Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Forty-Four: "Behind the Locked Door" [9.22]

by Jack Seabrook

When a handsome but poor young man falls for a plain but rich young woman, does he really love her or is he just after her money? This is the central question in Henry Slesar's short story, "Behind the Locked Door," first published in the January 1961 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine under the pen name O.H. Leslie.

The story opens as Davey Snowden and Bonnie Daniels visit a large, old house that belongs to her family. "The house was a sphinx, squatting on the hillside," writes Slesar and, like the Sphinx of ancient myth, it holds a secret. Davey believes that, if he solves the riddle, he will be rich, yet solving the riddle of this sphinx will result in his death. Bonnie and Davey drive up to the house and she runs ahead of him and ventures inside, turning on lights to reveal cracked ceilings and white-shrouded furniture. Already, Slesar is hinting at the hidden nature of their relationship, with initial excitement leading to disappointment.

Bonnie states that she lived in this house until she was nine years old--she's 17 now and Davey is 22. They playfully explore the house until Davey finds a locked door on the fourth floor. Bonnie tells him that it has always been locked and she does not want him to open it. In a sense, the locked door represents Davey's heart and Bonnie is afraid of discovering the true nature of his feelings for her. Davey's mind immediately goes to thoughts of wealth and he wonders if there is something of value behind the door; he knows that Bonnie will inherit the house when she turns 21. Bonnie convinces him to leave it alone and he builds a fire downstairs as she dozes off.

Suddenly, a car drives up and Bonnie's mother marches in "like some matriarchal figure of vengeance." She demands that Bonnie come home with her but Davey tells her that they were married that afternoon in Elkton, where a 17-year-old girl may legally wed (a couple of hours' drive from New York City, Elkton, MD, was once known as the quickie wedding capital of the East Coast). Davey insists that he loves Bonnie but Mrs. Daniels bluntly tells him that she is a plain girl and that a handsome boy like him only wants her money. Bonnie threatens to kill herself and her mother leaves as "the last clutch of flames flared up and died on the blackened log." Is this a metaphor for the end of romance between Davey and Bonnie? Possibly, since the next day the young couple goes to Davey's small apartment in the city to begin their married life together.

James MacArthur as Davey Snowden
Davey consults a lawyer and tells Bonnie that her mother can probably have their marriage annulled. He suggests that she follow through on her earlier threat to kill herself in order to prove to her mother that their love is true. She goes along with the idea and writes what is meant to be a fake suicide note, which he mails to her mother. She then takes a small number of sleeping pills with the idea that her mother will find her and prevent her death. Instead, when Mrs. Daniels arrives, she finds Bonnie lying dead in her bed, much to Davey's surprise. Mrs. Daniels reveals that Bonnie had rheumatic fever at age 14 and that the illness left her with a weak heart, so "it wouldn't take much" to kill her.

Lynn Loring as Bonnie Daniels
A month  after the funeral, Davey is summoned to the office of Mrs. Daniels's attorney. She gives Davey the old house, making "one small donation" in her daughter's memory. Davey drives out to the house and climbs to the fourth floor, anxious to see at last what is behind the locked door. He unlocks it, steps through, and utters "a hoarse, despairing scream" as he fall to his "sudden and violent death" through the rotten floorboards of an overhang, four stories above the driveway. Later, Mrs. Daniels tells her attorney that she knew Davey would rush in and fall to his death: "It was an old, gloomy, drafty house, Walter," she says. "But you know, sometimes I think it really wasn't so bad."

Gloria Swanson as Mrs. Daniels
"Behind the Locked Door" is an effective story with a surprising ending. As he so often does in his fiction, Slesar explores the nature of family relations and love. Here, the locked door is both physical object and metaphor for Davey's true feelings--when he finally opens it and exposes them, there is rot at the base and nothingness beneath. Yet Davey's greed is rather subtly presented in this story and he never comes right out and says that he only loved Bonnie for her money. This subtlety is removed at the shocking conclusion of the TV adaptation of this tale, also called "Behind the Locked Door," which aired on CBS on Friday, March 27, 1964, during the second season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The teleplay is credited to Henry Slesar and Joel Murcott (1915-1978). Murcott was a writer for radio and television from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s; he wrote twelve episodes of the Hitchcock series and this was the last one to air. There is no way to tell who contributed what to the teleplay at this late date, but if Murcott was responsible for the major change in the story's ending, he should be applauded.

Trying to pick the lock
From the opening credits, "Behind the Locked Door" is a special episode, initially due to the original score by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), who scored 7 films for Hitchcock from 1955 to 1964 and who wrote original scores for 17 episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour's last two seasons. (The score for "Behind the Locked Door" is contained on one of Varese Sarabande's collections of Herrmann's scores for this series and is available on CD here; more information about Herrmann may be found here). Herrmann uses a five-note theme to create a mood of suspense as the show begins with the exploration of the old house by Davey and Bonnie. Unlike the story, where they enter with ease and turn on the electric lights, the TV show heightens the aura of mystery and danger by having Davey break a window to get into the house and by having the electricity turned off, forcing the young couple to light candles for their exploration.

The first appearance of Mrs. Daniels
Davey's underlying coldness is foreshadowed by his willingness to leave Bonnie standing alone in the dark in order to break into the house. As they enter, we see an unknown man watching them from a car across the street; he drives away, and we later learn that he called Mrs. Daniels and told her about their visit to the house. In the show, Davey believes Bonnie is 19 years old and she tells him that she was six years old when her father died and they moved out of the house. These changes in age from the story make it more believable, first because Bonnie had rheumatic fever as a young child rather than as a teenager and would thus be more likely to be unaware of her medical condition, and second, because she lied about her age in order to get married without her mother's consent.

Unable to revive Bonnie
The producer of "Behind the Locked Door" follows a trend in other Hitchcock TV episodes of casting an attractive actress to play a female character who is described as "plain." Lynn Loring (1944- ), who plays Bonnie, is quite pretty, hardly the plain girl that her mother claims her to be. James MacArthur (1937-2010) plays Davey as somewhat suspicious from the start. Instead of walking in on the couple in front of the fire, as she does in the story, Mrs. Daniels surprises Davey as he tries to pick the lock on the upstairs door. Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) gives a superb performance as Mrs. Daniels, and director Douglas was surely thinking of her classic role in Sunset Boulevard (1950) when he dressed her in a black veil and lit her to look menacing.

Mrs. Daniels tells Davey that his new bride is 17, not 19 as she claimed, and concludes her scene with the young couple by stylishly blowing out the three candles on the candelabra that they used to light their way. Like the dying fire of the story, the extinguishing of the candles shows how Bonnie's mother puts an end to her daughter's romance.

Davey's real nature is revealed
The teleplay adds a scene where Davey visits the office of Mrs. Daniels's lawyer. The lawyer and Mrs. Daniels offer Davey a scholarship to finish college and then a good job afterwards in exchange for leaving Bonnie alone; he refuses the offer but grudgingly signs a paper agreeing to annul the marriage. The next few scenes expand the story and this is the only part of the show that drags a bit. Bonnie turns 18 and rejoins Davey in his apartment, refusing to leave when her mother arrives and demands it. Davey buys a used car and wants to drive out to the old house, but Bonnie resists--he remains curious about what is behind the locked door. Davey is broke and tells Bonnie to go back to her mother, but she professes her love for him, even without money. They meet in a restaurant and he tells her that her mother has blocked him from finding a job; here he comes up with the plan for her to fake suicide.

Watching from the shadows
Lynn Loring gives an excellent performance as Bonnie, a young woman who is very much in love and blind to signs of danger. The scene where she takes the sleeping pills is brutal and is highlighted by Herrmann's suspenseful music, featuring harp strings plucked like a ticking clock as she drifts off to sleep. James MacArthur is suitably cold here as Davey, staging the room with small touches to make it look like a real suicide attempt. Mrs. Daniels arrives and Gloria Swanson is convincing as a distraught mother who looks like she threw on a robe and rushed over to find her daughter lifeless. This is where the small change in the story makes more sense than Slesar's original--we can believe that Bonnie was unaware of the danger of taking sleeping pills because she had rheumatic fever as a young child and did not remember. Davey asks her mother, "Did she know that?" and does not receive an answer. Davey begins to cry as he holds his dead wife, and we wonder if his love for her was sincere. James MacArthur credibly portrays a man in conflict who appears to love his wife but who also wants her money.

Through the door at last!
The show's final scene is memorable. Herrmann's score builds suspense as Davey heads upstairs in the dark, his way lit with shadows from the candelabra he holds. For the first time, his personality manifests itself in a way that was not present in the short story. In an earlier scene, Davey had picked up a small, framed photo of Bonnie as a little girl and kissed it tenderly. Now, he picks up the same photo and addresses it: "Mother was right, baby; you were as plain as dishwater. But you finally paid off. And now Davey's gonna get a look at the jackpot." He kisses the picture derisively, tosses it away, and marches out of the room and down the hall, singing! Unlike the story, where he is alone in the house, here he is being watched by Mrs. Daniels, who stands in a darkened doorway, dressed all in black, mourning her dead daughter.

At the bottom of the elevator shaft
Davey opens the door, steps through, and screams. In the story, that is the end of the scene, and what happens to him is revealed to the reader in the lines that follow during a discussion between Mrs. Daniels and her lawyer. In the TV show, the drama is heightened by having Mrs. Daniels right there on the spot. She walks to the doorway and stands there like the Angel of Death. She looks down at Davey and lifts her black veil. He lies at the bottom of an unfinished elevator shaft, his back broken, calling for help, but she explains that the elevator was never installed. Her husband was having it built for his sick daughter and, when he died, Mrs. Daniels locked the door, moved away, and never looked back. In a horrific climax, she lowers the black veil over her face and slowly backs away from the doorway as Davey screams. She tosses down the keys to him, closes the door, and the screen fades to black.

What a tremendous ending, and what a brilliant alteration to the story! The final scene brings everything together: the great score by Herrmann, the shadowy set, and Gloria Swanson's powerful acting. Her lifting and lowering of her black veil and her slowly backing away from the doorway demonstrate the skills she used in silent film. "Behind the Locked Door" is a very good story that was turned into an unforgettable hour of television. True, it drags in the middle section, but once you have seen the ending you will not soon get it out of your mind.
Bonnie assures Davey she is happy

Gloria Swanson, playing Mrs. Daniels, was a great star of silent cinema who made a brilliant comeback in Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Boulevard. She made her film debut in 1914 and her TV debut in 1948. She did not make many appearances after Wilder's film but when she did act onscreen she was impossible to ignore. This was her only time on the Hitchcock series.

As Davey, James MacArthur plays a very different role than the one viewers most remember him for today--that of Danno on Hawaii Five-O (1969-1979). MacArthur's father was playwright and screenwriter Charles MacArthur; his mother by adoption was the great stage actress Helen Hayes. He grew up surrounded by literary and theatrical greats and surely met Gloria Swanson before acting with her in this episode. His TV and movie career began in the mid-1950s and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. Learn more about James MacArthur here.

Anything but plain, Lynn Loring gives a very emotional performance as Bonnie. She started out as a child actress in 1951 and worked into the mid-1970s before becoming a producer. She was president of MGM/UA Television from 1984 to 1989 and today runs her own production company in Los Angeles. She appeared in one other episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Whit Bissell as Adam Driscoll
Whit Bissell (1909-1996) was a busy character actor in movies and on TV, who appeared in such films as Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). He was in one other episode of the Hitchcock series: Slesar's "Burglar Proof."

Finally, Robert Douglas (1909-1999) directed this episode. He began his movie career as an actor in 1931 and appeared twice as an actor in Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He began directing episodic television in 1960 and directed four episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "The Sign of Satan."

"Behind the Locked Door" is not currently available on DVD or online.

Sources:
"Behind the Locked Door." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 27 Mar. 1964. Television.
"Elkton, Maryland: The Quickie Wedding Capital of the East Coast." Boundary Stones: WETA's Washington DC History Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
"The FictionMags Index." N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "Behind the Locked Door." 1961. Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories. Ed. Francis M. Nevins and Martin H. Greenberg. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989. 220-34. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

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3 comments:

Grant said...

Another case of what you describe about casting on this show is Barbara Barrie in "ISABEL." She might not be a "raving beauty," but the story goes on and on about how plain her character is, and how no one but a fortune hunter could want her, and that's a real stretch.

Jack Seabrook said...

"Isabel" is coming soon! That's the last Slesar episode. As always, thanks for reading!

Grant said...

That's a lucky coincidence, especially since I didn't remember it being a Slesar story when I mentioned it.