Friday, October 31, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Hitch-Hiker"

Happy Halloween!

Today I'm very pleased to wind down "31 Days of Suspense" by presenting my personal favourite episode of the series: Lucille Fletcher's masterful program "The Hitchhiker" with star Orson Welles which you may download from here!

This episode is so lauded that it's easy to forget it came extremely early in the series' history - only the 10th episode aired! Of course, with a fine writer like Fletcher, an able producer such as William Spier and radio's own boy genius Orson Welles commanding the episode, how could it fail?

I love the ambiguity of this episode's climax. It explains so much, yet tells so little - as a great ghost story should. This episode began Fletcher & Welles' associations with Suspense (and was only Spier's second episode), something both they and the show profited immensely from.

I suppose I'm mandated to mention this script was also adapted to television as an episode of the Twilight Zone, but much as I enjoy Serling's program, I have to say I'm a purist - I prefer the radio play.

This brings 31 Days of Suspense to a close; thank you for indulging me! If you're a fellow Suspense fanatic, I'd like to see your own lists of favourites! And if you weren't a Suspense fan before... perhaps you are now?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "August Heat"

Today: my second-favourite episode of Suspense!

Coming from May 31, 1945 we have "August Heat," adapting a short story from W.F. Harvey with star Ronald Colman headlining a very small cast. Colman plays a painter whose most recent picture seems to predict the future, but he can't quite interpret its meaning. Perhaps the local headstone carver could help? You may download it from here.\

Part of what I find so striking about this episode is how "visual" it is. Radio drama has often been called the "Theatre of the Mind" and this episode makes a compelling case for that title. Here, the creative forces seem in complete control of the audio experience, carving faces, images and heatwaves as ably as a stone-cutter with his chisel.

Knowing that W.F. Harvey had also authored "The Beast With Five Fingers" I was excited to delve into his short stories, but ultimately I found his prose uneven - he didn't actually write many truly supernatural stories. Still, the print version of "August Heat" is quite good too.

Tomorrow: "After that I knew I had to do something. I didn't know who this man was or what he wanted of me, I only knew that from now on I mustn't let myself alone on the road for one minute."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The House in Cypress Canyon"

My third-favourite episode of Suspense has become a Halloween tradition for many and widely considered to be among the best radio horror shows ever produced. Who am I to object?

Robert Taylor is again our star in the December 5, 1946 broadcast "The House in Cypress Canyon." In an amusing crossover between William Spier's two radio shows, Sam Spade himself cameos in the bookends of this otherwise-grim tale. A couple move into a newly-built home and everything seems perfect... except for that howling which seems to come from within the house at night... or the pool of blood which collects under the building's sole locked door. You may download it from here.

As I've noted before, when Suspense delved into the supernatural they didn't like to kid around. Sure, there are contemporary programs which supernatural tales (such as Dark Fantasy) but the first-rate talent which produced this show's stories, actors, musicians and sound effects men grant Suspense's supernatural stories a ring of believability amidst the unbelievable. By way of comparison, Dark Fantasy's "W is for Werewolf" is a decent pulp tale; "The House in Cypress Canyon" is up to the standards of M.R. James or Algernon Blackwood.

Hmm... if "The House in Cypress Canyon" is my third-favourite episode, what could possibly rank higher? Come back soon...

Tomorrow: "He spoke of the improbable with an intense seriousness that would have been laughable six hours before. But I did not laugh."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Whole Town's Sleeping"

For my fourth-favourite episode of Suspense I'm very pleased to revisit my personal favourite author: Ray Bradbury!

Bradbury was a bit of an odd duck; the contrast between his stories which expressed his deep love of nature, small towns and children and those stories which explored the horrors of nature, small towns and children leave an interesting edge to his work. One can discuss the concept of "Bradburyesque" stories, but the first time you hear one of his tales you might not foresee quite where the story is going to end up.

Suspense adapted Bradbury's story "The Whole Town's Sleeping" on two occasions, but I prefer the second from August 31, 1958, appearing during William N. Robson's tenure as producer-director. The so-called "First Lady of Suspense" Agnes Moorehead (so named largely on the strength of her performance in "Sorry, Wrong Number") stars as a spinster who goes for a nice long walk one evening... through a dark ravine... while a killer is on the loose. Check it out by downloading the episode from here.

In the world of bleak endings, this story wears a heavy crown. In fact, I've noticed online that some people are truly offended by this story mainly because of what their imagination tells them, rather than the text itself. If you'd prefer Bradbury to hold your hand and tell you everything turns out okay, then go read the altered version of this story in his book Dandelion Wine. If you'd rather let him scare your wig off, then stick with the original.

Tomorrow: "No, Ellen, you-you didn't even wake up..."

Monday, October 27, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Fugue in C Minor"

We're now into my top 5 favourite episodes of Suspense and it's high time to revisit one of the series' top scribes, Lucille Fletcher!

Before the mustache, he was... a man. I bring you Vincent Price in the June 1, 1944 broadcast of "Fugue in C Minor," a script by Suspense's top playwright Lucille Fletcher. Here, Price actually plays second-fiddle to Ida Lupino. Price plays a widower and pipe organ enthusiast who romances Lupino. Lupino likes him quite a bit, but his children are a couple of creeps off the ol' block, believing their deceased mother to be communicating with them. It ain't just another Bluebeard story, lemme tell ya! Listen and download from here.

It's those children who make this more than your typical Bluebeardy outing. Those of us who know Price as a horror film star will be suspicious from the start - but this before he'd been typecast. It's those kids you've gotta keep an eye on!

Tomorrow: "And now he's at the first step coming up to your room, and now he's at the second step, and now he's at the third, fourth and fifth step..."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Ten Years"

For my 6th-favourite episode of Suspense we have a creepy look at sibling relationships!

Joan Crawford stars in "The Ten Years," first heard on June 2, 1949. In the story, Crawford's sister (played by Lurene Tuttle) is a waifish, clingy creature who feels spurned when her sister is married. After ten years of no contact, Crawford is reunited with her in the worst way possible - her son has gone missing in her sister's home. Features murder, child endangerment and madness. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you may download it from here.

It's easy to confuse this episode with another Suspense production, "The Sisters." The show's producers seemed to consider the latter a prestige outing, one which deserved first-class female stars. However, when you boil it down, "The Sisters" is simply a tale of one sister trying to murder another with an ironic comeuppance at the climax. "The Ten Years" is about sisterly love - and how easily it becomes hatred. The climax of this episode is one of Suspense's most grim; it's not that some things are not fixed and some people are not saved but that nothing can be fixed and no one can be saved. Happy listening!

"The Ten Years" was a reuse of an earlier script from February 8, 1945. Then, the episode was titled "A Tale of Two Sisters" and starred Claire Trevor with Nancy Kelly. It's very good, but not Crawford/Tuttle good. Still, check it out at here if you're inclined.

Tomorrow: "Have you ever tried to match your voice, Miss Peabody, against the thunderous voice of Bach? It's most effective."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Too Hot to Live"

Today: my 7th-favourite episode of Suspense!

Richard Widmark is again the featured player for this episode: October 26, 1950's "Too Hot to Live." Widmark plays a wandering ex-G.I. who strolls into a quiet town on a hot, sweaty day. Before too long he's implicated in a murder - and considering how delirious the heat is making him, the accusations might be true! You may download the episode from here.

This is a tough story which really packs a punch, due mainly to Widmark's frantic performance. It's certainly the only old-time radio play I've heard which includes narration about throwing up! Because we in the audience cannot feel the heat - nor, through film, see the effects of the heat - Widmark and the others have to sell the sticky, sweltering environment with words - and I think they do so admirably. There's a murder-mystery angle to this episode, but the play is focused primarily on atmosphere and tension, which makes this an unforgettable production.

Tomorrow: "Always and forever. I promise."

Friday, October 24, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Visitor"

We've reached my 8th-favourite episode of Suspense!

Eddie Bracken returns in this May 11, 1944 episode of Suspense entitled "The Visitor." Bracken portrays a young man who is recruited to pose as a couple's long-lost son. Of course, as the son was presumably murdered, he's making himself a new target for the killer! You may download the episode from here.

This episode has a fantastic surprise ending which really holds together. It sets up the audience to believe the story is headed in one direction - then pulls off a great twist in the episode's concluding scene. There's another version of this story which stars Donald O'Connor, but I quite prefer Bracken's performance. He made only three appearances on Suspense - more's the pity.

Tomorrow: "Something - something starts down in my chest... spreads up to my throat... spills out of my mouth..."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Track of the Cat"

Today I'm featuring my 9th-favourite episode of Suspense!

Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel The Track of the Cat proved to be a gripping episode of Suspense when the series adapted it on February 18, 1952. Richard Widmark stars as the boldest of three brothers who toil together on the family ranch. However, when he sets out into the snow to hunt a mountain lion, his courage is gradually sapped away. You may download the episode from here.

"The Track of the Cat" was also adapted into a 1954 feature film starring Robert Mitchum (from whence the above image originates), but it is by no means suspenseful or thrilling. Rather than getting inside the mind of a brave man who crumbles, the film assumed audiences would be more interested in the petty family squabbles back at the ranch. And you wonder why classic Hollywood was brought down by television! Good as Mitchum was, his "leading" role is actually kind of minor - nowhere near the exposure Widmark received in the vastly more entertaining Suspense episode.

Tomorrow: "But before I got into bed I-I locked the door - just in case."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Kaleidoscope"

With 10 days of October remaining, I'm now counting down my top ten favourite episodes of Suspense! Let's visit #10!

Ray Bradbury was still a young author when he began writing for Suspense; the series not only adapted several of his popular stories for radio, but some of his stories appeared on Suspense before turning up in print (ie "Riabouchinska" & "The Screaming Woman")! Although Bradbury was adept at penning mysteries and thrillers, he's best remembered as a science fiction author. My tenth-favourite episode of Suspense is the July 12, 1955 adaptation of Bradbury's "Kaleidoscope," the story of a smashed-up rocket and its crew who are now drifting in space with almost no hope for survival. William Conrad is the show's featured player. You may download the episode from here.

Although Bradbury had a pretty good relationship with the producers of Suspense (especially with William Spier), "Kaleidoscope" was first heard on the radio on September 15, 1951 as an episode of Dimension X. If you like, you can hear their adaptation from here.

Tomorrow: "You're not hunting that cat anymore. That cat's hunting you."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Death of Me"

It's easy to forget about the many working parts which come together and make a radio program work, especially the light, subtle touches. The musicians of Suspense - usually led by conductor Lud Gluskin - certainly earned their kudos over many seasons. Veering from whimsical sounds to heighten comedic moments to the quiet atmospheric music which cues audiences to pay more attention to every sound, up to the intense, fast-paced music to compliment stories where the characters are in imminent peril. Suspense had some of the best music in the industry.

Today's featured episode is "The Death of Me," a personal favourite of mine which first aired May 26, 1952. It concerns George Murphy as a man trying to overcome his PTSD by becoming a lumberjack. Unfortunately, this lumber camp includes someone determined to carve up a little homicide! You may download the episode from here.

Tomorrow: "I wanted to make something of my life. To be liked, to do good for people, make them happy. Now it's all gone."

Monday, October 20, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Hitch-Hike Poker"

I've written before on the subject of how danger would be found along the highways of Suspense; today's feature hits upon hitchhiking and an unusual way to pass one's time.

"Hitch-Hike Poker" originally aired September 16, 1948 with Gregory Peck as the leading man. Peck plays a war veteran out hitchhiking; a motorist who picks him up introduces him to a way to play games of poker by using the license plates of passing cars. It's innocent enough until the motorist tries to murder his passenger! You may download the episode from here.

What makes "Hitch-Hike Poker" stick in my memory is the titular game itself; I come from a family which would spend a lot of time on the highways and my siblings and I would have to either concoct our own amusements or stare vacantly out of the windows. We did play games with license plates, although being the upright kids we were, we never thought to turn it into a game of poker. Lucky thing too, or it would have been an easy step for me to start gambling matchsticks. What then, bottlecaps?

Suspense repeated this script on January 25, 1959 as "Four of a Kind" with Elliott Reid in Peck's role. Although this other version truncates the story a little, it's also very good - in fact, I like some of Reid's line readings much more than Peck's. You can try it out from here.

Tomorrow: "There was something about him, like I was watching myself. Then I realized there was something - someone in the darkness behind him!"

Sunday, October 19, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "On a Country Road"

Today I'm returning to an episode of Suspense featuring Cary Grant as the star. Grant appeared a few times on Suspense - only only in the previously-featured "The Black Curtain," but also in "The Black Path of Fear" and today's entry, the November 16, 1950 program "On a Country Road," which you can download from here.

Grant is remembered as being the most suave of all classic Hollywood actors and an interesting range of his performances are still renowned today - everything from His Girl Friday to Charade. Grant never busted out his comedic talents for Suspense, but these dramatic roles do bring back memories his appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion & Notorious. Here, Grant played the latest of Suspense's unlucky motorists as he drives himself and his wife down a deserted road, then runs out of gas. However, this isn't the start of a make-out session - not with a crazed mental patient on the loose!

Like many popular episodes, "On a Country Road" would be repeated, ultimately rebroadcasted on December 4, 1954 & May 10, 1959.

Tomorrow: "King? I had to laugh. Beldon was the king, I was just the joker."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Short Order"

I enjoy old-time radio horror shows such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries and the Mysterious Traveler, but I think I've always sensed they were not made of the same caliber as Suspense. For one thing, those programs were too eager to pile on atmosphere and deliver "shocking" developments every 5 minutes. By comparison, Suspense would occasionally take a slow-burn approach to tension and demonstrated how to get it done without relying on flying bullets or falling corpses.

Such a program is "Short Order" from August 16, 1945. It features Joseph Kearns as the owner of a diner who must contend with a disfigured customer whose presence is depressing his business. This is all that's required for the bulk of the program - the tension between the owner and the customer as the former tries to save his business from ruin. Then, just as the twist ending seems to have been revealed... it explodes into a terrifying climax. You may download it from here.

Joseph Kearns' voice was frequently heard on Suspense in supporting roles, narrative roles or to shill products for the sponsors. In my opinion, he gave his finest performance in this outing. In all, he was a talented radio performer in both drama & comedy.

Tomorrow: "Such a desolate place to run out of gas..."

Friday, October 17, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "To Find Help"

The "home invasion" plot which has become so popular with today's audiences is nothing new - you can find plenty of thrillers rooted in the same fears expressed in those films.

On January 6, 1949, Suspense played the episode "To Find Help," with Ethel Barrymore as an old woman who hires the seemingly-nice young Gene Kelly to do some chores for her. Unfortunately, Kelly ain't quite right in the head. You may download the episode from here.

When the episode was first performed on Suspense on January 18, 1945, Agnes Moorehead played the woman with Frank Sinatra as the young man. I think Sinatra's performance was stronger than Kelly, but I much prefer Barrymore's to Moorehead's. Still, it's worth hearing both versions so you can find the original at here.

Another aspect of Suspense which changes between the two performances is their commercial sponsorship; the first version occurred during the days of Roma Wines, while the second debuted in the days of Auto-Lite. I have to say, I much prefer the rich, warm, velvety Roma Wines commercials - they never clash against the tone of Suspense, while all too-often Harlow Wilcox's noisy Auto-Lite ads dissipate the tension of the surrounding program. Still, Auto-Lite commercials remain much more palatable than Lucky Strikes'.

Tomorrow: "Nothing like ketchup, I always say."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Drive-In"

Suspense excelled at placing its central characters into tense, desperate situations which either demanded great ingenuity on the protagonist's part for them to escape, or led to the protagonist's downfall. Sometimes the protagonists had committed crimes, then had to protect themselves from the law, other criminals or both. Other times the protagonists were upstanding people who maneuvered themselves into harsh situations; perhaps they worked too late at the office ("Very Much Like a Nightmare"), turned down a road they shouldn't have ("On a Country Road") or merely walked into a dark subway tunnel ("Subway Stop"). Today's protagonist accepts a ride from a stranger; terror ensues.

This version of "Drive-In" premiered November 21, 1946 on Suspense with Judy Garland in the lead role. Garland portrays a waitress at a drive-in who has to work a little too late and misses her bus home; a friendly customer offers her a lift and from there she's placed into a dilemma which can only be solved by her own cunning. You may download the episode from here.

The original broadcast of "Drive-In" was heard on January 11, 1945 with Nancy Kelly in the lead role. No offense to Ms. Kelly, but I prefer Garland's performance - especially with Garland acting opposite Elliott Lewis as the maniac. Still, if you wish to compare the two versions you can find the original broadcast at here.

Tomorrow: "If you must know, I'll tell you: they said there was something wrong with my mind."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Chickenfeed"

In the world of Suspense there's nothing more dangerous than the open highway. If you're out hitchhiking, then you can't trust whoever picks you up; if you're a motorist, you're in jeopardy from sinister hitchhikers or escaped mental patients. Your car might strand you in a precarious position - you might get run off the road. And sometimes you might pull into a town where anything which could go wrong, does go wrong.

"Chickenfeed" aired September 8, 1949 with star Ray Milland. Milland plays a motorist who drives into a small town after an argument with his wife. For want of a nickel, he soon finds himself in trouble with the law, then incarcerated with a couple of jerks, then placed in mortal danger! You may download the episode from here!

I think this episode teaches one a valuable lesson about money; guard your nickels, boys! It might save you from prison - and it might save your life!

Tomorrow: "I wasn't used to doing this kind of thing. The other girls sometimes let a customer drive them home, but I never did."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "John Barbie and Son"

I enjoy mystery-thriller stories which have a great surprise ending - but at the same time (as I've droned on about before), I like stories which play fair with the audience.

On February 22, 1945, Thomas Mitchell starred in the Suspense episode "John Barbie and Son." Mitchell portrays a devoted father, determined to protect his son, a child whose developmental needs have forced them to go on the run from the authorities. You may download the episode from here.

The clues to the central mystery of "John Barbie and Son" are laid out for anyone with the attention span to notice them; the sharp WHAM! ending of this episode will not surprise you if you've been pitting your wits against the creators - but it's not required of you to match wits with the creators! As I've complained before, Suspense's first auteur John Dickson Carr seemed so obsessed with upsetting his listeners' expectations that his episodes are almost unbearable - they're certainly not entertaining. Suspense is entertainment. Settle back and enjoy it.

Tomorrow: "The face I said I wouldn't want to run into - close."

Monday, October 13, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "A Little Piece of Rope"

The content of Suspense was a mixture of scripts adopted from other programs (such as "Four Hours to Kill"), scripts adapted from motion pictures (such as "Odd Man Out"), scripts adapted from classic literature (such as "The Moonstone"), scripts adapted from the popular literature of the day (such as "Donovan's Brain"), scripts drawn from real events (such as "The Truth About Jerry Baxter") and this, an original script.

I've already spoken of Cornell Woolrich when presenting his episode "The Black Curtain;" as I noted, Woolrich had a gift for stories where the protagonist is unable to trust others because of the nature of their dilemma. Author Virginia Cross had something similar in mind with her script "A Little Piece of Rope," which aired October 14, 1948 with star Lucille Ball. You may download the episode from here.

In this episode, Ball portrays a young woman whose slight stature results in her constantly being mistaken for a teenager. In need of money, her solution is to employ her natural gifts: pose as a schoolgirl, lure wealthy men into offering her a ride, then slug them over the head and rob them! This scheme succeeds for a long time until she chooses as her victim a man who happens to be a serial killer!

I'm not a terrific fan of Lucille Ball but she did tremendous work in her six Suspense appearances. Her sly, streetwise voice suits this particular character and the conflict - serial robber versus serial killer - is kind of ingenious. As in Woolrich's stories, we have a protagonist who can't involve anyone else in their trials - because in this instance, she's as much a criminal as the person she's battling!

Tomorrow: "If it hadn't been for that kitten--"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Butcher's Wife"

You may chalk this up to Halloween-themed joshing but... there was a time when Kirk Douglas was young.

I know, you probably find it hard to believe even Michael Douglas was once young, yet I swear, it's true.

In the February 9, 1950 episode of Suspense - "The Butcher's Wife" - Douglas played a young supermarket clerk who fools around with another man's wife. The butcher's wife, as the title indicates. This proves fatal for more than one person! You may download the episode from here.

The highlight of the episode comes in the carefully constructed climax, the explosion of the slow-burn relationship dynamics. Douglas is ultimately caught in the supermarket after hours with the knife-wielding butcher pursuing him. This is radio at it's best - the simple sound effects do an excellent job of cranking up the terror so that when the grisly moments arrive it all seems inevitable. Perhaps we're all a little wiser about fooling around with butcher's wives now.

The script reappeared as "Never Steal a Butcher's Wife" on August 19, 1954 & December 29, 1957, but I prefer the Douglas performance.

Tomorrow: "Remember, I pick them old enough to have families, dignified jobs. Would they want to admit to chasing bobbysoxers?"

Saturday, October 11, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Lunch Kit"

There are many episodes of Suspense where the lead character is backed into a tense, stressful situation by knowledge only they possess. It could be the name of the killer - it could be that they themselves are the killer in question. In today's instance, the tension is derived from an impending act of violence - yet, strangely, the person responsible is rather sympathetic.

John Lund is the sympathetic leading man of "Lunch Kit," broadcast on June 9, 1949. Lund's character is the son of a radical anti-atomic energy extremist. To pacify his father, he must carry a bomb into the plant where he works - concealed within his lunch kit. All that remains is for him to trifle his way through an ordinary day of work, then the bomb will take care of itself. However, knowing what he's agreed to do and how soon the bomb will detonate, his nerves fall apart. You can download the episode from here.

"Lunch Kit" is one of the few episodes which originated on another radio series (a series other than Escape, I should add). As "Death Carries a Lunch Kit," it was first heard as an episode of the Whistler on October 23, 1944. I prefer the Suspense version but if you'd like to compare flavours, you can find it at here.

Tomorrow: "I saw the knife. He'd fallen on it! It stuck out of the middle of his chest!"

Friday, October 10, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Waxwork"

The stable of professional radio performers who turned up again and again in the 1940s & 50s were a tremendous asset to Suspense, a large part of how the series endured twenty years so gracefully. Not every performer was fantastic - personally, I can't bear to listen to Larry Thor's monotone for very long - but the majority of them brought colour and personality to their parts.

William Conrad was definitely one of the best; of course, he also had a film career and a bona fide leading role as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, but in his many parts on Suspense (sometimes as cops, other times as robbers), he could bring savage, thundering tones to villains or invest police officials with wearied, laconic voices.

Conrad's tour de force on Suspense had to be the May 1, 1956 broadcast of "The Waxwork," wherein Conrad provides all of the voices heard! It's an appropriate choice, as the story is that of a reporter who shuts himself inside a wax museum by night to inspire his writing efforts. Unfortunately, in the quiet museum full of lifelike characters, one's imagination can run wild. You can download the episode from here.

"The Waxwork" had earlier been produced as a Suspense episode on March 20, 1947 with Claude Rains starring, but unfortunately the episode appears to have been lost to the ravages of time. Suspense adapted it a third time on March 1, 1959 with Herbert Marshall in the role and the story (by A.M. Burrage) was also adapted to television's Alfred Hitchcock Presents that same year. However, the television version by its very nature couldn't serve as a one-man show and while I like the episode quite a bit, I think Conrad's Suspense version is the superior product.

Tomorrow: "The unlit cigarette turned to garbage in my mouth. I spit it out and stamped it to pieces on the cement floor."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Pasteboard Box"

Now and then when discussing the horror genre people will discuss the impact of what is left unseen - in films such as Cat People (1942) where the audience does not see the terrifying creature around which all the tension is generated, or the short story "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James where something the protagonist cannot perceive is haunting him to his doom. In other words, the audience is left to employ their imagination to fill in the gaps and this can often be far more terrifying than anything the creators deliberately set in front of them.

On January 17, 1946, Joseph Cotten starred in the Suspense episode "the Pasteboard Box," in which he portrays a man who kills his twin brother and assumes his place. You can download the episode from here.

The episode derives its title from the box which Cotten places his brother's decapitated head inside. In fact, he completely eviscerates his brother's corpse in order to dispose of it. Pretty ghastly stuff for a prestige CBS radio drama, no? And yet, the details of the dismemberment are left to the audience's imaginations. Their sick, twisted, macabre imaginations.

Tomorrow: "Th-they're like naughty children in a classroom! Whispering, fidgeting and laughing behind their teacher's back but blandly innocent when his gaze is turned upon them..."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Death Has a Shadow"

As I mentioned earlier, Suspense offered performers who were well-known in certain types of roles - that is, typecast - opportunities to experiment with heavier, more challenging material. Take for instance, Bob Hope.

Bob Hope starred in the May 5, 1949 episode of Suspense, "Death Has a Shadow," in which he portrays a lawyer trapped in his office after hours, waiting for a killer to arrive. You can download the episode from here.

If you examine Hope's film and television career you'll find an awful lot of froth; after all, he was a comedian. He was at home making people laugh (I mention this because it may seem unbelievable to modern audiences). Although some of Hope's films delved into mysteries - such as the Cat and the Canary (1939) or Ghost Breakers (1940), it was primarily to parody the genre. However, there is no parody to be found in "Death Has a Shadow," none of his usual asides to the audience - Hope take the material and plays it straight. He's actually quite good here! His character winds up being a completely terrible louse, which is also a departure for him.

Tomorrow: "I got the body over my shoulder then carried it upstairs and put it in the bathtub. I locked the bathroom door from the inside. Then I got to work."

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Black Curtain"

Suspense's stories were an interesting mixture of original scripts and adaptations; some of the adapted material came from time-tested classic material, but many of the adapted works originated with contemporary authors. One of the most prolific contemporary authors featured on Suspense - especially in in the program's early years - was Cornell Woolrich, whose stories can be heard in 28 broadcasts!

Woolrich's story "the Black Curtain" first appeared on December 2, 1943 and was popular enough to repeat twice: November 2, 1944 & January 3, 1948. The first two versions featured Cary Grant and you may download the original version from here.

"The Black Curtain" concerns a man who awakens from a concussion to find years have passed since his last memory; evidently in the intervening years he lived another life under another name - and for some reason, his other self is wanted by the police!

Woolrich's stories frequently delved into unreliable narrators - men who are (conveniently) unable to recall whether they are a murderer (as you can hear in Suspense episodes such as "the Singing Walls" and "Nightmare"). Although elements of paranoia run rampant in Woolrich's tales (such as another broadcast with Cary Grant, "the Black Path of Fear"), his memory-challenged protagonists definitely drew the shortest possible straw - they can't trust anyone, not even themselves.

Woolrich comes to the verge of cheating his audiences, which - as I've said before - is a problem I have with some radio shows, including a few episodes of Suspense. And yet, Woolrich keeps up such a frantic pace and places the listener so firmly in his protagonist's shoes that the ride is entertaining. It also helps that the lack of memory is a feature of his stories - not a surprise revelation in the climax, but a plot point resolutely entrenched from the outset.

Tomorrow: "You see Joe, I happen to be one of those lawyers who knows his law."

Monday, October 6, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Drury's Bones"

Now and then Suspense produced an episode which - taken as a whole - should not work. If the climax of the story is truly the most important part, then today's should not be given the time of day. And yet, there's something - or rather someone - who defeats all my common sense.

On the January 25, 1945 episode of Suspense, horror movie icon Boris Karloff starred in "Drury's Bones," the tale of an amnesiac man who becomes a Scotland Yard detective. While investigating the discovery of a skeleton on an abandoned property, he begins to finally dredge up his past - but every clue points to him as a killer! You may download the episode from here!

Karloff truly held a power to enliven any material - certainly he was the best part of most of the pictures he appeared in, pictures which were often little more than half-baked dreck (notwithstanding diamonds in the rough such as his pictures with Val Lewton or the later film Targets). Here, Karloff stars in a fantastic mystery story whose climax abruptly transforms the entire affair into little more than a farce. And yet! And yet, this episode works because of Karloff's ability to suggest impending catastrophe, to play his character with just enough ambiguity that his final fate is a mystery up until the end.

Tomorrow: "We must have known a love that I'll never know again."

Sunday, October 5, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Mission Completed"

Eight years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and more than four years following V-J Day, it's safe to say the USA still felt a pretty sharp pain at the memory of the legendary sneak attack which launched them into war; thus it was that the eight-year anniversary was marked on Suspense through a special episode.

Starring James Stewart, the December 1, 1949 episode "Mission Completed" features Stewart as a paralyzed veteran lying in a hospital. One day, he recognizes a flower dealer as the Japanese officer who tortured him during the war; all at once, his long-lost strength begins to boil to the surface... You may download the episode from here.

Because most of the episode was narrated by its protagonist, it needed a strong, captivating actor. Naturally, Stewart had the chops; in fact, his own time spent in uniform during the war gave him credentials for this role which would eluded a home-bound actor. In my mind, I imagine the paralyzed Stewart looks a lot like the similarly-paralyzed Stewart from his later role in Vertigo (hence the above image).

Tomorrow: "As to forgetting one's worries in absorbing work, I can't think of a better place in the world for a man to do that than Scotland Yard."

Saturday, October 4, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Return Trip"

In yesterday's entry of "31 Days of Suspense," I noted how contemporary programs often shied away from the supernatural. Another problem I would say mystery shows of the time had were "cheats." Stories where crucial information is withheld from the audience because it would collapse the entire narrative instantly if it were known. Thankfully, Suspense was a program which, more often than not, played fair.

Such a program is "Return Trip," first broadcast June 27, 1946 with star Elliott Reid. This tale concerns four people aboard a bus which has just left an asylum, but a raging snowstorm traps them in the wild; paranoia runs rampant as they wonder whether one of them might be an escaped mental patient. As I've intimated above, the clues are each provided fairly. Better still, each of the four passengers has a distinctive voice and personality so you're never at a loss to understand how the drama is unfolding (something Suspense struggled at in its first year but very quickly conquered). You can download "Return Trip" from here.

Tomorrow: "Oh, once in a while they dump me in a wheelchair and push me out into the sunshine, wheel me up and down the walk like I was a baby. Only babies can cry."

Friday, October 3, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "The Furnished Floor"

Horror and science fiction were two of the genres which first attracted me to the old-time radio medium. However, although there were a few shows dedicated to horror, they seldom committed to horror. To pick on Inner Sanctum Mysteries (to take a frequently-cited example), the supposed supernatural goings-on in that program are (invariably) a deception. In fact, even the non-supernatural episodes of that show tend to involve someone being tricked, whether it's believing in ghosts or thinking they're a murderer, Inner Sanctum was averse to "playing fair" with the audience.

This, then, is part of what sets the scripts on Suspense apart; on those rare occasions when they delved into the supernatural, they committed. Not only would otherworldly events transpire, they were almost always unidentified and unexplained.

Take today's episode for instance: "The Furnished Floor," written by Lucille Fletcher (best known as the author of "Sorry, Wrong Number") from September 13, 1945. Mildred Natwick portrays a busy-bodied housekeeper who welcomes a former tenant back to his rented flat. Mr. Jennings originally left after the death of his wife; now he's found another love and he wants everything the way it used to be. Everything.

It's a very slow burn, leading to a moment of... ambiguous horror. Let your imagination decide what happens in the climax - it's more effective that way. You may download the episode here.

Tomorrow: "Anyway... I outlived those three..."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Elwood"

One of Suspense's great strengths was to play against the expectations of their audience by casting familiar actors in roles they were decidedly unlikely to portray on the silver screen. Frequently they cast comedians in serious dramatic roles, but would also give dramatic actors an opportunity to loosen up (even satirize themselves). It's surely part of why Suspense was seen as a prestigious program among Hollywood's top actors and how they successfully attracted so many major talents during the show's Hollywood-based years.

Today's program is an example of how the show played against typecasting - "Elwood," starring Eddie Bracken, from March 6, 1947. You may download it here.

Eddie Bracken plays a young gas station attendant, frustrated by his aimless life and unfulfilled ambitions. There are murders being committed in his town and Elwood himself is quite close to the killer...

Eddie Bracken's nervous energy suited him well in the comedies he normally appeared in, but his Suspense performances are a revelation; I mean, look at his picture above - is that the face of a menacing figure? Is that chipmunk-like expression even the least bit unsettling? Yet on the radio, he's undeniably able to agitate the audience's nerves.

Tomorrow: "It's good to be home."

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Four Hours to Kill"

It's my custom to celebrate the month of October with a series of Halloween-themed posts on this blog. Although the old-time radio series Suspense delved into the supernatural occasionally, it would be a little off-base to call it a horror series - but as my favourite radio program in the genres of mystery/thriller/horror, I can't think of another program I'd rather spotlight! Thus, for 31 days I'll count backwards through my favourite 31 episodes of Suspense, culminating with my favourite episode on Halloween.

Suspense lasted from 1942-1962 and underwent huge chances over those two decades. I've stated before on the blog that I find the early programs by John Dickson Carr to be stuffy, poorly-paced and unevocative of radio's strengths. However, the program quickly fell under the control of writer-producer William Spier and he set the standard for the series which his successors would imitate.

Today's spotlight falls upon an episode from the able hands of William Spier: "Four Hours to Kill," which originally aired January 12, 1950 with star Robert Taylor. You may download the episode from here.

In this program, Taylor portrays a man who murders his brother, then realizes his brother's phone had been off the hook during the assault - a woman on the other end of the line overheard their scuffle. Now, Taylor must discover the woman's identity so he can trace her down and kill her!

Cleverly, the episode places the audience on the same side as the killer, following his desperate ploys to determine the woman's identity, despite the fact that, strictly speaking, he ought to be punished for his first murder rather than encouraged to commit a second one, right?

Suspense's crew of regular performers, musicians and technicians were a key part of the show's high quality, especially compared to other mystery-thriller shows of the time. This episode includes familiar voices such as Cathy Lewis, who seemed to portray every second woman on the show.

Never one to let a well-received script languish, Spier often reused Suspense scripts elsewhere; in this instance, he was actually reusing a script from the series Philip Morris Playhouse which he'd produced the year prior on May 13, 1949. You can compare broadcasts by listening to the Philip Morris version here. Notably, Cathy Lewis played in both versions.

Tomorrow: "I like nice things. Valuable things."