Category: Golden Age Article

TV Series Review: Ellery Queen

While four television shows bore the name of Ellery Queen, one incarnation is the undisputed best. The series starred Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen with David Wayne as Inspector Richard Queen.

Hutton first played the master detective in the 1975 Telefilm, “Too Many Suspects” which then led to a 22 episode run in the 1975-76 series.

The series was set in Post-War New York City with Ellery as a mystery writer often called in by his father on various cases. Only one suspect ever cried foul on this odd process.

The mysteries are well-written and well-crafted and very traditional, trying to provide a sense of fair play and usually succeeding. Though in one case, “The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne,” I don’t think anyone could have come up with a proper solution based on what was shown on TV. Still, following the tradition of the book and the golden age radio series, before the solution was revealed, Ellery issued his challenge to the viewers to see if they could solve the case.

There was great chemistry between Hutton and Wayne who made a solid and believable team, and played off each other beautifully.

In the majority of episodes, Queen wasn’t the only one trying to solve the case. He had a rival who was also collecting clues, sharing some findings with Ellery and hoping to come to a conclusion. Several times he faced off with the Suave and sophisticated Simon Brenner (John Hillerman) who was a criminologist who played himself on the radio but also tried to solve real life mysteries. He’d come up with very clever and well thought out solutions that always turned out to be wrong. When Brenner wasn’t around, resourceful newshound Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford) would often try to solve the case from right under the police’s nose.

The program featured an embarassment of riches when it came to its guest stars. Adding to the 1940s atmosphere, many great stars of the Golden Age radio appeared in the series including George Burns, Dana Andrews, Don Ameche, Lloyd Nolan, Rudy Vallee, Vincent Price, and Arthur Godfrey. In one episode, Eve Arden (best known for Our Miss Brooks) played the star of a radio soap who was murdered. Beyond the radio stars, such classic TV and film stars such as Ken Berry, Eva Gabor, Tom Bosley, and Bob Crane featured.

The series did a good job capturing its era with the vehicles, the cultural references, and the overall feel although it did occasionally deal with issues that were emphasized less during the era itself such as payola. Some of the portrayals of how radio drama worked were more played for comedic value than for realism. Still, this was a very wonderful period series.

Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after a single season, losing its time slot consistently to ABC’s Streets of San Francisco. Despite how well beloved by fans, it faced two challenges.

The 1970s was a great era for the TV detective, similar to the late 1940s for radio detectives. Ellery Queen began airing in the era of Columbo, McCloud, Mcmillan and Wife, Rockford, Kojak, Canon, and Barnaby Jones. However, its period feel and strict puzzle story format made it different from its competitors but perhaps they were too different.

As a postscript, the creators of 1970s Ellery Queen TV Series, Richard Levinson and William Link, waited eight years and then did another program featuring a Mystery writer as the main character and found great success with Murder She Wrote. Star Jim Hutton died at a young age, but his son, Tim would go on to star in a Nero Wolfe mystery as Archie Goodwin. Suggesting that the attraction to doing well-made but short-lived, great period detective television shows ran in the family.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: Poirot’s Finest Cases

Poirot’s Finest Cases collects eight different BBC audiodramas starring the late John Moffat as Poirot and dramatizing eight memorable Agatha Christie Stories.

1) The ABC Murders-Classic case as Poirot receives notices of murders in advance of  seemingly random people tied to the first letter of their last name, and the city they live in with an ABC railroad schedule left behind. A brilliant plot that is very well-adapted. Grade: A

2) After the Funeral: The death of a wealthy man appears to be natural causes, but then his sister suggests it was murder and she is soon found dead herself. A good case, and a solid adaptation. Only weak spot was Poirot as narrator narrating about obvious reasons for why certain people should be suspected. Grade: B+

3) Death on the Nile: This is my favorite Poirot story and this adaptation is simply marvelous. While it lacks the flair of the Ustinov version, this captures the essence of the story. If you wanted complain about Death on the Nile, I suppose you could point out the almost absurd number of romances that spring up on this boat. But, I think that serves to balance out the unhappiness that dominates the “A” plot. Overall, this is a great portrait of Poirot as a character and an absolutely brilliant adaptation. Grade: A+

4) The Murder of Roger Akroyd: One of Christie’s most controversial tales because of the identity of the murderer. I thought the TV adaptation was only “so so,” but BBC Radio 4 manages to do the story justice. It really is a clever and remarkable tale and manages to outperform the 1930s adaptation for the Mercury Playhouse with Orson Welles. Grade: A-

5) Murder on the Orient Express: Perhaps, the most iconic of Christie mysteries. It’s perfectly executed over radio. This requires multiple accents (including several Americans) and they’re all performed quite well. Grade: A

6) The Mysterious Affair at Stiles: The first ever Poirot story in which he solves the murder of a wealthy woman. I really enjoyed this adaptation. With all the great stories that followed, it’s easy to forget how good this one was. It establishes so much about Poirot in terms of mannerism, but is different as Poirot is closer to Sherlock Holmes in his first story. Still, this is incredibly enjoyable. Grade: A

7) Peril at End House: Another somewhat underrated story. It’s the classic tale of misdirection and of Poirot being pulled out of retirement. It’s incredibly and involved tale. I love how Moffat plays the beginning where he’s claiming to be content in retirement but his voice tone betrays it. Grade: A

8) Three Act Tragedy: This is probably the most questionable title in the set. Given that’s it’s Poirot’s Finest Cases, it’s odd to feature a case where Poirot is out of action for so much of it. This, like the other stories, were originally broadcast in five parts. Poirot’s role in the first three parts could be considered middling as he doesn’t actually actively join the investigation until the end of episode three and doesn’t take charge until the end of episode four. Most of the investigation is carried by amateur detectives. The story’s certainly good, but doesn’t really have the material to rise to the top echelon of Poirot stories, even with laying aside the issue of how much Poirot’s in it. I will say that I enjoyed the character moment in episode 2 when Poirot reflected on his life. Grade: B

Throughout all these stories, John Moffat makes a great Poirot. While David Suchet is the definitive Poirot on television, Moffat had a parallel run over radio lasting from 1987-2012 where he adapted most major Poirot novels and he was Suchet’s equal in many ways. Moffat was great in every story here.

As for the rest of the cast, Simon Williams (Counter Measures) appears as Captain Hastings and Philip Jackson (who played Inspector Japp on television) appears as Japp in The ABC Murders and The Mysterious Affair at Stiles. The cast of the rest stories are very good, bringing the type of talent you expect from BBC Radio 4.

The sound design is good, particularly on Murder on the Orient Express. 

However, the theme music for the majority of the episodes seems to have been chosen without much thought. It could best be described as, “This is the 30s” music. It’s very generic and sometimes doesn’t fit Poirot or a mystery story at all.

It also seems they could have done a little more with the way the episodes are presented. Essentially, each story is five episodes long and is divided into two chapters with two and a half (or so) episodes per chapter as you’re listening to it. It seems they could have combined each story completely or at the very least had each episode as its own separate chapter which would have made things more neat and symmetrical-which Poirot would appreciate.

If I’d been making the set, I would have substituted Five Little Pigs and Cards on the Table for After the Funeral and Three Act Tragedy. 

But these are extremely minor points. The mysteries themselves are superb and more than justify the minor annoyances over presentation. Given that the set sells for less than $20 for the general public and less than $14 for Audible members, this is an item I highly recommend for any mystery fan.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 1

The Twilight Zone was one of television’s most remembered and enduring dramas from the 1950s and 60s, running from 1959-64 and then being revived for a movie in 1983, and revival TV series from 1985-89 and again from 2002-2003.

Carl Amari, best known for his work at Radio Spirit, brought the Twilight Zone to radio in a series starring Hollywood actors and narrated by Stacey Keach, who took over for Rod Serling as narrator. The stories are often expanded and updated to the reflected the twenty-first century technology and society. We’ll take a look at the first volume of Twilight Zone Audio Dramas from which collects six stories.

“Night Call” features Mariette Hartley playing an old shut-in who begins receiving disturbing calls with nobody there. The story is creepy and Heartley’s performance is perfect as she manages to play this character with gusto and depth. I found the ending a little disappointing but that is due to the original story.

“Long Live Walter Jameson”-Lou Diamond Phillips plays Walter Jameson, a professor with a secret. The father of the woman he’s about to marry discovers photos of Jameson dating back to the 19th Century. Phillips turns in the best performance of the set and the story has a classic Twilight Zone feel to it.

“The Lateness of the Hour”-In a house full of androids, with a middle-aged couple and their daughter, the daughter (played by Jane Seymour) is fed up with their artificial life and wants something far more real. It’s a wonderful Science Fiction story with a classic twist at the end.

“The 30-Fathom Grave”-Is a good and proper ghost story with kind of a classic feel as a 1960s Submarine comes upon the wreck from World War II and one crew member goes a little beserk over it.The story has a period feel—for the most part. The series had the idea of giving a woman the role of the ship’s doctor, but you don’t have to be an expert in military history to know that wouldn’t have been the case. Either moving the story forward a couple decades or having a male doctor would have made sense. In the case, the woman doctor on the 1960s Naval vessel came off as a distracting anachronism.

“The Man in the Bottle” features a modern day genie that offers a couple who owns a pawnshop four wishes Ed Begley, Jr. stars in a tale that’s amusing and has its own subtle lessons, though some of them unintended.

“The Night of the Meek” is probably the biggest disappointment of this collection. As made starring Art Carney, the story was a Christmas classic. Chris McDonald steps into Carney’s role and almost sleepwalks through it. The expansions and the revisions of the story make it even weaker. I will admit that, on reflection, “Night of the Meek” had its problems and if done wrong would have come off almost as bad as the audio version if not for the fact that Art Carney was in the lead and the future Oscar-nominated Actor was able to take a performance that would have been forgettable and make it gripping and real. Sadly Mr. McDonald was out of his depth in terms of doing this for radio.

Overall, this is a good collection with some good audio quality, some solid soundscapes, and mostly well-done musical production. I will admit the appeal of these audio dramas is probably a bit less than it was in 2002 when they first began. With the development of Netflix and Amazon Prime, coupled with 4G networks, many people can watch any episode of the original Twilight Zone anytime and anywhere they want and in most cases the originals are still better.

Still, if you’re a fan of audio drama, these are worth a listen. It’s particularly noteworthy for allowing us to hear many modern American actors in audio drama. Beyond those in this first set John Rhys-Davies, Louis Gossett, Jr.  and Jason Alexander are among the stars who found themselves in the Twilight Zone.

In addition to the sets on Audible, you can download three episodes off their website with a subscription to their newsletter.

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Telefilm Review: The Brazilian Connection

In the 1980s, the Saint returned to television with a series of TV movies starring Simon Dutton. “The Brazilian Connection” originally aired in 1989. In it, the Saint takes a hand to investigate when a baby is kidnapped in broad daylight.

The best thing about this updated Saint story is that Simon Dutton isn’t Val Kilmer. The second best thing about it is everything that doesn’t have much to do with the main mystery. There’s the early scene which has the Saint robbing a couple of criminals and getting away in style and then busting up an art fraud ring. Inspector Teal’s got a new boss who believes the Saint needs to be brought to heel, despite Teel’s support of Templar.

There’s lovely location shooting in London as well as some nice effects.

As a leading man, Dutton isn’t in the same league as the great Saint Actors: George Sanders, Roger Moore, or Vincent Price. He’s more like Hugh Sinclair, who played the role in two films in the 1940s. He’s certainly adequate, looks up to the part, and can be charming when the script lets him be. The problem is, far too often, the script doesn’t.

While this is better than the 1996 movie by a country mile, it seems the creative team doesn’t really understand the Saint and thus we’re given a story that could feature any 1980s Detective/Action hero.

The big failing of, “The Brazilian Connection” is it’s mystery story. It’s told with little style or real intrigue, and it’s hard to buy into the plot.

You could applaud the story for being years ahead of its time by its discussion of human trafficking, but the way the movie addresses the issue is unbelievable.

I’m not spoiling anything to explain the couple who kidnapped the baby in London worked for a black market baby ring that kidnapped babies from Brazil, particularly rural areas, taking advantage of local corruption to kidnap babies and smuggle them out of the country. The mystery is who the boss is.

So these kidnappers who have this Brazilian deal set up where due to their connections, they can easily smuggle babies out of the countries. So they are walking down the street, see a stroller, and do an impromptu kidnapping in the middle of London where they have none of the advantages they do in Brazil. Why? They figured they could pick up some extra bucks.

The story also does a disservice to adoptive parents who are concerned with overly strict regulations that made it difficult for them to adopt by tying people who support their cause to a baby smuggling ring.

Overall, the story isn’t awful, but it’s not great, either, and it didn’t leave me at all curious to see future episodes of this incarnation of the Saint.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon is rightly considered one of the landmark books in detective fiction. The tale was also immortalized on the screen in one of the greatest films of all time.

The book works so well because of its characters. Joel Cairo, Wilmer, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are incredibly rich and fascinating characters who would be copied and recreated by lesser writers. Spade himself is perhaps the most fascinating character of them all.

As a person, he has many detestable qualities. At times, he’s coldly sociopathic, he uses people, and his own moral code is far more questionable than Philip Marlowe’s is. Yet, this allows the reader to wonder where exactly Spade stands. That question is probably the most intriguing mystery in the book.

The language of the book is fascinating. Hammett uses so many rich, active words. For example, Spade doesn’t light a cigarette. He ignites it or he sets it on fire.

Probably one of the big differences (although relatively minor) between the movie and the novel is the movie doesn’t include Guttman’s daughter. It’s understandable why the film didn’t include her as there would have been issues with the production code and it also would have overcrowded the film. However, she does serve two purposes in the book. We do get a clearer picture of Spade’s humane side, as well as an idea of how ruthless Guttman could be.

The book does deal with some adult themes, but in a tasteful way, as was required by the times.

Overall, the book is a classic and worth reading as an example of great writing and characterization, even if you don’t care for the type of protagonist Spade represents or the type of protagonists that the book has inspired.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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