Saturday, March 26, 2016

Queen Watch:"The Adventure of the Lover's Leap"

In the postmodern analysis of literature and texts in general, there are a lot of ways to go down a rabbit hole, and all this "theory first, examples second" stuff can lead you to a land that's not very Wonder-ful at all. There are reasons why I only have a BA in English, and they don't all boil down to me being lazy. But the central fact of metafiction, that some stories also tell the story of a story being told, is fascinating, because it increases the potential angles of approach. The Ellery Queen concept has had metafictional facets since the 1920s, and this continues with the Ellery Queen TV series.

"The Adventure of the Lover's Leap" is a near-perfect case in point. It seems apt that the title flickers like a ghost when it appears on the screen. For different modes of storytelling start jostling each other right away.

The action begins with the victim of the week, Stephanie Kendrick, reading a mystery book. Three guesses who the author of the book is. And the title is none other than "The Lover's Leap." We hear Stephanie's voice in her head as she reads, and the sounds she herself hears are eerily similar to those described in the novel she reads.

As a side note, this is as much as we see of her. Ida Lupino primarily portrays her as being frightened and disoriented. Where the previous episode's victim took a visible pleasure in being as nasty as possible, we don't get that with Stephanie. Yet she's described as a shrew, and the eventually reveaed culprit is presented in a sympathetic light. Seemingly. As Stephanie's death is solved in the end, her life remains a mystery.

In the same house, the victim's nurse is seemingly oblivious, wrapped up as she is in the Abbott and Costello show on the radio. The duo's silly humor plays on the soundtrack, not at all lifting the weird dread around the scenes.

Next we have theater, of a sort. Inspector Richard Queen is watching a wrestling match across town, where the heel (marked as such by the red luchador mask) makes short work of the face (angelic curly wig.) The Inspector explains to his son that the fights are always scripted. Ellery seems doubtful, showing some alarm at the face being choked until his eyes pop. This makes our great detective look a little naive, although to be fair the scripted nature of pro wrestling wasn't as blatant in the forties.

Finally we return to radio, as the estimable Simon Brimmer puts paid to another murder case on his radio show. As is usually the case, Brimmer is aware to a fault of his show's shortcomings. So when he hears about the suicide of an heiress, he jumps at the chance to question whether it was in fact a suicide.

But maybe that's not the only reason he gravitates toward the case. Maybe he feels something in the air. Hint: if you're watching this story, you're watching this story. In the transitional period in which Ellery Queen takes place, certain things are seeing their last flowering. A radio medium that can broadcast luxuriant mysteries and comedies and drama, remaining the center of attention, is one of those endangered species.

Three forces lead the investigation on this case. Richard Queen, the most prosaic of the three - albeit richly detailed and somewhat courtly - sees what looks like a suicide and accepts that it is one... until evidence arises showing that it isn't. Brimmer has an inkling, and also a vested interest in exposing a real life murderer on his show. Ellery initially just goes to the crime scene because he's curious about the victim reading one of his books, but he quickly begins to entertain doubts on the suicide theory.

So, does Ellery really believe that wrestling is real? He might choose to believe it because it makes the world more fun. But like his absent mindedness, this wide-eyed aspect has advantages. For a detective, it helps to have your adversaries underestimate you. Lt. Columbo, another character from the same producers, has an easier time of it because most of his suspects have no idea who he is. Ellery Queen is a well-known mystery writer known for helping in his father's cases, so it would seem harder for him to get the element of surprise. And yet he still manages to catch people off guard. In one scene of this episode Simon Brimmer plays golf with the victim's psychiatrist, while Ellery caddies. Guess who winds up outclassing whom?


semiconscious said...

another great little review/analysis of an episode of this most worthy of t.v. series. seriously making me want to watch them again :) ...

on reflection, it's hard to imagine this series without the presence of ellery's pompous, conceited foil, simon brimmer, a truly inspired creation/addition if ever there was one. a little bit of wiki research reveals that john hillerman basically evolved brimmer into his next, & likely better known, reincarnation as jonathan higgins (magnum p.i.). magnum, of course, being played by tom selleck, who currently stars in the jesse stone t.v. movie series, which just happens to be filmed here in nova scotia. small world, eh?...

Ben said...

Thank you for the endorsement/attaboy. It felt like doing a series like this would be an interesting project, and I'm glad it's not just for me.

I'd love to know the process that went into creating Simon Brimmer. Hillerman had appeared in The Last Picture Show, Blazing Saddles, and Chinatown (an enviable roster) but this was the first TV show to allow him to roll out a character like that. Of course he would be better known for Magnum PI, which on reflection might turn out to be the last great mustache battle in the art of television. (Well, maybe Deadwood.)

Did not know that they shot the Jesse Stone movies in NS. Glad there are production people there spending money, though.