Wednesday, January 12, 2011

TV on DVD: Ellery Queen (1975-76)

For a series that only lasted a single season, Ellery Queen casts a long shadow. A cult favorite among mystery fans, the show would occasionally surface on cable but I’d never seen it. With its DVD release late last year, I blitzed through all 23 episodes and wish there were more.

Based on the detective created by cousins Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee, who also penned the books under that pseudonym (confused yet?), Ellery Queen is a genuine fair play mystery. Crime writer Ellery (Jim Hutton, affability incarnate) helps his detective inspector father (the permanently irascible David Wayne) on some of the NYPD’s most difficult cases. Every clue required to unravel the riddle appears onscreen. In the show’s signature innovation, once the penny drops for Ellery he turns directly toward the camera and asks if you’ve figured it out, helpfully recapping the suspects, key bits of information and even offering a hint. Never before has the pause button on our remote gotten such a workout. As soon as Hutton broke the fourth wall, we’d stop the show and hammer out our theories. Once I even made a sketch of the crime scene.

Co-creators William Link and Richard Levinson bring to bear the same sharp writing they deployed on Columbo. The first few episodes rely heavily on “dying clues,” cryptic bits of information left by the murder victims – the one in the pilot film, Too Many Suspects, verges on preposterous – but as the series progresses it slyly subverts that convention. The show also fully exploits the period 1947 New York setting. The locations and costumes aren’t always convincing but the atmosphere is, blending nostalgia for a bygone age (radio dramas and the Brooklyn Dodgers) with anticipation for the modern era (television).

Each episode brings a fresh cast of special guest stars. Familiar faces from Hollywood’s golden era abound (Vincent Price, Donald O’Connor), with many drawn from the ranks of film noir (Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Howard Duff). But the show’s secret weapon is John Hillerman. His rival “radio detective” Simon Brimmer, a cross between Orson Welles and Claude Rains’ character in The Unsuspected, appears in a third of the episodes. Neither as famous as he wants to be nor as smart as he thinks he is, he regularly sets out to unmask the culprit before Ellery does. Hillerman makes a sublime foil, plummy voice and bogus bonhomie setting him up for a fall.

Some favorite episodes:

The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party, a Lewis Carroll-themed show adapted from a Dannay/Lee story

The Adventure of Veronica’s Veils, with George Burns as the victim of the week and a great burlesque background

The Adventure of the Wary Witness, a surprisingly effective minor key outing

The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario, set in Hollywood and taking swipes at earlier screen incarnations of the character

The Adventure of Caesar’s Last Sleep, for finally allowing the long-suffering Sgt. Velie (Tom Reese) to have a moment in the spotlight

If only I’d watched the show in time to ask William Link about it at Bouchercon. To ease my pain, here’s a song that namechecks Ellery Queen. Hat tip to Russell Atwood, whose fine novel East of A is now available as an eBook.