Original image: The Knowles Gallery
The Yellow Wallpaper
Starring: Agnes Moorehead
Originally aired: 29 July 1948
[Another version of this story, also starring Agnes Moorehead, aired 30 June 1957]
Plot synopsis: A woman suffering from depression is confined by her doctor husband to a bedroom in a rented house, where she starts to believe that the patterns in the wallpaper contain dark, disturbing secrets. Based on a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in The New England Magazine, in January 1892.
Favourite line: 'No matter what he says, it's a smoldering, sulphurous, unclean, hideous wallpaper! No wonder the children scratched at it and stripped it down. No wonder they gouged the plaster with their little fingernails. No wonder they hated it, I hate it myself. And somehow - I feel it hates me!'
Review: A very strange, unsettling episode. Is this a supernatural story? A psychological mystery? An exploration of power and repression? A portrait of mental illness? It's very much open to interpretation as to what is going on in this tale, and even by the end, many listeners will probably be unsure what exactly it is they have heard. Yet this ambiguity is one of the episode's great strengths. The short story upon which it is based, to which it remains relatively faithful, has been the subject of various interpretations, many focusing on the role of gender. It can be read as a depiction of the way in which a husband may limit and oppress his wife, and possibly even drive her insane; though, in a sense, this insanity may be a form of escape or freedom. The story may also be a commentary on the way that expert knowledge, in this case medical knowledge, may be used to dominate and control. Yet it is equally possible to view this, rather, as a type of ghost story; or, instead, as the portrayal of a woman's descent into madness as a result of post-natal depression. It is simply impossible to be sure. Regardless of how the story is understood, Agnes Moorehead is superb as the main character - the announcer (Paul Frees) describes her performance as 'magnificent', and it is. A great episode, whatever interpretation is placed upon it. (Another episode that shares similar plot elements and explores similar themes, though in a more conventional way, is Fear Paints a Picture.)
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Fear on Four (1990); TV - BBC dramatization (1989); Film - The Yellow Wallpaper (2011)]
You Can Die Laughing
Starring: Larry Haines
Originally aired: 30 July 1961
Plot synopsis: A woman plots the murder of her husband to protect one of his employees with whom she is having affair, whom the husband intends to report to the police for stealing from his company.
Favourite line: 'Many people have a totally wrong idea about ladies. They think ladies merely sit around looking helpless. On the contrary, ladies are trained. They can do anything they have to. Run a large household. Or commit murder.'
Review: This is one of the better late-period Suspense stories, though given how far this once-great series had declined in quality by its final years, that may not be saying much. The title refers to the fact that the main character's husband is constantly cracking jokes and laughing hysterically at his own efforts; and when one hears how bad his jokes are, it is understandable why this man might inspire murderous thoughts in anyone who lives with him. Overall, there's quite a well worked out plot, and the denouement – which follows from a 'gag' the husband sells to a radio show – is reasonably clever and original. However, what weakens the story is that, as became increasingly the case with later Suspense episodes, none of the characters is particularly sympathetic. The only motivation anyone seems to have is narrow self-interest, rather than any concern for others or deeper principles. For example, the wife’s main reason for wanting to prevent her lover from being arrested is not to save him from jail, but because a police investigation might reveal their affair, and thus expose her to her husband; yet this husband is hardly much better, coming across as a self-satisfied boor with an exaggerated sense of his own wit. As a result, it's difficult to care too much what happens to any of them.
Rating: * * *
You Can't Die Twice
Starring: Edward G. Robinson
Originally aired: 31 March 1949
Plot synopsis: After a man is mistakenly believed to have been killed, thanks to his wallet being found by the police on a thief's corpse, he and his wife decide to take advantage of the mistake by having him disappear while she puts in a claim on his life insurance policy.
Favourite line: 'I never did know how to handle women. That was always my big problem.'
Review: Not one, but two femme fatales make Edward G. Robinson's life a misery in this entertaining, if completely unbelievable, episode. The whole story is preposterous from start to finish, especially the ending (I'll give just a clue here by noting that the story opens on April Fools' Day and the conclusion takes place on the same day a year later). The plot is full of incredibly contrived and unlikely developments - for example, Robinson's character must be totally blinkered, not to say incredibly stupid, not to realize after months of waiting for his wife to obtain the insurance payout on his supposed death that she simply isn't coming to join him in hiding from the authorities. Yet what elevates the episode significantly are the performances of all three main players in the cast, which as well as Robinson includes Betty Lou Gerson. Moreover, despite its many implausibilities, this is a thoroughly enjoyable example of noir story-telling, with the main character being just an ordinary man - a milkman - caught up in a maelstrom of crime, deceit and double-crosses. Of interest, too, is that the plot turns on the fact that the characters' greed is inspired by a double indemnity life insurance policy - a type that pays double in cases of accidental death - making the episode partly reminiscent of noir classic Double Indemnity, the film version of which Robinson had appeared in only a few years previously.
Rating: * * * *
You Died Last Night
Starring: Robert Readick and Santos Ortega
Originally aired: 1 April 1962
Plot synopsis: An alien arrives on Earth to determine whether humanity poses a threat to the rest of the galaxy, and it is left to one man to try to dissuade him from wiping out the human race.
Favourite line: 'But I have a question for you. What happened to you last night? Now, don't answer, because whatever you say, you're wrong. All of you. You see, I know what happened last night. Because I saw it happen. You, and you, and you, and all of you - you died last night.'
Review: Perhaps the best way to appreciate this episode is to compare it to another, probably more well-known, one about judgemental aliens deciding the Earth's fate, The Outer Limit. Whereas the latter now seems stiff, pompous and faintly dull, this one remains tense and gripping even for a modern audience, with a tautly written script and a pair of strong performances by Robert Readick and Santos Ortega. It manages to make its premise compelling and effective, with the way the alien sets out the options for humanity's future - ranging from large-scale genocide to complete annihilation - because of the potential threat human beings' development of atomic bombs may pose to the extraterrestrial's own civilization, being genuinely unsettling. There are, too, some evocative references to the Cold War, including drawing on the symbolic significance of the Berlin Wall. The episode is also clever in the way it makes the story's title, which refers to the death of everyone on the planet the night before the narrator begins relating his tale, intelligible. The ending is slightly heavy handed, offering listeners a fairly unsubtle moral message, but otherwise this is a thoughtful and exciting episode. (For another example of disapproving aliens intervening in human affairs, see the X Minus One episode At the Post.)
Rating: * * * *
You'll Never See Me Again
Starring: Joseph Cotten
Originally aired: 14 September 1944
[Another version of this story, starring Robert Young, aired 5 September 1946]
Plot synopsis: A man goes looking for his wife after she storms out of the house following a heated argument, but when she cannot be found, the suspicion soon develops that she may have met with an untimely end. Based on a novella by Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish), first published in Detective Story magazine, in November 1939.
Favourite line: 'You'll never see me again, as long as you live!'
Review: Of the many Suspense episodes adapted from the writings of Cornell Woolrich, this is one of my least favourites. That's not to say that it doesn't have merit, and it works acceptably as a thriller in its own terms. The basic plot will be a familiar one to Woolrich fans, centring as it does on the mysterious disappearance of a person significant to the protagonist, followed by the frantic search for the missing character, which he employed in a number of stories (see also, for example, the Suspense-adapted story I Won't Take a Minute). However, the episode has two main weaknesses. First, the scheme surrounding the wife's vanishing is overly complicated and not very believable. Second, a repeat listen, once the ending is known, makes it hard to escape the feeling that the episodes cheats, with the main characters behaving and interacting, prior to the resolution, in ways that don't entirely make sense in the light of their respective roles in the wife's disappearance. Vital information is withheld to make the plot work, to disguise where it is heading and misdirect suspicion, but this is essentially a con played upon the listener. Not a terrible episode by any means, but not a great one, either.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: TV - Armchair Theatre (1959); TV movie - You'll Never See Me Again (1973)]
Your Devoted Wife
Starring: June Duprez
Originally aired: 20 June 1946
Plot synopsis: A married couple travels by train to a clinic in Chicago seeking treatment for the husband's mental illness, but is there more to the trip than there first appears?
Favourite line: 'You see, my dear husband is insane!'
Review: There's an interesting sub-genre of thrillers that use trains mainly or exclusively for their settings (including The Lady Vanishes and Murder on the Orient Express), though now that the romance and excitement of train travel has largely faded, they are no longer so common. This episode is far from a classic of this sub-category, but it is still an entertaining example. The sound effects used for the train are understated but effective, and both the husband and wife are sufficiently strong characters. There's also a surprisingly callous streak to the story, which delivers quite a grim ending, that is surprising and memorable. There are, though, clear weaknesses as well, especially the fact that the episode relies upon very contrived plotting to create its key twist. It simply makes little sense - SPOILER ALERT! - that the wife would even undergo the medical tests at the clinic the plot requires her to, since she has no inkling that she might be ill, and is only there to further her scheme to dispose of her husband. Furthermore, when her diagnosis of terminal illness is delivered, no explanation is given of what disease or condition she has, or what her treatment options might be, as it is evidently nothing more than a plot device to set up the conclusion. This is dramatic and sensational, but feels as if it has been arrived at in too manufactured a way.
Rating: * * *
You Take Ballistics
Starring: Howard Da Silva
Originally aired: 13 March 1947
Plot synopsis: A police lieutenant tries to prove that a man is guilty of murder, even though the ballistics report shows that the crime was committed with a different calibre gun to the one owned by the suspect. Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish), first published in Double Detective magazine, in January 1938; and later in his short-story collection Dead Man Blues, in 1948.
Favourite line: 'You take ballistics, I'll take human nature every time.'
Review: For fans of modern crime programmes like CSI, this is a fascinating listen, as it shows just how much the worlds of policing and forensics have changed since this episode was broadcast. The plot hinges on a puzzle concerning the ballistic profile of a gun - as alluded to by the rather odd title - used in a murder, as the evidence would appear to exonerate the main suspect. Yet what is perhaps most interesting about the plot for listeners today is the way that ballistics is treated as the cutting edge of forensics. Moreover, the main character - a traditional, old-fashioned sort of police officer - clearly does not entirely trust applying science to criminal investigations, preferring to rely on his own gut instincts as a detective; heaven knows what he would make of contemporary techniques like DNA profiling! Regardless, the solution to the case is pretty clever - though I have no idea whether the way the murderer attempts to hide his guilt would really work. However, the episode is also very slow, especially the first act, which is quite plodding. Five minutes or so could easily have been edited from the running time, to produce a much tighter, better paced story.
Rating: * * *