Up to Scratch; or, Giving the Voice the Finger

I guess we have all been exposed to them, no matter how quickly our fingers move to stop our ears. Sounds that drive us up the wall and get us to scream, shiver, and wince. For some, it is the screeching of a piece of chalk on a blackboard (perhaps already one of the “endangered” sounds aforementioned; for others it might be a creaking door swinging on rusty hinges. Fiddlesticks (however annoying they might be), that’s nothing compared to the noise Agnes Moorehead has to endure in the Suspense thriller “The Thirteenth Sound,” first broadcast on this day, 13 February, in 1947.

It is a battle of sounds, mind, considering that Moorehead had one of the most grating voices in the business, which is just what makes “The Thirteenth Sound” (written by writer-actor team Cathy and Elliot Lewis) such a frightfully clever—and cleverly frightful—vehicle for the “First Lady of Suspense (previously mentioned here).

Crime dramas can be divided into head-scratchers and nail-biters; the former being the whodunit, the latter the kind of thriller I shall call the will-they-won’t-they, in which a character, hero or villain, is placed in a shaky situation or shown to be in an unstable frame of mind. Will they get out of it, or won’t they. This is stuff in which Suspense, which started out as a series of detective mysteries written by the aforementioned John Dickson Carr, came to specialize after the success of “Sorry, Wrong Number,” also starring Ms. Moorehead (and featured in one of my podcasts. Improving on both the head-scratcher and the nail-biter, “The Thirteenth Sound” might justly be called a nail-scratcher.

It gets under our skin with a goose bumps inducing sound, a sound that could be the undoing of the play’s central character, slyly named Mrs. Skinner. She—and this is no mystery since we’re in on the act—has bumped off her husband, who doesn’t get a word in, but whose loud snoring and “nervous habit of grinding his teeth in his sleep,” the good woman claims, used to keep her up at night. Upon doing him in, she sleeps soundly for the first time in years.

And yet, in the effort of keeping a guilty secret, Mrs. Skinner’s nerves may not be up to scratch, old or otherwise. However strident, her voice may have met its match in the finger of suspicion pointing from beyond the grave. Like Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” before it, “The Thirteenth Sound” presses a stethoscope on a guilty conscience. It is the microphone that makes a public hearing out of the ordeal.

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