Sunday, October 16, 2022

Orson Welles' Great Mysteries

Orson Welles always loved a scary tale. In 1938, he and other players of his Mercury Theater company put on a radio play of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" for Halloween that scared the heebie-jeebies out of most of his listeners. Then in 1951, while taking a break from filming Othello in Ireland, he filmed a short horror film called Return to Glennascaul about a man who unknowingly gives two ghosts a ride on a deserted country road. 

While most of his films steered clear of horror or suspense, he delved deep into the muddy waters of mystery in 1973 when he played host to a British anthology series entitled Orson Welles' Great Mysteries. The series was very similar to the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents and, like Hitchcock, Orson Welles merely had to act as host, introducing and closing each episode with some pithy words. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the episodes of Great Mysteries were all based on famous works or short stories by authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, HonorĂ© de Balzac, and Charles Dickens. 

Orson Welles had a long career as a director, producer, screenwriter, and actor, but by the early 1970s he was in debt ( owing money to the IRS for back taxes ) and, unable to fund his latest docudrama F for Fake, he began to do numerous television appearances to help raise money. In the early months of 1973, he crossed the pond to England to film the intros/outros to the series at the Anglia Television studios in Norwich ( East Anglia ).

Welles was known to be a difficult person to work with and the production team at Anglia studios found this to be true ( in fact, the Sky Arts series Urban Myths made an entire episode in 2020 about his visit called "Orson Welles in Norwich" ). Nevertheless, he gave a marvelous performance as a mystery host. He donned a black cape and hat and, purring sardonic wit, he beautifully introduced each tale of the macabre in his deep silky voice. 

Orson Welles' Great Mysteries ran for two seasons with a total of 26 episodes being produced. Some of the titles included were "The Monkey's Paw", based on the short story by W.W. Jacobs, and "La Grande Breteche" by HonorĂ© de Balzac. What made the episodes entertaining was all of the stories selected had unexpected endings, usually with a sting.

John Barry composed a haunting but typically 70s theme for the series ( it could have worked equally well for a James Bond and the Haunted House film ) and the episodes were similarly chilling like other popular British anthology series of the time ( namely Brian Clemens' Thriller and Hammer House of Horror ) but not nearly as violent or gory. 

With a 25-minute runtime, the tales entertained without getting boring. Plus, there was the added bonus of playing spot the actor with each episode featuring numerous British character actors plus acting legends such as Eli Wallach, Joan Collins, Christopher Lee, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Peter Cushing, Jane Seymour, Dean Stockwell, Jose Ferrer, and Shirley Knight. 

Network Distributing released the entire Orson Welles Great Mysteries on DVD in two volumes.

1 comment:

  1. I greatly enjoyed your write-up -- I am totally unfamiliar with this series. I would definitely like to see some of these, and would love to see stars like Eli Wallach, Joan Collins, and Shirley Knight. I wish these were available via streaming!