Friday, December 5, 2008

Suspense (CBS-TV; two episodes, 1949 & 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles had logged on to and had downloaded some interesting items, including five Charlie Chan radio shows and two 1949 episodes of the Suspense TV series — actually a radio anthology show that was transferred to TV, live production, cheesy organ soundtrack and all — one called “Murder at the Mardi Gras” featuring George Reeves in between his Warners and Superman days, and the other an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s (his middle name was misspelled “Allen” on the opening credit) “The Cask of Amontillado” featuring Bela Lugosi — not, as I’d expected, as the narrator, but as Fortunato, the man on whom the narrator (played with a marvelously sinister sense of outward courtesy and nobility by Romney Brent, the British actor and author whose book Nymph Errant became the basis for Cole Porter’s 1933 British musical for Gertrude Lawrence, which contained some of his very best songs; Brent did his own adaptation and he and Porter spent a lot of time hanging out and socializing together while working on the show) wreaks his terrible revenge.

Halstead Welles adapted the story with surprising creativity; instead of keeping it in period, Welles set it in Italy after the war and made Brent’s character a former aristocrat dispossessed by the fascists in general and Fortunato in particular. Fortunato in this incarnation was an early adherent of Mussolini’s movement who was rewarded by being given a generalship in the Italian army (if Mussolini really handed out commands this way no wonder the Italian army was so useless during World War II!) and allowed to requisition the nobleman’s estate. He also more or less forced the nobleman to let him marry the man’s youngest sister, and she died in a plane crash — which the narrator suspected he arranged deliberately to eliminate her because Fortunato had in the meantime started an affair with the narrator’s own wife.

While all this backstory lacks the enigmatic power of Poe’s famous opening — “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge,” which aside from being the source of the phrase “adding insult to injury” keeps us powerfully in the dark as to just what Fortunato had done to the protagonist and why he wanted revenge — it not only serves to make the narrator/murderer a more sympathetic figure as he narrates the story to two American military officers as a frame by which the original tale is told in flashback. Lugosi’s performance is marvelous — with a far better role than the horrible ones he was getting stuck with in his movies by then, and in the unusual position of being on the receiving end for a change, he responds to the challenge and turns in a wonderful job of acting both the character’s surface bravado and his ultimate cowardice. And he’s ably partnered by Brent, who’s equally fine in his delineation of the narrator’s outward courtliness and inward bitterness.

The show was done live, which rather surprisingly put Lugosi at a decided advantage over his fellow cast members; forced, as usual, by his limited command of English to learn his lines phonetically, ironically he’s the one cast member who’s so grounded in what he’s supposed to be saying that he makes no audible slip-ups in his lines — and whoever directed (I don’t recall a directorial credit) did a really good job of staging the story within the limitations of a live telecast from a tiny studio even though it’s all too obvious that Lugosi and Brent are going round and round the same set of studio stairs even as they’re supposed to be descending into a catacomb. The show is sponsored by Auto-Lite, an intriguing name to be seeing on a show these days — especially given their boast that they made 400 different sorts of auto parts at a time when it’s beginning to look like the American auto industry is going to go the way of its consumer electronics industry and disappear completely — and the commercials are typically early-TV tacky (endearingly tacky, but still tacky), but the show itself is quite appealing and I look forward to watching the other episode.


Charles duly arrived at 9 and we stayed up long enough to have tamales for dinner and then we ran the Suspense episode “Murder at the Mardi Gras,” a 1950 show that was billed on as featuring George Reeves — former Warners contractee and future Superman on TV — even though in fact Reeves is billed third and it’s Tom Drake, Judy Garland’s “boy next door” from Meet Me in St. Louis, who was featured above the episode title. Written by Charles Robinson from a story by Robert A. Arthur and David Kogan, “Murder at the Mardi Gras” was a neat little mystery with an almost incomprehensible resolution: Drake plays up-and-coming movie actor Dan Bedell, who’s in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras and who falls in love with Connie Williams (Mary Sinclair) and plans to propose to her — only a gambler, Morgan Nelson (Robert Emhardt), at whose casino Dan has lost a hefty chunk of change, tells Dan that Connie is actually a blackmailer in cahoots with corrupt reporter Bill Reed (George Reeves) to get him into a compromising situation so they can extract money from him in order to protect his career.

During this confrontation, a shot from Dan’s balcony kills Nelson’s bodyguard Louie (a young and almost unrecognizable Jack Klugman) and Nelson sticks Dan and Connie with the body. They decide to dress the corpse in Bill’s Mardi Gras costume and take him out of the hotel as if he was merely another passed-out reveler — only the police spot them, as does Nelson, and Nelson is holding everyone else at gunpoint (it turns out he and Reed were co-conspirators in the blackmail racket — at least that’s how I think it turns out: the plot got awfully shaky as it lurched towards resolution) when the cops come in, save Dan and Connie from Nelson’s determination to kill them, arrest the baddies and send the two young lovebirds to Hollywood and shared fame. This isn’t exactly fresh writing but it’s a lot of fun, and director Robert Stevens (who also produced) stages it effectively within the limits of live TV and pads it out with some relatively well-done inserts of stock footage of the real Mardi Gras. (The CBS logo at the end featured a disclaimer that some of the show had been done on film — at that time using film on TV was considered “cheating,” a holdover from the days of radio, where virtually all shows were done live and broadcasting a pre-recorded transcription or a commercial record was considered a sign of desperation!)