Henry Slesar's short story, "The Case of the Kind Waitress," was first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine's October 1958 issue. It was adapted for television and aired late in the fourth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on March 29, 1959. The story is well told and has been anthologized repeatedly; the filmed version is less successful, though better than the prior Slesar effort, "The Right Price."
The story concerns Thelma Tompkins, a 44 year old waitress at the Hotel Gordon Restaurant who takes a special interest in Mrs. Mannerheim, an elderly regular customer whom she thinks must be over 90 years old. Thelma is another of Slesar's ordinary people: she has worked for "11 years as a waitress" and is no beauty; he mentions "the imperfect features of her drab face" and her "stringy brown hair." Mrs. Mannerheim seems barely alive; with a "tiny shrunken body," she is "white-faced and wraith-like." The third main character is Thelma's 34 year old brother Arthur, a lazy ne'er do well who works at a drug store. Since their father died, Thelma and Arthur are each other's only family.
One day, due to Thelma's kindness, Mrs. Mannerheim tells her that she has taken care of the younger woman in her will. Arthur is excited to learn of the coming windfall but his enthusiasm wanes as months pass and the old woman does not die. Eventually, tired of waiting, he suggests to Thelma that she "help her along," insisting that it would be a "mercy killing" that he could facilitate with powder from his drug store sprinkled on her food each night.
Thelma resists this idea for a month but finally gives in and begins slowly poisoning her elderly friend. Yet Mrs. Mannerheim lives on! Thelma decides to give her one large dose to end the waiting (Thelma waits on Mrs. Mannerheim in both senses of the word--as a server and as an expectant inheritor). One evening, when the old woman does not come down for dinner, Thelma takes a tray to her room and loses her temper, leading Mrs. Mannerheim to threaten to change her will. Thelma strangles her and is discovered by a chambermaid. She is arrested and jailed, only to be told by a policeman of a surprising discovery at autopsy: Mrs. Mannerheim had had a parasitic infection and the only thing keeping her alive was small, regular doses of arsenic!
The title of the story was shortened to "The Kind Waitress" when it was adapted for television by William O'Farrell, who also changed the story in other ways that blunted its effectiveness. Arthur is no longer Thelma's younger brother; instead, he is her boyfriend, a handsome, clarinet-playing misogynist whose casual cruelty to his lover would not pass muster if this episode were filmed today. Thelma's desperate attempts to hold on to her man inform all of the wrong choices she makes. When Arthur hears of the promised inheritance, he thinks only of himself: "No more playin' for peanuts! I could start my own band!" As Arthur, Rick Jason is hard to watch; his performance verges on that of the beatniks and hipsters we will see in upcoming years on this series.
The conclusion of the show is also changed for no good reason. In the story, Thelma is caught red-handed, but onscreen she gets away with murder, only to blurt out a confession during a coroner's inquest. She then overhears Mrs. Mannerheim's doctor explain that he had been giving his patient Anotyne to treat her heart condition. He says that "Anotyne was the only thing keeping her alive" and, in case we did not get it right away, his words are repeated three more times as a voice over!
|Cooking up some poison!|
"The Kind Waitress" was one of 29 episodes of the Hitchcock series to be directed by Paul Henreid (1908-1992), the actor turned director who also directed "The Landlady" and "Annabel." His work on this episode is competent but not outstanding.
Rick Jason (1923-2000) gets top billing as Arthur, though his performance was not one he would recall in his later autobiography, Scrapbooks of My Mind (2000), which can be read online here. Jason was on TV and in the movies from 1953 to the late 1980s; he never appeared on the Hitchcock series again but he had a five-year run as Lt. Gill Hanley on Combat. He ended his own life the year his book came out.
Olive Deering (1918-1986) plays Thelma, her wide-set eyes giving her face a fish-like appearance. She was the sister of actor Alfred Ryder and she was a member of the Actors Studio, onstage beginning in 1933 and in movies and on TV from the late 1940s. She also appeared in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and had a role in the classic Outer Limits episode, "The Zanti Misfits."
Finally, in a small role as the coroner is Robert Carson (1909-1979), brother of Jack Carson. Robert appeared on the Hitchcock show eleven times, always in small roles, including one as the inquest board chairman in "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?"
"The Kind Waitress" is available on DVD here and can be viewed online for free here. (If Larry Rapchak is reading this, perhaps he can identify the rather infectious melody that Arthur plays on his clarinet!)