Original image: The Knowles Gallery
The Name of the Beast
Starring: Vincent Price
Originally aired: 11 April 1946
Plot synopsis: An artist helps a murderer cover up a homicide so that he can complete his portrait of the criminal, but when the latter's girlfriend and a case of stolen jewels enter the picture, greed and jealousy lead to dire consequences for all three.
Favourite line: 'My dear fellow, any intelligent man can get away with murder, if he keeps his wits about him.'
Review: In this episode, Vincent Price plays the sort of artist one only finds in works of fiction: the type who sees his art as so much more important than mundane matters of life and death that even murder causes him no real qualms, if the discovery of his subject's homicidal crime would threaten his artistic vision. In truth, though, it simply isn't very believable that Price's artist would resort to helping a murderer conceal his guilt just so that he can finish painting the criminal's picture; the man can't be that compelling a model, surely? The story's title also seems a little overblown, with its stark allusion to the creature described in the Book of Revelation - yes, the character it refers to in the episode is a murderer, but he isn't a serial killer, and hardly merits being compared to the Biblical beast. All this aside, there is quite a lot here to enjoy, including not only Price's performance, but the various twists in the plot, especially those relating to the murderer's girlfriend, and her role in each of the characters' undoing. So, although I didn't really believe much of what takes place during the episode's thirty minutes, it is an entertaining half an hour nonetheless.
Rating: * * *
Narrative About Clarence
Starring: Laird Cregar
Originally aired: 16 March 1944
Plot synopsis: When the eponymous Clarence returns from a long stay in India, he uses the 'occult' powers of hypnotism he has developed to control the minds of his half-sister and her family for his own nefarious ends.
Favourite line: 'There are circumstances, people, that can make anybody want to commit murder and he, he was one of those people. He brought the circumstances with him, a whole set of 'em.'
Review: Mad hypnotists used to be staple villains of pulp thrillers and horror stories - see, for example, Bela Lugosi in the film Scared to Death or Boris Karloff in The Sorcerers - but more recently have become less common, perhaps because hypnotism is nowadays less often regarded as something dangerous or evil, and instead as either a harmless technique of stage entertainers, or a legitimate tool of psychotherapy. Whatever the reason, tales of hypnotists narrowing their eyes and speaking in slow, deep voices to manipulate their victims tend today to feel old-fashioned, and possibly even ridiculous or laughable. This may not be universally true, but in the case of this episode, the way hypnotism is used is pretty absurd. The malevolent title character takes over the minds of his sister and his niece in matters of minutes, completely changing their personalities, which is not at all plausible. This might be forgivable if the plot as a whole had more believability, but unfortunately it doesn't, and it works its way to a fairly hackneyed conclusion. The rationales offered for the villain's actions are not terribly convincing either - especially the reason he wishes to kill his niece - which are only really explicable by the tired explanation that he must be insane.
Rating: * *
Needle in the Haystack
Starring: William Holden
Originally aired: 9 November 1953
Plot synopsis: A US minesweeper attempts to clear a harbour of mines during the Korean War. Based on a book by Walter Karig, Malcolm W. Cagle and Frank A. Mason, Battle Report: The War in Korea, first published in 1952.
Favourite line: 'What kind of mines are sinking our ships? How many? Where are they? All tough questions, and tougher to answer. The Wonsan fishermen said there was no such thing. All the answers had been killed off.'
Review: It can be highly fascinating to listen to OTR episodes that deal with contemporary events, as they sometimes offer valuable and revealing insights into the period in which they were made. This is partially the case here, with the episode presenting an account of a real-life incident that occurred during the Korean War, involving the effort to clear an important strategic harbour of mines. Some of the minor details, for example, are very interesting - such as the fact that William Holden's character, though a member of the US military, emphasizes with evident pride that the mission in Korea is a United Nations operation, perhaps indicating some of the optimistic hopes that were vested in the (then very new) organization in the early post-war period. However, none of this prevents the episode from being both simplistic in its approach and, perhaps even more serious, somewhat dull. The story is essentially a very straight Cold War tale, depicting the conflict in a similar black-and-white way to most World War II adventure stories: in this case, as a conflict between the righteous West and evil 'commies' (yes, the latter word is actually used!) There is little in the way of subtlety or nuance, and absolutely nothing about the rights and wrongs of the UN operation. There are also lots of clichés. For example, the hero wins the trust of some villagers by giving a little girl a candy bar - groan! The characterization is also weak, with everyone neatly fitting into stereotypical moulds: Holden's character is a grizzled veteran, another member of his ship's crew is a green rookie, while the Koreans who appear are nothing more than simple peasant folk who exist purely to serve the plot (never mind that it is their country being fought over). Much of this could be excused if the story itself were exciting or gripping, but unfortunately, it is neither of these.
Rating: * *
Neill Cream, Doctor of Poison
Starring: Charles Laughton
Originally aired: 17 September 1951
[Another version of this story, starring Joseph Kearns, aired 13 September 1955 - under the title A Story of Poison]
Plot synopsis: A fictionalized account of the murders committed by a notorious real-life poisoner, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream.
Favourite line: 'It was rather extraordinary how long it took her to die. To look at the girl, you'd never have thought it. She was thin and sickly, but in possession of what must have been the constitution of an ox. I'd been poisoning her steadily for six months and expected her certainly to die within three. It was a case history for the medical journal.'
Review: I would have given this episode just two stars if it weren't for one factor: Charles Laughton's performance in the eponymous role. Laughton is at times extremely chilling as the cold, callous poisoner, who appears to have little regard for the value of human life, and is an arrogant, deeply unpleasant character. At any rate, Laughton is very good. The story is based on the life of a real murderer - a contemporary of Jack the Ripper, who some have even claimed (almost certainly erroneously) to have been the infamous killer - though it is only quite loosely so. One of the most surprising aspects of the story is that Cream has the audacity to write a paper for a medical journal on his wife's poisoning, even though he is the one who poisoned her! Yet apart from Laughton in the main role, there is not much else to recommend about the episode - the script is only workmanlike, none of the other characters is of much interest, and the plot contains few significant twists or turns. The crucial difference a great actor can make to a story is illustrated by the fact that when Suspense remade the episode a few years later - under the title A Story of Poison - even though it used almost the same script, its weaknesses are that much more clearly exposed in Laughton's absence.
Rating: * * *
Never Follow a Banjo Act
Starring: Ethel Merman
Originally aired: 1 February 1954
[Another version of this story, starring Margaret Whiting, aired 2 March 1958]
Plot synopsis: An experienced female singer is offered a large sum of money to be the support act for a rising young crooning star - only to discover that there may be a dark secret behind the 'accidental' death of his former supporting performer.
Favourite line: 'Somebody who's got the experience, the talent, and a voice you could lay bricks on.'
Review: I had never heard the expression 'never fellow a banjo act with a banjo act' before, but apparently it is an old vaudeville maxim, meaning don't repeat the same thing twice in a row. In the case of this story, it means don't repeat the same mistake twice: that is, don't allow an obviously disturbed young man to become dangerously obsessed with a second female singer following the tragic, and suspicious, death of a first one. This is a dark, twisted episode that offers a memorable tale about the perils of fame and celebrity. Ethel Merman is in fine form as the 'mature' performer who gets drawn into the orbit of the unhinged star who plainly shouldn't be allowed anywhere near members of the opposite sex. The episode is also a showcase for Merman's singing talents, as she performs a couple of numbers at different points - she even gets to sing a brief snatch of the song with which she became most closely associated, 'There's No Business Like Show Business' (the film of the same name in which Merman sings this number was released the same year as the episode aired; a subtle piece of promotion, perhaps). I did, though, have a couple of reservations. First, even in the 1950s - SPOILER ALERT! - surely the police would be able to tell the difference between wounds produced by shards of glass from a shower door and a knife, as they apparently could not in accounting for the death of Merman's character's predecessor. Second, although we are told that the young man is a very talented singer, we never properly get to hear him sing (just a couple of faltering lines at the end), only Merman; this slightly undermines the idea that he is the star, rather than her. Even so, well worth a listen, not least for Merman's compelling performance.
Rating: * * * *
The Next Murder
Starring: Joseph Julian
Originally aired: 22 July 1962
Plot synopsis: After inviting a stranger he meets in a diner to stay with him in his rented room, a man begins to worry about his guest's obsessive interest in murder.
Favourite line: 'Spiritually, you're dead, and the foul withering rot of murder has entered your mind, devouring your will to live.'
Review: Nothing about this episode rings true, from the moment the protagonist invites a man he has only just met to come and stay with him - there's no obvious sexual undertone to the invitation, though at least this would have made it more explicable - to the motivations behind the pair of deaths that eventually occurs. Psychological crime stories that are more about murderers' mindsets than simply traditional whodunits are all very well, but the characters need to be much more interesting, and their motives much clearer, than they are here. I would recommend giving this one a miss.
Night Ferry to Paris
Starring: William Redfield
Originally aired: 14 August 1960
Plot synopsis: A man embarking on a trip to Paris finds himself plunged into a world of treachery and espionage.
Favourite line: 'There was something about this girl that didn't add up. Whatever it was, it wasn't healthy, and anybody in his right mind would've gotten out of there fast.'
Review: All the building blocks of a classic noir spy thriller are present in this episode: a hero caught up in events he doesn't understand, a beautiful but dangerous femme fatale, sinister enemy agents, a mysterious package and plenty of action and intrigue. However, while the story is undoubtedly entertaining, and moves at a good pace, it adds nothing original of its own to the mix: most listeners will have encountered all of its elements before in other books, films or OTR episodes. Moreover, the episode feels too self-conscious about the tropes it employs - for example, the protagonist even uses the term 'femme fatale', as if referencing the fact that there is a standard set of ingredients expected in this sort of story. Maybe this is because the episode was made in 1960, by which time the various conventions of noir story-telling had become very familiar - perhaps even clichés - to audiences, having been around by then for a good couple of decades. The story also fizzles out at the end, giving no clear explanation of what the whole affair was about.
Rating: * * *