Suspense: Radio’s Outstanding theater of Thrills!
By Wesley Critchfield
In 1940 Alfred Hitchcock took to the radio. He had been called upon to help kickstart a new program. He would direct the Pilot or “audition show” himself, featuring an adaptation of a story he had tackled during the silent film era called “The Lodger” about a family who believes that the man renting their attic rooms just might be Jack The Ripper.
So began a series that would run on the radio for nearly twenty two years, “a program designed to intrigue you and stir your nerves, to offer you a precarious situation and then… without the solution, until the last possible moment. [A program] well calculated to keep you in… SUSPENSE!!!”
Suspense would run mostly as a “Summer replacement show” for a couple of years, but it was in 1942 when it gained a sponsor, (ROMA Wines and later Auto-Lite Automotive Supplies,) that the show really began to walk, and became a staple of CBS’s weekly line up. Before long every star in Hollywood, and New York wanted to be a part of the show. Every week a guest star or two would make an appearance, often taking roles as a killer or a man (or woman) on the run, portraying a persona often very different from the ones they may have been known for on screen.
Comedians such as Danny Kaye, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Fibber McGee and Molly would make appearances on the show in dramatic roles, with very little “funny” about them. While dramatic stars would reaffirm their talents to a listening audience, using only the power of their voice.
Being an anthology, every episode offered a new scenario and a new cast of characters, and most of the stories were originals, though occasionally an episode would be an adaptation of a popular short story.
Perhaps Suspense’s most famous original story was a presentation called “Sorry Wrong Number.” It was first presented in 1943 with Agnes Moorehead, (later known to TV fans as Endora, Samantha’s Mother on Bewitched). The story features a bed bound woman who accidentally overhears a conversation over the telephone through a set of crossed wires or partyline, having caught only a part of the conversation, she quickly begins to believe that someone is about to be murdered… And it might just be her!
The show was an immediate success and the episode would be repeated many times throughout the history of the show, most of the time with Moorehead returning to reprise the character.
The Story would later be adapted into a feature film starring Barbra Stanwick and Burt Lancaster, with a very different ending.
(On a personal note, “Sorry Wrong Number” is probably one of my least favorite episodes of the series. The story goes on for far too long, and the main character is annoying and it doesn’t take very long to see why someone might want to rid themselves of her. In modern parlance, she is very much an unlikable “Karen,” who actually calls up the Operator at the phone company and asks to speak with the Manager several times… I am not kidding. And while Agnes plays the part well, as written, her performance is very nerve jangling, but for all the wrong reasons, and before long she becomes the vocal equivalent of nails on a Chalkboard.)
Quite a few episodes of the show would go on to live lives beyond the program, perhaps most notably “The Hitchhiker” from 1942 starring Orson Welles, would later be adapted by The Twilight Zone, and it could be argued the story was altered and expanded into the questionable horror classic “Carnival Of Souls” having much of the same story line and resolution, (though no such official connection has ever been admitted to my knowledge.)
For a while seeking to be something like “Inner Sanctum” a mystery program on NBC, the show was hosted by “The Man in Black” but soon this gimmick fell by the wayside and we were greeted only by a deep voiced announcer, (very often Paul Frees of later “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and Ludwig Von Drake fame, or William (Bill) Conrad later to be known for “Jake and the Fat Man.”)
Much like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which would not hit the TV airwaves until 1955, Suspense largely shied away from stories of the supernatural or “weird tales,” the stories were almost exclusively about men and women who either made a mistake, or got involved with something they shouldn’t have, or who had committed a murder in a fit of rage.
One episode that has stuck with me for decades now is called “The Earth is Made of Glass” a story of a man who sets out to commit “a Laboratory Murder” a random act of violence that he is sure will never come back to bite him, and for which even his conscience will have no ammunition to bring him to justice.
The resolution of that story while mostly explained away as psychological bares elements of the supernatural.
That and two other stories are highlights.
In “The House in Cypress Canyon,” a couple buy a new home, only to find it is haunted and slowly begin to lose their minds. While no explanation is given for the haunting, both the acting and sound effects make for a very spooky ride, while most modern listeners may not be familiar with its star Robert Taylor, it does have an appearance by Hans Conreied, who would later become known as the voice of Disney’s Captain Hook, and the Host of Jay Ward’s “Fractured Flickers.”
The second is the aptly titled “Ghost Hunt” this story was presented in 1949 starring Ralph Richardson and it could be argued that between it and “The War of the Worlds” (1938) it largely invented the “Found Footage” (in this case, audio) genre. In the story a radio DJ and a Professor explore a Haunted House with deadly consequences. In keeping with its “non-horror” flavor of the show at large, a logical explanation is offered by the end, but questions remain.
Recently I saw a BBC 1 production from 1992 called Ghostwatch, (a program that aired on Halloween Night and caused something of a commotion, not unlike the War of The Worlds panic in 1938) and it followed much the same pattern as this classic episode.
Suspense itself would run for nearly 20 years on the CBS radio network, and was one of the last shows to finally be canceled in 1962, marking the end of the “Golden Age of Radio”
A Television show based on the radio series made it to air and lived on TV for 6 seasons, (much of it can currently be seen on Tubi) and though it never had nearly as much star power as the original radio show enjoyed during its run.
Its hard to recommend the series as a whole, as it has few to no recurring characters and the quality can vary from show-to-show, and year-to-year, and its strongest time was probably between 1942 and 1955 some of the stories across 20 years of weekly content can get a little repetitive and predictable, being that the show had to set up and complete a new story every week in less than 30 minutes, but most of the stories do indeed deliver on the promise of the show.
On the whole I give the series an 8 out of 10, with many episodes hitting a 10 and beyond. If you are looking for a series that promises entertainment and a “stirring of the nerves” Suspense delivers!
A short list of my favorite episodes (in no particular order:)
- “The Earth is Made of Glass” with Joseph Cotton (Ep 160)
- “Consequence” with James Stewart
- “Mission Completed” with James Stewart
- “Backseat Driver” with Fibber McGee and Molly
- “A Little Piece of Rope” with Lucille Ball
- “A Too Perfect Alibi” with Danny Kaye
- “I Never Met the Dead Man” with Danny Kaye
- “The Black Curtain” with Robert Montgomery
- “Deep Into Darkness” with Douglas Fairbanks Jr
- “Dead Ernest” (A story of Catalepsy)
- “Donavan’s Brain” with Orson Welles (also was later adapted into a Major Motion Picture)
- “The Black Curtain” with Cary Grant
- “Give Me Liberty” with William Powell
- “The Hitch-hiker” with Orson Welles
- “Death Has A Shadow” with Bob Hope
- “The House in Cypress Canyon” with Rober Taylor and Hans Conried.
[Editorial Note—We here at Screaming Eye Press love OTR (Old Time Radio) and highly recommend Suspense as well. All existing episodes of Suspense, as well as most OTR series, are available on the Internet Archive for free]