Manuscripts, Mother Russia and Murder: Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries, Volume 2

October 26, 2020

There’s no doubting Orson Welles’ ability to tell a good story. His 1938 radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds led to newspapers reporting mass panic, and listeners taken in by the classic Martian invasion being presented as a live broadcast. Three years later, his debut film Citizen Kane contained a one-word pay-off so iconic it would go on to fuel a whole Columbo episode. Even fans of superhero sagas have felt his narrative touch: Welles famously voiced metal demigod Unicron in Transformers: The Movie (1986).

So it’s a major scoop that, in 1973, Anglia TV were able to recruit the filmmaker to host their 26-episode Great Mysteries anthology series. The first thirteen episodes were released by Network last year, and boasted ideas as diverse as Edward Albert and Doctor Who’s Colin Baker as preyed-upon gamblers, Peter Cushing being cuckolded by Susannah York of Superman (1978), and Ian Holm – late of Alien (1979) and the Lord of the Rings saga – as a haunted juror. The second collection doesn’t drop the ball, again scored by Bond composer John Barry, and featuring tales introduced by Welles as a cigar-puffing polymath. Here are some of the highlights.

Ice Storm

After the title sequence of a cloak-clad Welles striding around a mansion, we’re introduced to Clair Bloom of The King’s Speech (2010), The Haunting (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981). Here, she plays Sheila Pennell, PA to Professor Barrington (Donald Eccles), who’s the owner of a priceless collection of manuscripts. He just has time to warn her that one of the party she’s about to receive is a murderous impostor before he’s killed, and the telephone line goes dead. It’s a dark evening of freezing fog: mobile phones haven’t been invented, and Sheila is completely cut off. Now required to play hostess and sleuth simultaneously, she duly admits the professor’s guests: literary scholar Professor Beecham (Thorley Walters), Canadian collector Mr Trench (Robert Beatty), and music historian Dr Mackay (played by Porridge’s Brian Wilde, as opposed to Porridge’s Fulton Mackay). With the eggheads pushing for her to open the vault and reveal the prized manuscripts, and foul weather preventing the chauffeur from going for help, the clock – and Sheila’s pulse rate – is ticking …

Money to Burn

Soho, 1948. Olga Georges-Picot, recognisable as the femme fatale from The Day of the Jackal (1973), stars as bereaved waitress Louise Frone. She’s just inherited Le Coq d’Hiver, her father’s struggling restaurant; it comes with a £2000 loan payable to local thumb-breaker Adelbert (Victor Buono). Proprietor of the disreputable Glass Mountain club, Adelbert has designs on both Louise’s hand in marriage and her family business. After installing his sinister maître d’ Francesco – whose icy stare, fixed grin and questionable accent give him the feel of a holidaying Terminator – Adelbert suggests Louise clear her debts via quarterly payments of £250, which he promptly incinerates in her presence. Buono is fantastic as the story’s villain: lighting cigarettes off blazing bundles of cash, and displaying the kind of werewolf mood-swings that made him so popular as Batman’s King Tut. Even the sets seem to recoil under his hulking frame as he bullies revenue out of our heroine. However, as Welles summarises in his narration: “We all get caught … don’t we?”

Unseen Alibi

In this breezy whodunnit, Quantum Leap’s Dean Stockwell is American tourist Gerry Norden, who’s in London to see the trooping of the colour, Wimbledon, and a model called Janet, who he plans on proposing to. Zipping along to a jaunty harpsichord theme on his way to Janet’s apartment, Gerry’s dismayed to be greeted by a man in his intended’s bed – one who’s been stabbed to death, and whose murder weapon Gerry has innocently left his fingerprints on. Fearing he’s about to be framed, the American has to explain his way out of the jaws of Detective Inspector Hud (Joss Ackland), who’s determined to prove the out-of-towner’s guilt over a Thermos of coffee, and some genial pipe-smoking. Can Gerry produce the cabbie who ferried him, or will his tourist trail around Kensington include a long visit to Wormwood Scrubs?

The Dinner Party

At first, it might seem a strange premise for a story in a mysteries anthology: whizz-kid accountant and John Thaw lookalike Anton Rodgers is invited to the big company dinner party. Ostensibly, the evening is about brandies and golfing anecdotes, but it’s actually a cover for pinstriped chairman Anthony Sharp – otherwise known as Alex’s political benefactor in A Clockwork Orange – to assess the calibre of his employee’s wife, and judge whether his executive is suitable for promotion. Joan Collins is dazzling in her role as the pivotal spouse: saying all the wrong things at the dinner table, and turning husbands’ heads in her mass of curls and revealing orange cocktail dress. This is cringe comedy from a time when Ricky Gervais was still in shorts, and as the keen-to-impress couple return to their flat, the true nature of Mr and Mrs Blake’s behaviour is revealed.

A Time to Remember

It would be wrong to cast Avengers’ star Patrick Macnee and Bond villain Charles Gray in a story that doesn’t involve espionage. They play a game of cat-and-mouse here, with the former John Steed portraying London dealmaker Charles Foster, who one morning is whisked away by dark-suited operatives to a fortified garrison. Here, he meets his old ally Mikail Zigorin (Gray), whose restlessness and Russian accent mark him as a recent defector. British Intelligence, however, aren’t convinced: they believe the real Zigorin is dead, and the man they’re holding is a stand-in carrying false government secrets. It’s up to Foster – who forged a friendship with the former Soviet general in war-torn Berlin – to determine whether his old drinking buddy is still who he says he is. Can the man who played 007’s right-hand man in A View to a Kill (1985) trust the man who threatened the super-spy with nuclear ransom in Diamonds are Forever (1971)? Viewers have only 30 minutes to decide.

George Bass Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist

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