There are only two really fine episodes of Ellery Queen left, and one of them is presented here. It’s well known that when Fred Dannay and Manny Lee moved their detective from his metaphorically international wanderings and planted him in Hollywood for a few novels, something went a little off. Here, we find Ellery in Hollywood, and the episode clicks in all departments: puzzle, characters, and setting. Maybe it’s because he brought his dad along . . . (Just wondering if this is one of Nick Cardillo’s favorites, too.)
EPISODE SEVENTEEN: THE ADVENTURE OF THE SINISTER SCENARIO
(Written by Robert Pirosh; original airdate 2/8/76)
Of course, we must give top billing here to Mr. Vincent Price, who is remembered fondly for his contribution to the horror genre (I got this close to Mr. Price by going to high school with the son of the screenwriter for The Abominable Dr. Phibes– six degrees, people!!), but his career spanned so much more! He played the slimy Shelby Carpenter in Laura and the heroic Simon Templar on radio’s The Saint. Price is the only true horror star I can think of who did not play one of the famous monsters. He created a few of his own, but mostly he got by with his extraordinary ability to project elegant sadism. Karloff was always tormented, Christopher Lee brutal yet pompous, Peter Lorre . . . well, I always wanted to hug that bug-eyed little guy. Price found the humor and the humanity in every fiend he portrayed, and he was just as fine as the misunderstood mad scientist, ripping the Tingler out of your spine or warning your brother before he steps into that cabinet to look out for flies . . .
By rights, Noah Beery should have been billed here as “Noah Beery, Jr.” so as not to confuse him with his dad, Noah Beery, Sr., who enjoyed a tremendous career as a character actor in silent pictures and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Nor should you mix him up with his uncle, Wallace Beery, a true star and Oscar winner. Junior worked successfully in films and television and is probably most well known for his supporting role as the hero’s dad on The Rockford Files. And just in case you wanted to know . . . yes, he did appear on Perry Mason.
Neither Don DeFore nor Troy Donahue got their turn on the stand, but Defore, who gained fame for regular roles on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Hazel, was evidently a pal with Levinson and Link. Before EQ, he appeared on Mannix and afterward guest-starred on Murder She Wrote. Donahue was a sex symbol for a while, and in the late-50’s through mid-60’s, he appeared in some good films (although his career lasted much longer) like A Summer Place, The Crowded Sky and Parrish. He was a part of the massive stable of Warner Brothers TV actors, appearing in Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6.
Thanks to her friend and champion Lucille Ball, Carole Cook became a go-to comedienne for guest shots on multiple sitcoms. (She appeared on The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy a total of twenty-three times.) I loved her as Don Knotts’ shrewish wife in The Incredible Mr. Limpett, one of the most underrated film classics of all time.
Barbara Rush was a charming actress who appeared in some pretty good sci-fi flicks like When Worlds Collide and It Came from Outer Space. She played leading parts in movies, the stage, and TV; she even managed a short stint on my favorite soap opera, All My Children. Like Don Defore, Rush appeared in Mannix and Murder She Wrote, but then . . . who didn’t?
Gil Mallory (Donahue) is the kind of movie star you just know will be killed off before the end of the first reel. He’s playing Ellery Queen in a low-budget quickie based on one of Ellery’s novels. The film’s press agent, Dave Pierce (Don DeFore) has come up with the bright idea of flying Ellery and Inspector Queen out to Hollywood to participate in some publicity stunts for the movie. The Queens are unimpressed with the adaptation of Ellery’s book, which is subjected to daily rewrites that, in the opinion of Pamela Courtney (Susan Damante), a promising starlet who plays the killer, make the script worse every day.
Ellery and his dad are watching the filming of one scene where Pamela’s character bursts into Ellery’s study and shoots at him. They witness a great deal of off-screen drama as well: Gil tells off the film’s director, Michael Raynor (Price), brushes off Ronald Briggs (Beery), the actor playing Inspector Queen, whose role gets smaller and smaller with each rewrite, insults his stunt double Mike Hewett (James Sikking), and carries on an affair with Pamela right in front of his angry wife Claire (Rush).
Thus, it comes as no surprise when prop master Al Garvin (Jack Murdock) hands the gun to Pamela, the cameras roll, the gun is fired – and Gil drops to the floor, stone cold dead. Someone has loaded real bullets within the clip of blanks. Lieutenant Braden (Paul Carr) soon arrests Garvin who, it turns out, hated Gil for casually using his sister as a love toy during a previous shoot and breaking her heart. Ellery has other ideas, and of course Braden doesn’t want to hear them until his boss, Captain Benjamin Blake (Paul Fix), an old friend of Richard Queen’s, commands Braden to let the Queens work with him.
Before they’re through, a second suspect will have been murdered. Can Ellery solve the murder and – more important – save the film?!?
This is such a large cast that Carole Cook is reduced to a cameo as a gossip columnist – she doesn’t even rate a name! Other than that, the characters here are utilized well in a clever mystery. (I spotted the important clue and then did nothing useful with it!) The only humor inserted here is a genuinely funny bit concerning Richard Queen in Hollywood: he wants to see a better actor in his part and tour the homes of the stars for a chance at a glimpse of Alice Faye. Wayne plays it perfectly. In addition to a rousing plot, the whole Hollywood atmosphere provides some great meta-moments. First, there’s the fact that the books and character of Ellery Queen were, in reality, ill-served by Hollywood, which relegated him to Poverty Row studios. His character was made almost unrecognizable, and the mediocre scripts were generally filmed quickly and placed at the bottom of the bill.
Then there’s the occasional comment about mysteries that hits home, like when Ellery is questioning Pamela, who had to postpone signing with RKO in order to make this turkey:
Pamela: Yes, it’s true – I tried to get out of my contract. I hate this picture. The killer in a whodunit never really has a good scene until the end.
Ellery: Oh, that’s not always true. That’s when the writer wants the suspect to remain inconspicuous.
One could just discuss this idea for days . . .
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EPISODE EIGHTEEN: THE ADVENTURE OF THE TWO-FACED WOMAN
(Written by Jack Arnold; original airdate 2/29/76)
A marvelously eclectic guest cast was assembled for this week’s episode, beginning with Theodore Bikel. Yes, he had a long film career and made many guest appearances on TV, including four separate episodes of Murder She Wrote. But it is in theatre where I think of Bikel and smile. He originated the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, and while he was not the first to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, he managed to play that part longer than any other actor.
That is how I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Bikel. I was directing Fiddler at my high school and, in a moment that surprised both the young actor and his director, had cast a kid named Matt as Tevye. Matt’s dad was so grateful that, learning that Mr. Bikel was on a tour of Fiddler that would be stopping in San Francisco during our rehearsal period, he hounded the actor mercilessly, telling him that his son’s artistic success depended upon meeting the consummate Tevye and getting advice. Bikel could do nothing but accept this, and arrangements were made to meet him in his dressing room on a Saturday between the matinee and the evening show. And yours truly was invited to tag along.
If you have ever seen Fiddler on the Roof, you know it hit is a marvelous show . . . and has one of the longest running times of any musical. So when we stepped into Mr. Bikel’s presence, he was dripping sweat and exhausted – and he still had another show to do. Matt and his buddy (the kid playing Motel Kamzoil) seemed unimpressed with this old man; certainly, they had no intelligent questions to ask. But guess who did?? We talked about this show and Sound of Music, about the relationship of both shows to Jewish history (Bikel hailed from Israel), and a number of other wonderful things before we hied it out of there to let the poor guy rest up for performance #2. It was a great afternoon!
Had I ever got to meet Vera Miles I would no doubt have pumped her about her experiences with Alfred Hitchcock and probably gotten kicked out of her dressing room for my efforts. She was a contract player in Hollywood whose star took off when Hitchcock cast her in the pilot episode of his nascent series. (That episode, “Revenge,” is top-notch!) She went on to play Henry Fonda’s wife in The Wrong Man, another role she nailed. By this point, Grace Kelly had made her dreaded decision to leave Hitchcock, er, Hollywood, and become royalty, and the director signed Miles to a new five-year contract, with the thought of her becoming his new muse. He was all set to star her in Vertigo when she had the nerve to up and get pregnant. Some say it was punishment that he gave her the blah role of Lila Crane in Psycho, and rumors abound that she became displeased with Hitchcock. She is still with us, and I very much admire her, so we will dispense with the gossip in case she’s listening.
Dr. Joyce Brothers was one of the first “celebrity doctors” who capitalized on her fame from winning The $64,000 Question to write columns and appear on talk shows and Hollywood Squares. Her presence here is stunt casting, pure and simple, but I forgive her.
Victor Buono was a character actor who crammed a massive number of film and TV credits into a career cut short by a fatal heart attack at the age of 43. His size and flamboyance made him perfect to play odd nutjobs and larger-than-life villains. He had a breakout role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane that earned him an Oscar nomination and then returned to play Bette Davis’ father in the follow-up, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. He played the villain King Tut on Batman and – need I say it – made two appearances on Perry Mason! (I seem to recall a final confession in at least one of those episodes!)
Edward Mulhare was a noted Irish actor who replaced Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady on Broadway. I remember him from TV’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and he made two appearances on Murder, She Wrote. I still think of Forrest Tucker as the leading scamp on the TV series F-Troop, but he also had a massive film career, including the role of Jackson Beauregard Pickett Burnside, the love of Rosalind Russell’s life in Auntie Mame.
Wealthy socialite Lillian McGraw (Brothers) and her husband Clint (Tucker) have journeyed from Texas to the Big Apple to stay with Clint’s cousin Celeste Wakefield (Miles). A devout art lover, Lillian drags her husband and cousin to an auction at the art gallery owned by Mr. Prescott (Mulhare) in order to bid on a Vermeer. After successfully buying that painting, Lillian is entranced by the next item, an abstract portrait by the living artist, Sergio Vargo (Bikel). Over Clint and Celeste’s objections, Lillian pays $50,000 for that painting. As they are leaving, the artist himself appears and announces that the painting Lillian has bought is a forgery!
All of this is told in flashback by Simon Brimmer who had also attended the auction and is relating the story to Ellery Queen after Queen’s visit to Simon’s radio studio is interrupted by a call from the Inspector informing Ellery that Lillian McGraw has been stabbed to death. At Celeste’s apartment, the Queens discover that before her death, Lillian had scraped Vargo’s signature off the bottom of his painting, revealing another name: Lazar. Vargo appears and now insists that the painting is truly one of his own, but despite his protests, his painting is removed, revealing a portrait of a young Lillian McGraw.
A French detective named Claude Rivet reminds the Inspector of a long ago murder case of a Bohemian art dealer named Mueller who was hacked to death by one of his artists, the mysterious Lazar. The killer escaped, and to this day no one has been able to describe him – until Celeste reveals that years ago, Lillian had traveled to Europe and married Mueller, who beat her and drove her into the arms of Lazar. Celeste traveled to meet Lillian, who was engaged to Clint back home, and witnessed the heavily bearded Lazar raise his axe and chop Mueller to death. She had sworn to keep Lillian’s involvement with the two men a secret from Clint.
Can Ellery disentangle all these threads from the past? Was Lillian’s death at the hands of the long-missing Lazar, or is the fact that her new Vermeer turns out to have been a fake the cause of her murder?
I spent a lot of time above giving you details about this case’s back story, and that’s not the half of it. This is my biggest problem with the episode: the plot is rich and complex, and the back story is interesting, but in order to get all this information out, characters have to talk and talk and talk. With such a large cast, we get barely a cameo performance by Victor Buono, and fairly brief turns by Mulhare and Tucker. Yet the relative inertness here shouldn’t stop one from admiring the complexity of the plot and the simple visual clue that turns the entire story I just related on its ear (which means Ellery has to talk and talk at the end.)
Thus, I’m torn here: “Two-Faced Woman” (which, by the end, turns out to be one of the cleverest titles in the series) contains what one looks for in a good mystery: a solid plot, good clueing, a wide array of suspects, and at least two strong red herrings (one of which supplies Simon with his requisite wrong solution). And yet, I almost think this would work better as a written tale than a 48-minute TV episode. The murder at the start is visually strong, but the vast middle tends to “drag the Marsh” and more resemble an episode of Burke’s Law than Ellery Queen at its best.
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