Monday, February 23, 2015

The Five Best Ellery Queen TV Series Episodes

Jim Hutton as Ellery.
A unique literary creation, Ellery Queen is famous as both a fictional detective and a best-selling “author” (as a pseudonym for cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee). Prior to Jim Hutton's well-regarded 1975-76 Ellery Queen TV series, the sleuth did not fare well in film and television.

Donald Cook and comedian Eddie Quillan each made one EQ movie in the 1930s. In 1940, Columbia launched a modestly-budgeted film series with Ralph Bellamy as Ellery Queen. He starred in four entries before being replaced by sturdy William Gargan for the final three films. On television, Lee Bowman, Hugh Marlowe, and George Nader each starred in three different TV series in the 1950s. NBC tried to launch a new series in 1971 with Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You, which featured a miscast Peter Lawford as a writer-detective with an eye for the ladies (we'll review this movie later this week).

David Wayne as Inspector Queen.
Four years later, Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson created Ellery Queen, a one-hour TV mystery with Hutton as Ellery and David Wayne as his father, Inspector Richard Queen. Levinson and Link borrowed an entertaining element from the early novels, in which--just prior to the climax--the reader was informed that he or she possessed all the clues required to solve the mystery. In the TV series, this was accomplished by having Hutton break "the fourth wall" and talk directly to viewers.

Link and Levinson also made one significant change from the novels. They expanded on Ellery's rather dry personality by making him occasionally absent-minded (about routine things) and a bit of a bumbler. Even if their Ellery Queen wasn't a straightforward adaptation of the novels, it still captured their spirit and also wisely set the mysteries in the 1940s. Here are my picks for the five best episodes:

Edward Andrews and Larry Hagman.
1. The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party - The only regular episode based on an Ellery Queen novel or story sends Ellery to a country estate to discuss turning one of his literary works into a play. When wealthy impresario Spencer Lockridge (Edward Andrews) disappears, Ellery suspects foul play. What's not to like with suspects dressed like characters from Alice in Wonderland, mysterious packages being delivered, and a key clue involving a reflection in the mirror? Rhonda Fleming, Jim Backus, and Larry Hagman form a first-rate cast of guest stars. The only downside is that the always likable Inspector Queen (well played by David Wayne) only plays a small part.

Swofford as Frank Flanagan.
2. The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader - Ellery clashes with a publisher who wants to turn his fictional detective into a comic book action hero. When the unpopular publisher is found shot, Ellery becomes one of the suspects. Another good cast, headed by Donald O'Connor and Lynda Day George, enhances a mystery with Agatha Christie overtones.This episode marked Ken Swofford's first appearance as larger-than-life, headline-seeking columnist Frank Flanagan. He appeared in four other episodes and later played a police detective on another Levinson-Link series: Murder, She Wrote.

3. The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument - After winning the prestigious Blunt Instrument Award for best mystery fiction, author Edgar Manning is found dead--with the trophy for his award apparently used as the weapon. Yes, there's some amusing humor in this outing, with much of it coming from people who suggest various remedies for Ellery's head cold. Many episodes incorporate clever 1946-47 references and this one has one of the best: one suspect's alibi is that he was attending a double-feature of She-Wolf of London and The Spider Woman Strikes Back, two films actually released in 1946.

A nice shot of father and son.
4. The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep - Inspector Queen is assigned to protect a star witness prior to a mobster's trial. With two reliable policeman stationed in an adjacent room in a hotel suite, the witness is murdered...but how? This outing features the most ingenious murder method of the 22 episodes and also squeezes in a strong subplot involving political pressure and an ambitious district attorney (Stuart Whitman). Inspector Queen solves the crime, which is a nice change-of-pace. Look quickly for Timothy Carey as a hired killer...yes, that's South Dakota Slim from Beach Blanket Bingo!

5. The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express - The publisher of the Daily Examiner arrives at work, steps into the executive elevator, pushes the button for the 12th floor, and is found shot dead on another floor. Like some of the best mysteries, the solution to this murder is a simple one--but that's the beauty of it. Ken Swofford is back as Frank Flanagan and the plot makes excellent use of the newspaper building setting. This episode was one of three directed by Jack Arnold, who is best-known for the 1950s science fiction classics The Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, and The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Honorable Mention:  The Adventure of the Sunday Punch, a strong, well-written teleplay set in the world of boxing. Please don't make anything of the absence of episodes featuring John Hillerman as radio detective Simon Brimmer. Indeed, I thought Hillerman was a delight in all eight episodes in which he appeared.

This post is part of the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out the other posts.


18 comments:

  1. She Wolf and Spider Woman both produced by Universal - which did the Queen series. Yeah, the Ellery of those early novels was based on insufferable prig Philo Vance and probably not fit for tv - but at least he didn't wear that hat. Murder, She Wrote borrowed the Queen gimmick by publishing novels "written" by Jessica Fletcher. And it's sad that all the EQ novels are long out of print. Great loss to the genre.

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    1. Bill, the Mysterious Press has published digital versions of many Queen novels, which are still available. I just read The Egyptian Cross Mystery.

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  2. True, but seems insufficient for someone who was acclaimed as the "American Sherlock Holmes".

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  3. I remember the series, and recall your number one pick as one of my favorites. Too bad it didn't last. I used to love the novels.

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    1. The series and the novels are very different, although there are similarities and each are enjoyable in their own way.

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  4. Wonderful post! Those were the good old days of tremendous guest stars, interesting directors and fun plots adding up to great entertainment! We lost Jim Hutton way too soon!

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    1. Lisa, the EQ series truly had an outstanding line-up of guest stars. That was one of the reasons why I purchased the DVD set to give as a Christmas present. It also turned out to be a very entertaining mystery series!

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  5. I loved this post! The Ellery Queen TV program was so enjoyable because of the chemistry of Jim Hutton and David Wayne. I especially enjoyed your fourth choice because Inspector Queen (Wayne) solved the mystery. I was also really glad to see you mentioned John Hillerman in the honorable mention because he was outstanding in his role. I truly miss Classic television shows that feature excellent guest stars like Ellery Queen did.

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    1. Toto, I agree on both counts. David Wayne and Jim Hutton were extremely believable as father and son. And John Hillerman was a lot of fun as Simon Brimmer--I did feel sorry for his character, who was ALWAYS wrong about the culprit.

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  6. I've always liked "The Adventure of the Chinese Dog," but only because it's the only episode where I figured out what happened before it was revealed. Great post on a great show.

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  7. Thanks for your top 5 list. Like Lisa (above), I love these series that feature guest stars from Hollywood's deep pool of character actors.

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  8. The only time I ever wrote a disapproving letter to a network was when NBC cancelled "Ellery Queen". Love the show still. I refer to our slightly bumbling (or more human) Ellery as a "Wrightsville" Ellery as opposed to the "Manhattan" Ellery. Works for me.

    In one of your faves, "The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express" Ruth McDevitt asks Ellery Queen "Who did you say you were? Dennis King?" or something like that. Cracks me up.

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  9. You could almost consider NBC's Banacek as the "Manhattan Ellery" :smug, brilliant, and has a father figure. Even gathers all the suspects together for the solution in the final reel.

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  10. I have been meaning to check this show out for years because I've heard lots of good things about it. The 1940s setting is very appealing. I'm going to be spending a lot of time on YouTube in the near future! Thanks for a great post.

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  11. I can't say that I ever watched Ellery Queen, but I found a clip from the Mad Tea party episode and it looks intriguing and may be worth checking out further. Thanks for the nice summary and thanks also for running the blogathon.

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  12. I've seen the Ellery movies starring Bellamy, but none of the other Ellery incarnations, including the Hutton show which is too bad since I like him as an actor. Link and Levinson were drawn to detective shows with a "twist" it seems. Gotta get my hands on some of these. They sound like fun. Great information here, Rick. And terrific blogathon topic!

    Aurora

    Aurora

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  13. While the network wouldn't have allowed the books' Ellery on-air (not "likeable" enough), the show carried the spirit and intent of the books, and the Wayne-Hutton interplay was fun to watch.
    Doing it as a period piece was the right move, since enough of the audience at the time were old enough to actually "re-experience" the era, and for younger nostalgia afficionados like myself (born in 1958), to enjoy the details.
    BTW, my favorite was "The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario" with Vincent Price.
    Any ep that starts out with Ellery (albeit a movie actor playing him) getting killed has my attention!

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  14. A nice list, to which I would add THE ADVENTURE OF THE WARY WITNESS, an unusually somber addition to the series, and THE ADVENTURE OF AULD LANG SYNE. The pilot, TOO MANY SUSPECTS, holds up very well. SUSPECTS and TEA PARTY, in my opinion, represent the best of the Levinson and Link Queen. My piece on the television series can be found at Kurt Sercu's definitive EQ website:

    http://queen.spaceports.com/The_Other_Side_Goodrich.html

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