Monday, December 21, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Twelve: "Nightmare in 4-D" [2.16]

by Jack Seabrook

"Nightmare in 4-D," which aired on CBS on Sunday, January 13, 1957, is less than the sum of its parts. Imagine a noir mystery involving a middle-aged man who likes to read lurid pulp paperbacks before bedtime and who gets involved in a murder with the beautiful blond downstairs! Add Henry Jones, Barbara Baxley, Norman Lloyd, Virginia Gregg and Percy Helton to the mix, and you should have the ingredients for a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Unfortunately, this one is a disappointment.

The story begins one evening as Harry Parker comes home to his apartment building and helps pretty Lainie Elliott with her packages as she waits for the elevator. She tells him with excitement that she just got cast in her first role in a Broadway show and they flirt with each other. Along with her bags of groceries, she carries a bottle of champagne and she tells Harry that a friend is coming over to help her celebrate the good news. Harry leaves her at her apartment door and goes upstairs to his apartment, where his wife Norma teases him about helping the pretty neighbor and offers him some cooking sherry in place of champagne.

Barbara Baxley as Lainie
Harry takes a couple of lurid paperbacks from his pocket and settles down in his easy chair to read one of them; later, we see that he has fallen asleep in bed reading the same book, titled Night of Horror. Awakened by his wife coming into the bedroom, he talks in his sleep as if he is a gun-toting criminal, then falls out of bed. It's midnight and Harry has had another nightmare; Norma tells him not to read in the bedroom, so he goes out to the parlor to watch the late show. Some time later, as he watches a movie with loud, suspenseful music, there is a knock at the door. It is Mrs. Elliott, who begs him for help, even though the clock reads 2 A.M. Harry agrees to go to her apartment, where she shows him the corpse of Bill Neilson, a piano player from downstairs, who had been helping her rehearse when he was shot by someone on the fire escape.

Harry tells Lainie: "I can't get involved in murder, I'm a married man!" Yet she convinces him to carry the body down to the basement, afraid that its discovery in her apartment might endanger her acting career. Lugging the body to the basement, Harry dumps it behind a trunk before Lainie empties Bill's wallet to make it look like he was robbed. They take the elevator back upstairs and the door closes just as she is telling him how grateful she is. We do not see what happens next; instead, we see Harry staggering back into his apartment some time later. This time, he hungrily gulps down the cooking sherry.

Virginia Gregg as Norma
Realizing that the belt from his bathrobe is missing, Harry rushes back to the basement and retrieves it from where it is wrapped around the corpse's ankle. The next morning, Norma wakes Harry and he tells her what happened; she thinks it was another dream brought on by the book he was reading when he fell asleep. He goes to the basement to see if it was just a dream and finds the body gone! Suddenly, a police lieutenant named Orsatti appears and tells Harry that they just found a dead body and he is investigating the murder. Orsatti takes Harry to Lainie's apartment, revealing that Neilson was shot between 1:10 and 1:30 that morning and that he thinks a jealous lover was the culprit. Harry admits to having carried the body downstairs and Orsatti threatens to charge him with tampering with the evidence.

Harry goes back to his own apartment and tells Norma what happened. Orsatti arrives and discloses that Norma had been seeing Neilson while Harry was away at work. She claims that she was lonely and that she had nothing to do with the murder. Orsatti has deduced that the killer had to climb down the fire escape from their window, since the retractable ladder at street level had not been lowered and the only neighbor above them is elderly. Arresting Harry for the crime, Orsatti explains that Harry was jealous and killed Neilson while Norma was on the telephone with a neighbor who was complaining that the volume on their TV set was turned up too loud.

Norman Lloyd as Lt. Orsatti
"Nightmare in 4-D" features a teleplay written by Robert C. Dennis from a story by Stuart Jerome. It must have been an unpublished story or short treatment, since there is no record of this or any other story ever having been published by Jerome. The show unfolds like a stage play, with limited settings and a compact span of time from start to finish--it begins as Harry comes home from work one evening and ends the next morning. There is little to no suspense, partly due to stock music cues that ruin any mood that might have been created. Poor music choices are an unfortunate hallmark of many episodes in the early seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; I suspect that this is a holdover from the early days of television and that music was not something producers thought was worth spending much money on as television grew more technologically advanced throughout the 1950s.

The mystery itself is straightforward and clues are fairly provided, though the speed with which Lt. Orsatti investigates and solves the murder boggles the mind. As for the direction, there are a couple of nice tracking shots as characters walk down the hallway to and from the elevator early in the show, and the lighting as Harry watches TV late at night is ominous. Best of all is the cast, which is made up of actors and actresses who are favorites of those who savor classic television. Henry Jones is wonderful as Harry; when Lainie asks him to help her remove the corpse from her apartment his eyes wander down to her cleavage and then back up to her face before he agrees to assist. Neither he nor the woman, played to perfection by Barbara Baxley, seem to care a bit about the dead man!

Harry watches the late show
Baxley plays a sexy but cheap seductress; she would portray similar roles in other episodes of the series. Virginia Gregg gives a surprisingly complex portrayal of Harry's wife; in just a few scenes, she manages to portray a woman who is lonely but devoted to her good for nothing husband; she jokes with him even when she realizes that he lusts after the neighbor downstairs. Norman Lloyd, who would very soon be hired as an associate producer on the show, plays Lt Orsatti; Lloyd's performances always have a bit of a strange aspect to them, and this one is no exception. Finally, Percy Helton has a cameo as the building superintendent; his appearance is brief but his voice is unmistakable and, as always, he steals the scene.

In The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, Grams and Wikstrom write that "Occasionally, writers . . . would write short, one, two or three-page drafts based on original ideas they had, and they would be added to the pile of proposals." I submit that this is what Stuart Jerome (1918-1983) did in this, his only credit on the Hitchcock series. Jerome had been an errand boy at the Warner Brothers studio in the late 1930s and wrote about his experiences in a 1983 book called Those Crazy Wonderful Years When We Ran Warner Bros. He was drafted and served in WWII; later, he began to write scripts for radio and quickly moved into TV, with script and story credits stretching from 1952 to 1965 that also include an episode of Thriller. He also is said to have been a script doctor for TV and film.

Jones and Percy Helton
Justus Addiss (1917-1979) directed "Nightmare in 4-D"; he was a director of episodic TV from 1953 until 1968 and also directed the Jack Nicholson feature called The Cry Baby Killer in 1958. He directed three episodes of The Twilight Zone and ten of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Fredric Brown's "The Night the World Ended" and Henry Slesar's "Night of the Execution."

The great actor Henry Jones (1912-1999) was only 44 years old at the time this episode was filmed. He was onscreen for over 50 years, from his 1943 film debut until his last TV role in 1995. He was in just about every series one could name and appeared six times on the Hitchcock show, including John Collier's "De Mortuis." He also appeared on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Night Gallery, and The Night Stalker, as well as playing a role in Hitchcock's 1958 classic, Vertigo.


The book Harry
puts aside

Slinky Barbara Baxley (1923-1990) was only 33 when she flirted with Jones in this episode. She was an Actor's Studio graduate who started out on stage and also had a long career on screen from 1950 to 1990. She was on The Twilight Zone and can be seen in six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Ray Bradbury's "Design for Loving" (with Norman Lloyd), John Collier's "Anniversary Gift" and Henry Slesar's "The Case of M.J.H."

Hitchcock regular Norman Lloyd (1914- ) is still alive at age 101 and has had a long career on stage and screen. This was the first of his five acting appearances on the Hitchcock series; later episodes to feature him included "Design for Loving" and John Collier's "Maria." He directed 22 episodes of the series and produced many more.

The book that
causes a nightmare
Acting stalwart Virginia Gregg (1916-1986) was a fixture for decades on radio, TV and in film; her four appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents also include Robert C. Dennis's "Don't Come Back Alive."

Finally, Percy Helton (1894-1971) began his career in vaudeville and worked on stage and screen for over 60 years, from 1915 until 1978. Among his seven appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents was Henry Slesar's "The Horse Player."

The 4-D in the episode's title refers to the number of Parker's apartment. Lainie lives downstairs in 3-D and the unfortunate Mr. Nielson lived another floor down in 2-A. The cover art from Night of Horror, the fake paperback that Harry reads in bed, was reused for the cover of a fake paperback called The Bashful Killer in the 1960 episode, "Insomia,"

"Nightmare in 4-D" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.

Sources:

IMDb. IMDb.com. 7 Dec. 2015.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.


"Nightmare in 4-D." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 13 Jan. 1957.


Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 7 Dec. 2015.

In two weeks: "One for the Road," starring John Baragrey, Georgann Johnson and Louise Platt!

An uncredited actor as the corpse


7 comments:

Grant said...

Speaking of his unmistakable voice, I'm pretty sure Percy Helton is the drunk Santa Claus at the start of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. If not, the actor certainly sounds a lot like him, which seems unlikely.

Jack Seabrook said...

IMDb says you're right! Merry Christmas, Grant!

SteveHL said...

Another very fine post. I really appreciate all the information about what other works the cast and crew were involved in.

I am pleased to see the phrase "the great actor Henry Jones". Jones was one of the reliable actors who gave so many fine performances without ever having the reputation he deserved. I recently saw him in an episode of a series called Channing, in which he had the continuing lead role. The series was on in 1963-1964. I don't recall having ever heard of it before and didn't know Jones had ever starred in a dramatic series. He was, as always, very good. (That particular episode had two guest stars, Agnes Moorehead and a very young James Earl Jones.)

Happy New Year!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Steve! I think Henry Jones was terrific and I was always glad to see him turn up on a TV show. I love his slow drawl.

Anonymous said...

I'm still not sure what happened. Who killed the guy??

john kenrick said...

Same here, Anonymous. I didn't care for this one, nor for those domestic murder type episodes generally focusing on husbands and wives, whether in apartments or in the suburbs. It's like Hitch & Friends were drawn to these kinds of stories. There were way fewer in the hour long show.

Jack Seabrook said...

Harry killed him.