Original image: The Knowles Gallery
Menace in Wax
Starring: Joe Julian
Originally aired: 17 November 1942
Plot synopsis: During World War II, two British journalists investigate a German plot to sabotage an important factory, with the trail beginning at Madam Tussaud's wax museum. Based on an original script by John Dickson Carr.
Favourite line: 'Not a chance of a snowshoe in heaven!'
Review: This is not the story I was expecting. I imagined it would be along the lines of movies like The House of Wax (or another Suspense episode, The Waxwork): a horror and/or supernatural tale. Instead, it's a rather dull espionage story about a Nazi scheme to sabotage a British factory during World War II, which hasn't aged at all well. The plot contains few interesting twists, and the two main characters - a male and female journalist - are not especially engaging. In particular, the female journalist's 'comical' mangling of common English idioms (see the line I cite above for an example) soon becomes tiresome. Frankly, I felt slightly cheated by the title; although the episode begins in Madam Tussaud's wax museum, it soon leaves this setting behind, making the title something of a misnomer.
Rating: * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Appointment with Fear (1943)]
Starring: James Stewart
Originally aired: 1 December 1949
Plot synopsis: A paralyzed war veteran believes that the florist working at the hospital where he has been staying for the past four years is the former commandant of the Japanese POW camp where he was brutally tortured, and begins to plot his revenge.
Favourite line: 'And it was the same little shuffle I'd heard every day for three years in the bug-infested hellhole called a prison camp. Yeah, the same footsteps, the footsteps that used to turn my brain to water and send my heart right down to my shoes.'
Review: Fantastic. Suspense may have produced a few better stories than this one - though it is very good - but it's hard to think of many better performances. Jimmy Stewart (one of my all-time favourite actors) is superb in the central role - no one does nervy and intense quite like him, and with such a sincere commitment to a character. What's especially interesting for Stewart fans is that his performance in this episode, broadcast in 1949, seems to prefigure those of the flawed, conflicted heroes he played in the 1950s, in films like The Naked Spur, Rear Window and Vertigo. As for the story itself, it is a tense, compelling and well-written tale. It is sophisticated, too, in the way it makes Stewart's character a complex one and far from wholly sympathetic, especially when he accuses his old army buddy of being a coward. Another impressive aspect is that, although the episode centres on the 'war crimes' perpetrated by the Japanese during World War II, it doesn't stoop to crude anti-Japanese sentiments. The only section some listeners may find problematic, possibly even disappointing, is the ending - so SPOILER ALERT! for the rest of this review. It turns out that the florist is not really the former tormentor of Stewart's character at all and that his pretence at being so is in fact part of an elaborate ploy by the hospital's psychiatrist to get his patient to confront the trauma of his past. What? The psychiatrist's methods might be deemed at best unorthodox, but at worst, downright dangerous. Surely, the deception staged by him and his colleagues was just as likely to send Stewart's character over the edge as to cure him! Even so, it's a novel twist, and this remains a great episode.
Rating: * * * * *
The Most Dangerous Game
Starring: Orson Welles
Originally aired: 23 September 1943
[Another version of this story, starring Joseph Cotton, aired 1 February 1945]
Plot synopsis: Shipwrecked on an island, a big-game hunter finds himself the hunted, as he is pursued by a Russian Count who believes that only human prey can provide him with sufficiently challenging sport. Based on a short story by Richard Connell, first published in Collier's magazine, on 19 January 1924; and later in his short-story collection Variety, in 1925.
Favourite line: 'God makes some men poets. Some he makes kings, some beggars. Me he made a hunter. My hand was made for the trigger.'
Review: The story upon which this episode is based is a very famous one, which has been adapted numerous times for both radio and film. It is an entertaining, thrilling story, and when the main chase begins - a battle of wits between hunter and prey - there are sufficient twists and turns, and close shaves for the hero, to hold the listener's attention until the end. There is nothing very profound about this adaptation; deeper themes, concerning the morality of violence, the value of human life, and the logic of the survival of the fittest, can all be detected, but first and foremost this is a straightforward adventure yarn. If there is a problem with this version, though, it lies with Orson Welles, whose presence in a production could be both a strength and a weakness. Welles has one of the most distinctive, engaging voices in radio and cinema history, meaning that the characters he plays are rarely less than compelling. Yet at the same time, he is sometimes guilty of delivering overblown, slightly hammy performances - which is what he does here. Moreover, because Welles is such a magnetic figure, he regularly steals every scene he is in, which in places unbalances the episode, as his co-star (Keenan Wynn) cannot hope to compete in the charisma stakes. Despite this, a classic Suspense episode. (It is also interesting to compare the episode with a more satirical take on the idea of hunting human prey, the X Minus One-adapted story The Seventh Victim.)
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Arch Oboler's Plays (1940), Hollywood Star Time (1946), Escape (1947), The Chase (1952); Film - Hounds of Zaroff (1932), A Game of Death (1945), Run for the Sun (1956), plus many others]
Murder Aboard the Alphabet
Starring: John Lund
Originally aired: 21 August 1947
[Another version of this story, starring Vic Perrin, aired 6 January 1955]
Plot synopsis: Aboard a ship called the Alphabet, whose captain demands that everything be arranged and carried out alphabetically - from the books on his shelves to the rota for standing watch - the crew begins mysteriously to disappear one by one, in alphabetical order by name.
Favourite line: '… they could readily understand how a man could hate and fear the sea, and yet love it, like a woman, love it enough to follow it, and hunger for it, and make every sacrifice, even human sacrifice.'
Review: Some Suspense episodes are just plain strange, and this is one of them. Absolutely no explanation is given for the captain's bizarre compulsion that everything on his ship be alphabetized, and very little else about this episode makes much sense, either. For example, even by the conclusion, the motive behind the victims' murders remains thoroughly opaque. There is, admittedly, a certain fascination in listening to a story that has such a meagre acquaintance with logic and reason, so add an extra star to my rating if you especially enjoy crazy ideas and ludicrous plotting. Beyond the issue of the story's tenuous grip on reality, what also lets it down is that, for anyone who has listened to a lot of Suspense episodes, the ending is fairly predictable (relying upon a very hackneyed twist), with the final scene being one that is familiar from a number of others. It's worth comparing this story to the episode The ABC Murders, which employs a similar conceit, but is more coherent and believable in its execution.
Rating: * *
Murder on Mike
Starring: Raymond Burr
Originally aired: 28 July 1957
[Another version of this story, starring Richard Widmark, aired 3 December 1951 - under the title 'A Murderous Revision']
This story was produced previously by Suspense as the episode 'A Murderous Revision' - which is longer and generally superior, so see the entry below for my full review.
Rating: * * * *
A Murderous Revision
Starring: Richard Widmark
Originally aired: 3 December 1951
[Another version of this story, starring Raymond Burr, aired 28 July 1957 - under the title 'Murder on Mike']
Plot synopsis: A scriptwriter for a radio series called Murder, Please plots a real life murder after he is pushed over the edge by a producer who continually rewrites his scripts.
Favourite line: 'For two years now, I've turned out a murder a week for you, week in and week out. A murder a week. I eat murder, I talk murder, I dream murder! And for what? Every time I turn in a decent script, you chop the heart out of it.'
Review: This episode isn't perfect - in places, it feels a little overblown - but for anyone with even a passing interest in Old Time Radio it's a must-listen, as it presents a tantalizing glimpse behind the scenes of how Old Time Radio dramas were produced. The script is a cri de coeur of every writer who has ever believed that his carefully crafted manuscript has been 'ruined' by an editor or producer who fails to appreciate his genius, and as such the episode provides a fascinating portrayal - even if in exaggerated form - of the writer's perspective. Along the way, the story offers many intriguing insights, including how a writer of murder mysteries must get inside the mind of the murderer, as well as into the specific demands of radio (or TV) scriptwriting, such as the need to time a story's climax to meet the requirements of a programme's format. The imagined radio series for which the main character writes, Murder, Please, is plainly a fictionalized version of Suspense, so the episode even offers some idea of how Suspense stories specifically were constructed - for example, that they were expected to have a surprise twist at the end. The story itself also has some compelling moments, especially during the scenes where the protagonist and the daughter of the man he plans to murder are alone together in his apartment, which at times become quite dark and menacing. It's interesting, too, that the writer believes that 'every drop of originality was squeezed out of him' by having been reduced to writing radio mysteries. Yet episodes like this show how much originality and creativity is possible within the confines of such popular forms of entertainment. (Listeners may also like to know that there are two other episodes in which a scriptwriter becomes involved in murder, both of which are similarly very good, Script by Mark Brady and The Twist.)
Rating: * * * * *
Murder Strikes Three Times
Starring: Marlene Dietrich
Originally aired: 16 February 1950
[Another version of this story, starring Rita Hayworth, aired 10 October 1946 - under the title Three Times Murder]
Plot synopsis: A woman who murders her husband subsequently tries to begin a new life, but discovers that she cannot easily leave her past behind, with more untimely deaths soon following.
Favourite line: 'I also know that a man firing a bullet into his head would stand an excellent chance of killing himself.'
Review: It's difficult to understand why some relatively weak Suspense stories were produced twice or even more times, while other truly great ones (such as The House in Cypress Canyon and The Too-Perfect Alibi) were made only once. In terms of this particular story, there are no significant differences in the scripts between the two versions broadcast, and neither is particularly strong. What is especially disappointing is that both versions waste the talents of great actresses - Marlene Dietrich in this one and Rita Hayworth in the first that was produced. The second perhaps has the slight edge in that it is easier to believe in Dietrich as a cold-blooded killer, though there is nothing wrong with Hayworth's performance. Yet the basic problem with the story applies to both versions, which is that everything the listener needs to know is contained in the title (even if it is debatable whether the third 'murder' really counts as such). There simply isn’t a great deal in the way of suspense here: there is no mystery about who is responsible for each death and the twist at the end isn't much of one. The plot also depends on a very large coincidence - concerning who turns out to be the brother of the main character's second husband - which is just that little bit too unbelievable to accept. It's a real shame that this was the only Suspense story either Dietrich or Hayworth performed in - why couldn't they have been given better ones?
Rating: * *
My Dear Niece
Starring: Dame May Whitty
Originally aired: 24 January 1946
[Another version of this story, starring Lee Patrick, aired 16 November 1958]
Plot synopsis: In a letter to her niece, a woman describes the unexpected events that occurred following her acceptance of a part-time position with a small publishing house.
Favourite line: 'I felt exactly like the heroine in a motion picture.'
Review: The plot of this episode reminded me of a Sherlock Holmes story, with its air of intrigue surrounding a mysterious employer who gives the main character a job that pays very well, despite requiring her to do very little (indeed, in this respect, the initial set-up is not dissimilar to those of two Holmes adventures, 'The Red-Headed League' and 'The Stockbroker's Clerk'). Ultimately, of course, it turns out that there is much more to the unusual employment opportunity than there initially appears; and given that this is Suspense, it comes as no surprise to discover that it involves criminal activity. What makes the episode work so well - apart from its solid script and entertaining plot - is Dame Mae Witty's performance, as the deceptively sweet old lady who, it transpires, is far from helpless in the face of mortal danger. Plus, there is a terrific twist at the end, which adds real bite to the tale.
Rating: * * * *