Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Twenty-Five: "The Hatbox" [7.1]

by Jack Seabrook

The seventh season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents began not with an episode directed by Hitchcock himself (that would come the following week) but with an episode written by Henry Slesar. "The Hatbox" was aired on Tuesday, October 10, 1961, on NBC, and was based on Slesar's short story, "Murder Out of a Hat," which had appeared in the July 1961 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Caught cheating on an exam in Professor Jarvis's class, college student Perry Hatch is aghast when the teacher says he will punish the young man by writing to his father. Perry's friend Dino convinces him to visit Jarvis that evening to apologize, since Perry is worried that his father would cut off his allowance. Outside the professor's house, the students peer through a window into the study, where a skeleton is displayed. They witness Jarvis come out of his house and place a large hatbox in his trash can.

Taking the box, they return to their dormitory, where Perry begins to suspect that Jarvis has murdered his wife and placed her severed head in the hatbox. To their relief, it contains only a hat. Perry does not give up, though, and agrees that, since the hat is new and no woman would allow her husband to discard a new hat, this is proof that a murder has been committed.

Perry and Dino go to the police station and air their suspicions to Lt. Jack Roman, who is skeptical until he calls Mrs. Jarvis's sister and confirms that the Professor's wife never stayed there, despite Jarvis's assertions to the contrary. His curiosity piqued, Lt. Roman drives the students to Jarvis's house, telling them to wait in his car while he goes to speak to the professor. As soon as the lieutenant is out of sight, Perry and Dino sneak up to the house to eavesdrop through an open window.

Jarvis confesses to Roman that his wife walked out on him after a quarrel and that he made up the story about her visiting her sister in order to save face. Responding to Roman's hints that he could have murdered his wife, Jarvis ridicules the idea, pointing out that he has no car to transport a body and explaining that obliterating a corpse without a trace is all but impossible.

Paul Ford as Professor Jarvis
A chastised Lt. Roman apologizes and leaves, lecturing Perry and Dino on their wild speculation. Later, after everyone is gone, Jarvis goes up to bed, saying goodnight to the skeleton on display in his study. As he places the hat on its head, he bids goodnight to all that remains of his late wife Margaret.

"Murder Out of a Hat" satirizes both Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Max Franklin (Richard Deming)'s short story, "The Geniuses" (Manhunt June 1957). In Rear Window, the main character suspects that a neighbor murdered his wife, dismembered her body, and is removing it from his apartment piece by piece in a suitcase. In "The Geniuses," two college students murder a third, dismember him, and put his severed head in a hatbox. (Robert Bloch adapted this story later in season seven as "Bad Actor.") Slesar pokes fun at both stories, using two college students with vivid imaginations and a college professor to demonstrate how unlikely these events are in real life. The suspense created by Perry's suspicions is punctured when the hatbox is opened and reveals nothing but a woman's hat. The idea of the professor disposing of his wife's corpse is ridiculed by Jarvis, who explains to Lt. Roman that the type of methods used in Rear Window and "The Geniuses" would never work. It is almost too bad that the story requires a twist ending, since the revelation that the professor really did kill his wife diffuses some of the satire, though the fact that her skeleton hangs in plain view is a nice touch.

Billy Gray as Perry Hatch
Henry Slesar's teleplay for "The Hatbox" is a faithful adaptation of his short story. Perry's friend Dino becomes Denny, and he uses some contemporary slang such as "a drag," "bread," and "make with the tears." When Perry and Denny peer through Jarvis's window, we see only a skull on a desk; there is no view of the full skeleton on display, and thus no clue to Margaret's fate. The hatbox is opened right after they discover it in the professor's trash can, and there is an effective mood of suspense topped by a jolt as Perry fumbles with the top of the box.

The conversation between Perry and Dino (in the story) after they open the hatbox is moved to the police station and occurs between Perry and Lt. Roman. When Roman goes to Jarvis's house, Perry and Denny wait in the car rather than sneaking up to the house to listen in. Finally, Roman does not tell Jarvis that Perry was the source of his suspicions. Slesar's changes from story to teleplay are insignificant, making the story work better on film.

"The Hatbox" was directed by Alan Crosland, Jr. (1918-2001), with competence and skill. The world that he creates, at least in the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that have been examined so far, is one that can seem cheap and pedestrian, yet it is a place where shadows lurk in corners and violence can explode at any moment. Crosland directed 16 half-hours and three hours, including Slesar's "Servant Problem."

Paul Ford (1901-1976) initially seems to be an unusual choice of actor to play Professor Jarvis. Ford was a large man with a balding head, a big nose, and a booming voice like a foghorn who was best known for comedic roles, often playing an authority figure who is unaware of how ridiculous he seems. In movies since 1945, he was a regular on The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959) and later had a notable role in The Music Man (1962). In "The Hatbox," his skills are put to good use and what seems like an odd casting choice turns out to be a clever one in the important scene where he convinces Lt. Roman that the policeman's suspicions are unfounded. Ford's voice, both booming and drawling at the same time, helps him argue that he could not possibly have killed his wife. Ford and director Crosland play on the viewer's likely familiarity with the actor from his role on The Phil Silvers Show to make a convincing case.

Portraying Perry Hatch is another actor who was very familiar to TV viewers of the time, Billy Gray    (1938- ). As a child, Gray appeared in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). As a teenager and young adult, he was a regular on Father Knows Best (1954-1960), playing Robert Young's son, Bud. By the show's final season, it was among the top ten most-watched shows in America. Just as Paul Ford played against type as the dishonest and murderous professor, Billy Gray played against type as a cheating student who cooks up an imaginative theory about his teacher in order to avoid punishment. In addition to his acting career, Gray had success as a businessman and inventor. He maintains a website here.

Frank Maxwell as Lt. Roman
Finally, Frank Maxwell (1916-2004) played Lt. Roman, one of countless policemen played by this familiar character actor in his long career. He was president of AFTRA from 1984 to 1989 and appeared on six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Special Delivery."

"The Hatbox" is not yet available on DVD but the last third may be viewed online for free here.

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
"The Hatbox." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 10 Oct. 1961. Television.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "Murder Out of a Hat." A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon Book Division, 1962. 96-107. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.


mikeandraph87 said...

Hi Jack, some of Hitchock's stuff is a little much for me like Psycho while there are others I cannot get enough of such as North By Northwest. Of all of his work what is your one or two favorites overall?

Jack Seabrook said...

If you have to pin me down to two, I'd say Rear Window and North By Northwest. I could (and have) watch either film over and over. But I could also make a list of 10 without any trouble that would be among my all-time favorite films by any director!

mikeandraph87 said...

I must say that those are my two picks as well. Its a good mix of things not just the concentration on being suspenseful. Something most can enjoy. Not to mention the acting being so well done. While others can be more narrower in audience and bit creepy. Hitchock can be really great or something I just don't care for but when its something I like I don't just like it but really love it.