It was a challenge finding programs to compare when ranking World War II radio detective programs last week. This week, the big challenge is narrowing it down. The immediate post-war era (1946-51) was great for radio detective programs. The Hard-Boiled genre of detective fiction had a huge impact in the post-War era. Once networks saw some success in one hard-boiled radio detective program, the number of tough guys who spoke similes as a second language surged. Many of these got lost in the shuffle, but the best of them found a hook or angle that made them stand out from the crowd.
This is also the era when you have more programs with a high percentage of episodes available, which makes comparison easier. However, choosing is not easy. So many great programs get left off a top five lists. A lot of programs have a really good case for including them. Still, these are the ones I’d go with.
Networks: NBC, ABC
Star: Dick Powell
Dick Powell began his career as a light song and dance man who played the lead in a lot of romantic musicals. In the 1940s, he began a new chapter in his career as the tough-guy star of films like Murder, My Sweet, Cornered, and Johnny O’Clock. In Richard Diamond, these two elements are combined in a beautiful package in Richard Diamond. It’s a mix of usually rough violent stories that often end with him leaning close to his girlfriend, playing the piano, and uncorking a sweet romantic song.
The first season of the show is the best with Ed Begley as Lieutenant Walt Levinson, Wilms Hebert playing a double roll as Sergeant Otis and Diamond’s girlfriend’s butler. If the series had stayed that good throughout, it’d rank higher, but Begley left after the first season and three different actors played Levinson, and Wilms Hebert passed away in 1951. The show also tried to get away from the singing and do more serious tough-guy stuff without as much musical and comedy balance.
4) Sam Spade:
Networks: ABC, CBS, NBC
Star: Howard Duff
Sam Spade had been defined by the writing of Dashiell Hammett and the performance of Humphrey Bogart. That didn’t deter Duff, who took the role and made it his own. The character as Hammett wrote him would not have been someone the audience of the time would like to visit every week. Duff took the character’s toughness and occasional ruthlessness, and added a great deal of humor, with just a smidge of human sympathy and the result is unforgettable. The interaction between Sam and his secretary Effie were imitated by contemporaries but never really equaled.
The villains were bigger than life as if they should’ve been on The Shadow. However, the series seemed to thrive on these over-the-top characters as Spade took them in his stride, tidied things up, and got back to the office to dictate his report. Its music, opening, and “Good night, sweetheart” closing are iconic.
3) Rocky Jordan
Star: Jack Moyles
Its international setting, replete with research on local customs, made it a stand out in the radio detective genre. Cairo-based café owner Rocky Jordan found himself in the midst of intrigue and mystery each week. Usually, it wasn’t of his own making and didn’t have anything to do with him or his business interests. Inevitably someone else in a jam would invariably draw Rocky into their problem.
What made the show is the relationship between Sam and Cairo Police Captain Sam Sabaaya (Jay Novello.) The two came from different worlds. The show didn’t back away from those differences but leaned in to them and showed how they maintained a respect and fondness for each other despite their disagreements. Captain Sabaaya was a thickheaded police foil, but a good cop who had a different thought process than our hero but often saved the day. One of the show’s best accomplishments is this felt like a believable part of their dynamic.
Star: Jack Webb
Dragnet was a key step in the evolution of the police drama in bringing realism and professionalism to the way police dramas were told. There’s much that could be said about Dragnet over radio. Its characters talked more like real people. Because you felt like you were being shown how things really worked in the police department, Dragnet had a way of making tedious details and portions of investigations seem compelling. Even with the realism, there was a good sense of the dramatic and the show had a way of delivering big revelations and plot twists.
The music is iconic (although it took three episodes for them to settle on it) and the sound design helps make you feel like you’re accompanying Sergeants Friday and Romero. If you listen to Dragnet, particularly in the early episodes, If they walked into the store, you heard the sound of the store. This was different than other investigative shows where it felt like the heroes were always questioning their witnesses in pocket dimensions where nothing else was happening or going on.
They dealt with issues and cases that other shows avoided. It was a groundbreaking program that would set the tone for crime dramas for a decade and influence many programs that have come since.
Star: Gerald Mohr
The Adventures of Philip Marlowe had a lot going for it. It came closest to producing a serious hard-boiled detective series. It rarely indulged in the era’s popular extreme characterization, which gave it a more serious feel. It wasn’t oppressive, but the story had more weight than the detective shows that made it impossible to care that their over-the-top characters are being murdered. They were also less predictable. While some series were downbeat all the time or had a massacre every episode, Marlowe got some wins as well as some losses.
The production also showed willingness to play with different ideas. Sometimes, this would work out well, such as the episode where every character was a woman, including women holding traditionally male jobs. Sometimes, it didn’t work out so well, like the episode where he tried to investigate a murder while bed-ridden. However, there’s creativity behind the stories and they never get into a rut.
Mohr’s performance was superb. He was tough but he wasn’t cartoonish or needing to prove himself all the time. His characterization was often world-weary, but sometimes hopeful in spite of the trouble he’s been through. There’s a definite soft spot that makes you care for him.
The episodes are well-directed and have superb action scenes despite how tough it is to do those over radio. The “Get this and get it straight” opening light is one of my favorites, although it was tweaked much more than it needed to be. Norm MacDonnell, who’d go on to distinguish himself on Gunsmoke, has nearly flawless direction on this series.
This is not only the best post-War radio detective series, it may well be the most consistently good radio detective series ever made.