A mini- tribute to Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater

             A mini-tribute to Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater

Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) wrote scads of mystery and crime novels and short stories in addition to plays that were ripe for adaptation by the movies. In fact, the British author, who had relocated to the U.S. in 1931, was working on an initial draft of the script for KING KONG (1933) at the time of his untimely death from undiagnosed diabetes. His works were increasingly turned into cinematic product in the years following his death, including his early African adventure work SANDERS OF THE RIVER, which Universal filmed in 1934 with Colin Clive in the lead. He was well-represented in his homeland's film industry with such entries as THE RINGER (1931), its remake THE GAUNT STRANGER (1939), THE TERROR (1938) and THE CASE OF THE FRIGHTENED LADY (1940). Reprinting of Wallace's novels and stories in West Germany in the late 1950s inspired a flood of "krimi" pictures based -- in some cases, very loosely -- on those works; sometimes, the titles alone were about all that was recognizably Wallace in the film. Wallace's fiction had always been popular in Germany and adapted in that country's cinema since the late 1920s. The popularity of these German productions was not lost on UK filmmakers, and for several years in the '60s a series of B movies appeared under the Wallace name that were close to the spirit of the author's intention even if they were contemporized, or frankly, only utilized the basic idea as a starting point.

These movies, the majority running just under an hour in length, were seen in the U.S. under the "Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater" package syndicated to local television stations. Shorn of a few minutes to accommodate commercials, the films were ideal fillers in addition to being entertaining stories. I first encountered EWMT around 1970 when I spotted the program title "Edgar Wallace -- Mystery" in the newspaper listings for New York's WPIX-TV. The films were also popped into the schedule when rain disrupted the station's coverage of Yankees baseball. 

Seen today, the British Edgar Wallaces fall into the "cozy" kind of mystery in which stern but astute Scotland Yard (or local constabulary) detectives solve the crime through hard work and deduction, while classy yet guilty criminals try throwing them off the scent. Adding to the period flavor of the movies was the fact the coppers were working out of what became the "old" Scotland Yard along London's Thames Embankment, still known as the "new" Yard when the films were made.

The "cozy" designation would have been rejected when the movies were made because of the effort to modernize the original stories, yet an entry such as THE CLUE OF THE NEW PIN (1961) remains an enjoyably old-fashioned locked room murder puzzle. Killers and criminals became more ruthless, as in SOLO FOR SPARROW (1962) and RETURN TO SENDER (1963) in a concession to the changing nature of society, but at the end of each flick justice has been served and order restored to everyday life. The British Edgar Wallaces provide a glimpse of post-World War II and pre-mod England with few ambiguities about right and wrong; when a murderer strikes, he (or she) must be unmasked.

The series was produced by Merton Park Studios, a primarily low-and-middle budget concern that had made a share of interesting films, mostly for the domestic market, throughout the '50s. On occasion, when it attracted an American star to headline the cast (and increase distribution opportunities overseas), the results were pleasing, as seen with Cesar Romero in STREET OF SHADOWS (U.S. title: SHADOW MAN, 1953) and Rod Cameron in ESCAPEMENT (1957, shown here as THE ELECTRONIC MONSTER). 

Merton Park also produced (with Anglo-Amalgamated distributing) a number of featurettes under the umbrella title of SCOTLAND YARD detailing the Yard's solving of various baffling cases, with narration and commentary from popular crime novelist Edgar Lustgarten. (These films, running about 30 minutes, had a brief run on ABC-TV in the early '60s). Quick and to the point, the SCOTLAND YARD entries served as a precursor to the Edgar Wallace series, which boasted Jack Greenwood as its producer. (Greenwood also produced SCOTLAND YARD in the years prior to the series' expiration in 1961).

New directors such as Clive Donner and Gordon Flemyng gained experience helming the Edgar Wallace entries, working from scripts provided by authors like Robert Stewart and Roger Marshall, who later wrote for such TV programs as DOCTOR WHO and THE AVENGERS. Casts were led by such reliable acting talent as Bernard Lee in five of the Wallaces and a pre-DOCTOR WHO William Hartnell (TO HAVE AND TO HOLD, 1963), familiar Hammer Films faces like Barbara Shelley (DEATH TRAP, 1962) and Michael Gough (CANDIDATE FOR MURDER, 1962, and GAME FOR THREE LOSERS, 1965), and a future star in Michael Caine (as a thug in SOLO FOR SPARROW). 

Fans of the long-running BBC sitcom (and local PBS favorite) ARE YOU BEING SERVED? will be amused to find cast members Nicholas Smith (Mr. Rumbold) and Larry Martyn (Mr. Mash from the first few series) sharing two scenes in PARTNERS IN CRIME (1961) as, respectively, a pawn shop assistant and a motorcyclist trying to hock the gun he's found. Other future British TV stars appearing in the Wallaces include Harry H. Corbett of STEPTOE AND SON (in MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE, 1960, and TIME TO REMEMBER, 1961); John Thaw, INSPECTOR MORSE himself, on the opposite side of the law in FIVE TO ONE (1963); and Brian Wilde, LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE's Foggy Dewhurst, as a prison warder in ON THE RUN (1963).

Stories ranged from adaptations of Wallace works such as CLUE OF THE TWISTED CANDLE (1960), to apparently original crime studies like MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE and INCIDENT AT MIDNIGHT (1963). TWISTED CANDLE, the first of the Merton Park productions, is another neat murder-behind-locked-doors mystery solved by crusty Superintendent Meredith (a role Bernard Lee played again in the course of the series), while INCIDENT benefits from a tight script that packs a nice surprise ending. 

It is interesting to learn that Wallace was the first British author to make official detectives the heroes of his stories; for some time, the genre tended to favor brilliant private operatives like Sherlock Holmes and the gifted amateurs like Lord Peter Wimsey or Miss Jane Marple. The British series continued with the concept of having the traditional Yard man triumph, but also allowed for non-authority figures to have their day at crime-busting, among them Conrad Phillips' solicitor in THE FOURTH SQUARE (1961) and a television journalist (James Villiers) in CLUE OF THE NEW PIN.

The films have their light moments, but stay with the message at hand minus the wildly imaginative (and just plain wild) developments of the German Wallace krimis. (Wallace's son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, 1904-1971, also became a mystery writer and saw some of his stories brought to the screen, such as THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE, 1963, and THE PHANTOM OF SOHO, 1964, by Rialto. His THE DEAD ARE ALIVE, 1972, was the last of the studio's krimis).

Merton Park produced the bulk of the series for use in double features in the early '60s, with '61 and'62 being the bumper crop seasons, but varied the format with TO HAVE AND TO HOLD, which ran longer than an hour. Later entries, including CHANGE PARTNERS (1965) and GAME FOR THREE LOSERS, moved away from the Wallace identification; in fact, GAME was based on a novel by Edgar Lustgarten. These two were among the final set of Wallaces made by Merton Park as television and radio stepped forward to offer  more adaptations of his fictional creations (THE MIND OF MR. REEDER, etc.)

By then, the market for black-and-white filler for the lower half of the double bill was drying up, and Merton Park (not to be confused with a contemporary American-Canadian film production company of the same name) shut down in March 1967 with the final episode of a TV series, SCALES OF JUSTICE, hosted by the seemingly ever-present Lustgarten.

These Edgar Wallace thrillers pack a lot of entertainment value in their spare running times and are very deserving of rediscovery. They may even inspire you to seek out the works of the man for whom they are named, as this student plans to do. More restrained than the Wallace-themed krimis, the British series is a fine destination for anyone seeking out solid murder puzzles and tales of the London underworld.


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