I recently and metaphorically took a jaunt in Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine and wound up in Memory Lane in 1960 where I encountered an old friend who has stayed in my memory for over 50 years, The Dow Hourt of Great Mysteries. As I remembered it, this was a series of three television shows of classic mysteries slotted as "specials", meaning that they were not locked into a specific day's time slot. My memory, as it usually does, betrayed me. There were seven shows appearing scattershot on NBC from March to November of that year, all hosted by Joseph N. Welch (the judge from Anatomy of a Murder.) Ah, but what shows!
The first offering appeared at the end of March and was Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat, the classic creaky thriller (written with Avery Hopwood) from the 1920s that was a hit on Broadway and was turned into a best-selling novel published in 1926 under Rinehart's name, although actually ghost-written by Stephen Vincent Benet. The Bat is a mysterious murderer set loose in an old mansion; he was evil enough to send chills down the spines of audiences over the decades. (So dark, in fact, that Bob Kane used him as the inspiration for Batman.) This episode was directed by Paul Nickell from a script by Walter Kerr and featured Helen Hayes, Jason Robarts, Jr., and Margaret Hamilton.
The second episode in the series, again directed by Paul Nickell, appeared near the end of April and was John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court, from one of my favorite novels by the master of the locked room mystery. Witchcraft, murder, and all-around eeriness envelop this classic story of a woman who appears to be identical to a notorious 17th century murderess. The teleplay was by Audrey and William Roos, talented mystery authors in their own right. George C. Scott, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Robert Lansing headed the cast.
The first episode of the series was shown on a Thursday night and the second episode on a Tuesday so why not show the third episode on the fourth Monday of May? This was The Woman in White, from the classic 19th century mystery novel by Wilkie Collins. Here a young girl falls into the evil clutches of Count Fosco, played by Walter Slezak. (Was there ever a villain more villainous than Count Fosco? I remember the sinister, oily way he was portrayed by Sidney Greenstreet in the movie. Alas, I can't remember whether Slezak's performance equalled that of Greenstreet.) Siobhan McKenna played the title role, and Robert Flemyng, Arthur Hill, Lois Nettleton, and Rita Vale helped fill out the cast. The script was by Frank Ford this time. Again, the director was Nickell.
After that, the series took the summer off -- which may be why I remembered the series to have only three episodes. It returned on September 20, a Tuesday evening this time, with The Dachet Diamonds, from a story by Richard Marsh. (I'm not sure of the exact source of this story. To my knowledge, Marsh never wrote a story under that title; the nearest title to it in his novels is 1893's The Devil's Diamond, but there is no mention of "Dachet" in the book and none of the characters are in the television episode. The same goes for his story "The Diamonds" which appeared in his 1900 collection The Seen and the Unseen. Does anyone out there know the source of this episode?) Marsh is probably best known for his horror novel The Beetle, which was published the same year as Bram Stoker's Dracula and far outsold the other book.
The Dachet Diamonds was directed by Gower Champion from a script by Walter Kerr. It starred Rex Harrison, Tammy Grimes, Reginald Denny, Melville Cooper, and Alice Ghostley; Robert Flemyng also shows up in this one, making him (I believe) the only actor to appear in more than one episode. According to the CTVA website, the episode is a "tale of an Englishman who accidently comes into possession of stolen diamonds." This is certainly the least-known "great mystery" presented in the series.
Only a week later, the fifth episode appeared: The Cat and the Canary, based on the 1922 play by John Willard. Possible heirs at the reading of will (that has been delayed for twenty years) begin to fight each other in this chesnut. This tale of possible madness was directed by William A. Graham from a script by Audrey and William Roos. The cast included Andrew Duggan, Collin Wilcox, Sarah Marshall, and Telly Savalas.
Episode six (aired on Tuesday, October 18) goes back to the 19th century for J. Sheridan Le Fanu's The Inn of the Flying Dragon, which was first published as The Room at the Dragon Volant and comprised all of Volume II and part of Volume III of In a Glass Darkly (1886). Here is a tale of a young man falling in love with with the young wife of a miserly (and possibly evil) old count. They all end up at the Dragon Volant, where our hero is given a "cursed" room. Political intrigue and double dealing abound. [Unabashed plug: I plan to cover this book for this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.] Farley Granger, Barry Morse, and Hugh Griffith starred in this episode written and directed by Sheldon Reynolds.
The final episode was based on the 1920 spy-guy novel The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim. Nasty German spy wants to kill a member of Parliament and take his place. Once again, we have a teleplay by Roos and Roos. The Great Impersonation starred Keith Mitchell and Eva Gabor and was directed by David Greene. This one aired on Tuesday, November 16.
The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries provided a platform for well-written, well-directed, and well-acted mysteries. I wish this series had continued. Audiences would have to wait over a decade for the consistently excellent mysteries produced on Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!
As far as I can tell, none of the episodes have been released on DVD and I haven't been able to find them anywhere on the web. Dammit.
For more Overlooked Films, hop over to Sweet Freedom, where Todd Mason will keep us updated throughout the day.
UPDATE: According to St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, Richard Marsh did publish a novel titled THE DATCHETT DIAMONDS in 1898. I really should have checked that reference before posting. Mea culpa.