Original image: The Knowles Gallery
Starring: Van Johnson
Originally aired: 6 April 1950
Plot synopsis: A pilot becomes embroiled in a life-and-death adventure when he is hired by the husband of an ex-girlfriend to take part in the search for lost treasure at the bottom of the ocean.
Favourite line: 'She sat there watching me, and suddenly I realized that love can be as close to hate as the two sides of a thin dime.'
Review: This is the sort of episode I normally find difficult to get excited about, as very often, 'adventure' stories don't work all that well as radio plays. However, this turned out to be a tense, exciting story that I thoroughly enjoyed. One reason for this is the crisp, well-crafted script, with much of the sharp dialogue feeling like it comes from a hardboiled detective story. Indeed, there's a hard-edged quality to the tale, which helps makes it very compelling. The plot itself is also strong, and leaves the listener guessing until the end how it will play out, as well as the various characters' motives, and each of their ultimate fates. There are some good twists along the way, too, including an effective and ironic one at the conclusion. Finally, the acting is uniformly solid, making this a much more entertaining episode than I had imagined it would be.
Rating: * * * *
The Screaming Woman
Starring: Margaret O'Brien
Originally aired: 25 November 1948
[Another version of this story, starring Sherry Jackson, aired 1 March 1955]
Plot synopsis: A little girl hears a woman, apparently buried alive, screaming for help, but no one the child tells will believe her. Based on an original short story by Ray Bradbury, later published in his short-story collection S Is for Space, in 1966.
Favourite line: 'I wanted to yell, "Oh, please, rush, get up, run around, come on, hurry!" But I had to sit still, while out there in the lot with the sun shining down, all alone with nobody to hear or to help her was the screaming woman.'
Review: It's important not to be swayed by the pedigree of a story's author when judging its quality - even great writers can produce stinkers from time to time - but there's no doubt in my mind that when it comes to Old Time Radio (not just Suspense) few match the hit rate of Ray Bradbury. His name almost always guarantees at least a good episode, and often a great one - see my Authors section for details. At any rate, this is another excellent Bradbury tale. Like many of his stories, it is told from the perspective of a child. In this case, her innocence and guilelessness stand in sharp contrast to the manifest failings of the episode's adults, who are a mix of the arrogant, self-absorbed and, in one case, murderous! (By no means do children in Bradbury's work always contrast so favourably to adults, though - consider, for example, the ones that appear in The Veldt and Zero Hour.) Bradbury takes the well-worn idea of a child being disbelieved by the adults around it and uses this to weave a tense, unnerving story about the race to save a woman's life. There is nothing here that is overtly supernatural, but it still has the feel of a 'horror' story, with the screaming woman's cries reminiscent of a wailing apparition, and the atmosphere generated at times quite eerie. Margaret O'Brien is superb in the main role, giving an incredibly assured performance for one so young (she was eleven at the time), confirming her status as one of the great child actors of modern times. The only really questionable aspect of the episode is the script's very last lines, which are incongruously upbeat for what is essentially quite a dark tale, though this doesn't diminish the story's overall impact. Finally, it may be of interest to know that the screaming woman - who has no audible lines of dialogue - is played (uncredited) by none other than Agnes Moorehead, one of Suspense's most frequent and best performers, who usually starred in much more substantial roles!
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Bradbury 13 (1984); TV - The Ray Bradbury Theater (1986); TV movie - The Screaming Woman (1972)]
Script by Mark Brady
Starring: Marie Windsor
Originally aired: 19 April 1959
Plot synopsis: A scriptwriter of murder mysteries begins to suspect his wife of having an affair with his best friend, but pursuing his suspicions leads to violent consequences.
Favourite line: 'Within the next few minutes, I will commit murder. Cold, premeditated murder.'
Review: To discuss what is novel and distinctive about this episode requires revealing an important feature of its plot that doesn't become apparent until late on, so I will offer a SPOILER ALERT! right at the outset. In the classic Japanese film Rashomon (released in 1950), a crime is told from four different perspectives, to demonstrate that people's perceptions of the same event can be radically different. This episode does something similar, though limiting itself to three points of view, proving that even those at the heart of events may not always see the full picture. The story is cleverly constructed to make the audience believe one thing, before showing us that the truth may in fact be something very different by switching to another character's viewpoint. This leads to a couple of good twists, centred on a loaded gun, which are well orchestrated. Listen out, too, for a passing reference to Doctor Zhivago, published in English only the year before the episode was broadcast, which goes to show that there always seems to be a must-read book that everyone is talking about. At any rate, a well-written, entertaining and innovative episode. (Listeners may also like to know that there are two other Suspense episodes in which a scriptwriter becomes involved in murder, both of which are similarly very good, A Murderous Revision and The Twist.)
Rating: * * * *
The Search for Henri Lefevre
Starring: Paul Muni
Originally aired: 6 July 1944
Plot synopsis: A composer who has just completed a new score hears the exact same music being played over the radio immediately afterwards - how can this be? Based on an original script by Lucille Fletcher.
Favourite line: 'The man either stole my piece, or else - there was some terrible coincidence! Some simultaneous crooked streak of identical inspiration that leaped across the world!'
Review: Unless it is simply that I have listened to more Suspense episodes than is perhaps healthy, I found guessing this story's twist to be fairly easy, at least by around the midway point. However, this remains a superior episode, thanks to a typically fine script by Lucille Fletcher (who wrote some of Suspense's best episodes, including The Hitchhiker and Sorry, Wrong Number) and solid performances by the cast. The story itself is certainly interesting (if not entirely plausible) and its exploration of identity, memory, loss and grief is at times even moving. Furthermore, the production has what I would describe as a 'classy', old-Hollywood feel to it, which helps elevate it to well-above average status.
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air (1946), The Grip of Terror (1977), Audion Theatre (1990)]
See How He Runs
Starring: Jim Backus
Originally aired: 19 April 1959
Plot synopsis: A blind man tries to escape the mobsters seeking retribution for his having helped a rival gang kill one of their members.
Favourite line: 'Never try to kill a fox in his own hole.'
Review: In terms of plot, there's nothing terribly remarkable about this episode, plus it's very short, less than twenty minutes long, so there's not much time for any great depth. In particular, much about the story remains unclear even by the end, especially the question of how guilty the protagonist actually is. However, the episode is lifted considerably by the performance of Jim Backus in the lead role, who plays a decidedly unlikeable character - he's a con man, and at one point he kidnaps a child and threatens to kill him - yet manages to make the listener care enough to want to know what happens to him. Not a great episode by any means, but definitely a worthwhile listen. (It may also be of interest to note that a number of other Suspense episodes feature blind protagonists, Footfalls, Let There Be Light, Out of Control and A World of Darkness.)
Rating: * * *
Starring: Agnes Moorehead
Originally aired: 23 March 1953
[Another version of this story, starring Sarah Churchill, aired 4 November 1956; and a further one, starring Ellen Drew, aired 15 February 1959]
Plot synopsis: A female writer encounters a railway signalman who is being haunted by a spectral apparition, the appearance of which appears to portend tragedy. Based on a short story by Charles Dickens, first published in All Year the Round magazine, in the Christmas edition of 1866.
Favourite line: 'It smashed by like a wounded monster screaming in pain, and disappeared into the dark tunnel.'
Review: This tale is a classic of the ghost story genre, which should appeal to fans of writers like M. R. James and Walter de la Mare. The episode is relatively faithful to Dickens' story, though it is interesting that the protagonist in this adaptation is a woman, whereas the narrator in the original is a man. The story can be read as a confrontation between rationality and superstition, and the change of gender of the main character adds an extra dimension to this since, against convention, it is the woman who is the rational, sceptical one, whereas it is the male signalman who is the believer in the supernatural. Over-familiarity with the type of twist that concludes the tale - thanks to numerous similar examples in film and television - may lessen the impact of the story's ending for modern listeners, but the episode still successfully generates an eerie, spine-chilling atmosphere.
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Columbia Workshop (1937), The Weird Circle, as 'The Thing in the Tunnel' (1945), Lights Out (1946), Hall of Fantasy (1950), CBC Mystery Theater (1968), Beyond Midnight, as 'Hello Below There' (1968), Nightfall (1982); TV - A Ghost Story for Christmas (1976)]
The Singing Walls
Starring: Preston Foster
Originally aired: 2 September 1943
[Anther version of this story, starring Van Johnson, aired 2 November 1944]
Plot synopsis: A man fears that he may have committed murder the night before while in a confused state after being given a spiked drink, and as he attempts to work out the truth, he is tormented by memories of a blood-covered corpse, a frog-voiced man and seemingly singing walls. Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich.
Favourite line: 'What's the matter? Have a little trouble in here while I was gone? It's blood. Sure, blood. All over your shirt.'
Review: A strange one this, with some odd, disconcerting elements that linger in the memory; in particular, the aural imagery of the singing walls is very striking, and the frog-voiced man distinctly sinister. However, the episode also has definite flaws. One problem is that the story's protagonist is essentially passive throughout; the various mysteries concerning what happened to him the evening he was drugged are all solved not by him, but by his detective brother-in-law. Furthermore, there aren't any especially surprising twists - most listeners will probably guess relatively early on the basic outline of the conclusion, and it isn't particularly ingenious or inventive. Still, the episode does offer an interesting depiction of society's underbelly, and together with the singing walls themselves, there is enough here to make this a worthwhile listen. (For those interested, another episode adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story that also employs the premise of a character suffering from memory loss struggling to prove he is innocent of murder is The Black Curtain.)
Rating: * * *