Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Seven: "Help Wanted" [1.27]

by Jack Seabrook

How important is it to you to have a job and what would you be willing to do to keep it? Lie? Cheat? Steal? Perhaps murder? That is the question that faces Mr. Crabtree in Stanley Ellin's short story, "The Cat's Paw."

As the story begins, Crabtree applies for a job he saw in the want ads. He is 48 years old, unmarried, and recently laid off after 30 years with the same firm. Two weeks pass and he receives a phone call telling him he has been hired, under terms so appealing he can hardly believe it. He is to have a private office where he will spend six days a week preparing reports that summarize financial information gleaned from a stack of periodicals.

He reports to the small office, which features an immense window whose sill comes just above his knees. Months pass and one day he walks into his office after lunch to come face to face with his employer, who uses the assumed name of George Spelvin. The employer is a wealthy and powerful man who tells Crabtree that he is being blackmailed and that he hired Crabtree to murder the blackmailer.

Crabtree is shocked to learn that his job is only a front and that he was selected solely to carry out a violent crime. If he does so, he may continue working; if not, he is fired. The plan is that the blackmailer will enter the office and ask for an envelope that a friend has left for him. Crabtree will hand it to him and, after the man has placed the envelope in his pocket, Crabtree will push him out of the window to his death. He will then close the window and go back to work.

John Qualen as Crabtree
Sometime later, Crabtree is visited by two policeman, who question him and inform him that a man committed suicide by jumping off the roof right above him. A suicide note was found in his pocket. They leave and he resumes his work.

"The Cat's Paw" ends subtly, with a conclusion that requires a moment's reflection. One must conclude that Crabtree decided to go through with the murder, despite his reservations. His decision to do so shows how important it is to him to maintain a steady, paying job, even after learning that his work is utterly meaningless. He had no proof that the man he murdered was a blackmailer; rather, he took the word of his employer at face value and carried out his instructions to the letter, committing what was, in effect, a perfect murder.

The story's author, Stanley Ellin (1916-1986), was a highly respected writer of short stories and novels in the mid-twentieth century. This was the first of eight episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from his short stories, including "The Faith of Aaron Menefee," adapted for television by Ray Bradbury. The term "cat's paw," which provides the story's title, may be traced back to a fifteenth century fable called "The Monkey and the Cat" by Jean de la Fontaine and refers to a person who is used unwittingly by another to accomplish the other's purpose. That definition fits Crabtree's situation perfectly.

The name "George Spelvin" that Crabtree's employer uses is the traditional pseudonym used in American theater. It was first noted in a program in 1886.

While "The Cat's Paw" is an excellent story, one may question the motives of the main characters. Is it believable that Crabtree, a single, middle-aged man, would be willing to commit murder to keep a meaningless job? Can the reader accept his employer's motive for killing the blackmailer as one simply driven by greed? These issues were of interest when the story was adapted for television, both from the standpoint of dramatic believability and out of concern for the sensors.

Lorne Green as Crabtree's employer
Ellin's story was published in the June 1949 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which probably appeared on newsstands a month or two before that date. The tale must have been sold to television at or prior to the time of publication, since an adaptation was broadcast live on the CBS TV series Suspense on June 14, 1949. The teleplay was by Reginald Denham and Mary Orr, the episode was directed by Robert Stevens, who would go on to direct more episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents than anyone else, and it starred Otto Kruger. It is available for free viewing online here.

This version has important differences from the short story. Crabtree is being evicted from his apartment because he has not paid his rent. He is jobless and all of his money goes toward paying the bills for his daughter to be treated in an expensive sanitarium. When he first arrives at his office, he discovers a cat with a note telling him that the cat's name is "Discretion," since it will keep him company and prevent him from being tempted to talk to anyone else about his job. His employer, whom he calls "Mr. X," tells him that the blackmailer is his wife's first husband, a man who had been thought dead.

In exchange for committing murder, Crabtree will receive a generous pension for life when he retires at age 65. After Mr. X makes his proposal and leaves, Crabtree has visions of his landlady, Mr. X's secretary (who offered him the job), and Mr. X, all giving him reasons to commit murder. Unlike the story, where the murder is implied rather than shown, in the TV show we get to see what happens. In this version, a man comes to the office and Crabtree hands him the envelope. The man then sees Discretion, the cat, and becomes terrified; he is so afraid of cats that he backs through the open window and falls to his death. As a result, Crabtree never carries out the crime and his meek and mild personality remains intact.

Madge Kennedy as Laura Crabtree
Crabtree thanks Discretion for saving him from having to make the decision about whether he would commit murder in order to keep his job. He then calls Mr. X and tells him that the man's death was an accident. Mr. X tells him to keep working and not tell the police. In a surprise ending, the real blackmailer then enters the office. It seems that the man who fell out the window was an innocent bystander who was collecting contributions to try to bring back Prohibition! Crabtree tells the blackmailer to go to the man he has been blackmailing and tell him that his plan for murder has gone astray.

The production of "Help Wanted" on Suspense suffers from a performance by Otto Kruger that borders on comedic, as well as from the other problems typical of 1949 television shows: poor lighting, acting that is more suited to the stage than the screen, and limited ability to move the camera. The script, however, begins to address issues that existed in the story. By giving Crabtree a daughter with medical problems and financial needs, he has a stronger reason to want to keep his job than mere pride. Also, by making Mr. X the victim of a blackmailer who threatens to disclose news that would ruin his family, the plot for murder becomes more understandable, if not excusable. While the scene where the man backs through the window out of fear of a cat is ridiculous, the twist ending that finds the real blackmailer still alive is ironic and satisfying.

Right before the fall from the window
Reginald Denham (1894-1983), who co-wrote this teleplay, was born in London and worked as a playwright. He also acted, wrote and directed films from the 1930s through the 1950s. His third wife was Mary Orr (1910-2006), who co-wrote this teleplay; also an actress, she wrote the short story that was the basis for the classic film, All About Eve (1950).

The CBS TV series Suspense, which ran from 1949 to 1954, featured a number of episodes that would be remade for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which began airing in 1955. "Help Wanted" was among them. The Hitchcock version has a teleplay credited to Robert C. Dennis, based on the Mary Orr and Reginald Denham adaptation of a story by Stanley Ellin. The onscreen credit shows that Dennis based his script on the teleplay written for Suspense in 1949.

Critics, including Edward Hoch, have pointed out similarities between Ellin's story and the classic Sherlock Holmes story, "The Red-Headed League," in which a man is hired to sit in an office and copy an encyclopedia. He does not know that the reason for his hiring was to allow a crime to be committed elsewhere; he was told that he was hired due to the particular shade of his red hair. Perhaps Robert C. Dennis had this in mind when he revised the teleplay for "Help Wanted," since he made important changes that solved some problems that existed in the Denham and Orr version.

"Help Wanted" aired late in the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Sunday, April 1, 1956, and is the definitive version of the Ellin story. Instead of a daughter in a sanitarium, Crabtree now has an invalid wife and needs money for treatments and an operation to cure her. While he is still the same mild-mannered character that he was in the story and on Suspense, he has a hidden streak of potential violence that emerged when he was told that he was being laid off from his prior job. We learn that he got very angry at the personnel manager who delivered the news and that he might have killed the man on the spot had he not been restrained.

The view from Crabtree's office window
Though his employer is never referred to by name--neither as George Spelvin nor Mr. X--the man tells Crabtree that "For your wife's sake, Mr. Crabtree, I think you'll have to do it." We see that his wife is responding to treatment and, when the fateful day arrives and the man comes to the office seeking a contribution, Crabtree gets angry and tells him to leave, blaming him for costing him his job and depriving his wife of her health. Crabtree leaps up from his seat in anger and the man accidentally falls out of the window, startled by the sudden movement in the confined space.

There is no cat this time and, with the knowledge that Crabtree is prone to sudden outbursts, the scene works perfectly. Outside, we see the employer witness the death and hurriedly put an envelope addressed to Crabtree in a mailbox. We know that it is the $5000 payment that he had promised, which replaces the promise of a pension in the prior TV version. He telephones Crabtree, who tries to explain but is not given the chance. When the real blackmailer comes, Crabtree tells him that he has come too late and will have to take up the matter with the man he is blackmailing. Crabtree says that he no longer works there and hurries out the door, ending the episode on a completely satisfying note.

By making a few minor changes, Dennis solves all of the problems found in the prior TV version and delivers a story that plays well on the Hitchcock series. Credit is also due to James Neilson (1909-1979), the show's director, whose shot and setup choices allow the story to unfold quickly. Neilson had directed 33 episodes of Janet Dean, Registered Nurse in the 1954-1955 television season; that show's producer was Joan Harrison, who was the associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and who probably brought Neilson along with her to her new assignment. This was the first of 12 episodes he would direct for the Hitchcock series, including Henry Slesar's "On the Nose."

Crabtree is played perfectly by John Qualen (1899-1987), who was born in Canada and who had a long career on stage and onscreen stretching from the 1930s to the 1970s. He was a regular member of director John Ford's stock company and appeared in such films as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Searchers (1956). He appeared in thee episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Shopping for Death."

Lorne Green (1915-1987) is appropriately menacing as his unnamed employer. Like Qualen, he was born in Canada as Lyon Green, and his onscreen career lasted from the late 1940s until his death. As Lorne Greene he became famous for his starring role on Bonanza, which ran from 1959 to 1973; he also starred on Battlestar Galactica in the late 1970s. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Malcolm Atterbury as the blackmailer
Crabtree's ailing wife Laura is played by Madge Kennedy (1891-1987), who was a star in silent films. She retired in 1926 but came back as a character actress in 1954 and made movies for another twenty years or so. She appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including Fredric Brown's "A True Account."

Appearing in a brief role at the end of the episode as the real blackmailer is Malcolm Atterbury (1907-1992), who had small parts in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1963). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series, but he was seen twice on The Twilight Zone, most memorably in "Mr. Denton on Doomsday."

The Alfred Hitchcock Presents version of "Help Wanted" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.


Ellin, Stanley. "The Cat's Paw." Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense. Compiled by Bill Pronzini, Barry Malzberg and Martin Greenberg. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1981. 239-253.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. 3 Oct. 2015.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville: MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
"Help Wanted." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 1 Apr. 1956.
"Help Wanted." Suspense. CBS. 14 June 1949.
IMDb. 3 Oct. 2015.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 3 Oct. 2015.


Peter Enfantino said...

I love not only your exhaustive approach to AHMM but also the bonus coverage of Suspense. No (every other) Thursday evening is complete without my cup of Joe and Jack's Hitch coverage!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter. Can you believe we've done over 100 episodes? Only 250+ to go!

SteveHL said...

I've read and enjoyed the last few of your Hitchcock Project posts and I suddenly just placed your name. I am a big fan of Fredric Brown and loved "Martians and Misplaced Clues". I had no idea what you had done since that was published and I'm glad to see you writing about another topic that I am interested in.

I look forward to reading all of your future Hitchcock posts.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading, Steve! Let me know if you have a suggestion for the next author to cover after I finish Robert C. Dennis.