Part 5.1: Theatre of Crime (Hours of Suspense Revisited)

   Following the riches of the 1950s, the anthology series moved into its final period as a stimulating television form. The enormous mass of episodic series featuring regular characters placed the format of the anthology firmly on the back burner.

   Both Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (NBC, 1960) and Boris Karloff’s Thriller (NBC, 1960-62) were essentially, and quite effectively, horror-fantasy series, many with strong elements of mystery.

   Dow Hour used celebrated classics such as Mary Roberts Rinehart’s “The Bat”, John Willard’s “The Cat and the Canary” and Sheridan Le Fanu’s “The Inn of the Flying Dragon”.

   Half of the premier season of Thriller was composed of crime/suspense stories under producer Fletcher Markle, which included tales by Charlotte Armstrong, John D. MacDonald, Cornell Woolrich, Don Tracy and Fredric Brown. Discovering that horror-fantasy worked even better with viewers when they transmitted “The Purple Room” (1960), producers Maxwell Shane and William Frye took over from Markle and concentrated on the macabre. They unleashed scary treats such as Robert Bloch’s “The Cheaters” and “The Hungry Glass”, Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell”, and Harold Lawlor’s “The Grim Reaper”. Much to the viewers’ delight.

   The opening season of Kraft Mystery Theatre (NBC, 1961-63; not to be confused with the 1958 series) was made up entirely of British cinema second features (B movies) and it was not until the second season (1962-1963) that the series proper began.

   The first two episodes of the latter (crime thrillers “In Close Pursuit” and “Death of a Dream”) were directed by Robert Altman. It wasn’t until I happened upon the Mike Doran/Steve exchange in Mystery*File (July 2009) that one episode that had previously puzzled me, called “Shadow of a Man” (1963) starring Broderick Crawford as insurance investigator Barton Keyes and his assistant Jack Kelly as Walter Neff (teleplay credited to Frank Fenton from a story by James Patrick with no mention of James M. Cain or Double Indemnity), was finally laid to rest. Thanks to their information, “Shadow of a Man” proved to be a pilot for a proposed Double Indemnity TV series.

   Something of an immediate sister show to the above, Kraft Suspense Theatre (NBC, 1963-65) boasted three interesting contributions: John D. MacDonald’s “The Deep End” (1964) and William P. McGivern’s “A Truce to Terror” (1964) and “Once Upon a Savage Night” (1964) [the latter published as Death on the Turnpike].

   Shamley Productions returned with The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (CBS, 1962-65), but now with its crisp little half-hour story format enlarged to an hour. Among the stretched-out storytelling could be found such gems as Woolrich’s “The Black Curtain” (1962), Richard Matheson’s “Ride the Nightmare” (1962), Henry Kane’s “An Out for Oscar” (1963), the latter with teleplay provided by David Goodis, the superbly spooky “Where the Woodbine Twineth” (1965), from a Davis Grubb story, and the genuinely unsettling “An Unlocked Window” (1965), from a story by Ethel Lina White.

   Although a mix of drama, comedy, musicals and would-be pilots, Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre (NBC, 1963-67) did present an altogether intriguing pilot, or rather a series of pilots, featuring Jack Kelly as private eye/secret agent Fredrick Piper. The first attempt was made with “White Snow, Red Ice” (1964), written by Richard Fielder. It was followed by “Double Jeopardy” (1965), co-starring Lauren Bacall, “One Embezzlement and Two Margaritas” (1966), written by Luther Davis, and, finally, “Time of Flight” (1966), written by Richard Matheson (here Kelly’s name changed to “Al Packer”).

   Oh, there was also “Guilty or Not Guilty” (1966), a legal drama pilot starring Robert Ryan and co-scripted by Evan Hunter & “Guthrie Lamb” (the latter name belonging to a private eye character created by Evan Hunter [writing as Hunt Collins] for Famous Detective Stories magazine in the early 1950s). Unfortunately, all of the above remained unsold.

   During the 1970s, between the TV pleasures of Harry O (ABC, 1974-76) and The Rockford Files (NBC, 1974-80), Joseph Wambaugh’s Police Story (NBC, 1973-78) was the only other series worth keeping an eye on (the author created the anthology for Columbia Pictures Television).

   Arguably, one of the finest genre anthologies to grace the small-screen, even though it was nearly 40 years ago, the earthy stories culled from LAPD interviews were developed into some remarkable episodes, among them “Requiem for an Informer”, where a careful rapport develops between a detective and his street-wise informer, “The Wyatt Earp Syndrome”, focusing on Harry Guardino’s obsessive officer, and the two-hour “Confessions of a Lady Cop”, with Karen Black as a vice detective on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The series Police Woman (NBC, 1974-78) evolved from “The Gamble” (1974) and Joe Forrester (NBC, 1975-76) from “The Return of Joe Forrester” (1975).

   Fallen Angels (Showtime, 1993; 1995) seemed to be created as something of a small-screen tribute to hard-boiled literature. The carefully constructed series unfolded its noir-ish stories at a leisurely pace, underlining a symbiotic relationship between actor and story.

   In this writer’s opinion, all episodes were nothing short of superb. Many remain etched firmly on the memory. For instance, Jonathan Craig’s “The Quiet Room”, in which two corrupt cops receive their just punishment, Jim Thompson’s “The Frightening Frammis”, celebrating flashbacks and femme fatales, and Chandler’s “Red Wind”, featuring an interminably morose Danny Glover as Marlowe.

   The above selected anthologies (including the earlier Part 5.0) had, admittedly, minimum influence on the TV Crime and Mystery genre in general, but their exposure of the work of important crime authors (the Chandlers, the Hammetts, the Christies) acknowledges the form as something of a television pinnacle.

   The sheer range and diversity of these one-off presentations during the latter half of the last century remain as something to marvel. Perhaps this overview may serve to mark its passing.

   The concluding Part of this history of genre anthologies will observe the UK television history.

Note:   The introduction to this series of columns by Tise Vahimagi on TV mysteries and crime shows may be found here, followed by:

Part 1: Basic Characteristics (A Swift Overview)
Part 2.0: Evolution of the TV Genre (UK)
Part 2.1: Evolution of the TV Genre (US)
Part 3.0: Cold War Adventurers (The First Spy Cycle)
Part 3.1: Adventurers (Sleuths Without Portfolio).
Part 4.0: Themes and Strands (1950s Police Dramas).
Part 4.1: Themes and Strands (Durbridge Cliffhangers)
Part 5.0: Theatre of Crime (US).