“The Second Wife,” for which Robert Bloch wrote the teleplay from a short story called “The Lonely Heart” by Richard Deming, is only tangentially a tale of terror. The story is essentially one that tells of a tragic failure of communication between a husband and wife in a marriage, a failure that ends with a shocking and wholly unnecessary murder.
The show opens with a lyrical musical theme characterized by a series of descending notes on a piano accompanied by ominous woodwinds. A bus arrives in a dreary town square, the pavement wet with recent rain. A woman, no longer young, disembarks, watched by two men, one of whom helps unload a heavy trunk from the bus’s storage compartment. The woman is Martha Peters, and her eyes shine with anticipation as she meets Luke Hunter for the first time. He is matter of fact, unsmiling and brusque as he tells Sam Ogle, the man waiting with him, that Martha is “not a friend—we’re getting married tonight.”
Martha’s disappointments begin early, right after she meets Luke. He drives off with her in his pickup truck and their awkward attempts at conversation include his questioning her about her savings account; he even checks her bankbook as he drives. The two met through a correspondence club, two lonely people looking for companionship. Luke drives straight to a minister’s house from the bus station, much to Martha’s surprise, where they are married in the minster’s living room. She is so anxious for everything to work out that she goes along with his suggestions. Martha was born in Michigan, in a cold, northern climate, but she has spent the past twelve years in St. Petersburg working as a librarian, a classic spinster occupation. Martha has sought warmth, first by moving south and now by agreeing to marry a man she has never met.
Luke, on the other hand, is taciturn and connected with coldness and death. He has been hired by the county to build coffins for the funerals of paupers, and his bachelor’s home is sparsely furnished, with little natural light and fireplaces in each room. Martha is again surprised to learn that the house does not have a furnace; her prayers for warmth and love have been answered with cold rooms and emotional distance. The musical score that supports this episode is at turns lyrical and ominous; it is this ominous music, along with the increasingly nourish lighting that causes the Hunter home to be filled with shadows, that leads the viewer to expect the worst from Luke. When he shows Martha the basement, she remarks that it is already cold in the autumn, and he cautions her that it will get even colder when winter comes. John Anderson’s performance as Luke is brilliant; he never does or says anything particularly angry or threatening, yet his emotionally reserved personality allows Martha to develop a sense of doubt that will eventually prove fatal.
|John Anderson as Luke|
Poor communication, disappointment, and misunderstanding between husband and wife mount as Martha goes to church and becomes involved with the ladies of the church quilting bee. Luke buys a new carving knife as a surprise; the kindness of the gift is undercut by the foreshadowing of the knife as potential weapon. At a quilting bee at the same house where the marriage took place Martha learns that she is not Luke’s first wife. He had been married to a woman named Virginia, another mail-order bride to whom he was married a mere six months before she died of food poisoning on a trip to Luke’s hometown of Small Boot, Texas.
Bloch may be playing a subtle game with names here—Small Boot recalls Little Soldier's Boot, the English translation of the name of the notorious Roman emperor Caligula, whose violent reign included many murders. Martha returns home to a dark house after earning the disturbing news about Luke’s first wife; doubt begins to creep into her mind and she is surprised—this time in a frightening way—when Luke suddenly emerges from the basement. She confronts him about his first wife and he tries to be tender but remains reserved and distant. Echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca can be felt as the second wife—this time, Martha—develops a fear based on rumors and pieces of information she learns about her husband’s first wife.
Martha’s fear grows when Luke suggests a trip over the Christmas holidays to his hometown in Texas; Martha knows that this is where Virginia died, and she dreads the thought that the same fate might befall her. She is in the cold basement hanging laundry when she sees Luke’s pickup truck pull into the garage with a large wooden box in the back. We (and she) remember that he makes coffins for a living, and Martha’s imagination continues to get the best of her. The situation worsens when he denies that there was a box in the truck and she investigates, confirming that what she saw was real. The clever musical score features pizzicato violin at this point, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho and its jarring use of strings.
Following another meeting with the church ladies, Martha goes home to find Luke asleep; dirt in the sink suggests that he has been hard at work in the basement, but the door is now locked. Suspense builds in a long, dialogue-free sequence as Martha takes the key from Luke’s coat pocket as he sleeps. The ever-present fires in the home’s fireplaces cast flickering shadows on the walls and the music helps create great tension and suspense as Martha ventures into the basement and sees a shovel and a newly dug hole the size of a grave.
|June Lockhart as Martha|
With the benefit of hindsight, having seen the entire episode and its surprise ending, this sequence can be appreciated for the outstanding work by director Joseph M. Newman, who melds light, shadows, music, and the performance of June Lockhart to turn a husband’s kind surprise into a symphony of terror. The great irony of “The Second Wife” is that Luke turns out to be nothing more than a quiet, shy man trying to provide for his new wife, yet the story is presented in such a way that the viewer completely understands the fear and doubt that begin to consume Martha’s thoughts. Her descent into the basement again evokes Psycho and the similar descent by Vera Miles into the basement of the Bates house at that film’s conclusion.
After discovering what she must think is her freshly dug grave, we next see Martha in the light of day, yet she sits at the kitchen table, hunched over, wrapped in her overcoat to fight the cold that comes not only from the poorly heated home but also from her seemingly loveless marriage. Luke comes home early to get ready for the trip that she thinks will end in her death. She decides to go to town; he suggests that she do some Christmas shopping, but she has other ideas.
Martha goes to a pawn shop and buys a revolver, then returns home after dark. She sees dirt in the sink again, a sure sign in her mind that Luke has been preparing her basement grave. He insists that they leave for their trip right away, instead of the next day. Director Newman once again excels here, with nourish lighting and ominous music, the fireplace flames casting undulating shadows on the walls.
Luke stops Martha as she heads outside to put her bag in the truck, saying he wants to show her something in the basement. He opens the door that leads downstairs and his wife, certain that she is about to be killed, shoots him with the gun she had bought earlier that day. He tumbles down the stairs and lies dead at their base. She slowly follows him down and finds—in a heartbreakingly tragic conclusion—that the surprise is a new furnace that he has installed, with an oil tank filling the no longer menacing hole in the floor. A card on the furnace reads, “Merry Christmas to my dear wife,” and the screen fades to black as she hears Luke’s voice in her head repeating the kind sentiment.
Robert Bloch’s teleplay for “The Second Wife” serves as the basis for a brilliant and tragic hour of television, where the director turns a marital misunderstanding into a harrowing tale of suspense by combining all of the elements at his command. The story on which it was based, “The Lonely Heart” by Richard Deming, was first published in the December 1964 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
The story is not as emotionally wrenching as the TV show, in part because Deming's style is so matter of fact. Bloch made some significant changes when he adapted it; perhaps the biggest was that, in the story, Martha knew before she married Luke (Rufus, in the story) that he had been married before. Her worry comes from the revelation that his first wife had also been a lonely hearts bride, and she fears he may be a lonely hearts killer. In the story, Luke/Rufus is 55 and Martha is 50. John Anderson, who played Luke, was only 42 years old, and June Lockhart was 39, and much prettier than the story's “angular, horse faced spinster.”
The mutual inspection of bankbooks had been agreed to in advance, and Martha is taken home so that she can clean up before the wedding ceremony, unlike in Bloch's teleplay, where Luke's brusque insistence on speed seems merely cold hearted. The wedding scene, so disappointing to Martha in the TV show, is absent from the story. Bloch also adds the comment about how Luke works building coffins; this foreshadows the pine box he later brings home in his truck. Finally, Martha not only buys a gun and ammunition, she stops off on her way home to practice shooting. When it's time to leave, there is no rush and no surprise early departure--as in the rest of the story, it is told very matter-of-factly, with less suspense and less emotion as a result.
Deming also wrote “The Geniuses,” which Bloch had adapted into the earlier Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “Bad Actor.” Just as “The Geniuses” recalled elements of Hitchcock’s film Rope, “The Lonely Heart” recalls the Alfred Hitchcock Presents first season episode “Back for Christmas,” directed by Hitchcock and based on a John Collier short story. In it, a husband murders his wife and buries her body in the basement, only to learn after he has moved away that his wife had hired excavators to dig up the basement as a surprise Christmas present.
Starring in “The Second Wife” are John Anderson, as Luke, and June Lockhart, as Martha. Anderson (1922-1992) was featured in a huge number of television episodes in his long career, including an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, one of Thriller, one of The Outer Limits, and four of The Twilight Zone. He also played car salesman California Charlie in Psycho (1960). Anderson is perfect in “The Second Wife” as the husband who means well but is unable to communicate with his wife and pays the ultimate price.
Martha is played by June Lockhart (1925- ), who has been in movies and on TV since 1938. She starred in She-Wolf of London (1946) and was a regular on three consecutive TV series over a period of twelve years: Lassie (1958-1964), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Petticoat Junction (1968-1970).Her performance in ”The Second Wife” is outstanding and carries the show—she goes from anticipatory excitement to disappointment to terror with complete credibility. Lockhart is still alive and maintains a small website.
Joseph M. Newman (1922-1992), whose skillful direction guides “The Second Wife,” was in the movie business from 1938 and TV from 1960; he directed This Island Earth (1955), as well as four episodes of The Twilight Zone and ten episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. An interesting article on Newman may be read here. The director of photography on “The Second Wife,” responsible for the beautifully noirish lighting in the night scenes where the interior of the Hunters’ house is lit only by flickering firelight, was Ray Rennahan, who won Oscars for his photography on Gone With the Wind (1939) and Blood and Sand (1942)—both were shared with other cinematographers. Ironically, he was best known for his work with color photography; he was in movies from 1917 and TV from 1956, he worked on one episode of Thriller, but this was his only contribution to the Hitchcock series.
Finally, and most surprisingly, the music for “The Second Wife” was not written specifically for this episode; the only music credit goes to supervisor Stanley Wilson (1915-1970), but I would not be surprised to find that a comparison of the music used in this episode to the scores written by Bernard Herrmann for other episodes of this series revealed that Hermann’s music was the source for the themes in “The Second Wife.”
“The Second Wife” was first broadcast on NBC on April 26, 1965, and may be viewed online here; I hope that it is released on an official DVD someday so that we may appreciate fully the lighting and camerawork.