Saturday, October 8, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger"

And so with "The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger" we find ourselves at the end of the road. The series Ellery Queen ends its perhaps quixotic run, having always seemed a show out of its time, or perhaps its timeline. Almost certainly the producers knew this as well. When you get to the 22nd episode not counting the pilot movie, the writing must be on the wall.

There's a case to be made that "The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep" should have been the season finale, and thus in this case the series finale. After all, the stakes are raised for that episode, with suspicion falling everywhere and Inspector Queen's career on the line. And yet there's a beauty to "The Disappearing Dagger" closing the curtain as well. It tries a few new things, and allows Ellery to solve the death of a man who was a formative influence on his father, and through him Ellery himself.

In a change from routine, the victim is likable, decent, even heroic. One, at least, for there are two murders at play, separated by five years. The victim in the more recent one is Hamilton Drew, formerly chief of the Homicide Division, and subsequently a private investigator.He had been Richard Queen's boss before being forced out of the job due to his age, invited Richard Queen to join him in private practice, and the Inspector seems to partly regret having turned him down. Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian actor who had started in movies during the latter silent era and played Dr. Morbius in The Forbidden Planet, makes the most of his two scene, appearing savvy and determined despite his physical infirmity. He is murdered in his home while running a newsreel of one of his old cases, and his pained dying whimper as the projector runs makes this the most poignant and unsettling of the show's murder scenes.

His other scene is a flashback, a gathering of suspects much like those in which Ellery holds forth at the end of every episode. He is digging through an old case which he was crediting with solving five years before, only now he has doubts, believing he was manipulated in his previous investigation. The man he fingered was acquitted of murder, but convicted of theft, and he's mighty bitter about the time he spent in prison.

The pre-existing case concerns the murder of Stuart Hendricks, a munitions manufacturer contracting with the government during World War 2. One of his company's designs was stolen, an inside job he was looking into when he was killed on a chartered plane. There's an interesting iconoclasm here. The Second World War is supposed to be the Good War, when we were all on the same side. The script reminds us that be that as it may, selfishness and deceit didn't just disappear.

The suspects are all rather dislikable as well. Pilot Buck Nolan, having spent several years in the pen, at least has some excuse, but the chip he has on his shoulder still gets old after a few outbursts. Brandon Childs is a smug jerk who inherited both sole control of the company and Hendricks's widow, who had already been cheating with him. Jerry Hacker dour stuffed shirt of a junior executive, portrayed by Gary Burghoff as the anti-Radar O'Reilly. When Drew calls the suspects together he has the gall to ask "Why the wheelchair?" It's only disappointing that Drew doesn't answer "Because I need one, asshole." or "Trust me, it drive the chicks wild."

The episode has a nonlinear feel, perhaps because the 1942 murder was solved wrongly the first time and reopened by Drew, meaning that Ellery is giving it a third go. There are side-trips, as well. Ellery talks to the remarried widow while she sculpts a new model who, natch, throws herself at him. More interestingly he gets technical advice from a stage magician with a criminal past, one who might have made an interesting recurring character in the second season that never happened. The summation is visually interesting as well, a choreographed restaging of the first murder in the tiny cabin of a grounded plane.

There's a thrill and also a melancholy to seeing Ellery get his brilliant flash and turn to the camera the last time. At the end of it all he extends credit to the fallen drew, a nice gesture to end with.


semiconscious said...

tho this episode hinged on an overly-clever bit of hocus-pocus when it came to 'murder weapon', & tho there just weren't enough suspects, period, to make for a challenging whodunnit, the whole 'solve the old murder to solve the new one' angle was handled well, & held the episode together nicely. i'm thinking this's the only time i've ever seen gary burghoff in anything other than m.a.s.h. (note: he was the only actor who played his character in both the movie & the series). for whatever reason, the filming inside the plane reminded me of the filming inside the spaceship in the 'commando cody' movie serial?...

as far as 'final episode' goes, if anything, i thought it unfortunate that simon brimmer couldn't be there in some capacity, what with him having been such a brilliant addition to the show. otherwise, yeah, this was a 'maybe a bit too low-key', but quite acceptable ending to things. not so much going out with a whimper as with a whisper...

as far as a series overview: i'm thinking the fact that the show lasted only one season may've ultimately, on reflection, ended up doing it a big service. we've re-watched some older tv series, like colombo, or even x-files, & what they all pretty much uniformly tend to do is to, usually within 2-3 seasons, overstay their welcome, & become uninspired shadows of what they once were, which's about the saddest fate one might wish for something once genuinely ingenious & enjoyable (people tend to forget that even as mighty a series as star trek only lasted 3 seasons). whereas, here we have this concentrated dose of ellery queen, its vital essence distilled, preserved for posterity. not such a bad fate, &, at worst, it only leaves'm asking for more...

now, as far as 'what series should i review next?' goes (yes, i'm aware you didn't actually ask, but whatever), that's a tough one, even limiting it to detective series. especially tricky finding something equivalent to 'ellery queen', which's a true 'cult classic', to the extent that, unlike so many so-called 'cult classics', it's very likely that most people, at this point in time, really never have even heard of it. i will say that, were you thinking of somewhat expanding your boundaries beyond television, the 14 rathbone/bruce 'sherlock holmes' movies remain stupifyingly entertaining to this day. tho you're likely well aware of this?...

anyway, this's gonna take some additional thought. i'll have to get back to you :) ...

i'm getting some kind of 'we need to be one with the earth' type vibe from the grizzly bear video. while i realize that might be over-simplifying things, i'm not so sure it actually is :) ...

Ben said...

It's interesting that you note there aren't enough suspects, ironically a problem shared by the pilot movie, entitled "Too Many Suspects." The crew must have noticed this in post-production, since the announcer at the top tries to suggest that the Southern airplane mechanic might be in the mix, even though nothing in the episode itself suggests he was even on the flight. The flight attendant, Norma, at least has opportunity, since she was there, but nothing in the way of motive, and the episode never paints her as a suspect.

As for the trickery with the murder weapon, I more or less approve. The actual murderer, obvious as he was, is the kind of person who seems confident he always has an angle, and this is the kind of fast one he thinks he'd be sure to get away with.

Since Harry Morgan was already a successful character actor, MASH for all its success doesn't seem to have really helped its cast with the exception of Alan Alda. Gary Burghoff really hasn't gotten anywhere since he left the show, which I think was after this episode. I haven't really seen him in anything else either, although I have heard songs from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, where he was the first actor to play the title role.

I like the "whimper/whisper" formulation. If the show at this point feels like it's already finished, it does at least have a classy after-party. It would be nice to have Simon Brimmer present as the curtain comes down. But the good thing about these old shows that don't follow a season arc is that you can mix things up a little. "The Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley" is certainly one of the high points for me, and I don't mind pretending it's the finale.

I haven't watched Columbo in order, so I wasn't really aware of it going downhill. My knowledge of it is basically the glory days and then its afterlife as an occasional series of TV movies. With The X-Files I'm certainly aware of the degeneration of the series. They lost some writing talent, I know, and there were some external factors. Really I think Chris Carter was caught flatfooted by its success and continued renewals.

Ellery Queen? I'd still love to see what they'd have done with a second season. After that, though, even assuming the continued good health of Jim Hutton, you're probably right that a long stay wouldn't have helped. I do notice that a few images and quotes have turned up on Tumblr, which suggests - albeit not with absolute proof - that even with one season it captured a few among younger generations.

I've thought about doing this kind of feature again, although maybe not right away. Not sure what I'd go with, or in what genre. I think that the only Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie I've seen all the way through is The Hound of the Baskervilles, which did present the series in a great light.

With the Grizzly Bear video I think I picked up on the Biblical references first, but you may well be onto something. We sort of are one with it, whether we realize or not.