Ellery Queen Mysteries, the brainchild of ace screenwriting team and lifelong EQ fanboys Richard Levinson and William Link, last only one season consisting of twenty-two episodes. With one exception, every one of these was an original story conceived by the team (although some episodes were written by others) and co-produced with Peter S. Fischer, with whom they would later develop Murder, She Wrote. Previously, we talked about the origin of the series and the movie-length pilot that established the main cast, a glittering roster of guest stars, and the period setting and focus on the puzzle, including a moment where Ellery breaks the fourth wall to issue a Queenian challenge to the viewer.
We’ll cover two episodes in each post, starting with my comments on the guest cast, followed by a brief synopsis that may only cover the premise of the episode and how Ellery gets involved. Then you will get my personal take on the quality of that particular story, and I will end with spoilers (written in ROT-13) that offer some thoughts on the puzzle or the giveaway clue. I hope you will feel encouraged to discuss what you’ve read here, but I ask that if you are going to talk about the ending, you either announce that your comment contains SPOILERS or give me the dirt in ROT-13. Many thanks! Let’s get started . . .
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EPISODE ONE: THE ADVENTURE OF AULD LANG SYNE
(written by Levinson and Link; story by L&L and Peter S. Fischer; original airdate 9/11/75)
Farley Granger is probably the biggest name here, known for his work in film through the 40’s and 50’s. The highlight, of course, is the pair of films he made for Alfred Hitchcock: Rope and Strangers on a Train.
Ray Walston was a veteran of the stage, where he won a Tony award for playing the Devil in Damn Yankees, but I remember him as Uncle Martin in My Favorite Martian, which, like most early 60’s sitcoms, had an outrageous premise and little redeeming value. You know, back when TV was fun.
Joan Collins makes an early TV appearance in a role that certainly envisions the part that will make her famous, that of Alexis Carrington in Dynasty. Barbara Rush was a popular film and TV actress (she’s still alive), and David Doyle was about to make it big the following year playing Bosley in Charlie’s Angels, but he had been playing small roles in movies since 1959. One more popular TV player here is Herb Edelman who starred in many series, including The Golden Girls.
Finally, the victim is played by Thayer David, one of my favorite stars of the vampire soap Dark Shadows, where he played virtually any man with the last name of Stokes and more besides. He died a few years after this episode at the tragically early age of 51.
It’s New Year’s Eve on the brink of 1947, and Inspector Queen has brought Sergeant Velie (with is wife!) to a big bash at the Astor Hotel where the entertainment is provided by no less than Guy Lombardo (playing himself!) and the Royal Canadians. Ellery is supposed to be there with a date, but so far he hasn’t shown up.
Meanwhile, at the next table, millionaire Marcus Halliday has brought his close circle together: his son Lewis (Charles Knox Robinson), Lewis’ fiancée Lady Daisy Frawley (Collins), Marcus’ nephew/bookkeeper Paul Quincy (Granger), his business partner Donald Becker (Doyle), secretary Emma Zelman (Rush) and Emma’s fiancé Howard Pratt (Walston). After disparaging everyone in his party, Marcus announces that he is going to call his attorney to remove all of them from his will before the strike of midnight. He exits the room and is not seen again until Inspector Queen, looking for a phone booth to call Ellery, finds Halliday on the floor of the booth, slashed in the throat with a steak knife. Will Ellery be able to get through the busy city before the strike of midnight to save his dad and the Police Commissioner, who is also a guest, from embarrassment?
It was fun to actually watch this one on New Year’s Eve, and all the period stuff is lovely, but unfortunately this first episode is as slight as it gets, mystery-wise. Ellery doesn’t even arrive at the scene until the very end; instead, we follow his bumbling attempts to get to the hotel, with the assistance of a boorish cab driver (Edelman) and a detour to beg forgiveness of his current squeeze for standing her up. Aside from one nice physical clue, this whole sequence is pure padding. Meanwhile, it’s up to Inspector Queen to interview the suspects and try and figure out why Halliday, in his final moments, dialed the phone number of a total stranger.
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EPISODE TWO: THE ADVENTURE OF THE LOVER’S LEAP
(written by Robert Pirosh; original airdate 9/18/75)
The Cast: The victim, Stephanie Talbot Kendrick, is played by the legendary Ida Lupino. Maybe Lupino, whose reviews were usually stunning, could have been one of the actresses we talk about incessantly today. Like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, she fought her studio Warner Brothers over bad roles and bad acting. And while, unlike the others, she managed to avoid making a number of lemons, she spent much of her contract time suspended from the studio. She would go on to make other appearances in film and worked heavily in television. But Lupino’s prize achievement in Hollywood was to become one of the few and most famous women to stand behind the camera as writer, producer and director. Her early efforts included films that tackled hard-hitting subjects, like rape, bigamy, and the effects of polio. Later, she helmed perhaps the only classic film noir to be directed by a woman, The Hitchhiker.
The other female guest stars are Anne Francis and Susan Strasberg. Francis was one of many good film actresses who, after making some interesting films (Blackboard Jungle, Forbidden Planet) and then floundering for a while, jumped to TV, where she starred as the iconic PI Honey West. Strasberg had far too interesting a life to encapsulate here. Daughter of the legendary director and teacher Lee Strasberg, she gave a Tony-nominated performance at the age of eighteen as Anne Frank, palled around with Richard Burton and Marilyn Monroe (and then wrote books about both), and did tons of film acting, mostly on TV and in slasher movies.
The three male suspects are played by Don Ameche, Craig Stevens, and Jack Kelly. Stevens was an action hero through the 40’s and into the 50’s before settling in as a steady TV player. Jack Kelly also staked his fame on television, largely through his portrayal of Bret Maverick’s brother Bart on the long-running Western series. Ameche is the biggest male movie star here, appearing in a long string of films starting in the 1930’s. Great story (retold here for Scott K. Ratner): after he played the title role in 1939’s The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, kids started calling the telephone an “ameche,” as in folks actually saying, “You’re wanted on the ameche.” This led to Groucho Marx’ joke in Go West: “Telephone? This is 1870, Don Ameche hasn’t invented the telephone yet.”
Wealthy fountain pen heiress Stephanie Talbot Kendrick, a shrewish, neurotic woman, is sitting in her bedroom, the balcony of which overlooks the front entrance to her fabulous estate, reading the latest Ellery Queen novel The Adventure of the Lover’s Leap. (Not only is this not a real Queen novel, but when Stephanie reads aloud, it sounds a lot more like a HIBK thriller from the pen of Mary Roberts Rinehart.) The passage she reads is about a woman sitting alone in her house, and, oddly, Stephanie begins to experience the exact things that are occurring in the book. She calls the only other person in the house, her hired nurse, Miss Chandler (Francis), but that good woman has been listening to Abbott and Costello on the radio and didn’t hear any of the odd noises Stephanie complains about. Then the heiress calls her stepdaughter, Kathy (Strasberg) and begs her to come over and keep her company. But when Kathy arrives, she sees Miss Chandler rush out the front door and over to Stephanie’s body; it appears Miss Kendrick has leapt from her balcony to her death.
This is more like it! A complex mystery where Ellery does what he’s supposed to do: detect. It also helps that Simon Brimmer is right there in competitive mode and is doing some pretty nifty detection as well. (In fact, Brimmer’s contrasting theories help illustrate that all-important precept of detective fiction: make sure your solution covers every fact!) Using John Hillerman as a source of comedy raises the level of the humor and contributes to the mystery with that surefire chestnut: good detective vs. bad detective.
All five suspects have strong motives, but the nature of the crime is elusive, a mosaic that is put together by Queen with the help of some nice physical clues. And the episode is shot in a way that hearkens us back to that Golden Age of 40’s cinema, with split screen phone calls and whirling newspaper headlines. There’s one element of the plot that hinges on a science I’m not sure I completely believe in, but it’s highly dramatic and doesn’t really effect the clueing that reveals the killer. All in all, a fine episode!
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