Monday, March 28, 2011
Fredric Brown on TV Part 3: Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Human Interest Story"
by Jack Seabrook
“Human Interest Story” began as the short story, “The Last Martian,” published in the very first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction (October 1950). It was collected in Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951, then again in the Fredric Brown collections Honeymoon in Hell (1958), And the Gods Laughed (1987), and From These Ashes (2001).
The story features many of Brown’s favorite themes. It takes place in the city room of a small-town newspaper and in the bar across the street, and it mixes the naturalistic details of Brown’s crime fiction with the fantastic aspects of his science fiction.
As the story opens, a dull evening in the city room of The Trib is enlivened by news that there is a man across the street in Barney’s Bar claiming to be from Mars. Reporter Bill Everett is sent over to investigate because he has “a light touch on the human interest stuff.”
At the bar, Bill meets Howard Wilcox, a rather intense man who is convinced that he is really Yangan Dal, the last Martian. He tells Everett that, until a few hours before, he had been on Mars, where he had been locked in a small room and had to escape, only to find every other Martian inexplicably dead.
Finding millions of dead Martians gathered on Games Field in Zandar (the capital city), he pushed a button on a copper column in the center of the field and suddenly found himself inhabiting the body of Mr. Wilcox, on Earth, heading home from work. He stopped in a bar to ask the bartender for advice.
Everett hears him out and counsels him to resolve himself to the fact that he is Howard Wilcox, telling him to go home to his wife. Back at The Trib, Everett reveals that he, the city editor, and Barney are all from Mars, and that Wilcox was an imbecile who had been mistakenly left alone in a mental institution when the other Martians got “the mentaport rays that carried our psyches across space.”
Everett agrees that he will keep an eye on Wilcox “until we take over,” and tells his fellow reporters that the man was “just a drunk being the life of the party.”
“The Last Martian” was adapted for television by Fredric Brown himself, and this is the only instance I have been able to confirm of Brown adapting one of his stories for television. The teleplay is reprinted in the collection, The Pickled Punks, and it is retitled “Human Interest Story.”
The script follows the story closely but there are some changes worth noting. Wilcox (or Yangan Dahl, his Martian name) tells Everett that there is no alcohol on Mars, since it is poison to Martians. This was probably an in-joke for Brown, who was known for his own prodigious drinking as well as that of many of his fictional characters. Dahl says that on Mars he was eight feet tall, while in the story he was three feet tall.
While the story takes place in the city room and the bar, the teleplay adds another location—that of Wilcox’s flat, where he and Everett go to visit Mrs. Wilcox. In the teleplay, Wilcox tells Everett that he told his wife that the two men met when they attended Hughes High School in Cincinnati together. This is another in-joke, since Hughes is where Fredric Brown attended high school.
Finally, after a scene at Wilcox’s home, Everett and Wilcox walk into town for beer and Everett leads him down a dark alley. Back in the city room, Everett tells his editor that he had to kill Wilcox to prevent him from revealing the truth about the Martians to his wife. The added scenes and the additional twist ending add an element of menace to the tale that is lacking in the short story, which ends on a more wry note.
The filmed episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents does not stick closely to the dialogue in the script. The program was rehearsed and filmed over a two-day period on April 8 and 9, 1959, and starred Steve McQueen as Everett and Arthur Hill as Wilcox. McQueen had just turned 29, and the first season of his series, Wanted: Dead or Alive, had just ended its run earlier that month when “Human Interest Story” was broadcast on May 24, 1959. McQueen’s’ performance is memorable, though he takes many liberties with the dialogue in the teleplay. He affects a cool, dispassionate air when listening to Wilcox’s story, as if he’s heard it all before, but he exudes a subtle menace at the end when he reveals that he had to kill the last Martian.
Arthur Hill was 36 years old and had a 50-year career in TV and movies. He played Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law in a series that was spun off from Marcus Welby, M.D., in the early 70s.On “Human Interest Story,” his performance is suitably intense, and he follows the dialogue in the script much more closely than does his co-star.
The show is directed by Norman Lloyd, who had a long association with Hitchcock as an actor and a producer. Lloyd does a nice job here, opening up the teleplay by moving the section in the bar out of a booth and around to various locations in the bar. There is a memorable bit of business where McQueen plays pinball as Hill tells him the most exciting part of his story; McQueen’s cool detachment is perfect for the jaded newsman. Lloyd and director of photography John F. Warren also change the camera angles and lighting subtly in the last scene to increase the sense of danger as Everett and his editor discuss the murder of Wilcox and the upcoming Martian takeover. The lighting suddenly changes and Lloyd uses low angle shots to shift the mood, as the episode ends with the editor spinning a globe.
The story was remade as an episode on the 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Retitled “The Human Interest Story,” it was reworked by Karen Harris. While this episode is available online as a bootleg DVD, I have not seen it recently (if ever), and I remember this revival series as being subpar.
The original 1958 version of “Human Interest Story” is one of the best adaptations of a Fredric Brown story to television, made better by Brown’s own involvement as writer of the teleplay. In a future article I will discuss how Brown began to develop an interest in writing for television, and where this interest took him.
Brown, Fredric. “Human Interest Story.” Rpt. In The Pickled Punks. By Fredric Brown. Hilo, HI: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1991. 139-176.
Brown, Fredric. “The Last Martian.” Rpt. In And the Gods Laughed. By Fredric Brown. W. Bloomfield, MI: Phantasia Press, 1987. 159-167.
Galactic Central. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <http://www.philsp.com/>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
"Human Interest Story." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 24 May 1959. Television. Collected in Alfred Hitchcock Presents Season Four DVD set, Universal Classic Television, 2008.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Wikipedia. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.