Armchair Thriller (S1, E6-10): A Dog’s Ransom REVIEW

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A missing dog, an apparently disinterested police force and a young constable eager to impress, heading into dark waters. RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES revisits a classic Armchair Thriller: A Dog’s Ransom (1978)

A Dog's Ransom

BROADCAST: In six parts 09-23 March 1978
STARRING: Zena Walker (Gina Reynolds), Benjamin Whitrow (Edward Reynolds), Brian Stirner (Clarence Duhamel), Paul Angelis (Tom Choley), Leon Eagles (Kowajinski), Susie Blake (Marion Dowell)
WRITER: John Bowen (from the novel by Patricia Highsmith)
DIRECTOR: Donald McWhinnie

Armchair Thriller: A Dog’s Ransom Review

Zena and Benjamin are worried when they begin to receive threatening letters at their Chelsea home. Not long afterwards, their pet poodle Tina disappears when Benjamin is walking her one night.

Soon, the couple receive a ransom note from their anonymous tormentor, offering Tina’s return in exchange for a financial payment. The pair meet the demand, but Tina is not returned.

Finally alerting the police, Benjamin finds the local constabulary somewhat disinterested, apart from ambitious young constable Clarence, who seems to take the dognapping seriously and agrees to investigate. Clarence, however, faces ridicule and opposition from his colleagues, most notably detective Tom Choley, who apparently resents the young officer for his university education, amongst other things.

When Clarence finally tracks him down, it seems that the poodle’s kidnapper, Kowajinski, might be more entertained by the sport of tormenting the hapless dog owners than enticed by any financial gain and can’t be reasoned with.

When Kowajinski is found dead shortly afterwards, Clarence is a prime suspect, a development which pleases Choley no end. It also puts a further strain on Clarence’s relationship with social worker Marion, who has already broken protocol by revealing Kowajinski’s identity and whereabouts to her boyfriend, perhaps inadvertently sending a relatively simple case of extortion into much darker waters.

Meanwhile: What has happened to Tina?

Well, it doesn't smell like Cadbury's... Marion (Susie Blake) gets an unwelcome gift in Armchair Thriller: A Dog's Ransom (1978)
Well, it doesn’t smell like Cadbury’s… Marion (Susie Blake) gets an unwelcome gift in Armchair Thriller: A Dog’s Ransom (1978)

Unusually, A Dog’s Ransom saw the adaptation of an American literary property, from the pen of Patricia Highsmith, whose most celebrated works are perhaps her first novel, Strangers On A Train and the oft-adapted The Talented Mr. Ripley. Here, the action of the source novel transferred from New York to London, with a few name changes in the process (see footnote).

John Bowen’s adaptation leans more on the novel’s thriller aspects than Highsmith’s darkly satirical, perhaps even misanthropic view of city living but that element is still in evidence, and Bowen’s take on A Dog’s Ransom is still a pretty grim excursion – indeed, a memorable scene involving the delivery of a chocolate box which does not contain the expected treats is purely Bowen’s confection.

There’s a particularly macabre air of futility around Clarence’s obsessive quest by the final instalment when it seems that the Reynolds have moved on, even discussing getting another canine companion. Meanwhile, Clarence, initially like a dog with a proverbial bone, now finds himself stuck in a very deep hole and realises, all too late that he no longer has the option to walk away.

As with the equally self-consuming investigations of Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now (1973) or John Travolta in Blow Out (1981), a downbeat conclusion can’t help but feel inevitable but in this case it’s hard to warm to one single character, let alone Clarence. In that particular sense, the bleak essence of Highsmith’s novel made the transatlantic leap intact.

A Dog’s Ransom remains one of Armchair Thriller’s finest entries, unnerving not in a supernatural sense but in something closer to home – its relentlessly chilling depictions of some of the worst traits of humanity stick in the mind, long after the credits of the final episode have rolled. In this six-parter, late-1970’s London felt like a very dark place indeed.

Classic moment: The dognapper’s-eye-view, walking across Chelsea Bridge whilst mockingly repeating Benjamin’s calls of “Tina… good dog… Tina… come here…” remains one of Armchair Thriller’s most impactful and remembered scenes.

TRIVIA POINTS: A Dog’s Ransom made it two writing credits in a row for John Bowen, but he would not return to Armchair Thriller until series two.

In anglicising the source novel, Ed and Greta Reynolds became Edward and Gina, and black poodle Lisa became the white-furred Tina. The tormenting Rojanowski was renamed Kowajinski, Marylyn became Marion whilst detective Tom Choley had been promoted from the patrolman, Manzoni of Highsmith’s original.

Was Paul Angelis’ performance an influence on the character of Gene Hunt in Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes? One has to wonder, although Hunt proved to have many redeeming qualities, unlike the unremittingly vile Tom Choley.

Watch the original 1978 trailer for A Dog’s Ransom below!

Tell us your thoughts about Armchair Thriller: Rachel In Danger in the comments section!

Read our Armchair Thriller Episode Guide: 1978-81 Anthology Series

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