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Suspense: Collection 3
Why do people tell scary stories? Probably to make mundane reality seem more appealing, or at least acceptable. From the campfire to radio and beyond tales of the macabre continue to fascinate, even if those campfire tales might not hold the same shock value today. Case in point: Suspense, from the early days of CBS television. The crime-mystery-thriller drama made the jump from its original radio version to the cathode ray tube in 1949, ultimately running for 260 episodes. Clearly a huge success in its day, like those campfire tales of old the series can't help but show its age. That is, even though the stories are generally well written and acted, quite a bit of suspense has leaked out of this balloon. But for mystery 'n' macabre fans with a penchant for television history, this Suspense collection is a fascinating document.
Filled with simple tales of murder, revenge and thievery (with the occasional flat-out macabre to liven things up) Suspense reads like a primitive version of Law and Order mostly, with less emphasis on procedural work, and more on watching malfeasants and victims squirm and wriggle in webs. Yet the law always swoops in to punish the guilty by story's end. In fact these yarns more resemble EC Comics Crime SuspenStories than anything else. Early stories, filmed on 'local theater' quality sets, strongly whiff of The Boards, with extremely melodramatic performances and wobbly backdrops. The collection samples from the entire broadcast run, however, delivering as well far superior (or at least more modern) shot-on-location episodes of the late '50s and early '60s.
There's something for everyone, then, in this time capsule. Old Hollywood buffs will enjoy watching a galaxy of stars in early performances: Walter Matthau, Keenan Wynn, Lloyd Bridges, Doris Roberts and Jackie Cooper are among well known names appearing. Shot live in-studio episodes aren't the most dynamic things you'll see - highlighting television's struggle in melding radio and theater into something new. Most everything is shot somewhat statically in medium close-up with a few camera moves standing out as they pave the way for more active TV. A few gems among early episodes, such as "Goodbye New York" forego a standard Suspense fare of saucy, murderous melodrama for grim, in this case noir-esque, despair. Later episodes stretch ambitiously through location shooting, struggling with post-war ennui and becoming more challenging, frightening and ambiguous.
Other standouts include "Death at the Stock Car Races," which is positively bleak in its mater-of-fact moral drift. "The Spider" churns up nice dark shadows despite a daft story and brief, hopelessly muffled voice-overs. "A Time of Innocence" is emblematic of most stories, however, with lots of stilted drawing-room hysterics and overheated intrigue culminating in hand-wringing rectitude. In fact much of Suspense blurs together (in marathon form anyway) as plots aren't terribly intricate, staging is often quite similar, and mystery is a bit minimal. In Volume Three, some of the best is saved for last: "The Funmaster" cranks funhouse nightmares up to ten (for a minute or two) in a poignant albeit off-kilter parable of obsolescence and soft-shoe skills.
"The Funmaster" adequately sums up this collection of potboilers, for the modern viewer at least. In truth the bulk of episodes here will appeal mostly to serious television history fans only - aging vaudevillians, if you will, (I kid because I love) while those whose memories of macabre TV stretch no further back than Night Gallery might find proceedings curious but not engaging. Still, it's nice to have this stuff around, and kudos should be awarded to Infinity Entertainment Group for resurrecting these lost episodes. So throw another log on the fire, close those shutters against the storm, pour another glass of sherry and warm up the set for a creaky trip back in time, just don't expect any nightmares.
These episodes are presented in their original 'broadcast' ratio of 1.33:1 full frame. I say 'broadcast' because in general these weren't broadcast. Shows went live on the CBS network, which I think was primarily to the New York area, and were otherwise recorded in Kinescope for distribution to other CBS affiliates and the West Coast. Kinescope doesn't produce a great looking picture by any stretch of the imagination. Soft, fuzzy and faded are a few of the adjectives one might use to describe these pictures - plus you get a lot of that mysterious black halo around shiny objects. Then again, it's probably the best picture you could expect, and quite likely as good looking (or better) than when one had to warm up the old set for a few minutes prior to watching.
Digital Mono Audio of the 60-year-old variety is what you'd expect - not great. It's not totally horrible either, in that dialog is more-or-less discernible, but horrific organ music punctuating every early episode comes on far too strong. Be ready for a vintage experience and you'll be fine.
Some form of documentary at least would be nice, but extras are nil for this volume of the release. Goofy Auto-Lite spark plug advertisements bracketing acts in most every episode, however, are fun to see.
The will to explore the macabre, the devilish, is strong. Suspense, an early thriller series from CBS, is a fine historical example of storytelling in a darker vein. The highly successful program shows its age in this DVD collection of random episodes from throughout its broadcast run. Mostly stagy but well written and acted, these stories have lost much of their power to shock - though there are enough grim, noir-esque examples to please die-hard fans. Serious television historians and those dedicated to the entirety of fearful entertainment might call this 3rd volume recommended, but with a total lack of extras, those enticed by this best Rent It first, to see if they need it in the permanent collection.