Saturday, July 9, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer"

The 1960s were when spies went from being dangerous and glamorous in a kind of grubby way to being fantastic and kicky. The subgenre is sometimes called spy-fi, as it featured gadgets and schemes borrowed from science fiction. Agents wore the latest threads, drove the fastest cars, enjoyed too many partners to keep all their names straight. If the straight business world offered money and toys and the counterculture - at least in the crude news magazine view - offered the chance to break free of convention - spying in pop culture was the best of both worlds.

Movies were a leading source of the fantasy: James Bond, Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and Michael Caine's more relatable Harry Palmer. In the comic strips - and I do mean strips - you had Peter O'Donnell's ironically named Modesty Blaise. Jim Steranko wrote and drew the kinetic Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics. And of course there was TV. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a hit on American TV, although it was best in its relatively austere black and white episodes. The Avengers was more comfortable with the style, adding several layers of British eccentricity. And The Prisoner, a short-lived but indelible maybe-sequel to Patrick McGoohan's earlier series Danger Man added dystopian social commentary.

What does all this have to do with Ellery Queen? Quite a bit in this instance. "The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer" isn't, properly speaking, a spy story. The plot does, however, contain its share of subterfuge and sabotage. More crucially its central visual motif, an extensive model train set running through a room whose windows have been painted over with a country landscape, would be entirely at home on either The Avengers or The Prisoner. Even the episodes music cues are basically Bond lite.

The aforementioned victim is Lamont Franklin, played by Ed McMahon moonlighting (or daylighting him) from his job on one of NBC's cash cows. Franklin is an inventor who ran his own powerful company. Now he seems to have cracked up: withdrawing to his home, dressing like Casey Jones, and spending all his time on his model railroad, in the same workshop where he was shot to death.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. In what turns out to be a rather poorly kept secret, Franklin's resignation was a ruse, his insanity feigned. The methods he was using to coordinate his trains are part of a company project that prefigure the computer and robotics revolutions that will unfold decades hence. In fact between his paranoid secrecy, his financial wizardry, and his grim determination to turn play into work, he'd be right at home amidst the forced frivolity of modern Silicon Valley. His bad luck that he's destined to die when most of the Valley is still Northern California orchard land.

Adding to the spy-tastic feel of the episode is the fact that Ellery gets a sexy female sidekick. This is Lorelie Farnsworth, a would-be romance novelist looking to Ellery for pointers. At the halfway point, when she demonstrates that she can rock a plunging-back silver dress, it becomes clear that he has a specific pointer that he wants to give her, which the denouement pretty much confirms he'll get to do. Unfortunately Lorelie is godawful annoying. She started rubbing me the wrong way almost immediately, when she praised Charlotte and Emily Brontë but made a conversational side trip to dismiss Anne as "a minor talent." I'll let Kate Beaton speak for me on the Brontë sisters matter.


For me Lorelie is the main flaw of the episode, followed by a domestic servant having what is probably the worst Irish accent ever heard on television. Still, Ellery can't really be blamed for turning their collaboration into a hot date. For one thing she's not a bad looker, albeit not exactly my type. Also it gets him away from his dad for the rest of the night. After the mystery has been solved Inspector Richard Queen is still an awesomely together cop, yes. But after the crime has been solved he's still trying to rationalize how a woman he suspected all along must be responsible, even though she's not the culprit. He takes a weirdly misogynist attitude in this one that might explain why he's never managed to attract a second wife. (Which he eventually did in the books.)

The episode does manage to stay true to its slightly futuristic - or retro-futuristic - milieu, though. The train and its message system make a proud final appearance when Ellery gathers all the suspects together to finger the culprit. Chekhov would be proud.


susan said...

That’s a very succinct overview of the movie spy types that were so popular for a while. I guess they still are with lots of people if James Bond and Jason Bourne as examples - and they’re still as fantastic as ever too. We enjoyed seeing the Bourne movies a few years ago but the old Sean Connery Bond films haven’t aged too well - the overt misogyny which just seemed funny or even (gasp!) natural in the 60s made me very uncomfortable.

This episode was good enough, considering the old time star cast, but not one of my favourites either. That’s still the New Year one when Ellery’s dad danced with Sgt Velie’s wife. Before I say anything else about the story, or the stars, I want to let you know we were in complete agreement with you about Lorelei. She was kind of gawky and angular (and so likely well suited to Ellery) but she was indeed very annoying. I loved the Kate Beaton Brontë sisters cartoon you added. We both felt that she looked worse when she removed the glasses and the bun and showed up in the dress. What I’ve learned about her since is that she was better as a dancer and choreographer than an actress and I guess I could imagine that.

It was very neat to see Arthur Godfrey again as I had very fond early childhood memories of him. You might like this sample of the enormously popular morning show he hosted during the very early days of television. Seeing the four ladies that appeared to make up the audience was pretty funny and when he sang ‘China Doll’ you may notice Henry Kissinger on trombone (back in the days when people still liked him). It was nice to see Jackie Gleason too. As for time changing our perceptions of the past it’s odd to know now that neither Arthur nor Jackie were what would be described as well rounded (except in the literal sense with Gleason) human beings.

The mystery itself wasn’t one of the best in my opinion, and, I thought it had been cruel on the part of Ed McMahon’s engineer character to take on the eccentric role to the extent that even his wife didn’t know he was acting the part. It was pretty funny that Richard Queen took such a dislike to her he couldn’t help but project guilt on her. The train set was cool but I didn’t think the bubble gum thing at the end was explained well enough.

I just re-read you line about the forced frivolity of Silicon Valley. I heard today Elon Musk is going to treat us to his fabulous vision of the future in a day or too. Heaven help us.

susan said...

Ooops - the link didn't work

I'll try again

Ben said...

One thing that's kind of funny about reading the James Bond books, if you're up for it, is the very depth of the misogyny and other nasty prejudices. The level of bitterness expressed in Bond's internal monologues seems more compatible with a divorced man who falls asleep in front of the TV with a lit cigarette than a secret agent who jumps from moving vehicles. I guess the producers figured Connery's gruff charm could sell it to movie audiences. In the short run they were right.

The Bourne series is exciting, but I find it hard to believe he can keep going at that rate.

I'm glad you liked the Bronte sisters comic. Beaton is a great cartoonist for fresh looks at history and literature, and does wonderful facial expressions. Yeah, Ann Reinking does seem to have had more success as a dancer and choreographer. The only other thing I've seen her in is All That Jazz, which was so long ago I can only remember certain details - like the ghostly Ben Vereen emcee - but I can imagine it was more her scene.

I used to get confused between Arthur Godfrey and Art Linkletter. From what I know of the two Godfrey was probably a better choice for this part. I enjoyed that segment from his show. Jackie Gleason, while I can imagine him being difficult to live with, turns out to be a funny guy outside of the Ralph Kramden character. He also calls himself "the big nine" near the beginning, which makes me wonder where the network censor was. As for Kissinger, most people didn't even know who he was yet. It's too bad he didn't stick with the trombone, though.

Indeed it does seem cruel to leave your wife out of the loop if you're going to feign insanity or dementia as part of a business gambit. If you don't think she can be trusted, why are you still married to her? But the woman Richard Queen was blaming was the vice president's wife.

As cool as some of the Tesla cars look, and as much as we need transportation that won't burn up gas, Elon Musk's whole deal can be a little wearing. I remember he was one of the tech visionaries in that "Optimists, Pessimists, and Cats" article you linked me to before.