Henry Slesar's contributions to the sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents began with "Pen Pal," which was based on the story of the same name that had been published in the December 1957 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
"Pen Pal" begins as 53 year old spinster Margaret Lowen receives a visitor, Lt. Berger from the Eighth Precinct. He is looking for her niece, Margie, who lives with her but is away for the weekend. Margie is 22 years old and has lived with her aunt since her parents were killed six years before. She has been conducting a relationship by mail with 28 year old Raoul Collins, who is serving a life sentence at the State Penitentiary for killing a man during a robbery 11 years before. Berger shows Margaret a photo of Margie that was found in Collins's cell and reads a love letter that she wrote to him. He tells Margaret that Collins led a jailbreak and escaped; he may come looking for money or a place to hide.
Pretending to telephone Margie, Margaret calls Lt. Berger. Collins realizes what she is doing and lunges at her; she bashes him over the head with a candlestick before falling to her knees in front of the now-unconscious killer, calling him "My darling"! The police come and take him away; after they have left, Margaret tears up the photo of her niece that Berger had brought and sits down to write a letter. Pretending to be Margie, she writes to Collins to say that she is glad he is back in prison so that they can continue to exchange letters.
"Pen Pal" is an outstanding story with a shattering twist ending that seems to come out of nowhere and puts everything that happened before it in a new light. Reviewing the story again with the knowledge that Margaret has been pretending to be her young and pretty niece Margie, one finds clues sprinkled throughout: when Margaret learns that Collins has escaped and may be on his way to her house, she does her makeup and goes grocery shopping, making herself look presentable and stocking the house with food for what will surely be a famished guest. Yet when the reality of the situation becomes unavoidable, she takes action to send her unknowing suitor back to the safety of prison, first calling the police and then conking him on the head with a candlestick.
In several ways, "Pen Pal" is similar to "The Deadly Telephone," the story that served as the basis for the prior Slesar/Hitchcock adaptation, "Party Line." In both stories, a lonely, middle-aged woman sits alone in her house, waiting for an escaped criminal to arrive. Each man enters through the cellar (the subconscious level or that which lies below the surface) and comes up the stairs to the kitchen (traditionally, the woman's domain) before threatening the woman. In "The Deadly Telephone," the woman presumably is killed, while in "Pen Pal," she defends herself successfully.
"Pen Pal" also features themes of role playing, transference and doubling. Margaret plays the role of Margie when she corresponds with Collins, but when she meets him in person she must switch gears and play the role of Margie's concerned aunt, pretending not to know the man with whom she is secretly in love. She transfers her feelings for him onto her niece, and she transfers her concern for herself and their future onto the young girl as well. Finally, Margaret and Margie are mirror images of each other, living together in the same house and sharing the same name.
The question of Margie's existence becomes more acute in the first television adaptation of "Pen Pal," which was broadcast on November 1, 1960, on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For the sixth season, the program had moved from Sunday nights on CBS, where it had been shown for its five years, to Tuesday nights on NBC, where it immediately preceded the new hour-long series hosted by Boris Karloff, Thriller ("The Watcher" followed "Pen Pal").
Unfortunately, "Pen Pal" is an episode that is more interesting to discuss than it is to watch. It is hobbled by uninspired direction by John Brahm and by a weak performance by Katherine Squire as Margaret. Unlike the house in the story, which had a basement and a second floor, the house on TV is a tiny ranch, with all of the rooms on the same level. Much of the show takes place in the front parlor; there is also an extended scene in the kitchen and a key event occurs in Margaret's bedroom, which is visible just off the parlor. When Collins (his first name has been changed from Raoul to Rod) breaks into the house, he comes in through Margaret's bedroom window rather than through a cellar window, perhaps symbolizing a more direct assault on her maidenhood rather than her subconscious.
|The snapshot of "Margie" (Gloria Ellis)|
Brahm's direction does not help matters--the show is filled with dull shot/reverse shots, medium closeups, and barely any camera movement. In the long kitchen scene, Margaret is shot in closeup in front of a blank wall. The only time the show demonstrates a hint of atmosphere is near the end, when night has fallen and the lights are on in the parlor. In this scene there is a hint of evocative lighting, matched by a shot of Lt. Berger on the other end of the telephone, sitting at his desk with a desk lamp casting light on his face.
Worst of all is the scene in the kitchen, which should be tragic but is instead dull. As it ends, Collins grabs Margaret's arm and she puts her hand on his chest to hold him back in a twisted near-embrace that has different meanings to each of them. Hidden beneath their interaction is the implied threat of rape, far from the romantic fantasy Margaret has spun in her solitude.
The twist ending is slightly changed from the story--Margaret does not call Collins "darling" as he lies on the floor; instead, after the police leave, she sits at her desk and composes a letter, revealing for the first time to the viewer what has really been going on. She stares at a snapshot of Rod and exclaims, "My poor darling!" before collapsing on the desk in tears.
The teleplay is credited to Hilary Murray, who appears to have no other credits. Is Murray yet another pseudonym for Slesar? Can one assume that the two prior teleplays that were credited to Eli Jerome were actually written by Slesar because they resulted in good episodes, while this one is not because it is mediocre? Adding to the mystery is the fact that Hilary Murray's only other credit is for the teleplay of the remake of "Pen Pal," which was aired as part of season four of the 1980s color remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on October 15, 1988.
In a rare turnabout, the color remake is far superior to the black and white original. In this version, Margie, the niece, clearly exists, because we see her in the show's first and last scenes. The role of Margaret is played by Jean Simmons, who turns in an excellent performance, finding all of the emotional depth and complexity in the role that Katherine Squire missed. The story and both TV shows quote 19th-century English poet John Clare in the letter Margaret wrote to Collins:
Language has not the power to speak what love indites
The soul lies buried in the ink that writes.
In the remake, Simmons is too pretty and charming to be completely believable as a spinster, but her strong performance makes the episode succeed. Page Fletcher, as the convict (now renamed John Harris), looks like he escaped from a music video rather than from prison (he sports a mullet) but he, too, gives an emotionally satisfying performance. The direction, by Rene Bonniere, is much more lively than that of Brahm in the original, with the camera moving about and opening up the story. One key scene follows the action from the kitchen up to Margie's bedroom, where Margaret tenderly puts her hand on John in a gesture that is maternal on the surface but passionate underneath.
One other important change in this version is that John brandishes a revolver, and it is this gun that Margaret grabs from his rear waistband near the end when he threatens her. She shoots him--not fatally--rather than hitting him with a candlestick.
For the first time, I can recommend the 1980s remake over the original!
The story on which both shows were based was co-written by Henry Slesar and Jay Folb (1922-1997), who had also co-written the story, "A Night With the Boys." Director John Brahm (1893-1982) was at the helm of ten episodes of the half-hour Hitchcock series and five episodes of the hour series; his daughter maintains an interesting website about her father here.
website. Finally, making his only appearance on the Hitchcock series is Stanley Adams (1915-1977), who plays Lt. Berger. He is best known to classic TV fans for his key roles in "The Trouble With Tribbles" on Star Trek and "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" on Lost in Space.
Jean Simmons (1929-2010), so good as Margaret in the remake, was one of the great British actresses of the twentieth century, appearing in films from 1944 to 2009 and on TV from 1966 to 2003. She was unforgettable in roles such as Estella in Great Expectations (1944) and Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls (1955). This was her only appearance on any of the Hitchcock series.
The 1960 TV show is not yet available on DVD, but Amazon recently announced that they will soon release season six on DVD, though it will be manufactured on demand, which will mean a price increase. The show may be viewed for free online here.
The 1988 remake may be viewed for free online here.