Original image: The Knowles Gallery
A Tale of Two Sisters
Starring: Claire Trevor and Nancy Kelly
Originally aired: 8 February 1945
[Another version of this story, starring Joan Crawford and Lurene Tuttle, aired 2 June 1949 - under the title 'The Ten Years']
This story was produced later by Suspense as the episode 'The Ten Years' - see the entry below for my full review.
Rating: * * * *
Talk About Caruso
Starring: Stuart Foster
Originally aired: 20 March 1960
Plot synopsis: A boxer changes careers to become an opera singer, but continues to be pursued by his former manager demanding his fifty per cent cut.
Favourite line: 'A glass jaw does not necessarily imply a crystal voice.'
Review: If you can get past the absurdity of the premise - a boxer turns opera singer! - then you will find that this episode is actually quite a fun listen. At the start, it's not entirely clear where the story is heading, but as it unfolds, it becomes apparent that it is stitching together a peculiar mix of plot elements drawn from crime, boxing, opera and even psychological stories and genres. None of the characters is wholly sympathetic - including the protagonist - but the episode remains intriguing right up until the end, as we wonder what will finally happen to 'the singing slugger' as his growing ego seems destined to lead to his downfall. In any case, when it comes the ending is as daft and ludicrous as the set-up, but enjoyable nonetheless. One final point: if you listen to this through headphones, you may want to turn down the volume during the last few minutes, as the final scene contains an eardrum-bursting blast of singing!
Rating: * * *
Tarawa Was Rough
Starring: John Lund
Originally aired: 12 May 1957
Plot synopsis: In 1943, a squad of US Marines takes part in the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific.
Favourite line: 'All up and down the beach, the men are pouring out of the LTPs into a hot wall of death. This is beach Red. The brass hats who make up the code named it well for this day. The beech is red, all right, and the surf breaking red upon it, blood red.'
Review: This episode provides a useful reminder that gritty war dramas didn't begin with modern films like Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, like Saving Private Ryan, the most memorable scene is a beach landing assault (though in this case the location is an island in the Pacific rather than mainland Europe), which is powerful and compelling, and does a good job of conveying the chaos and carnage of the event. Also strong is the opening scene in which the squad of Marines we follow sits around listening to 'Tokyo Rose' on the radio, the female Japanese radio host who broadcast propaganda to sap the morale of US troops (in truth, Tokyo Rose was a number of different English-speaking presenters). At the same time, the episode suffers from certain weaknesses. First, the characters are pretty forgettable, and little more than stock stereotypes. Second, it feels as if a certain whitewashing is going on. Yes, it absolutely does strive for realism in its battle scenes, but it never mentions just how bloody and costly the battle was: in the course of 76 hours, the Marines sustained around 3,000 casualties. In particular, it essentially lets the military leadership off the hook by not mentioning the extent to which this was due to poor planning and preparation. The US military anticipated an easy victory, but instead met heavy Japanese resistance, with fortified gun emplacements devastating the beach landing force. Third, the ending is - especially to modern ears - very simplistic in its rousing patriotism, and one would probably expect more nuance in a more contemporary (post-Vietnam/post-Iraq) drama. All this said, I liked the episode quite a bit, and would definitely recommend it.
Rating: * * *
The Taming of the Beast
Starring: Nancy Kelly and Helmut Dantine
Originally aired: 29 March 1945
Plot synopsis: A man posing as a psychiatrist manipulates a wealthy woman into leaving her husband for him, with the intention of then murdering her so that he may inherit her fortune.
Favourite line: 'She was the kind of a woman who wants everything, gives nothing, and still thinks she's a passionate bargain for any man, completely unconscious of the fact that her only real motivation in life is to humiliate, dominate, and finally destroy any man she can get her hands on.'
Review: A solid, run-of-the-mill thriller, this episode won't remain in the memory for long, but is entertaining enough for as long as it lasts. There's not much about the plot of great note - other than its implicit critique of the way the idle rich indulge their neuroses through therapy - though it does have a couple of fair twists. In truth, the major twist at the end is quite hackneyed, but it works well enough in context. What raises the episode (a little) above the mediocre is the quality of the performances, especially of the two main stars. So, definitely a worthwhile listen, but still essentially a middle-ranking episode.
Rating: * * *
The Ten Years
Starring: Joan Crawford and Lurene Tuttle
Originally aired: 2 June 1949
[Another version of this story, starring Claire Trevor and Nancy Kelly, aired 8 February 1945 - under the title 'A Tale of Two Sisters']
Plot synopsis: A woman whose sister feels betrayed by her decision to get married - seeing this as breaking the former's promise that the sisters will remain together for ever - finds her life, as well as that of her young son, in grave danger from her deranged sibling's desire for revenge. Based on an original script by Mel Dinelli.
Favourite line: 'No, it won't be the same! You promised, always and forever!'
Review: One of Suspense's great strengths was that it offered some fantastic roles for women, which is well illustrated by this episode. The story centres on a pair of sisters bound closely together since childhood by the loss of their mother, and they are both complex (and intense) characters. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the plot is completely over the top and overwrought, descending into madness along with its two leads - though this is, perhaps, what makes it so enjoyable. It includes some highly memorable scenes, including the ones framing the main action set in a mental institution (complete with wailing inmates), and when the two sisters confront each other towards the end, which conjures up a very striking image of one of their ultimate fates. The script also juggles multiple time periods in a very interesting way, jumping between different points in the sisters' lives to tell the tale. There were two versions of the story produced, and although I prefer the title of the first - 'A Tale of Two Sisters' is much more evocative than 'The Ten Years' - the second is my preferred one, benefitting from a great performance by Joan Crawford, as well as feeling tighter and better paced.
Rating: * * * *
A Terribly Strange Bed
Starring: Peter Lawford
Originally aired: 7 June 1954
Plot synopsis: An Englishman in Paris breaks the bank at a gambling house, but when he and his friend are persuaded by an old soldier to stay the night, events begin to take a sinister turn. Based on a short story by Wilkie Collins, first published in Household Words, in April 1852; and later in his short-story collection After Dark, in 1856.
Favourite line: 'What I want is somewhere where we can see a little genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken gaming with no false gingerbread glitter thrown all over it … a place not fashionable, not respectable, a place of evil perhaps, and of emotions I've never known.'
Review: The twist at the end of this story is quite a famous one, though I won't spoil it for those who do not know what it is. However, there is more to the episode than just its dramatic conclusion. The story touches on a number of themes, including those of arrogance and hubris - the protagonist enjoys such a successful winning streak at the gambling table that he appears to believe that he simply cannot lose, yet as the plot develops, he is eventually made to realize that he is not invincible, and that when reality crashes in, it can do so with a vengeance. The story may also be a commentary on class and inequality, as the two main characters are far from wholly sympathetic, both being wealthy, upper-class Englishmen who have a very patronizing idea of how fun it may be to go slumming it in the more disreputable parts of Paris. The listener is left, therefore, somewhat ambivalent when they get their rude awakening. What is also of interest is that the episode generates quite a peculiar, even disturbing atmosphere, with an air almost of the supernatural about it (even though there is nothing that explicitly goes beyond the rational and explicable). For example, when the protagonist keeps winning and winning at what is, after all, a game of pure chance, it feels as if something not quite right is happening. Similarly, when he is lying in bed at night and cannot believe what he is seeing, it is easy to imagine that something ghostly is about to occur. At any rate, when the end comes, it works well and is satisfyingly presented, making this a good adaptation of a classic story.
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Weird Circle (1943); TV - Fireside Theater, as one segment of a two-story episode (1949), Thriller, as a segment of the episode 'Trio for Terror' (1961), Great Mysteries (1973)]
Thieves Fall Out
Starring: Gene Kelly
Originally aired: 16 November 1943
Plot synopsis: A wartime black marketeer who has fallen heavily into debt seizes an opportunity to steal the money he needs, while deflecting the blame elsewhere.
Favourite line: 'A stickup, huh? Why, you yellow little rat! You don't think you can pull this on me and live, do you?'
Review: Sometimes a title can give away too much of a story's plot, which is definitely the case here. The problem with this episode's title is that from the very beginning listeners are waiting for some kind of 'falling out' to occur between the assortment of criminals presented, so it isn't much of a surprise when this duly happens. The other main problem with the episode is that there's far too much narration, which is mainly unnecessary, often spelling out what would have been better left for the audience to work out for itself; at the very least, much of the plot exposition could have been delivered by the protagonist instead. Even so, the story is quite intriguing and reasonably well done - if a little over-complicated - and Gene Kelly is fine in the lead, though he isn't given a great deal to work with by the script in terms of characterization.
Rating: * * *
Three Times Murder
Starring: Rita Hayworth
Originally aired: 10 October 1946
[Another version of this story, starring Marlene Dietrich, aired 16 February 1950 - under the title Murder Strikes Three Times]
This story was produced again by Suspense as the episode Murder Strikes Three Times - see this entry for my full review, where I explain why my preference is for this later version.
Rating: * *
To Find Help
Starring: Gene Kelly and Ethel Barrymore
Originally aired: 6 January 1949
[Another version of this story, starring Frank Sinatra and Agnes Moorehead, aired 18 January 1945]
Plot synopsis: A widow employs a young man as a handyman, but soon comes to regret her decision when he starts to behave in a disturbing manner. Based on a short story, 'The Man', by Mel Dinelli, first published in Story magazine, in May-June 1945.
Favourite line: 'It seems very strange to me that a young man should be job hunting from door to door, in this day and age. Why, there are plenty of jobs to be had!'
Review: Listening to this episode today - in the recession-hit world of 2013 - one of its most interesting aspects is that it is set at a time when jobs were apparently so plentiful that characters appear to find it odd that anyone would have to put any effort into finding one. A second point of interest is that, unusually, both versions of the story that were broadcast had 'big name' stars playing the main character: the first features Frank Sinatra (in a relatively early acting role), the second Gene Kelly. Both give good performances, but Kelly's is probably stronger, as he comes across as even more intense (and deranged); yet Agnes Moorehead, in the first adaptation, may have the slight edge as the widow. Regardless, the story is very entertaining whichever version is listened to, with its portrayal of a strange young man who is gradually revealed to be a psychopath. It is his characterization that makes the story, as he becomes increasingly, and memorably, unhinged. The plot doesn't offer many surprises, and there isn't a twist at the end - in fact, the tale fizzles out a little - but this is still a compelling listen.
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Play - The Man (1950); TV - Startime (1960); Film - Beware, My Lovely (1952)]