Simanaitis Says

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THE SINGING DETECTIVE—WITH A SINISTER OVERTONE

AMERICAN DETECTIVE Richard Diamond may not have the worldwide reputation of England’s Sherlock Holmes, but evidence in the Sacred Canon suggests that Holmes possessed nowhere near Diamond’s golden tones. Diamond was the only shamus I know who ended his adventures with a song while playing the piano of high-society girlfriend Helen Asher.

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Richard Diamond Private Detective: Homicide Made Easy, one of several classic radio mystery CDs available at www.radiospirits.com.

Diamond entertains Asher with the polish of a cabaret star—and it’s no wonder. This tough New York sleuth was portrayed by Dick Powell.

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Dick Powell, 1904 – 1963, American singer, actor, film producer and director, co-founder of Four Star Television Productions. Image from his song-and-dance days in the 1930s.

Powell came to stardom as a musical comedy performer decades before his 1944 debut as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in the film noir Murder, My Sweet. Powell’s transition to a radio Marlowe came within the year; Richard Diamond, Private Detective, followed from 1949 through 1953.

Virginia Gregg portrayed Helen Asher, Diamond's high-society girlfriend.

Virginia Gregg portrayed Helen Asher, Diamond’s high-society girlfriend.

Among radio sleuths of the era, Diamond shared a New York City setting with Nero Wolfe (see “The Holmes-Wolfe Link,” http://wp.me/p2ETap-jn). Sam Spade was San Francisco-based; Marlowe, Los Angeles. Diamond was the wittiest of the bunch, thanks in part to snappy dialogue written by Blake Edwards (who went on to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the Pink Panther series starring Peter Sellers and Victor Victoria starring his wife of 41 years, Julie Andrews).

Recurring themes occur between Diamond and NYPD precinct boss Lt. Walt Levinson, whom he respects, and the precinct’s bumbling Sgt. Otis Ludlum, whom they both love to tease (“…as dead as Otis on a double date…”) The program is not without inside jokes, like the time Diamond compares a hot dish with actress June Allyson. Powell and Allyson were husband and wife from 1945 until his death from cancer at age 58 in 1963.

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The Conqueror, 1956, starring John Wayne, Susan Hayward, with Agnes Moorhead and Petro Armendáriz; directed by Dick Powell, produced by Howard Hughes. Image from http://www.imdb.com.

To conclude on a note of speculation, not to say high controversy, Dick Powell was the director of The Conqueror, a 1956 Cinemascope epic starring John Wayne, improbably enough as Genghis Khan. (What’s the Mongol word for “pilgrim”?)

The movie’s exterior scenes were shot in 1954 in Utah’s Escalante Valley, 137 miles downwind of the U.S. government’s Nevada National Security Site. The year before, eleven nuclear weapons were exploded above ground there as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, and it’s said radiation levels at the film location remained higher than normal.

Adding to the problem, producer Howard Hughes shipped 60 tons of Escalante Valley dirt to Hollywood, all the better to match the original terrain in the film’s California shooting.

Of the 220 people in the cast and crew, 91 developed some form of cancer by 1981 and 46 had died of the disease. Powell died in 1963; Armendáriz committed suicide that same year in response to a terminal cancer diagnosis. Hayward, Moorhead and Wayne succumbed to cancer in the 1970s.

It should be noted that Wayne and Moorhead were heavy smokers. On the other hand, Dr. Robert Pendleton, professor of biology at the University of Utah, said, “The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop.”

Howard Hughes was said to have expressed guilt about his decisions regarding the film’s production. He bought all prints of the film for $12 million. It remained out of circulation until his estate sold the film to Universal Pictures in 1979.

Alas, there’s a mystery here worthy of Richard Diamond, followed, of course, by his talented crooning at the piano. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014

One comment on “THE SINGING DETECTIVE—WITH A SINISTER OVERTONE

  1. carmacarcounselor
    August 3, 2014

    He didn’t croon, but James Stewart did play a mean lick on the jazz piano in Anatomy of a Murder. Of course the real musical treat in that movie was Duke Ellington in an uncreditted performance as band leader “Pie Eye.”

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