Saturday, January 7, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Six-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Landlady"

by Jack Seabrook

Dean Stockwell, on his way to being stuffed.
For his third teleplay of the sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Robert Bloch was assigned to adapt Roald Dahl's short story, "The Landlady," which had won the 1960 Edgar Award for best short story. Originally published in the November 28, 1959 issue of The New Yorker, the story follows 17 year old Billy Weaver as he arrives in Bath from London by train on a cold night, looking for a place to stay before taking his place in the business world. Young and naive, he imitates the brisk walk he has observed in successful businessmen.

He sees a sign advertising Bed and Breakfast in a cozy setting; through the window he sees a comfortable room. He starts toward a pub, the Bell and Dragon, for more congenial companionship, yet feels compelled to ring the bell at the house. A middle-aged woman welcomes him in as if she had been waiting for him and offers him a room at the "fantastically cheap" rates of five shillings and sixpence a night. "She looked exactly like the mother of one's best school-friend welcoming one into the house to stay for the Christmas holidays." There is no evidence of another lodger, as she guides Billy through her "little nest" and shows him his room.

After washing up, Billy goes down to the living room, thinking "this is a bit of all right." He signs the guest book and notices that the two entries before his were made by Christopher Mulholland and Gregory Temple. The names sound familiar but he can't recall why. The landlady fixes Billy tea and a biscuit as he tries to remember where he had heard those names before. Billy notices a faint odor emanating from the landlady, who admits that Mulholland and Temple are both still there, on the third floor. She adds that Temple was 28 years old and had not "a blemish on his body." Billy notices that the parrot in the room's birdcage is stuffed. The landlady takes credit, and points out that the dachshund on the floor is stuffed as well. "I stuff all my little pets myself when they pass away." Billy notices that his tea tastes of bitter almonds.

The story ends with the landlady telling Billy that there have been no other guests beside Mulholland and Temple in the last two or three years. The subtle message is that Billy is about to join them, as another of the pets she will kill and stuff for her collection.

Roald Dahl has been celebrated as a writer of wonderful stories for adults and children for decades. As Jeremy Treglown writes, in his introduction to the Everyman's Library collection of Dahl's stories, "his work is part of the mid twentieth century revival of gothic, particularly the vogue for 'sick humor.'" Dahl was born  in 1916 and lived till 1990.


It was fitting that Robert Bloch was assigned to adapt "The Landlady" for television, since he shared an affinity for the gothic style and sick humor. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents version aired on February 21, 1961, just a week after Bloch's last contribution to this series, "The Greatest Monster of Them All." Watching the show and comparing it to the story demonstrates Bloch's knack for making small changes to fit the material to the medium.

The setting of the tale is changed from Bath to "a provincial town in England," according to a superimposed title at the beginning of the show. This town is soon identified as Bramley by Wilkins, the bartender at a pub at which the first scene takes place. Bloch added this entire scene to help establish the English location and also to set up a red herring that will continue throughout the episode--the bartender and three patrons discuss a burglary in Bramley. Billy Weaver enters the pub, having just arrived by train, and soon uses a Swiss Army knife to open a jammed cash register. Billy, bespectacled and seemingly erudite despite his youth, stands out in the pub. The men in the pub exchange glances and the inference is that Billy's skill at opening locks could mean he is the burglar.


Burt Mustin, George Pelling, Barry Harvey, and Laurie Main
Billy then leaves the pub and walks around a foggy corner, immediately finding the landlady's home. There is no sign of the strange compulsion that draws Billy to ring the doorbell in the story; perhaps Bloch reasoned that it would be difficult to portray this internal motivation on film. Bloch then follows the story closely, even using lines of dialogue from Dahl's original, such as having the landlady refer to her "little nest." Billy mentions the rumor about a burglar that he had heard in the pub (keeping the red herring alive), but the landlady asks, "who'd want to harm an old lady like me?"

Alone in his room, Billy reads aloud a letter he has written to a friend, allowing Bloch to express directly some expository details that had been narrated in the story. He again mentions the burglary scare. Bloch cleverly added the idea of a burglar to the tale to divert attention from what is really going on. Unlike the story, which takes place in the course of an evening, the teleplay has Billy stay the night in his room and join the landlady downstairs the next morning for breakfast. It is raining and she advises against going outside.

In another change from the source, the landlady invites Billy to find out if the other two lodgers are still there. She shows him their coats and hats hanging in the hall and remarks, "you see, they did come back." In a lovely sequence, she tells Billy that they get together every Sunday afternoon and she plays the old hymns. Temple's favorite, she says, is "All Things Bright and Beautiful"--ironic, since the next line of this hymn is "All creatures great and small," creatures she kills and stuffs!

Patricia Collinge as the landlady
Billy notices that the overcoats are dry, even though it is raining outside. The landlady disappears upstairs and begins to play the organ; to the strains of the hymns, Billy ascends the stairs and investigates another lodger's room. This is filmed by alternating point of view shots with shots of Billy's reactions; the directorial trick is unusual for this series, which typically utilizes standard closeups and middle distance shots to tell ts stories. Billy finds a suitcase with some valuables inside, but otherwise the room is strangely empty.

The final scene takes place in the first floor parlor, as the landlady announces that she heard on the radio that the burglar has been caught. The burglar thread of the story thus is closed, and the viewer is slowly led to the horror of the tale's real denouement. Bloch's final addition is very subtle. The landlady asks Billy if  the silly register is in his way, referring to the guest register. Yet a careful viewer will realize that, in the opening pub scene, Billy was able to unlock the cash register, yet his subsequent inability to unlock the mystery of the landlady's guest register will prove fatal.


The end of the television adaptation is more demonstrative than the end of the story--the landlady tells Billy that "I stuff all my little pets when they pass away," and he seems to slip into paralysis. As he sits on the sofa, immobile, she announces: "Well, my pet, time to join the others!" as the camera cuts between her stuffed, dog, Basil, and Billy, who will soon be stuffed. While not as understated as the story, this is very subtle for a television program, and brilliantly done.


Jill Livesey as Rosie, in the pub
"The Landlady" was directed by Paul Henried (1908-1992), who was best known as an actor for playing Victor Laszlo, Humphrey Bogart's rival in Casablanca (1942), but who became a director, mostly of episodic TV, in 1952. He directed 28 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and one of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. "The Landlady" stars Dean Stockwell (born 1936) as Billy and Patricia Collinge (1892-1974) as the landlady. Stockwell began his career as a child actor in Hollywood and played many memorable roles, but for me he will always be remembered for the TV series Quantum Leap (1989-1993). Collinge was on stage from 1904 and in movies from 1941; she appeared on the Hitchcock series six times and had a role in Hitchcock's film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

The other five cast members appear in the initial pub scene. Most memorable was Burt Mustin (1884-1977), who doesn't say a word but who plays an old man as he did in so many other TV shows from 1951 to 1976.

The Hitchcock episode of "The Landlady" is not yet available on DVD but can be viewed online here. The original short story has been reprinted often, most prominently in Dahl's 1960 collection Kiss Kiss, his 1979 collection, Tales of the Unexpected, and the posthumous 2006 Collected Stories.

"The Landlady" was adapted for TV a second time, as the April 21, 1979 episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Robert Bloch did not write the teleplay. The episode is available on DVD and can also be viewed online here.

Sources:

Dahl, Roald. "The Landlady." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 635-44. Print.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 03 Jan. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.

"The Landlady." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 21 Feb. 1961. Television.

"The New Yorker" A Web Site for New Yorkers. Web. 03 Jan. 2012. <http://www.thenewyorker.com>.

Tales Of The Unexpected Episode Guide to Tv Series. Web. 04 Jan. 2012. <http://www.tales-of-the-unexpected-episodes.com>.

Treglown, Jeremy. "Appendix." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 849-50. Print.

Treglown, Jeremy. "Chronology." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. Xxiv-xxvii. Print.

Treglown, Jeremy. "Introduction." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. Ix-Xxi. Print.

Wikipedia. Web. 03 Jan. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

3 comments:

citizenkanne said...

Isn't anybody paying attention? Could you please correct the word to "Landlady" in the title of the current post?

Peter Enfantino said...

citizenkanne-

Thanks for the heads-up.
Would you like to comment on the post itself or just the error?

citizenkanne said...

Rober Bloch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Roald Dahl on TV. What's not to like? Glad to see someone looking over this overlooked work. I'm also currently following your Kolchak blog and catching up on (and sorry I didn't find them sooner) the Thriller, Outer Limits, and Batman sites. Great works all!!