Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday Mystery Hour: “The Machine Calls It Murder” (NBC-TV, May 29, 1060)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles an intriguing 1960 hour-long TV mystery program from an anthology series originally aired as a summer replacement (I remember summer replacement shows!) under the title Chevy Mystery Theatre, though the print I got (a download from came from a rebroadcast with the series title changed to Sunday Mystery Hour and the Chevrolet sponsorship deleted. (There were a couple of commercials for rather repulsive household products — seeing how female domesticity was depicted on TV at the time one can readily understand why Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was a best-seller and why the second-wave feminist movement was so badly needed! — including something called Perma Starch, a spray-on starch that was applied before you ironed through a plastic squeeze bottle instead of an aerosol can.) The show itself, directed by future Star Trek regular Marc Daniels from a script by Harold Swanton, was at least partly an excuse to show a working computer (an object from Univac that looked like two portable wardrobes stuck together and for which the input devices were perforated tape and punch cards) at a time when this was the acme of high technology, but it also offered a quite compelling story. Peter Meinecke (Larry Blyden) is an actuary for a New York-based insurance company which has been using its newly acquired computer to compile and crunch statistics about the death rates of every American, subdivided by age, gender, occupation and presumably any other characteristic Meinecke and his boss, Charley Frey (David White, who later played a similar obnoxious-boss role on the TV series Bewitched) could ascertain and consider relevant.

Meinecke notices an anomaly: within the last three years five female models between ages 20 and 25 have all died in accidents — and, insisting that the computer can’t possibly be wrong but that many sudden deaths among young, healthy people couldn’t possibly have happened, Meinecke ultimately deduces that there’s a serial killer who’s marrying women, dispatching them within two weeks of their weddings, then collecting on the insurance policies he took out on them. What’s more, Meinecke becomes convinced that the man is traveling around the country so he never strikes in the same place, and is taking out the insurance policies with different companies so no one at any one insurance company notices his pattern. He traces the man: his name is Albert Endicott (Peter Walker), though he’s currently using the name “John Jerome” and has just married his latest pigeon, Susan Jerome (Betsy von Furstenberg). Meinecke visits Susan to try to convince her she might be in mortal danger from her husband, but not surprisingly he only antagonizes her. Once he traces who “John Jerome” really is, though, he gets to see Jerome/Endicott’s mother (Lee Patrick) and learns a lot of background about him, including that he washed out of the U.S. Army in 1944 on a psych discharge, lived in Mexico for a decade and worked for a while in insurance, learning the ins and outs of the business so he could more skillfully defraud insurance companies without getting caught. Eventually he traces Endicott to a resort near San Francisco, where he’s taken Susan and is planning to have her accompany him on a nature hike, ostensibly so he can photograph her (when he married her he told her he was working as a commercial photographer and he does have a nice camera) but really so he can push her off a convenient cliff and make her victim number six. Though most people who meet him think he’s crazy, Meinecke does get a San Francisco police detective, Lt. Malotte (an almost unrecognizable Everett Sloane), to believe his story and help him, and the two of them trace Endicott to a resort in an area with high cliffs

There’s a short complication when the fingerprints they find on a glass Endicott handled at the resort’s restaurant turn out to belong to the waiter (Paul Mazursky, later a feature-film producer and director of such interesting movies as I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice), and an exciting and somewhat surprising climax in which Malotte and Meinecke use a pair of binoculars to see Endicott right as he’s about to push Susan off the cliff, and Meinecke himself has to use a gun being stored at the resort to pick off Endicott from a 3,000-foot range (it’s a hunting rifle and it’s been established earlier that Meinecke owns a similar one, though he’s used it only to shoot targets, not game) and thereby kill Endicott with one shot before he can kill Susan. The writing was ambiguous enough that for a while I was wondering if the show was going to end with it turning out that Meinecke himself was the serial killer, he’d set up this elaborate frame to blame Endicott and he would really aim the gun at Susan, but even in a TV show this nervy they weren’t about to go there. I quite liked The Machine Calls It Murder even though there was one big problem with it — though it was probably shot on videotape rather than being aired live, it was still an early-years TV show, shot entirely in the studio, and the “outdoor” cliffs off of which the villain was supposed to push the heroine was too obviously an inside set made of papier-maché rocks and potted plants. A thriller story this good deserved some of the noir stylistics that were virtually impossible to do on TV back then, but the writing was otherwise compelling enough (as was the acting, even though one couldn’t help but wish for Jack Lemmon in the Larry Blyden role — alas, by then Lemmon had priced himself out of TV and was a major feature-film star!) to make the show surprisingly entertaining and leave me hoping some more episodes from this quite interesting series will turn up.