Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Five: "The Derelicts" [1.19]

by Jack Seabrook

Ralph Cowell is a successful, middle-aged businessman with a problem named Herta: she is blond, attractive, and much younger than he, she spends money faster than he can earn it, and she happens to be his wife. On top of that, Alfred Sloane, the silent partner in his business venture, asks Ralph to buy him out, but Ralph can't do it because he has overspent on expensive presents for his beloved. Ralph thinks he has solved the problem by murdering Sloane when they meet at night in a seemingly deserted city park, but what Ralph does not realize is that there was a witness to his crime.

The witness is named Peter J. Goodfellow and he is one of "The Derelicts," whose standing in life provides the title for the fifth episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to feature a teleplay by Robert C. Dennis. Goodfellow finds a cigarette case dropped by Sloane during the attack; in the case is an I.O.U. recording Ralph's promise to pay Sloane $10,000 and half of the profits for a dispenser that Ralph invented. Goodfellow tracks Ralph down and proposes a blackmail scheme; he and his friend, Fenton Shanks, move into the guest room at Ralph's house and begin to bleed him dry.

Philip Reed as Ralph
Ralph tells Herta that the two men are his cousins, explaining angrily that "we just don't talk about that side of the family." After nine days, the unwanted house guests are grating on Herta; after a month, they have pawned the silverware and her furs and have run though everything else the Cowells own. Frustrated, Ralph admits to his wife that he murdered Sloane, to which she replies, "I never thought you had it in you." She suggests that he take the opportunity to kill Goodfellow as well, but the derelict overhears the conversation and makes an apt comparison to a similar situation in MacBeth.

Herta cozies up to Goodfellow, who lets it slip that the I.O.U. is hidden in an old envelope. After the bum passes out on the couch, Herta finds the envelope, which only appears to contain photographs of models. She throws the package down on the sleeping derelict and leaves after penning a terse goodbye note to her husband. Ralph arrives home and locates the missing I.O.U., which is stuck to the back of one of the photographs. He burns the evidence and evicts the derelicts from his home.

Robert Newton as Peter Goodfellow
Herta soon returns and Ralph resumes buying her furs; unfortunately, a police detective appears and takes Ralph down to the station to question him about Sloane's cigarette case, which had been pawned in Ralph's name by his recently-departed house guests. After Ralph leaves, Herta admires herself in a mirror, clad in her new fur, and shrugs, presumably confident in her ability to land on her feet.

"The Derelicts" aired on CBS on Sunday February 5, 1956, midway through the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The credits state that the teleplay is by Robert C. Dennis and that the story is by Terence Maples. As far as I can tell, this was an unpublished story, since no reference work in print or online lists a single published story by Maples, who is something of a mystery man. He has 22 credits in IMDb, all for episodes of various television series, from 1953 to 1969. This is his only credit for the Hitchcock series and none of the other credits include a situation where he wrote a story but did not write the teleplay as well. The only other credit I could find for Maples is for a 1959 radio adaptation of a teleplay he had written for Have Gun, Will Travel in 1958. Maples lived from 1915 to 1980, according to the Social Security Death Index; I was not even able to find an obituary online or in reference books.

Peggy Knudsen as Herta
Dennis's script is excellent, and it is vividly brought to life by director Robert Stevenson and an outstanding cast. Stevenson uses a recurring camera setup where Ralph and Herta admire themselves in one of two mirrors in their home; the shots display their vanity and literally hold a mirror up to their behavior, which is both criminal and selfish.

Stevenson (1905-1986) was born in England and moved to the U.S. in 1940; he began directing movies in 1932 and is best known for his work for Walt Disney in the 1960s, including Mary Poppins (1964). He directed seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents,including "Don't Come Back Alive," which also featured a script by Robert C. Dennis. Stevenson later told interviewer Patrick McGilligan that his television work in the '50s led him to be noticed by Disney, and he went on to direct Disney's best live-action films.

Johnny Silver as Fenton Shanks
Starring as Ralph Cowell is Philip Reed (1908-1996), who was born Milton Treinis and whose onscreen career lasted from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, including five episodes of the Hitchcock series. He was 47 years old when "The Derelicts" was filmed and he gives a good performance as a man who will stop at nothing to hold on to the good life.

His wife Herta, a hardboiled, blond dame if there ever was one, is played by Peggy Knudsen (1923-1980). She was onscreen from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s and this was her only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The most memorable film in which she appeared was The Big Sleep (1946), in which she plays the wife of gangster Eddie Mars. In "The Derelicts," she gives a strong performance as a gold-digging wife, fifteen years younger than her husband. When she thinks Ralph is broke she begins to pack her bag, but when Goodfellow tells her that he has "the equivalent of ten G's," she appears to warm to his crude advances, though we soon learn that her real goal is to locate the missing I.O.U. Her personality is such that it is no surprise to the viewer that, when Ralph confesses to murder, she is not shocked but rather tells Ralph that she never thought he had it in him.

Goodfellow and Shanks watch Herta walk away
The star of the show is Robert Newton, born in 1905, who gives a flamboyant and entertaining performance as Peter J. Goodfellow, a well-spoken, educated bum. Newton was born in England and worked as a stage actor; he was onscreen from the mid-1920s until his death in 1956. Among his many famous roles were those in Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939), Oliver Twist (1948) and, his most well-known role, as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950). He would continue to play Silver on and off until his untimely demise from a heart attack; he starred in a TV series called The Adventures of Long John Silver that that aired in the 1956-1957 TV season, after his death. As Goodfellow, he lights up the small screen with his British accent, wild gestures, and decrepit appearance; he is a man with a long and colorful history who appears to enjoy whatever life throws at him.

One of several reflective shots
His partner in blackmail, Fenton Shanks, is well played by Johnny Silver (1918-2003), who started on TV in 1950 but whose long career really took off that same year when he appeared as Benny Southstreet in the original Broadway cast of Guys and Dolls. He played the same role in the 1955 film of the musical, and this could be where the producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents saw him and got the idea to cast him in this episode. The character of Shanks is straight out of Damon Runyon; he is a down on his luck racetrack tout who spends every penny he gets betting on horses. Silver is a perfect foil for Newton and their scenes together are comic, contrasting well with the tragic nature of Ralph Cowell's situation. Director Stevenson even includes a great take where Newton and Silver watch admiringly as Knudsen walks out of the room.

Cyril Delevanti as Alfred Sloane
Though it is a brief scene, the meeting in the park between Ralph and Sloane is memorable. The studio set park is dark and lonely and the strangulation, done while Sloane sits on a park bench, is unusually graphic for its time. The old man is portrayed by Cyril Delevanti (1889-1975), a familiar character actor who was born in England and who turns up in bit parts in many famous films. This is one of this three appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; he can also be seen in episodes of Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery.

"The Derelicts" is an excellent episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where a solid script, crisp direction, and strong performances by the case combine to make a half-hour of noir mixed with comedy. It is available here on DVD or may be viewed online for free here.

Sources:
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville: MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 7 Sept. 2015.
McGilligan, Patrick. Film Crazy: Interviews With Hollywood Legends. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001. Print.
"The Derelicts." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 5 Feb. 1956.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 7 Sept. 2015.

The atmospheric scene in the park at night

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