Too Many Suspects (1975 TVM)

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“In a few minutes, this woman will be dead. The question is: Who killed her? . . . Match wits with Ellery Queen and see if you can guess: Whodunnit?
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US / 98 minutes / color / Fairmont Foxcroft, Universal Dir: David Greene Pr & Scr: Richard Levinson, William Link Story: The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965) by Avram Davidson writing as Ellery Queen Cine: Howard Schwartz Cast: Jim Hutton, David Wayne, Ray Milland, Kim Hunter, John Hillerman, John Larch, Tim O’Connor, Nancy Mehta (i.e., Nancy Kovack), Warren Berlinger, Monte Markham, Gail Strickland, Tom Reese, Vic Mohica, Dwan Smith, John Finnegan, Rosanna Huffman, James Lydon, Basil Hoffman, Frannie Michel.

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“B–b–b–b–b–but!” I can hear you cry. “Surely there can be few things less noirish than the pilot movie for an Ellery Queen TV series? Even Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies have more of the mean streets about them than Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen.”

You forget two things. First, that your humble scribe has had an affection for the tales of Ellery Queen that has lasted most of his reading life. Second, that, like it or lump it—and Raymond Chandler famously lumped it—without the strand of crime fiction of which Ellery Queen is a prime representative, the hardboiled strand might not have flourished. And without hardboiled crime fiction we might not have had film noir. Let’s remember, too, that there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of difference between an Ellery Queen movie of the early 1940s and The FALCON TAKES OVER (1942), based on Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940), or, for that matter, DANGEROUS FEMALE (1931) and SATAN MET A LADY (1935), both based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930).

Leaving those justifications aside, the year selected for this month in Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century feature at his Past Offences blog is 1975 and, although there were other possible candidate movies—such as Arthur Marks’s humdinger A Woman for All Men (1975)—this was the one that I fancied watching and writing about.

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It’s 1947 in NYC and, as the movie opens in the apartment of swish fashion designer Monica Gray (Mehta/Kovack), we hear a voice in the background:

“Good evening. This is our fourth week of bringing you world and local news through the exciting new medium of television.”

A shot rings out, and what we next see is Monica crawling agonizedly across the carpet to pull the plugs of her TV set and her electric clock from the wall. It is exactly 10.25pm.

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Monica Gray Nancy Kovack) has just moments to live.

The case goes to Inspector Richard Queen (Wayne) of the NYPD’s 3rd Division, and he’s intrigued enough by the supposed clue of the plugs being pulled from their sockets that he lures his son, mystery writer Ellery Queen (Hutton), into the investigation, despite Ellery’s state of panic about the imminent deadline for his latest novel.

Although Ellery has no more idea than anyone else why the dying woman should have pulled out those plugs, he almost immediately spots enough else by way of clues that the Inspector is able to make an arrest: prominent financier Carson McKell (Milland), who for the past few months has been having an affair with Monica.

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Carson McKell (Ray Milland) looks guilty as sin.

One day, while supposedly being the good uncle, taking his pesky niece Penny (a charming turn from Michel) around the attractions of NYC, Ellery is approached by Carson’s son Tom (Markham) and devoted secretary Gail Stevens (Strickland), who blandish him in hopes he’ll help Carson prove his innocence. Desperate to escape any further quality time with Penny, Ellery immediately accepts the challenge.

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A great turn from Frannie Michel as Penny.

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Gail Stevens (Gail Strickland) and Tom McKell (Monte Markham) blandish Ellery into taking the case.

Carson claims that, although the arrangement was that each Thursday evening he’d sneak into Monica’s apartment for a schmooze, the particular Thursday evening when she was murdered was different—not just because of the murder (duh) but because, earlier in the day, he’d been confronted about the affair by his wife Marion (Hunter), and told he should break it off. Wanting to do so face-to-face rather than take the coward’s way out, he phoned Monica to say he was popping over but, in a hoarse and emotional voice, she told him not to—she was, she said, coming down with a cold. He set off for the apartment anyway but, en route, lost his nerve and instead went into a bar and got schnockered.

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Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD (David Wayne), irascibility incarnate.

Sufficiently schnockered that he has no recollection where the bar in question was.

It’s obviously an alibi that isn’t, but Inspector Queen gallantly sends out a squad of cops to check every conceivable bartender and taxi driver to try to find anyone who might have seen a slurred and staggering Carson making improper suggestions to the mannequins in the Fifth Avenue windows.

Nada.

So the trial of Carson for the murder of Monica Gray begins.

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Ellery (Jim Hutton) observes the trial of Carson McKell.

This in fact represents a major plot hiccup. To anyone who’s been paying attention to the movie (not to this hurried synopsis, which omits the relevant data) there’s a very good and obvious reason why it’s been difficult to confirm Carson’s alibi and an equally obvious way to clear things up. Yet it takes Ellery both forever and an accidental sighting of a juvenile graffiti artist to realize what it is.

A disclaimer: Forty years or more ago (he wheezed pthisically) I read the novel upon which this pilot is loosely based, The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965) by Avram Davidson (ghosting for the Queens). It could perhaps be possible that I might have remembered the matter of the alibi from that reading, but, since I remembered exactly nothing else about the plot, I think this is unlikely. In other words, I think this really is a wrinkle that’s instantly obvious to the attentive and so should be likewise to Ellery.

Thanks to Ellery’s intervention, the case against Carson collapses.

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Radio sleuth Simon Brimmer (John Hillerman) will remain smug to the end.

But there’s another intervention, this time by radio sleuth Simon Brimmer (Hillerman), whom the audience met earlier in the movie when he was trying to persuade Ellery to become his ghostwriter. Ellery refused the oodles of lucre on offer, which is more than I would have done. (If you’re out there, Mr. Brimmer, do pay heed.) But Brimmer has picked up on something that everyone else should have thought to do: he has asked Monica’s pretty maid Cora Edwards (Smith) if she saw anyone else in the apartment that evening before she left for the night.

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Monica’s maid, Cora Edwards (Dwan Smith), has a vital piece of evidence.

Cora indeed did. Marion McKell visited Monica on a pretext just to see what her husband’s floozy was like. As the two women talked, Monica showed Marion the gun Carson bought her a while back when she was getting nervous about all the burglaries there had been in the building . . . the very gun with which, a few hours later, she’d be murdered!

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Time for Marion (Kim Hunter) to take the trip downtown.

But Marion too has a crazy alibi. She took sleeping pills that evening because so fraught about her husband’s philandering, yet some noise in the McKell apartment woke her up at about 10.30pm. She thought it was Carson arriving home, but in fact he was still off at the bar putting in that heavy-duty schnockering. She called out his name, heard nothing more, and plunged back into her opiate slumber.

Yet another alibi that isn’t.

Even so, Ellery, with the help of Gail—who has her sights set on Tom McKell but who seems to regard Ellery as a pretty good Plan B if Plan A fals through—manages to trap the youth who’s been committing all those burglaries, Eddie Carter (Berlinger). Rather than risk being accused of Monica’s murder, Eddie confesses to the robberies and in so doing confirms Marion’s alibi.

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Seedy Eddie (Warren Berlinger).

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Ellery (Jim Hutton) and the DA (John Larch) grill Eddie.

Next up in the list of McKell suspects is impetuous son Tom. He finally admits he visited Monica’s apartment that evening—to try to persuade her to give up her liaison with his father, because he was worried the family might be destroyed. He even admits that, in a fit of rage, he began strangling the woman before he came to his senses—that’s why she sounded so hoarse and tearful when Carson called her on the phone. But he’s adamant he didn’t kill her.

Incidentally, we have to ask why the autopsy, even in 1947, reported no signs of the partial strangulation. Another plot hiccup.

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Impetuous Tom McKell (Monte Markham) admits to laying hands of violence on Monica.

Brimmer intervenes again. Monica was not a woman to confine her favors needlessly. Even so, each year she tended to have a Principal Lover, the others being hobbies. (It’s tough for Carson to accept that he was merely one of the hobbies.) She left a quite specific clue each year as to the identity of that Main Squeeze, and for this year the clue points directly to . . .

. . . the McKells’ chauffeur, Ramón (Mohica)!

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The chauffeur Ramón (Vic Mohica), a lover, not a thinker.

Who was also spotted entering Monica’s apartment that fateful night!

By now we’re beginning to look askance at Ellery, Inspector Queen, the DA (Larch), the McKell lawyer, Ben Waterson (O’Connor), and even the Inspector’s faithful bloodhound Sergeant Thomas Velie (Reese): even assuming they didn’t in fact murder Monica, could any of them have been among her exes?

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Faithful lawyer Ben Waterson (Tim O’Connor) does his best by the McKell-family.

Eventually we discover who the killer was and why Monica pulled those plugs out of the wall. The explanation is utterly artificial but, in the kind of puzzle mystery that Too Many Suspects aims to be, that’s not important. This is the narrative equivalent of a cryptic crossword puzzle, where the joy is rather in solving the clues than in connecting them to anything plausible the real world.

The big question, for us reginophiles, is how well this pilot movie manages to capture the central characters of the Queen oeuvre.

There’s no Nikki Porter, Ellery’s secretary, but Gail Strickland—as Carson’s secretary Gail Stevens—provides a sort of substitute, someone magnetic because of her obvious intelligence. David Wayne’s rendition of Inspector Richard Queen is absolutely perfect: this is exactly how I’d imagined Ellery’s irascible dad to be. And Tom Reese’s turn as Velie is likewise about as near as you could possibly hope for to the character in the novels. There’s a version of Doc Prouty (uncredited) who’s onscreen for far too few seconds to make any judgement.

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Tom Reese gets it just right as Sergeant Thomas Velie.

And then there’s Ellery. Jim Hutton himself does a wonderful job with the part. At first I thought, This isn’t quite Ellery. But the problem, always, with bringing Ellery Queen to the screen is that the character evolved over the decades of his literary existence. He started out as Philo Vance Lite, but by the time he got to the marvelous Calamity Town (1942)—in my opinion the masterpiece of the EQ canon—he’d become someone else altogether. And it’s this someone else that I think Hutton was trying to capture. He doesn’t really have the asceticism of face for it, but even so he does wonderfully well . . . except that his director or his producers/scripters clearly insisted that Ellery have also some aspects of a bumbling, absent-minded klutz: put an obstacle in front of him and he’ll trip over it. It’s cheap, low comic characterization, and for me it doesn’t belong to Ellery Queen.

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Devoted secretary Gail Stevens (Gail Strickland) loves the boss’s son.

Jim Hutton was the father of actor Timothy Hutton—the family resemblance is obvious. He died of cancer at the tragically young age of 44 in 1979, just three years after the single season of the Ellery Queen TV series was over.

The writing/production team of Richard Levinson and William Link was responsible for creating and usually largely writing a bunch of other classic TV mystery shows, such as Columbo (1971–8, 1989–90, etc.), Mannix (1967–75) and Murder, She Wrote (1984–96).

I’ve seen bits of most of the Ellery Queen screen adaptations but can hardly count myself an expert. I’ve covered The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) and Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941) on this website, and have lackadaisical intentions to cover a few more—maybe I should have an EQ season? There’s also the pretty dire The Crime Nobody Saw (1937), which was based on a play by the Queens but didn’t feature Ellery. And then of course there’s Claude Chabrol’s wonderful but oddball TEN DAYS WONDER (1971), with Orson Welles, Michel Piccoli, Anthony Perkins, Marlène Jobert and more; it manages to be an Ellery Queen adaptation (of Ten Days’ Wonder [1948]) that omits Ellery from the story.

But, from those that I have seen, it seems to me that Too Many Suspects is the best screen representation I’ve seen of the literary Ellery and his exploits. In part this is because most of the others have been so poor, but this one is genuinely very well worth a look.

And I also like Ellery’s response to his dad’s complaint that this newfangled television contraption is a real menace to social intercourse:

“Ah, I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s just a passing fad.”

 

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Click here for series DVD set on Amazon.com.

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9 thoughts on “Too Many Suspects (1975 TVM)

  1. Great choice chum. I agree, this is a terrific TV Movie, a great pilot and Hutton and Wayne really nailed it here. Levinson and Link make some very, very substantial changes to the novel (which was fleshed out by Avram Davidson from a Fred Dannay synopsis) and indeed I do wonder what drew them to the book (one of the weaker entries from the 1960s, it has to be said) in the first place given how much they added to it – but it all works like a dream. And the Elmer Bernstein music also really helps sell the 1940s feel too.

  2. Pingback: The ‘salivating male audience’: The #1975book round-up | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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