Stanley Ellin's short story, "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby," first published in the May 1950 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, was adapted for television twice and is a good example of how the changes made for televised versions in 1956 and 1980 reflect the tastes and mores of the times.
Mr. Appleby, a "small, prim man," as described by Ellin, decides to murder his wife and consults a "text on forensic medicine" that he finds in a used book store. He reads of a case where a woman died "after what was presumably an accidental fall on a scatter rug in her home." A lawyer charged her husband with murder but the accused died of a sudden heart attack before anything was proved. Mrs. X had been bringing her husband a glass of water and the lawyer speculated that the man could have put "one hand behind his wife's shoulder, another hand along her jaw, and with a sudden thrust" produced the same result as a fall on a scatter rug.
Appleby is devoted to his shop, where he sells antiques and curios, but when his mother died he needed a new source of money to support the unsuccessful business. He married a woman who did not appreciate his love for the items on his shop, so he murdered her and used her money to stay in business. He married and killed five more wives, each time moving to a new location, but eventually the money ran out and he was forced to seek out a new bride.
|Robert H. Harris as Appleby|
One evening, he decides to set his plan in motion and asks her to bring him a glass of water. As she approaches, Appleby places one hand on her shoulder and the other on her jaw, only to hear Martha ask, "Is that what happened to all the others?" To his surprise, she knows all about his prior wives. It seems Martha's parents were the couple that Appleby read about in the textbook: her father murdered her mother by the very method that Appleby adopted for his own series of crimes. Martha decided to get revenge by marrying a man similar to her father and making him unhappy for the rest of his life.
Martha tells Appleby that Gainsborough has enough evidence to convict him of six murders. The lawyer calls every night to check on her and will turn the evidence over to the police if she is not there and in good health when he telephones. Gainsborough calls and Appleby summons his wife, who promptly slips on the scatter rug, falls, and fatally hits her head. Appleby hears Gainsborough on the other end of the telephone line telling him, "Your time is up!"
|Meg Mundy as Martha|
While the TV show follows the same basic plot as the story, it also includes significant changes.The show opens by cutting out the story's first section, in which Appleby has already murdered six wives. Instead, we see Martha Sturgis shopping at Appleby's store. A new character named Dizar is introduced; he demands payment of $12,000 for inventory that his father shipped to the curio shop. This increases the pressure on Appleby to come up with money in a hurry and dramatizes his dilemma by adding a somewhat threatening character from the Middle East. Martha drops a valuable antique and it shatters on the floor, foreshadowing her own fall at the end of the show.
We then see Appleby at home with his current wife, who is slovenly and unhappy. He asks her to cash in her insurance policy so he can pay Dizar, but she refuses. He takes a book that was hidden at the back of his bookcase and consults it; the book's title is Accident or Murder, and the fact that it was already there and hidden suggests that he was already thinking about killing his wife.
Appleby brings in a throw rug and arranges it on the floor in front of his chair. He consults the book, asks for a glass of water, bends down as if to tie his shoelace and, when his wife is in position, yanks the rug out from under her. The image of Appleby sitting back in his chair with the rug pulled up to his chest and a stricken look on his face is quite memorable and will be repeated later in the episode. His wife falls and dies when her head hits the stone fireplace hearth; presumably, Wolfson and Dennis decided that a fall to the floor was insufficient to ensure sudden death and added the contact between head and stone.
Appleby immediately calls the police to report an accident, foreshadowing his position at the end of the episode, where he remains on the telephone after Martha's fatal fall. The fact that he has to consult a book to follow the steps to murder suggests that he has not done it before, unlike the story, where he already had murdered six wives without getting caught. The financial pressure on Appleby continues to be a focus of the teleplay, as he pays Dizar the money he owes and then learns that he will not receive any more inventory unless he pays for it on delivery. Dizar suggests to Appleby that he sell more items to Martha Sturgis, who was in the shop when Dizar first visited, and Appleby takes this advice to heart, visiting the woman at home and attempting to make a gift to her of an antique jewel box, though she insists on paying for it.
|Gage Clarke as Gainsborough|
Money troubles again rear their ugly head and Appleby comes home one night to say that he must pay Dizar $7000 by the next day or he will lose his shop. Martha refuses to lend him the money. In a parallel to the earlier scene with his first wife, the desperate need for quick cash drives Appleby to attempt a murderous act. Once again he arranges the rug on the floor, sits down, requests a glass of water, bends to tie his laces, and suddenly yanks the rug from the floor, this time pulling it all the way up to his chin. However, there is no sudden fall; instead, Martha asks: "Was that how you did it before? Was it Accident or Murder?" She tells him that she found the book and Gainsborough found out about his first wife.
|Michael Ansara as Dizar|
Other than streamlining the plot and making it fit into a half-hour format, the changes wrought by Wolfson and Dennis make Appleby less of a Bluebeard and more of a victim of circumstance, if that can be said of a man who murders his wife to get her money. The threat of financial ruin is increased and is used as the explanation for his crimes. Perhaps the killer of six wives would not have been as palatable to the censors in 1956 as the killer of one wife.
|The story was first |
Once Appleby and Martha are wed, there is a strong undercurrent of sex in the show that was lacking in the story or the earlier TV version. Martha walks around the house in a nightgown, seems to have a ravenous sexual appetite, and wants her husband to spend more time at home so he can share her bed more frequently. At one point, she hops into bed and says to him, "I'm looking for a distinct improvement tonight." The most memorable images from the earlier version are removed: Appleby does not kill his wives by yanking the rug out from under them. Instead, as in the short story, they slip on the rugs themselves. In another detail from the story, Martha reveals to Appleby at the conclusion that she hated her father, who married and killed her mother for her money by means of a slippery rug on a polished floor. There is no mention of the textbook, Appleby does no formal research into murder techniques, and Martha's parents were not written up in a true crime narrative.
|Martha's accidental death|
Victor Wolfson (1909-1990), who is credited as having co-written the teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Robert C. Dennis, wrote books, plays, documentary films, and episodic television. He wrote eight episodes of Suspense, the precursor to the Hitchcock series, in 1951 and 1952, and he wrote an episode of Janet Dean, Registered Nurse, the series produced by Joan Harrison, in 1954. He wrote or co-wrote six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including another Stanley Ellin classic, "Specialty of the House."
"The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" was directed by James Neilson (1909-1979), who directed twelve episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Help Wanted."
|"Your time is up!"|
Meg Mundy (1915- ) plays Martha; this was one of her two appearances on the Hitchcock series. She was on TV from 1949 to 2001 and turned 100 years old earlier this year.
Playing Gainsborough, Martha's lawyer, is Gage Clarke (1900-1964); he was also in Henry Slesar's "The Right Kind of Medicine" and appeared in two other episodes of the Hitchcock program.
Finally, Michael Ansara (1922-2013) is effortlessly menacing as Dizar. Born in Lebanon, his long career on screen stretched from 1944 to 1999. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "Shopping for Death," and his many other TV credits included starring in Broken Arrow (1956-1958), "Soldier" on The Outer Limits, and a classic role on Star Trek. He was married to Barbara Eden from 1958 to 1974.
|Note the interesting radio on the left|
The 1956 version of "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" is available on DVD here but is not currently available for free online viewing. The 1980 version may be viewed for free online here.
Ellin, Stanley. "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (May 1950). Rpt. in Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories. Ed. Donald Westlake. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 298-315. Print.
"The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 15 Apr. 1956.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
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