Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Cornell Woolrich Part Two: "Momentum" [1.39]

by Jack Seabrook

Woolrich's story was
first published here
The second episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from a Cornell Woolrich short story was "Momentum," broadcast on CBS on June 24, 1956, as the last episode of season one. The story on which it was based is "Murder Always Gathers Momentum," which was first published in the December 14, 1940 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.

As the story begins, Richard Paine waits outside the window of Mr. Burroughs, recalling that he had been a faithful employee of Burroughs's company who was owed $250 in back pay when Burroughs declared bankruptcy to avoid paying his debts. Paine and his wife have suffered from lack of money and are about to be turned out of their apartment for unpaid rent. He sees Burroughs talking to another person and watches as the old man opens his safe, takes out a stack of bills, and gives money to the unseen person, who leaves. Paine hides from view and cannot see who is leaving.

Once the visitor is gone and Burroughs has retired upstairs, Paine summons his courage and breaks into the house through a window. He opens the safe, having memorized the combination minutes before, and is suddenly bathed in light as Burroughs appears, alerted by a silent alarm. Burroughs holds a gun on Paine and tries to pull off the handkerchief covering his face. Paine wrestles with Burroughs, deflecting the gun and knocking the old man to the floor. Burroughs grabs the handkerchief and identifies Paine, who shoots and kills the old man with his own gun. Taking only the $250 he was owed, Paine escapes unseen but fears that "Murder, like a snowball rolling down a slope, gathers momentum as it goes."

Skip Homeier as Dick
He goes to a bar and orders two drinks, certain that the bartender suspects him. Moving to the washroom to take out a stolen bill to pay the bar tab, Paine is followed by the bartender, whose surprise entrance leads to a struggle, a gunshot, and another murder on Paine's conscience. "Two in less than an hour. Paine didn't think the words, they seemed to glow out at him, emblazoned on the grimy washroom walls in characters of fire, like in that Biblical story." The story to which Woolrich refers is, of course, the story of the prophet Daniel and the writing on the wall. The words written on the wall are translated roughly in part as "you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting"; this applies to Dick Paine in "Murder Always Gathers Momentum" most clearly after he has committed his second murder, and the doom implied by the ancient sentence foretells his end.

Joanne Woodward as Pauline
Outside the washroom, in the bar, Paine finds a drunk, who demands to be served; Paine pretends to be the bartender, giving the man a bottle and shooing him out the door. Staggering home to his apartment,Paine sees his wife Pauline asleep and passes the rest of the night alone, kneeling on the floor of the outer room, head and arms buried in the sofa cushions. Pauline finds him in the morning and he tells her not to mention the name Burroughs. Claiming to have borrowed the much-needed cash from a friend, he becomes paranoid and thinks that people on the street below are coming after him. However, the first person he fears turns out to be the building's janitor, showing the Paines' apartment to a prospective new tenant.

Dick tells Pauline to pack so they can leave in a hurry. He thinks he sees someone outside waiting for him and tells Pauline to go to the train terminal, buy two tickets to Montreal, and wait for him on the train. After she leaves, he crouches by the window, running outside when he thinks the man is after Pauline. Of course, the man is waiting for someone else, but Dick immediately sees another man loitering on the sidewalk and scurries back into his apartment. The man comes to the door and Dick shoots him as he enters, only to learn he was just a loan shark. Dick races out but the gunshot attracted attention and he exchanges gunfire with a policeman, killing the cop but being wounded himself in the process.

Watching through the window
Bleeding badly, Paine enters a taxi and asks the cabbie to drive him around the park to kill time before meeting Pauline at 8 o'clock. Turning the radio on, the cabbie hears a report about the dangerous fugitive in his cab. Dick shoots the cabbie as he attempts to run away, dons his cap and coat, and drives to the terminal. Barely able to maneuver the cab from loss of blood, Dick reaches the station and staggers up the stairs and onto the train. He makes his way through the cars, near death, and reaches Pauline. Falling into the seat beside her, he causes her to drop her handbag and a packet of bills falls out. She explains that she had gone to see Burroughs the night before and he gave her the money he owed Dick, but since Dick had told her that morning not to mention his name, he never knew that she was the unseen figure he saw Burroughs talking to as he watched through the window.

"Murder Always Gathers Momentum" has as its backdrop the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the financial difficulty faced by Richard and Pauline Paine would have been familiar to readers of the detective pulp magazine in which it appeared. When the story was adapted for television about fifteen years later, times had changed. World War Two had come and gone, as had the Korean War, and by 1955 the nation was at peace and the economy was in much better shape than it had been in 1940. The title of the story was shortened to "Momentum" and, despite a teleplay by Francis Cockrell and direction by Robert Stevens, the episode is less than the sum of its parts. It bears a copyright date of 1955 but was not broadcast till the end of June 1956, suggesting that the producers realized it was a weak episode and held it till the end of the season, when viewership declined.

Homeier superimposed over stock
footage of New York City; note
"The Phenix City Story" on
the marquee, dating the shot
around summer 1955
As is often the case on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the televised version of the story begins with scenes depicting events that were already in the past when the print version of the story began. We first see Dick Paine superimposed over stock footage of crowded city life as he comments in voiceover on the "rat race." Voiceover and superimposed shots continue as he looks for a job unsuccessfully; it is confusing that the stock footage appears to be of locations in New York City, while the action of the episode later seems to take place in California rather than in New York, as it did in Woolrich's story.

A scene of Dick and Beth (not Pauline) at home follows, where we learn of their money troubles and the tension that this brings into their marriage. Dick stops in a bar and tries unsuccessfully to borrow money from the bartender; he drinks some Dutch courage before heading to Burroughs's house, where we pick up with the start of the original story. Knowing the surprise ending, it's hard to believe Paine cannot see his own wife through the window, though her identity is shielded from the viewer's eyes by a well-placed curtain. The day for night filming in this scene is not very effective, leading to some confusion as to the time of day. The scene is so well-lit that it's hard to believe Paine does not see his wife walking away from the house.

High-contrast noir lighting is used in
this shot, where Ken Christy as
Burroughs points a gun at Paine
Unlike the story, Paine does not try to mask his identity by tying a handkerchief over his face; this suggests that the theft was a spur of the moment decision rather than something he planned in advance. Burroughs recognizes Paine right away but neglects to mention that Dick's wife just left the premises. Oddly enough, the situation, the lighting, and the use of voiceover all suggest a noir aspect to "Momentum," but the episode never really coalesces and fails to maintain the noir atmosphere from start to finish.

After Paine leaves Burroughs's house, the visit to the bar is omitted from the TV show, so Paine does not commit a second murder. Perhaps this was a conscious decision by Cockrell to make Paine more sympathetic. The sense of paranoia that Paine feels when he is back in his apartment is also much less; rather than thinking  that the janitor has it in for him, the janitor just barges into the apartment and shows it to a prospective tenant. Again, it is hard to accept that Beth would not tell her husband about her visit to Burroughs, but the twist ending depends on her keeping silent. Cornell Woolrich had the ability to pile one coincidence on top of another and to make the reader forget about lapses in logic due to the propulsive nature of his writing. The TV version of "Momentum" does not succeed in this way, leaving the viewer to wonder why people fail to say and do the things that one would expect them to do.

It is strange that Dick tells Beth to buy two bus tickets to Mexico, then changes it to San Diego. Why alter this detail from the story, in which they live in New York City and he tells her to buy train tickets to Montreal? The change from train to bus lessens the suspense, as the final scene does not have Paine struggling his way through crowded train cars. In fact, he never boards the bus, but rather happens on Beth sitting on a bench outside the station.

Harry Tyler is on the right in one of his
11 appearances on the series
Paine also does not shot the loan shark in the TV version, nor does he exchange gunfire with a policeman and get fatally wounded. Instead, a bill collector (standing in for the loan shark of the story) enters Paine's apartment and Paine is accidentally shot in a struggle. Paine locks the bill collector in the bedroom and escapes. Presumably, Cockrell decided (or was told) that TV censors would not accept a multiple murderer as the protagonist of this episode, and so Paine's progress is changed so that he only kills Burroughs, and that is by mistake. Even the poor cabbie who picks up Paine is spared--Paine hits him over the head with his gun rather than shooting him.

The biggest problem with "Momentum" is that it lacks the title attribute and never really builds suspense. Paine dies in Beth's arms  at the end and his last words circle back to the comment he made at the beginning of the show: "It's a rat race--you run all day." Unfortunately, despite a talented writer, a skilled director, a competent cast, and various noir touches, "Momentum" is a letdown and does not live up to the promise of Woolrich's original story. Francis M. Nevins sums it up this way: "this all-too-straight-forward little picture left out most of the Depression Era desperation and anguish . . . that permeate Woolrich's story."

Francis Cockrell (1906-1987), who wrote the teleplay, started his career in movies in 1932 and moved to TV in 1950. He placed many short stories in pulps and slicks in the '30s and '40s and wrote a serial called "Dark Waters" with his wife Marian Cockrell that was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, published as a novel, and adapted as a film. In addition to writing four episodes of Batman, he wrote 18 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Back for Christmas," "De Mortuis," and "The Dangerous People."

Mike Ragan as the cabbie
"Momentum" was directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989), who began as a TV director in 1948 and added movies in 1957. He directed two episodes of The Twilight Zone; among the 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he directed was "The Glass Eye," for which he won an Emmy.

Playing the lead role of Dick Paine is Skip Homeier (1930- ), who began his acting career as a child on radio and successfully navigated his way through growing up on camera into a long career as an adult. He appeared in films from 1944 to 1982 and on TV from 1950 to 1982; he was on The Outer Limits, two episodes of Star Trek, and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.


Joanne Woodward
Joanne Woodward (1930- ) plays Beth Paine. She started on TV in 1952 and in film in 1955. Her many films include The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and The Drowning Pool (1975). She was married to Paul Newman from 1958 until he died in 2008 and this was her only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Among the familiar faces filling out the cast of "Momentum" are Ken Christy (1894-1962) as Burroughs, Mike Ragan (1918-1995) as the cabbie, and Harry Tyler (1888-1961) as the old man looking at the Paines' apartment. Tyler was one of the most prolific of character actors on the Hitchcock series, appearing in a total of 11 episodes.

Was this insert shot added later to
match the air date in late June 1956?
Prior to being adapted for television in 1955, "Murder Always Gathers Momentum" had been adapted for radio (as "Momentum") and broadcast on October 27, 1949, as part of the series Suspense, with a radio play by E. Jack Neuman and starring Victor Mature and Lurene Tuttle. The radio version may be heard online here. Like the version televised in 1956, this version reflects the economic conditions of the times--Dick Paine is lazy and does not want to look for work, even though his wife says that everyone who wants a job has one. The multiple murders are present, but Paine's first killing is over royalties he thinks he deserves from an invention rather than unpaid back wages.

The TV version of "Momentum" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.

Sources:
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2015. <http://philsp.com/>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 30 May 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
"Momentum." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 24 June 1956. Television.
Nevins, Francis M., Jr. "Introduction." Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New York: Mysterious, 1988. Vii-Xx. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 May 2015. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

Woolrich, Cornell. "Murder Always Gathers Momentum." 1940. Rear Window and Four Short Novels. New York: Ballantine, 1984. 134-69. Print.


No comments: