Two complex puzzles this time around with a double large roster of guest stars, some of whom get ill-served by the crowded plots. I love a good courtroom drama, and I blush at stuck-in-its-time racism; you’ll find both here.
Just a quick note: this project serves to remind me that binge-watching a series has its ups and downs. It works better for mini-series with a continuous storyline, like one of those Harlan Coben twist-a-minute extravaganzas on Netflix, but shows that are truly episodic – like Ellery Queen – can start to feel formulaic, no matter how clever they may be, after watching an episode or six in a row.
This has nothing to do with what we’re watching here. Just food for thought . . .
EPISODE FIFTEEN: THE ADVENTURE OF THE WARY WITNESS
(Written by Peter S. Fischer; original airdate 1/25/76)
Michael Constantine was a noted character actor on stage, in films and on television (he played the murderer twice on Perry Mason). I will always think of him as Seymour Kaufman, high school principal, on the sitcom Room 222, but it seems most people will remember his comeback role in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, its sequel and a short-lived sitcom based on the film.
Dwayne Hickman, who we lost just over a week ago, was indelibly connected with the role that made him a star, TV teen Dobie Gillis. This typecasting limited his opportunity for future parts, but he still made a bunch of movies (I saw Ski Party long before I saw Some Like It Hot, upon which the teen movie is loosely based – and loved it!) and he also appeared with his brother Darryl on an episode of Perry Mason (one of them turned out to be the killer).
Michael Parks lived as hard as he worked, drifting from job to job through his teens until he started acting. In 1963, he worked opposite Bette Davis when she replaced Raymond Burr for one episode on Perry Mason. She played guest attorney Constant Doyle, and – no, dear, Parks played the defendant. He played a biker on the short-lived series Then Came Bronson and then worked steadily in TV and film, often for men like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. One director described Parks as a “terrific actor in a lot of ways, but weird.”
Sal Mineo was never in Perry Mason (although he did play a suspect on Burke’s Law). The two things he will be remembered most for are his sensitive portrayal of gay teen Plato in Rebel Without a Cause and for his brutal mugging and murder. Despite Hollywood’s antipathy for him, both for having the nerve to grow up and for being fairly openly bisexual, Mineo accumulated a large number of credits on stage and screen before his untimely death.
Cesar Romero had the most extensive career here, appearing in the 30’s on film as the consummate Latin lover. He played bad guys in The Thin Man and Charlie Chan on Treasure Island, and while he, too, never appeared on Perry Mason, he played a variety of roles on Burke’s Law. Romero also had the distinction of being the first actor to play The Joker, and he was wonderful in the part.
Dick Sargent appeared in neither Perry Mason nor Burke’s Law but he was the second Darren Stevens on Bewitched, a role he had initially been offered and turned down. He also bravely came out as a gay man to help counter the growing incidence in suicide among LGBTQ people.
Tricia O’Neil was a stage, film and TV actress who had something that Link and Levinson liked. After her appearance on Ellery Queen, she would go on to guest star in Columbo and in the pilot episode of Murder, She Wrote. She also appeared in Peter S. Fischer’s The Eddie Capra Mysteries, and here’s where our ears should perk up. Fischer developed this modern-day series about a young attorney using the exact same format as Ellery Queen, right down to the roster of guest stars, the classic puzzle mystery, even the challenge to the viewer. Fischer even utilized scripts that would have gone into EQ’s Season 2 – had there been one. It looks like at least some of the thirteen episodes that were produced can be watched on YouTube.
I smell a blogging sequel in the air . . .
Linville Hagen (Hickman), a war veteran and air industry businessman, who also happens to be an old college buddy of Ellery’s, is on trial for the St. Patrick’s Day murder of Nick Di Nello, the oldest son of notorious mobster Armand Di Nello (Romero). The D.A. (Sargent) claims that Hagen stormed into Nick’s apartment, angry that the Di Nello family were shaking down Lin’s business in an extortion racket, and that Lin shot Nick in cold blood. Hagen’s attorney, Leo Campbell (Constantine) asserts that Lin is telling a true story when he describes a witness, a woman in green, who with Nick saw a mysterious figure on the fire escape fire at Nick. Lin claims he ran to the window and fired two shots at the figure, and when he turned around, the woman had vanished.
The story begins as the jury is handed the case and retreats to the jury room. Ellery tries to console Lin’s wife Priscilla (Kate Woodville) and his business partner Terry (Parks), but they seem to be consoling each other just fine. Meanwhile, Armand and his son Jimmy (Mineo) are out for blood if the verdict doesn’t go their way, while Nick’s widow Yvonne (O’Neil) sits in a bar and drinks. This impasse is broken when a woman calls Ellery at home and begs him to meet her at a seedy hotel. He is forced to take Frank Flannigan along with him or the reporter will leak the news to his paper. But when they get to the hotel, a shot rings out, and they find the woman hovering near death.
It will take all sorts of chicanery and mental agility for Ellery to beat the jury and find the true killer.
This is definitely the most serious episode thus far. With the stakes so high, there’s little room for humor, and Flannigan feels particularly wasted here. The idea of a team – the Queens, attorney Campbell and reporter Flannigan – plotting and fretting together put me in mind of The Greek Coffin Mystery, while other elements seemed to echo “The Case Against Carroll,” one of Ellery Queen’s best novellas. There are plenty of strong red herrings here, and the plot twists and turns until it leads us to a surprising and sobering climax that is at once fairly clued and emotionally hard-hitting.
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EPISODE SIXTEEN: THE ADVENTURE OF THE JUDAS TREE
(Written by Marty Roth; original airdate 2/1/76)
Dana Andrews was a genuine movie star and especially of interest to this blog because of his work in film noir. In that genre, he worked with great directors like Otto Preminger (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends), Fritz Lang (While the City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and Jacques Tourneur (The Fearmakers). He is probably most famous for introducing audiences to the idea of PTSD in The Best Years of Our Lives. He managed to lick a serious bout with alcoholism and a shift from A to B-pictures, from leading man to character actor status.
Clu Gulager’s trajectory was the opposite of Andrews: he did his most prestigious work on television, including roles on two early Western series, The Tall Man and The Virginian. He made the transition to film in a prestigious way, appearing in movies like The Killers and The Last Picture Show, but it soon devolved into mostly horror films, a great many of them made by his son. He is still with us and was working in films as late as 2016.
I would say that Bill Dana’s greatest contributions to show business came from his writing. Get Smart was a very funny spoof of James Bond, and Dana provided much of Don Adam’s best shticks in that show (“Would you believe . . . ?”) As a comedian, Dana’s persona could best be described as a “shlub” – someone the world happens to rather than him happening to it. Most famous, and most embarrassing in today’s light, was the character he played again and again on shows like Ed Sullivan: a Bolivian shlub named Jose Jimenez. No more need be said about that.
Jack Kruschen was an engaging character actor who started in radio at the age of 16. He played the sensitive Detective Mugovin in the classic series, Broadway Is My Beat, and often could be heard on one of my favorites, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. He was one of the only good guys in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which earned him an Academy Award nomination, and he appeared onstage with Barbra Streisand in the musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale. (He also performed in London in Promises, Promises, the musical version of The Apartment.)
I was prepared to mention George Maharis’ shocking death – but he’s still alive, too! He made an early splash on TV in Route 66 (best theme music ever!), famously left that show citing health reasons and then just . . . did his thing: more TV, some stage work, making a few records. He was one of the first male celebrities to pose totally nude for Playgirl magazine. Thank you, sir.
I developed a big crush on Diana Muldaur when she appeared on Star Trek. She did two guest shots on that show and later Gene Roddenberry made her a regular on The Next Generation, but that didn’t work out and she left after one season. She played a memorable character on L.A. Law as a powerful female attorney who shook up the law firm over a season or two, became something of a monster, and then walked into an elevator shaft – one of the best surprise deaths in TV history.
James Shigeta was that rarest of things in early film, an Asian heartthrob. The 1959 noir The Crimson Kimono was very much ahead of its time, featuring Shigeta as an Asian detective with no accent who gets involved in an interracial romance with his white partner and a white suspect (he gets the girl and loses his partner’s friendship). Shigeta possessed a fine singing voice and starred in the film version of Flower Drum Song. Oh, and he was on Perry Mason, too!
Okay, pay attention because this gets complicated . . .
At the age of 34, George Sherman is fabulously wealthy, living with his beautiful wife Paulette (Muldaur) in a beautiful mansion in the country with vast grounds all around him that are tended by a gardener named Mr. Mercadante (Dana). Sherman collects fine Asian porcelain, an interest he picked up from his days spent in China during the war. Of course, there is a dark backstory here: Sherman made his money as a war profiteer, selling arms to Chinese mercenaries in their battle against the Japanese. At one point, he betrayed a group of these soldiers to the authorities to save his own hide, resulting in the death of a whole battalion of brave fighters.
This might explain his death at the start of the episode: we see a figure standing over Sherman, who lies dead at his desk; the figure grabs a written note and crumples it up, then drags Sherman’s body outside toward a beautiful Judas tree in the driveway. In the morning, Mr. Mercadante finds Sherman hanging by a noose on this tree, a tree that symbolizes betrayal, with a wreathe made of the tree’s pink flowers on top of his head and a fatal stab wound from a Chinese dagger.
Ellery determines that it would have taken two killers to handle the 200 pound Sherman after death, and the long list of suspects includes the widow and Dr. Bender, Sherman’s personal physician, with whom Priscilla is carrying on an affair, as well as Sherman’s business partner, Gunther Starr (Kruschen) and his attorney, Lewis Marshall (Andrews). However, all four of these people seem to have unbreakable alibis. One important fact that the Queens learn from Dr. Bender is that Sherman was dying from an advanced lymphatic condition. And yet, the good doctor had given his patient a clean bill of health eleven months previously when Sherman applied for life insurance.
Ellery then turns to Father Terence Devlin (Gulager), whom Sherman had contacted to bestow a large donation to his Asian charities. But a military file and a check of fingerprints prove that Devlin is actually an Army captain named Wharton who assumed Devlin’s identity when the good priest died in order to finalize Sherman’s donation. And then there’s Steven Yang (Shigeta), a mysterious visitor from China whose life is inextricably intertwined with Sherman’s. And let’s not forget the taciturn Mr. Mercadante, who recently received a check from Sherman for $1200 for no discernible reason.
A large portrait in the study of Sherman in fencing attire shows that he is right-handed, and Ellery uses this fact, along with the placement of a cup and an inkstain on the victim’s middle finger to put together a complex solution.
I spent some time on the synopsis because I wanted to make sure, to myself as much as to you, that this plot was a finely tuned machine. I say this because it all comes together nicely in a strong solution, but for much of the time, I wasn’t particularly enjoying myself. This is a country house mystery with a large cast of suspects, all of whom serve the plot well but most of whom aren’t particularly interesting. (The priest and Mr. Yang are the exceptions.) The humor found here – Ellery attempts to fix the kitchen sink; Ellery and Mr. Mercadante have various exchanges, including a car crash, in the driveway – aren’t funny.
The treatment of Shigeta here is downright weird. The opening teaser describes him as “the Oriental visitor,” and every time he appears, the score kicks into that weird samisen music which countless old movies used to indicate the presence of a Japanese person (except Shigeta plays a Chinese man.) On the other hand, Shigeta plays the role perfectly and is allowed moments where he stares at Ellery and says things that catch the sleuth in an embarrassing moment of, perhaps unintentional, racism. Yang scolds Ellery for accusing him of the crime simply because the dagger was of Asian origin, to which Ellery doubles down by saying that there must be dozens of Asian suspects out there representing all the men whose lives were lost due to Sherman’s betrayal. Yang responds with a twinkle, “And yet there can only be one Chinese suspect.” This seems like such a powerful meta-comment on the treatment of characters of color in Ellery Queen and other authors. Hutton’s Queen has the decency to blush, stammer, and back off.
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