Original image: The Knowles Gallery
A Case of Nerves
Starring: Edward G. Robinson
Originally aired: 1 June 1950
[Another version of this story, also starring Edward G. Robinson, aired 24 April 1956]
Plot synopsis: A man tired of being married to his sick wife, who is confined to a hospital bed, devises a scheme to murder her in such a way that he will escape suspicion of being her killer.
Favourite line: 'A strange, unfamiliar quarter of the city, yet familiar because every city has neighborhoods like it: drab, faceless houses looking almost alike, and in most of them drab men and women ...'
Review: Edward G. Robinson is one of those actors whose presence in an episode (or, similarly, a film) is usually a guarantee of a certain level of quality. That is to say, episodes he's in are almost always worth a listen. This is true in the case of this particular one, even though it is far from great. It is a solid, yet fairly run-of-the-mill thriller, with nothing startlingly original or outstanding to set it apart from countless others. Even the twist at the end, though it works well enough, is unlikely to astonish anyone, and many may feel that they have heard, read and seen similar ones elsewhere. None of the characters is particularly well-drawn either, including the husband and wife at the story's centre, or the nurse for whom the former develops an infatuation. So, although the episode is proficiently scripted, produced and acted, it is not terribly involving; if Robinson did not feature, I would probably deduct a star from my rating.
Rating: * * *
The Cave of Ali Baba
Starring: Romney Brent
Originally aired: 19 August 1942
Plot synopsis: Amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the activities of a clandestine criminal society whose members maintain their secrecy by identifying each other by number rather than name. Based on a short story by Dorothy L. Sayers, 'The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba', first published in her short-story collection Lord Peter Views the Body, in 1928.
Favourite line: 'It was a very ugly tiara - no real loss to anybody with decent taste.'
Review: While American writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were redefining crime fiction in the 1920s-1940s, making it grittier, harder edged and more realistic, many of their British counterparts, like Agatha Christie, remained stuck in a world of quaint country villages, drawing room mysteries and gentleman detectives. For this reason, of the many episodes adapted by Suspense from contemporary crime writings, those based on works by British writers frequently compare unfavourably to those produced from American sources. In particular, they often seem creaky and wooden, and very conservative in matters such as characterization and motive. Whereas TV and film adaptations of such works at least offer some visual pleasures - British stately homes, vintage cars and so on - because radio versions have only the plots and characters to rely on, they have a much harder job keeping an audience's interest. To cut to the chase, this episode suffers from many of the above problems. Based on a story by another British writer of the period, Dorothy L. Sayers, it features perhaps her most famous creation, the aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey. Even at the time, when one remembers that this character was contemporaneous with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe - who inhabited entirely different worlds to those like Wimsey, walking as they did the mean streets of the urban jungle - the former was already quite old-fashioned, and even faintly absurd. There's not much specific to say about the episode's plot, other than to comment on how ludicrous and unrealistic it is. Those who prefer more traditional types of detective story may find elements in it to enjoy - there is one, surprisingly modern, idea that is quite clever, centred on the use of voice recognition technology! - but I would guess that most listeners today will mainly find it contrived and ridiculous.
Rating: * *
Starring: Virginia Bruce and Robert Young
Originally aired: 23 September 1948
[Another version of this story, starring Joy LaFleur, aired 5 May 1957]
Plot synopsis: A woman who has been institutionalized because she suffers from hypermania is taken out for the evening by her husband, apparently to celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary - but does he in fact have a more sinister motive?
Favourite line: 'If we only could go back to those wonderful days so long ago, and keep them forever. But there's no turning back the clock. Not ever.'
Review: Some listeners may prefer the second produced version of this story because it has a stronger, more effective ending, but there are various reasons for favouring the first. One of these is that the first version employs the novel device of presenting the story from alternating perspectives - of its husband and wife protagonists - which adds an intriguing dimension to the tale, forcing the audience continually to reassess where its sympathies lie; by contrast, the second is told entirely from the wife's viewpoint, which feels more limited. Furthermore, the performances in the first are more engaging, and the characters more likeable, which helps make the story work better overall than in the second. At the same time, the essentials of the story remain similar in both versions, and it is a good one: the slow build-up of suspense is carefully managed by the plot, as suspicion increasingly mounts that the evening supposedly intended to be one of celebration is going to have a more tragic conclusion. However, what lets the first version down considerably is that the ending it opts for is a real cop out, with a resolution that is highly implausible and extremely contrived. This greatly diminishes what might have been a four or five star episode. The ending of the second version could hardly be more different, and is much bolder in presenting a very stark climax; although, powerful as this is, it perhaps goes too far in the opposite direction to that of the first, in being extremely dark and bleak. Listening to such contrasting variations on the same plot is fascinating, perhaps illustrating how tastes changed in the years between the two versions, with audiences of the late 1950s possibly willing to stomach much harder-edged fare than those of the 1940s. Still, the ideal version of this story would probably have an ending that falls somewhere in between these two versions, in terms both of tone and substance.
Rating: * * *
Starring: Eric Snowden
Originally aired: 22 March 1955
Plot synopsis: A man plots to murder his wife and then bury her body in the cellar.
Favourite line: 'I worked it all out, and if you think you can get up them stairs before I bash your 'ead in, you're very much mistaken.'
Review: Since I was going to be writing a review of this episode, I felt obliged to listen to it through to the end. However, I would not recommend anyone else do the same: this is a very poor episode indeed. The story takes place in an unspecified British location, and it is no exception to the rule that Suspense episodes set in Britain are generally among the series' weakest (see also, for example, Jack Ketch and One-Way Street). There truly is almost nothing of any merit here, with unlikeable characters, an indifferent script and unengaging performances from the cast. It's not worth even commenting on the plot as there is very little to it, and what there is is pretty dismal.
The Copper Tea Strainer
Starring: Betty Grable
Originally aired: 21 April 1949
Plot synopsis: A model and aspiring actress, who feels trapped by having to look after her sick mother, realizes that she could escape the drudgery of her life if she were to give her mother an overdose of her medication.
Favourite line: 'A cold blackness paralyzed me, and our two voices seemed to be coming from a great distance. My stomach felt sick. You hit at me with questions, and I fought with all my will to keep from giving dangerous answers.'
Review: In many respects, the strongest aspect of this episode is not the murder plan that drives the story, but the human drama. That is, its depiction of a woman whose life is constrained by the responsibility of looking after her sick, and highly controlling, mother. This raises it above other episodes that are purely plot driven and which don't offer much in the way of characterization. At the same time, the plot itself is quite reasonable, and its major twist, which occurs right at the end, is a good one, and not too predictable. This was Betty Grable's only appearance on Suspense and - despite fluffing her lines a few times - she gives a strong performance. Raymond Burr is solid, too, as the police detective.
Rating: * * *
The Customers Like Murder
Starring: Roland Young
Originally aired: 23 March 1943
Plot synopsis: When a British writer of crime fiction and his secretary are abducted by a pair of American gangsters, because they mistake the author for a doctor, he must draw upon all of his creative talents to escape their clutches. Based on an original script by John Dickson Carr (with the story subsequently published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in April 1952).
Favourite line: 'Well, in the last four books, Mr. Hawkstone, you have shot the Prime Minister, killed the Lord Chancellor with an axe, poisoned the Home Secretary and blown up the First Lord of the Admiralty. Why don't you stop picking on the poor government and murder somebody else for a change?'
Review: This is a very old-fashioned sort of story, which has dated badly. The plot is plain silly and the characters - especially the two gangsters - poorly drawn. The episode is meant to be humorous, but the humor largely falls flat; in particular, the repartee between the hero and his secretary simply isn't witty or sparky enough to be effective. Perhaps the most irritating aspect is that the protagonist is an extremely pompous, patronizing character who is not in the least bit likable, so the listener is never really invested in what happens to him. The one faintly interesting element is that the story is set against the backdrop of the London Blitz, with World War II still raging at the time the episode was broadcast, but apart from this historical novelty, there is not much here that will appeal to a modern audience.
Rating: * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Appointment with Fear (1943)]