Original image: The Knowles Gallery
The Hands of Mr. Ottermole
Starring: Vincent Price and Claude Rains
Originally aired: 2 December 1948
Plot synopsis: A newspaper reporter and a police sergeant play key roles in the search for a killer stalking the streets of London, who strangles his victims with his bare hands. Based on a short story by Thomas Burke, first published in his short-story collection The Pleasantries of Old Quong, in 1931.
Favourite line: 'The talk in the pubs and on the streets was all cut from the same cloth - and the pattern was fear.'
Review: The short story from which this episode was adapted is a classic; indeed, in 1949, a panel of critics voted it the best mystery story of all time. However, although this is a good episode, I wouldn't describe it as among Suspense's very best. One point of interest is the means by which the murderer dispatches his victims - whereas modern fictional serial killers do so in all manner of gory and gruesome ways, here the relatively simple method of strangling is employed. This is a highly intimate way to kill a person - possibly, even, with sexual undertones - that undoubtedly says something significant about the killer's troubled psyche; at any rate, it is telling that the role his hands play in the plot are emphasized in the title. The story's strengths include the air of threat and menace it conjures, its depiction of the way the strangler's killing spree causes alarm and consternation among the London populace, and the verbal sparring between the two main characters. However, although the twist at the end is what (deservedly) earned the original short story its place in crime fiction history, for listeners today, the passage of time has undoubtedly diminished the shock and surprise of its key revelation; too many books, films and TV episodes with similar ones have been produced since. Even so, the episode still works well, as an updated reworking of the Jack the Ripper case, even if the ending is no longer as novel or startling as it may have been when it was first broadcast.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: TV - Suspense (1949 and 1950), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957)]
Starring: Agnes Moorehead and Lawrence Dobkin
Originally aired: 23 August 1959
[Another version of this story, starring Nina Foch and Helmut Dantine, aired 26 October 1958]
Plot synopsis: A woman begins to question the treatment she has been receiving from her psychiatrist, wondering if he is really trying to cure her or simply attempting to keep her in his power.
Favourite line: 'From all our sins, dear Freud, deliver us. Thy will be done, deliver us not into our id and forgive our ego, for thine is the power and the superego, forever and ever.'
Review: From Dr. Caligari (in the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) to Dr. Hannibal Lecter (in novels and later films, Red Dragon, 1981, The Silence of the Lambs, 1988 etc.) and beyond, psychiatrists in fiction are very often presented as mad or evil, or sometimes both. The psychiatrist in this Suspense story may not be as murderous or immoral as the ones I have cited, but he is nonetheless a far from shining example of his profession. The episode is basically a two-hander between a patient and her doctor, exploring the neuroses and anxieties of the former, and the manipulative behaviour of the latter. There are some disturbing, not to say creepy, elements to the main character's psychological profile, most notably her 'daddy issues', but what is particularly interesting is the way in which her psychiatrist is gradually revealed to be exploiting her problems to control her for his own ends. The introduction of the possibility of murder into the plot is probably unnecessary, as the episode would have worked just as well as a straight drama, but it remains an unusual and intriguing one regardless. Of the two versions of the story that Suspense produced, my preference is for the second, because although it appears to be slightly shortened, it stars the great Agnes Moorehead, which should be reason enough for anyone.
Rating: * * *
Heads You Lose
Starring: William Redfield
Originally aired: 11 March 1962
Plot synopsis: A pair of private detectives is hired to find a missing millionaire who had previously been presumed dead - but their investigation leads them to a startling discovery.
Favourite line: 'Inside that glass ball? Why, you couldn't get a man in that thing! You could just about get his - oh, no!'
Review: Where would fiction be without the figure of the mad scientist? We would, for a start, be deprived of daft, ludicrous stories like the one presented here - which qualifies as one of Suspense's better late-period episodes. To discuss it further requires a SPOILER ALERT!, as to reveal the most significant plot element is to give away much of the overall plot. Basically, this is a story about heads being kept alive in jars - and the idea is presented in an only marginally less ridiculous (and tongue-in-cheek) way than it is in Futurama. What I appreciated most about the episode, in fact, is that it recognizes the inherent absurdity of its premise, but still manages to spin an enjoyable, even exciting, story from it. The final twist, if a touch predictable, is a fitting one, giving the story a Twilight Zone-esque denouement. Well worth a listen. (A two-episode story with a similar premise is Donovan's Brain - though this is one I found much less entertaining.)
Rating: * * *
Heavens to Betsy
Starring: Hy Averback and Truda Marsden
Originally aired: 11 October 1955
Plot synopsis: An everyday suburban family discovers a crashed UFO in their backyard.
Favourite line: 'His life had been ordinary, and he could never completely forgive life for that.'
Review: This is a real gem of a story, which ought to be considered more often for inclusion in lists of the best Suspense episodes. It is a satirical science-fiction tale that pokes fun at both the standard tropes of science fiction itself and wider society, including the government, the legal system and public opinion. The repeated mantra of 'a man's home is his castle' is also a sly dig at narrowly self-interested individualism. The episode is thus in a similar vein to stories by the likes of science-fiction satirists Robert Sheckley and Kurt Vonnegut, with a witty, knowing script. It also feels incredibly modern, and could easily have been made today - for example, the fame-obsessed father is a very recognizable figure for contemporary listeners, who nowadays would probably be trying to get his own reality TV show. Even leaving aside the comedic aspects, the episode works well as an intriguing science-fiction tale, with a wistful, affecting ending.
Rating: * * * * *
Starring: John Hodiak
Originally aired: 28 September 1953
Plot synopsis: A wildcatter hoping to make a major oil strike has to deal with a raging fire that erupts at the field where his crew is drilling.
Favourite line: 'If you want to talk with that coffee cup shoved down your throat, just tell me. Either way, I want answers, and I want 'em quick and civil. Now make up your mind. How do you want to answer? With or without the coffee cup?
Review: Suspense's forte was crime and mystery and most of its best episodes fall into these genres (though it occasionally branched out successfully into science fiction and horror). This episode, though, is a straightforward action/adventure yarn, which feels like it belongs to a different series - perhaps Escape, an Old Time Radio series (produced, like Suspense, by CBS) which presented stories more in this vein. The episode was apparently inspired by the exploits of the famous oil well firefighter Red Adair, and it is well produced, with fine performances by the cast. However, the story itself simply left me cold (despite the subject matter ...) The fire in the story is not started deliberately, so there is no tense search for the arsonist, leaving this almost entirely about the firefighting. If this were a film or television programme, the story might be made to work - indeed, there is a John Wayne movie entitled Hellfighters, loosely based on Red Adair's life and career - but on radio, without any visual representation of the fire itself, it just isn't very exciting.
Rating: * *
Starring: Orson Welles
Originally aired: 2 September 1942
Plot synopsis: A man driving alone from New York to California is plagued by a mysterious hitchhiker who keeps appearing by the side of the road. Based on an original script by Lucille Fletcher.
Favourite line: 'A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa, mountains, prairies, desert. Somewhere among them, he's waiting for me. Somewhere I shall know who he is - and who I am.'
Review: The classic status of this episode is confirmed by the fact that it is the one Suspense episode that was later adapted for perhaps the greatest TV anthology series of them all, The Twilight Zone. It's also worth reflecting on its place in Suspense's own run, as many of the series' very earliest episodes - of which this is one - now sound creaky and dated, but this stands out as being among the show's finest. It was written by Lucille Fletcher, who also wrote probably Suspense's most famous episode, Sorry, Wrong Number. It is well produced and benefits from a score by Bernard Herrmann, who was Fletcher's husband at the time. Most important, this is probably the best of Orson Welles' appearances on Suspense: he gives a committed performance that is all the more effective for being relatively restrained (compared to some of the more over-the top ones he could give; see, for example, The Most Dangerous Game). The tale itself is a creepy, chilling one and feels like a 'classic' ghost story, even though it uses an original script. The feeling of slowly unfolding unease and foreboding is expertly built up and the periodic sightings of the hitchhiker leave the listener keen to discover who - or what - he is. Yet as much as it is the figure of the hitchhiker that helps create the episode's unnerving atmosphere, so too do the descriptions of the barren, deserted landscapes the protagonist passes through. It's possible that modern audiences may guess the nature of the hitchhiker's identity more easily than contemporary ones, given the many stories that have been produced since (for film and television) with similar 'twists', but this doesn't detract from the episode's power. There's also a rambling, though entertaining, introduction by Orson Welles at the start, which adds to the pleasure of listening to this episode.
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Mercury Theatre: Lady Esther Presents Orson Welles (1941), Philip Morris Playhouse (1942), Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air (1946); TV - The Twilight Zone (1960)]