Original image: The Knowles Gallery
Dagger of the Mind
Starring: Claire Niesen and Leon Janney
Originally aired: 20 May 1962
Plot synopsis: A wife who suspects her husband of having an affair with a work colleague becomes increasingly unhinged.
Favourite line: 'Your only affliction is idleness, a slight case of, er, middle age.'
Review: Don't listen to this episode expecting a particularly clever or original plot. Listen instead for Claire Niesen's terrific performance in the main role, as a woman who appears to be gradually losing her sanity. From the opening scene, in which she is brushed off - not to mention heavily patronized - by her doctor, to her husband's seemingly neglectful behaviour, she seems to have every reason to be angry and suspicious. Yet as the episode continues, it becomes more and more of a question whether her belief in her husband's infidelity is true. Is she, we start to wonder, in fact being driven by jealousy and paranoia? Even though the plot's mechanics are quite conventional and not a little contrived - for example, the husband seems, very conveniently, to know a surprising amount about the chief of homicide and his methods - none of this really matters. An episode that confirms that, even towards the end of Suspense's run, it could still, occasionally, produce fine radio drama.
Rating: * * * *
The Daisy Chain
Starring: Joan Loring
Originally aired: 26 June 1960
Plot synopsis: A serial killer is at large in England, who leaves daisy chains around victims' necks.
Favourite line: 'He wasn't any Jack the Ripper. No, not this fine bucko. I'm talking about the killer, I am - this one was artistic and sentimental.'
Review: I've commented elsewhere (for example, in my review of The Cellar) on the fact that episodes set in Britain are among Suspense's weakest. It may simply be that to (my) British ears, the accents and dialogue frequently don't ring true, together with the way that characters usually polarize into either upper- or lower- class stereotypes. At any rate, this isn't the worst such story, but it's far from great, either. The characters are all pretty one-dimensional and the romantic sub-plot isn't very convincing. There's a not-bad twist at the end, but it isn't strong enough to redeem what is otherwise a very ordinary story. And what is it with fictional serial killers - must they always leave enigmatic calling cards at the scenes of their crimes, like the daisy chains in this story? (For another flower-obsessed serial killer, listen to the episode The White Rose Murders.)
Rating: * *
Starring: Susan Hayward
Originally aired: 24 October 1946
Plot synopsis: A woman is blackmailed by a former associate who threatens to reveal her criminal past if she does not help him murder her rich husband so that they can split the inheritance.
Favourite line: 'Don't let anybody tell you that prison doesn't change people. It does. And Charlie'd had seven years of it. It's not just the prison pallor they always tell you about, or extra dividends in grey hair. It's something else: an expression in the eyes.'
Review: By the end of the first act, I was wondering if this might not be a five-star episode: the plot, characters and production are all very strong right from the outset. The story is a classic noir tale of deception, money and murder, with a central character who - though heavily flawed - remains sympathetic to the end. I particularly enjoyed Susan Hayward's performance in the main role, playing a woman who appears genuinely conflicted about the moral choices that she makes, yet who remains unable to escape the mistakes of her past. However, the ending is a little disappointing, relying too much on a highly improbable occurrence (involving the husband and a firearm) to be truly satisfying. So, not quite worthy of five stars, but still an effective and enjoyable episode.
Rating: * * * *
The Dark Tower
Starring: Orson Welles
Originally aired: 4 May 1944
Plot synopsis: The brother of an actress in thrall to her unscrupulous husband uses his own skills as an actor to protect her from her spouse. Based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott, first performed in 1933.
Favourite line: 'There's a little thing I like in the second act, too. Jessica asks me why I don't stop drinking and I say, "What? Would you have me subsist entirely on food? And reach the gargantuan proportions of an Orson Welles? That ought to needle the "boy wonder," eh, Ben?'
Review: The main appeal of this episode is hearing Orson Welles hamming it up shamelessly as a pompous stage actor. As might be imagined, this is great fun, especially when - as indicated by the line I quote above - Welles sends up his own image and reputation. There are, indeed, various knowing winks to the audience, which any Welles fan will appreciate. The plot itself is fine, if nothing special (and not very believable, either), but what is of interest is the ending - so, a SPOILER ALERT! for the rest of this review. What is surprising about the story's conclusion, especially for a Suspense episode from the 1940s, is that Welles' character literally gets away with murder. Yes, the person he kills is devious and manipulative, and a killer himself, but even so, this was quite unusual for the period, when 'justice' normally required that murderers, even in fiction, always pay for their crimes.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Film - The Man with Two Faces (1934)]
Starring: John Hodiak
Originally aired: 5 October 1944
Plot synopsis: Towards the end of World War II, a pair of American reporters in the neutral city of Lisbon becomes embroiled in a fight for survival with a high-ranking Nazi general.
Favourite line: 'Now that the heat's on, now that the walls are beginning to melt, you're making your getaway … Before the courts come to session and the sentences are handed out.'
Review: This episode plays out like a cross between Casablanca and Judgment at Nuremberg. Like the former, it is a Second World War story set in a neutral city where both Allies and Nazis mix, and where romance between the male and female protagonists simmers; and like the latter, it is about holding Nazi leaders to account for their war crimes. There are some neat twists and turns to the plot and it is an exciting tale, well written and performed. Especially intriguing is that, although the episode was made in 1944, the story is framed by scenes set in the post-war future, imagining a scenario where the world's democracies unite together to hold trials (though in this case, it is a trial involving an American arrested for murder). There are, too, important questions raised - about the morality of summary justice, and the place of the rule of law even in wartime - though no dissenting viewpoints to the perspective offered on these issues are allowed to be heard. Nonetheless, a very good addition to the catalogue of thought-provoking war stories.
Rating: * * * *
Starring: Rosemary Rice
Originally aired: 25 February 1962
Plot synopsis: A protective father spends an evening worrying about the trouble his teenage daughter may be getting into during her date at the school dance.
Favourite line: 'Your chest is tight. Your breath short. You're worried. Anxiety has clamped you in her clammy claws.'
Review: I almost couldn't decide whether to give this episode one star or five stars. Objectively speaking, it is utterly terrible - however it may have played in 1962 when it was first broadcast, it now seems quite laughably ridiculous. The story presents the most clichéd image imaginable of a concerned father, who is plagued by anxiety about his sixteen-year-old daughter's date night, feverishly imagining that she is being drawn into a debauched world of smoking, drinking and teenage rebellion. Furthermore, when the listener realizes that most of the story is taking place inside the father's head, the episode even becomes a little creepy during a scene in which the daughter and her date discuss her 'becoming a woman', since it is the father who is conjuring up the whole conversation. Still, what is strangest about the story is that, given that this is an episode of Suspense, the plot contains no crime or mystery, so it simply amounts to a (not very good) straight drama. For all these reasons, I would judge this episode as ranking among the worst the series produced. And yet. Unlike other weak episodes, most of which are plain boring, this one is so daft and overwrought that it ends up possessing a great deal of entertainment value. On this basis, I would recommend it as well worth listening to; just don't expect it to be any good.
The Day I Died
Starring: Joseph Cotten
Originally aired: 30 June 1949
Plot synopsis: A man who kills his business partner, but who the authorities believe is the one who in fact died, is hidden by his wife so that they can split the proceeds of his life insurance policy - but what is to prevent her killing him for real, to collect the full amount?
Favourite line: 'A dead man can't put up much of an argument. He has no authority, not even with his wife.'
Review: This is a pretty good thriller, with a solid twist in the final act - but also one that over-relies on its central conceit to power the plot and create an impact. Joseph Cotten is, naturally, very good in the central role, as is Cathy Lewis as his wife, and the story certainly remains intriguing until the end. Yet I became a little tired of the constant repetition of variations on the title, 'the day I died', which suggested that the writers were overly impressed with their own idea of a story about a man who apparently dies, but doesn't; okay, we get it already! Still, it remains a good episode, and the final twist - if not entirely unpredictable - delivers a satisfying payoff.
Rating: * * *