Jess is staying at the fancy Parkside Hotel in Santa Monica, California, courtesy of her publisher. She is having a lunch meeting with a publicist in the hotel dining room, who is trying to convince her that publicizing her “solved cases” would be better than publicizing her upcoming novel.

This gets her noticed by a hotel staff member, Gloria, who comes to visit her later in her room with a plea:  her husband Sam has just gotten out of jail after serving 30 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Sam seems to have given up on life, so Gloria’s hoping Jessica can help figure out what really happened, and thus help them live out the rest of their years in happiness.

The episode is a direct reference to the 1949 movie Strange Bargain.  In both the movie and this episode the premise is that an employee working for a failing accounting firm is offered $10,000 by his boss, Mr. Jarvis, to make the boss’s planned suicide look like a murder in order for the Jarvis family to still get his insurance money.  The employee shows up at the Jarvis mansion to find the boss dead, and then proceeds with the plan to cover up the suicide, which eventually makes the employee a suspect to the police.

I did a bit of digging and was able to find a copy of Strange Bargain in order to watch it myself.  This is where the two versions of the story diverge, since the resolution depicted in the TV show does not match the resolution in the movie. Below, I summarize the main facts for both versions.

Just the facts ma’am:

Spoilers are in white font, so highlight the text below to reveal the answers.

On Murder, She Wrote:

The victim was killed by… accident!  His wife came home early and interrupted his plan.  Since she didn’t want him to die, she tried to wrestle the gun out of his hand, and in the process the gun went off.  The vital clue that helped J.B. solve the crime was… the fact that the gun was eventually recovered and fingerprints were on the barrel indicating a struggle.

In Strange Bargain:

The victim was killed by… his wife!  She came home early and found that the husband had chickened out of killing himself, so she decided to do the job for him.  She couldn’t imagine living a poor life.  She was arrested after being confronted by the man hired to cover up the supposed suicide.

Then and Now:

The great part about this episode is that it uses original footage from Strange Bargain as flashback scenes, and three of the main actors appeared in both the movie and this episode.

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Jeffrey Lynn and Martha Scott play Sam and Gloria Wilson.

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Gloria and Sam Wilson in Strange Bargain.
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Harry Morgan plays Lt. Webb, seen here on both MSW and Strange Bargain.  You may recognize him as Colonel Potter from MASH.

Repeat offenders:

Some of the other characters that appeared in the movie and were reprised in the episode were either played by actors who were deceased by the time the episode was filmed, or were played by children and thus were no longer acting.  The actors that took over those roles also appeared in other Murder, She Wrote episodes.

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Art Hindle (left), in place of Michael Chapin (right), plays Sam and Gloria’s son Rod.  This is Art Hindle’s second and final appearance on MSW.  Fun fact, in Strange Bargain, they also have a daughter but she’s never mentioned in the MSW episode.

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Richard Beymer (right), in place of Raymond Roe (left), as the Jarvis’s son Sydney.  Richard Beymer appeared in a total of 6 episodes of MSW, and also stars in Twin Peaks.

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June Havoc (left), in place of Betty Underwood (right), as secretary Thelma Vantay.  June Havoc will also appeared in one more MSW episode.

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Gloria Stewart (right), in place of Katherine Emery (left), as Mrs Jarvis. Gloria Steward will also appear in a MSW TV movie.  You might also recognize her as old Rose from Titanic.

And last but not least… a character/actor that did not appear in Strange Bargain but deserves special attention:

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Debbie Zipp plays Rod Wilson’s pregnant wife.  Debbie Zipp will return to MSW in the following season to play Grady’s fiancee Donna.  As Donna, she appears in a total of 4 episodes.

There were a few additional actors that had also made more than one appearance on MSW as different characters:

  • Tom Dresden (playing Peabody, J.B. Fletcher’s publicist) and Mark Pilon (playing a Male Secretary) both make their second and final appearance on the show.
  • Emory Bass (playing the hotel manager) and Russ Martin (playing Lt. Sharp) will come back to make one more appearance on the show.

Conclusions:

First of all, I am very much impressed by this episode and with the way it weaves in material from the movie. Additionally, since I had recently watched and read Fletch, I was interested in the premise of a man staging his death in order for his family to profit from his life insurance.

Finally, a couple of tidbits of trivia for J.B. Fletcher fans:

  • The Stain on the Stairs is mentioned as the title of J.B. Fletcher’s newest novel.
  • Harry Morgan’s character mentions “Bedsheet Bingo”, a term used by Harry McGraw in “Death Takes a Dive”.  I checked, and the two episodes were written by different people. So I can only guess that this used to be a common euphemism at some point in time.
  • J.B.’s publicist mentions several newspaper articles about her sleuthing skills. Articles with titles like: “Scribe pens killer into pen”; “Writer rights wrong”.
  • The title of the episode is taken from an old Pop Standard titled “September Song” with the lyrics: “Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few | September, November | And these few precious days I’ll spend with you | These precious days I’ll spend with you.”  These likely reference the few days that the Wilsons have left to spend with each other after Sam gets out of jail.

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