Hoist by One's Own Petard

First eerie laughter, then a disturbing voice whispers menacingly: "The Shadow knows!" And then some more chilling laughter.

This is how the ripping 30's radio serial The Shadow begins. The formula is quite simple but effective. Usually there is a trial and an innocent man is found guilty of something he didn't do. But not to worry, the Shadow is on the case. The Shadow is the secret identity of rich playboy Lamont Cranston, and the police don't quite know on which side of the law he operates. He will track down the guilty and see that justice is done. Not the law necessarily, but justice. He reminds me a bit of the really early Batman who had both the gangsters and the coppers after him.

The Shadow is in fact one of the earliest super heroes - he can both become invisible and read minds. This makes him perhaps just a little too superior, I mean he just can't loose, can he? Not against ordinary villains, anyway.

The invisibility and mind reading gives it almost a flavour of science fiction, or at least a tinge of the Gothic.

At the end of each episode The Shadow repeats: "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows," or some variant thereof, followed by a sample of the menacingly ironic trademark laughter.

I've by no means heard more than a tiny fraction of the episodes but the writing is fairly good, the acting convincing and the production values high for the times. What makes the episodes I've heard from 1938 very interesting indeed is that the Shadow/Lamont Cranston is played by none other than the velvety-voiced and quite indecently young Orson Welles, and the same year he made The War of the Worlds to boot.

Welles did in fact make an awful lot of radio appearances on top of his own Mercury and Campbell Playhouse productions. His own productions tended to be cultured and erudite and often adaptations of the classics of literature and stage (though by no means always), while his other radio work was basically just for money. Most of it is probably forgotten, but apart from The Shadow there is another series that is well worth mentioning: The Adventures of Harry Lime. In this British series made in '51 and '52 Harry Lime, who dies in the sewers of Vienna in Carol Reed and Graham Greene's film The Third Man, narrates his amoral exploits and rascally deeds prior to Vienna with appropriate charm, wit and cynicism. The scripts are usually good or at least adequate, some were even written by Orson Welles himself - but who cares, really, it's Orson Welles as Harry Lime! Don't get much better than that.

Mostly Harry's duplicitous schemes are foiled, but occasionally he does get away with the loot. Often he fails because he's not as clever as he thought, not quite. Or maybe he's just thrown when somebody acts, well, disgustingly honestly. Now how's a fellow supposed to foresee that happening?

The Shadow
inspired another superb series called The Whistler. The Whistler is not the hero but the narrator who gently and sometimes gleefully mocks the futile aspirations of the protagonists. They will fail. That is the concept. They will try to pull off something devious and oh so clever, but it always backfires and everything goes horribly awry. And the villain finds himself the victim of his own crime.

The theme is otherworldly, then someone whistles in a ghostly and terrifying manner. "I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes ... I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak."

A typical episode might go something like this: one twin is engaged to a charming man, the other isn't. The other is jealous and kills her sister, makes it look like suicide. And here's the clincher - she puts her own clothes on the corpse, making everyone think it is she who's dead. Then she assumes the dead sister's role. She gets ready to marry the lovely man with whom all along she's been in love. The man starts acting strange. Turns out the man is in fact an escaped convict whom the sister's been blackmailing all the time. The man kills her because he doesn't want her to spill the beans - quite unnecessarily, of course, because she doesn't even know anything about his secret. And wouldn't have betrayed him in any case as she really was in love with him.

Or like this: a man picks up a drunken girl and escorts her home. Turns out she's a stinking rich heiress. He marries her in order to swindle her and take her money. After they're married she makes a painful confession. She isn't rich at all. She hasn't got a dime. Well he's not working nor does he intend to start, so they're right on their uppers. He decides to kill her for the insurance. It all goes perfectly and he's bought himself a good solid alibi at a bar. And the cops have a suspect. Turns out it's the killer's old friend in whom he's confided. The friend's come to the apartment to stop the murder. The killer says he doesn't know him and the friend sings to the cops. And then the killer's alibi falls apart, the barman thought it was a gag to deceive the killer's wife, not the cops, so he won't perjure himself. So the cops throw the killer in the slammer for killing his wife. And the twist? The friend came over to tell the killer something about the wife. No need to kill her after all, she really is stinking rich, the being poor shtick was just a test to see if he truly loves her. Bummer.

The scripts are rather beautifully crafted and the twist ends quite surprising, even when one expects them. The writing is noticeably better than on The Shadow (but that could be just the more restrictive formula). The actors are fine and the narrator's irony delicious.

In the episodes I've heard from 1944 there are in fact quite interesting messages from the sponsors about car battery maintenance (during the war there were restrictions so one could never drive quite enough to charge the battery), paper recycling (wood pulp was needed for gun powder - alas and alack, woe is the the pulp magazine!) and the game Salvo with which the sponsor supplied the armed forces. But otherwise the bits about the sponsor are repetitive, trite and deadly dull.

The Whistler ran for over a decade so there were a lot of episodes produced. And, fortuitously, a lot of them can be found on the net. Oh, bliss and blissfulness!

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