Saturday, June 11, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Black Falcon"

So. 1947. As you MAY know, America was just a couple of years past a big war, a war in which one of the main adversaries was Germany. This was the second war with Germany. The first had occurred from 1914-18, with the US only really getting involved in the last year. It was an intense war, though, and Germans in America/German-Americans being stigmatized stateside. This didn't really happen in the second war, though, due to a number of factors: German-Americans had assimilated more, our military leaders had names like "Eisenhower" and "Nimitz", the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor and their descendants not being white made them more of a target, etc.

All of this might sound like a digression, but Germany, the German people, and the war(s) lie at the heart of this episode.
Which does not - God, no! - mean that the mystery has anything to do with the Holocaust. No, that would be a difficult subject for this show to deal with. For one thing the Holocaust is an obvious downer. If the victim in a whodunit had been some kind of Nazi thug it would be hard to get an audience invested in the solving of his murder. (Tonight's victim, though innocuous-seeming on-screen, is bad enough.) Nor is making the culprit a Nazi much of an option. The murderers on Ellery Queen are sturdy citizens who crossed a line somewhere, not foreign assassins. That basically remains the case here.

The setting for this mystery is a popular fictional New York nightclub, one with no dance floor but entertainment and good booze. Basically it would be the Avis to the Stork Club's Hertz. It's a solid choice. Classic mysteries are tied up with wealth. In Britain the background was often tied to aristocracy and the old class system. In America it was more about the workings of capitalism. The ritzy nightclub setting allows the show to deal with money - the other key topic of the episode - and do so with an air of swankiness.

This club is celebrating an anniversary, and as such it's hosting a radio broadcast with special guest Simon Brimmer. Brimmer shows up in a ridiculous tux-and-opera-cloak outfit, ready to have his ass kissed. Inspector Richard Queen shows up with Ellery in tow, looking to keep Brimmer from yapping on an open case, as a previous broadcast of his sent a chief suspect packing. His reasoning is understandable but his quest is still questionable under the Constitution. But he needn't worry. Before Brimmer can get rolling, another murder arises, that of the nightclub's relatively silent partner Nick Kingston. '

Where most of the show's murder's take place off-screen, we see at least the initial action of this one in the episode's very first shot. That's the nice thing about poison, from a storytelling perspective: you can delay the effects until it's actually been consumed.

Brimmer is pretty buffoonish in this episode, but he does have some bright moments. For one thing he's able to flush out a cleaning woman* who claims to be Dutch and not a speaker of German. Played by Swedish actress Signe Hasso in a beautifully effective guest performance, she has connections to the victim running back before the First World War, leading to a deep betrayal. Whether the crime can be laid at her feet or not, she represents a past that can't be wished away.

Roddy McDowall is in this one as well. I used to be convinced that he and Malcolm McDowell must be related, since they have almost the same surname and similar pinched features, but apparently not. Anyway, Roddy has more of a comic relief role here, but it's a doozy and I wouldn't have objected if he had a spin-off. He plays a showman who pretends to be German and goes by "The Amazing Armitage." Yes, "Armitage" is an English name but that doesn't seem to enter into his thinking. There are, by the way, at least four characters in this story going under assumed names, and that's not counting the guy who was adopted. There's a lot to untangle here.

Doing much of the untangling, of course, is Ellery Queen. I've hardly mentioned him as yet, but he anchors the episode. There's a lot of aw-shucksness, of course,and in one scene Jim Hutton goes full Jimmy Stewart. But he also delivers the required intelligence and sensitivity, supporting his father while being his foil when that's what's needed.

* Easy, Rigby.


susan said...

Would you believe we've now caught up with you in episodes watched? We've been watching them two at a viewing so the earlier one was the 'Blunt Instrument' mystery. Jer guessed right away with that one that Dean Stockwell had to be the murderer because only that role would have convinced him to appear. It was neat seeing Eva Gabor as well as she and her two sisters (and their mother) were hugely popular just for being themselves back in the 50s. The story Eva told about having escaped from Hungary to Brazil and then on to the US was exactly what her older sister Magda had done. Magda, naturally enough, as a Gabor sister, married an American long enough to be naturalized. All three sisters were married at least five times, with Zsa Zsa topping out at a total of nine husbands. I loved this quote of hers: "I am a marvelous housekeeper: Every time I leave a man I keep his house." As they say, plus ça change..

Now about the 'Black Falcon'. You're certainly right that the two great wars were essential background elements in this one, but from the German side rather than the Japanese. Somehow it wouldn't have worked very well disclosing Tab Hunter as the grown up stolen infant of Japanese nationals. The trick with the shifted wine bottles was an excellent plot device and one we'd forgotten.

Simon Brimmer was very good in this episode from his outrageous entry wearing his opera clothes to that wonderful scene where he was sitting at the table doing his radio program all the while wondering what was going on after the murder victim had been found. It's really a very neat thing that Ellery bears no grudges and really does try to be Simon's friend despite the fact that the radio star continually attempts to get the upper hand. Every episode he appears in he's thwarted by the ever innocent Ellery who gently dismantles Simon's complex solutions to the crimes committed. His confrontations with the cleaning woman in this episode were classic (and the actress was wonderful).

Howard Duff as the betrayer of the good German family and the murderer of his friend and partner wasn't too obvious but came as no surprise either. It's interesting that his wife, Ida Lupino, was the victim in 'The Lover's Leap' (not much of a drop, that one). I think all the stars who appeared on the show enjoyed themselves a lot.

Yes, another good one. I'm glad we'll be able to keep pace from now on as you review the rest.

Ben said...

Welcome aboard! :) Now that you're caught up it shouldn't be hard to keep abreast. I can't really do more than one of these a week - and if I did it would be over too soon - and also there will be some Saturdays I'll do something else. Definitely expect to do another one tomorrow, though.

Jerry's instincts about Dean Stockwell were right. It's funny, his character in Blue Velvet seems so much creepier than this one, but did Ben ever kill anyone? Well yeah, probably, but we don't see it or find out about it. Now as to "X must be the killer or they wouldn't be in the show" that logic isn't always going to hold up. I'm thinking of one upcoming recap in particular, although I won't spoil it. That's a great story about Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a great joke from her. It hadn't really occurred to me that Eva's past in the EQ episode might be a reference to her real life past.

Yeah, Tab Hunter as a lost Japanese orphan wouldn't have quite made it. Actually between him and the pulp private eye writer in the last episode, there's a mini-pattern of at least one of the suspects being a surly dick. Tab's got a bit more excuse, I guess.

It's an interesting relationship that Ellery and Simon have. Simon would like to consider himself the best and smartest man in the business. And for all his bluster, it seems he can back it up much of the time. Ellery is humble yet confident, not necessarily wanting to show Simon up, but not willing to sit on the truth either. And then there's the Inspector, and the fact that Simon is often just a nuisance as far as the police are concerned.

I hadn't realized that Duff was Ida Lupino's husband at the time. There is a certain amount of "fearful symmetry" between his role and hers. I'm actually pretty sure that it was the dead partner who betrayed the German family, although both might have known about it. His performance during the confession scene is nicely nuanced. He seems a little remorseful, but he also comes off as a very practiced thug.