Many of us have heard of and enjoyed popular suspense shows like Thriller, Hitchcock, and The Twilight Zone. However, there were some shows that came before these classic favorites. Perhaps they weren’t as successful or well-written, but they might have paved the way for other works in the same genre. At the very least, shows like the anthology series Suspense would have shown the television industry that there’s an audience for suspenseful, thriller stories.
The Suspense series was initially broadcast on radio, but it became a television feature on the CBS television network in 1949. It lasted for five or six seasons (depending on which source you look at) and ended in 1954. Every episode was broadcast live from NYC and Rex Marshall was the host. The number of episodes was a decent 260, but only about 90 episodes survive today.
Similar to many of the earliest TV programs, Suspense was broadcasted live. However, the majority of its episodes were recorded using the kinescope method. This is probably why 90 of the episodes remain, while the rest were destroyed and are not available in any kind of format now.
The sponsor of this show was the Auto-Lite Corporation. The introduction before each episode was conducted by Rex Marshall, who also promoted products from Auto-Lite. These included headlights, car batteries, spark plugs, and related items.
The early scripts from this show were either original works written especially for television or adapted from the radio scripts. Similar to the radio program, the rest of the Suspense scripts also included adaptations of classics from famous authors. The most famous names included Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens. More contemporary authors of that time, such as Gore Vidal and Roald Dahl were also contributors. Several notable actors were also a part of Suspense, including Cloris Leachman, Boris Karloff, Lloyd Bridges, etc.
Some viewers have stated that the Suspense episodes were and still are intriguing and enjoyable. There’s a DVD set available online with all the 90 surviving episodes on it, a total runtime of over 43 hours on 12 DVDs. Since this series was known for featuring famous stars in some unusual roles, fans of vintage television might be interested in giving the episode a shot. The same goes for anyone who enjoys watching shows revolving around science fiction, suspense, horror, mystery, and the macabre.
During the 50 years after the show ended, it was initially thought that most of the Suspense TV episodes were lost forever. The radio shows still survived, but the 90 Suspense episodes have only resurfaced in 2006-2007. They were digitally remastered using the kinescope masters and made into the DVDs mentioned above.
If we want to watch a few episodes before purchasing the whole DVD set, there are some available on YouTube. The episodes are shorter than the radio broadcasts, around half an hour long. They’re usually structured in two acts, while the radio version had four.
Back in 1949, the television industry in America was still in its fledgling stages. Suspense might have been the best it could offer, but we should keep in mind that the budget was low. It’s far from the most suspenseful show of all time, but it was pretty good for that era. Plus, some viewers are also of the opinion that the radio series had a quality that the television counterpart couldn’t quite replicate. The series was also never syndicated, and Auto-Lite stopped sponsoring it in 1954. This was the main reason why the series came to a halt.
If we do start watching Suspense episodes today, we should be prepared for low-budget and simple production value. The props and sets were used several times across various episodes. The credits seem to move awkwardly on the screen, while the theme show is played on an organ instead of an orchestra. There’s also a lot of smoking on screen, which was apparently a prop for creating a tense atmosphere. Characters smoke cigarettes, pipes, and cigars, with some also chewing tobacco throughout the show.
People who have watched the episodes today also have some objections to the insensitive content of some episodes. For instance, one story featured Cloris Leachman playing a Chinese woman. Today, this is considered a politically incorrect gesture and possible cultural appropriation.
Another negative about watching the show is the irritation from the repetitive commercials. Auto-Lite commercials were generously sprinkled between each episode; they might have some charm the first two or three times, but their constant appearance might grate on the viewer’s nerves.
Some TV buffs might also take issue with the writing and dialogue. It’s true that the plots might seem absurd at times, and even the dialogues or acting leave something to be desired.
Yet another complaint seems to be the use of Rod Serling’s face on the cover of the Suspense DVDs. This might be a bit deceptive, as Serling is now a major name in the world of suspense due to his work in ‘The Twilight Zone’. Serling was a part of the Suspense series as well, but he wrote just one episode. To have his face on the cover is a bit misleading for potential viewers, who might feel cheated when they look at the actual credits.
While the Suspense series might not be a perfect experience, it’s still an interesting option for those interested in the genre. The video quality is grainy, with a little tilt and missing edges. However, the audio quality is surprisingly clear, as it came directly from a mixing board.
The episodes of suspense today tell us how television functioned in the post-war American era. It was a process where the directors, writers, and even actors learned as they progressed. It’s also worth seeing how now-veteran actors were challenged by the love broadcast format, and how they performed in bit roles. Overall, the series does have some gems that are worth watching. It’s even worth a try for the sake of seeing what television was like in those times. Give a few of the free episodes a go, and see whether they’re enjoyable or not.