In a few minutes, this man is going to be murdered. The question is: who killed him? Was it the frustrated nephew? The spurned housekeeper? The fiancé with a shady past? The willful heiress? Or was it someone else? Match wits with Ellery Queen, and see if you can guess who done it!
Oh what rapture when a high-quality, beloved old TV show re-emerges intact in a digitally remastered, commercial-free DVD set! This week’s film recommendation is the superlative television series “Ellery Queen Mysteries” which ran on NBC from 1975-1976 and is available in a boxed DVD set comprising all 22 episodes plus the pilot and an informative interview with series co-creator William Link.
Link and Richard Levenson are legends in the TV game for their clever plotting, coruscating dialogue and most of all, unforgettable characters. Their formidable talents are on display in every episode of this series, which draws from the Ellery Queen novels they read growing up (they met in high school and became lifelong best friends and collaborators). Gimlet-eyed viewers will catch a few parallels between Queen and the most famous Link and Levenson creation, Lt. Columbo: Ellery doesn’t shoot or punch anyone, his forgetfulness, occasional clumsiness and gee-whiz manner (which were not elements of the books) leads suspects to underestimate him, and he once even says, while walking away from a suspect he has just grilled, “Oh, there’s one more thing…”.
The series adopts a deliberately old fashioned mystery style, with each episode starting with a “This person is about to be murdered” hook and closing with a “let’s gather all the suspects at the scene of the crime to announce who done it” scene. Victims get murdered in locked rooms and leave cryptic dying clues regarding the killer’s identity. Red herrings look suspicious, private eyes are hard-boiled, newspaper men are cynical and damsels are, well, in distress. Yet the writers also added a fresh twist to the old chestnut formulae: Ellery would look directly at the audience just before the closing scene and announce that he had the solution. He would then allude to a few clues from the story so far (occasionally, too many for my taste) and challenge the audience to solve the mystery. This made the show fun, especially once you had seen a few episodes and knew the drill, because you could try to solve the mystery yourself as you watched: All the evidence was right there in front of your eyes.
The heart of the show are Jim Hutton as Ellery and David Wayne as his father, a widowed police inspector. Both men are skilled actors, perfectly cast. If you smiled to see the nuances of the relationship between Rocky and Jim on The Rockford Files, you will be equally warm to the father-son dynamic here. At times they are like a typical father and son, at other times the son acts like the father to his sometimes truculent and self-neglecting dad (this works particularly well because the towering Hutton looks like he could cradle the diminuitive Wayne in his arms), but most of the time they are like a couple of clever little boys running around, solving puzzles, doing good and having fun.
The other tremendously enjoyable aspect of the series is the gallery of guest stars, a mix of old time radio/movie icons (e.g., Ray Walston, Don Ameche, Vincent Price, George Burns, Eve Arden, Walter Pidgeon, Donald O’Connor, Dana Andrews) and experienced television character actors (e.g., John Hillerman, Ken Swofford, Tom Bosley, Betty White). It couldn’t have been too hard to direct such seasoned, talented casts, but that said the direction in the series is several cuts above what one usually sees on television (special shout out to Walter Doniger for “The Adventure of the Wary Witness” and David Greene for the pilot).
Production values are also impressive, with swell-looking cars, clothes and interiors from 1940s New York City. Also to love: Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy big band score played over stylish opening credits.
The series was unusual for its consistently high quality, making it hard to pick favourite episodes, but if pressed I would go with “The Adventure of Miss Aggie’s Farewell” because it so well recalls “Our Miss Brooks” (Eve Arden’s old time radio show whose comedy holds up surprisingly well), and “The Adventure of Caesar’s Last Sleep” because its illuminates the relationship between Ellery and his dad.
Ellery Queen Mysteries is irresistible television. May the corporate pillock who cancelled it after one season burn in eternal hellfire.