Saturday, September 24, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep"

For the third-to-last episode of Ellery Queen the crew tries something different in a couple of ways. First of all this is in large part a mob story. It's not just that the victim of the week and some of the suspects are gangsters. The episode has the fast pace and high testosterone level that gangster movies have boasted since they broke through in the early talkie era. The characteristic violent action is there too. We get to see a bombing and a police shootout, both of them involving hit man Jay Bonner, played by legendary character actor Timothy Carey (pictured above.) So even though the actual murder is a classic locked room mystery, it's really more of a pulpy thing, not the kind of drawing room affair you might associate with Ellery Queen.

Then again it's not so much Ellery's case, which is the other big difference. This is very much an entry in "The Adventures of Richard Queen." The Inspector, Ellery's dad, is the one who gets pulled in first, and he's also the one who solves the murder. Both father and son have figured it out by the summation, but the Inspector gets there first by a few seconds and he exposes the killer. That said, Ellery does some valuable deduction and Jim Hutton gets good scenes of Ellery angrily defending his father as they both stick up for Velie.

The victim this week is one Ralph Caesar, one of the lieutenants in the New York rackets. While Julius Caesar is one of the towering figures in Roman history, and while the name has a certain resonance with fictional mobsters thanks to the Edward G. Robinson movie Little Caesar, this Caesar is strictly a number two man, a high-ranking employee but not the leader, which might be why he can live a double life as a boring picket fence husband.

Caesar is sufficiently important, though, to be a star witness and political asset for prosecutor Irwin Murphy. The unbearable Murphy is a publicity hound using prosecutions of gangsters and crooked cops to set himself up for elected office, an activity that might have been common at one time
but luckily never happens anymore. Bonner tosses a bomb into Caesar's window, but the murder attempt fails. It's reported as a success, though, and under cover of darkness Richard Queen is assigned to guard the criminal-turned-witness.

The key thing about Murphy's ambition is that it motivates him to lean on the same police he accuses of corruption. (To be fair, there were and are corrupt police, and probably are in the show's fictional universe as well. It's just that he's barking up the wrong tree.) Richard Queen's standing and job, therefore, are put at risk. That gives the story some stakes. If your hero is a high-ranking policeman, it's a good idea for narrative purposes to give him a more powerful antagonist, someone who can threaten his job if not his life.

When sentry duty goes wrong, as it must, both of the men who the Inspector chose to help him guard Caesar fall under suspicion. The first of these is Sergeant Velie, due to his brother-in-law owning the restaurant where the top mob boss - a man of perverse charm - frequents. We know he can't be the killer, because once again this isn't that kind of show, but it makes for good drama. The second suspect is Detective Jim Millay, whose offer of gum to Caesar begins to look suspicious when Caesar dies from poison despite not having eaten or drunk anything since he got to the hotel. Millay is played by Kevin Tighe, and if you know him as Locke's scumbag father on Lost it's easy to believe he'd be less than ethical. Millay defends himsef convincingly, though.

I actually figured out the solution to this one on a previous viewing. I don't know how clever this makes me. As it happens Ellery kind of spoilers it in his address to the audience when he talks about Shakespeare, but that isn't what tipped me off. Suffice it to say that while much of the episode takes place in the field of gangster action flick and straight police procedural, the solution does have the distinctness of classic mystery.

Aside from showing the typing of Ellery's manuscripts in close-up and showcasing his magnificent sweater collection, this is an entertaining spotlight on his father, who after all seems to have been his first hero.


susan said...

The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep is one of my favorite episodes of the all-too-short 1975 EQ series. In this one they made an attempt to present the show in a little more serious light by making the plot strong and dramatic. There are some threads here for potentially recurring stories (as in Inspector Queen getting to solve a case for once).

The classic locked room mystery was a very good one and just tricky enough that it took us a little while to realize the poison on the gum could very well have come from another source close at hand (and habit). (I never know whether it's okay or not to give the solution in a comment since I don't want to spoil the surprise either.) Anyway, it was a good one and, as you say, a very classic mystery.

Poor Velie having to give up his badge was a sad moment despite the fact you knew he'd soon be exonerated. I liked his uncle's restaurant and the boss mobster who enjoyed eating there. That last scene with the DA was a doozy.

It was neat too seeing Timothy Carey skulk around as snazzily dressed freelance hit man. Thanks for getting me to check him out on IMDB. You always note the coolest people.

Ben said...

I think you're right that some potential recurring elements were set up here, including the political pressure Inspector Queen is sometimes under. And it's not a bad idea to have him solve the occasional case. We do already know that Ellery is brilliant, so he doesn't have to prove it that much.

The mystery at the center was a clever case of misdirection, I think. Both the how and the who seem like they point one way, but the story follows a different direction. I try not to give away any solutions in toto because however many people read a post it's still part of the permanent record. Don't feel bad about alluding, though.

Those were gems, yes. Tom Reese (who's still with us as of this writing) does great with Velie under the grill. The subplot about the young ADA facing his conscience was good too.

I can't take too much credit for the Timothy Carey find. When I Googled for images of this episode I saw that he was in a lot of them, and that there was a whole website dedicated to him. He seems to have been a favorite of young Stanley Kubrick, which is quite the honor.