The last episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to be written by Henry Slesar (with William Fay), "Isabel" is based on The Bronze Perseus, a novel by S.B. Hough that was first published in England in 1959. A comparison of the novel with the televised adaptation provides an interesting lesson on how Slesar and Fay were able to alter a complex story involving rape and murder in order to make it appropriate for television in 1964.
Set in England, the novel begins as Harold Clemens, a serious and studious young man on a business trip to Lepley, takes his usual evening walk through the "misty, night shrouded streets." The roads lead him out of town into a suburb, where he hears a woman scream "about two streets away." Later, a police car picks him up and takes him to "an isolated modern house," where he is shown to a woman "lying in a state of nervous prostration." She looks at him and says "Yes!"
Clemens is arrested, tried for raping the woman, whose name is Emma Smith, and convicted. Released after spending five years in prison, he robs a bank messenger in Hapton and escapes, following a carefully laid out plan. We then meet Emma, who runs the Eventham Private School and Kindergarten. One Friday morning, she claims to have a toothache and prepares herself for a visit to the dentist.
|Bradford Dillman as Clemens|
Clemens visits the police station in Popley and tells Sergeant Huntley about his criminal past. He has purchased a small shop in town and wants to be left alone. Later, a local crook tells Sgt. Huntley that a man named Harper will "put the screw on" Clemens. Harper later tells Huntley about Clemens's criminal past and Huntley checks with Clemens's banker, only to learn that his financial affairs are in order. Clemens arranges to encounter Emma on the street and, when she sees him, she collapses. Witnesses care for her and Clemens goes to the police station, pretending to be disturbed to find Emma living in the same town. She is brought to the station and accuses Clemens, which causes Huntley to suspect that he is innocent of any current or prior crimes and that she is hysterical. Clemens thinks, "It was the next step, the step the sergeant did not even dream of yet, that would call for the utmost caution."
|Barbara Barrie as Isabel (Emma in the novel)|
On honeymoon in Monaco, Clemens thinks that he must kill Emma today, having fulfilled her desires three nights earlier on their wedding night. He rents a boat and takes her out sailing, causing the boat to capsize in front of a large crowd of onlookers. Despite efforts to save Emma, she is drowned.
|Edmon Ryan as Huntley|
One year later, Clemens is sitting in the Piazza della signoria in Florence, Italy, when he is approached by Sgt. Huntley, who tells him that "Interpol has a line on you" and that he could have Clemens arrested "for the Hapton crime," i.e., the robbery of the bank messenger. Clemens tells Huntley about the horrors of prison life, and the sergeant explains why he has tracked Clemens to Florence. While he could have him extradited for robbery, he is more interested in finding justice in regard to Emma's murder. Sgt. Huntley explains that witnesses identified Clemens from a photograph of the Hapton robber and he wants to hear Clemens's explanation for murder. Huntley tells Clemens that he will live in fear of capture and a return to prison.
Clemens explains why he killed Emma, arguing that it was not murder. He compares himself and his situation to the nearby bronze statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa, arguing that Emma was similar to the Gorgon in her effect on men. She was insane and believed that "men loved her secretly and wished to rape her," as the only explanation for why men had always fled from her. Clemens knew that she would eventually be found out, judged insane, and locked away, so he killed her to end her suffering and to prevent her disgrace.
|Honeymooners on the boat|
In the novel's final scene, Sgt. Huntley and his wife sit at a table in the piazza and he tells her that Clemens is "the only successful murderer I know. I wanted to put the fear of God in him." Clemens will be free of prison but he will never be free of the fear of capture, even though no one is looking for him. Huntley asks, "How can there be justice . . . when there is no court to decide those cases where the victim is the guilty party?" He concludes: "I broke down the story he'd been telling himself about it. Perhaps that's the most fatal punishment you can give to any man."
|Clemens "accidentally" runs into Isabel in the library|
Insanity is another theme that runs through the book, mainly in the character of Emma Smith. Why does she falsely accuse Clemens? Was she really attacked, or was it a figment of her imagination like the unreal attack by her dentist? There is surely some insanity in her later behavior toward Clemens, when she suddenly falls in love with him. Clemens tells Huntley that her insanity was the reason for his murdering her; perhaps he, too, is a bit insane in the way he rationalizes his criminal acts.
S.B. Hough explores themes of violence towards women in The Bronze Perseus and asks if it is ever justified. Emma's fear of men leads her to extreme acts, but is this a fear based in reality? And what does love have to do with it? Does Emma love Clemens, and vice versa? His rationalization for murder seems to suggest that there was some sort of mutual affection between the two, an affection that both repelled and attracted Clemens to Emma, his own personal Medusa.
The Bronze Perseus has an interesting publication history. It was first published in England in 1959, then in the U.S. in 1962. It was reprinted in the U.S. in paperback in 1964 as The Tender Killer, and subsequent reprints under this title followed in 1975 in England and in 1984 in the U.S. In the meantime, it was reprinted in hardcover under its original title in 1983 as part of the 50 Classics of Crime Fiction, 1950-1975 series. Its inclusion in this series was subsequent to Barzun and Taylor having listed it in A Catalogue of Crime as one of the classics of crime from 1900 to 1975. In a 1962 review, Anthony Boucher called it one of the best debut mysteries of the year.
S(tanley) B(ennett) Hough (1917-1998) was born in England and worked as a radio operator before and during WWII. He was self-employed in the yachting business in the years following the war until he began writing fiction and travel books in 1951. He wrote thrillers as S. B. Hough and science fiction novels as Rex Gordon and he is said to have used the pen name Bennett Stanley for other writing. He won the 1957 Infinity Award for the novel No Man Friday. IMDb lists only two adaptations of Hough's works: "Isabel," on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and "International Incident," broadcast on June 16, 1952, as part of the TV series, Studio One in Hollywood.
|Howard and Isabel's first meeting|
The show begins as a man and a woman (Harold has become Howard and Emma has become Isabel) pass each other on a sidewalk on a chilly, windy evening; he trips over some construction debris and falls. Later, he is picked up by a police car and taken to a house, where he is questioned by Sgt. Huntley. Howard's raincoat is dirty, his face is bruised, and his trousers are torn. He tells Huntley that he is new in Lewisburg, New Hampshire, and that he works for Futurama Plastics, having relocated from their Chicago office. Isabel identifies him as her attacker. She relates that she screamed and fought him off and found her way to the nearest house. The sergeant plans to charge him with attempted assault with criminal intent.
The changes from the novel are readily apparent in the first scene. Now, Howard and Isabel do pass each other on the street, whereas in the novel, they never meet. The setting has been changed from England to New England, and Sgt. Huntley is involved in the case right from the start, rather than coming into it when Clemens moves to town after the robbery. Most important is the change in the nature of the crime: instead of a rape, which presumably would not be appropriate for a TV show, the charge here is attempted assault.
|Les Tremayne as Selby|
A brief courtroom scene follows, in which Clemens is found guilty of attempted criminal assault and sentenced to one to five years in the state penitentiary. On release, Clemens meets with the warden in another scene not found in the novel. The warden tells Clemens that he earned $105 in the prison machine shop and Clemens replies that he would have earned $13,000 outside of prison. This scene is important because it sets up the basis for the robbery that follows. Clemens then wears a hat and false mustache to rob a bank messenger in Capital City; he next counts out the money and mails back all but $15,000 (an error, the amount is later given as $13,000) of the loot. These scenes clarify the motive for the robbery and suggest that Clemens is not your run of the mill thief since he only keeps what he thinks he should have earned had he not been falsely imprisoned.
|At the record store|
This series of scenes changes the cipher that is Emma Smith in the novel into the flesh and blood woman that is Isabel Smith in the TV show. The strange behavior of Emma in the book is hard to understand and her bizarre romance with Clemens never really makes sense unless she is considered to be insane. For the TV show, the writers chose to make Isabel a sane woman with a history of being unloved. Her reconciliation with Clemens and their romance are handled sensitively and make much more sense than does their relationship in the book.
Sgt. Huntley sees Clemens and Isabel together in the street. One evening, she invites Howard to her home and tells him that Huntley came to see her earlier that day, asking about Howard. Unlike in the novel, Huntley had been a friend of her father's. Isabel brings up the night of the assault and wonders if she was wrong when she identified Howard. He tells her that he could never hate her and they kiss, but the look in his eyes that she does not see makes clear his evil intent.
Lt. Huntley (he is twice called sergeant in the early scene at Isabel's house, as in the novel, but for the rest of the show he is a lieutenant) visits Isabel at home and tells her that he has a bad feeling about Howard. Since he was involved in the investigation of the original attack and has known Isabel since she was a girl, their relationship is different than it is in the book--here, he is a protective, paternal figure. She boasts that a man is interested in her and recalls her father thinking of her as his ugly ducking (recall her purchase of the Swan Lake LP). Howard walks in and they announce their upcoming wedding. Isabel is a realistic figure in the TV show, unlike in the novel, and making Huntley her lifelong friend deepens their relationship.
|Dabney Coleman as Lou Snyder|
On their honeymoon, Howard and Isabel relax together on a rented motorboat. Howard thinks that the boat is about to run out of gas but Isabel explains that it has two gas tanks and, by throwing a switch, she can access the second tank. Back at the boat dock, Howard speaks with an old sailor who tells him about a fatal boat explosion two years before. Howard visits the library and reads an article in the Creedon Cove Weekly about the accident, learning that a loose coupling could cause an explosion when the switch is made from one gas tank to the other. That night, he loosens the coupling on the boat and then returns to the hotel room he shares with Isabel. He tells her that he must take an important business call the next day and urges her to take the boat out alone. The next day, he waits in the hotel room while she is out on the boat. As planned, when she flips the switch to change gas tanks the boat explodes.
|The final, reluctant embrace|
In the novel, Harold successfully murders Emma and gets away until Huntley tracks him down and instills fear into him. In the TV show, Howard fails in his attempt to murder Isabel and Huntley confronts him with the knowledge of the robbery in order to prevent him from leaving his wife. In this way, writers Fay and Slesar avoid an ending where a murderer gets away, satisfying the censors in a way that the Hitchcock show's writers often left to the great director's sarcastic epilogues.
|Howard's face is superimposed over|
the boat moments before the explosion
William Fay (1918-1968?), who co-wrote the teleplay with Henry Slesar, wrote numerous short stories for the so-called slick magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was an editor for Popular Publications beginning in 1935 and he began writing scripts for TV shows in 1954. He wrote or co-wrote 16 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including adapting Robert Bloch's "Madame Mystery."
"Isabel" was directed by Alf Kjellin (1920-1988), who was born in Sweden and who had careers as an actor and as a director. He began acting in films in 1937 and on TV in 1952; he began directing in 1955. As an actor, he appeared in the 1966 film adaptation of Jack Finney's Assault on a Queen and in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. As a director, he was at the helm for one episode of the half-hour Hitchcock series ("Coming Home") and eleven episodes of the hour series.
Barbara Barrie (1931- ) played Isabel Smith. Born Barbara Berman, she began her acting career in the mid-1950s and continued for over 50 years. She was on the Hitchcock show twice and The Twilight Zone once, but her most memorable roles were as the title character's wife on the TV sitcom Barney Miller and as the young cyclist's mother in Breaking Away (1979).
|Doris Lloyd as Martha|
Supporting players included Les Tremayne (1913-2003) as Selby, the lawyer; Dabney Coleman (1932- ) as Lou Snyder, the policeman who talks with Huntley; and Doris Lloyd (1896-1968) as Martha, Isabel's housekeeper. All three were busy character actors with long careers.
"Isabel" is available for free online viewing here.
Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print.