Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Hitchcock Project: Henry Slesar Part Five-"The Morning After" [4.14]

by Jack Seabrook

A mother's love is the topic Henry Slesar addresses in "The Morning After," which begins as Mrs. Trotter visits her daughter Sharon, who is used to staying up very late and who lives in a modern, well-furnished apartment. The contrast between mother and daughter is striking. Mrs. Trotter took the bus to visit Sharon and wants to shop for "a pair of hospital shoes for every day." Sharon is a kept woman, supported by Ben, "a bad man, a crook" in her mother's eyes. Ben is married and Sharon is waiting for him to get a divorce so she can become his next wife. Mrs. Trotter, on the other hand, was married to Papa her whole life.

As Sharon takes a shower, Mrs. Trotter looks through a "thick magazine . . . devoted to Paris fashion . . . filled with photographs of slender women in settings that had no connection with the reality Mrs. Trotter knew." The telephone rings and she answers it. Ben is calling, frantic because his wife died during the night. He thinks he is speaking to Sharon and urges her to tell the police that they spent the night together.

Sharon emerges from the shower and Mrs. Trotter tells her that Ben called and that his wife is dead. Mrs. Trotter tells her daughter that Ben killed the woman and that "he wants you to tell the police . . . that he wasn't here last night." Sharon assents and the doorbell rings.

Jeanette Nolan
"The Morning After" is very short and features a marvelous twist ending, though it is hardly a surprise when it happens. The title refers both to the state of Sharon's affairs, as her mother visits her after what appears to have been a late night, and to Ben's phone call, which comes the morning after he killed his wife. Did he spend the night with Sharon and leave at 4 A.M. to murder his wife? We don't know, but we do know that Mrs. Trotter has cleverly set events in motion that she thinks will help rid her daughter of a bad boyfriend.

"The Morning After" first appeared in the February 1957 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It was picked up by the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and became the first of Henry Slesar's stories to be adapted for the small screen during the show's fourth season, broadcast on January 11, 1959. Slesar still had not broken into the business of writing teleplays, so the script was written by Rose Simon Kohn (1901-1985), who has few credits beyond this and another episode of the Hitchcock series, but whose teleplay for this story is an excellent example of how to expand a very short story.

Dorothy Provine
The show begins as Mrs. Trotter prepares for a visit from Sharon but cries when she looks out of her window to see her daughter arriving with Ben in his expensive convertible. Whereas the short story took place in one brief morning, the television show spans a couple of days and features characters only mentioned in the story. The contrast between mother and daughter is established immediately by Sharon's pearl necklace and fur stole, which look gaudy in comparison to her mother's simple attire. The women argue about Sharon's relationship with Ben. The teleplay then takes off in a different direction from the story as Mrs. Trotter visits Ben at work (he owns Ben Nelson Plastics, Inc.) and pleads with him to stop seeing Sharon.

Robert Alda
Robert Alda, as Ben, skillfully portrays a rich, powerful man who uses bravado to try to cover up his awkwardness at meeting his mistress's mother. He says "this is a very pleasant surprise," then catches himself repeating the same facile phrase only moments later. Contrast wealthy Nelson with simple Mrs. Trotter, in her cloth coat and white gloves, a woman out of her element in Nelson's gleaming, modern office. Nelson is a liar, a smooth operator who assures Mrs. Trotter that Sharon will never know about her visit and then rushes to Sharon's apartment to tell her everything, remarking that "I won't have her meddling in our affairs." To her credit, Sharon stands up for her mother and herself. Ben smooths things over with an expensive bracelet--the relationship is based on money and empty promises--yet he slips momentarily and reveals that his wife does not know about Sharon.

Fay Wray
Mrs. Trotter next takes the bold step of visiting Mrs. Nelson at home--a large, expensive house where a maid admits her. Fay Wray plays Mrs. Nelson as a refined, polite woman who knows nothing of Sharon until Mrs. Trotter spills the beans. As it dawns on both women that Mrs. Nelson knew nothing, the audience knows more than both characters and suspense is created by waiting to see how the truth will out and what Mrs. Nelson's reaction will be. Wray and Jeanette Nolan, as Mrs. Trotter, both give excellent performances. Wray's shock and anger bubble below the surface and Mrs. Trotter appears to be understanding, though she is destroying a marriage (and later, a life) with her carefully chosen words--she, who earlier had asked Sharon to consider Mrs. Nelson's feelings. Mrs. Trotter is surprised that Mrs. Nelson did not know and bursts into tears.

As the storm rages!
Ben comes home that night to find a storm raging outside; the elements mirror the characters' emotions and this scene is lit with high-contrast, noir lighting. Mrs. Nelson sits in her chair, half in shadow, while the shots of Ben look upward from her point of view. Later that night, Mrs. Trotter arrives at Sharon's apartment, wet from the rain. She confesses to having visited Ben but cannot confess to her other visit because Sharon interrupts her. Nolan plays the final scene on the telephone perfectly, her whispers indistinguishable from those of Sharon.

Just before the telephone rings.
"The Morning After" is an outstanding example of a half-hour black and white crime drama of the late 1950s, where the writing, direction, and acting all combine to produce a very effective program. Director Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993) could often be counted on for a dark, atmospheric TV experience. Among his 27 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and  The Alfred Hitchcock Hour were "The Cream of the Jest," "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?", and the Robert Bloch episodes, "The Cure" and "A Home Away From Home." Jeanette Nolan (1911-1998) had appeared in the last episode adapted from a Slesar story, "The Right Kind of House." Only 47 years old at the time of filming, she played the mother role this time with dark hair, unlike the grey hair she wore last time. She was only three years older than Robert Alda (1914-1986), who plays Ben Nelson. Alda began his career in vaudeville and later moved into TV and movies, including Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger (1946) and the horror classic, The Beast With Five Fingers (1946). This was his only episode of the Hitchcock series.

Alternate cover
Alda was seven years younger than Fay Wray (1907-2004), who plays his wife. Wray was in movies from 1923 and her long list of classic horror films is topped by King Kong (1933), her greatest role. She appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and was still very striking in appearance in this episode at age  51. Even more striking was the lovely Dorothy Provine (1935-2010), who plays Sharon. Provine had just started her TV career in 1957 and began appearing in movies in 1958. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series. She would later appear in Good Neighbor Sam (1964) with Jack Lemmon, based on a novel by Jack Finney. She is perfectly cast in "The Morning After" as the beautiful young woman who unknowingly drives a man nearly twice her age to murder his wife.

"The Morning After" is available on DVD here or can be viewed online for free here. It is certainly worth a look.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 9 June 2013.
"The Morning After." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 11 Jan. 1959. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "The Morning After." 1957. Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. Ed. Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Avon, 1960. 59-64. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 9 June 2013.


Walker Martin said...

I'll have to dig out my copy of EQMM and read the story, followed by the TV adaptation.

I remember many years ago thinking that I have to start collecting both versions of each EQMM issue, the newsstand copy and the subscriber's copy. I still haven't gotten around to doing it. Making do with only the one copy is rough...

Jack Seabrook said...

Walker, I would have thought you'd have complete sets of both versions! Probably in your laundry room!

Walker Martin said...

Jack, it's just about impossible to put books in the laundry room since my wife is in there with the washing machine and dryer. Plus I'm always dragging the garbage out through the laundry room, etc.

However, one thing it is good for is to hang pulp artwork! The wall space allows me room for over a dozen preliminary cover drawings. Most of them by Raphael Desoto. Most art collectors ignore the preliminary sketches but I think they look nice framed.

Harvey Chartrand said...

After a prolonged absence from the silver screen, Fay Wray was back in harness, turning up in not one but two episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. In the more macabre episode entitled DIP IN THE POOL (1958), starring Keenan Wynn and based on a story by Roald ('WAY OUT) Dahl, Wray was directed by the Master of Suspense himself – 25 years after KING KONG.

Jack Seabrook said...

"Dip in the Pool" is a great show--I'll get to it eventually in the Roald Dahl series!