Saturday, March 19, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne"

While Too Many Suspects had been the pilot movie for the new Ellery Queen series, aired in the spring, "The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne" was the first episode of the show as a regular production. It aired at the start of the 1975-76 TV season, in mid-September. (September 11, back when it was just another date.) And it takes place on New Year's Eve.

This is an odd choice, one of a few the episode makes, some of which work better than others. Television programs, at least American series with their longer seasons, do their best to sync holiday episodes with the actual calendar. Characters give out Halloween candy in late October, sit down for Turkey in November, do romantic shit in mid-February, and so on. Since reruns and holiday specials take up the last few and first few days of the year, a New Year's "episode" is likely to be the last three minutes of a Christmas episode, airing a week or more before Christmas. But as one of the suspects in this episode says, "Out with the old, in with the new." If Ellery Queen was a retro whodunit set in the immediate post-WW2 years, it was still a new venture, and the writers may have liked the optimism of the countdown to a new year. (1947, for the record.)

The New Year's setting makes for an unusual structure for the mystery as well. The victim, who we'll get to in a bit, is killed at a bash in the Astor Hotel late into the night. Inspector Richard Queen, Sgt. Velie, and Velie's wife are at the party. (The fact that Mrs. Velie is on the larger side is played for laughs, but it's also made clear the veteran couple are still crazy about each other.) Ellery, on the other hand, has spaced on the whole thing and is on the way to that other tradition: staying in and sleeping through the ball drop. It's only when Velie goes to the Queen apartment and shakes him awake that he even tries to get involved in the case. Since he's mailed his car keys - don't ask - he needs to rouse a cab and get through clogged New Year's Eve traffic, while making stops at a florist and the flat of a girl he stood up, who sounds like she skipped the champagne and went straight to bourbon, and whom we'll never see after this episode.

 So what we have here is a story that sidelines the title character for most of the running time. During that time Inspector Queen and his men interrogate suspects and keep all the guests from leaving, while also dealing with the political fallout from keeping a lot of the city's bigwigs around when they don't want to be. There actually is at least one precedent for this in the book series. In 1968's House of Brass the widower Richard Queen gets remarried and goes on honeymoon upstate, where his and his new bride's host manages to get murdered right quick. Ellery is only physically present in the first and last chapter, the latter of which sees him solving the crime. Which, of course, he does here as well.

 Of the victim, Lewis Halliday, I'll say that he might not be the worst victim we encounter in this feature, but I'll be very surprised if I see one more unpleasant. He's a fairly standard figure, a rich man who announces his intention to change his will and disinherit everyone, thus sealing his fate. In fairness, most of the relatives and employees he gathers here do come off as pretty slimy. A couple don't, though. It doesn't matter, he abuses everyone, and in a harsh voice that makes him sound like an overheating Dalek. If there's a remote chance he won't be murdered before the end of the night he seems determined to stamp it out.

 As indicated above, Ellery Queen comes up with a solution minutes after arriving on the scene. It's a rather ingenious one, and shows a lot of style in the execution. It might have also pissed off some of the audience, since coming to the right conclusion requires knowing about New York telephone exchanges in the 1940s. By 1975 I suspect a lot of the needed expertise was in Miami Beach retirement communities.

There's some good characterization in this episode among minor characters, too small to be considered suspects. The cabbie (Herb Edelman) who Ellery bribes into taking him to the hotel is a likable presence. And the man (George Wyner) whom Halliday not-quite-accidentally calls with his last breath adds a nice human element to the story.


susan said...

Your review of this one provides an equal to the delight we found in watching the episodes ourselves. Since we saw them first as these dvds it never occurred to me that "The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne" was first aired in September, although, as you noted, of course it would have been. That tv shows followed the actual holidays makes a certain amount of sense but for the fact that when they're rerun the timing is often seriously out of joint. Your point that the writers liked the idea of a new Ellery Queen series beginning with a new year celebration sounds very reasonable.

Another writer described Ellery's being sidelined in this episode as follows:

Unfortunately, by relying so much on the dying clue, the writers had themselves stuck. It's inconceivable that Ellery should show up and not immediately deduce what the seemingly-random call means; therefore, the writers are forced to go out of their way to keep Ellery out of the case--first by making him oversleep and miss the actual party, and then by pulling (literally, from nowhere) a date with whom he must reconcile before he can proceed to the scene of the crime. It's a transparent play for time, but what else could they do? Well, they could have come up with more interesting characters to be suspects, but given what they're working with, I guess we can hardly blame them. To his credit, Jim Hutton plays the scenes brilliantly, making them seem almost--almost--like they belong in the episode.

Overall, your take is far more entertaining. He mentioned the telephone exchanges too but what gave me a big smile was when you said: By 1975 I suspect a lot of the needed expertise was in Miami Beach retirement communities. Too true.

We had an interesting encounter with another older (91-92) BBC tv series about George Simenon's Maigret starring Michael Gambon who we really admired in 'The Singing Detective'. (I hope you get to see that some time). Anyway, the Maigret series is a British production about a French policeman in Paris (fair enough). Since they chose to play it as thoroughly British it felt very uncomfortable. Just imagine a French chief inspector using phrases like 'bloody good show' and 'by jove' to get an idea. Worst of all, though, was the tedium of watching (the very watchable Gambon) basically acting like a neighborhood nosy parker then suddenly coming up with the solution to a crime from out of thin air.

In one episode when Maigret finally got around to accusing a female character of murder, she paused for several interminable seconds, put the back of her hand to her forehead and admitted that she did it. We decided to not watch any more of them.

Thanks again for the entertainment of reliving our delight in Ellery Queen.

Ben said...

The Internet Movie Database gave me the exact date of first broadcast. It struck me as unusual anyway. I'm curious to know how many people took note of the weirdness back in '75. My interpretation is off the cuff, but it feels right.

Yeah, I had read Nathanael Booth's series on the show, and that ultimately led me to thinking about doing the same thing. He had the Blogger blog, then moved to Wordpress, but eventually the Wordpress blog got wiped. Seems to be one of the "lost to Twitter" bloggers, which is too bad. But the old Blogspot site is still up, as I recently found out. Which is good. He's got interesting things to say about crime fiction and film in general.

I've only seen one episode of the Gambon Maigret series. It had to do with an abortionist. I don't quite recall if the abortions themselves were a crime - it's not in France now, but I think it was at some point - or if it were simply a matter of the patients being hurt or killed. A cross-cultural translation like that probably can work, but as you imply, it's tricky.

That does sound like a lame confession scene, although I'm cracking up imagining it.

Glad you're enjoying it. These are fun to do.