Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Six: "Place of Shadows" [1.22]

by Jack Seabrook

When a man's soul is at stake, is it permissible to mislead him in order to help him to make the right decision? A weighty question indeed, and not what one would expect from the lead tale in a 15-cent pulp called Crack Detective Stories. Yet that's exactly the issue that Robert C. Dennis wrestles with in "Place of Shadows," first published in the January 1947 issue of that long-forgotten magazine and adapted by Dennis nine years later into a first-season episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, broadcast on CBS on Sunday, February 26, 1956.

Dennis's short story begins as a young man waits alone on a platform outside a lonely train station at night. Brother Gerard, a monk, arrives by car to take him to the nearby monastery, addressing the young man as Mr. Anser. The young man has a gun in his pocket and learns from the monk that another man named Mr. Rocco has been brought to the monastery to receive medical care after having been injured in a car accident.

Arriving at the monastery, the young man is unnerved by the darkness and shadows around him. He is taken to see Father Vincente and asks to see Mr. Rocco. Father Vincente tells the young man that he knows he is not Anser but rather James Clements, since Rocco provided detailed physical descriptions of them both. Clements announces his intention to kill Rocco, whose swindling forced him to embezzle money, leading to the loss of his job and his fiance: "My life was wrecked by Dave Rocco," Clements tells the priest.

Everett Sloane as Father Vincente
Father Vincente gives Clements an envelope with $8000, the amount that he had lost to Rocco, explaining that Rocco had a change of heart and asked Father Vincente to write to Anser, knowing that it would bring Clements. The young man decides not to kill Rocco at the monastery but vows future vengeance. Driven back to the railway station, Clements is about to light the stove in the dark room when he hears Anser's voice. Having followed him by a later train, Anser knew that Clements would have the money. He shoots and Clements is grazed; Clements fires back and kills Anser.

Overwhelmed at having killed a man, Clements walks back to the monastery, determined to confess to Father Vincente. He passes out and later wakes up in the infirmary, where he tells the priest that he has changed his mind about killing Rocco. Father Vincente replies: "That's in the hands of the Lord, Mr. Clements . . . Mr. Rocco died the day before yesterday."

Mark Damon as Ray Clements
"Place of Shadows" is a strong story with a surprise ending that is impossible to predict. Dennis creates a wonderful atmosphere, from the opening at the cold, dark railway station, to the conclusion at the shadowy monastery; solemn and silent, the monks say no more than is necessary. Forgiveness, repentance, vengeance and confession are among the religious themes that Dennis handles deftly. Most interesting is Father Vincente's decision not to tell Clements that Rocco is dead until he knows that the young man has forgiven the one who victimized him. The priest seems content to let events play out, urging Clements to rethink his vow of vengeance and willing to wait and see if he reaches a place of forgiveness before providing the piece of information that, had it been shared earlier, might have prevented the young man's heart from having the opportunity to heal.

Sean McClory as Brother Gerard
"Place of Shadows" was not a well known story nine years later when it was adapted for television. It had not been reprinted, nor had it been collected in a book of short stories. Perhaps Dennis brought it to the attention of the producers himself, since he had become one of the busiest adapters of short stories by other writers during the first season of the series; perhaps he submitted his teleplay as an original without telling the producers that it had been published already as a short story. Whatever the case, the credit onscreen reads "Teleplay by Robert C. Dennis" and makes no mention of the story.

In adapting his own story for television, Dennis makes some interesting choices. The first scene, at the railroad station, includes more dialogue between Clements and the station agent, who refers to an unnamed place "up there," and asks Clements if he is going "up there for good." When Clements says no, the old man admits that the young man does not look like one of them. The first scene creates suspense by making the viewer wonder, what is this place and who are these people? A close up of Clements checking his gun tells us that he is a dangerous man on a deadly mission. Brother Gerard then enters the station, dressed in monk's robe and hood, and we realize what "up there" is and why Clements is not going there for good--it is a monastery and his gun suggests ill intent.

In the chapel
Brother Gerard calls Clements "Unser" rather than "Anser," as in the story, and has an Irish brogue. He refers to his car as a "machine," suggesting that he is not up to date with earthly matters. After arriving at the monastery and meeting with Father Vincente, Clements (Ray now, not James) admits that he lost $13,000 (not $8,000). In a scene new to the teleplay, Father Vincente asks Clements if he has been to church lately. Ray admits that he was once an altar boy and the priest invites him to attend Vespers. Ray tells him that there is nothing more to discuss, but the priest says that Ray must find forgiveness in his heart. He asks Ray to sit in the visitor's gallery as the monks chant in the chapel below.

Ray enters the gallery and looks down to see the monks at prayer. He loosens his tie, crosses himself and kneels out of habit, surprised at his own actions. He begins to cry, overcome by the solemn sights and sounds, before raising his eyes to Heaven in silent prayer. Suddenly, he rushes out of the gallery and down a hallway, where he observes a monk taking a tray of food into a room. Ray looks into the room and sees Rocco asleep in bed; he takes out his gun, perhaps intending to kill his enemy, when Father Vincente stops him and asks, "Would you commit murder here?"

Joseph Downing as Unser
Ray tells Father Vincente that he wants to leave and is walked to the door by Brother Gerard, who tells him that he was honored for killing men in wartime but that no one is able to restore life once it is extinguished. You never "forget the face of a man you've killed," Gerard tells Clements. Back at the railroad station, the shootout occurs, but this time Ray examines the dead body of Unser and hears Brother Gerard's voice in his head.

In another scene new to the teleplay, we see two policemen knock at the door of the monastery. Brother Gerard takes them in to see Father Vincente and they search the premises, looking for Clements. Soon, Ray collapses outside and is brought to the infirmary by Brother Gerard; when he calls out to Father Vincente, the police discover him, but the priest invokes the rule of sanctuary and tells the officers that they may listen to his conversation with Clements from outside the door. Ray tells the priest that he killed in self-defense and, in an unintentionally funny moment, the lead policeman states that "As far as I'm concerned, Unser got what was coming to him." The police leave and the final exchange occurs between Clements and Father Vincente, who reveals that "Mr. Rocco died just before you arrived."

The overall effect of the changes that Dennis made from story to teleplay is to increase the focus on Ray's repentance. The scene in the gallery above the chapel is a powerful one, as is his reaction after he kills Unser. Whereas the story builds inexorably toward its satisfying payoff, the teleplay is more concerned with salvation. The scenes with the policemen add nothing and should have been omitted. Unlike the story, Ray actually sees Rocco, though he is unaware that the man who appears to be sleeping is in fact dead.

Driving in the snow
Robert Stevens, the show's director, uses a variety of shots and some subtle camera movement to create a show that is more visually arresting than some of the others that preceded it in the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The early scenes in the train station and with Brother Gerard in his old car driving through the snowy darkness are haunting. What is it about snow at night on black and white TV that is so memorable? Think of "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" on The Twilight Zone, or even "Night of the Meek" on that same series, even though it was shot on primitive videotape. The combination of night, snow and high-contrast film making in black and white yields shows that stick in one's memory.

Inside the railroad station
The railroad station set also looks forward to a very similar set in "The Dangerous People," an episode broadcast at the end of season two. Both stations appear to have similar set decorations, with a large wood stove in the center by which the characters warm themselves. These episodes are a doorway to another time--when was the last time a remote railway station featured a wood stove maintained by passengers awaiting a train? These details are lost to history and speak of a vanished time of shared community.

The monks and the monastery setting also look forward to another classic episode of The Twilight Zone, "The Howling Man." In fact, there is a shot that tracks Brother Gerard and Ray Clements as they walk down a hall in the monastery that is very similar to the famous shot in that later show where the prisoner who has been released gradually is revealed as the Devil as he passes behind each pillar along his route. In "Place of Darkness," the camera follows the two men as they walk past pillars down a hall, but the only change that may be occurring here is hidden in the heart of Ray Clements.

Another well done scene is the shootout in the railway station. Unser is first glimpsed as only an arm and hand holding a gun; the man himself crouches behind a steamer trunk as he speaks to Clements.

"Place of Shadows" is not perfect, though. Mark Damon tries a bit too hard as Clements and Everett Sloane seems an odd choice to play a wise old monk, yet both succeed in conveying the necessary emotions of their characters and Damon, especially, appears sincere in his reaction to the monks' chanting in the chapel.

Claude Akins as a policeman
Robert Stevens (1920-1989), who directed the show, directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series. The most recent one reviewed in this series was "The Older Sister," also from a script by Robert C. Dennis.

Father Vincente is played by Everett Sloane (1909-1965), who was onscreen from 1941 until the year of his death and who was last seen in this series in the Dennis/Stevens episode, "Our Cook's a Treasure."

Portraying Brother Gerard is Sean McClory (1924-2003), whose background as a stage actor in Dublin preceded his time onscreen in America. He receives billing above Mark Damon (1933- ), who was born in Chicago as Alan Harris and who was onscreen from the '50s to the '70s before starting a career as a successful movie producer. McClory was seen in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, while this was the only one for Damon; Damon is remembered today for his role in Roger Corman's House of Usher (1960) and is the subject of a book called From Cowboy to Mogul to Monster: The Neverending Story of Film Pioneer Mark Damon.

Harry Tyler as the station agent
Three familiar actors play smaller roles in "Place of Shadows." Claude Akins (1926-1994) is the lead policeman; this was one of his three appearances on the Hitchcock series. He had a long career on screen, from 1953 to 1994, and is remembered for his role as Sheriff Lobo on TV in the late '70s and early '80s.

Joseph Downing (1903-1975) was onscreen from 1935 until 1963 and plays Unser; he was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and was seen on the other side of the law as a police detective in the Cornell Woolrich episode, "The Big Switch."

Finally, Harry Tyler (1888-1961) plays the station agent; he was in eleven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his screen career began way back in 1929. Coincidentally, he also portrays the station agent in "The Dangerous People."

"Place of Shadows" is such an obscure story that I have scanned and reproduced it below. I assume that it is no longer under copyright, but I will promptly remove it if I am notified that this is not the case.

Watch the TV version here.

Dennis, Robert C. "Place of Shadows." Crack Detective Stories, January 1947. 10-16.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville: MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.
"Place of Shadows." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 26 Feb. 1956.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.


Peter Enfantino said...

Thanks for sharing this story with us, archaeologist Jack! I hope the rest of the stories for AHP and AHH are much easier to track down!

Jack Seabrook said...

Happily, the next three stories were easy to locate.