Radio Detective Scriptwriters: the Unsung Poets of Radio
By Jim Widner 2008

In 1964 one of the most critically acclaimed films that year was The Pawnbroker based on the book by Edward Lewis Wallant. The film won several critics awards and was nominated for many of the major American awards.

The screenwriters for the film were the talented writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin (left). David FriedkinProbably best remembered by the television generation as the creators of the comical spy series I Spy with Robert Kulp and a young Bill Cosby, Fine and Friedkin also had their roots in radio as did many of the early television writers.

In radio, the writing team was known mostly for their detective and suspense genre stories. Harry Bartell, the veteran radio and later television actor said he always looked forward to working with Fine and Friedkin scripts because he knew the dialogue would be bright and colorful. Often the dialogue of the two scribes was at its zenith when their characters became the pugnacious gangster or the hardboiled private eye.

NICKY: ...Oh, that's what he said...three to two on Dempsey in Philly tomorrow, Brock. Don't you think we ought to take a hunk?
BROCK: What ever you say, Nicky.
SHEILA: Whatever Nicky says...
BROCK: This yours, Nicky?
SHEILA: Nicky hasn't started to find out yet.
NICKY: Who are ya, baby?
SHEILA: Sheila.
NICKY: This is Sheila, Brock.
NICKY: Tell him, baby.
SHEILA: It's a dull place...I don't like dull.
NICKY: Ya see, Brock? Sit down, Sheila.
SHEILA: I've got a table.
NICKY: I know, I saw.
SHEILA: I know. Ya stared, Nicky, but I was too far away. You really couldn't tell. (YELLS TO OTHER TABLE) Freddie?
FREDDIE: Hello, Mr. Volpe.
NICKY: You're who?
FREDDIE: Uh, just a customer...just brought Sheila here. Uh, Sheila...
SHEILA: It was lovely, Freddie.
FREDDIE: ...I guess we better go now...
SHEILA: Good bye, Freddie.
FREDDIE: Hey, I can't leave you here with these...
NICKY: Valentino's playing down the street, Freddie. Go see him.
SHEILA: Do that.
SHEILA: Hi Nick.
NICKY: The dull went away, didn't it?
SHEILA: Keep it like that.
NICKY: Sure.

Obviously, the writers had honed their ability to create nourish tough gangster-speak, which was enhanced by the intonations of the actors. In this dialogue you can imagine a gruff Bogart and sultry Bacall speaking the words especially given that the scripters also put the words of Bold Venture into the mouths of the two actors. Much of the script output from the pens of Fine and Friedkin involved suspenseful, dark elements with pithy dialogue such as in the scene above.

In the middle-late forties the mystery and suspense genre was one of the most popular on radio. There were the multiple private detective serials including Pat Novak for Hire, Phillip Marlowe (right), Sam Spade, The Falcon and others plus the anthologies Suspense, Escape and Pursuit. Gerald MohrMany of the detective series at this time embraced the hardboiled school of Black Mask Magazine street toughs including Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The characters spoke in an inuring fashion that radio emphasized in lieu of a visual element. Often to advance the storyline, the main character would narrate portions of the events speaking directly to the listener. Milton Geiger who wrote most of the Philip Marlowe radio scripts was a master at diegetic language and captured the gritty underside of the world of the private detective in the scene below:

MARLOWE: As I left the library with the three maps in my pocket, I felt like a well-fed mallard on the opening of hunting season.
I knew I was being followed. So I slipped into a doorway and turned, I saw it was the nasty little man with the scar.
MAN: (SCREAMS) Aaaahh!
MARLOWE: (YELLS) All right you, let's start playing fair!
MAN: Aaahh, owww, let me go...
MARLOWE: Not yet, Shorty, not until you talk...loud and clear!
MAN: Aaah, oww! Don't hit me, please. Please let me down, I'll talk. I'll tell you everything.
MARLOWE: All right. You sure you can get it all straight the first time?
MARLOWE: Now the whole story...beginning, middle and end.
MAN: (RECOVERING) Yeah...yeah, like you say...whole story...(PAUSE) OK...Starts...(YELLS AS HE ACCOSTS MARLOWE) like this!
MARLOWE: (HIT) Ooowww!
MARLOWE: (RECOVERING FROM HAVING BEEN KNOCKED OUT) By the time I figured had been the sawed-off end of a broomstick that had slammed my stomach up against my backbone...the little man was out of sight.
Another five minutes went by before I stopped calling myself sucker and I started to think straight.

It was this world of tough P.I.'s and cops on radio that writers such as Fine, Friedkin and Geiger helped create. Their scriptwriting throughout forties and fifties radio is everywhere. In the case of Fine and Friedkin, one rarely wrote without the other. But almost always no matter for what genre they were writing, the tough guy loner was ubiquitous in their scripts. In 1949 for an audition episode of Gunsmoke, a western, you can hear a similar theme. In the audition the Marshall is Mark Dillon instead of Matt Dillon.

MARK: I rode up to the White Buffalo and started to tie my horse to a hitchin' post whittled to the shape of a Pawnee girl when...
MARK: ...suddenly, the gun in my back told me I wasn't alone.
MAN: You won't like it here, Marshall. Pretty as it is, you won't like it.
MAN: No, indeed...don't turn around, Marshall. I'm shy and I'm modest and I embarrass easy...isn't that so, Harold? HAROLD: (EMITS A SILLY LAUGH)
MAN: Ya see? Harold thinks it's so.
Harold had his tongue clipped...Apaches.
MARK: Maybe it was too long.
MAN: Awww, now that's not a genteel thing to say to Harold, Marshall...He takes offense.
MARK: I'm new here. Back in Dodge City, the etiquette's a little more formal.
MAN: Then go back to Dodge, we're very happy here in Gouge little birds. (PAUSE) You could spoil it. MARK: I was invited...special invitation.
MAN: Well, the party's over...(SUDDENLY) Now, Harold, Now!

If it wasn't set in western garb, you'd think you were listening to another pugnacious detective thriller. In fact it sounds very similar in tone and pacing to the Nicky/Sheila dialogue earlier by the same writers yet close to Geiger's portrayal of the scene from Philip Marlowe.

By the end of the forties, the cop and private eye radio serials were taking on what Jim Cox referred to as the "forbidding side of law enforcement in the harsh realties of the urban backdrop." He was referring mostly to Dragnet and the police serials that were beginning to pop up on radio, but it applied to almost any of the crime thrillers that were broadcasting at the time. Dragnet certainly set a standard in police procedurals in the big city, but a few months before the appearance of Dragnet was another cop series, created by Friedkin and Fine called Broadway Is My Beat.

CLOVER: Broadway is my beat...from Times Square to Columbus Circle - the gaudiest, the most violent - the lonesomest mile in the world.
ANNOUNCER: Broadway Is My Beat with Larry Thor as detective Danny Clover.
CLOVER: The February winds spin, dance, race in the morning avenue and Broadway lurches in their wake...and hands are frozen to early editions of newspaper and winter lies against cheek and mouth. And search the headlines for what the winds are taking to die with them...and search memory too for January images sworn to remembrance. Ice on masts of freighters bound for the tropics...and further back, deeper in memory, the holiday time and the holiday women...and they dance by now in chill embrace of winter wind, and solace is the corner coffee stand and the doughnut. And waiting a little way up the street - the time clock...

You get a feel for the urban backdrop and its sense of grit and toughness immediately. The jazzy themed music with its harsh horns and the subtle cityscape sounds blended in combine to create a stark, somewhat nourish, picture of a concrete jungle. Fine and Friedkin loved putting lyrical speech in the mouth of Danny Clover. Often Clover's monologue became haiku-like as the music of the city broadcast loudly through the ether.

CLOVER: ...and outside now...the morning is a wind wall, so adjust yourself to hand in overcoat hand on hat...lower the head. Short walk to squad car...and the drive downtown...crowd going to work time...rush beneath long triangles of gray and splinters of sunshine...un-cadenced quick step of pedestrian and blare of the car horn taking turns according to the green light and the red...left on third avenue and cruise for an address...Tate's bar...find it. (PAUSE)

Yet sometimes the image of the city is even darker. Though not written by the Fine/Friedkin duo, Night Beat portrayed the urban landscape in more nourish images. Randy Stone is a reporter who writes about the seamy underbelly of the big city. The scripts were written by various writers over its run, but the opening of one stands out as depicting the transformation that day to night brings to a city and how darkness becomes a "mantle for the evil." The script was written by E. Jack Neumann and John Michael Hayes, two writers who went on to write detective and suspense stories of grit and crime in the big city for television and film.

STONE: You ever notice how when the sun goes down the chemistry of the earth starts a new reaction? The flowers close with the shop doors, sunshine leaves town with the buses and the birds settle down like the dust covers on a department store's counters.
At night perfume replaces the flowers, neon takes up the task of the sun, and the birds that take flight are the hearts of people looking for love and the good tomorrow.
Someone said the night is a mantle that covers the weary and the cave of excitement for the adventuresome...they forgot to add that the night is also the mask for the evil.

Radio detective stories were discovering a seamier side to the urban environment and found it desirable for creating dramatic tension. The poetry of the concrete jungle was the image basis upon which the crime story was built. In Broadway Is My Beat producer Warren Lewis insisted on three sound effects men so that you could "hear the city constantly." But it was his writers, the team of David Friedkin and Mort Fine who created the word image which the sound effects complemented.

Often in radio, the scriptwriters were rarely praised. Perhaps it was because the word stories they created were so transparent they slipped through without notice. This is one of the biggest compliments the detective and suspense writer could receive. To hear a detective radio play could certainly be a joy; but to read the words the actors voiced, one becomes transformed into another world in which the transparency disappears and the writer stands tall in his creation.