ELLERY QUEEN: Episodes Three and Four

Episodes Three and Four prove that Levinson and Link were not trying to create another Burke’s Law where the detective has some lovely run-ins with a bunch of old stars before one of them is randomly shown to be the killer. Here, they’re going for a cleverer show, with actual clues leading to surprise endings. There are problems around the edges (at least in Episode 3), but all in all the show continues to gather steam.

EPISODE THREE: THE ADVENTURE OF THE CHINESE DOG

(written by Robert Van Scoyk; story by Gene Thompson; original airdate 9/25/75)

The Cast: 

A foreshadow of my feelings for this episode: the most famous name here is Orson Bean, who once described himself as “a neo-celebrity who’s famous for being famous.” Always likable on his thousands of appearances on game shows (he was a regular on To Tell the Truth) and late night interviews, active participant in theatre, film, and television, Bean wasalways somewhere to be seen, and I guess the best to be said is that one can make ones mark and be a success without becoming a truly famous person. 

Orson Bean

Eugene Roche was another such performer, with such a long string of film and TV credits that if you spotted him in a line-up, you might not accuse him of being your mugger, but you would definitely know the guy. Most famous for being the Ajax Man in a series of cleanser commercials. Most interesting here is Murray Hamilton, a noted character actor whose presence on the big or small screen always made an impression, whether as Mr. Robinson in The Graduate or Blanche’s “Big Daddy” on The Golden Girls

Geraldine Brooks was a striking actress whose fairly brief film career was followed by many TV appearances.  Katherine Crawford was a TV performer of no great distinction. 

Synopsis:

On their way to a fishing trip, Ellery and the Inspector’s car breaks down right outside the small town of Wrightsville. Ellery’s presence should cinch the deal: town founder Eben Wright is murdered in his estate; the weapon is the solid gold, jewel encrusted Chinese temple dog that he was bestowing upon his daughter as a wedding present. The Inspector wants to keep fishing, but Ellery is dragged into the case by grocer Henry Palmer (Hamilton) who is challenging Sheriff Oscar Eberhardt (Roche) in the upcoming election. The suspects include daughter Julia (Crawford), her shady fiancé Gordon Wilde (Robert Hogan), Wright’s awkward nephew Warren (Bean) and his devoted but moody housekeeper Tilda McDonald (Brooks). 

My take:

A true Ellery Queen fan is bound to sit up and take notice when the name “Wrightsville” pops up on the screen. This New England town was the setting for some of the authors’ most poignant mysteries. Unfortunately, Wrightsville is just another hick village here, and the show resembles more an episode of Green Acres: lots of country bumpkins making one mistake after another, all of them talking like characters in an Asay Mayo mystery. What’s just as annoying is watching Ellery and his dad laugh amusedly as the police bungle the job in a slapstick sort of way. It really grates on the nerves! 

Thus, the episode feels just as padded as the first one did – however, the mystery here is admittedly better. One central clue (discussed in spoilers) has a nice explanation that leads straight to the killer. I just wish that the producers had better honored the legacy of Wrightsville from the novels, rather than simply giving the village that name as a passing Easter egg to EQ fans.

This ain’t Wrightsville . . .

SPOILERS:

Gurer’f n avpr gjvfg raqvat gung’f qrfreivat bs n orggre jevggra fgbel jvgu zber vagrerfgvat nygreangvir fhfcrpgf gb pbafvqre. Gur pbebabe’f svaqvat bs n chapgher znex ba gur ivpgvz’f guhzo yrnqf avpryl gb n snve cynl fbyhgvba: jr qvq frr gur furevss cnffvat bhg pnzcnvta ohggbaf ng gur fgneg. Guvf oevatf gur ryrpgvba fhocybg avpryl gb gur sber, naq vg nyjnlf znxrf sbe n tbbq gjvfg jura lbh unir gb fjvgpu lbhe crefcrpgvir va gur raq. V whfg jvfu gung gur znva cybg naq gur qhyy Jevtug snzvyl unqa’g orra fb fhofgnaqneq. Naq nf V zragvbarq nobir, vg jnf tengvat gb jngpu gur qhyy-jvggrqarff bs gur cbyvpr cynlrq sbe ynhtuf, jvgu Ryyrel naq uvf qnq puhpxyvat tbbq-uhzberqyl (naq srryvat dhvgr fhcrevbe, V vzntvar). Ohg gung Xrlfgbar rssrpg gheaf bhg gb or arprffnel gb gur cybg nf gur Furevss pna rnfvyl fgrny rivqrapr haqre gur abfr bs uvf varssrpghny qrchgl. Guhf, gur “Terra Nperf” uhzbe znfxf gur pevzr, naq lbh’yy rawbl guvf zber be yrff qrcraqvat ba lbhe rawblzrag bs gung uvpx fho-traer bs fvgpbz. (V yvxrq vg jura V jnf gjryir . . . )

*     *     *     *     *

EPISODE FOUR: THE ADVENTURE OF THE COMIC BOOK CRUSADER

(written by Robert Van Scoyk; original airdate 10/2/75)

The Cast: 

The two big stars here are Donald O’Connor and Tom Bosley. O’Connor was one of those lifetime performers whose career began as a child in vaudeville, hoofing it up with his family. He signed first with Paramount and then with Universal, and his great claim to fame at the latter, a series of movies where O’Connor played second banana to Francis the Talking Mule, might have consigned him to the bin where all B character actors go. But the role of Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain elevated his star status, and he continued to alternate between big musicals like Call Me Madam and There’s No Business Like Show Business and movies opposite a jackass. He made many appearances on television during the final phase of his career. 

Bosley got his acting start on television where his contributions were indelible, but he also made his mark on the Broadway stage, earning a Tony in 1959 playing the title role in the musical Fiorello, and he appeared in many films, including one of my favorites, The World of Henry Orient. On TV he was most famous as Howard Cunningham, Richie’s dad, on Happy Days. Appearing in this EQ episode led Bosley to a long recurring role on an even more successful L&L show, playing Sheriff Amos Tupper on Murder, She Wrote

Burly Ken Swofford appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, playing good cops, bad cops, and brutes of all kinds, in a career that spanned forty years. Lynda Day George was one of those beautiful women who seemed to appear on every television drama. She had a regular role during the final seasons of Mission: Impossible, but mostly she was the consummate guest star. She married actor Christopher George, and soon after his death in 1983 she retired from acting. 

Synopsis: 

Bud Armstrong (Bosley) is a renowned comic book artist, famous for titles like Captain Cosmo, Future Man, and Lola the Jungle Princess. In reality, he is a savage taskmaster who has contracted a group of artists to do all the work, while he edits and takes all the credit. His team includes letterer Kenny Freeman (O’Connor), colorist Lyle Shannon (Joseph Maher), background artist Vincent Porter (George Sperdakos), and figure artist Phil Collins (Eddie Freestone). When he’s not abusing his team, he’s making passes at his secretary, Alma Van Dine (George). 

But Armstrong has made a new enemy, a writer named . . . Ellery Queen! When EQ learns that Armstrong has developed a comic book about the author/detective without Ellery’s permission, our hero threatens (in front of witnesses) that he will make sure the offending comic is killed. That very night, Armstrong is shot to death while editing the EQ comic. With his dying breath, he makes a mark on one of the panels on his desk. Can Ellery figure out the meaning of the dying message despite being framed himself for the murder? 

My take: 

Like “The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne,” we have another case where nearly every bit of deduction revolves around the dying message. But all is not lost: this is a much more absorbing story, thanks to Bosley’s memorable victim, George and O’Connor as suspects (the other three are stick figures at best), and, most memorably, Ken Swofford as a new recurring foil for EQ: Frank Flannagan, muckraking newspaper columnist. He is the opposite of Simon Brimmer – brash where Brimmer is couth, with a whole different sort of hubris. While I prefer Simon Brimmer, Flannagan provides a contrasting human sore point for our sleuth. In later episodes, he will compete against Ellery for the “scoop” of solving a case, although Flannagan doesn’t have the smarts that Brimmer can lay claim to. In his debut, Flannagan, who likes to call Ellery “Junior,” is responsible for putting the detective in jail for half the episode. 

So, all in all, a middling puzzle mystery – the actual murder plot is fairly preposterous, and the dying message is a bit of a reach. But the milieus of the comic industry and the fourth estate are put to good use, and the lead guest stars, including George who is channeling a bimbo with a heart of gold and good stenographer skills, play well with the main cast. 

New rivals: Ellery Queen (Hutton) vs. Frank Flannagan (Ken Swofford)

SPOILERS:

V fhccbfr gur qlvat zrffntr, juvyr fbegn pyrire, jba’g raqrne nalbar gb gur gebcr, fvapr vg erdhverf gur ivpgvz gb qb n YBG bs guvaxvat orsber ur fuhssyrf bss guvf zbegny pbvy. Nf Nezfgebat ynlf qlvat, jvgu sbhe pbzvp cnaryf orsber uvz naq n oyhr crapvy va uvf unaq, ur znxrf na “K” bire gur qvnybthr ohooyr gung fnlf, “V nz Ryyrel Dhrra.” Ryyrel svtherf gur sbyybjvat: 1) guvf qbrf ABG zrna gung Nezfgebat vf vaqvpngvat gur yrggrere orpnhfr gurer vf n cnary sebz Xraal Serrzna’f bja fgevc, jvgu uvf anzr ba vg, orfvqr gur ivpgvz’f obql, naq ur pbhyq unir fvzcyl pvepyrq Xraal’f anzr. Gur cnary ur QBRF znex vf, fvtavsvpnagyl, n svavfurq cnary (nygubhtu V’z abg fher jr ivrjref pbhyq unir gbyq gur qvssrerapr orgjrra guvf naq gur bgure cnaryf. Ol pebffvat BHG gur qvnybthr, Nezfgebat vf vaqvpngvat gung gur cbyvpr fubhyq pebff bhg gur yrggrere ohg vapyhqr gur svther negvfg, onpxtebhaq negvfg NAQ pbybevfg va n pbafcvenpl gb xvyy. 

Gung jbexf bxnl nf n pyhr, gb jung zhfg unir frrzrq gb ivrjref ba gur oevax bs frrvat ZHEQRE BA GUR BEVRAG RKCERFF ba gur ovt fperra gur sbyybjvat lrne nf n cerggl pyrire fbyhgvba, V thrff, Hayvxr Puevfgvr’f abiry,  gur zheqreref znxr fhpu n fznyy vzcerffvba gung jr fbeg bs sbetrg nobhg gurz hagvy gurl ner npphfrq. Guvf qbrfa’g zrna gur cybg qbrfa’g jbex; vg’f whfg gung gur erirny qbrfa’g znxr lbh pner irel zhpu.

We’ll be back soon with episodes five and six!

16 thoughts on “ELLERY QUEEN: Episodes Three and Four

  1. What I think remains fresh and interesting about this series above all else is the interesting choice of scenarios and, more specifically, locations in which the stories take place. I think the episodes I remember best are the ones that have a unique locale: i.e. a comic book studio, a radio station, burlesque hall, movie set, etc. There certainly are just as many episodes with rather nondescript locations, but L&L’s commitment to using era-appropriate settings does help make the series unique.

    If there is one single weakness to the series, I think it’s over-reliance on formula. It’s not surprising then that, in my opinion, the two strongest episodes are the ones that subvert our expectations of what the show will be. I wonder if you’ll be in agreement when you review those down the line…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Process of elimination: these two special episodes are “down the line . . . “

      My understanding from comments and readings is that Levinson and Link resisted the network’s desire for them to make the show “darker.” In my view of that word, Murder would have a more consequential effectAnd Ellery, intern, would be more emotionally affected by merger, like the Ellery of the late novels was. In that sense, I side with the network.

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  2. I think you’re spot on here. It’s a shame that Wrightsville isn’t more fully realised and the cast a bit drab, though the basic plot is pretty clever. In episode 4, putting Ellery in jail and bringing in Flanagan, there is a nice change of pace and a signal to viewers that the episodes are going to be much more varied than one might suspect, not least in coming up with unexpected villains.

    You will be reaching one of my absolute favourite episodes in your next batch.

    By the way, in terms of that variety throughout the one season, thought you might want to note the order in which the episodes were actually produced? Here they are:

    8, 3, 10, 2, 11, 1, 12, 14, 22, 13, 16, 21, 5, 6, 9, 4, 7, 17, 15, 18, 20, 19

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, this is fascinating! Had they played in order of production, I wonder what would have happened. On the one hand, they would have begun with a real bang (I’ve just rewatched and written up Episode 8 – even re-read the story). But then they would have had a bit of letdown. I have to take this order all in after I’ve watched the entire season again.

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  3. Once again, I’m pretty much in alignment with your takes on these. I happen to like Chinese Dog a lot more than most people do (indeed, it’s one of my very favorite episodes) but I’ll easily grant the flaws you mention, and one other: the identity of the culprit is made unnecessarily transparent by the staging of his exit from the house (a rather archaic deception technique actually serves to make this characters guilt more apparent). And though I’m not as invested in the saga of Wrightsville as most Queen readers, I’ll admit that this episode does its memory a disservice.

    However, what I consider the central plot point of the story— the link between method and motive— is not only ingenious, IMO, but rather unique… do you know of any other example of something similar? I think it could’ve been carried off without making the characters such simpletons, but at any rate I think it’s a wonderful idea. And the behavioral discrepancy clue— why did the culprit go out of his way to use that particular weapon?— is terrific too. Also the variation of the dying message clue— with its different possible explanations (“do you raise succulents?”) leading to different characters— works well, especially as it is not the core of the story. I think there’s a lot to like here. Plus the great Murray Hamilton, the clearly wonderful Geraldine Brooks (even this one performance shows her to be an actress of depth), and Katherine Crawford, whom I just happen to find very cute. And ET’s mom Dee Wallace as Mamie, the waitress. I realize it’s a minority opinion, but it’s definitely in my top 5.

    I haven’t all that much to say about Comic Book Crusader. My usual complain about a dying message being the center of the plot— not only the usual gripe about vengeance not being the believable top priority of a not-yet-dead person (which really is a big deal), but also the rather implausible complexity of this particular one (which actually doesn’t bother me as much). All that said, the milieu is lots of fun, the cast is enjoyable, Lynda Day George is adorable, and it’s great to see Donald O’Connor.

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  4. I do remember the Chinese Dog case and its solution clearly, for positive reasons. The next case I only remember the new boss, who intends to enter the market for moral comics, and sleeps with his secretary, if I recall correctly.

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