Douglas Wilmer as Professor Van Dusen in Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Reginald Colin
Professor Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) doesn’t believe Fielding’s (Donald Pickering) claim that the prison he’s designed is escape proof and says so to his face (Van Dusen states he could escape from any cell in any prison within seven days).
Fielding, slighted by this attack on his professional abilities, agrees to the challenge and so shortly afterwards Van Dusen finds himself at the imposing Grangemoor prison. The governor (Michael Gough) and the chief warder (Ray Smith) are certain that escape is impossible and the odds certainly seem stacked against the Professor. Seven locked doors lie between Cell 13 and freedom. Can Van Dusen really just “think” himself out of the prison?
The Problem of Cell 13 was written by the American author Jacques Futrelle and was originally published in 1905. It was the first of a number of stories written by Futrelle about Professor Van Dusen, nicknamed “the thinking machine” and was later included in a volume of short stories which can be read here.
Futrelle’s promising career was cut short following his decision to travel aboard the Titanic. He refused to board a lifeboat, insisting that his wife take his place. This ensured that whilst she lived, he didn’t. His last book, My Lady’s Garter, was published posthumously in 1912, with his wife May adding the following inscription. “To the heroes of the Titanic, I dedicate this my husband’s book.”
The peerless Douglas Wilmer is excellent as Van Dusen. The Professor appears to be somewhat dreamy and remote, but it later becomes clear that he’s a man of rare intellect. And Wilmer’s comic timing is used to good effect in the early part of the story, when he finds himself subjected to the attentions of the chief warder.
But as the days wear on, Van Dusen doesn’t seem to be any closer to escaping and his various attempts (a note thrown out the window, attempting to file the bars) seem to be both painfully obvious and terribly half-hearted. Of course, he does manage to escape in the end – but for maximum impact this doesn’t happen until virtually the last minute of his seven days
In terms of the episode’s running time, this occurs at the end of part two – so part three allows Van Dusen to explain in detail just how he did it. He also gets the opportunity to throw a few, well-deserved insults at the chief warder such as “it’s a pity you don’t exercise your wits as often as you exercise your tongue.”
With no actual crime, it’s much more of an intellectual exercise as well as an early example of the locked-room mystery, which would be a staple of the golden age of detective fiction. And although it’s very much a vehicle for Wilmer, there’s some decent performances from the supporting cast. Michael Gough, Ray Smith, Clifford Rose and Donald Pickering are all worth watching (although Smith’s very fake beard and overly gruff voice are a little distracting).
It’s also nice to see Nicholas Courtney pop up in a small role and Derek Ware (a well-known stuntman) is the star of the pre-credits sequence (he plays a convict who attempts to escape, but is recaptured). This sequence is notable since it’s shot on film (a rarity for The Rivals) and also at night, which gives it a glossy, expensive feeling – making a brief change from the usual, studio-bound nature of the series.
This is good stuff, thanks to Wilmer, and there’s another appearance from the Professor, later in the series, to look forward to.