REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


DANTE'S INFERNO Howard Duff

DANTE. NBC, Monday 9:30-10pm, October 13, 1960 through April 10, 1961; 26 episodes. Four Star Productions. Created by Blake Edwards. Produced by Michael Meshekoff. Associate Producer: Harold Jack Bloom. Cast: Howard Duff as Willie Dante, Alan Mowbray as Stewart Styles, Tom D’Andrea as Biff. Recurring Cast: James Nolan as Inspector Loper.

   The character Willie Dante began as a recurring character on the anthology TV series FOUR STAR PLAYHOUSE (CBS). Dick Powell played the gambler Dante who owned the restaurant Dante’s Inferno with a hidden backroom for illegal gambling. With the help of his friend, ex-safe cracker and bartender Monte (Herb Vigran), and (in some episodes) a former British millionaire with a gambling habit and now waiter Jackson (Alan Mowbray), Dante would help someone and be rewarded with the cops, usually lead by Lt. Waldo (Regis Toomey), closing down the gambling backroom at the end of the episode.

   I found Powell’s version disappointing, the writing stale, and the acting not strong enough for me to like any of the bad boy characters. Most if not all can be seen on youtube or available on cheap DVDs. Here is an episode with an unexpected cameo:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbhKM6Kydhc

   Four years after Powell’s last Dante, Four Star and NBC decided to air a weekly series featuring Howard Duff as William Dante. Currently various episodes are available from the collector’s market and youtube. While this is the second episode to air, it appears to be the pilot:

(Part One)

(Part Two)

   Things were different. Willie Dante moved to San Francisco with hopes of a new start running a new Dante’s Inferno. This time there would be no backroom for gambling. Dante lived in the office that overlooked the inside of the popular nightclub. He had decided to go straight and was dragging two of his best friends with him.

   Dante’s sidekicks, former thief and now reluctant bartender Biff, and Dante’s Inferno’s Maitre d’ and ex-conman Stewart Styles helped run the club while Dante was out dealing with that week’s threat to the club or him, and they were there for backup whenever Willie needed help.

DANTE'S INFERNO Howard Duff

   Every week Willie would find himself caught in the middle of two or more opposing forces, usually the cops and bad guys. No one believed Willie was going straight, both the good guys and bad guys suspected him to be up to something.

   When a fortuneteller tells a woman her husband will be killed by Willie Dante, Dante finds himself caught in the middle of a mess he didn’t create. For the cops it is a simple case, if anything happens to the husband or Dante they will arrest the survivor.

   Women played an important role in Willie Dante’s life. It was the un-PC time of 1960 and women usually played one of two basic roles, the rich beautiful woman eager to be seduced by willing but business first Willie or ex-girlfriends turned femme fatale. There was an occasional variation such as a mobster’s girlfriend willing to do anything for Dante except reveal the name of her boyfriend who was after Willie. There was even one episode when a suspected bad girl turned into an undercover cop.

   In the episode below, the role of the girlfriend of the week lacked the patience and forgiveness of most, and the female author of a best selling book about a gangster the public believes is Willie Dante gives Willie more problems than any femme fatale ever could.

   The series mysteries surprisingly remain above average. One story featured an old friend from Dante’s past gunned down outside Dante’s Inferno by person and reason unknown, and the cops refuse to let anyone, even his fiancée, see the body. The episode may have been done over fifty years ago but it still entertains and surprises with its twists and solution.

   Created by Blake Edwards, it is no surprise DANTE had a similar look and style of PETER GUNN and MR LUCKY. The dialog was clever and the banter quick and witty. The stories plots were creative and hold up well. In one episode, bank robbers frame Dante by breaking into the Dante’s Inferno safe and switching the stolen money for Dante’s legally gained cash. Plot devices often had a surprise twist such as a blackmailer using homing pigeons.

   In the episode below, an enemy from the past wants Dante dead. Before he retires to the Orient he leaves Willie a $50,000 trust to begin the upcoming Monday. But should Willie not be alive on Monday the beneficiary of the trust would be a hitman desperate for money.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbA0BUffifc

   The main writer was Harold Jack Bloom (HEC RAMSEY). He and the other writers succeed where the writers (including Blake Edwards) of Powell’s version failed. The writing was fresh, clever, and the humor rose above the old vaudeville jokes about coffee that burdened the FOUR STAR PLAYHOUSE episodes.

   But it was Howard Duff who made Willie Dante the lovable rogue. Duff was perfect as Dante. Much as he did in radio’s ADVENTURES OF SAM SPADE, Duff was believable in all aspects of the character, his humor, the romance, and the hardboiled style.

DANTE'S INFERNO Howard Duff

   The guest cast featured such talent as Joanna Barnes, Dick Foran, Ruta Lee, Joan Marshall, Charles McGraw, Pat Medina, Edward Platt, Marion Ross, William Schallert, Joan Tabor, Nita Talbot, and (to the left) Lori Nelson.

   The series never had a chance as NBC placed it opposite of CBS’s ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and ABC’s ADVENTURES IN PARADISE. The first episode got a 13.5 rating versus ANDY GRIFFITH 26.6 and ADVENTURES IN PARADISE 21.3. The NBC program before DANTE was BOB HOPE that for that first week had a 31.9 rating. Losing over half the audience of the show before it and finishing last in its time period made it obvious the odds were against DANTE from the beginning.

   DANTE with Howard Duff was a superior half hour mystery that remains entertaining today. It is a shame more people didn’t watch it when it first aired and there is not an official DVD available for viewers to discover it today.