Original image: The Knowles Gallery
When the Bough Breaks
Starring: Rosalind Russell
Originally aired: 3 May 1951
[Another version of this story, starring Virginia Gregg, aired 6 December 1955]
Plot synopsis: After a woman is acquitted of the murder of her grandfather, her marriage begins to descend into a spiral of conflict and recriminations as she and her husband turn on each other over their shared guilt.
Favourite line: '… I felt the same way I did when you punished me. When you used to put me in the hall closet, make me stand in the dark with the door closed. I must have been a very naughty little girl sometimes. Is that why I killed you, grandfather?'
Review: Essentially a two-hander, this is a fine episode about how a guilty secret can tear two people apart. Rosalind Russell gives a terrific performance as the wife, especially during her moments of stress and mental disturbance, though Sheldon Leonard is good, too, as the husband. The plot is also compelling, turning on an interesting implication of the double jeopardy rule in US law - which states that a person cannot be tried for the same crime twice - since although the husband and wife were accomplices in the murder of the latter's grandfather, because she has already stood trial once, only he can be prosecuted for it in future. It is this, therefore, that creates a rift between them, as he fears that his wife has a powerful hold over him - she could, after all, confess to the police at any time that they did indeed murder her grandfather, exposing him but not her to the death penalty - while she is fearful of what he might do to her to prevent her from talking. Interesting as well, and what lend the piece a slightly off-kilter atmosphere, are the moments in which Russell's character reminisces about her grandfather, and in her mind even talks to him, which are given a somewhat creepy edge by the use of tinkly nursery music in the background. The nature of her relationship with her grandfather is never entirely spelled out, though he was clearly an authoritarian figure; and even if it was not an abusive one, it seems at the very least to have been complicated, provoking in her very mixed emotions when she thinks of him. There are no unexpected twists or surprises in the plot, but this is still a superior psychological drama.
Rating: * * * *
The White Rose Murders
Starring: Maureen O'Hara
Originally aired: 6 July 1943
Plot synopsis: A wealthy debutante helps her detective boyfriend track down a killer of young women, who places a white rosebud into each of his victims' hands. Based on a short story by Cornell Woolwich, 'The Death Rose', first published in Baffling Detective Mysteries magazine, in March 1943.
Favourite line: 'No one's ever seen him except the dead - and they don't talk about it afterwards.'
Review: The murderer in this tale is described as being responsible for a 'chain' of killings - in other words, he is what we would now call a serial killer. For this reason, the episode has a very modern feel to it. A crucial element of most serial killer stories is the basis upon which victims are chosen, especially what factors unite them, and working this out is usually key to the killer's capture. They are typically, therefore, exercises in psychological puzzle-solving, and in the case of this episode, its strongest aspects are the discussion and discovery of the killer's motive. In particular, there is a significant scene early on concerning the symbolism of the white rosebud that the murderer puts in his victims' hands, which is said to represent virtues such as purity and loyalty, especially in a young girl. Since the young girls left holding the white roses in this story are all subjects of fatal strangulations, this hints at a very sinister and disturbing undercurrent to the episode, especially given the sexual connotations also sometimes associated with the rosebud (as, most famously, some have interpreted its meaning in Citizen Kane, produced only a couple of years earlier.) All this makes for a story that will appeal to fans of darker fare. It's a pity, then, that the episode is let down somewhat by its various implausibilities and contrivances, including the unlikely efforts of Maureen O'Hara's character at solving the case - she is, after all, not a member of law enforcement - and the final reveal of who the killer is. (Another serial killer with a flower obsession can be found in the episode The Daisy Chain.)
Rating: * * *
Will You Make a Bet with Death?
Starring: Michael Fitzmaurice
Originally aired: 10 November 1942
Plot synopsis: A man makes a bet with his stepfather that he will be able to survive six months without the latter being able to kill him, and if he wins he will receive $25,000. Based on an original script by John Dickson Carr.
Favourite line: '... there's one pleasure, one little exquisite thrill for me to experience: I want to commit a murder!'
Review: The premise of this story is pretty fun: a man makes a bet that for six months he can avoid the murderous efforts of his stepfather to kill him to win a possible $25,000. The idea of hunting humans for sport or entertainment is a popular one in fiction, and at least two other OTR episodes use it - The Most Dangerous Game and The Seventh Victim. However, this episode, though enjoyable enough, is much less successful. I'll offer a SPOILER ALERT! here because it will be necessary to reveal various plot points. First, there are far too many coincidences and contrivances. For example, when the main character meets up with his stepfather's secretary at a fun fair, we assume she must be in on the dastardly scheme to murder him. Yet this turns out not to be the case - meaning that they must have met, against all odds, purely by chance. Second, the twist at the end is disappointing. It turns out that the stepfather had not been 'hunting' our protagonist at all for the six months he had been trying to hide, and had engineered an entirely different means of having him killed: committing suicide, but making it look like his stepson had murdered him, so that he would have to face the electric chair. Frankly, this felt like a cop out - I was expecting something more ingenious. Furthermore, it means that the stepfather was essentially cheating on the terms of the bet. If his stepson had been sentenced to the electric chair, he would not have been executed immediately: there would have to be a trial, appeals, and so on. Thus, he would be killed well after the six months had elapsed. So while he was indeed going to inherit the $25,000, the principle that when you win a bet you also keep your original stake (in this case, the man's life) surely ought to apply. Overall, this needed to have been much more carefully plotted to be effective.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Appointment with Fear (1943)]
Witness to Murder
Starring: Joan Loring
Originally aired: 22 October 1961
Plot synopsis: Travelling aboard a ship sailing from France to America, a woman who has previously suffered a nervous breakdown begins to suspect that her husband is trying to convince everyone on board that she is mentally unstable.
Favourite line: None.
Review: Some episodes have very little going for them. This is one. It has nothing to do with the 1954 Barbara Stanwyck film of the same name - more's the pity - and is instead a very dull story about a murder possibly being committed aboard an ocean liner. The one intriguing element concerns the fact that the main character lapses into French when she doesn't realize it. However, this is pretty much the only aspect of any interest, as the rest holds almost none, even the 'twist' at the end. (For a much better ship-based thriller, try the episode Cabin B-13.)
A World of Darkness
Starring: Paul Lukas
Originally aired: 20 January 1944
Plot synopsis: A blind man recounts to the police the details of a young woman's murder that he heard being committed the night before.
Favourite line: 'Last night, though sitting in my room and confined in my eternal darkness, I heard what I could not see. And I was witness to a murder.'
Review: There is a reasonably good twist at the end of this episode, but the story that precedes it is a fairly stodgy melodrama. The fact that the main character is blind doesn't add a great deal to the plot, and the romantic entanglements that lead to a young woman being murdered are not very interesting. All in all, there is little that is particularly engaging or worthy of comment about this story. (It may, though, be of interest to note that a number of other Suspense episodes also feature blind protagonists, Footfalls, Let There Be Light, Out of Control and See How He Runs.)
Rating: * *