And so it ends, not with a bang but . . . not with a whimper either (although the penultimate episode edges a little close). It’s impossible to believe that Link and Levinson could not have sustained the puzzle plots for at least one more season, and yet what we have here is most pleasurable due to the relationships between the main cast members and the look and feel of the series. More about the ending, er, at the end . . .
EPISODE TWENTY-ONE: THE ADVENTURE OF THE HARDHEARTED HUCKSTER
(Story by Robert E. Swanson and Lewis Davidson ; original airdate 3/21/76)
Eddie Bracken was a much beloved comic actor who began performing in vaudeville at the age of nine. His stage credits span 61 years, including a starring role in the original production of Rodgers and Hart’s Too Many Girls, and his 58-year filmography included two starring roles with Preston Sturges, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.
I’ve never much cottoned to the whole vibe around the late 60’s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, set in a German concentration camp and meant to portray the Nazis as comical boobs. But there’s no denying that its star, Robert Crane, had immense charm. By the time he filmed this EQ episode, however, the sitcom had long been cancelled and Crane’s career was in steep descent. Now he is more famous for his private life and brutal murder, which encapsulates the reason I shun true crime shows and gravitate toward series like Ellery Queen.
Driving his cab in New York in 1963, Herb Edelman picked up a fare who turned out to be director Mike Nichols, who cast Edelman in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park – the rest, as they say, was history. Edelman excelled at playing sad sacks, whether lovable (Murray the cop in the film version of The Odd Couple) or opportunistic (Stan Sbornak on The Golden Girls).
Carolyn Jones is yet another talented actor who has been defined by one iconic TV role, that of Morticia Addams on the 60’s sitcom, The Addams Family. She was immortalized in wax by Vincent Price in House of Wax (1953) and was striking whenever she appeared in film or on TV. She guest starred in what I think is easily the best episode of Burke’s Law, “Who Killed Sweet Betsy?” in which she played a set of quintuplets and created five distinctive characters, one of whom was a psychopathic killer. It’s a must-watch experience.
Juliet Mills, Hayley’s older sister, has had a massive career on stage and screen in her native U.K., so we don’t have to worry about the fact that in the U.S. she is probably best known for two television roles: as the non-magical lead in the ho-hum sitcom, Nanny and the Professor and as the very magical town witch Tabitha Lenox on the utterly bizarre soap opera Passions.
James Bevin Long (Fred Beir), president of the Quicksilver Tobacco Company is being pitched a commercial for his cigars that will show on TV.. J.B. has no faith in the new medium and insists that his team go back to the drawing board. That leaves advertiser Jerry Crabtree (Crane), creative director Rita Radcliffe (Jones), copy writer Max Sheldon (Edelman) and J.B.’s assistant Horace Manley (Bracken) scrambling for ideas until Manley and Crabtree run into reporter Frank Flannagan. Crabtree has a brainstorm to give Flannegan his own radio show that will be sponsored by Quicksilver and arranges for Frank to come to lunch the next day and meet with J.B..
Ellery happens to arrive at the same time as Frank, looking for information on how he could turn a cigar into a blowpipe for a novel he’s writing (a novel that the real EQ would never write!!!). Frank takes him into Long’s office where the man’s secretary, Florence Ames (Mills) informs the reporter that Long is not available for lunch. The clock strikes one, and a waiter appears to take Long in his lunch, the Tuesday Cold Plate of roast beef, potato salad, custard and coffee. After he leaves, Manley comes out of his office and tells Frank that there will most definitely be a lunch meeting, but when he enters Long’s office, he comes right out saying Long does not wish to be disturbed. The three men go out to lunch without the big boss, and when they return, Manley asks Florence to see if Long is done with his daily nap. When she enters, she finds Long lying dead in his bathroom.
From there, we enter a Freeman Wills Crofts-ian world of schedules and alibis, along with what might be a second attempt at murder, before Ellery shows up on Flannagan’s new show (now on TV!) to reveal the killer.
I heaved a big sigh as I started to write this section because here we have another one of those tricks that every mystery author has used (Christie has used it at least 47 times with variations: I’m thinking of a Poirot short story and at least three late Poirot novels . . . ) Aside from that, the episode is . . . okay. The guest cast performs well, especially Jones and Mills, who add a lot of much-needed life to the proceedings. There’s no sign of Sergeant Velie (maybe he got some time off to recover from having recently been accused of murder), and there’s way too much of Flannagan who constantly hammers home the tired running joke of men who had no foresight as to what a phenomenon television would become. It’s sad to start believing that, as the one and only season winds down, the boys were running out of steam.
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EPISODE TWENTY-TWO: THE ADVENTURE OF THE DISAPPEARING DAGGER
(Teleplay by Stephen Lord and Robert Van Scoyk, story by Stephen Lord; original airdate 4/4/76)
Our final guest cast, ranging from old Hollywood royalty to TV one-note wonders, again reflects the eclectic nature of how Levinson and Link cast their shows.
Walter Pidgeon was the royalty, a two-time Oscar nominee (for Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie) whose range seemed, to me, frankly, rather limited but who always turned in a solid performance. I especially liked him as Florenz Ziegfeld in Funny Girl. I am also a big fan of the classic game show, What’s My Line, where Pidgeon was one of the most helpless guest panelists.
Dana Wynter was another of those elegant, lovely women who made a lot of movies and TV appearances and yet achieved a limited amount of fame. I associate her with one role, and it turns out to have been her most famous, that of Becky Driscoll in the original sci-fi hit, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In it, she shows wonderful range, and one wonders why she didn’t become a bigger star.
Mel Ferrer was an interesting figure. He acted, directed and produced but, most famously, was married to actress Audrey Hepburn for a considerable time. They starred together in the epic film, War and Peace. I also find interesting the varied career of Ronny Cox, who debuted as one of the hapless adventurers in the film Deliverance, and played both amiable guys and villains in films and TV. He is still with us but basically gave up acting to focus on music.
Gary Burghoff will be forever associated with the character of Radar O’Reilly, a corporal stationed in a medical unit during the Korean War, in Robert Altmann’s film M*A*S*H. Burghoff reprised the role, transforming and deepening it, for the hit TV series. After that, aside from the occasional guest shot and commercial, he did what a lot of successful series regulars did . . . he faded out of our view.
In 1942, munitions king Stuart Hendricks stepped into his private plane, the Lady A, with an intimate group, including his wife Alyssa (Wynter), his associate Brandon Childs (Ferrer), and junior executive Gerald Hacker (Burghoff). Piloting the plane was Buck Nolan (Cox), and his girlfriend Norma Lee Burke (xxxxx) was the stewardess. When the plane landed, Hendricks was dead, stabbed and lying in the cargo hold, but there was no sign of a weapon anywhere.
Ace detective Hamilton Drew (Pidgeon) was hired to investigate, and he determined that the only egress for a weapon was a small window in the pilot’s cabin. Buck Nolan was arrested for murder, and although he was acquitted, evidence arose linking him to the theft of the plans for a new rifle; consequently, Nolan spent five years in prison.
In the present day (1947), Inspector Queen returns from a fishing trip to find a telegram from Drew, who had mentored Queen throughout his career. Before he can contact his old friend, Velie phones to notify the Queens that Drew has been found murdered. What’s more, he was stabbed to death – and no weapon can be found.
Once again, suspicion centers on Nolan, but Ellery is curious to learn that on the night of his death, Drew gathered all the 1942 plane passengers and crew together at his apartment and told them he had finally solved Hendrick’s murder. He then showed the gathering a metallic object which he identified as a decisive clue – a lead sinker.
Ellery goes back to the beginning and tries to solve the original crime in order to avenge the death of his father’s dear old friend.
A well-crafted drama with a fairly, if obviously, clued puzzle closes out the season and the series. The motif of one detective continuing the work of another put out of commission by injury or death is a time-honored one, ranging from Charlie Chan Carries On to The Maltese Falcon (and yes, I’m well aware that my span here covers the exact same year of published detective fiction, but – oh, you know what I mean.) There are no dying messages and admittedly no surprise endings; well-read mystery fans will probably figure out the basic murder method, which will lead them straight to the killer. I think some clues are either missing or awkwardly presented, particularly those regarding a secondary culprit. What makes this final episode enjoyable is the structure and the drama of it, primarily due to Ellery’s motivation for solving the crime in order to honor and avenge a man dear to his father’s heart.
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Whatever you think of the quality of the series, Ellery Queen was probably doomed from the start. Even though Link and Levinson themselves pushed the writers to 1) adhere to formula, and 2) keep it light, this formula wasn’t going to sustain itself in a period of television where, more and more, viewers were looking for relevance and some of the excitement they had to pay for at the movies. More and more people were eschewing the mental stimulation of a puzzle plot for car chases and guns firing. The series was pushed from one day and time slot to another, which never bodes well, and it all came to an end with scripts to spare.
Some of these were utilized in Peter S. Fischer’s follow-up series,The Eddie Capra Mysteries, which has much in common with Ellery Queen: the same format, even including a challenge to the viewer, many of the same guest stars (Ken Swofford was even a regular), and an even more dismal lack of success (Eddie Capra only lasted thirteen episodes). I think this says a lot about the chemistry between Jim Hutton and David Wayne and the inclusion of John Hillerman and Ken Swofford to add some fuel to Ellery’s fire. As at least one reader here has pointed out, Hutton’s days were sadly numbered; at best, we might have gotten one, maybe two more seasons.
If I could go back in a time machine, I would have asked the creators to rethink the weekly series and create fewer but longer TV-movies which, like the pilot, took their plot source from the original novels. I fear they would have avoided Cat of Many Tails as they had already written this script and had it ruined by the network. Keeping in mind that the movies would need to conform to the style and relationships set in the series, as well as the vagaries of 1970’s censors (no beheaded crucified bodies, I guess), I would have loved to see most of the Period One novels dramatized with Hutton and Wayne. I say most because I cannot fathom Roman Hat or Egyptian Cross working for this audience, and Spanish Cape is pretty awful in any form. But mysteries set in a hospital, a department store, and a rodeo certainly would work, and I would love to have seen Greek Coffin, Siamese Twin and Chinese Orange put onscreen. (Chinese Orange kinda sorta was in the movies, but it’s terrible.)
Classic television provided all too few mystery series in the spirit of the Golden Age, and none of them struck me as more dedicated to fair play than Ellery Queen. Both Perry Mason and Burke’s Law embraced the form of the classic mystery and ended with a surprise revelation of the killer. Once in a while, this was even accompanied by a cogent clue as to the culprit’s identity – but never enough times and never with the thoroughness that the EQ writers included here.
Clearly, the genre has been good for TV and got better after Ellery Queen. Columbo was a part of an umbrella of shows that rotated through the seasons, including McCloud, McMillan and Wife and Hec Ramsey, and there were short-run attempts like The Snoop Sisters and The Father Dowling Mysteries. (The Murder, She Wrote formula was repeated with better success by Diagnosis: Murder and Matlock.) As years have passed, the situation of creating more thought-provoking mystery programming has massively improved, both through adaptations of the Golden Age writers themselves and in the form of some clever series like Death in Paradise and Jonathan Creek and, to a certain extent, Monk.
I feel like Oliver Twist, shyly approaching the producers with my little TV remote in my hands, plaintively begging for more. Meanwhile, it has been a real pleasure reliving this enjoyable relic from the ’75 season. My appreciation knows no bounds for Dick and Billy, those middle school boys who met and vowed that they would go forth together and share their shared love of classic mysteries. And thanks to you for following along with me on this celebration.
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Don’t touch that dial! The series may be over, but we have more business to attend to. First up: I plan to put up a poll to give you a chance to vote for which you consider to be the best out of the twenty-three Queen programs (of course I must include the pilot). I have to work out the details, so I’ll release the poll as soon as
JJ teaches me how to do it I complete a special advanced training at WordPress University.
The good news is that Levinson and Link did a lot more television. God help us all if I announced here that I would be tackling all thirteen seasons of Murder, She Wrote; it ain’t gonna happen, not now, now ever. And if you want to learn about Columbo, you would do well to visit my friend Aidan’s blog, Mysteries Ahoy, where he is covering that series at a far more humane pace than I did here with EQ. As for me, well, there are some great TV movies out there that were written by our clever duo, and here and there I will be covering some of these.