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Ellery Queen: Classic 1970s Detective Noir

on Wed, 10/13/2010 - 00:00

During the 1970s, the small screen was overflowing with a myriad of television detective shows. NBC was at the forefront of the genre, with its Sunday Night Mystery Movie rotating lineup of Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife. In 1975, however, the network launched an additional series and although it lasted for only one season, Ellery Queen not only followed the blueprint of its contemporaries but set the standard for intelligent “whodunit” style television shows as well.

The series was based on the classic collection of detective novels written by cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee under the pseudonym Ellery Queen. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the books followed the adventures of mystery writer Ellery Queen as he solved various murders with the assistance of his New York City police inspector father, Richard Queen, making the main character arguably the best know “detective” in America. The books also featured a “Challenge to the Reader” near the end, a one-page declaration stating that all the clues necessary for solving the crime had been revealed and that they pointed to only one possible outcome.

The NBC series Ellery Queen followed the pattern of the books, including a “Match Wits with Ellery Queen” introduction that paralleled the “Challenge to the Reader” of the novels. The show took place in 1947 and starred Jim Hutton as the title character with David Wayne cast in the role of Inspector Richard Queen. The setting and time period gave the series a classic noir texture that filled the screen with dark, earthy tones and featured jazzy theme music composed by Elmer Bernstein that likewise added to the mood. It is easy for viewers to forget that they are watching a television show as the production value for Ellery Queen is more akin to a hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart film, albeit with a softer undertone.

That “softer undertone” was courtesy of Jim Hutton’s portrayal of the title character. Although blessed with the attention to detail and analytical skills of a 1940s Sherlock Holmes, Ellery was also an absent minded klutz. “I make it a point to be observant and to pay attention to details,” he told his father in the pilot episode, for instance, only to exit the premises without his glasses. Throughout 22 episodes, plus a two-hour movie pilot, Ellery Queen followed the clues, connected the dots and put murderers behind bars while likewise continuously misplacing his keys, glasses and trademark deerstalker hat.

“Sometimes a person has so much to think about that there’s no room for fountain pens or car keys or glasses,” he tried to explain in a later episode. It was this absent minded aspect to Ellery Queen, however, that Jim Hutton was able to seize upon while also adding a boyish charm and wonder that truly brought the character to life.

David Wayne, meanwhile, gave Richard Queen the right amount of crusty New York police inspector to complement the softer performance of Hutton. The elder Queen was the hard-boiled detective of classic noir with a no-nonsense demeanor that barked orders to right-hand man Sergeant Velie (Tom Reese). But while the inspector had little tolerance for those who interfered with his investigations—from newspaper reporters to politically hungry district attorneys—he could also demonstrate fatherly concern and understanding in regards to his live-at-home son. Always neatly dressed in a 1940s style suit and vest, David Wayne’s Richard Queen was ultimately a bulldog police detective who could easily handle his own in any situation.

Ellery Queen also incorporated two semi-recurring foils into its narratives that added to the already character-rich series—Simon Brimmer and Frank Flannigan. Brimmer (John Hillerman, who went on to portray Higgins on Magnum P.I.) was the snobbish and egotistical host of a popular mystery radio show who envisioned himself as Ellery’s equal but always came up short in his deductions. Like his perceived rival, Brimmer would gather all of the suspects together and announce who the murderer was, only to have Ellery Queen step in and point out a key fact that was missing from the conclusion. Flannigan (Ken Swofford), meanwhile, was a classic “black and white” film era news reporter who spoke in his own 1940s-style slang and continuously attempted to horde in on Ellery’s investigations in search of that illusive “scoop.”

Although Ellery Queen was not the only “whodunit” on network television in the mid-1970s, it was by far the most sophisticated. By the time the title character inevitably turned to the camera and spoke directly to the viewer—announcing that he had solved the mystery and asking if the audience had as well—all of the clues necessary were indeed present but needed a measure of intelligence and keen observation in order to be deciphered. In the end it was this intellectual aspect to Ellery Queen that led to its untimely demise as NBC decided the ratings did not warrant a second season.

“Thinking back, the Queen series was too complicated for its own good,” Criminal Brief quotes co-creator William Link, who went on to create Murder She Wrote for CBS, as saying in 2002. “I remember spending an entire afternoon with Dick (Levinson) trying to figure out ‘how’ keys on a keychain would fall into ‘what’ configuration in one’s pocket when placed there. We deliberately made the clues on Murder She Wrote easier to decipher, including a very guessable murderer now and then. Part of our psychology was to reward the focused viewers because they might then be motivated to return the following week. Another unexpressed reason was that it was far easier to come up with facile clues than sweating bullets over keys in a pocket. The upshot was that Murder She Wrote thrived for twelve seasons, Ellery Queen only one.”

Ellery Queen was more than just another 70s detective show but a homage to classic Raymond Chandler-style film noir of the 1940s that also had a down-to-earth charm and intellectual level that was uncommon on television during the decade. In 1979—a mere three years after the last episode of Ellery Queen aired on NBC—Jim Hutton died of liver cancer at the age of 45. David Wayne, meanwhile, departed this world in 1995 at the age of 81. Fortunately they left behind a true classic as a legacy, one that has passed the test of time and is considered amongst the best detective shows ever produced.

Anthony Letizia

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