Thursday, April 5, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Twelve-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "A Home Away From Home"

by Jack Seabrook

Ray Milland as Dr. Howard Fenwick
"A Home Away From Home" was Robert Bloch's second script for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It aired on September 27, 1963, as the premiere episode of the hour-long Hitchcock program's second season. The teleplay was based on Bloch's story of the same name, which had been published in the June 1961 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Bloch later wrote that he penned the story for a contest the magazine was running and that it had won a prize.

The story, which is very short, is set in England and concerns Natalie Rivers, a young woman who has traveled by train from London to Hightower Station in the West Country to see her uncle, Dr. Bracegirdle. When no one meets her at the station, she telephones her uncle, who sends Miss Plummer to pick her up in a station wagon. Natalie hails from Canberra, Australia; her parents were killed in a car crash two months before. She has never left Canberra before and she has never met her uncle.

Natalie arrives at her uncle's house only to find that a party is going on. Her uncle, who is a psychiatrist, welcomes her, bringing her into the parlor to meet the other guests. They are having a farewell celebration with plenty of alcohol. Natalie sees her uncle's consulting room across the hall through a partially open door. She enters the room and notices that the telephone cord has been cut. She realizes that the man claiming to be her uncle was really a party guest and she sees the corpse of her real uncle lying on the floor.

Natalie appeals to the other guests, telling them that her uncle's death was "the work of a madman" who "belongs in the asylum." Miss Plummer informs Natalie that "this is the asylum," locking the door to the consulting room as the other guests move toward her.

"A Home Away From Home" is a chilling story of very short duration. Bloch was soon approached by the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to expand it to fill an hour-long episode and he wrote that doing so was "no easy task . . . it wasn't easy for me to enlarge and maintain the same level of suspense, but I think the dramatization worked."

In order to expand the story, Bloch added scenes and characters, fleshing out the tale and changing its focus. Almost the entire first act is composed of new material. The story begins as Sarah Sanders, an aging actress of British stage and screen who now spends most of her time in bed, proudly displays her scrapbook to Dr. Fenwick. Clues to what is going on are liberally sprinkled among the lines of dialogue, as Sarah tells the doctor "I'm as sane as you are."

The doctor, whose name is Howard Fenwick, turns out to be a patient himself, and a woman whom he claims is his wife visits him. They must speak to each other in a room where they are separated by a wire screen; he begs her to use her influence on the sanatorium's doctor to get him discharged. Unlike the story, where the fact that the house is an asylum is withheld until the end, the television show features a closeup of a sign reading "Norton Sanatorium" in one of its opening shots.

Claire Griswold as Natalie Rivers
Fenwick's wife speaks to Dr. Norton in his office and learns that Fenwick will not be released any time soon. After she leaves, Fenwick himself enters Norton's office and strangles him, killing the nearsighted little doctor. The office phone rings and Fenwick answers it; he immediately assumes Norton's identity and welcomes Norton's niece Natalie, who asks to spend the night while on her way to Lake Louise for a vacation. This is where the teleplay and short story first dovetail, since the story opens with Natalie's phone call to her uncle. For television, however, she did not travel by train and she does not require a ride to the home; the action has also moved to North America, since Natalie is on her way to Lake Louise, in Alberta, Canada.

In act two, Natalie begins to meet and interact with various people in the Sanatorium. The Major (a stuffy old British officer) and Nurse Gibson tell Sarah Sanders, the old actress, that Dr. Norton has taken a short vacation, leaving Dr. Fenwick in charge. In the kitchen, the cook Martha tells orderly Nicky that he has to carry meals upstairs by hand because the dumb waiter is out of order. Natalie speaks with Dr. Fenwick in his study, thinking he is her uncle. He shows her a book by Howard Fenwick, M.D., titled Permissive Therapy; the script is particularly witty here, as Fenwick calls his own work "brilliant" and explains that it recommends setting lunatics free and giving them a role to play--exactly what he has done, unbeknownst to Natalie.

Ben Wright as Dr. Norton
Natalie meets Sarah, who insists that she wants her dinner. Natalie goes to pull up the dumb waiter but is distracted; she ventures up to the third floor and finds Andrew locked behind bars, claiming that he is the real Dr. Norton's assistant and that the lunatics have taken over the asylum and imprisoned the real staff. Andrew's behavior is more unstable and dangerous than that of anyone else, so Natalie is understandably reticent to believe his tale

Act three begins with Dr. Fenwick telling Natalie that Andrew and several others are kept locked up on the third floor because they are violently disturbed. Natalie meets Donald, a shy young man who is also a kleptomaniac. The script continues to blur the line between the criminally insane and the merely nutty, as Natalie, some of the patients, and even the viewers grow increasingly unable to tell who is a patient and, more importantly, which of them represent a danger.

Again meeting Sarah, who claims to need bed rest because she is pregnant and has been about to give birth for five years, Natalie goes to the dumb waiter and pulls it up, only to find Dr. Norton's body lying crumpled inside. The final act brings Inspector Roberts onto the scene. He looks the part of a classical detective in his trench coat, and when Natalie shows him the dumb waiter the body has disappeared. She goes looking for her uncle in his office and finds the body in a roll top desk. Inspector Roberts identifies it as that of Dr. Norton, and Natalie realizes that Dr. Fenwick as been impersonating her uncle.

Fenwick explains to Natalie that Roberts is not really an inspector, but rather a patient playing a part, just like all the others she has met. "I am trying to live the role!" cries Roberts. Fenwick informs Natalie that she is now a prisoner and that he will decide what he is going to do with her later that night. She asks the Major about Dr. Fenwick and learns that he, too, is a patient, committed to the asylum due to "some nonsense about killing his wife." The visitor we saw early in the show was his sister, but he pretends she's his wife.

In the tense final scene, Natalie tries to escape from her room and then gets a set of keys to let Andrew out of his cell on the upper floor. Sarah betrays her and sends Dr. Fenwick up after her. He begins to strangle her but she is rescued at the last minute by real police who burst on the scene unexpectedly. It turns out that Inspector Roberts played his role a little too well, calling the real police to report the murder of Dr. Norton.

Robert Bloch's expansion of the short story into the hour-long teleplay is a model of how to fill out a story by using characterization, adding plot elements, and infusing humor. While much of the program is suspenseful, the final twist is humorous and would fit very well as the ironic ending of an episode of the half-hour Hitchcock series. The show is directed by Herschel Daugherty, who directed twenty-four episodes of the half-hour series and three of the hour series. His use of shadows and high contrast lighting is especially effective in this episode, and he moves his camera fluidly on several occasions. The scene where Dr. Norton is killed is particularly clever, since it is shot from Norton's point of view after his thick glasses have been crushed, and the murderer's face is blurry and almost indistinct.

One of the most striking aspects of this program is the score, composed by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann was one of the foremost movie music composers of his time, having scored a number of Hitchcock's greatest films in the 1950s and early 1960s. His music for "A Home Away From Home" sets the mood in the opening shots with a combination of violins and a harp; the music recurs throughout the episode and is essential in creating suspense, especially in scenes where there is no dialogue and little sound. The score is somewhat reminiscent of that from Psycho (also by Herrmann), though without the shrieking violins.

The cast of "A Home Away From Home" is top notch. Starring as Dr. Fenwick is Ray Milland, making his only appearance on the Hitchcock series. Milland (1905-1986) was one of the great actors from Hollywood's Golden Age, appearing in films from 1929. He won the Best Actor Oscar for The Lost Weekend (1945) and appeared in such classics as The Uninvited (1944), Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (also 1944), The Big Clock (1948), Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), and Roger Corman's The Premature Burial (1962) and X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963). He starred in two TV series: Meet Mr. McNutley/The Ray Milland Show (1953-1955) and Markham (1959-1960). He also appeared in a Night Gallery episode. His autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, was published in 1974. His performance as Fenwick is menacing, yet there is always a subtle gleam in his eye that lets the viewer know he is having fun.

Richard Peel as the first inspector
Claire Griswold plays Natalie, the niece who finds herself trapped. She lived from 1936-2011 and had a brief career. She appeared in one other Hitchcock hour show, as well as the Twilight Zone episode "Miniature." She retired from acting in 1963 to raise children with her husband, the director Sydney Pollack, who had also been her acting teacher.

Among the other cast members was busy character actress Virginia Gregg as Nurse Gibson; Gregg lived from 1916-1986 and had her most memorable moment behind the scenes as the voice of Norman Bates's mother in Psycho.

The role of Dr. Norton, who is murdered early in the show, was played by Ben Wright (1915-1989), who would go on to his most famous role a few years later as Herr Zeller, the Nazi captain in The Sound of Music. He is the one who stops the von Trapps on the road as they are trying to escape with their car right before the climactic festival.

The first inspector, one of the two real policemen who comes on the scene at the end of the episode, is played by Richard Peel (1920-1988), who was turning up regularly as a policeman on the Thriller series right around this time.

Beatrice Kay as Sarah Sanders
Finally, and closest to my heart, is Beatrice Kay (1907-1986), who plays Sarah Sanders. Ms. Kay was born Hanna Beatrice Kuper and was on stage from age six. She starred in vaudeville and then had a radio show in the 1940s. She was a popular nightclub singer who released several record albums; known as the Gay Nineties Girl, she sang old songs from the 1890s and was hugely popular for a short time, selling an astonishing 12 million copies of her record, "Mention My Name in Sheboygan." It can be heard here, but I warn you--it is an addictive tune. Her performance as Sarah Sanders, the batty old British actress, is perfect.

"A Home Away From Home" aired on Friday, September 27, 1963, as the premiere of the second season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The series had been on Thursdays at 10 pm the season before; now it moved to Fridays, where it followed right after The Twilight Zone. That night, at 9:30 pm, season five of The Twilight Zone premiered with the episode "In Praise of Pip," starring Jack Klugman.

The TV show can be viewed here. The story was reprinted in the Bloch collection. Tales in a Jugular Vein, which is easily available from online booksellers.

Sources:

Bloch, Robert. "A Home Away From Home." Tales in a Jugular Vein. New York: Pyramid, 1965. 83-90.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
"A Home Away From Home." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 27 Sept. 1963. Television.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 01 Apr. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.





3 comments:

Matthew Bradley said...

Nice work, as always, Jack. It's interesting to note that Milland had previously directed the 1961 adaptation of Bloch's classic story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" on THRILLER, and later appeared in his not-so-classic 1975 TV-movie THE DEAD DON'T DIE. And Griswold's "Miniature" co-star, Robert Duvall, had appeared in Bloch's "Bad Actor."

I believe this was Bloch's last Hitchcock teleplay to be based on his own work, and the only one helmed by Daugherty, who was THRILLER's most frequent director (including several Bloch episodes).

However, as a huge fan of the composer's work, I must correct the spelling of Bernard Herrmann's last name.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Matthew--all fixed.

Brian Durant said...

Thanks for this excellent commentary, Jack. And I agree that Bloch does a great job in adapting such a short story. In addition to a fantastic script, the exquisitely-meshed ensemble cast here is terrific. Ray Milland is always a favorite of mine, and I also think Ronald Long gives a brief but memorable performance as the Major. But I have to agree with you that Beatrice Kay almost steals this entire episode with her enthralling performance as Sarah Sanders. A very memorable episode and one of my favorites from Bloch.