Original image: The Knowles Gallery
Deadline at Dawn
Starring: Helen Walker and John Beal
Originally aired: 15 May 1948
Plot synopsis: A man has until dawn to solve a murder, before the police find the victim's corpse and suspect him of being the killer, with his only help coming from a woman who works at a dance hall. Based on a novella by Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish), first published in 1944.
Favourite line: 'The dead man lay in the middle of the study. His face was all out of focus. The lines that had been laugh lines were creases now. The mouth that had been either strong or weak was just a gap now, a place where the face was open. The eyes that had been either kindly or cruel were just glossy, lifeless insects now. This was the dead man - and we'd come for his secret.'
Review: One of Suspense's hour-long episodes, this stays reasonably close to the novella on which it is based, though differs quite markedly from the film version produced a couple of years before. It is a race-against-the-clock thriller, in which the two main characters are forced to turn detective to uncover the identity of a killer, with only a matter of hours to do so. This makes for an exciting tale, with sufficient twists and turns to keep the listener's interest throughout. The episode benefits as well from strong performances, especially by Helen Walker as a 'taxi dancer' (a woman who worked in the popular dance halls of the time, paid to partner male customers). Also effective are the moments in which the protagonists dream about escaping back to the small town where they both grew up, which adds a slightly wistful, melancholic feel to the story. A superior episode that uses it hour length to good effect. (What may also be of interest is that there is another Suspense episode featuring a taxi dancer as a main character adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story, the excellent 'Dime a Dance' - see below.)
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Film - Deadline at Dawn (1946)]
The Dead Sleep Lightly
Starring: Walter Hampden
Originally aired: 30 March 1943
Plot synopsis: A man believes he is being haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, whom he had abandoned many years before. Based on an original script by John Dickson Carr.
Favourite line: 'But the dead sleep lightly. And they can be lonely, too.'
Review: One of the best Suspense episodes scripted by John Dickson Carr (who provided many stories for the series in its early years), this succeeds by conjuring a genuinely eerie atmosphere and by maintaining an intriguing air of ambiguity about what is really going on (at least until the final act). Like other Carr tales, there are hints of the supernatural in the story (see also, for example, The Burning Court), which helps elevate it above many of the more run-of-the-mill mystery stories Suspense sometimes presented. At any rate, for the first two-thirds or so there is much in this tale of a guilt-ridden man believing himself to be haunted by the ghost of a woman whom he had treated badly when she was alive that is very effective, especially the scene in which he appears to have a telephone conversation with his dead spouse. It cannot be denied, though, that - SPOILER ALERT! - when the resolution arrives, which provides a decidedly non-supernatural explanation for what has occurred, it is a little disappointing. It is perhaps the case that any rational account would be, as this inevitably undermines the creepy atmosphere built up in the previous acts, but it is still a shame that there isn't a stronger conclusion. Even so, a compelling episode.
Rating: * * * *
Death Has a Shadow
Starring: Bob Hope
Originally aired: 5 May 1949
Plot synopsis: A lawyer, sitting alone in his office at night, awaits the arrival of a man who is coming to kill him.
Favourite line: 'Don't ever answer a telephone just because you've got nothing else to do, just because you're curious.'
Review: One of Suspense's great strengths was that it allowed the actors it featured the opportunity to play against type. This episode is a good case in point, as Bob Hope was known almost exclusively as a comedian, yet here he stars in a very different type of role to the ones he normally played on film. In this story, a serious thriller, his character is embroiled in murder and intrigue, and the plot has quite a dark edge to it. The script would have worked well even without Hope as the protagonist - and it has a very good twist in the second half - but the value of having a comedian playing the main character is that he brings with him certain expectations, which may then be subverted. I won't say any more about the plot than this, other than that it is well-constructed, only gradually revealing the truth behind what is going on, and with a satisfying payoff. A clever, enjoyable episode. (For those who like this one, I would recommend another very good Suspense episode that similarly employs a comedian playing against type, the Danny Kaye-starring The Too-Perfect Alibi.)
Rating: * * * *
The Devil in the Summer House
Starring: Martin Gabel
Originally aired: 3 November 1942
Plot synopsis: The case of a presumed suicide from twenty-five years ago must be re-examined when new evidence comes to light - could it have been murder? Based on an original script by John Dickson Carr (with the story subsequently published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in September 1946).
Favourite line: 'Now, listen, Mr. Parker, in my father's country, in Ireland, they got a saying that when a man's going to commit suicide ... then the Devil comes in and takes him by the hand and talks to him. They say you can see the Devil as plain as I see you, just before you pull the trigger.'
Review: Various of my other reviews doubtless reveal that I am not the world's greatest fan of traditional, 'drawing-room' mysteries, of the type popularized by (usually British) writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. However, I found this to be a superior example of the type, even if it shares many of the limitations of the genre - such as treating murder as little more than a puzzle to be solved, and a too-great reliance upon contrivances and improbabilities. For some listeners, there may also be the issue that such stories typically centre upon the lives of the privileged upper classes, as is the case here, perhaps making it harder to sympathize with them than if they were of more ordinary social statuses. Regardless, this is a solid episode, with a well-worked out plot, good acting, and high production values; its structure is also at least a little more unusual than the norm (though hardly 'experimental'), in its use of two time-frames to tell the story. Vital to such tales is the quality of the final twist, and this is the episode's strongest suit: I for one did not see it coming. Yet it does not come completely out of nowhere, and a second listen reveals that all the clues are there for the eagle-eared (if that is a word).
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - BBC Radio (1940)]
Dime a Dance
Starring: Lucille Ball
Originally aired: 13 January 1944
Plot synopsis: A dancer at a 'dime a dance' hall helps the police catch a murderer who has been killing young women. Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish), first published in Black Mask magazine, in February 1938; and later, as 'The Dancing Detective', in his short-story collection The Dancing Detective, in 1946.
Favourite line: 'Have you ever danced with a murderer? It doesn't cost any more for the extra thrill.'
Review: This is one of the very best episodes of Suspense's entire run, showcasing many of the series' greatest strengths, including its frequent use of well-chosen source material and its ability to attract the leading stars of the day to do justice to the scripts. In terms of the latter, it's interesting how many of the most memorable Suspense performances were by actors more famous for comedy and light entertainment than serious drama - including Jack Benny, Danny Kaye and, the star of this story, Lucille Ball. Perhaps on radio, where they have only their voices to work with, such performers are better at engaging with audiences than are many straight actors (especially those who rely more on physical attractiveness for their popularity). In any case, Ball is extremely good in the main role, making for a strong, sympathetic lead. She plays a 'taxi dancer', the label given to women who worked in the popular dance halls of the time, paid to partner male customers, commonly at the rate of a dime a dance; although it goes unmentioned in this episode, it is unsurprising that many such women fell into prostitution. The fact that the story is told from the perspective of Ball's character, rather than that of the police trying to solve the case, makes it that much more gripping, as she herself is a potential victim. As well as Ball's performance, another of the episode's great pleasures is its vivid evocation of the period - the short story on which it was based was written in 1938, and it has the definite feel of a Depression-era tale, with an air of desperation hanging over its dance hall setting. Adding to the atmosphere is the effective use of contemporary music. Finally, the story itself is a very enjoyable one, with a dark edge and a good series of twists. Overall, a superb episode. (What may also be of interest is that there is another Suspense episode featuring a taxi dancer as a main character adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story, 'Deadline at Dawn' - see above.)
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: TV - Fallen Angels (1995)]
Donovan's Brain (2 episodes)
Starring: Orson Welles
Originally aired: 18 and 25 April 1944
[Another version of this story, starring John McIntire, aired 7 February 1948]
Plot synopsis: A doctor’s experiment keeping a human brain alive outside its body in his laboratory leads to terrible consequences when it starts to exert a malignant telepathic influence. Based on a novel of the same name by Curt Siodmak, first published in 1942.
Favourite line: 'Kill the brain!'
Review: Proof that not everything Orson Welles touched turned to gold. This is an extremely silly story, which is hard to take seriously. Anyone who has seen the Steve Martin comedy The Man with Two Brains will know that the idea of keeping brains alive in jars is one that is best played for laughs, but here it is presented in an entirely straight fashion that is simply preposterous. Listeners may also be reminded of the classic Star Trek episode 'Spock's Brain' (in which aliens steal the science officer's grey matter, though he still manages to survive!), which is widely recognized as one of the very worst of that show's run. Comparisons aside, this story falls down all by itself, with some quite ludicrous ideas - one choice example is when Welles' character tries to communicate with the living brain by tapping on the side of its glass container in Morse code! The consecutive episodes over which the story is told are also full of ripe, deathless dialogue, which must have been difficult for the cast, especially Welles, to deliver without breaking into fits of laughter. In this reviewer's mind, the biggest mystery of this story is why anyone felt it merited being stretched out over two parts. (An episode with a similar premise, though more intentionally humorous, is Heads You Lose.)
[Other adaptations: TV - Studio One in Hollywood (1955); Film - The Lady and the Monster (1944), Donovan's Brain (1953), The Brain (1962)]
Starring: Henry Morgan
Originally aired: 6 November 1947
Plot synopsis: A writer living in an apartment building where a series of murders has been occurring is haunted by the music he hears coming from the room next door.
Favourite line: 'The murderer isn't giving out souvenirs this week.'
Review: Even though this episode is, for the most part, solidly written, acted and produced, it is not very engaging, and also somewhat predictable. The main problem is that there is nothing that lifts it above the ordinary - the protagonist is a writer, but we learn little about what he writes, and the music that is so central to the plot is not especially distinctive or memorable. Furthermore, many listeners will have worked out by at least the midway point what the twist at the end is going to be, particularly those familiar with Suspense, as it produced other episodes with similar ones. So, a fair listen, but not a story to get terribly excited about. (A much more interesting episode about a writer living alone in an apartment who is mesmerized by a song is The Green Lorelei.)
Rating: * *