A party line, or single telephone line that connects two or more subscribers with the main exchange, is a bit of technological history in most places today. In the late 1950s, however, party lines were still used in rural areas where it had not yet become feasible to run multiple cables. The Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle Pillow Talk, released October 7, 1959, had a party line as a key plot element. That party line was not as treacherous as the one in Henry Slesar's short story "The Deadly Telephone," which was first published in the January 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, not long after Pillow Talk came out.
Slesar's story tells the sad tale of Helen Parch, a stout country spinster who is in the habit of listening in on her party line to the gossip of her neighbors. She receives a visit from Daryl Atkins of the District Attorney's office, who tells her that Heyward Miller has escaped from the mental institution where he had been held for years. Miller and his wife had lived near Mrs. Parch and, when his wife was pregnant and had an emergency, he had tried to interrupt one of Mrs. Parch's chatty phone calls on the party line to call the doctor. She refused to hang up and his wife died. He blamed her ever after and was later jailed and shut up in a mental institution, from which he has now escaped.
Helen worries that he may want to come after her but she has no friends or relatives with whom to stay, so she remains alone at home as night falls. She hears a neighbor's dog barking and begins to worry when she hears a noise in her cellar. Picking up the telephone to call the sheriff, she discovers that two of her gossipy neighbors are engaged in a conversation. As she did with Miller years before, they do not believe her claims of having an emergency and refuse to hang up. The story ends this way: "she was still screaming when the hand took the receiver from her and replaced it on the hook. It was a thick, hairy hand and possessed of terrible strength."
|Gertrude Flynn, Judy Canova, Ellen Corby|
Back in the present, after the flashback comes to a close, Atkins tells Helen that Miller may want to seek her out and kill her. As Helen, Judy Canova gives a tremendous performance, and it is totally unexpected; she plays upon her image as a light comedienne and goes from comedy to terror in the space of several scenes. The little touches in "Party Line" are almost too many to mention: one of Helen's neighbors is the delightfully-named Betty Nubbins, who tells her friend Emma at the beginning of the show that she is sick of hearing Helen talk about the time she won two Bingo games in a row. In the flashback sequence, we see Helen boasting about that very event. Later, when Betty calls Helen to snoop on her visit from Atkins, she lies to Helen and says that Bingo will not be any fun without her. What Jerome (Slesar?) and Green have done, with the help of an excellent cast, is to paint a picture of a small, insular community where everyone is pleasant on the surface but filled with deceit underneath. All of the women lie to each other constantly and eavesdrop on each other's conversations. Only near the end, when Helen is beginning to be consumed by worry and is fed up, does she speak during one of her eavesdropping sessions, telling her neighbors that they are "nasty old busybodies."
|Helen heads down to the cellar|
Hilton Green (1929- ) directed this episode. He was a long-time assistant director on many TV shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, who was given this opportunity to direct. He never directed another episode of the Hitchcock series, which is a shame, based on the great work he did here.
Appearing as Atkins was the scarecrow-like Royal Dano (1922-1994), who had a long career as a character actor in movies and on TV. He was on three episodes of the Hitchcock series and also appeared in The Trouble With Harry (1955).
|Canova, Johnson, Grace|
Ellen Corby (1911-1999) plays Emma, one of the gossipy neighbors. Born Ellen Hansen, she was in movies from 1933 and on TV from 1950 to 1997. She appeared five times on the Hitchcock series and once on Thriller, but she was most famous for her role as Grandma Walton on The Waltons (1971-1980).
"Party Line" is available on DVD here or can be viewed online for free here. It is one of the best Henry Slesar episodes to date.
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