Original image: The Knowles Gallery
Starring: William Conrad
Originally aired: 12 July 1955
Plot synopsis: The six surviving crew members of a spaceship destroyed in an accidental explosion float helplessly in space, and as the space-suited figures drift towards their certain deaths, each reflects upon the life he has led. Based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine, in October 1949; and later in his short-story collection The Illustrated Man, in 1951.
Favourite line: 'And we fell through space. Five of us living. Each in his orbit of loneliness, moving away from the others. From this outer edge of my life, looking back, there was one remorse, and that - only that I - wish I could go on living.'
Review: This is about as far from Star Trek as one can get in terms of a depiction of a spaceship's crew and their relationships with each other. As one of the characters says, theirs is 'a third-class vessel operated by third-class personnel'. Thus, they are not one big happy family of brave and resourceful explorers, but a group of flawed, true-to-life individuals, who nurse grievances and jealousies, and who under pressure descend into arguing and bickering. With all hope of rescue soon evaporating, they begin to express their anger and animosity towards one another, including towards their far from perfect captain. The story is also very frank and honest about what it must be like to face the imminent prospect of death. Many of us, if we found ourselves in the same situation as the characters in this episode, would not - as Hollywood would typically have us believe - do so with stoic dignity; instead, like many of the floating spacemen here, we would likely meet it with terror and panic. What is also very effective about the story is the way in which many of the characters confront the fact that they have not made as much of their lives as they could have, and regret the choices they have made. All of this makes for compelling, if sometimes uncomfortable, listening. There is not much to the actual plot, but then there doesn't need to be, as this is essentially a character piece, not an action adventure story. Overall, this is a great example of mature, adult science fiction: a poignant tale about hope and fear, and sadness and remorse, that has a real emotional resonance. (Incidentally, for fans of the radio version of Gunsmoke, the episode will be of particular interest because its cast is composed of an array of actors from this series, including its star, William Conrad, as well as Stacy Harris, Parley Baer, Howard McNear, John Dehner, Sam Edwards and Georgia Ellis - plus Georgia Ellis's son, Jonathan.).
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1951), Mindwebs (1977), Bradbury 13 (1984), The Shape of Things to Come (1991); Film short - Ray Bradbury's Kaleidoscope (2012)]
The Kettler Method
Starring: Roger De Koven
Originally aired: 16 September 1942
Plot synopsis: Inmates take over an isolated sanitarium, led by the insane surgeon Dr. Kettler, who attempts to perform his eponymous brain operation upon an unwilling female victim - which will likely have fatal consequences.
Favourite line: 'Tables turn, Dr. Morrissey, tables turn!'
Review: This is a very early Suspense episode, and it has not dated well. In fact, it's pretty poor. It is hamstrung from the start by ludicrous plotting, over-the-top performances and clunky dialogue. There is even a lumbering assistant called Kato - Igor to Kettler's Dr. Frankenstein - who delivers lines such as, 'See knives, good, sharp knives, Kato find, he find them.' Some may enjoy it in a so-bad-it's-good kind of way, but anyone looking for a serious, dramatic tale will be disappointed.
Rating: * *
The Khandi Tooth
Starring: Howard Duff
Originally aired: 10 January 1948
Plot synopsis: Private detective Sam Spade is engaged to recover a very valuable, centuries-old tooth.
Favourite line: 'His face was the color and consistency of crushed strawberries.'
Review: This story is a sequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and brings back many of the same characters - as well as Sam Spade, this includes Kasper Gutman (the 'Fat Man') and Joel Cairo. The episode was essentially a promo for another radio series, The Adventures of Sam Spade (similarly produced by William Spier, the producer of Suspense) which also starred Howard Duff. One of the most enjoyable parts of the episode is Robert Montgomery's cameo as Raymond Chandler's private detective, Philip Marlowe (who Montgomery had played in the film version of The Lady in the Lake), teasingly suggesting that the two creations exist in the same universe. [Note to Hollywood: how about a buddy detective movie with Spade and Marlowe, together at last? Ok, perhaps not …] What is also fun for fans of The Maltese Falcon is that this episode not only shows what became of fondly remembered characters, but explains what happened to the falcon statue that was at the centre of that story's mystery. Still, a common problem with pastiches is that it is hard to capture the tone and flavour of the original without sounding like a pale, second-hand imitation. Unfortunately, in this case - and without Hammett's involvement in the script - the episode rarely rises above the mediocre. In particular, the kind of hardboiled dialogue for which Hammett was famous is very difficult to get right without sounding overripe or ridiculous. The line I quote above gives an idea of the type to be found in the episode's script, which offers an approximation of Hammett's style, but lacks the inventiveness or verisimilitude of the real thing. Duff is good in the lead role, and the episode is exciting, but it is a little like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond stories written by authors other than Arthur Conan Doyle or Ian Fleming: sure, they can be entertaining, but more often than not they simply leave you wanting to go back to the originals.
Rating: * * *
A Killing in Abilene
Starring: Alan Ladd
Originally aired: 14 December 1950
[Another version of this story, starring Parley Baer, aired 3 February 1955]
Plot synopsis: A man goes in search of his brother's killer, to bring him back to stand trial.
Favourite line: 'Well, I always said a man's got one life, and he's got a right to lose it any dang way pleases him.'
Review: This episode has the feel of a classic Western, and manages to create a tough, rugged atmosphere through terse dialogue and sharp plotting. It also benefits enormously from Alan Ladd's performance in the main role, as Ladd plays the part with intensity and conviction. Perhaps the story's most interesting aspect is that, unlike in many 'revenge Westerns', the hero doesn't want to kill his brother's murderer, but instead bring him to justice in a courtroom. Apart from this, there's nothing terribly original here, and the script doesn't particularly sparkle, but it's nonetheless a solid episode.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: TV - Suspense (1951)]
A Killing in Las Vegas
Starring: Linda Darnell
Originally aired: 25 February 1952
Plot synopsis: After a Las Vegas dancer survives an attack by an unknown assailant, she begins to suspect that her husband may be trying to kill her.
Favourite line: None.
Review: Although reasonably well performed and produced, this episode is a slow, lacklustre affair. There are no twists or surprises in the plot - my summary above pretty much says all that needs to be said about the story - and there is nothing much of interest about the characters. The episode centres on a dancer and her gambler husband, but gives us no reason to care about either. Nor does the story do much to evoke its Las Vegas setting; it could have been set almost anywhere. To top matters off, there is an extremely weak ending, which comes out of nowhere and has the main character behave in a way that just doesn't ring true. The only really effective scene occurs in the middle, a dream sequence that starts to blur into reality, but apart from that, I can think of no other reason for listening to this episode.
The King’s Birthday
Starring: Delores Costello
Originally aired: 28 August 1943
Plot synopsis: In occupied Denmark during World War II, a series of notes is sent to a Count who is collaborating with the Nazis, predicting that he will commit suicide on the night of the King's birthday.
Favourite line: 'But in this strange country, you can't even trust the impossible.'
Review: It is hardly surprising that while Suspense was on the air as the Second World War was raging, the series produced a number of episodes set against the background of this conflict. Unfortunately, though, few of these turned out to be lasting classics (probably the best is Dateline: Lisbon). This episode is a case in point. It's a mediocre story, with quite a plodding plot, and not much in the way of excitement. The idea at its heart - that a man might be driven to kill himself simply by the power of suggestion - is quite interesting, but everything else about the episode is much less so. In particular, none of the characters is very well drawn. For example, we know that the Count is a collaborator, but learn little about what he has actually done to sell out his countrymen. Similarly, we discover next to nothing about the other main villain of the piece, the Nazi Gauleiter. Nor are any of the other characters fleshed out very well, including the story's heroes - a couple get to deliver some rousing speeches, but they are otherwise pretty limited. There is a plot twist at the end, but this doesn't do much to enhance the story (indeed, in some ways this weakens it, because the twist means that the question of whether it is possible to 'persuade' a man to commit suicide remains unresolved).
Rating: * *
Knight Comes Riding
Starring: Virginia Bruce
Originally aired: 22 May 1947
Plot synopsis: A dissatisfied housewife falls in love with the handyman - which leaves the question of what to do about her husband.
Favourite line: 'All this time, you've been like her, waiting to be rescued, waiting to escape, haven't you, Mildred? Haven't you?'
Review: In the case of some episodes, there simply isn't much to say about them: neither bad nor great, they fall in the middle of the spectrum. The story here is fine - as are the performances - and the episode makes for an efficient thriller, with one or two intriguing elements and a few tense moments. Yet it never really soars, and the twist at the end is far from unpredictable. I won't go into details, but I'll offer a SPOILER ALERT! even so, to comment on the fact that the protagonist comes across as pretty naïve not to have had any suspicions about the mysterious man who happens to turn up on her doorstep, and then appears promptly to fall in love with her. The episode is still a fair listen, though.
Rating: * * *