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Thursday, May 7, 2009

SUSPENSE: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION -- DVD review by porfle

I'm fascinated by the early days of television, and you can't get much earlier, or more fascinating, than SUSPENSE: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION. This is Jurassic TV, a primitive-looking, melodramatic thriller anthology that premiered in 1949 and lasted for 260 live, half-hour episodes until 1954. Ninety of those episodes have been unearthed and are now available in this 12-disc set which spans the series' entire run.

As in any anthology series, the quality of the writing varies--in fact, some of the stories are clunkers. But for the most part, these episodes are consistantly exciting and imaginative, and live up to the series' title with stories that quickly establish a suspenseful situation and then keep us on edge till the end. Several stories are adapted from the works of authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. Rod Serling's contribution, the eerie "Nightmare at Ground Zero", is a tense and unsettling atom-bomb tale that really stretches the limits of live television.

Knowing that these teleplays were performed live gives them the immediacy of theater combined with the intimacy of television. You can imagine the actors and crew rushing into their next set-ups during a slow dissolve, and sometimes you can hear them doing it, too. Gaffes by these skilled actors are few, while the occasional technical blooper is unavoidable.

In "The Comic Strip Murder", a piece of equipment can be seen moving past a high-rise balcony like a UFO. In "The Parcel", a stock clip of a crowd enjoying a ballgame runs out before the director can cut to Ray Walston, Royal Dano, and Conrad Janis sitting in a bleacher mock-up. Cues are missed, boom mike shadows flit across walls, focusing is done on the fly, and sometimes you can even spot an errant crew member where he shouldn't be. But mistakes like this are part of the appeal of watching live television, and the fact that there are so few of them in this smoothly produced and directed (mostly by Robert Stevens) series is impressive.

Most of the stories are grounded in reality, with the occasional foray into the supernatural. The very first episode in this collection, "A Night at the Inn" with Boris Karloff, is an unabashedly nutball tale of a gang of thieves stalked by knife-wielding, turban-wearing Indians for stealing a sacred idol's jeweled eye, until the indignant idol itself shows up to reclaim it. Another episode, "Black Passage", features none other than Stella Adler as a hot-blooded Latin vampire and a very young William Prince as the unwary suitor of her equally bloodthirsty daughter.

Hardboiled crime drama rubs shoulders with frequent doses of Hitchcock-style mystery and creepiness, along with the type of macabre irony often found in EC comics. Richard Boone gives a super cool performance as a homicide cop closing in on a medical examiner whose guilt has been inadvertently captured on film in "Photo Finish." In "My Old Man's Badge", Barry Nelson plays a beat cop who singlehandedly takes on a drug-smuggling ring to avenge his father's murder, and in "Dead Fall", he's framed for passing industrial secrets to the Commies.

On the darker side, "Dr. Violet" gives us Hume Cronyn as the proprietor of a carnival murder museum who takes a chillingly active part in his exhibits, while "Dead Ernest" generates suspense by showing us a catatonic man mistakenly pronounced dead and lying on a morgue slab awaiting the embalmer.

One of the main pleasures of watching this collection is its incredible array of familiar faces, from past, present and future stars to the great character actors, often doing brilliant work. Ray Walston (billed as "Wallston" in one episode) and Royal Dano appear several times. Leslie Nielsen, just beginning his career as a dramatic actor which would later give way to comedy, stars in "The Brush Off" with future "Superman" star George Reeves. Boris Karloff shows up more than once and Bela Lugosi gives a delightfully florid performance in an adaptation of Poe's "The Cask of Amantillado."

Other notable names include Paul Newman, Otto Kruger, Kim Hunter, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, Harold J. Stone, Conrad Janis, Eileen Heckart, Walter Matthau, Eddie Albert, Lloyd Bridges, Mike Kellin, Ward Bond, James Whitmore, Vic Morrow, Jackie Cooper, Brian Keith, Darren McGavin, Franchot Tone, Jack Klugman, Tom Drake, Gene Lyons, Cloris Leachman, Mildred Natwick, Lilli Palmer, Eva Marie Saint, Richard Kiley, Joan Blondell, Jack Palance, Eva Gabor, Peter Mark Richman, Jayne Meadows, Robert Webber, and many more. Several of them make multiple appearances.

These episodes are kinescopes, meaning that a monitor was filmed during the live performances so that copies of each episode could be sent to various network affiliates (this was before videotape or cable). This gives the show a somewhat murky picture and sound quality that is unavoidable; otherwise, however, I think these DVDs look very good. The 12 discs are contained in six attractive slimline cases which were originally released in three seperate sets, and contain all 90 episodes of the show that are known to exist. The final episode, "The Funmaster" with Keenan Wynn, is the only non-live entry and was aired in 1958, four years after the show's demise, presumably in an effort to revive it.

The musical score for "Suspense" is performed almost entirely on Hammond organ (with the occasional piano, tubular bells, etc.) in the style of the early soap operas, and sounds similar to the music in Herk Harvey's CARNIVAL OF SOULS. As a bonus, almost every episode contains the original commercials for the show's sponsor, Auto-Lite automotive products, featuring dulcet-toned announcer Rex Marshall and a delightfully corny assortment of cartoons and animated clips.

SUSPENSE: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION is over 43 hours of pure, unadulterated nostalgia that I found irresistibly entertaining. Whether you're a fan of early TV, or simply curious about what the medium looked like before it began to earn nicknames like "vast wasteland" and "boob tube", this time capsule from television's infancy should give you just the sort of buzz you're looking for.

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2 comments:

Max the drunken severed head said...

I felt very let down by this set. Being kinescopes, I expected muddy images, but combined with lackluster scripts and uneven acting, the majority of episodes left me lukewarm at best. I think the dvd company knew the whole package overall was a turkey. They certainly sold it in a way designed to get the most moolah from curious Karloff, Lugosi, and Serling fans by dividing it into three separate release, each with a headliner (and two with Karloff episodes.) I had to shake my head at the "remastered" claim (implying but not saying that image quality was improved) and got a big laugh at the "Filmed in KINESCOPE" blurb -- as if it were an advanced process like Cinemascope!

Brass product, mostly, from TV's "Golden Age of Drama."

porfle said...

True, but even so, I eat this totally retro stuff up with a spoon.