Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Seven-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Gloating Place"

Susan Harrison as Susan 
by Jack Seabrook

“The Gloating Place” marked the second time that Robert Bloch adapted one of his own stories for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first had been “The Changing Heart.” The story is one of subtle horror, where Bloch uses slang and the perspective of a teenager’s mind to diffuse the terrible things that are happening. This has two effects—it makes the events more palatable while demonstrating the callous evil of the vapid teenage girl who is the story’s protagonist.

The masked killer approaches.
Susan Harper, a high school student, goes to her gloating place, “a small ravine at the far end of the park where she could sit without being noticed or disturbed.” Right away, we learn what kind of person she is: she wishes that her parents would die in a plane crash so that she could receive insurance money. “She was alone and nobody ever paid any attention to her,” so a week before she had claimed that a man had attacked her in a vacant lot. The result “had been a real gasser,” since she began to receive attention from classmates, her family and police. When she had to identify a suspect in a police lineup, it was “the dreamiest-creamiest of all.”

When a car accident results in “three cars wrecked and two people killed,” she is upset because it diverts attention from her. Bloch describes her: “the fat, foreshortened body, the plump, pimply face, the hair the color of the brown, muddy water.” She admits to herself that the biggest reason for her lie was “to get Tom Reynolds to notice her.” In order to regain the attention she craves, she hatches a plan and murders Marjorie, Tom’s girlfriend. Bloch does not describe the actual murder; what happened only becomes evident later, as the story is filtered through Susan’s shallow, teenage mind. 

Susan reaches out to grab Marjorie.
Once again the center of attention, Susan wants some time to herself, so she sneaks off to the gloating place, where she recalls carrying out Marjorie’s murder, strangling the girl until she was “just a big, boneless pig doll that was no good to Tom Reynolds or to anybody.” She gazes at her own reflection in the water, certain that she has not changed, now comforted by her familiarly ugly appearance. Just then, she sees the reflection of a man behind her, as his gloved hands “closed over her throat.”

Bloch's story is one of subtle but powerful horror, in which a killer gets her comeuppance in a twist ending. He had a difficult challenge in adapting the story for television, since the tale is told mostly through the thoughts of the main character. The script is passable, but there are some problems with the program that make it one of the less successful Bloch/Hitchcock efforts thus far. The first, and probably the biggest, problem is the casting of the lead. Susan is played by Susan Harrison, an actress probably best known for playing the ballerina on the Twilight Zone episode, "Five Characters in Search of an Exit." She was born in 1938, making her 22 or 23 years old when “The Gloating Place” was filmed in the spring of 1961. Harrison is too pretty to play the Susan of the story, and her acting abilities are not equal to the task of explaining why such an attractive young woman would be so psychologically damaged as to commit the crimes she does. In the story, Bloch describes her as ugly and unpopular, but in the show, she just seems odd. The rest of the cast is not much better. Worst of all is Erin O’Brien-Moore, as Susan’s mother, whose histrionics seem out of place with the rest of the low key acting on exhibit. 


The most interesting cast note is that Marjorie, the girl Susan kills, is played by a very young Marta Kristen. Born in 1945 and aged 15 or 16 when this was filmed, Kristen’s coltish beauty is perfectly suited to her role. She would later become famous as Judy Robinson on Lost in Space, and she still makes appearances and has her own website. One other interesting cast note is that one of the other high school girls is played by Monica Henreid, daughter of actor/director Paul Henreid, who directed "The Landlady," Bloch’s prior script for this series.


“The Gloating Place” was directed by Alan Crosland, Jr., who lived from 1918 to 2001 and directed scores of episodes of series television, including 20 for the Hitchcock series. The first time I watched the show, I was disappointed in how it had been adapted from the printed page, and I thought that the director might be to blame. However, on re-watching it, I noticed a number of interesting camera setups and lighting choices. The scenes at the gloating place are filmed by contrasting shots of Susan with shots of her reflection in a pool of water. When she first has the idea to fake having been attacked, the voices of her classmates echo around her as the camera cuts and pans from one eerie, leafless tree to the next. The effect shows just how alone Susan feels. 

Marta Kristen in "The Gloating Place"
Marta Kristen on Lost in Space
Susan reflected in the glass at the lineup.
Another nicely filmed sequence is the lineup in the police station. Susan and the policemen sit behind one way glass and the room is lit in a high contrast, noir style.

The last sequence is effectively planned, shot and edited to show a brutal attack on a young woman without really showing anything, and it is thus very effective and almost daring for a network television program in 1961. 

The final twist.
“The Gloating Place” was first published in the June 1959 issue of Rogue and it was reprinted in Blood Runs Cold (1961) and Bitter Ends (1990). The television adaptation was broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, May 16, 1961, at 8:30 on the East Coast. It was up against The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, another teen-oriented show, on CBS, and at 9 o’clock on NBC, the “Terror in Teakwood” episode of Thriller aired, directed by Paul Henreid, whose daughter had appeared in “The Gloating Place.”

The show was remade for the 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and broadcast on January 5, 1986; it can be viewed here. The original episode is not yet available on DVD but can be viewed here.

Sources: 


Bloch, Robert. "The Gloating Place." Bitter Ends: The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, Volume Two. New York, NY: Citadel, 1990. 257-64. Print. 

Galactic Central. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://philsp.com/>.  "The Gloating Place." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 16 May 1961. Television.  Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>. Marta Kristen - The Official Website. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://martakristen.com>. Wikipedia. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.


14 comments:

Peter Enfantino said...

Another great installment, Jack. I'd be talking to the people at McFarland if I were you about compiling a book when this series is all done. Bloch is my favorite writer, as I think I've said countless times, and I thought the same thing watching this for the first time years ago (shortly after reading the story) about our devilish girl looking nothing like what Bloch imagined. That was TV then (and TV now actually): the dame has to be a doll!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter! I did not know Bloch was your favorite writer. It's interesting to track his development as a TV writer by following this series--these are some of his earliest teleplays.

Randall Larson said...

This is an excellent series, Jack,and I'm glad to read your latest commentary. Peter is right - when you're done this needs to be a book!

Peter Enfantino said...

Coming from the world's preeminent expert on Robert Bloch, that's quite the compliment!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Randall!

JC Harding said...

By sheer coincidence I just saw this episode tonight and I thought Susan Harrison was quite a cutie, acting talent notwithstanding.
Since I'd never heard of her before (and we are close to the same age) I did an internet search which revealed she now lives in Carbondale, IL.
In case anyone is interested . .

Jack Seabrook said...

Yes, she was far more attractive than the character as described in Bloch's story. Thanks for reading!

Mike Doran said...

Better late than never ...

Actually, there's one role Susan Harrison played that I always thought was her best known:

She was Burt Lancaster's sister in Sweet Smell Of Success.

Of course, after Lancaster and Tony Curtis got finished dining out on each other in that, there was scarcely anything left for anyone else ...

Jack Seabrook said...

I would love to hear from someone why this particular post is attracting such a lot of interest!

Grant said...

Marta Kristen was also the mermaid in BEACH BLANKET BINGO. Her sub-plot with Jody McCrea was almost a comical answer to the movie NIGHT TIDE.

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't think I've ever made it through an entire Beach movie, but they have some pretty weird aspects. Thanks for pointing this out!

Grant said...

I've never stopped being attached to them (though I set my copies aside till the late Spring and early Summer), so I'm always glad to be helpful with that subject.

small ed said...

The 1986 remake is better. :-)

Jack Seabrook said...

I'll have to take your word for it!