Sunday, March 13, 2016

Queen Watch: "Too Many Suspects"

Too Many Suspects, the pilot movie for the 1975-6 Ellery Queen TV series, is based on the 1965 novel The Fourth Side of the Triangle. If it were a straightforward adaptation we could simply note so in passing and move on. But it isn't and we can't, at least not without missing some good stuff. 1958's The Finishing Stroke marked the end of the road, of sorts, for Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee as authors of the Queen series. Lee, always a frustrated literary author, was reluctant to write further adventures of the fictional author/detective.

The two cousins did work on the series for about another dozen years, but with the help of ghostwriters. Dannay would work out the bones of the plot and a third party would elaborate it into a full novel, while Lee would come in and polish so that the end result fit their house style, as such. The ghostwriters they turned to in these last years were Avram Davidson, Theodore Sturgeon, and Jack Vance. All science fiction/fantasy writers, although the fact that they were all prolific wordsmiths working in New York might have been more relevant.

The Fourth Side of the Triangle, which I've most often seen attributed to Dannay, Lee, and Sturgeon, is from about the middle of this period and is a novel of its time. In it a young author named Dane McKell, one of a few characters in the Queen canon who appears as a shadow of Ellery himself, learns that his father has been conducting a relationship with a fashion designer named Sheila Grey. Disgusted at both of them and outraged on behalf of his mother, Dane contrives to worm his own way into Sheila's affections so that he can make a show of dumping her.

But his own heart betrays Dane in this venture. Sheila Grey isn't the woman he thought she was, and he winds up falling in love with her for real. Yet when she won't accept his proposal of marriage, he can't accept her reasons and loses his temper. She throws him out and he leaves her, bruised but alive. Then she's murdered, and things look bad for the whole McKell family.

The story is high Freudian, and also a study of old money in the American postwar scene. The three collaborators produce a well-written book, one that could probably hold reader interest for more than its brief length. Yet it has a glaring flaw as a whodunit. Stepping around spoilers here, but the culprit turns out to be someone who's been the POV character for much of the novel. Now, never having murdered anyone - no, really! - I can only imagine that if I had, it would take up a lot of my thoughts afterward. Yet we spend time in this character's head and find nothing of that nature until the end.

Other aspects of the novel present problems in terms of making a TV pilot to hook new viewers. Ellery Queen himself only enters the picture relatively late, and when he does he's an armchair detective thanks to a skiing injury. That's not really the character that writer producers Levinson and Link were selling, and probably not one that their audience wanted to buy.

Sturgeon and Lee make the McKells sympathetic characters, as sheltered and borderline crazy as they may be. This is an accomplishment. Sheila Grey, the victim, may be even more so. But when you learn that a character you've come to like has taken the life of another, and they have to confess this in front of their loved ones, it's kind of a downer. Start a fledgling TV show with this reveal and your audience might not come back.

Finally, the Queen books take place in a floating timeline. That means that the calendar changes, fashions and technologies advance, but the characters don't age unless it serves the author's purposes. A lot of detective series work like this, as do James Bond and the vast majority of comic book superheroes. So The Fourth Side of the Trianglewasn't just published in 1965, it's a novel of 1965. The problem might not be obvious, but another pilot a few years before, Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You had updated an old novel to the present, with Peter Lawford playing Ellery as a kind of post-mod swining' bachelor. It didn't quite work, and this time producers opted to go with a full genre throwback.

The TV movie, unlike the book, starts with the murder. What we know of the victim will be learned only posthumously. She comes off in flashback scenes as rather cold. Someone you can stand to lose, at least in the context of a murder mystery. Likewise the family who provide the bulk of the suspects - and there are fewer of those than the title would imply - are more priggish and less nuanced. They're not monsters, and Ellery still seems to sympathize with them, but if one of them or their retinue turn out to be a killer, it's not going to be a nasty shock. Entitlement, and all.

As to the setting, the time of the tale is 1947. That, of course, allows the production team to trot out Studebakers, fedoras, and the rest of the period film pageantry. It's also a historical parallel with 1975, postwar and kind of recessionary. (One reason why Truman wasn't favored to win full election in 1948,) And it's a sort of liminal time. After World War 2, but before the Cold War had really taken shape. Teenagers forming a culture but without any rock 'n' roll to bug out to.

And a transitional time between radio, soon to lose its hold as more than a purveyor of pop music and instant news reports, and television. The victim owns a TV set, and in the first scene she unplugs it during a weather report. From a somewhat shabby look at TV's origins, we cut to radio in all its glory. Simon Brimmer is recording his show, a full production mystery of the kind that will be decimated in a few short years. Brimmer is a proud, even arrogant man, but he's all too aware of his show's shortcomings. And after recording his part he wakes a napping Ellery. (Ballsy in itself. No one in Looking Glass Land ever dared wake the Red King.) Trying to purchase Ellery's case files for his own show, he recognizes on some level that Ellery Queen is the real thing, the detective he can only aspire to be.

And as the title character, Jim Hutton is a revelation here.Certainly he bases his performance in a boy next door quality, a good fit for him as an actor and kind of a default for tall actors with handsome faces. And yes, the absent minded professor aspect comes to the fore a lot, as when he tries cooking breakfast for his father and himself and winds up burning two eggs while lost in a book.But these are just the starting point of the character, and Hutton runs the gamut. He's fiery and angry when he and his father get into it over the way each is dealing with the case. He's quietly sensitive when ferreting out a secretary's love for the McKell son (granted a new given name, like most characters carried over from the book.) And he's eerily engaged when picking up and piecing together clues. You get the feeling that Ellery just loves observing the world, and murder gives him a somewhat macabre opportunity.

Too Many Suspects juggles several modes and media of storytelling. It refers to literature in the books Ellery buries his nose in and the one he promises himself he'll get back to writing. It both glorifies and satirizes old time radio drama. Television turns out to be a vital clue. And it borrows tricks from the movies, with classic shooting angles and edits that make it look like an early Technicolor film. By contrast, a chase scene involving a red herring could fit in one of today's blockbusters with a little digital polish added. So the nascent series gives itself a good menu of techniques to use.


susan said...

This is such a wealth of information and insight into the show overall and the pilot episode in particular it's hard for me to make any additional remarks that might be relevant. It's been a while since we've seen them, after all.

The NY times reviewer said of 'Too Many Suspects' :
Since Ellery's got the case all worked out and the killer is no surprise to anyone who's watched TV murder mysteries in the last 25 years (the actor in question has said "I did it!" so often that it's a wonder he can walk the streets without being apprehended).

and also:
After the subsequent Queen TV series expired after a single season, Levinson and Link revived the notion of a murder-solving novelist and changed the gender of the protagonist--and the result was Murder She Wrote. (My mother's favorite show for years)

While I don't think what they do is always interesting (or relevant) you might enjoy checking out what TVTropes had to say about the series. For example, next to their heading 'It Will Never Catch On' they say:

In the pilot episode, Inspector Queen grumpily refers to the television set in the victim's apartment and mentions a friend of his who is constantly pestered by guests who want to visit him and watch his new set. Ellery reassures him that TV is a novelty that will never last (which is additionally funny when it happens in a television production).

Jim Hutton really was the perfect Ellery for just the reasons you mentioned. It seems he really was a charming and engaging person in real life, a temperament that brought a sense of honesty to his portrayal.

You were right, by the way, about his health at the time having nothing to do with the show being cancelled. Liver cancer is a very fast moving disease that generally takes less than six months to be fatal. Rather, it was probably a combination of a bad time slot and expense that led it to being cancelled after one delightful season.

Ben said...

That's a funny quote from the New York Times. Interesting thing is that the actor, while he's getting up in years, is still active. From what I can tell from imdb (and from seeing him on Fringe a few years back) he's still mostly in the bad guy business. Must have one of those faces?

Angela Lansbury started Murder She Wrote around the same time she was in In the Company of Wolves, from what I remember. She's a delightful, clever actress so she was very good at selling the series. Not quite the same thing, of course. The hokiness stands out more without the period trappings.

Yeah, that line about TV was kind of funny. Ellery may be a genius, but he apparently can't see the future. Wound up not mentioning it because I couldn't find a place for it, but I did think of that trope.

Jim Hutton was a very charming actor, and I'd guess he was a likable man as well. It's too bad he didn't live long enough to see his son Timothy mature as an actor. Liver cancer is what killed Bowie as well, although I'm pretty sure he lasted longer than six months.

The wrong time slot can hurt as well. Sometimes it's just a bad guess. Other times it seems deliberate on the part of the networks.