The third episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from a story by Roald Dahl was "Poison," which Dahl wrote in January 1950. First published in the June 3, 1950 issue of Collier's, "Poison" begins as Timber Woods arrives at Harry Pope's bungalow, only to find Pope lying motionless in bed. Pope whispers to Woods, who thinks:
"The way he was speaking reminded me of George Barling after he got shot in the stomach when he stood leaning against a crate containing a spare airplane engine, holding both hands on his stomach and saying things about the German pilot in just the same hoarse straining half whisper Harry was using now."
|"Poison" was first published|
in this issue of Collier's
Harry tells Timber that a krait (a deadly, venomous snake found in India) crawled into his bed and is lying on his stomach. He has been lying still for hours, afraid that movement would awaken the snake and cause it to deliver a fatal bite. The location of the story is established through Timber's narration when he tells us that "they kill a fair number of people each year in Bengal, mostly in the villages." Bengal is a region in Southeast Asia that was partitioned along religious lines in 1947, part of it ending up in India and part in Pakistan. The Bengal region played a major role in the Indian independence movement, a detail which will become important later in the story.
|Wendell Corey as Timber Woods|
|Chloroforming the krait|
|James Donald as Harry Pope|
"Poison" is an allegory about the British experience in India. Harry represents the colonial Englishman and Ganderbai the Indian; in an incident that recalls E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, the Indian man risks his life to help the British man and is rewarded with scorn and derision. Dahl creates suspense only to deflate it (like the balloon Timba imagines), forcing the reader to consider the story's real purpose. The poison of the story's title is in Pope's words to Ganderbai, making Pope the real venomous snake and, by extension, suggesting that the British Empire's influence in India was a deadly one.
|Arnold Moss as Dr. Ganderbai|
with Wendell Corey
The radio play sounds extreme today, but one should recall that North Korea had just invaded South Korea on June 25, and the anti-Communist Red Scare was in full swing in the U.S., so the thought of an American in India who fears and hates foreigners and calls them all "gooks" probably did not sound unusual to listeners at the time. It is unfortunate that Poe took Dahl's subtle story and made its point so obvious.
|"I've been bitten!"|
Robinson does not follow Poe's radio play. Instead, he does a very careful job of taking the majority of Dahl's story almost word for word and translating it to the small screen, while making small but significant changes that alter the point and climax of the story completely.
|The first sign of Harry is |
just a twisted hand
The second change comes when Timber tells Harry: "You been hittin' the booze," introducing a theme absent from Dahl's original, that Pope's story about a snake is a figment of his imagination connected to his drinking problem. Other than these changes, Robinson's teleplay follows the story closely and Hitchcock's shot choices depict Pope bathed in sweat and Woods often seen from the perspective of Pope, looking up from his bed.
|Harry insists he's telling the truth|
|Timber almost looks gleeful|
|It wasn't in his pants!|
|Harry tells Timber that the doctor has gone.|
|The snake makes an appearance!|
James Donald (1917-1993) was born in Scotland and followed a similar path as an actor as Corey. He was in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice. For more about Donald, see this website.
|Weaver Levy as the houseboy|
Finally, the small role of Dr. Ganderbai's houseboy is played by Weaver Levy (1925-?) who, despite his name, was an American actor with Chinese parents. He was seen twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also played Chop-Chop in the 1952 serial, Blackhawk: Fearless Champion of Freedom, based on the DC Comics series.
Casey Robinson (1903-1979), who adapted Dahl's story for TV, was called "the master of the art--or craft--of adaptation" by Richard Corliss and counted Casablanca as one of the films he co-wrote, even though he was uncredited onscreen. Other screenplays included Captain Blood (1935), Dark Victory (1939), and Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956). He wrote two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
|One last shot of Harry sweating|
As in Dahl's story and the radio play, there is no conflict between Pope and Woods; instead, this version sets up a parallel story between Harry's predicament with the snake and Sandra's predicament with hiding her presence. Pope's final outburst is reinserted into the story, though--as with so much TV of this era--it is overdone, with Harry insulting the doctor and starting to choke him. Sandra steals the doctor's car and drives off, forcing Timber to drive the doctor home in his own car. Harry is left alone in the bungalow, where he reaches for a bottle of alcohol and is bitten by the snake.
This version of "Poison" is neither subtle nor suspenseful, yet the key scenes with Harry in bed and the doctor trying to help him remain so captivating that the episode is not a complete failure.
"Poison" is a fascinating story, as is the way its themes changed depending on who was adapting it and what was going on in the world at the time of each adaptation. The 1950 version focuses on xenophobia, the 1957 version focuses on rivalry, and the 1980 version focuses on adultery. Quite a journey for a little tale about a snake that was not really there in the first place!
Read Dahl's story for free online here. The radio version is available here. The Hitchcock version is available on DVD here or for free online viewing here. The Tales of the Unexpected version may be seen here.
Dahl, Roald. "Poison." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. Ed. Jeremy Treglown. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 259-69. Print.