Weekend Film Recommendation: Ellery Queen Mysteries

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 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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Ellery Queen Mysteries”

  1. Oddly enough I just received the complete set yesterday. I’ve been trying to catch them on a local geezer-tv station (I can say that cos I am a geezer), but I keep missing all or part of the episodes so last week I ordered them.
    I think the Timothy Hutton Nero Wolfe series is pretty comparable in enjoyability.

    1. I think the Timothy Hutton Nero Wolfe series is pretty comparable in enjoyability.

      The similarity of the two series is one of several nice connections between father and son. When Timothy accepted the oscar for Ordinary People, he dedicated it to his dad, who had recently died tragically young. Then, on an episode of Timothy’s show Leverage, he attends a costume party dressed as “Ellery Queen, the greatest detective of all time”.

  2. Thank you. Just placed the order with Amazon. Your recommendations, especially Charlie Muffin, have been spot-on. If you ever tire of science and public policy . . .

  3. I loved these shows as a kid. I don’t do DVDs but perhaps they’ll eventually show up on netflix streaming.

  4. One of my favority TV series ever (and, of course, like most of them–see “My world, And Welcome To It,” starring William Windom as “James Monroe,” a cartoonist for an unnamed magazine–cancelled way too soon). Hutton was excellent, and Wayne was a good foil for him. Tom Reese (had to look this one up) as Sgt. Velie was wonderful. Also, Ken Swofford as reporter Frank Flannigan. I bought a bootleg copy of the series years ago (recorded by someone from the sereis being aired on A&E), but bought the legitimate–and much higher quality–version a year or so ago. Much fun, and very, very good TV.

  5. I loved that show! Love your recommendations.

    Might I suggest an Amazon link, through your vendor affiliate thingamajig? That way, we are immediately directed to the proper product (sometimes there are earlier, inferior versions), and you benefit as well (to your favorite charity, if you’d prefer not to profit directly).

    Thanks!

  6. Another classic one-season series that I remember fondly, if dimly: “The Rogues”, which ran on NBC during the 1964-1965 season. If you’re familiar with the entertaining UK series “Hustle”, the premise is practically identical: A group of very clever con artists only swindle people who’ve really got it coming. In “The Rogues”, the swindlers, who were cousins in an extended family from Britain, France, and the U.S., were played by Charles Boyer, David Niven, Gig Young, Robert Coote, and Gladys Cooper. The idea was that the lead part in each episode would rotate among the three big stars, but in practice it was mostly Gig Young, with Robert Coote doing most of the heavy lifting. A pre-Jeannie Larry Hagman joined the cast part-way through the season. No Netflix, I’m afraid. There’s a collection of 10 out of 30 episodes for sale on Amazon, and what looks to be a possible bootleg complete set from some online sellers.

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