Allan Vaughan Elston (1887-1976) had a degree in civil engineering and worked on railroads and as a cattle rancher in the early decades of the twentieth century before turning his hand to fiction. In his long career as a writer, he had scores of stories published from the 1920s to the 1940s; he then began writing novels, mostly westerns, and these appeared from the early 1940s to the mid 1970s. His stories served as the basis for three films and seven TV episodes, two of which were for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
|The murder weapon--an adz|
|"The Belfry" was first|
He fears that he will be exposed when the children play a game where they toss a ball back and forth over the roof of the schoolhouse; once, it falls into the belfry and he is able to kick it out without anyone noticing. Ringle manages to remain hidden until Sunday, when the schoolhouse is used for a church service and he hears mention of an event planned for three o'clock that afternoon. When the hour of three passes uneventfully, he settles down for a nap, sure of escape later that night. Yet three o'clock was the hour of Norton's funeral and, when one of the mourners enters the schoolhouse to pull the rope and ring the bell, it hits the sleeping Ringle, who wakes with a shout--and is lost.
"The Belfry" is a beautifully written tale of suspense. It begins cinematically, with Ringle hiding among the post oaks as rain pours and lightning flashes. Elston's descriptions of events contrasts with the dialogue of the characters, who speak like hillbillies; the author's words give these common country folk a nobility that their own expressions lack. The murder is sudden and brutal, as Ringle throws his adz at Norton's head: "The blade bit deep, and Norton fell dead on the steps." The story is almost biblical in tone and Ringle resembles Cain, who killed and tried to hide.
|Jack Mullaney as Clint Ringle|
Men came on the run: soon on all sides great, gaunt post-oaks, with crooked arms and gnarled knuckles, reached for the killer.
The conclusion beings the story full circle by depicting the men of the town as trees of the sort that sheltered Ringle during the opening storm. The natural world that had provided protection has had enough and exacts vengeance on the man who threw the town out of balance with his rash act.
|Ozark County, MO|
"The Belfry" was reprinted as the first story in the 1947 collection, Fireside Mystery Book, which may be where it came to the attention of the person responsible for selecting stories for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Elston's tale presents some technical challenges: how to depict the opening storm, how to film in the cramped space of the belfry, and how to express the thoughts of a man who most remain quiet while hiding. Unfortunately, Robert C. Dennis failed in his attempt to turn a suspenseful story into a suspenseful half hour of television. Blame must be shared with director Herschel Daugherty and star Jack Mullaney, for "The Belfry" is a sub par episode on nearly every count.
|Pat Hitchcock as Ella|
In the first scene, which (as so often happens on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) takes a flashback from the story and moves it to the start of the show, Clint is portrayed as simple-minded, with slow speech and confused facial expressions. His status as an infantile moron will become more apparent later in the program. He runs into the woods, to the house he is building, and it starts to rain. At this point, Clint begins to speak in voice over, something that will run through the rest of the episode. It is an attempt to convey his thoughts to the viewer, but it does not work and, instead, we find him describing things that we can see on screen without his help.
|The posse searches the woods|
Soon, Clint hides in the belfry, still clutching his axe. The confined space requires extended use of medium closeups and tight closeups; the acting required is beyond the ability of Jack Mullaney, who recalls Jerry Lewis in one of his simpleton roles. Daugherty does create one nice trick shot, which he repeats a few times during the show; it depicts a view from Clint's perspective in the belfry, through a hole in the floor, looking down at the tops of the heads of the men gathered below in the schoolhouse.
After alternating scenes of people talking and Clint in the belfry, he sneaks down at night to steal food from a child's desk in the classroom, taking time to scrawl a message on the board for Ella: "Ill git you to." He is angry at Ella because she does not love him or appreciate the favor he did for her by killing Walt. The next day, the children's ball game plays out differently than in the story. Here, the ball lands in the belfry and a boy begins to climb up to retrieve it until he is called back to the classroom by the sound of the bell. After the children are dismissed, Clint is about to climb down and kill Ella when the sheriff appears to walk her home and keep her safe.
Worst of all is the show's conclusion, where a mourner comes back to ring the bell as Clint sleeps in the belfry. The bell rings and appears to bash Clint in the forehead. He lets out a terrible scream and it is unclear whether the bell hit him and killed him or whether the shock merely scared him. At this point, the man below begins to ring the bell with vigor, and one is left with the unpleasant impression that it is repeatedly bashing Clint's skull.
|Looking down from the belfry|
This was the first of 27 episodes of the Hitchcock series to be directed by Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993) and, happily, he would go on to direct many memorable shows, including Fredric Brown's "The Cream of the Jest," Robert Bloch's "The Cure" and "A Home Away From Home," and "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?" with William Shatner. Daugherty directed 16 episodes of Thriller, a couple of Star Treks, and numerous episodes of other TV shows. He began his career as a dialogue director in movies in the late 1940s and occasionally played bit parts onscreen, but directing for television was by far his busiest job.
The star of "The Belfry" is Jack Mullaney (1929-1982), whose career on screen ran from the mid-1950s until 1980. He appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
|Dabbs Greer as the sheriff|
The best performance in "The Belfry" comes from Dabbs Greer (1917-2007), who plays the sheriff. He began acting at age eight and was in movies from 1938 and on TV from 1950. His last TV role was in 2003 and he was seen on the Hitchcock show twice.
"The Belfry" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.
"The Belfry." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 13 May 1956. Television.
In two weeks: "Crack of Doom," starring Robert Horton and Robert Middleton!