Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Twenty-Four: "Coming Home" [6.35]

by Jack Seabrook

At the beginning of Henry Slesar's short story, "You Can't Blame Me," Harry Beggs thinks that:

"First twenty-year old I see, I'll go up to him and say, kid, I'm one guy you never laid eyes on before. I'm one guy you can't blame for anything, because I've been sitting out your lifetime."

By the end of the story, Beggs will discover just how wrong he is. Released from prison after twenty years, the fifty-year old man takes a bus to Purdy's Landing and a taxi to Edge Road. He walks to a secluded, wooded area and digs up a suitcase that still contains the money he had stolen decades before. He makes his way to his old neighborhood, noting the things that have changed and those that have not among the tenements.

Jeanette Nolan as Edith
Going into the local bar, he starts to telephone his wife Edith but he can't go through with it. He has a whisky at the bar and asks about Mike, the former owner, now long dead. A pretty young woman approaches him and talks him into buying another drink. They go to a table together. Next thing he knows, he awakens from a dream of being back in prison. The bartender tells him that it's closing time, but he can't find his suitcase and the woman is gone. The bartender denies that any such young woman works there and throws him out.

Beggs finds his old building and walks up three flights to his apartment, where his wife opens the door. Edith is surprised to see him and he is shy about reconnecting with his wife--the warden had commented that she "'wasn't much for visiting.'" Harry agrees to stay and Edith agrees to let him. He hugs her and she tells him that they have a daughter whom he has never seen. She calls Angela out of the bedroom, and the young woman who emerges turns out to be none other than the B-girl who had stolen his suitcase.

Crahan Denton, Susan Silo, Kreg Martin
The story ends with this shocking turn of events, leaving the reader to ponder what will happen next. Will Harry be relieved to get his money back? Will he resent the fact that his daughter is a thief like himself? The story's title, "You Can't Blame Me," is ironic because Angela can blame Harry for how her life has turned out. She is, in fact, the first twenty-year old he sees after being released from prison, and she can blame him for the person she has become.

"You Can't Blame Me" is a very effective short tale with a good twist ending. Harry is 50 years old and has white hair; much is made about how old he and Edith are. Angela wears "cheap, dead-white pearls" around her neck, and this is the detail that Slesar uses to tell us that she is the same girl who fleeced Harry in the bar. The setting is one of poverty and hopelessness: Edith wears a "soiled housecoat," sunset on the tenement roof is "like make-up on a trollop," Harry has "an old pair of eyes." This neighborhood is tough and unforgiving. In the bar, he hears "hard, feminine laughter," and the B-girl's "slim throat" is "severed by a low black neckline." Even the characters' names have meaning: Harry Beggs is a man who begs for understanding but receives little.

Slesar's story was first published in the May 1961 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The author quickly adapted it for television and it was filmed as the last of eleven episodes he would contribute to season six. First broadcast on Tuesday, June 13, 1961, on NBC at 8:30 on the East Coast, it was followed at 9 by "The Grim Reaper" on Thriller.

Retitled "Coming Home" for television, the show follows the same basic story as its source but has significant changes. When Beggs meets with the warden prior to his release, we learn that he was a diligent worker during his time in prison and that he will be presented with a check for $1636 as he leaves, representing the money he saved over the last eight years. He tells the warden that he plans to give the money to someone who said he'd never have a nickel--"'to show them.'" That someone turns out to be his wife, Edith.

As Beggs walks out of prison he is accompanied by a younger man, who is met at the gates by a pretty young woman in a car. She runs up to the man and embraces him; in contrast, Harry walks alone to the bus stop. His first destination is the bank, where he cashes the check. The teller warns him that it's "'an awful lot of money to be carrying around,'" and subsequent events prove her right. Small moments show his discomfort at returning to life outside the prison walls: a rude bus driver barks at him, another pedestrian glares at him after an accidental bump on the sidewalk. Harry is uncomfortable returning to his former environment.

Crahan Denton as Harry
He goes to the lobby of his building but can't bring himself to press the buzzer next to Edith's name. At the bar, he telephones Edith but hangs up when he hears her voice. Lucky, the bartender, and Angela, the unnamed B-girl, observe Harry as he fumbles with the stack of bills he takes from his wallet. Their goal of relieving him of his wad of cash is more obvious than in the story, where he has a suitcase full of money but where no one would know unless they looked inside. Angela suggests that he buy another drink and tells him that she will finish it if he can't. She says that it's "'like a money-back guarantee--only you don't get your money back.'" This seemingly humorous remark foreshadows exactly what she plans to do to the man she does not know is her father.

A major change to the teleplay occurs when Harry goes home to Edith. When he comes in, she makes an effort to straighten her hair and her room, suggesting that she usually doesn't care how either appear. She tells him that when he shot a cop in a holdup she decided that she never wanted to see him again. This remark makes the changes from story to teleplay a bit confusing, since Slesar at first makes Harry seem more upstanding by having him save his prison earnings rather than dig up a hidden suitcase of loot. Edith's comment gives her a motive for not visiting Harry but makes one wonder what happened to the money he stole.

Susan Silo as Angela
Harry argues that they needed the money twenty years before and she reminds him that he thought that all she cared about was money and blamed it all on her. There is an extended scene between Harry and Edith in which she tells him that she makes a living washing floors and scrubbing walls and states that her life while he was in prison was as bad as his. He tells her that all of the money that he saved was stolen from him and they begin to warm to each other even though the topic of money continues to act as a wedge between them.

The show ends as did the story, though this time Angela walks in the front door rather than out of the bedroom. As Harry's eyes meet Angela's and their expressions register shock and horror, Edith, not knowing what has happened, introduces them with delight in her voice: "'Your father's come home!'"

"Coming Home" is directed by Alf Kjellin (1920-1988), who allows the story to tell itself and who gives the actors room to play out their parts. He began his movie career in Sweden and moved to the U.S. during World War Two. He was both an actor and a director; he appeared as an actor in Jack Finney's Assault on a Queen (1966) and also in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He also directed twelve episodes of the Hitchcock series, though this was his only half-hour.

Robert Carson as the warden
Crahan Denton (1914-1966) plays Harry. He appeared three times on the Hitchcock show, most recently as the sheriff in Slesar's "Incident in a Small Jail."

Playing Edith is Jeanette Nolan (1911-1998). Nolan often played characters who were much older than she was and it's refreshing to see her with long, brown hair, playing a character her own age. She was on the Hitchcock show five times and she also appeared in Slesar's "The Right Kind of House" and "The Morning After."

Susan Silo (1942- ) plays Angela, the B-girl who turns out to be Harry's daughter. Only 18 years old at the time of filming, she appears a few years older and is convincing as a sultry, seductive young woman. She started her career just a year before this but she had a long run of appearances on episodic TV, including one on Batman. More recently, she has been busy as a voiceover actress; her website contains many interesting biographical details and photographs.

Ms. Silo recently shared the following memories when asked if she recalled filming "Coming Home":

"I do remember the wonderful Swedish director Alf Kjellin . . . he was such a joy to work with! The subject matter was VERY daring for TV at that time and he handled the delicate balance of the bar girl/daughter role with great skill in directing me. I was told that the dress I wore was originally worn by Marilyn Monroe and cut down to to fit my smaller frame . . . that was fun to know! Also, Jeannette Nolan who played my mother was the wife of actor John McIntire whom I appeared with on "Wagon Train" . . . they were a lovely acting couple and treated me like a daughter!"

Kreg Martin as Lucky
Robert Carson (1909-1979) is a familiar face as the warden; he was on the Hitchcock show 11 times, most recently in Slesar's "The Last Escape."

Finally, Kreg Martin plays Lucky, the bartender. He appeared in seven Hitchcock episodes, including "Maria."

"Coming Home" was reprinted in A Crime for Mothers and Others under a third title, "Welcome Home," and is available on DVD here. It may be seen online for free here.

"Coming Home." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 13 June 1961. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.
Silo, Susan. Message to the author. 17 Mar. 2014. E-mail.
Slesar, Henry. "Welcome Home." A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon Book Division, 1962. 88-95. Print.
"Susan Silo." Susan Silo. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.


Jon said...

Great summary! I just saw this on Me-TV. I thought Crahan Denton was a lot of fun in Disney's original PARENT TRAP. Jeanette Nolan did her usual great acting job where I didn't know who she was until the closing credits. I also recall seeing Susan Silo on a LOVE BOAT episode with Diana Canova where the 2 women pretended to be French to attract men. This had quite the twist ending.

john kenrick said...

Nice write-up of a good episode, Jack. It was quite a change of pace from the previous one. Allowing for changes in fashion it could almost have "passed" as a first season entry, though the sexy knowingness of the bar girl and barman who seemed to be in business together might not have been possible, not the same way, five years earlier.

It was grand for me to see Crahan Denton, an actor I've always liked, actually get the lead in something. His air of tragic dignity was just right for his character, although I wish he'd been allowed to do more. I sensed a latent greatness in him that he never fully realized, on screen anyway. Jeanette Nolan had it, too, and she did fulfill her potential, if not always in first rate material.

Downside of Coming Home: a downer. Its saturated with hopelessness and the feeling that for many life is a series of chronic misfortunes, which, sadly it often is. For what it's worth, I guessed there had to be a twist in the ending with that girl. Once Harry was home with his wife it couldn't just end.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your comments, Jon and John. I enjoyed this episode and thought the acting was strong. I can never get enough of Jeanette Nolan.

john kenrick said...

You're welcome, Jack. If they'd removed the Big Reveal of the daughter Coming Home would somewhat resemble an early Eugene O'Neill play. It's a tragic tale of tragic people, and with poor Beggs taken for all he had in the bar it would be unbearable, unbearable but for his ability, and that of his wife, to reconnect. One can see a shine in Jeanette Nolan's face in her talk with her husband. These two middle aged "fringe dwellers" can still make it. Fifty isn't all that old and Harry had learned a trade when he was in prison. One also gets the sense that these two have, each in a different way, pride, in a good way; an underlying dignity that they could build on. It wasn't "over" for them. They were forlorn only in the moment.

Anonymous said...

I Can Understand Enjoying The Attention Of A Pretty Young Woman, But I Was Not Expecting That She Would In Fact, Turn Out To Be A Thief, And Finally Revealed As His Daughter!!!

Jack Seabrook said...

That was a surprise, wasn't it?

Si said...

A good AHP episode, a touching story, however, the young lady (Susan Silo) does not look at all like she could be Denton/Nolan's daughter, not their biological daughter at least, and since no mention whatsoever is made throughout the episode of they having had a child, the twist ending comes off overly contrived and rather unbelievable. I guess we have to fill out that the wife was in the early stages of pregnancy when the husband got sent to prison twenty years earlier, and he never knew. And how about that sleazy bartender? How much of the stolen $1600 did he get from the girl and will he give any of it back?...Thank you for the review, always an enjoyable read.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Si! I appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment.

john kenrick said...

Thanks, Si, (also) for your comment, and spot on: I felt exactly the same way about the actress who played the Denton-Nolan daughter. He screen time is short enough to not make it an issue in the episode's credibility but it jarred me a little when she entered the Beggs apartment, and then with the Big Reveal. I agree that she could not have been the biological daughter of these two players. The thing is, if there had been a slight alteration in the way the story was told, and with more apposite casting of the daughter role there was some potential for (albeit brief) empathy and recognition between these two, and it could have made the episode more of a real winner than simply a decent, well written and acted one. there was a missed opportunity here.