Original image: The Knowles Gallery
Starring: Charles Laughton
Originally aired: 22 September 1952
[Another version of this story, starring Hans Conreid, aired 13 April 1956 - under the title The Groom of the Ladder]
Plot synopsis: London, 1686 - The notorious hangman Jack Ketch, feared and hated by all, experiences misery, debt and the lonely isolation of his trade.
Favourite line: 'Can't they understand? I'm just like anyone else - I do me job same as anyone.'
Review: This story is based on the life of a real historical figure, the executioner Jack Ketch, who became infamous during the reign of Charles II, especially for his incompetence - for example, it apparently took him at least eight blows of his axe to behead the Duke of Monmouth. In terms of this dramatization, Charles Laughton gives a fine performance in the lead role, and some of the atmosphere of the times is reasonably well evoked. Besides these aspects, though, there is not much to recommend about this rather dismal, creaky tale. There is no real suspense, and the plot offers little excitement and few interesting developments; we never even get to hear Ketch performing his duties as an executioner. Mention should also be made of some pretty dire, stereotypical 'ye olde English' dialogue and accents.
Starring: Frank Lovejoy
Originally aired: 1 December 1957
Plot synopsis: In New York, a married pilot and the woman with whom he is having an affair devise a scheme to murder his wife in Los Angeles, involving him flying there and back in a single night to avoid suspicion, by riding the jet stream over the continent to make this possible.
Favourite line: 'The day you decide to murder your wife can start like any other morning ...'
Review: In 1957, when this episode was produced, pilots had only relatively recently started using jet streams - fast flowing currents of air in the atmosphere - to cut flight times, so the premise behind this story would have been quite novel when it was first broadcast. However, this is one of the few positive aspects of the episode, because as a thriller it is pretty poor. The details of the plot are all revealed up front, and there isn't a great deal of excitement in listening to its execution. Yet what lets the episode down most is a problem that afflicts many late-period Suspense episodes, that of deeply unsympathetic main characters. The reason the protagonist considers turning to murder is - SPOILER ALERT! - not just that his wife won't grant him a divorce, which he wants so that he can be with someone else, but because she intends to expose him to his employer for having once committed fraud. Thus, he is not a character who earns much audience sympathy even before he carries out his murderous plan. However, much worse than this is that, after he has gone through with the murder of his wife, he then contemplates killing his two-year-old son as well. Even though he doesn't, he still seems utterly unconcerned that he has just robbed the boy of his mother. This serves to lose the character any shred of likeability, so when at the end his guilt is uncovered, it's difficult to care very much about his fate. (It may depend on where this episode is obtained from whether or not the original commercials are included, but if they are, listen out for a quite bizarre piece of Cold War propaganda during one of the ad breaks, a commercial extolling the virtues of NATO, for no clear reason whatsoever!)
Rating: * *
Starring: Cathy and Elliott Lewis
Originally aired: 8 December 1952
Plot synopsis: A comedian who wants to be taken seriously goes to extreme lengths to make this happen, becoming a murderer so that people will see that there is more to him than just jokes.
Favourite line: 'You're the seven wonders of the world - life hits you in the face, you run to the joke file, a gag for each and every situation.'
Review: The idea of a comic who wants to be known for more than simply telling jokes may not be entirely original, but it's still a good one, and there is a real sense here of the frustration of the big star who, despite all his success, remains dissatisfied that the world cannot see beyond his comedy persona. The husband-and-wife team of Cathy and Elliott Lewis give accomplished performances in the lead roles, and the first half of the episode is very strong, promising a really interesting, different and entertaining story. At the same time, there is quite a dark undertone to the story - the first murder, for example, is sudden and shocking. It's disappointing, then, that in the second half the story appears to lose its way. The main character starts to seem like nothing more than a psychopath, and whether or not he's a frustrated comedian becomes irrelevant. In particular, the second murder feels gratuitous and - given the relationship of the victim to the killer - somewhat hard to understand. In the end, the listener is left feeling that surely there are better (and easier) ways to change people's perceptions than a killing spree!
Rating: * * *
John Barbie and Son
Starring: Thomas Mitchell
Originally aired: 22 February 1945
[Another version of this story, starring John McIntyre, aired 29 March 1959]
Plot synopsis: To prevent his mentally disabled son from being committed to an institution, following the boy's accidental killing of a neighbour's kitten, his father takes him on the run to escape the authorities. Based on an original script by Mel Dinelli.
Favourite line: 'Say, there's something funny going on around here!'
Review: A good episode, which is also slightly unusual. To begin with, it's hard to get a sense of what the story is really about and where it is heading - after all, it starts with what may seem a fairly minor event (the accidental death of a cat), rather than something more dramatic like a bank robbery or a cold-blooded murder. What is somewhat problematic as well, and which may perhaps be off-putting for modern listeners, is when the son's attempts at speech are presented, as unintelligible grunting sounds, especially since it is never made clear what his condition is - I assume that he has some form of mental disability, but this isn't spelled out. However, as the episode develops, it becomes more and more intriguing, as we are drawn into the frantic efforts of the father to protect his son. Along the way, there are definitely some plot contrivances - for example, the protagonist has the very bad fortune to check into a hotel with the most incredibly nosey and intrusive owners, who become so suspicious of him merely because he acts a little oddly that they even break into his room when he is not there and start searching through his belongings. One can only hope that they don't do this to every guest who does not meet their precise standards of normal behaviour. Still, there is a very good twist at the end. Sometimes twists can come out of nowhere or be completely arbitrary, but in this case, it flows logically from what has come before, and when it arrives, it forces the listener to re-evaluate everything that has happened up until that point.
Rating: * * *
Just One Happy Little Family
Starring: Ray Noble and Lee Patrick
Originally aired: 6 April 1958
Plot synopsis: After a pair of newlyweds discovers that both of them are serial murderers, who kill to obtain their victims' money, they form a partnership to find a new target.
Favourite line: 'Now, Mr. Dunkel, confess - didn't you plan to carve me up, like a pumpkin?'
Review: This episode ranks as one of the blackest comedies Suspense - or probably any other OTR series - ever produced. It's not great, by any means, but for those who like darker material, there is a fair amount here to enjoy. At the start, I was unsure what to make of the story, but as it developed, it grew on me. As the title suggests, it's a (very bitter) satire on 'family values', and the casual way in which murder is treated gives the story a decidedly perverse edge. What is especially striking is the complete absence of any kind of 'moral' perspective - none of the characters appears to have an ethical bone in his or her body! Consequently, what is perhaps most notable about the episode is that, produced as it was towards the end of Suspense's roughly twenty-year run, it shows how far the series had changed since its early days. All of the characters are highly unsympathetic, and whereas in earlier years 'immoral' characters would almost always get their just deserts, I can reveal enough about the ending without giving away any spoilers to say that some bad deeds very much go unpunished. Even today, it's a little surprising how dark the story is. In any case, though this would never be anyone's favourite episode, I did find it entertaining. (Listeners to this episode are also treated to a couple of odd pieces of government propaganda - an announcement about the significance of military medals at the start, and another about the importance of NATO in the break following the second act.)
Rating: * * *
The Juvenile Rebellion
Starring: Jimsey Summers and Court Benson
Originally aired: 3 September 1961
Plot synopsis: Disgusted with the way in which adults have been running the planet, a group of 'mutant' teenagers with evolved intelligence and telekinetic powers plots to take over the world.
Favourite line: 'Well, you may be assured that we will not do with the world what you grown-ups have done with it. We shall not dress young men in soldier suits and give them guns with which to kill each other. We shall not dig shelters in which people may crouch and cower while bombs drop on their cities. We shall not allow some to starve, while others grow fat.'
Review: Sometimes, it is possible to be completely wrong-footed by an episode's title. In this case, I had assumed the episode was going to be some sort of juvenile delinquency story (along the lines, say, of Rebel Without a Cause). However, upon listening, it turns out that this is a different type of tale entirely - the juveniles in this story are not regular moody adolescents, but mutants with special powers and plans for global domination! There are echoes of all sorts of other science-fiction stories here, including The Midwich Cuckoos (with its creepy children who possess scary mental abilities), X-Men (treating mutants as a higher stage of human evolution) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (having as its hero a lone figure who struggles to convince others of the truth of the conspiracy). It is also dripping with Cold War paranoia, as were so many science-fiction stories of the time. Although the episode isn't really up there with classics like The Midwich Cuckoos or Invasion of the Body Snatchers - and it may, perhaps, even be derivative of them - it is nonetheless a pretty effective one. In particular, the motives of the children are very interesting; without giving too much away, they are not seeking power out of greed or malevolence but, in their minds, to achieve the greater good. Some may find the ending a little hysterical and overblown, but I would give the episode the benefit of the doubt and argue that, overall, it is a tense, chilling tale. (For a very different story about young people with out-of-the-ordinary abilities, try the X Minus One episode Star Bright.)
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Theater Five, as 'The Rebellion Next Week' (1964)]