Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #11

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Series Title: Ellery Queen | Years: 1975-1976, NBC | Starring: Jim Hutton, David Wayne, Tom Reese, John Hillerman, Ken Swofford | Theme Music: Elmer Bernstein

During the mid-20th century, Ellery Queen was three of the most famous figures in American crime fiction.

Introduced as the protagonist in a 1929 novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen was a New York City-based mystery novelist and amateur sleuth of extraordinary perspicacity. He started out as indolent, condescending, and often mannerless (“one would not mind reading about him, but one would also not particularly want to know him,” opined bookseller-editor Otto Penzler in The Private Lives of Private Eyes, Spies, Crime Fighters, and Other Good Guys, 1977). But eventually Queen became an exemplar of the reliably rational detective, occupying a “genius” category alongside Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, and others. His popularity during the 1900s was furthered by presentations of his adventures on radio and the silver screen, as well as his appearance in four separate TV series--the last of which provides this week’s exceptional main title sequence.

However, Ellery Queen was also the pseudonym shared by two real-life authors from Brooklyn--cousins and former advertising writers Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay. After creating their amateur sleuth in 1928 as part of a mystery-writing contest sponsored by McClure’s magazine, they worked together for more than four decades, writing the acclaimed Queen series, editing collections of their own fiction and anthologies of others’ work, and bringing to press a crime-fiction digest, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, that remains influential and in publication today, 67 years after its launch.

Penzler regards Lee and Dannay’s choice of a nom de plume “as one of the most brilliant and far-sighted promotional decisions ever made ... Noting that many people remember the name of a favorite detective hero, but often forget the name of the author, they decided to give their detective the same name as the one they selected as their byline.” That choice, though, did present the cousins with some challenges. “In 1932,” recalled University of Michigan-Flint student Cathy Akers-Jordan in a 1998 thesis presented as part of her master’s degree studies in American Culture, “Ellery Queen had attained such eminence that he was invited to give a lecture on mystery writing to the Columbia University School of Journalism. Not wanting to give away the author’s secret identity, Dannay and Lee flipped a coin to determine who would give the lecture. Lee lost and appeared as Ellery Queen, giving the lecture in a mask to maintain his anonymity; the audience was charmed.”

The conceit of these stories was that they were written by the young fictional ferret himself, who had agreed ever so reluctantly to record his investigations in print. (That reluctance was further supported by the notion, raised in The Roman Hat Mystery, that “Ellery Queen” was actually a pseudonym adopted by the wordsmith-detective to safeguard his privacy.) The tales portray Ellery as the weapon of last but welcome resort wielded by his father, much-decorated Inspector Richard Queen of the New York City Police Department, to solve seemingly impossible or impenetrable crimes. Both sire and son understand how advantageous Ellery’s intelligence can be in apprehending non-habitual malefactors, who don’t behave according to familiar patterns. Ellery is the one most able to “think outside the box,” to employ an overworked cliché. As their mutual friend, judge and stockbroker J.J. McCue, explained in his introduction to The Roman Hat Mystery,
In matters of pure tenacity, when possibilities lay frankly open to every hand, Richard Queen was a peerless investigator. ...

But the intuitive sense, the gift of imagination, belonged to Ellery Queen the fiction writer. The two might have been twins possessing abnormally developed faculties of mind, impotent by themselves but vigorous when applied one to the other.
As I mentioned earlier, Ellery--like many early fictional sleuths, including snobbish Philo Vance, who may have helped inspire this character--was not at first an especially sympathetic figure. The excellent Ellery Queen: A Web Site on Deduction explains that when we first met the snooper cooked up by Lee and Dannay, he was “a fairly recent Harvard grad wrapped in shapeless tweeds and sporting pince-nez,” something of “a stiff shirt wearing his lorgnet, a thin silver watch and falconer, a gray costume and walkingstick.” Ellery was made somewhat more likable by the fact that he and his stoop-shouldered but energetic father had a relationship that, while it appeared contentious at times, was basically warm and affectionate. We saw their interaction frequently, as they worked together and also shared an apartment on the third floor of a brownstone on Manhattan’s West 87th Street. (Ellery’s mother, said to have been the daughter of a wealthy family, was deceased before this series commenced.)

Only over time did Ellery’s superciliousness recede. “This change came about through the influence of the other media (magazines, movies, radio and TV),” explains the aforementioned Ellery Queen site. “His early days were punctuated by an arrogance that gave way to a sense of humor. The writers made him more human and thus fallible. He even admits what the reader has known from the start--that the human factor in his cases is as important as the logic and deduction--and begins to lighten up. The pince-nez disappears, and there’s more humor in the books, peaking with the two novels set during Ellery’s (frustrating) stint as a Hollywood writer: The Devil to Pay (1938) and The Four of Hearts (1938).”

Filing off some of Ellery Queen’s more unsociable edges undoubtedly also improved this crime-solver’s longevity (unlike Philo Vance--once described by Raymond Chandler as “probably the most asinine character in detective fiction”--who has pretty much disappeared over the last half century).

He debuted as a cinema star in 1935’s The Spanish Cape Mystery, adapted from a novel of the same name and featuring Broadway actor Donald Cook as young Ellery. The character would appear in nine films over the next seven years, the best four of them starring Ralph Bellamy. While those photoplays are hardly considered masterpieces, movie historian Jon Tuska insisted in his 1978 book, The Detective in Hollywood, that at least Ellery Queen, Master Detective (1940) is “an excellent film.” Bellamy, he added, “combined the bookishness of the Ellery of the novels with a worldliness that the character needed to appeal to a larger audience.”

Four years after the first of those movies reached theaters, the author-sleuth became an evening radio star in The Adventures of Ellery Queen, many episodes of which were written by Lee and Dannay, and later by author, editor, and critic Anthony Boucher. That half-hour show remained on the air--although it switched networks--until 1948, with actor Hugh Marlowe (later of the TV soap Another World) being the first performer to fill the title role. Hoping to attract a larger female audience, the show’s producers gave Ellery a love interest and secretary named Nikki Porter (played by Marion Shockley). Nikki appeared, as well, in most of the movie series, being best portrayed by Margaret Lindsay. And I understand that she finally found her way, too, into Lee and Dannay’s novels, debuting in 1943’s There Was an Old Woman. The cousins introduced another recurring woman player, agoraphobic gossip columnist Paula Paris, into the series in The Four of Hearts (1938), but she didn’t win a place in the radio drama. (If you’d like to listen--for free--to some old Adventures of Ellery Queen episodes, simply click here).

“America’s master crime solver,” as Ellery was often promoted in those days, made the leap to television in 1950. Again titled The Adventures of Ellery Queen, the new series gave Richard Hart the part of Ellery; unfortunately, he died of a heart attack after appearing in just a few episodes, and was replaced by Lee Bowman, who would carry on with the show as it made its transition from the old DuMont Television Network to ABC in ’51. Bowman kept the role until Adventures was canceled a year later. (A complete 1950 episode of that series, “The Hanging Acrobat,” can be watched here.) Two more Ellery Queen series came and went during the 1950s, one returning Hugh Marlowe to the Ellery role, the second--retitled The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen--starring George Nader and later Lee Philips. Neither, however, mined ratings gold.

Television hadn’t seen the last of Ellery Queen, though. In 1971, Universal Studios turned Lee and Dannay’s 1949 novel, Cat of Many Tails, into an NBC pilot film entitled Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You. Fans of the books probably looked forward to this movie’s debut, only to be disappointed by the results. Although Harry Morgan of Dragnet fame seemed nicely cast as Inspector Richard Queen (even if he didn’t boast the mustache that was so familiar on that character’s visage in the novels), hiring English-born actor Peter Lawford to play Ellery was a tremendous mistake. Far from being the bookish intellectual of Dannay and Lee’s novels, Lawford re-imagined Queen as an overaged, British “hipster,” with egregious results. The script itself was pretty mediocre. The network had originally hired Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of Mannix and Columbo, to compose the Cat of Many Tails adaptation, but Link recalls that “while Dick and I were on vacation, the producer brought in other writers who changed our script. We thought the script was now inept, took our names off, and used our pseudonym [Ted Leighton].” NBC ultimately chose not to buy the Lawford/Morgan series.

Only three years later, though, Levinson and Link took another crack at adapting Ellery Queen for the small screen, and came up with the foremost results yet. They began by reviving the amateur sleuth and his “pater” in a two-hour pilot film based loosely on a 1965 novel called The Fourth Side of the Triangle, which had been at least partly ghost-written by American Jewish author Avram Davidson. Perhaps the screenwriters’ smartest decision was to make their teleflick a period piece, to set it in the late 1940s--the heyday of the Ellery Queen books and radio show. Cast as Ellery was tall, lanky Jim Hutton (the father of Leverage star Timothy Hutton), who brought charm, engaging innocence, and more than a bit of absentmindedness to the part; while his inspector progenitor was played by David Wayne (who I still remember best as the Mad Hatter on Batman). The pair certainly looked their parts (though, again, Wayne was clean-shaven), and their relationship on screen demonstrated all the warmth that readers of the Queen books had come to expect.

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A scene from the March 14, 1976, episode of Ellery Queen, “The Adventure of Caesar’s Last Sleep.”

Following the success of the pilot, Ellery Queen debuted on Thursday, September 11, 1975. It was deliberately old-fashioned, not only by the fact of its period setting in Truman-era New York City, but because it used many of the hoary conventions of crime fiction, to camp effect. A murder was committed, Ellery and his father investigated, clues were sprinkled about here and there for observant TV addicts to gather, and in the run-up to the conclusion of each episode, Ellery would suddenly turn to the camera and announce that he’d figured out the mystery--but, he wanted to know, had viewers done the same? (That “challenge to the reader” had earlier been a factor in the books.) Then, after a commercial break, all the suspects would be gathered into some room, where Ellery laid out how the crime of the week had been committed--and who was responsible.

Although that format struck some viewers as too moss-grown, the series offered ample humor to go along with it. It also boasted an abundance of famous weekly guest stars, including Ray Milland, Murray Hamilton, Geraldine Brooks, Ida Lupino, Donald O’Connor, Eve Arden, William Demarest, Eva Gabor, Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn), Anne Francis (Honey West), Don Ameche, and others. In addition, Levinson and Link introduced a couple of secondary players with tremendous appeal: radio drama host Simon Brimmer (played by a pre-Magnum, P.I. John Hillerman), who was touted as “America’s favorite criminologist, raconteur, and aficionado of the exotic and the bizarre”; and Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford), a corners-cutting newspaper reporter who had the tendency to speak in attention-getting headlines. Tom Reese, a Tennessee-born actor who had appeared in numerous western and crime series over the years, was cast as Sergeant Thomas Velie, Inspector Queen’s right-hand man. He played the policeman just as Otto Penzler described Velie from the novels: “Not overly intelligent, he is less antagonistic than most other cops who have to deal with amateur detectives, even going so far as to call Ellery ‘maestro.’”

And what of Ellery Queen’s main title sequence? It was understated but brilliant. As you can see in the clip topping this post--taken from the episode “The Adventure of the Lover’s Leap”--each week’s installment began with a teaser about the suspects to come. (That teaser has, sadly, been lopped off many subsequent, syndicated presentations of this series, to make room for more commercial interruptions.) After the teaser, the opener commenced with a camera pan shot over an old manual typewriter, presumably the one on which Ellery wrote his mysteries. The jaunty, brass-dominated theme music was composed by Aaron Copeland protégé Elmer Bernstein, who is best remembered nowadays as the man responsible for the themes of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). While the title and credits flashed on the screen, the scene behind rolled across what looked like a black-and-white-tiled floor, but could just as easily have been a giant chess board (suggesting the competitive nature of crime solving). Ripped photos, mementos of Manhattan’s famous Stork Club, and a paperweight shaped like the Statue of Liberty slid past ... along with artifacts suggestive of violence: a cracked pair of spectacles; a telephone receiver, its cord cut; a deadly sharp letter opener; and, last but not least, a chess queen, snapped in half.

Even more than three decades after Ellery Queen’s original broadcast, I still feel a tingle of expectation when I watch that introductory sequence. Its combination of imagery and music sets precisely the right mysterious tone for the show.

Sadly, though, neither that theme nor the big-name guest performers could keep Ellery Queen on the air. As critic Richard Meyers wrote in his book TV Detectives (1981),
All too quickly the thrill disappeared. Even though the new Ellery Queen series had all the complexity it would ever need, it had almost no compassion. For a fictional character who spent most of the sixties and seventies agonizing, the Hutton portrayal was annoyingly lifeless. He just did not seem to care about the victim or the guilty party. Hutton approached each murder as the most boring of mental exercises. Playing Queen as an even-tempered, absentminded bookworm, his apathy soon spread to the audience. After a season, this series was canceled.
I had never read an Ellery Queen novel before the Levinson and Link series debuted, but I was inspired by it to search out the many works of Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed a number of Queen novels. But I still think fondly of the 1970s drama. While some of its plots were too easily figured out, and I agree that Hutton could have brought more depth to his role, Ellery Queen might be said to have left behind a valuable TV legacy. Certainly, the later Levinson and Link-created series Murder, She Wrote followed a similar storytelling pattern and also focused on an author and amateur investigator. That’s true, too, of the Nathan Fillion series Castle, which is set to debut on ABC-TV in early March of this year.

One day soon I expect that TV producers will look around at each other and ask themselves, “Why are we trying to copy Ellery Queen, when we could just as easily revive the character once more on the small screen?” And so, the dogged police inspector and his brainy son will have another chance to inquire, Whodunit?

SEE IT HERE: Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we now have a short clip from the unsold, 1971 pilot film Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You, which starred Peter Lawford as the storied sleuth of the title and Harry Morgan as his “uncle,” Inspector Richard Queen.

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It has frequently been said that this movie was developed as a pilot for a series to occupy one of the three “spokes” in the original NBC Mystery Movie “wheel series.” As that story goes, when the network decided to pass on Lawford’s Ellery Queen, it left room--fortunately--for McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James. However, the facts of that story are in doubt. Paul Mason, an early producer and writer of McMillan & Wife, says it’s simply “not true,” that McMillan “was already in talking stages” as part of the wheel by the time Lawford’s film was being made, “and once Rock was involved, it got the highest priority.”

READ MORE: Just Who WAS This Ellery Queen, Anyway?” (Dr. Hermes Reviews); “Nine of the Best by Ellery Queen,” by Cavershamragu (Tipping My Fedora).

8 comments:

Martin Edwards said...

A fascinating and very informative post. Thanks.

mike doran said...

Just for the record... a brief shout-out to the teaser announcer, veteran voiceover man Bill Woodson - who also announced the early '50s DICK TRACY series with Ralph Byrd, as well as the first season of THE ODD COUPLE in 1970! And all kinds of stuff in between. Mr. Woodson is featured in the current issue of STARLOG in connection with his best-known voice job: narrator of THE INVADERS (67-68, now out on DVD); he is alive and well - and active - at age 91. Long may he voice!

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Thanks for bringing up Woodson's connection. I didn't know his history. Now, I do.

Cheers,
Jeff

The Cat Bastet said...

I enjoyed your excellent essay and there are several links to material that's new to me. Thank you!

Thank you, too, for quoting my Master's thesis. For a more detailed description of the Dannay and Lee coin-flipping incident, refer to Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1974), which is where I first read of the incident.

I know exactly what you mean about the opening credits of the Jim Hutton series -- what a thrill! I'm so glad I have them all on VHS.

Anonymous said...

A good, thorough discussion of matters Queen, but . . . what the hell is "American Jewish author Avram Davidson" supposed to mean? If you're into labeling people as Jews, why not point out that Dannay and Lee were also Jewish? Better yet, why not drop such offensive irrelevancies?

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Actually, Mr. Anonymous (and why DO people refuse to attach their real names to their opinions?), my reference to Davidson as being "an American Jewish author" was not designed to be either offensive or irrelevant. The fact is, Davidson was an often brilliant writer, who contributed greatly to the 20th-century world of crime fiction (see my review of The Investigations of Avram Davidson here: http://januarymagazine.com/crfiction/prior2.html). He was also a fictionist who often wrote sensitively and revealingly about Jewish characters, being likened as a result to authors such as Issac Bashevis Singer (and less often to Israel Zangwill: http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2008/08/
book-you-have-to-read-big-bow-mystery.html) . His Jewishness, it seems to me, was an essential and enriching part of his own character; it helped make him the writer he was, and therefore it was not irrelevant to mention it in passing in this post.

If you'd like to learn more about this author, I recommend checking out The Avram Davidson Web Site:

http://www.avramdavidson.org/

Cheers,
Jeff

Anonymous said...

Okay, fair enough. I can see you have your reasons for raising Davidson's ethnicity -- though I don't agree with them, and in the context of an EQ discussion it seems bizarre and inconsistent. (Do you believe that Dannay and Lee's ethnicity did NOT inform their writing, or did so less than Davidson's did in "4th Side of the Triangle," a thoroughly secular novel?)

As for my anonymity, it's strictly a function of technological incompetence, i.e., I couldn't figure out how to "choose an identity." My name is John Morris, and I post frequently on the GA Detection site.

Thanks for your response.

Best,

John

michael jones said...

I have watched some of the series of this show when I was a kid. Good to remember this show.