Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances, Part Two

In the previous article, we began listing the top 10 best American radio detective performances, we continue now with #6:

6) Vincent Price as Simon Templar in The Saint (1947-51):

Vincent Price is a legend for his work in horror films, but over radio he showed another side as he played the dashing, tough, and witty Saint. Price’s performance is a delight to hear. His Saint’s mood is, by default, light and easygoing, but can get tough in a hurry when it’s called for. The character also has some profound, philosophical moments and Price plays these  well. He also plays well off other actors, particularly Lawrence Dobkin, who played Louie the Cab Driver. Together they were a superb double act. Everything Price did on the Saint was superb, showing both his strength and range as an actor.

5) Howard Duff as Sam Spade (1946-50):

After Humphrey Bogart played Spade on film, any actor would have had a tough act to follow in taking on the role over radio, but Howard Duff was up to the challenge. Duff took Spade and made the character his own, different from all prior film characterizations and from the book. Sam’s character traits were there, but he was not as hard as Hammett wrote him, which made the character more likable.

The series tone also helped. The Adventures of Sam Spade featured more comedy and zaniness in the plot than almost any other detective series and it was never more evident than in the opening and closing segments where he’s engaged in banter with his secretary Effie Perine (played by Lurene Tuttle.) The Rehearsal recordings of the show that have come into circulation show Duff was having a grand time making the show and that translated well to the listening audience at home. Duff’s Spade mixes wise-cracking narration with the right amount of toughness and cunning to get the job done, making for a mix that delights fans to this day.

4) Dick Powell as Richard Diamond in Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1949-52):

Dick Powell’s acting career had two major parties. In the 1930s, he was the star of light musical comedy. Then in the 1940s, he played Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet and began to play cops and tough guys. Richard Diamond, Private Detective combined both halves of Powell’s career.

The way Richard Diamond is written for radio sounds insane. A typical show would begin with Diamond in his office, joking around with his girlfriend Helen on the phone, then Diamond would be put into a mystery and beat up. Then he’d stumble down to the police station, do a comedy routine with Lieutenant Levinson, question witnesses, beat up the people who beat him up, get into a shoot out with the boss and his men, kill them in self-defense, and wrap up by stumbling into his girlfriend’s apartment and sing either a romantic ballad or a goofy song.

There are so many reasons why Richard Diamond shouldn’t work with its constant change of moods and style. There’s one major reason it does work: Dick Powell. This isn’t to say that Powell was the only talent on the show. Indeed, he was blessed with a strong supporting cast. However, Powell was the only lead who could effortlessly manage the show’s constantly shifting tone. If any other singer/actor had tried this type of show and it would have been a thirteen episode curiosity. With Powell, the series ran for three years and has become of the most beloved shows in the detective genre.

To be concluded next week.

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  2 comments for “Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances, Part Two”

  1. May 7, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    Your assessment of Dick Powell is WAY off base. He was a 100% ham, with a singing style that couldn’t get him a job at a Bowie, Texas Holiday Inn. He thought he was a sexy desired man when in fact he was a total drip.

  2. Yours Truly Johnny Blogger
    May 7, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    John, thank you for sharing. I obviously disagree as to his performance. The vast majority of feedback on Richard Diamond has been positive. Probably, the only show liked more has been Johnny Dollar with Bob Bailey.

    I will say Powell’s singing style was very much “of another era.” He sang pretty much the same way as when he broke in the 1930s with Gold Diggers movies and never really changed with the times. This is why his singing was done on a detective show. Still, I find it charming enough and pleasant to listen to, but that’s because I think the 1940s is the ideal era of music and he’s not too far off from that.

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