Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Nine: "The Belfry" [1.33]

by Jack Seabrook

The last episode of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to feature a teleplay by Robert C. Dennis is "The Belfry," broadcast on CBS on Sunday, May 13, 1956. The story upon which it is based is also titled "The Belfry," by Allan Vaughan Elston, and it was published first in the October 15, 1932 issue of Adventure, a pulp magazine that ran from 1910 to 1971. By the mid-1930s, around the time that this story was published, Adventure was considered the number one pulp magazine in America.

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
Elston's short story "The Belfry" begins as Clint Ringle stands alone in a forest glade at night in the pouring rain. He is hiding from a posse of men who are searching for him, since he killed Walt Norton. The storm helps keep him hidden from view and he follows the posse back to town and begins to implement his escape plan. Ringle recalls the day before when, in a fit of jealousy, he had murdered Norton, who had just become engaged to be married to Ella Marsh, the pretty schoolteacher who was also the object of Clint's affection. Now he returns to the site of his crime: the schoolhouse, a "structure of one long room with a gabled roof" that features a belfry at the rear.

"The Belfry" was first
published here
Ringle climbs into the bell tower and finds it a cramped space. Muffling the clapper with his rolled up coat, he settles in to his hiding place, certain that no one would think to look for him high above the center of town. He plans to remain there for four days, until the search is abandoned, and then make his way to safety under cover of darkness. Sneaking down from the tower at night to steal scraps of food from a refuse can, he stays alive and hidden as the days pass and the children return to school.

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
Elston creates real suspense when Ringle hides in the belfry and has a Godlike perspective on the events below him. He must prevent the bell from ringing by mistake while allowing it to ring when the townsfolk want it to do so. "His nerves were like devils jumping on his brain," writes Elston, and the suspense is ratcheted up during the children's game of ball, as the reader realizes that, with every throw, the chance of the ball landing in the belfry increases. During the Sunday service, the preacher offers a quotation from Numbers 35:16 that is right on target. There is a great final paragraph:

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
Elston's story takes place in a location that is real and recognizable. The events transpire in Ozark County, in south central Missouri, just north of the border with Arkansas. The time is less exact; it is a time before motorcars, at least in the rural south, and a time of one-room schoolhouses, which places it somewhere in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. This time would have been within living memory of readers when the story was published in 1932; by 1956, when it was adapted for television, it was a time that was receding further and further into the past.

"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
The show opens with a shot of the bell ringing in the belfry; the camera then pans down to observe children pouring out of the door of the one-room schoolhouse. Ella prepares to go and Clint approaches her, holding a small, hand axe. He tells her that he is building a house for them and suggests that they get married as soon as school is out. Ella tells him that it is all in his mind and that she just got engaged to Walt. Clint gets angry and grabs her, at which point Walt appears and there is a confrontation. Clint murders Walt with one swing of the axe.

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
There is a sound of dogs approaching and the posse of men pursues him in a very small woods that is obviously a studio set. There is the sound of thunder but no rain; it is hard to tell if it is supposed to be raining or not, but the initial scene in the short story loses all of its effectiveness due to the day for night filming, the cheap set, and the inept voice over narration. Clint barely escapes but there is no suspense at all; part of the problem is an inappropriate use of stock music cues that do not match the action on screen.

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.

As he sits alone in the belfry, Clint tends to suck his thumb, an act intended to show that he is a childlike moron. The thumb sucking is reminiscent of a scene in Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps, also released in 1956,  where John Drew Barrymore, playing a serial killer, sits alone in his room reading a comic book--his choice of reading material is meant to show the viewer that he is an idiot with stunted mental growth, much like Mullaney's Clint Ringle in "The Belfry," sucking his thumb to put himself to sleep.

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.

Another close call occurs when the boy returns to climb up and get his ball; this time, the sheriff again appears on the scene and calls the boy down just in time. The Sunday church service is an uncomfortable affair; the adults sit in the children's desks in the schoolroom as the preacher addresses them from behind the teacher's desk. Daugherty appears to have lost track of the time of day here, as the service begins in daytime but we soon see that it is dark outside and raining. Still later, it is only three o'clock in the afternoon and the funeral takes place at the graveyard.

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
It's too bad that the creative team behind Alfred Hitchcock Presents did such a bad job with "The Belfry," because Allan Vaughan Elston's original story is excellent. Fireside Mystery Book may be borrowed for free here from the Internet Archive and the story is the first one in the book.

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
Patricia Hitchcock (1928- ), the master's daughter, plays Ella Marsh, the schoolteacher. She began her career on TV in 1949 and she began appearing in films in 1950. She was in three of her father's films and appeared in ten episodes of the half-hour TV show, including "The Older Sister," "The Glass Eye," and Robert Bloch's "The Cuckoo Clock." She had a handful of other TV and movie roles over the years.

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.

Sources:

"The Belfry." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 13 May 1956. Television.
Elston, Allan Vaughan. "The Belfry." Fireside Mystery Book. New York: Lantern, 1947. 3-19. Internet Archive. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
"Turner Classic Movies - TCM.com." Turner Classic Movies. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

In two weeks: "Crack of Doom," starring Robert Horton and Robert Middleton!


4 comments:

Grant said...

Speaking of Jack Mullaney playing dumb or at least goofy characters, I seem to know him almost entirely from COMEDIES where he did just that. Especially IT'S ABOUT TIME, that notorious "Lost World" type sitcom about the astronauts in the prehistoric world. His character was pretty clearly based on Bob Denver as Gilligan.

Jack Seabrook said...

It's About Time is before my time! He seemed miscast in "The Belfry."

john kenrick said...

Thanks for writing about The Belfry, Gene. I've only seen it once, but it left an impression on me. Is it my imagination or are there echoes of the tales and, more broadly, the sensibility of Hawthorne in the story?

The belfry itself evokes the ending of the Thriller episode, The Ordeal Of Dr. Cordell,--otherwise a very different story--and a Hitchcock hour titled something like I'll Be The Judge, I'll Be The Jury, with Albert Salmi a memorably grotesque character.

There's something haunting about The Belfry, as I remember it.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I recall seeing "The Belfry" years ago and thinking it was haunting, but on re-watching it for this essay I did not think much of it. The story on which it is based is quite good, though. I can see a Hawthorne connection in the way this episode evokes a particular time and place in rural America, though Hawthorne's tales (and I read Twice-Told Tales earlier this year) tend towards New England settings.