Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fredric Brown on TV Part One: Alfred Hitchcock Presents "The Dangerous People"

by Jack Seabrook

    One of my favorite adaptations of a Fredric Brown short story is "The Dangerous People," which was broadcast as the last episode of season two of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on June 23, 1957.
    "The Dangerous People" was first published as "No Sanctuary" in the March 1945 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine.

   It was reprinted in Brown's collection of short mystery stories, Mostly Murder, which was published by Dutton in 1953.  Most likely, the creative team behind Alfred Hitchcock Presents saw the story in this collection and purchased the rights, since other stories in the same collection were also adapted for the TV series.  The story was again reprinted in the fine 1985 collection edited by Francis M. Nevins, Carnival of Crime: The Best Mystery Stories of Fredric Brown.

    As the story opens, Mr. Bellefontaine waits on the platform of a little railroad station somewhere in the Midwest and hears a distant siren, "the wail of a tortured fiend," that alerts everyone to the fact that someone has escaped from the Asylum for the Criminally Insane only five miles away.

    Mr. Bellefontaine is a lawyer with a secret; in his briefcase he carries a revolver, which he is transporting for a client.  Inside the station is one other passenger, a shabbily dressed man who sits by a potbellied coal stove.  The two men talk, and we learn that the other is Mr. Jones, a bookkeeper for the Saxe Paint Company.
    In the remote little station, each man begins to suspect that the other is the escaped lunatic.  Bellefontaine watches Jones idly play with a poker by the coal stove, while Jones begins to realize that Bellefontaine came out of the bathroom with a gun in his pocket.  Each man's thoughts are made known to the reader through an interior monologue, and Jones is as harmless as Bellefontaine, but Brown ratchets up the suspense as their paranoia increases, with the wailing siren in the background.
    A freight train approaches and they nearly attack each other just as a policeman enters the station.  In the story's twist ending, the policeman turns out to be the escaped lunatic, and the two man savagely attack him with gun and poker, tying him up to await the authorities.

    As the lunatic killer is taken away, he thinks that both men "had gone off like a charge of dynamite," and "he'd be safer back in the asylum . . . They must be crazy!"

    "No Sanctuary" is a wonderful little tale of suspense, using interior monologues and changing points of view to let the reader in on what each man is thinking without allowing the characters to reveal their thoughts to each other.
    There are a few clues to the setting of the story.  Bellefontaine is headed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Jones is headed for Madison.  Jones works for the Saxe Paint Company, the main office of which is in Chicago, Illinois, but which also has a branch office in Madison.  The escaped lunatic killed a policeman in Waynesville, and they are at a railroad station.                             

    Some quick internet research reveals no town called Waynesville in Wisconsin, but there is one in central Illinois, about a four-hour drive from Milwaukee.  Waynesville today is a tiny town that is dying out.  It is near the old train stop at Wapella on the Illinois Central line, so one may imagine that the events of this story took place at the Wapella station back in the mid-1940s.

    There is a good deal of information on old insane asylums on the web as well, and my favorite in Illinois was in Bartonville, a building now said to be haunted.

   The story was adapted for television by Francis Cockrell, who wrote numerous scripts for movies and TV, including 18 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and episodes of Batman and The Outer Limits.  The teleplay is quite faithful to the short story, right down to the character and place names.  The thoughts of the two main characters are expressed through voice-over, which sets up a nice contrast to their innocuous dialogue.  Cockrell expands the story to teleplay length by adding conversation between the characters, but the plot points follow the story almost exactly.


    The script even contains a pun that would have made Fredric Brown proud; as Jones stands in the station, suffering from a terrible hangover, he thinks that he should walk uptown to get a drink but he can't because he suffers from inertia.  He thinks:  "I would go uptown and get myself a drink but I haven't got the ertia."

    The climax is changed slightly to add a bit of action; in the story, the two men attack the lunatic and the next thing we know he is tied up.  In the television program, Bellefontaine pulls his gun on the man and Jones tries to run out of the station; the lunatic chases him and they wrestle for a moment until asylum orderlies appear and overpower the man.  The program ends with Bellefontaine and Jones chatting amiably, admitting that each had suspected the other.

    "The Dangerous People" was directed by Robert Stevens, who directed more episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (44) than anyone else. 

He won an Emmy in 1958 for directing "The Glass Eye," another classic Hitchcock episode whose cast included a young William Shatner.  Stevens does a wonderful job of creating suspense, using close-ups, sound, and music to establish a claustrophobic atmosphere.  The set of the station is perfect, with a chewing gum machine on the wall, a penny scale next to it, and several benches.  The director of photography was the talented Lionel Lindon, about whom much has been written (and spoken) in the commentaries on the recent Thriller DVD set and last year's A Thriller a Day blog.

    Sound was by Richard Tyler, and the haunting siren has stayed with me for decades since I first saw this show at 2:30 in the morning on New York's channel 9.  The music is also perfect, provided by music supervisor Stanley Wilson, who also worked on Thriller and Night Gallery.

    But the most credit should go to Albert Salmi (as Jones) and Robert H. Harris (as Bellefontaine).  Salmi was a method actor who was very good at exuding a sense of menace; he died tragically in 1990 when he shot and killed his wife before turning a gun on himself.

    Harris also did many TV episodes, including eight on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he specialized in portraying little men who were unlikeable and dangerous in a pathetic sort of way.

    "The Dangerous People" is contained in the season two box set of Alfred Hitchcock Presents released by Universal in 2006 and can also be seen on Hulu.


Brown, Fredric. ""The Dangerous People"" Carnival of Crime: The Best Mystery Stories
    of Fredric Brown
. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1985. 90-
    100. Print.
"The Dangerous People." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 23 June 1957. Television.
Galactic Central. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.
Halliwell, Leslie, and John Walker. Halliwell's Who's Who in the Movies. New York:
    HarperCollins, 1997. Print.
"Illinois Central." American Heritage. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 26 Feb. 2011.
"Shadowlands Haunted Places Index - Illinois." The Shadowlands. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.
Skateboards, Zero. "Bartonville Insane Asylum Pictures." A Graphic, Industrial, Interior
 and Modern Design Magazine. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.


john kenrick said...

Gene, you're a man after my own heart with this one, one of my favorite Hitchcock half-hours. That it's somewhat atypical of the series is partly what draws me to it, with its drab midwestern setting, its specificity as to place,--Wisconsin--helps lend it an ambiance unique for the Hitchcock series. Also, no women

It has none of the vaguely British or European feel of so many Hitchcock half-hours; nor has it much in the way of the gentility that was so much a part of the show (less so in the hour long series that came later).

This is a "guy episode", with its air of more danger than usual even for a Hitchcock entry, and its threat of violence between men. No genteel poisoners or bodies down the well or in attic in this one.

Robert H. Harris and Albert Salmi were perfectly cast, as they seem an "unlikely couple", with the former's white collar softness, plus his being middle-aged, making him the more "vulnerable" of the two. Salmi is actually the more likable and down to earth of these two men, yet he nicely conveys a potential for violence in the way he speaks, and through body language.

Most of all, the ending, for a first time viewer, is a real shocker even as it leaves the two main characters relatively safe. We see, in the course of the story, the potential for violence, lunacy, specifically paranoia, in both men, so how safe really are these two guys? More generally, how safe are we, the viewers? Excellent episode. One of the best.

john kenrick said...

I should have written Jack, not Gene. My wrong.

Jack Seabrook said...

John, I'm thrilled to find someone else who loves this episode! Your comments are right on target. I think the Hitchcock series really came into its own in season two and began to tell more contemporary American stories such as this one. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

john kenrick said...

My pleasure, Jack. In the immortal words of Arnold: I'll be back. God willing, that is. Right now I'm having a hard time finding good places to talk classic films and TV on-line. The IMDB,--you may or may not know me from there, under another name--ain't what it used to be and is "troll-wrecked".

Then there's the Classic Horror Film Board, a wonderfully managed place, and full of good people, but it's so genre driven that I find it hard to get moving on topics away from the usual cult favorites. Also, a lot of grownups with sort of kid or adolescent tastes,--I mean no harm in saying this--but it limits by enthusiasm. Scarlet Street, its sister Yuku site, has a lot of the same regulars but with the passing of Ken Hanke running it must seem like the kiss of death for whoever's next in line.

Some good stuff here, and also on Monster Girl's (Joey Gabriel) The Last Drive-In, a fun place, and Joey's a great pal, a good writer, and like Gene, far more erudite and eclectic in her interests than most classic film buffs. Joey's sort of on and off lately, has other things to do, has had health issues. The We Are Controlling Transmission and A Thriller A Day blogs feel near dead in the water, though I do return to post at both now and again.

Jack Seabrook said...

I'm happy to chat about the Hitchcock series anytime!