Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Fifteen: "A Little Sleep" [2.38]

by Jack Seabrook

"A Little Sleep" was the last episode written by Robert C. Dennis to air during season two of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This episode premiered on CBS on Sunday, June 16, 1957, and is based on "Lullaby," a story by Joe Grenzeback that was published in the February 1957 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

A comparison of the story to the TV show reveals that Dennis made a significant addition to the tale, one that changed its focus from a simple story of terror into a show with aspects of social commentary. In the story, a young woman stops at a diner while driving through the mountains. She encounters a group of men who have been searching the area for a man named Benny; the counter man tells the woman that Benny did something bad and assumes she would not understand, since her concerns are "money and games and nothing to do."

Drawing stares at the diner
The woman, whose name is Hallem, hears that Benny did something to a girl. She leaves the diner, starts to drive away and meets a young man, telling him that she's headed for the Hallem place, a cabin which he says is about twelve miles away. She admits to owning it and he says that the counter man at the diner is Ed Mungo, who looks after the cabin. Ed is also Benny's half brother; Benny broke the neck of a young woman and killed her dog.

The young woman drives toward her cabin, which she inherited from her uncle. She pulls up to the remote building and is startled by a man's voice; he invites her in and she tells him she's the owner. He admits to being Benny and explains that he killed the dog of a woman named Marcella and expects Ed to bring Marcella to the cabin soon. Ms. Hallem begins to suspect that Benny did not kill Marcella--she thinks that Ed did it and framed his half-brother out of jealousy. She asks Benny to come with her but Ed shows up and sends Benny outside to wait.

Vic Morrow as Benny
Ed says that Marcella got what she asked for and he wants Ms. Hallem to drive him and Benny to the next county. She is scared and accuses Ed of murder; she tries to escape and he advances on her. Benny returns and Ms. Hallem insists that Ed tell Benny what he did to Marcella. The two men struggle outside until there is silence and Benny appears in the doorway, his shirt torn, blood on his cheek. Benny says he'll ask Ed what he did to Marcella when he wakes up. He tells Ms. Hallem that he put Ed to sleep just as he did Marcella. He says he can demonstrate: "I can do it real quick . . . I'll show you."

Of course, the inference is that, for Benny, "putting someone to sleep" is the same thing as killing them. Ms. Hallem realizes this too late, understanding that when Benny said he left Marcella asleep he had really murdered her, just as he has done to Ed and is about to do to Ms. Hallem.

The story was first published here
"Lullaby" is an effective little crime story where a young woman's misunderstanding of what is really going on with strangers leads to her death. The author, Joe Grenzeback (1922-1968), had an unusual career as a writer. Most of his credits are for writing book and lyrics for musical theater shows such as Rose of the Rancho (1945), Sing Ho for a Prince (1951), The Dragon by Moonshine (1955) and Old King Cole (1955). He is listed as one of the writers of a syndicated children's TV show called Willie Wonderful that featured puppets and ran from 1952 to 1953. The FictionMags Index lists ten short stories by Grenzeback in various crime and mystery magazines from 1956 to 1961, including "Lullaby." The only credit on IMDb for Grenzeback is as writer of the original story for "A Little Sleep."

Robert C. Dennis's script for "A Little Sleep" is fascinating, mainly because of the opening section of the TV show, which is completely new and places what happens later in a different light. The show opens with a beautiful young woman (Ms. Hallem) wearing a tight evening dress and dancing in front of an older man who watches her, appraising her with his eyes as loud jazz music plays on the soundtrack. She is dancing on a table at a party and a group of men and women sit on the floor, watching her and clapping along with the music. The camera looks down at them from her point of view and pans slowly from left to right across the group.

The young woman's dance is suggestive, as her hips sway back and forth, her arms outstretched before her, a wicked smile on her face. This scene is unlike anything we've seen to date on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and is surprisingly sensual for a 1957 television show--it and the party scenes that follow it are like something out of an episode of Mad Men set in the early to mid-1960s, but this is 1957--the Eisenhower era!

Watching the young woman, whose name is soon given as Barbie Hallem (in Grenzeback's story, she is never given a first name), especially closely are a young man in the seated crowd and an older man at the bar. The party takes place in an apartment, presumably in or near New York City. The men are in suits and the women are in evening wear, some wearing gloves.

Barbie descends from the coffee table where she was dancing and selects the young man from the crowd as everyone gets up to dance. As she dances with the young man, Barbie exchanges glances over his shoulder with the older man at the bar. She goes off alone to a side room and the young man, whose name is Chris, follows her; she asks him to get another drink and smooths out her stockings, displaying her long legs. "I really ought to marry you, Chris," she says, "you'd be such a good influence on me."

"I love you, Barbie," Chris replies, but Barbie doesn't respond in kind, telling him only "You're my guy," which is not quite the same as "I love you, too." He kisses her passionately and she lets him--for a short while. He goes to get her a drink and she wanders out to the balcony. There is then a humorous interlude between two businessmen at the party as one instructs the other to stand on his head to cure a case of the hiccups. This man is the same one who was appraising Barbie during her table dance, and things turn serious for a moment as he gazes at an abstract painting on the wall and tells Chris:

"This painting is the very essence of Barbie Hallem. No form or reason except when viewed through a veil of fever. Then you begin to get the meaning. An idiot's delight. A nightmare run backwards. A trauma in three acts."

With these remarks, we begin to see the dark side of Barbie Hallem's world. She is a young woman who may be the life of the party but, as the counter man in "Lullaby" comments, her concerns are "money and games and nothing to do." Chris finds her on the balcony, kissing the older man, and when she realizes that she has been found out she is completely nonplussed. She complains that the party is flat and says that she wants to go to the mountains, where "men are much more fascinating." Little does she know that she will discover just how fascinating mountain men are later that night.

Chris tells her that it's one o'clock in the morning, but she doesn't care about that or anything else. She leaves the party and he follows her; the scene then dissolves to one of Barbie driving a beautiful 1957 Thunderbird convertible wildly, drunkenly through the night (though day for night filming makes it look much brighter outside than it should!). Chris gets out to come around to the driver's seat and take over behind the wheel, but Barbie drives off, leaving him alone; a tracking shot taken from a vehicle traveling next to hers follows her from a point of view slightly above her. We then see a rear projection shot of her driving alone and she pulls up at a building with a sign that reads, "Ed Mungo--Cabins, Food."

Throughout the show Barbie is obsessed with her appearance, often checking herself in the mirror and fixing her hair. The camera lingers on her swaying hips as she walks from the car to the building; once she is inside, the six men at the counter stare at her as she walks by, sits down at the counter, and orders coffee. Another man enters and sits down in a booth. At the counter, Barbie continues to use her power over men, holding the counter man's hand as he holds a rag and using it to wipe the bottom of her coffee cup.

From this point on, the show follows the original story very closely, using much of the dialog almost word for word. By adding the long opening scene, Dennis portrays Barbie as a callous young woman who drinks, dances, and flirts with men; the Ms. Hallem of the story was not depicted this way, other than the counter man's comment about her, which could be taken as his assumption rather than the truth. In the TV show, when Mungo, the counter man, tells her that she would have nightmares if she knew what Benny had done, she laughs knowingly, as if to suggest that she has seen and heard much worse.

Jack Mullaney
Instead of going out to her car and encountering the young man who tells her about Benny's crime, he turns out to be the man in the booth who came in right after her, and their exchange occurs inside the diner rather than outside. There is another rear projection shot of Barbie driving to the cabin, and when she arrives and meets Benny, she turns on a radio inside and begins to dance before the man, just as she danced at the party in the first scene. Barbie fancies herself a siren, whose seductive dance will charm any man she chooses. Benny gets up and dances with her and she embraces him, but when he tells her his name she backs away in fear.

After Ed arrives and Barbie calls Benny for help, the two men struggle and a fistfight occurs outside. Barbie hears a gunshot and Benny appears in the doorway, telling her "He missed me." They go outside and see Ed lying on the ground; Benny tells Barbie that "A little sleep'll do him good," explaining the show's title. They walk to her car and Benny asks her about the man's jacket in the front seat. She explains that she made Chris get out of the car because "He bored me." This is the wrong thing to say, since Benny replies that "Marcella said the very same thing last night just before I put her to sleep." Barbie suddenly realizes that sleep equals death, and Benny's hands encircle her throat as she begins to scream. The final shot is a blurry closeup of Benny's face from Barbie's perspective as he strangles the life out of her.

Barbara Cook
Does Barbie get what she deserves, or "asks for," as Ed puts it? By adding the opening scenes at the party, Dennis makes Barbie Hallem a much less likable character than she is in Grenzeback's story. She is portrayed as a sexually active woman and, as such, she must be punished, much like the randy teenagers in slasher films of the 1980s. The dance that opens "A Little Sleep" is about as close to pure sexuality as one is likely to find in a 1957 TV show, so one reading of the show is that her behavior leads to punishment.

The show also inverts the classic theme of city vs. country. In novels such as Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), a young woman leaves the relative safety of the country to go to the city, where she encounters danger. In this episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Barbie Hallem can do whatever she wants in the city without worry, but when she exhibits the same behavior in the country, it leads to her death. "A Little Sleep" is memorable both for the script by Robert C. Dennis and for the electric performance by Barbara Cook as Barbie Hallem. Cook brings an excitement to her role and, without her performance, the episode would not be nearly as interesting. The director also deserves credit for the show's success; this was the second of twenty-nine Hitchcock episodes to be directed by Paul Henreid.

Barbara Cook (1927- ) began her TV career in 1950 and made about a dozen appearances on television up to 1962. She began her long career on stage in 1951 and won a Tony in 1958 for her role as Marian the librarian in the original Broadway cast of The Music Man; "A Little Sleep" probably was filmed in spring 1957 and The Music Man premiered on Broadway that December. Cook later made the transition from stage star to singer; she was honored in 2011 at the Kennedy Center with a Lifetime Achievement Award and continues working today at age 88. Her website is here.

Paul Henreid (1908-1992), the director, had a successful career as a film actor before he turned to directing. Among the episodes he directed were "The Kerry Blue" and "Annabel."

Playing the role of Benny is Vic Morrow (1929-1982); born Victor Morozoff, his career on screen lasted from 1955 to 1982, when he was killed while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie. His first film was The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and he starred in the TV series Combat from 1962 to 1967. Like Barbara Cook, this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. He was also the father of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Robert Karnes
In small roles, Jack Mullaney (1929-1982) plays the man in the diner who explains things to Barbie; he was last seen in the lead role in "The Belfry." Ed Mungo is played by Robert Karnes (1917-1979), a character actor who had small parts in eight episodes of the Hitchcock series.

"A Little Sleep" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of "Lullaby."

Sources:

"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. 18 Jan. 2016.

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


Grenzeback, Joe. "Lullaby." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. February 1957. 46-55.

IMDb. IMDb.com. 18 Jan. 2015.

"A Little Sleep." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 16 June 1957.


Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 18 Jan. 2015.


In two weeks: "Mail Order Prophet" with E.G. Marshall and Jack Klugman!


2 comments:

SteveHL said...

Another very fine post. I haven't seen this episode but it certainly sounds like I should. I didn't know that Barbara Cook ever acted in anything but musicals.

It is unsettling that as relatively recently as 1957, Barbie gets "what she deserves", since she is a "sexually active woman".

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't think Hollywood movies have completely stopped punishing sexually active women even today. Thanks for reading, Steve!