Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Banacek – And the Art of the Locked-Room Mystery


An armored car carrying gold bullion vanishes in the middle of a deserted Texas highway.


One million dollars in cash disappears from inside a sealed case on display in the middle of a busy Las Vegas casino.


A DC-8 airplane makes an emergency nighttime landing at a desert airfield. When the crew returns the next morning to assess the damage, the plane is gone.


These spectacular crimes all occur in the opening moments of episodes of Banacek, the only series to focus almost exclusively on locked-room mysteries. 


Wikipedia defines the locked-room mystery as “a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.” Examples abound in literature dating back to the 1800s, among the most famous being “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe.


On television you’ve seen them in episodes of Ellery Queen (“The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger”) and The Magician (“The Illusion of the Cat’s Eye”). On Mission: Impossible, the IM Force often devises locked-room mysteries to accomplish their missions (see “The Glass Cage,” “Chico” and many others). If you grew up with Saturday morning cartoons you may remember them from The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (“The Crown Jewel Caper”) and Clue Club (“The Dissolving Statue Caper”).


But Banacek, which debuted in 1972 as one of the rotating programs on the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie series, made these stories their raison d'être. And what a brilliant ploy – if you tuned in to watch what seems like an impossible theft, there was no way you were going to change the channel until you find out how it was done. 



George Peppard starred as Thomas Banacek, a freelance insurance investigator. That job title doesn’t have the cache of private investigator or consulting detective, but the same skill set is required. One difference – Banacek’s motivation was not justice, but money. If he solves the case, he gets 10% of the value of the insured property, and that’s how he can afford to live in such refined style at Boston’s fashionable Beacon Hill.


It’s also why no one is happy to see him when he shows up at the crime scene.

Not the police, who don’t like being outsmarted, and not the company’s full-time insurance investigators that don’t get the same generous commission on any recovered valuables.


Banacek doesn’t mind – he’s only there to collect a paycheck, and to bed any beautiful woman in the vicinity, even if she’s the guilty party. Having a hero that’s sometimes less than likable may be why the series was more popular with critics than viewers. Peppard was convincing as its smug, sexist hero, but he didn’t always project enough charisma to offset those negative qualities. 



If only Cary Grant had been available – he could have effortlessly played the suave and sophisticated traits of the character, while softening his arrogant edges. Grant had already retired from acting, but even at age 68 he could have pulled it off. 


Of course, wishing any actor was more like Cary Grant is like wishing any weekend golfer could hit a 2-iron like Tiger Woods. For the most part Peppard is more than adequate, and really this is a series that is more about how something was done than about who figures it out.


When a locked-room mystery is done well – as these are – the viewer sees everything the investigator does, so they should have enough information to put the puzzle together. When Banacek delivers the explanation, usually in classic detective fiction style to a gathering of suspects, the moment shouldn’t play like a magic trick that loses its fascination when you learn how it’s done. Most of the time that doesn’t happen here: the series’ writers devised some very clever schemes that become more impressive when revealed. 


The best of the lot could be “The Greatest Collection of Them All,” in which a priceless collection of French impressionist masterpieces is transported by truck from Boston to New York. Security vehicles escort the shipment in front and behind, so the truck is never out of sight. But when it arrives at its destination, the paintings have vanished.


 “Project Phoenix” features two of my favorite guest stars in Joanna Pettet and William Windom, and has Banacek trying to figure out how an expensive experimental car disappeared from a moving train. 


In “Ten Thousand Dollars a Page” he deduces how someone managed to steal a priceless book encased amidst high-tech alarms. David Wayne delivers an Emmy-worthy guest performance as the book’s irascible owner. I also really liked “To Steal a King,” in which a valuable coin collection is taken from an impossible-to-open vault in a hotel room that is never left unoccupied by its guests.


I confess I’m never very good at guessing the right answers to mysteries, but I did figure one of them out, though it took me to the very last episode to do so – in “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t,” a banker disappears while performing a magic act at a charity performance, after stealing millions in securities. If you’re a Dr. Shrinker fan as I am, you may figure it out as well.


Banacek was picked up for a third season, but George Peppard was in the midst of a bitter divorce from Elizabeth Ashley, so he took his white turtlenecks and old Polish proverbs and walked away instead of giving her half his salary. 


As a result there are only 16 episodes, making the series perfect for binging if you’re into that sort of thing. Banacek is available on DVD, or is streaming for free on IMDB TV. 




  1. What a great read, this sure took me back. In the early 1970s, my brother Duke & I belonged to the Boy Scouts, meetings were Wednesday nights. Since we lived on a farm, Mom or Dad would drop us off at Grandma's house in town after school--she'd make us dinner, we'd attend our Scouts meeting then come back and watch 'Night Gallery' or 'NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie'. Grandma liked McMillan & Wife, I liked McCloud, Duke liked Banacek. I don't think I've seen an episode in 50 years... It seems like a hundred years ago now.

  2. Well, that's one story ...

    The version that George Peppard gave to Johnny Carson was this:
    Banacek's showrunner was George Eckstein, whose other credits included The Fugitive.
    After two seasons, Eckstein decided to leave Banacek - and Peppard decided to leave with him.
    Quality, you know ...

    Of course, when you read about Peppard's highly volatile personal life, either story could be at least partially true.
    And given Peppard's later years, when he would take just about any job where the paycheck would clear ...

  3. I didn't see these shows until MeTV ran them a few years ago. I remember that "Phoenix Project" also included a murder of a security guard. I also recall another episode where a football player disappeared while on the field during a game, but I don't remember the reason for it.

  4. TV historian Jonathan Etter has written a book about "Banacek." BearManor Media released it back in 2016. Have you read the book for yourself, Mr. Hofstede?

  5. Actually Banacek doing what he does IS a form of justice. His father, an insurance employee, was screwed upon his retirement. Peppard's natural arrogance was a perfect fit for the role. As he was for Blue Max and Carpetbaggers. He even got himself banned from game shows for dissing the contract he had to sign on Password.

  6. My complaint about the series is the problems we face with rights issues, resulting in editing of shows almost fifty years old. The first DVD release of Banacek had many scenes removed because they featured then unknown actors who would rise to prominence. Short clips of no real importance to the story, but added to the character of Banacek. To those of us who grew up watching the show in reruns on CBS late night, it was like listening to a skipping record. The early Hallmark channel ran these edited versions and I could not make it through two episodes. I was equally disappointed when the rest DVD release had the same edits.
    I was glad to see that the IMDB series seems to have resolved a lot (but not all) of these problems. The record still skips, but not as egregiously. I understand the changes that have come to the industry involving actor's equity, but I sometimes just want to watch my favorite shows as they were first broadcasted.

    1. Lacey, you mean the "Banacek" DVD sets that were released by Arts Alliance America in the late 2000s had syndicated-episode cuts? I know "Banacek" has also been released on DVD in Australia as well as the UK.