Saturday, June 18, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Sunday Punch"

The world recently lost Muhammad Ali, a man much of the country feared when he was at the height of his powers and on his way to prison for refusal of the draft. This may have been the knockdown of his lifetime, but he rose again, and it's often forgotten that he wasn't universally beloved back then. He was, however, undeniably significant. A picture I've only seen once or twice, but which has stayed with me, shows my grandmother's younger brother, who did some sports reporting in England, speaking agog to the champ.

While survivors from this episode's time period - 1947 - undoubtedly think we've gotten softer since then, and are in many senses right, boxing and related bloodsports have remained big. And it's been a favorite background in crime fiction and film as well, often in the context of fixing. Marvel's noir superhero Daredevil - he of the unloved Ben Affleck movie and subsequent Netflix series - was created a half century ago with part of the premise being that Matt Murdock's father had been murdered for refusing to throw a fight. Thirty years after his debut came Pulp Fiction, the middle section of which was a classic boxer on the run story with some weird twists. A few years back there was a short-lived cable show (which I haven't seen) called Lights Out, about a punch drunk pug working as a hit man.

Whether in print or on film/video, pugilism as a subject gravitates more toward the tough guy side of the mystery genre: hard boiled detectives, grim police procedurals, gangster sagas. So it's interesting to put Ellery Queen in the middle of a boxing story. Ellery Queen was created in the 20's as an arrogant know it all dandy, in part a parody of SS Van Dine's Philo Vance. (It's likely that the Queen surname was a joke on Vance's perceived gayness.) In later books he became a somewhat more modest urbane intellectual. As portrayed by Jim Hutton he's an absentminded boy-next-door, but the intellectualism isn't far below the surface. So he's not the kind of detective you expect to see in this story.

What is this story? Kid Hogan (real life boxer Jerry Quarry) is sparring in the gym in front of the press and - yes, Virginia - at least one mobster. To the surprise of almost everyone he really gets into it with his sparring partner. The sparring partner hits him back a few times and he falls over, soon to be declared dead. The sparring partner bolts. It should be noted that while the hard-driving reporter character can be annoying, he goads the initial fight so his presence is justified from a plot viewpoint.

It can also be noted that the sparring partner, Joe Adams (Simpson) is a black man. He's played by Otis Young, probably best known as the MP in The Last Detail who wasn't Jack Nicholson. Now it would probably be a little misleading to say that this episode "tackles the subject of race" and might also make it sound kind of excruciating. But it is different in that there's a suspect, a prime suspect who's almost certainly innocent but for whom things look bad a couple of times, who comes from a distinct community. Another mystery technically had an African-American suspect, but as he had no motive and was the victim's paid security he couldn't be taken seriously as one. Now this show isn't going to be a stinging exposé of post-WW2 police racism - again, the good guys have to remain good - but it does make you sympathize with why an innocent man might go on the run because he doesn't think he'll be treated fairly.

This mystery takes an interesting, roundabout way to becoming one of Ellery's cases. When Kid Hogan first dies, Inspector Queen takes the call from the police station. He invites his son to go along, but Ellery's head is so lost in authorial clouds that he doesn't even process the news. It's only later that he gets involved. He does so because Joe Adams goes running to his girlfriend, whose friend Ellery helped before. So this time it's not just curiosity that brings him into the case, nor filial devotion, although he certainly is devoted to his father. No, this time out it's his kindness and decency. Someone needs his help, and he wants to help.

What kind of man was the victim? Well, besides having anachronistic hair - the kind of short but feathered 'do favored by 70's jocks like Jimmy Connors and not-yet-Caitlyn Jenner - he seems to have been something of a prick. We don't get all that much of it during the short time we see him, other than his jeering as he starts the unprovoked seeming ambush of Joe, but it comes out in dribs and drabs. There's something revealed at about the halfway point that pretty much told me who the murderer was, although I had only figured out the motive.

One thing you might not guess from this lengthy description is how funny this episode is. David Wayne has many humorous moments and the Insp. Wayne/Ellery team is in fine form. Ellery also has a comical sit-down with a high-ranking mobster who's basically a well-armed Santa. Then there's Ellery's regular "challenge to the viewer" breaking of the fourth wall. Most episodes show him doing this when he's otherwise alone. This time he's in the kitchen in full view of has father, and you can almost hear the Inspector say "Who the hell are you talking to, son?" I'm not 100% sure if the humor is intentional, but it's appreciated all the same.


susan said...

Even though I wasn't a fan of boxing it was one of those sports that made it to television when I was a kid so I do remember watching a number of matches with my dad and the neighbors. Cassius Clay's dancing moves made him an amazing boxer to watch right from the beginning. Yes, he did lose his championship and several of what would have been his best fighting years to his refusal to be drafted but what he gained for himself and his people was far and away more important. Naturally enough we were always big fans of Muhammed Ali after that and happy as well he regained the title - several times.

I can't say I remember much about Daredevil, either the movie or the Netflix series we watched just one episode of before passing. But Pulp Fiction I remember very well - one of those movies that requires being watched again every couple of years because it is so cool. Bruce Willis as the boxer Butch who won a match he'd been paid to lose and then things went in some unexpected directions. The story of how he got his father's gold watch is one you can't forget.

The Sunday Punch was a very good episode of the EQ series as it played out on several different levels. The opening scene when Inspector Queen was trying to tempt Ellery into checking out the case was very funny - as was their constant bickering later on about who made the coffee and when that was exactly.

I thought the Joe Adams character was very sympathetic at the outset, particularly because he had such a sweet and loving girlfriend. Our favorite scene was the one about him, albeit without him present, when Ellery had the meeting with the gangster in the garden who had to keep reminding Ellery not to make any fast moves because there was a machine gun aimed right at him for the duration of the visit. Getting to know Joe was in training to be a pharmacist was a very good way of indicating that times were changing for African Americans in general even as far back as 1947.

You're right that Flannigan was a good addition to this particular program (Simon Brimmer would have been interesting but the overtones might have been weird). I loved the bit where his faithful secretary was giving Flannigan a neck rub.

After a while it starts to become fairly obvious who the murderer was likely to be I'm guessing the hint you noticed was when Ellery heard the story about how Kid Hogan had beaten up his girlfriend. I might have guessed sooner except for the fact I'd thought the girl was the daughter of the boxing manager. Ooops.

The final clue to the audience when Ellery noticed how his dad held the milk bottle was well done as usual. That he chose that moment to present us with our last opportunity to get the answer ourselves was cleverly done.

ps: I'll send you that picture one of these days.

Ben said...

I do remember being somewhat awed by Ali when I was a kid, when he sometimes seemed to be everywhere. I didn't realize at the time that he was already in the twilight of his boxing career. As you point out, his accomplishments spread even far beyond that.

Truth to tell I've never seen the Daredevil TV series, but I knew it existed. Netflix seems to be the dropoff point for Marvel characters that are too grim to have movies or be on ABC. Of course Daredevil did have a movie, and I saw it. Ben Affleck did a decent job with what he was given, but it still was kind of a drag to watch. Here's where it gets complex. Daredevil was generally speaking more fun as a concept before Frank Miller got to him. Miller was a very good and cinematic writer and artist working on the title, but that's just it: the comics were already movies, so filming them wasn't really necessary. Especially when you can't do it well.

Pulp Fiction, though, was a very enjoyable movie. Samuel L. Jackson's character, even with the silly Jherri curls, is an all time classic. And the Butch story takes some wild turns as well. Yeah, that Christopher Walken anecdote about the watch stays with you.

Yeah, the coffee in the Queen home becomes this whole thing, bigger than either of them. Between this and Barney Miller the mid-seventies could be the Golden Age of bad coffee on television.

The scene at the gangster's house was also funny, if also a little tense. The man was an interesting dichotomy between "likes to do nice things for people" and "is willing to have people killed as a general part of his business." Yeah, Joe Adams was a nice guy, with a very sweet girlfriend, and since boxing hadn't been all that good to him it was good to see him making another plan.

Yeah, the revelation that the dead boxer was beating up his fiancee was what did it for me. She wasn't going to do anything about it herself, since she'd apparently accepted the role of martyr for love. But it's quite believable that her father would take action if he found out. As for the trainer, maybe he was a friendly face for her and that's what threw you.

Yeah, that was a subtle clue, sort of. In Holmesian terms it might have been elementary, but most wouldn't have been thinking about handedness. It's the magician's trick of doing the change where the audience isn't looking.