Tuesday, January 25, 2022

I Want My QTV! Ellery Queen, the Television Series, Part III (Is It Third Period Already?)

Episodes 13-15 of Ellery Queen seem to suggest that the series, as it entered the new year of 1976, was already becoming somewhat enervated, with its writers in search of a new approach.  Did a change in style accompany its shift in the programming lineup?  Maybe--or maybe this is all a coincidence!  In 1976 I moved with my family to Mexico, where my Dad had a teaching job and I think started to lose touch with the series.  (Moving the time slot didn't help!)  For this piece I am just using pics from episode 15, which is by far the best of the trio.

Episodes 13 and 14 are disappointing, especially 14, which in my estimation is one of the worst in the series, probably THE worst.  13, The Adventure of the Sunday Punch, is okay, a boxing mystery with a good cast and an acceptable--though to vintage mystery fans perhaps overfamiliar--murder gambit.  

On hand are old industry pros Lloyd Nolan and Dane Clark, the latter of whom I have taken a special interest since I found out he married a relative (very distant) of my mother's.  Not to mention that the actor, often dubbed "the poor man's John Garfield" (apparently because they were both handsome Jewish leading men), contributed a lot in his own right to the crime film genre!  (See here and here.)  

Frank Flanigan (Ken Swofford)
is still nosing out news in 
The Adventure of the Wary Witness
one of the best episodes in the series

Punch also focuses a lot of the narrative on a black couple, played by Janet MacLachlan and Otis Young. (He was coming off a notable role in the film The Last Detail, with Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their performances.)  The two function as the ingenuous "love interest" in the story.  For the most part people of color had been literal walk-ons in this series (and on most television at that time), so these star turns were nice to see, although the couple classically are so nice they are a bit dull!

There's also a cute cameo by Robert Alda as a courtly mob boss, who lives in the Barkley mansion from The Big Valley (Hi, Barbara!), and Ken Swofford appears again as ace journalist Frank Flanigan, but all in all it's not close to the top tier of the series.

Bring me the head of Linville Hagen
former Dobie Gillis sitcom star Dwayne Hickman
plays a college pal of Ellery's charged with murder
in The Wary Witness

Still, it's a lot better than episode 14, The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer, which is probably the sheerly dullest episode in the series.  Pointlessly talk show second banana Ed McMahon plays the murderee, the titular engineer, a dude with a thing for electric trains.  He's killed in the first two minutes, leaving behind an unaccountably dull group of suspects, the most notable of whom are: 

a past Oscar nominee, the late Dorothy Malone, playing yet another unbereaved widow

former teen idol Bobby Sherman, still with great hair and lovely dimples, you'll be happy to know

and Arthur Godfrey, who like Brad wrote in his post, was just a name to me (and largely still is)

None of them is given anything interesting to do here.  There's also a small part for the man who was perhaps the worst actor in television history, Dick Van Patten.  That man's rise to stardom always perplexed me.  (Nuts to you, Mel Brooks!)  He's just as bad here as he ever was. He went on the play the father in the family series Eight Is Enough, which should have been called Eight Performances by Dick Van Patten is Way More Than Enough.

Like every other young girl in America, my sister had a huge crush in Bobby Sherman and sometime in the early Seventies, when we actually saw Bobby Sherman at an airport, I thought she was going to swoon on the spot.  Bobby Sherman and Brian Keith remain my sole acting celebrity sightings to this day.

Adding to the disaster of this episode, leggy and lovely stage and film star Ann Reinking, another person from this series who passed away not long ago, is unaccountably wasted as one of Ellery Queen's girlfriends (I guess that's what she was), though she does definitively establish that, yes, Ellery at this point is a total babe magnet.

Aside from the dullness of the characters, this one has a soporific plot.  I mean it will literally put you to sleep.  At first it appears we have a locked room, but, yes, they actually GO THERE to resolve that particular problem, if you know what I mean.  (Carolyn Wells would know!)  Ugh.  What a snoozefest.  I'd sooner watch the episode with the ersatz Russians again, rather than this one.  

Sal Mineo as mobster Jimmy Danello in The Wary Witness

But just in case one was ready to write off this series, it suddenly rebounded with episode 15, The Adventure of  the Wary Witness, a fine episode indeed, though with it there is what seemed to me a wrenching change of tone.

Here Ellery is trying to help an old college buddy. Linville Hagen (there's a good privileged WASP name), who is on trial, charged with the murder of gangster Nick Danello.  

Hagen says he's innocent, that someone else shot Nick though a window, and that there was another witness there, a woman, who fled from the scene of the crime.  This "way witness" remains at large.  Can she be found?  Yes, but unfortunately when she is found (by Ellery and Frank Flanigan), she has been shot too, through a window!  Now what?  Ellery has a hard nut to crack with this case!

This episode has a good plot, but what is most striking is the change in tone.  Things have gotten rather darker here and the story could almost be deemed hard-boiled.  But the writers and actors really manage to get this shift across convincingly.  Ken Swofford is still comical as Frank Flanigan, but here he provides welcome relief from a dark story.  

Unexpectedly, the defendant, Ellery's college bud, is played by the recently deceased Dwayne Hickman, of the 1959-63 high school comedy series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  I see that around the same time he played a cop in an episode of the horror crime series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, so maybe he was trying to establish himself as a serious actor.  To no avail: his next role was in Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis?  Still, he's fine here.

The standouts, however, are Cesar Romero and Sal Mineo, as Nick's mobster father and brother, Tricia O'Neil as Nick's beautiful, embittered widow, Yvonne, and the late Michael Constantine as the attorney defending Hagen.  I could have watched a whole series about these characters.  

O'Neil, who used to a lot of television, has one great scene in a bar with Ellery, where Ellery comes across as a real man, even if he drinks old-fashioneds.  Romero, star of light film comedies of the Thirties and Forties and the Joker in the madcap Batman Sixties TV series, is quite credible as a mob boss, while Mineo looks like he's about the explode in rage at any minute and star mowing down people.  Wow.  

A former teen idol (Rebel without a Cause) and two-time Oscar nominee, Mineo unfortunately had a film career which pretty much ended after he appeared in the sleazy but ahead of its time neo-noir crime thriller Who Killed Teddy Bear? in 1965 (okay, there was that brief stint in a Planet of the Apes film); though he was still regularly working on television.  

Tragically, Mineo was stabbed to death on a street by a stranger in West Hollywood less than three weeks after this EQ episode aired, when he was only thirty-seven years old.  I think his open homosexuality obviously hurt his career, but I have a notion that great things would have been in store for him in a more tolerant era; he would be 83 today.

The defense attorney (Michael Constantine) reassures
the defendant's wife as the district attorney (Dick Sargent)
looks on, very Darren indeed

Constantine used to pop up on TV all the time, although until he played the father in the huge hit film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, he was best known as the principal in the TV high school drama series Room 222, which I have never seen to this day.  He was adept at both comedy and drama.

Francis Nevins, author of the critical study of Ellery Queen, divides the Queen novels into four periods, over which they transform from pure puzzles to novels with character interest.  

Going by that, I would say that The Wary Witness is Period Three Queen, in contrast with the rest of the series which preceded it, which is definitely Period One and Two in style.  It's really a dark episode for the series and, frankly, for Seventies series television.  (There's even a reference to a thirteen-year-old girl picked up for solicitation, recalling Jodie Foster's notorious child prostitute character in Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver, which premiered just two weeks after this episode.)

What did the last seven episodes of the series hold in store?  I honestly can't remember, but I will be back soon to report!

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