Original image: The Knowles Gallery
Starring: Rita Lloyd and Phil Meader
Originally aired: 1 May 1960
Plot synopsis: A woman who believes she is terminally ill discovers that she isn't about to die soon after all, meaning that she has to race against time to recover a recording in which she confesses to poisoning her husband.
Favourite line: 'I want to be invisible in my wretchedness. I want to crawl into silence and oblivion. I want to finish my last days in peace.'
Review: There are so many contrivances and improbabilities in this episode that it is difficult to know where to begin. From the unlikely way in which the main character finds out that she is not, as she had thought, about to die - by discovering that her doctor has written her a prescription for a year's supply of medicine! - to the fact that she makes a recorded confession of having poisoned her husband, almost every element of the plot is completely preposterous. Yet despite all this, the episode is an enjoyable one, thanks in no small part to the strong performance by Rita Lloyd in the lead role. Thus, even though the story is utterly unbelievable, I remained interested throughout and found the emotional climax quite compelling.
Rating: * * *
The Black Curtain
Starring: Cary Grant
Originally aired: 2 December 1943
[Another version of this story, also starring Cary Grant, aired 30 November 1944; and a further one, starring Robert Montgomery, aired 3 January 1948]
Plot synopsis: A man with amnesia cannot remember the previous three years of his life, but after trying to find out what happened to him during this time, he discovers that he is wanted for murder. Based on a novel of the same name by Cornell Woolrich, first published in 1941.
Favourite line: 'If the whole world says I committed murder, I say I didn't! The "me" that's in me says I didn't!'
Review: This episode is based on what may charitably be called a lesser Cornell Woolrich novel. Frankly, it is pretty much a potboiler, with an unremarkable story centred on the hoary old device of a character suffering from amnesia, who may or may not be guilty of murder. The protagonist's inability to recall the past three years conveniently allows him not to remember crucial plot points, so that the story can be spun out and key revelations saved up until the conclusion. All in all, this isn't a very original or inventive episode. On the plus side, though - and it's a big plus - it stars Cary Grant! As well as being a fine actor, Grant didn't just possess great movie star looks, he also had a fantastic, and highly distinctive, voice. This made him well suited to radio drama, and it's impossible not to get a great deal of enjoyment from listening to his performance for thirty minutes, even if the script is fairly mediocre. Grant starred in two broadcasts of this story, which are very similar to each other, though there was also a third, hour-long version starring Robert Montgomery. In some respects, this is the best adaptation, as the story is given more room to breathe in sixty minutes, yet I still prefer the Grant-starring ones - and in terms of these, the first has the slight edge - because, well, it's Cary Grant! (For those interested, another episode adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story that also employs the premise of a character suffering from memory loss struggling to prove he is innocent of murder is The Singing Walls.)
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: TV - The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962); Film - Streets of Chance (1942)]
The Brighton Strangler
Starring: John Loder and June Duprez
Originally aired: 21 December 1944
Plot synopsis: An actor concussed during the Blitz begins to believe that he is the character he portrays on stage, the Brighton strangler. Based on a film of the same title, released in 1945.
Favourite line: 'Reggie, did you ever think that a play might have an effect on people who saw it? … I think that someone saw your play and is trying to do the same thing in real life. Some poor creature with a twisted mind … a play like that should never have been written. Should never have been allowed.'
Review: The problem with this episode is that not only is it about a stage play, but is very stagey itself, with highly artificial dialogue and extremely contrived plotting. The performances are fine - with the two main parts played by the same actors as in the film version - but everything else is weak. From the initial set-up (the tired device of a blow to the head causing someone's whole personality to change) to the unbelievable conclusion, none of the major elements of the plot really work. The one aspect of real interest is the question that is raised about whether a play can so influence people that they might start to imitate what characters do on stage in real life - which goes to show that there is little new in contemporary debates about whether films, television programmes or video games may cause people to commit copycat acts of violence. It may be noted as well that the film version of this story works somewhat better than the radio one, even if it is not an absolute classic; moreover, a similar premise is explored in another, superior, film from the same period, A Double Life (1947), which won Ronald Colman an Oscar for his portrayal of an actor whose performance as Othello causes him to develop murderous thoughts, just like the play's eponymous character.
Rating: * *
Starring: William Redfield
Originally aired: 15 April 1962
Plot synopsis: After waking from a coma, a man moves into the house of a couple with whom his brother John had previously been living, and uses information learned from his sibling to try to blackmail them.
Favourite line: 'I could see she was getting uncomfortable - and that was exactly what I wanted.'
Review: The title may give the impression that this is an episode about a monk, or some other religious figure, but in fact it's a story about various less than moral characters. There are some interesting elements here, including a reasonably clever plan to extort money, as well as a significant role for the French nursery rhyme Frère Jacques. Quite a good twist, too, at the end, if not entirely unpredictable.
Rating: * * *
Starring: Ida Lupino
Originally aired: 29 December 1949
Plot synopsis: A woman who refuses to sign divorce papers that would waive her right to half of her husband's business is subjected by him to repeated death threats to try to persuade her to acquiesce.
Favourite line: 'What kind of freedom is it when you have to grub for a buck? That kind of freedom you can feed to the pigeons.'
Review: This is a dark, noirish tale, reminiscent of a James M. Cain thriller - rather than centring on the efforts of the police or a private detective to solve a case, the episode is presented from the viewpoint of ordinary people caught up in dramatic and violent events. The central character is an interesting, complex protagonist. She is resourceful and intelligent, proven by her successful running of her husband's business for the three years he was away in prison, but also flawed, shown by the affair (of sorts) she has begun with another man and the lies she tells to cover it up. Still, it's the men in the story who come off worst, ranging as they do from unreliable to psychopathic. However, what many listeners may find off-putting is the conclusion. The husband's strategy to get his wife to give up her right to half of his business is - SPOILER ALERT! - to point a gun at her (though it is not loaded) and count to three, to intimidate her in to signing the necessary papers. He then terrorizes her over and over again. Yet after the heroine has gone through this highly harrowing ordeal, at the end she suddenly turns around and forgives her husband everything. The question is, are we supposed to view this as a 'happy' ending, in which the couple is reconciled, to live the rest of their lives in wedded bliss? Or are we meant to read it more critically, as showing that the woman has been so beaten down by her psychological torture that she simply surrenders to her domineering husband's control? In all likelihood, the episode's intention is that we interpret the ending in the former way, though the latter seems more truthful given the events that have occurred. It's something of a disappointment that the story doesn't have a more credible conclusion (the wife should have just shot the husband when she had the chance, using his own - by this point loaded - gun!) as up until the final few minutes, there was a great deal to like and enjoy about this episode.
Rating: * * *
The Burning Court
Starring: Charlie Ruggles
Originally aired: 17 June 1942
[Another version of this story, starring Clifton Webb, aired 14 June 1945]
Plot synopsis: A man comes across a picture in a book that appears to be of his wife, yet the book identifies her as a seventeenth-century French poisoner, who was beheaded and burned at the stake - can the two women somehow be the same person? Based on a novel by John Dickson Carr, first published in 1937.
Favourite line: 'Having just saved your wife's soul from the Burning Court, now I'll rest her body from the electric chair.'
Review: This was the very first Suspense episode broadcast, so deserves recognition for this distinction if nothing else. The story itself is a classic whodunit, with an added supernatural dimension. It's a good (but not great) episode, and is composed of many of the ingredients for which Suspense would become famous, including murder, mystery, action - and a highly dangerous femme fatale! If there's a criticism to be levelled at the episode, it's that the supernatural elements don't sit entirely comfortably with the otherwise fairly conventional crime plot. In terms of this, and without giving away the ending, the story may have worked better if it had concluded a few minutes earlier, as the extra twist in the final scene raises more questions than it answers. Even so, a promising start to what would become one of the great OTR series.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: TV - Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (1960); Film - French-language La Chambre Ardente (1962)]