Judge Bill Gibron believes fans of old British TV are the only ones who'll give an "Amsterdam" about this collection.
Dutch Detective Action—or what passes for the early '70s version of same.
The standard media wisdom goes like this—the British are better at the traditional TV archetypes than their upstart colonial cousins. It can be seen in the sitcom, the sketch comedy/variety show, and the hour long drama. No matter what era you pick—'60s through 'OOs—the UK supposedly wins it all. Of course, that's only if you consider the real classics claimed by the English—Monty Python's Flying Circus, Blackadder, Life on Mars, The Avengers, The Prisoner, etc. Naturally, there are those shows that fail such benchmarks and fall between the cracks, shows that held their claim to fame for a brief shining moment before slipping into entertainment oblivion, never really resonating beyond their initial timeslot. Take Van Der Valk, for example. While wildly popular during its run, many chalked up such success to the fact that current Hitchcock psycho du jour Barry Foster (Frenzy) was playing the title character, a disillusioned Dutch detective. Based on the novels of Nicolas Freeling, the show continues to have a determined cult following—and rightfully so. It's a great deal of nostalgic fun. But if you're looking for something to sit along the current crop of CSI style procedurals, you'll be gravely disappointed.
Offering up the first six episodes ever (considered a season's worth across the Atlantic), Van Der Valk is a character study disguised as a hardnosed cop saga. Our hero is an undeniable amalgamation of era-appropriate cool: drinking on the job; smoking incessantly; flirting with the ladies while staying true to his pseudo-supermodel quality wife; thwarting authority while going about his own unorthodox means of crime fighting. His sidekicks are there to merely exacerbate his already crafty counterculture stance, either harrumphing in frustrated disbelief or barking out ethical tenets that the narrative is unwilling to accept. Indeed, we are involved in the situations thanks to Foster, who looks like a slightly seedier Gene Wilder, walking the fine line between attractive and wholly deranged. He brings a certain suave uncertainty to the character, a clear case of man making the material far more arresting than it ever could be. Sure, the stories are occasionally engrossing, pretend whodunits that give away obvious clues about the means, motive, and man (or woman) behind the act. But it all works—sort of—thanks to Foster.
Disc One houses the first three installments of the series, beginning with "One Herring's Not Enough" in which Van Der Valk butts heads with a teacher who confesses to a crime without any direct evidence linking him to it. "Destroying Angel" finds Amsterdam's sleazy side exposed as a brothel is tied to the poisoning of a previous customer. Finally, "Blue Notes" sees a famous violinist return to his homeland for a rare concert under a series of death threats. It is up to Van Der Valk to discover the source, and the reasons why. Disc Two takes us through the last three episodes with "Elected Silence" offering up the standard storyline involving a high ranking politician, the kidnapping of his daughter, and the past that haunts him. When an Englishman is found dead in one of the city's canals, his family's disinterest leads Van Der Valk to infiltrate the transvestite scene in "Thicker Than Water." Finally, "The Adventurer" sees our hero trying to uncover the mind behind a dead contract killer, a stonemason, and the unlawful elements that connect them both.
In general, Van Der Valk is more attitude than action. Foster is perfectly fine, and is his supporting cast including Susan Travers (as the lovely Missus) and Michael Latimer (as that always aggravated Inspector Kroon). The unusual production set-up, which sees the interiors shot on video while the exteriors are captured on 16mm film is an instant reminder of the whole early BBC era of television. Fans of Monty Python and other UK imports while recognize the style immediately. Of the six shows, both "Angel" and "Water" stand out, since they deal directly with Amsterdam's notorious reputation, while "Herring" and "Silence" suffer from being overly familiar and formulaic. We never really care if Van Der Valk gets his man (or woman, or some cross-dressing combination of the two). Instead, this is a show about atmosphere, about capturing a time and place for the purposes of retrofitting onto a typical cops and robbers title. Some will enjoy this vague, unclear combination of personality and punishment. Others will wonder where all the energy went.
Acorn Media's DVD presentation is perfectly acceptable, with a couple of caveats. The company acknowledges that DVD brings out the worst in early '70s British programming, and sans an expensive remaster, they are right. Van Der Valk looks grainy, soft, and noisy. The 1.33:1 full screen image lacks significant ghosting and flaring, but there are other issues that remind you of its age and rarity. On the sound side of things, we get muddy aural reproduction that finds the music occasionally wiping out the dialogue. Even in a faux stereo Dolby Digital 2.0 set up, things are less than crystal clear. Finally, there is a significant lack of added content here. Aside from a text bio of novels author Nicolas Freeling, there is nothing about the series or its star specifically. Distributors need to realize that part of the reason fans come to these sets is for a chance to experience an old favorite as well as put it in social, artistic, or commercial context. Going basically bare bones achieves none of those goals.
In the end, Van Der Valk doesn't destroy England's reputation for rewriting the rule book when it comes to televisual entertainment. It's never going to compare to its four decades removed contemporaries—and frankly it shouldn't. If you don't mind the lax pace and obvious plotting, you'll enjoy this set. All others be warned—this is one disconnected cop. Maybe that's how things were in 1972 Netherlands. By 2009 standards, it's a tad tired.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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