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Ellery Queen Mysteries


Rod Lott October 2nd, 2010

 

I think I'm addicted to "Ellery Queen Mysteries." Too bad I've now exhausted all there is to see.

The series ran briefly "” inexplicably "” for one season on NBC in 1975. Being 3 years old then, I wasn't a viewer, but it certainly was something into which a slightly older me would have tuned weekly.

Based on the long-running series of Ellery Queen novels and short stories, the show stars Jim Hutton, father of Timothy, as Ellery Queen, mystery writer and moonlighting detective. His girl Friday is actually his father, Richard (David Wayne), a real cop with the force.

Each of the 22 episodes follows a rather witty and comfortable formula, beginning with a narrator announcing that in a few minutes, so-and-so will be dead; then quickly running through the suspects and inviting the viewer to "match wits with Ellery Queen!" (Cue the über-hummable theme song by legendary scorer Elmer Bernstein.)

The Queen men put their considerable know-how to work, often by deciphering a cryptic note that week's victim had the time and foresight to leave just prior to the moment of expiration. Then Ellery stops to face the camera, asks if you have the answer, throws a few red herrings your way, then assembles the suspects in one room and fingers the murderer. (Annnd scene. Hit it again, Mr. Bernstein.)

Some of the strongest episodes plop the duo in a wild, "Alice in Wonderland" costume party; at a fatal New Year's Eve bash, where Joan Collins looks awfully fetching; on a Hollywood set as Ellery's fiction makes the leap to screen, but not without a factual body count (and Vincent Price relishing his role as a director); in a locked-room mystery in an elevator; amid a chaotic office of comic book creators with a score to settle; and head on with an Egyptian curse.

They really don't make TV shows like "Ellery Queen Mysteries" anymore, as there's nary a hint of neither condescension or cynicism in its entire run. Hutton makes for a charming, unconventional lead — greatly affable, with just a smidgen of gawkiness to be relatable, yet not enough to approach a cartoon. With a semi-sour, Harry Morgan-esque delivery, Wayne excels as the paternal sidekick.

"Magnum P.I." second banana John Hillerman has a recurring role as a stuffy radio actor, and the parade of guest stars includes George Burns, Anne Francis, Don Ameche, Cesar Romero and many, many more. With its rotating cast of B-list famous faces and the interactive of each hour's third act, "Queen" reminded me of another NBC short-lived series of my youth: 1979's quasi-quiz show "Whodunnit?" starring Ed McMahon.

If only E1 could bring that out for home video! They've done an excellent, best-of-year-worthy job assembling this six-disc set. Audio and picture quality are tops, and the whole affair comes packaged with a handy episode guide that you'll actually refer to again and again. If the lone extra is a bit of a downer — co-creator William Link talks slooowly for 20 minutes — who cares? You've still got 1,176 minutes of old-fashioned, highly entertaining puzzlers. —Rod Lott

 
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