Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Roald Dahl Part One: "Lamb to the Slaughter" [3.28]

by Jack Seabrook

In case you have spent your life living in a cave with no light or electricity, let me tell you about "Lamb to the Slaughter." Said to be "Hitchcock's favorite achievement in television," the episode is so well known that even those who have not actually seen it will nod in agreement when someone mentions the TV show where the wife kills her husband with a leg of lamb and then feeds it to the investigating policemen.

Before it was an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Lamb to the Slaughter" was a short story by Roald Dahl (1916-1990). Born in Wales, Dahl was a British pilot in the early days of World War Two who was appointed to a diplomatic post in the United States in 1942. He began to write and his first short story was published in 1943, followed by his first collection of stories, Over to You, which was published in 1946, and his second collection, Someone Like You, which was published in 1953 and which won an Edgar Award. Dahl won a second Edgar in 1960 for his short story, "The Landlady," and in that year his third collection of short stories, Kiss Kiss, was published, as was his first children's novel, James and the Giant Peach. Having achieved fame as a writer of adult fiction, he gained even greater notice as a writer of books for young people, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964. In 1979, he began hosting a television anthology series called Tales of the Unexpected, with many episodes based on his own stories, and he died in 1990, one of the most well-known and popular authors in the English language.

Harper's, September 1953
"Lamb to the Slaughter" was submitted for publication in December 1952 and, though The New Yorker rejected it, it was published in the September 1953 issue of Harper's magazine. The tale begins as Mary Maloney sits, happy and tranquil in her home, six months' pregnant, waiting for her husband Patrick to come home from work. After he arrives, she fixes drinks and they sit in their usual chairs: "For her, this was always a blissful time of day." Deeply in love, she tries to engage him in conversation about his job as a policeman. She offers to make supper even though they usually dine out on Thursdays, but he is gruff and uncommunicative, at last telling her that he is going to leave her. She watches him "with a kind of dazed horror."

Deciding to make supper, she walks down the stairs to the cellar, takes a leg of lamb from the deep freeze, and carries it, "holding the thin bone-end of it with both of her hands," back upstairs, where he tells her he is going out. She walks up behind him and brings the frozen leg of lamb down on the back of his head: "She might just as well have hit him with a steel club." With a sudden clarity of mind, she puts the frozen meat in the oven to roast, touches up her makeup, and walks to the grocery shop, where she buys potatoes and peas for dinner. Returning home, she sees her husband lying dead on the floor and begins to cry. Mary calls the police and two officers whom she knows arrive at the house, soon joined by other police, investigating the scene and treating her with kindness.

Barbara Bel Geddes as Mary in the final shot
The police ask Mary if she would like to leave but she chooses to remain in a chair while they search for clues, especially the murder weapon. She asks for a drink of whisky and convinces the policemen to have one too, then turns off the oven and insists that the officers eat the lamb, since it is now long past supper time and she cannot eat a thing. The men hesitate and then dig in, all the while speculating as to the whereabouts of the murder weapon. "Probably right under our very noses," says one, and "in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle."

Today, "Lamb to the Slaughter" is often read in school, and a quick search online will reveal numerous discussions about the story. In the 1950s, however, it was just one of the short stories collected in Someone Like You, which was published November 1, 1953, two months after the story had appeared in Harper's. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the people to take notice of this story, later saying that he had been thinking about adapting it for television ever since the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955. In 1957, Roald Dahl negotiated the TV rights for several of his stories to the Hitchcock TV show and on November 14, 1957, near the end of filming Vertigo, Hitchcock took that film's co-star Barbara Bel Geddes to lunch and offered her the role of Mary Maloney. Patrick McGilligan writes that this leading lady part on television was likely a reward for her having played a thankless role in the classic film.

Allan Lane as Patrick Maloney
Soon after Hitchcock finished filming Vertigo, he rehearsed and filmed "Lamb to the Slaughter" in two days (one short of the usual three allotted for a half-hour episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), on February 18 and 19, 1958. The episode was first broadcast on CBS on Sunday, April 13, 1958, and has become a staple of television reruns and highlight shows ever since.

Road Dahl adapted his own story for television and subtly changed its focus. In the opening scene, Mary establishes the fact that she is pregnant by telling Patrick that a friend dangled a ring over her belly that day and determined that their baby will be a boy. Mary's animated chatter is in contrast to Patrick's absolute silence; he is large and looming in a big black policeman's overcoat and a light glows ominously from a lamp behind him. Patrick tells Mary that he wants a divorce because he is in love with another woman and wants to marry her; this is not spelled out in the story, where Dahl simply writes that "he told her," leaving it to the reader to figure out just what he told her.

Heartbroken at the news
Mary's face shows shock and heartbreak yet she insists on getting his supper, as if in denial of his words. After she brings in the frozen leg of lamb, they argue, and when she says she will not let him leave he replies, "Try and stop me." Her walk across the room holding the blunt instrument is filmed so that the object is mostly below the frame; the subsequent blow to the head seems violent and graphic, though there is a cut just at the moment of impact. We think we have seen the deed because our imagination fills in the blank space.

Does Mary even realize what she is doing when she puts the meat into the oven moments later? She appears to be in a daze, as if she is just going about preparing the main course out of habit. After making sure Patrick is dead, she sits at the kitchen table, eats some grapes and begins to think; she checks the roast and turns up the oven temperature before telephoning her friend Molly to beg off dinner due to Patrick's exhaustion--her planning and cover up have begun. Mary's trip to the store is brief and wordless, unlike the story, where her conversation with the grocer suggests the creation of an alibi. At home, she stages a crime scene, overturning furniture and emptying drawers onto the floor.

The camera at floor level
From this point on, the TV version of "Lamb to the Slaughter" takes a different path than the print version: this Mary Maloney is more careful and determined than the one in the story. Lt. Jack Noonan, a detective, interviews her in the living room, where they sit on a sofa only a few feet away from where the corpse lies on the floor. Dahl's teleplay expands and dramatizes the police investigation, adding dialogue and action to open up that which was presented in the story through narration. In this scene, Hitchcock's camera is placed near the floor, looking up at the scene in order to keep the mess on the floor and the dead body in the forefront and the actors at a slight distance. Mary sits through most of the investigation, quietly observing the police at their work: a doctor checks the corpse's head wound, another man dusts for fingerprints.

Noonan appears dominant
but Mary holds all the cards
Noonan asks Mary what she is cooking and suddenly we realize that the focus of the show has shifted from the irony of the story to suspense about whether Mary will be caught. As in so many Hitchcock films, the viewer's sympathies are with the murderer, causing us to assume some of her guilt and to provide a rationale for her violent act. Mary is pregnant, kind, gentle! Patrick was a cad who was going to leave her! And he announced it so heartlessly! Can we forgive her rash act of murder? Of course not! Yet we watch as the police circle around her, gradually figuring out virtually every aspect of what happened but never suspecting the dead man's wife and never realizing what was used to commit the act.

Staging the crime scene
The doctor describes the murder weapon "like a large club of some sort," outlining a leg of lamb in the air with his hands as the camera pans over to the listening Mary Maloney. Lt. Noonan continues to question Mary, deducing that Patrick must have been preoccupied because he drank a glass of neat whisky before even removing his overcoat. Noonan guesses that the murder was a sudden act resulting from a quarrel, where the killer grabbed something close at hand. Suspense builds as he pieces together what happened and tells his colleague that "there's something fishy about this case," believing that the room was staged to look like there had been a fight. Dahl and Hitchcock walk a fine line between suspense and satire, as the police come to all the right conclusions but miss the obvious.

The dissolve from Mary's face to the platter
After Mary tells the policemen to eat the lamb, there is a dissolve to a platter on the kitchen table with a large bone on it, nearly all of the meat removed. One policeman even plans to take the bone home to his dog, removing the last shred of the murder weapon. The camera pulls back to show four detectives seated around the table, ravenously eating lamb, while two more uniformed policeman sit on the stairs just beyond the kitchen door, digging into their own plates of meat. The famous last shot shows Mary sitting on a wooden chair, alone in the next room, hands in her lap, ankles crossed demurely, as we hear the policeman talk in the kitchen. The camera slowly moves in on her, ending in a medium close up as she giggles.

Another low angle shot, as the
investigation goes on all around Mary
In "Lamb to the Slaughter," Hitchcock looks back to one of his greatest films and forward to another, as well as hinting at a third to come years later. By casting Barbara Bel Geddes as Mary, he shows the flip side of Midge, her character in Vertigo, who loved James Stewart's character Scottie not wisely but too well. In the film, she drives him away by failing to appreciate the depth of his obsession with another woman; there, she is always the bridesmaid and never the bride, while in the TV show she becomes a woman in charge of her own life, murdering her faithless husband. Patrick McGilligan noted that Bel Geddes played the role with "comedic perfection," and commented on her "wounded innocence' in both Vertigo and "Lamb to the Slaughter."

The beginning of the famous final shot,
before the camera tracks in on Mary
The final shot of the TV show, where Mary sits alone in a chair and the camera moves in on her face, looks forward to the final shot of Norman Bates in Psycho, where he sits in a similar chair and smiles to himself, thinking--in the persona of his mother--that her son would never hurt a fly. This comparison has been made before, by Donald Spoto and Ulrich Rudel, but it is worth noting since such a similar shot concludes two of Hitchcock's most famous works. Spoto added that the TV show concludes with "the stare of madness, the gaze of one immobilized within the prison of his own flesh or sin or emotional constriction."

Hitchcock seems to have seen things differently, describing the final smile and giggle not as evidence of madness but rather the character's realization "that she has changed, she starts to emanate joy, as of endless gratitude and filled with love."

The third film prefigured in "Lamb to the Slaughter" is Torn Curtain (1966), in which the famous murder scene involves a kitchen stove; the role of the stove in the TV show is likewise significant in connection with a murder, and the camera focuses on the over door more than once, reminding the viewer that the object hidden inside was used to kill a man.

The policemen devour the evidence
The teleplay for "Lamb to the Slaughter" was Roald Dahl's first for television and it was the only time he would write the script for any of the six stories of his to be adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Alfred Hitchcock personally directed four of the six Dahl episodes, suggesting that he had an affinity for the author's work.

"Lamb to the Slaughter" was a hit from the moment it aired. It received two Emmy nominations: Dahl for the script and Hitchcock for the direction, though neither won. Commenting on the show's suspense, Charlotte Chandler reports that Hitchcock said:

The 'ticking lamb'
"I call that one my 'ticking lamb' story, which is a variation on my 'ticking bomb' theory.

"The idea is that you want to let the audience in on everything so they know that a ticking bomb is there while the characters don't know it. That is the suspense, waiting for the bomb to explode, only they are waiting for the leg of lamb to be discovered as the murder weapon."

That is the central difference between the story and the TV show: the story is ironic while the TV show adds suspense. It is the irony of the situation and especially the conclusion of the show that sticks in the viewer's mind, however; the suspense is of secondary importance.

Barbara Bel Geddes (1922-2005) started as a stage actress in 1941, moved into film in 1947 and then into TV in 1950. In addition to her role in Vertigo she appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and later starred in the television series Dallas from 1978 to 1990, winning an Emmy in 1980. A website devoted to her career may be found here.

Harold J. Stone
Lt. Noonan, the detective who leads the investigation, is played by Harold J. Stone (1913-2005), a familiar character actor who started on TV in 1949 and in film in 1956. He had a part in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) and another in House of Numbers (1957), based on the novel by Jack Finney. He was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Night the World Ended," based on a story by Fredric Brown, as well as an episode of The Twilight Zone and two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including Henry Slesar's "The Second Verdict." Stone also appeared in two Roger Corman films in the 1960s: X--The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967). He appeared in many TV episodes well into the 1980s.

Ken Clark
The unfortunate Patrick Maloney was played by Allan "Rocky" Lane (1909-1973), who had starred in countless western films and whose career ended with him playing the voice of the title character in the TV series Mister Ed from 1958 to 1966. Lane's career is detailed here. This was the only episode of the Hitchcock show in which he appeared. It may have been ironic to viewers in 1958 to see Lane, who had played so may heroic roles on film, laid low by a much smaller woman wielding a piece of frozen meat.

Finally, the second detective, Mike, is played by Ken Clark (1927-2009), who worked on TV and in the movies from the mid-1950s until the late 1990s. He was on the Hitchcock show four times, including Fredric Brown's "The Dangerous People" and Henry Slesar's "Insomnia." He had a key role in South Pacific (1958) and his career is explored here.

Susan George checks the deep freeze
"Lamb to the Slaughter" was remade as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected  (aka Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected), which first aired on April 14, 1979, and which starred Susan George as Mary. The most interesting thing about this production is Dahl's introduction, in which he admits that fellow author Ian Fleming gave him the idea for the story at a dinner when they were served a very tough leg of lamb. Dahl had become friends with Fleming when both were members of the British secret service during World War Two.

The story was also adapted for video in 2002 (watch it here) and a brief animated film was also created to advertise the Penguin editions of Dahl's books (watch it here).

The story is easily found online (here, for example) and in many collections. The 1958 TV show is on DVD or may be viewed online here. The 1979 version may be seen here.

Chandler, Charlotte. It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, a Personal Biography. New York:  
Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.
Dahl, Roald, and Jeremy Treglown. Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. Print.
Dahl, Roald. "Lamb to the Slaughter." 1953. Roald Dahl: Collected Stories. New York: Knopf, 2006. 403-12. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
"Lamb to the Slaughter." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 13 Apr. 1958. Television.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Regan, 2003. Print.
Rudel, Ulrich. "The Telefilms of Alfred Hitchcock." The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Ed. Martin Grams and Patrik Wikstrom. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. 97-108. Print.
"Someone Like You." Goodreads. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius. London: Collins, 1983. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.

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Grant said...

Surprisingly I've only seen it a couple of times, but I've always liked it. And of course you don't have to know this one first-hand to hear a lot about it.
Harold J. Stone always seems to me like one of the most underrated character actors, and of course there are so many underrated ones.

Jack Seabrook said...

Good point about underrated characters actors. There are so many on the Hitchcock series alone they could fill a book! Thanks for reading!

Matthew Bradley said...

Superb job as always, Jack. Interesting that McGilligan deemed Bel Geddes’s role in Vertigo “thankless.” By a curious coincidence, I recently saw this for the first time just after revisiting Vertigo, because both are in a boxed set along with Psycho and three other Hitch-directed episodes. In the Vertigo commentary, screenwriter Samuel Taylor said that his key contribution was the creation of Midge as a foil for Scottie, which I agree makes the Boileau/Narcejac story more accessible for audiences. Obviously, the role is more of a dramatic necessity than a showcase for a brilliant performance, although I have admired hers on repeated viewings.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Matthew. Bel Geddes was a terrific actress and she makes the most of her role in Vertigo.

john kenrick said...

Thanks for the review, Jack. Lamb To The Slaughter, while no comedy, manages to mix some dark, "wicked" humor in without taking away from the more serious storyline. Barbara Bel Geddes is my new favorite actress of the show's era, thanks in large measure to her splendid work in The Foghorn, aired a few nights ago. She didn't have the conventional beauty to become a major star in the Hollywood scheme of things; nor did she prosper, in films anyway, the way Eva Marie Saint did, as a kind of second line A list player, though she came close. Her highly sympathetic presence and air of refinement,--almost too much so for her cop's wife part in the episode--made her appealing. It seems that she was in real life a fine human being as well, and well respected in Hollywood and in the New York theater world.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. She certainly is well-remembered!