Suspense, an anthology drama featuring stories of mystery and the macabre, was broadcast live from New York on Tuesday evenings from 9:30-10:00 P.M. over CBS. The original series began on 1 March 1949 and continued for four seasons until August 1954. It was revived briefly between March and September 1964.
Suspense was based on the famous radio program of the same name and was one of many early television shows that had its origin in the older medium. The radio program began in 1942 and was broadcast weekly from Hollywood. Scripts were generally of high quality and featured at least one well-known stage or film performer. The famous broadcast of 1948 entitled "Sorry Wrong Number" starred Agnes Moorehead in a thrilling tale of an invalid woman who accidentally overhears a telephone conversation in which arrangements for her own murder are being discussed. For the rest of the program, she tries frantically to telephone someone for help. A stunning concept for the aural medium, the episode was later made into a film. In addition to such fine writing, the radio Suspense featured outstanding music by Bernard Herrmann and excellent production values. The program attracted a loyal following of listeners until September 1962. When it left the air, Suspense was the only remaining regularly scheduled drama on commercial network radio.
The television version of this popular show attempted to create the atmosphere of its radio predecessor by using the same opening announcement--"And now, a tale well calculated to keep you in. . . SUSPENSE!"--accompanied by the Bernard Herrmann theme played on a Hammond organ rather than by an orchestra. The television version, however, was not able to attain the generally high quality of the radio program. Part of the problem was the program's length. Thirty minutes hardly allowed sufficient time to develop characters of any subtlety. And the fact that the program was broadcast live from a New York studio severely restricted the mobility of its actions. It seemed too that writers sometimes offended public tastes by presenting subjects considered to be too violent for the conservative tastes of the early 1950s.
The first broadcast entitled "Revenge" was given a very negative review by "New York Times" radio and television columnist Jack Gould. He candidly stated that the program had more "corn than chill" and that the drab story about a man who stabs his wife while she is posing for a photograph gave actors "little opportunity for anything more than the most stereotyped portrayals." Gould noted that the most interesting thing about the program was its interspersing of live studio material with film to show exterior actions. Despite the interesting technique, Gould felt that the exteriors could have been dispensed with entirely without doing harm to the story.
He also complained of the excessive verbal explanation, and dialogue that was too simplified. He believed that the presence of pictures should free the dialogue from exposition and allow it to be more eloquent. As he put it, "With the pictures saying so much, the dialogue can afford to have more substance and be more subtle." His review concluded with a telling observation on the new medium, "The lesson of the first installment of 'Suspense' is that among all the mass media, television promises to demand a very high degree of compact and knowing craftsmanship for a mystery to be truly successful."
Gould continued to attend to the series, however, and became incensed about another episode entitled "Breakdown." Written by Francis Cockrell and Louis Polloch, the episode starred Ellen Violett and Don Briggs. The story focuses on a cruel and tyrannical office boss who breaks his neck in a plane crash and is taken for dead until just before his body is cremated.
Gould did not object so much to the story as to its mode of presentation. He was particularly upset by what he called "the unrelieved vividness of the details of death which no war correspondent would think of mentioning even in a dispatch from a battlefield." In closing Gould stated, "Both the sponsor, an auto accessories concern, and CBS should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves for their behavior last night. Mystery, murders, and suspense certainly have their place in any dramatic form. But a sustained and neurotic preoccupation with physical suffering for its own sake has nothing whatever to do with good theater. It is time for everyone concerned with Suspense to grow up."
Most Suspense episodes were more conventional than "Breakdown." The program entitled "F.O.B. Vienna" of 28 April 1953 was fairly typical. It starred Walter Mathau and Jayne Meadows in the story of an American businessman who has accompanied a shipment of lathes to Austria and is trying to keep them out of the hands of Communists. The shipment ends up in Hamburg, and Mathau tracks it there with the help of Meadows who plays a newspaper reporter. At the last minute, he is able to destroy the shipment as the police arrive to round up the Communists. The ordinary script was not, in fact, very suspenseful and much of it cried for action impossible to depict within the confines of the studio.
A more successful broadcast was "All Hallows Eve" of 28 October 1952. Based on the story "Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson, this is the account of a man who murders his pawnbroker and is then visited by the devil who urges him to kill the man's housekeeper in order to cover up his crime. In an attempt to atone for his utterly delinquent life, the man draws back at the last moment and tells the housekeeper to call the police because he has just murdered her master. Thwarted in his efforts to gain another soul, the devil disappears. Produced by Martin Manulis, this episode made excellent use of the pawnshop set. With its peculiar artifacts and many mirrors which reflect the face of the murderer as he thinks guiltily about his deed, the sense of confined space becomes central to the tale. Franchot Tone gave an outstanding performance as the main character. Suspense broadcast a number of other adaptations during its four years on the air. The program drew heavily on classic mystery and suspense offerings, including "The Suicide Club," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," by Stevenson, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," and "The Signal Man" by Charles Dickens, and "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allen Poe.
On 26 May 1953, Suspense broadcast its only Sherlock Holmes story. "The Adventure of the Black Baronet" was written by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson as an extension of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. The television adaptation was by Michael Dyne and starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Martyn Green as Dr. Watson. Jack Gould gave the program an unfavorable review saying that much subtlety and brilliance of the Holmes character had been sacrificed by the compression of the story into thirty minutes. He added that Rathbone seemed unhappy with his part and that Martyn Greene was not as effective as Nigel Bruce who had played Dr. Watson to Rathbone's Holmes on the radio. The production was only one of many instances in which the television version of Suspense paled in comparison to its radio counterpart.
-Henry B. Aldridge
NARRATOR Paul Frees
PRODUCERS Robert Stevens, David Herlwell, Martin Manulis