Elliott (1904-65) was a bona fide cowboy of sorts. His father was a cattle broker and as a boy Elliott grew up on ranch and won First Prize at a 1920 rodeo event before trying his luck as an actor. (Following his retirement in 1957 he continued breeding prize-winning appaloosa and spotted horses.) Columbia Pictures eventually cast him in the leading role in The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, a 1938 serial so successful the studio changed his name from Gordon Nance to "Wild Bill" Elliott and starred him in a series of way-above-average B-Westerns. One of these, Across the Sierras (1941), I raved about in a 2011 DVD review.
Elliott left Columbia for Republic Pictures in 1943, first starring in more Westerns, this batch with George "Gabby" Hayes as his sidekick, before starring in that studio's fondly remembered "Red Ryder" film series, 16 features co-starring Robert (then "Bobby") Blake as his young Indian companion, Little Beaver. After that Elliott moved to Monogram, starring in yet more B-Westerns until the genre faded with the growing popularity of television.
Elliott easily could have joined the move to that new medium as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and William "Hopalong Cassidy" all did during the early 1950s, but instead Elliott finished out his Monogram/Allied Artists contract in this series of semi-hard-boiled detective thrillers, his first non-Westerns since the late 1930s.
The five pictures are Dial Red O, Sudden Danger (both 1955), Calling Homicide (1956), Chain of Evidence, and Footsteps in the Night (both 1957). All are presented in their original 1.85:1 widescreen.
The movies were probably inspired by the runaway success of Jack Webb's Dragnet, the No. 3 show in the country in early 1955, ratings-wise, and so popular that it even spawned a theatrical feature, also called Dragnet (1954), which earned nearly $5 million against a budget of probably less than $500,000. Other than Elliott's similarly dead-pan workaholic cop's cop and a similar use of real L.A. locations, the Bill Elliott series was less hard-boiled, less realistic, and generally less compelling than Webb's great ‘50s TV version of Dragnet. The Allied Artists films were shot fast and cheap, 6-10 days per feature on budgets likely in the $80,000-$120,000 range, maybe even less than that.
The first two are by far the best, with the third and fourth fairly mediocre, and the last one a bit better than those. Dial Red O is the only film of the series to make full use of L.A. exteriors, with the third and fourth films being especially studio bound and further hampered by hackneyed plots.
Dial Red O, about Doyle's manhunt for a Korean War veteran's (Keith Larsen) escape from a V.A. psychiatric hospital, was written by its director, Daniel B. Ullman, but shows signs of having been polished by dialogue director Sam Peckinpah, who also makes his acting debut in a brief scene as a short-order cook. The movie is structured a bit like a Columbo how-catch-‘em and has nice little touches throughout. Doyle's investigations lead him at one point to a science fiction writer (Jack Kruschen) who, for maybe the only time in movie history, really acts and lives like a real science fiction scribe; even the set decoration of his apartment (including what looks like a model spaceship left over from Monogram's Flight to Mars) is dead-on.
But the real fun of Dial Red O is the use of familiar locations. The area around the psychiatric hospital appears to be exteriors of Monogram Studios itself, while much of the film appears to have been shot around Los Feliz and Atwater. The hamburger stand Peckinpah's cook character works is located on Los Feliz Drive just east of the Golden State Freeway, next door to what for many years was a restaurant known as The Swedish Table.
Sadly, there's less of this in the next four films combined, but Sudden Danger compensates with a clever story written by Daniel Ullman and his brother (?) Elwood, author of innumerable Three Stooges shorts. A blind man (Tom Drake) returns home from the Braille Institute to find his live-in mother dead, an apparent suicide. However, when Doyle learns that the money from her life insurance policy will enable the man to get an operation to restore his sight and thus marry his beautiful girlfriend (Beverly Garland), the detective begins to suspect murder. The plot takes a few impressively unanticipated turns while Drake and especially Garland add to its effectiveness.
The next two movies have weaker scripts and are much more studio bound. Calling Homicide starts out well, with one of Doyle's colleagues spectacularly blown-up in his own car right in the Sheriff's Department parking lot, but what follows is strictly TV episode plotting, though the cast is good: Myron Healey, Jeanne Cooper, Thomas Browne Henry, James Best, and Lyle Talbot among them.
Chain of Evidence is the weakest of the bunch, with a ludicrous script about a parolee (James Lydon) beaten in a alley (by loony Timothy Carey, the movie's only highlight) into a state of amnesia and later set up as the fall guy in a murder plot by a married woman (Tina Carver) and her lover (Ross Elliott).
Things get a bit better for the final entry, Footsteps in the Night, with a chronic gambler (Douglas Dick) accused of murdering his wealthy neighbor (Robert Shayne). This one gets Lt. Doyle out of the Monogram backlot, finally, sports a modest but clever story by Albert Band, and features an amusing supporting performance by James Flavin as a garrulous man anxious to help Doyle in his investigation.
Bill Elliott himself is agreeable as Doyle, if a little stiff. He has a great voice (perfect for radio, on which he was a big star) but he talks out of the corner of his mouth and his facial features are placid and generally inexpressive. But Elliott brings more recognizable humanity than Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday, and in a couple of the films even plays Cupid for the ingénue and her boyfriend. Toward the end of the series there's some byplay between Doyle and Don Haggerty as Det. Sgt. Mike Duncan, Doyle's sidekick in the last four films, who by the end of the series becomes a breezy Ben Alexander-type character.
Video & Audio
As with other Monogram/Allied Artists held by Warner Bros., the surviving film elements on these five Bill Elliott Detective Mysteries aren't in the greatest of shape but they are serviceable and so much the better presented in 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen. This is a 2-disc DVD-R set, with the first two titles on Disc One and the remaining three on Disc Two. The mono English audio (no alternate audio or subtitle options) is likewise okay. No Extra Features.
Entertaining, compact little mysteries with likeable Bill Elliott in the lead, this set is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.