Tuesday, January 13, 2004

”Ruth? Turn around, Ruth…”

Day 12 of “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense.”

The Bullet

Harry Martin (Elliott Lewis) has just been released from a three-year stretch in prison, and his wife Ruth (Ida Lupino) has transformed his failing business into a booming success during that span of time. But Harry is jealous of Ruth’s newly-acquired independent streak, and when Ruth asks him for a divorce so that she may marry her lover (William Conrad), he demands that she sign a divorce decree turning over the entire business to him. She refuses, and Harry makes her life a continual hell by pointing a gun to her head and pulling the trigger with a resounding…CLICK! Sure, the gun is empty—but what’s to guarantee it will stay that way?

Written for Suspense by Larry Marcus, “The Bullet,” originally broadcast December 29, 1949, is the first real clinker in The Best of Suspense CD box set. What sinks this episode—and what makes me scratch my head in complete puzzlement as to why it was included in the first place—is an ending that destroys the credibility of everything that preceded it.

There are some things of interest in “The Bullet”: Elliott Lewis gives a memorably slimy performance (and even receives billing in the show’s opening credits) as the abusive, no-good louse of a husband, and William Conrad nearly matches him as Lupino’s paramour—who may even be more of a creep than Lewis’ character. But the biggest disappointment resides in Lupino; for a newly-independent female she certainly lets herself be pushed around by Lewis a lot. It’s also hard to swallow that she could love either of these two jerks; she’s a graduate of the Barbara Stanwyck School of Dames—the same gal who got rid of Alan Hale in They Drive By Night (1940) by closing the garage door on his still-running automobile, croaking him with carbon monoxide fumes. Hale didn’t even point a gun at her. (A cartoonist I once knew, who was fond of Ida, would often remark “If Ida Lupino is the poor man’s Bette Davis—then thank Heaven I’m a poor man!”)

I briefly considered giving away the ending to “The Bullet,” in the hopes that it would ward off anyone curious enough to give it a listen. But after careful deliberation, I decided not to play God and instead, invite you to exercise your own free will. I will reiterate, though, that after hearing this Suspense episode, both “The Search For Isabel” and “The Red-Headed Woman” look a heck of a lot better in retrospect. You’ve been warned.

On a Country Road

David (Cary Grant) and Dorothy (Cathy Lewis) are driving home one night when they hear a bulletin on the car radio about an escaped female mental patient who’s apparently already decapitated four people with a meat cleaver. So it was probably not a wise idea to have taken the shortcut down that desolate country road—and an even worse plan to run out of gas…

In a story (written by Walter Bazarr) that would have felt right at home on Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Suspense presents one of its all-time classic nail-biters: “On a Country Road,” first broadcast November 16, 1950. It’s a heart-pounding little suspenser that features one of Suspense’s favorite guests, Cary Grant—and excellent support from Cathy Lewis, Jeanette Nolan, Larry Thor, and Joseph Kearns.

Radio Spirits founder Carl Amari cites “On a Country Road” as the program that started his love affair with old-time radio; I myself first heard it while attending Marshall University some twenty years ago, so I can identify with how influential this particular broadcast can be. I rented it from the college library, took it back to the dorm and listened to it with the lights out. It literally terrified me more than any horror movie I’d ever seen, and it was then that I began to truly understand the power of radio. “On a Country Road” quickly became a favorite of the show’s fans, making three encore appearances after its inaugural broadcast: twice in 1954 (January 4 and December 9) and the final on May 10, 1959. The latter broadcast is interesting in that it features the husband-and-wife team of Howard Duff and Ida Lupino in the Grant and Lewis roles, long after celebrity guests had become a page in Suspense’s history.

At beginning of the series’ 1950-51 season, frequent Suspense performer and occasional announcer Elliott Lewis took over the directing-producing chores from William Spier and Norman Macdonnell. Lewis experimented by taking the program into different directions, often basing the scripts on real-life events in history. Lewis, best remembered for his roles on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (as Frankie Remley) and Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, became quite a force at the Columbia Broadcasting System during that period, acting as director-producer-writer for several CBS shows, including Broadway’s My Beat, Crime Classics, and On Stage (a program which also featured wife Cathy). Lewis would continue in the role of director-producer on Suspense until Autolite dropped its sponsorship in 1954.

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