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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
|Noonan appears dominant |
but Mary holds all the cards
|Staging the crime scene|
|The dissolve from Mary's face to the platter|
|Another low angle shot, as the |
investigation goes on all around Mary
|The beginning of the famous final shot, |
before the camera tracks in on Mary
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|
"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'|
"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|
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|
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.
- ME TV continues to show The Alfred Hitchcock Hour six nights a week at 3 A.M. Eastern time.
- In two weeks: "Dip in the Pool," starring Keenan Wynn and Fay Wray!