E1 Entertainment // 1976 // 1176 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // October 14th, 2010
Match wits with Ellery Queen and see if you can guess...whodunit!
The first Ellery Queen story, 1928's The Roman Hat Mystery, was the creation of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee (they decided to use the name of their detective as their pseudonym as well). The classic whodunits had an added twist: Near the end of the story, a single page announced that the readers had seen all of the same clues as Ellery; could they identify the killer?
Ellery Queen radio programs were popular throughout the 1940s, and Peter Lawford starred as Queen in a 1971 made-for-TV movie. Then, in 1975, Ellery Queen: Too Many Suspects was broadcast on the NBC Mystery Movie, acting as a series pilot. The series was a critical hit, but never found a strong audience, getting cancelled after one season. It's taken a while to round up the case files, but E1 has finally brought us Ellery Queen Mysteries.
In the late 1940s, Ellery Queen (Jim Hutton, The Green Berets), a successful mystery writer, lives in New York City with his widowed father, Inspector Richard Queen (David Wayne, The Andromeda Strain). Ellery may have a looming deadline, a pending fishing trip, or even tickets to a fight at Madison Square Garden, but whatever the obligation, his insatiable curiosity inevitably draws him into whatever mystery presents itself. Hey, in New York City, there's never a shortage of murders. John Hillerman (Magnum P.I.) has a recurring role as Simon Brimmer, a rival mystery writer (Brimmer comes across as an early version of Magnum's Higgins).
Borrowing the hook from the stories, Ellery addresses the audience directly just before the conclusion of each episode, asking if they have figured out who the killer is.
It was a great hook; if you managed to figure just one out, you'd be back the following week (at the tender age of twelve, I totally solved "The Adventure of the Chinese Dog.")
We get all twenty-two episodes plus the pilot:
* "Ellery Queen" (a.k.a. "Too Many Suspects")
* "The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne"
* "The Adventure of the Lover's Leap"
* "The Adventure of the Chinese Dog"
* "The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader"
* "The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express"
* "The Adventure of Miss Aggie's Farewell Performance"
* "The Adventure of Colonel Niven's Memoirs"
* "The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party"
* "The Adventure of Veronica's Veils"
* "The Adventure of the Pharaoh's Curse"
* "The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument"
* "The Adventure of the Black Falcon"
* "The Adventure of the Sunday Punch"
* "The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer"
* "The Adventure of the Wary Witness"
* "The Adventure of the Judas Tree"
* "The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario"
* "The Adventure of the Two-Faced Woman"
* "The Adventure of the Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley"
* "The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep"
* "The Adventure of the Hard-Hearted Huckster"
* "The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger"
Back in the Seventies, mysteries were all about writing and acting. The writers delivered their part of the bargain, and the strong main cast and guest stars did their part as well. Even though the absent-minded academic is beyond cliché -- and was back in the Seventies as well -- Jim Hutton has a relaxed affability that sets people at ease. While the absent-minded, clumsy portrayal of Queen was a marked departure from the character as portrayed in the stories, Hutton sold it so well that creators Dannay and Lee gave their stamp of approval. Hutton enjoys great chemistry with David Wayne; Hutton's affable demeanor contrasts well with Wayne's crusty pragmatism. There's even good physical contrast, Hutton's gangly 6-foot-4-inch frame set against Wayne's compact build. They play off each other well; they get cranky with each other, but you always see the affection they have for one another. Just as importantly, Inspector Queen is presented as a dedicated, capable lawman -- he isn't just there to make his son look brilliant. The mysteries are good, but watching these two together is just fun.
The series boasts a veritable galaxy of guest stars -- the operative word being "stars." Ray Milland, Susan Strasberg, Joan Collins, Don Ameche, Anne Francis, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, George Burns...you get the idea. The presence of several big names in each episode not only ups the overall performance level, but it keeps you from playing "Who's the biggest star?" to identify the killer. There are also a lot of familiar bit players, including Eugene Roche and Murray Hamilton, as well as some very young yet familiar faces floating about, including John Larroquette in one of his earliest appearances.
E1 has done a solid job restoring the title. Most of the film damage has been repaired, and colors are generally strong. Some film grain remains, there's some out of hand edge enhancement, and flesh tones are at times inconsistent, but there's nothing overly distracting. The mono video track is crisp and clear; the series is dominated by dialogue, so there's no real need for any kind of stereo action -- Elmer Bernstein's theme music, a playful swing number, is great fun. The extras are, let's just say, minimal. Thirty-five years later, the only major survivor is writer/developer/executive producer William Link; he provides a 20-minute interview, but it's a bit dry and superficial. I'm not sure what else they could have done, though. Perhaps Timothy Hutton could have provided some remembrances of his father? Toss in a few Ellery Queen radio shows? It doesn't really qualify as an extra, but it should be noted that the pilot uses the standard NBC Mystery Movie theme, upping the nostalgia quotient a bit.
This is the sort of series that will appeal to the people who saw it back in the day, though I'm not certain it will find much of an audience with the younger set. One of the reasons is the tension -- or rather, the lack thereof. You don't get any car chases, gun battles, or brawls -- it's pretty much Ellery meeting people, askinsome questions, and separating the guilty from the innocent. That's not to say that it's boring, mind you -- it's just that the focus is on the mystery, and nothing else. Some of the mysteries are too clever for their own good, relying on the idea that the dying victim had the presence of mind to leave a bizarrely convoluted clue fingering the culprit, and at times the editing gets a little sloppy, the camera lingering on key clues to the extent that you can't help but figure things out.
Trivia: The series was developed by veteran writers Richard Levinson and William Link, who also created Columbo. Even though this series never found an audience, Link and Levinson were convinced that the concept of a mystery writing sleuth was viable. Several years later, they retooled the concept, making an effort to simplify the mysteries. The result, Murder, She Wrote, ran for twelve years.
Ellery Queen Mysteries probably isn't going to be a big hit with the ADD crowd, but it remains a solid, well-made series. Despite the lack of substantive extras, E1 has the thanks of the court for treating it with the respect it deserves.
As Hercule Poirot might say, this is a set that will agitate the little gray cells most adequately.
Review content copyright © 2010 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 1176 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: TV Series
* Wikipedia: Character