisson, Murdoch is the most straitlaced, unassuming, and rigorously moral of gentlemen, a devout Catholic who crosses himself at every crime scene and eschews glory for the satisfaction of inventing new ways of fighting crime. 

During season four alone he invents the security camera (or as he calls it, the "scrutiny camera"), sonar for locating a sunken steamboat with an illicit cargo, explosive dye cannisters to foil bank robbers, phone-tapping, the pistol silencer, photo faxing, and a host of other rudimentary yet charmingly "futuristic" gadgets that somebody else got the credit for later.

Murdoch's main foil is Constable George Crabtree (Johnny Harris), an intelligent but overly enthusiastic young cop whose delight in such scientific advancement goes hand in hand with a geeky fascination with anything weird or seemingly supernatural.  In "Bloodlust", Crabtree's excitement over the new Bram Stoker sensation "Dracula" actually aids in solving a murder in a girls' boarding school which is apparently plagued by a vampire. 

Crabtree also has a penchant for inadvertently inventing things--in the episode "Downstairs, Upstairs", for example, his examination of Murdoch's scale model of a mansion where a murder took place, including locations such as the library and the observatory, leads him to create the board game "Clue"!  (Which Murdoch, of course, scoffs at--who'd want to play a game about murder?)

Another scale model figures prominently in one of the season's finest episodes, "Dead End Street", in which an idiot savant named Lydia (Liisa Repo-Martell) builds a perfect replica of the street she lives on, complete with her view of a murder she witnessed through a nearby window.  In an example of the show's endlessly creative visual style, Murdoch imagines himself doll-sized as he strolls the tiny street looking for clues among the tiny stand-up figures of Lydia's neighbors. 

Just as season three ended with Murdoch fumbling the ball in his romantic relationship with beautiful medical examiner Dr. Julia Ogden (the stunning Helene Joy), this one agonizes over the awkward situation of Murdoch and Ogden continuing to work together while she's engaged to another man (Jonathan Watton). 

In "Murdoch in Wonderland", this builds to a season-ending wedding which coincides with Murdoch being jailed himself as the prime suspect in a murder that occurs during an "Alice in Wonderland" party (the Mock Turtle gets bludgeoned by a croquet mallet with Murdoch's "fingermarks" all over it).  Even with all this, Murdoch finds a way of getting into even deeper trouble for the season cliffhanger.

The series is beautifully designed and richly mounted, with a strong period atmosphere augmented by well-chosen locations and some fairly nifty CGI overviews of the city.  Direction is uniformly fine, with Bisson himself helming the episode "Buffalo Shuffle" in which Murdoch travels to a children's hospital in Buffalo at the request of Dr. Ogden, who suspects foul play in a little boy's death.  

In "Tattered and Torn", the discovery of three dismembered bodies encased in cement blocks puts Murdoch at odds with a stuffy, old-fashioned medical examiner from Scotland Yard (Paul Rhys, marvelous in a recurring role) who's filling in for Dr. Ogden.  Victor Garber (TITANIC) guest stars.  "Kommando" features a series of murders within a Toronto military regiment, with a terrible shared secret as the motive.

"Monsieur Murdoch" is a scintillating mistaken-identity mystery in which Murdoch works with a flamboyant French detective, Inspector Marcel Guillaume (Yannick Soulier), whose vastly different methods and scandalously uninhibited lifestyle have the conservative Murdoch reeling.  "Confederate Treasure" puts forth an interesting premise--that certain Canadians wanted the South to win the Civil War and set a dastardly plot in motion to help achieve that goal! 

"Dial M For Murdoch" has some delightful bits of business concerning a spunky telephone operator (Rachel Wilson) who overhears a murder on the phone and insists on helping Inspector Crabtree solve the case.  (This is the one where Murdoch invents the phone tap.)  The twist ending is somber and unsettling.  In "The Black Hand", that pistol silencer comes into play as a ruthless assassin from the dreaded USA crime syndicate starts racking up victims in Toronto. 

"Voices" features Michelle Nolden as Murdoch's estranged sister Susannah, who is Mother Superior in a convent where the partially-buried body of a murdered priest is discovered in a grave intended for a deceased nun.  In "The Kissing Bandit", a woman present at a bank robbery finds herself smitten with the dashing thief who gives her a big wet one before making his getaway.  Later, the Robin Hood-style robber drastically alters his tactics by coldbloodedly shooting down one of his victims.  But is it the same man behind the mask?

The four-disc set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby sound and English subtitles.  Extras consist of several brief featurettes.  A 3-disc Blu-Ray edition is also available.

With Yannick Bisson's earnest and endlessly endearing Murdoch leading a stable of very likable characters through some fascinating and richly atmospheric mystery adventures, MURDOCH MYSTERIES: SEASON 4 provides a wealth of rewarding entertainment that fires on all cylinders--just like one of those newfangled internal combustion engines.

Buy it at

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