Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Seventeen: "Silent Witness" [3.5]

by Jack Seabrook

"Silent Witness" features a brilliant script by Robert C. Dennis that eclipses the short story on which it was based, taking the germ of an idea and expanding it into a fascinating look at a man's guilty conscience.

"Eyewitness" provides the basic plot. The story was written by Jeanne Barry and published in the July 16, 1949 issue of Collier's. Taking up only a page in the magazine and running about 1500 words, "Eyewitness" opens as Don Mason commits a murder in his apartment, clubbing a woman named Claudia to death with a brass candlestick. After the crime, he looks up and sees into an apartment that faces his own, where a baby in a playpen is the only witness.

Mason puts Claudia's body in a metal foot locker and drives to an abandoned quarry, where he dumps the locker. Through his thoughts, we learn that he killed the girl after she smugly told him that she was leaving him for a man with money. Claudia worked at a hotel and no one at the high school where Mason teaches knew her. Ten days later, he is shaken when another teacher mentions in conversation that a study has suggested that a child as young as one and a half years can remember what she sees and talk about it later.

Pretending to be ill, Don goes home early; he approaches Linda, the baby, and her mother, and the baby starts to scream when she sees him. Her mother tells him that the girl is one and a half years old, which makes Mason worry that she will be able to identify him as a killer. A week later, he visits the baby again, when she's with a sitter, and again she shrieks when he appears. The sitter tells him that Linda is advanced and talks often.

The story was published here
Mason goes for a drive and is pulled over by a policeman, who reminds him to turn on his headlights. Returning to his apartment, he is suspicious of every footstep outside the door. The next day, Linda's mother brings him some mail and admires the candlestick, which we know was the murder weapon. Linda, the baby, sees Mason and screams. Unable to bear his guilt any longer, he drives to the police station and confesses. The next day, as Linda's mother reads about Mason's confession in the newspaper, a laundry man passes and says hello to the baby, who begins to shriek.

It's a subtle ending, where one assumes that the baby's shrieks had nothing to do with Mason or the murder. Ironically, the baby screams every times a man approaches, but Mason's own guilt makes him believe that the screams are evidence of the baby's ability to identify him as the killer, something she would surely do as soon as she was able. The story has some parallels with "Revenge," the first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be broadcast, in which a woman identifies a man on the street as her attacker; after her husband kills the man, he realizes that she identified him only because of his gender.

As we have seen before in this series, Robert C. Dennis was often challenged to take short stories and expand or alter them to make them fit the requirements of a half hour television show. With "Eyewitness," he did such a fine job that his teleplay makes the twist ending of the story superfluous.

The TV version, titled "Silent Witness," begins with a closeup of a book, Shakespeare's Richard III, held in the hand of a college professor who is reading a passage from the play to his students. The professor is Bob (not Don) Mason, and the passage is one that begins: "My conscience hath a thousand several tongues" (Act 5, scene 3, lines 193-203). It is spoken by King Richard near the end of the play, on the eve of the battle that will take his life. He has just been visited by a series of the ghosts of those for whose deaths he is responsible, just as Mason will be visited by Claudia's ghost later in the episode.

Dolores Hart as Claudia
The camera pulls back and we see the professor; on the wall behind him are framed drawings of great men and on the shelf in front of those frames sit a couple of trophies. Yet Mason is not the stalwart man he appears to be, as we will learn, and the text he reads applies to him as well--like King Richard, his conscience will tell him he is a murderer and he will find in himself no pity for himself. The camera slowly pans around and we see the students, one in particular: a pretty girl who watches Mason closely from the front row. The camera cuts back to Mason and then back to a medium closeup of the girl, a knowing smile on her face.

Class is dismissed but the girl lingers, asking Professor Mason if the line, "My conscience hath a thousand several tongues," is a Freudian reference--"You're not getting a guilt complex, are you, darling?" she says. We realize that they are having an affair. By calling him "darling," it's clear that their relationship is not a new one; she insists on seeing him tonight but he defers, telling her that he has to take his wife out to a dinner party. She reminds him that it is the night of his wife's gym class, which shows that Claudia knows him so well that she is aware of his schedule. He says that he won't see her again but she walks out of the classroom as if ignoring his statement.

That night, Mason is at home, sipping a cup of tea and adding a dash of liquor. He asks his wife Nancy if she'd like to "go for a drive, see a movie." She is surprised but he claims that this is a normal, middle-class impulse; she responds that he never has impulses of any kind--if she only knew! The couple appears happy on the surface but he is troubled by what he's done and must keep hidden. She gets ready to go to the gym, remarking that "I've got to control my figure if I'm going to compete with all the jail bait in your classes." Like Dennis's script for "A Little Sleep," earlier in 1957, his script for "Silent Witness" shows a more open approach to sexual themes than had been common in the first two seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where the producer tended to rely more on classic short stories and remakes of episodes of Suspense; now, things are starting to get more contemporary, a trend that will continue through season seven.

As Nancy readies herself to leave, the telephone rings and Bob answers--it's Claudia on the line, calling to tell him that she is babysitting next door at the Davidsons' house. Bob looks through a window and sees the girl painting her nails, a siren tugging him away from his wife and his home. She threatens to come over and expose him. He tells Nancy that the call was from one of his students, ironically adding that "She's having a hard time with Richard the Third." Nancy responds, telling him to "see to it he makes an honest woman of her." Mason is thus associated with the king who was troubled by his conscience, while Nancy unwittingly encourages him to marry Claudia! This is great writing, with characters talking to each other in a way that seems innocent while we see the double meaning behind their words.

Next door, the baby is in a playpen, being watched by Claudia. Mason enters and the couple embraces, kissing passionately. "This is absolutely insane!" he tells her, and she replies that "You're like an avalanche, Bob--takes a lot to get you moving." She does not realize that she is about to become a victim of that avalanche. The high contrast lighting and suspenseful music cues in this scene are particularly good; in fact, the music in this episode is entirely appropriate, suggesting that the problems of prior seasons where the incidental music did not match the events on screen may be a thing of the past. Bob pulls the window shade closed, hiding his guilt. Claudia asks him if he likes babies, inferring that she wants to start a family with him, and he tells her how dangerous their relationship is. He calls himself stupid for getting involved with her but she says that they are going to get married. He tells her that he will not leave his wife and offers to give her money to end the affair; she threatens to smear and ruin him.

Don Taylor as Prof. Mason
There is a tight closeup of Bob's face and the music starts up again. He smiles like a demon, pleased with an idea that has come to him. He crosses the room and strangles Claudia to death. She collapses to the floor and the baby starts to cry. The baby's cry shatters Bob's trance-like state and he looks in horror at what he has done. He backs away and the screen fades to black.

Harry Bellaver as Sgt. Wagner
Alone in his classroom, Bob gets a visit from Sergeant Wagner, a police detective who is interviewing all of the teachers. Wagner asks about Claudia and wants details about "The men in her life--you know what I mean?" Mason says that she was pretty but not much of a student. "Kind of wild, huh?" the sergeant chuckles. It is rather shocking to see the two men discuss the dead young woman in this way, since they are both dismissive of her and Sgt. Wagner seems overly interested in the details of her love life. As in "A Little Sleep," an attractive young woman who is sexually active is murdered, as if this is the correct punishment for her behavior in the repressed 1950s. Wagner suspects that the murderer was someone Claudia knew and comments that the baby was an eyewitness.

Pat Hitchcock as Nancy
Back at Mason's house, Nancy is exercising while talking on the telephone, still trying to keep up with her husband's "jail bait" students and blissfully unaware that it's too late. She says that the telephone has been ringing all day and comments on "the morbidity of people," though she tells him with excitement that a detective came to visit her. As Nancy, Pat Hitchcock demonstrates a very Hitchcockian interest in crime and murder. Even Nancy assumes that Claudia was "that kind of a girl," who must have known a lot of men: she says that "None of the other girls got themselves murdered--she must have been different!" Again, like Wagner, Nancy assumes that Claudia's behavior led to her murder. There is no sympathy for the young woman who has been killed by a violent act, there is only judgment.

Mercedes Shirley as Mrs. Davidson
Reinforcing her priorities, Nancy states that she fells sorry for Linda, the baby, because "an experience like this could have a very serious psychological effect on her." Dennis has taken the elements of the short story and reshuffled them like a deck of cards: instead of another teacher planting the seed of this idea in Bob's head, it comes from his wife, a character invented for the TV show, much as Dennis essentially invented the character of George in "Mail-Order Prophet" and made him a key figure in that drama. Nancy tells Bob that Linda is 14 months old and will be talking soon. He takes out the trash and runs into Linda's mother, Mrs. Davidson, who has Linda in a baby carriage. Mrs. Davidson's husband is in the Army and is stationed in Germany, so she is home alone with the baby and she is frightened, not surprisingly, since a murder was committed in her living room! Like Nancy, she worries that subconscious damage to her daughter will manifest itself years later. Bob leans in to look at the baby and she begins to cry. He walks away, worried.

Mason comes home late from work, surrounded by shadows. It's Nancy's gym night again and he looks ill. The baby next door cried all through the prior night and the high-contrast lighting underlines Bob's inner turmoil. Nancy leaves him at home alone with a drink. He is worried that the baby is starting to talk and he looks out the window at the neighbors' house, where we see Mrs. Davidson putting the baby in a carriage on the screened-in back porch. Bob watches from behind a bush in his back yard and, when Mrs. Davidson disappears inside her house, he hops over the privet hedge and enters her porch. Does he plan to murder the child? He looks at Linda and she starts to cry, alerting her mother. Bob rushes out through the screen door and hides. His guilt and shame have begun to overwhelm him. He is not sleeping, he looks ill, he hides in the shadows. He runs home unseen.

Later that evening, Sgt. Wagner pays a visit. He is investigating the report of a prowler next door and jokes that "if this keeps up I'm going to have to have a talk with that kid." Wagner behaves strangely each time we see him, often chuckling and displaying little of the serious tone we would expect from a detective investigating a murder. In fact, Mrs. Davidson, the next door neighbor also behaves strangely, her speech overly dramatic when she talks to Mason in the back yard. Even his own wife exhibits strange behavior, seeming unusually cheerful although a young woman was murdered in the house next door. All three present a stark contrast to the behavior of Mason, who is consumed with guilt, fear and shame, having an internal struggle that he cannot share with anyone and which has begun to cause changes in his external appearance and behavior.

Katherine Warren
In the morning, a policewoman sits outside with baby Linda in a carriage. She tells Mason that Linda said her first word that morning and adds: "Once they start talking you can't keep them quiet." She leaves the baby briefly in Mason's care. The suspenseful music starts to play and we see a tight closeup of his face, similar to the one that we saw right before he killed Claudia. His eyes dart around as if he's looking for witnesses. Is the baby in danger? Is he getting close to committing another murder? We don't know for sure, as the scene dissolves to his classroom, where we see that another pretty student is sitting in the front row. She approaches him after class and he looks up and sees Claudia, like a Shakespearean ghost come to torment him. A look of horror crosses his face and the ghost of Claudia dissolves, leaving the new girl standing in front of him. Is he thinking that another affair could be in the offing? He shuts down the possibility by dismissing her brusquely, telling her that "I never give special help to one of my students."

Claudia's ghost
dissolves into . . .
Theodora Davitt as the new girl

The music reaches a crescendo. We see Mason walking home and looking lost. In this scene, as in the rest of this episode, the camera is mobile and there is fine lighting and a good use of low angle shots. Mason walks all the way to the police station, where he confesses to Claudia's murder.

Walking to the police station, a low angle shot
Inside the police station
"I killed Claudia Powell."

The show should end here, but Dennis was forced to tack on one more scene to utilize the twist ending from the story. Mrs. Davidson's husband comes home from his Army posting and they go into the house, where he looks at the baby and she cries. Mrs. Davidson explains that the baby cries every time a man comes near her. The scene fulfills a plot function and wraps up the business about the baby, but Dennis has transformed the story so completely into an investigation of Mason's guilt that the final scene seems unnecessary and detracts from the mood that has been established.

Mercedes Shirley and William Boyett

I was unable to find any other credits for Jeanne Barry, who wrote the short story, either in print or on screen, but I did find an obituary that seems to be hers. A woman named Jeanne Barry died in  2006 at age 87 in Chicago. She had been a reporter for two Chicago papers, The Daily Calumet and The Chicago Tribune, and she was also the Director of Public Relations for DePaul University. The obituary notes that she was a freelance writer of travel, fiction, poetry and TV. Was this the same Jeanne Barry who wrote "Eyewitness"? It seems quite possible.

Fortunately, the other people involved in this episode are easier to identify. The excellent direction is by Paul Henreid (1908-1992), the actor turned director who directed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock series. He had directed two films, one in 1952 and another in 1956, and acted in both. It appears likely that his first directing jobs where he was not also a featured actor were his work for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, beginning in the spring of 1957; "A Little Sleep" was the second of his shows to be broadcast and "Silent Witness" was the third.

It's interesting to note that "Silent Witness" was broadcast the week after "Heart of Gold," which was the first episode of the series to be based on a story by Henry Slesar, who would supplant Robert C. Dennis as the show's most frequent contributor of stories and scripts over the next four seasons.

The star of the show is Don Taylor (1920-1988), who plays Mason. He was in the Air Force in WWII and acted in films starting in 1943, including The Naked City (1948). He was on TV starting in 1954 and this was the only episode of the Hitchcock series in which he acted. In 1956, he had a career change and, like Paul Henreid, began to direct episodic TV, which kept him busy for the next 30 years, until his death. He directed seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Henry Slesar's "The Right Kind of House." Among his other movies and TV shows as director were Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), and two of the best episodes of Night Gallery, "The Messiah on Mott Street" and "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar." Taylor even wrote a few TV shows and a TV movie. He also had the good fortune to be married to Hazel Court from 1963 until his death.

Dolores Hart (1938- ) gives a strong, believable performance as Claudia. After an uncredited role in Forever Amber (1947), she had a supporting role in Loving You (1957), the first film to star Elvis Presley, and then she made "Silent Witness." She had a handful of TV and film credits over the next six years before leaving the business to become a Benedictine nun. She has been a nun at an abbey in Connecticut for over 50 years and she was the subject of an HBO documentary called "God is the Bigger Elvis." She also wrote an autobiography in 2013.

Nancy, Mason's wife, is portrayed by Pat Hitchcock, Alfred's daughter, in one of her ten appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. We last saw her in "The Belfry," as the schoolteacher who rejects Clint's advances.

Harry Bellaver (1905-1993) plays Sgt. Wagner. A veteran of stage, screen and television, he appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice but is best known as one of the policeman on Naked City, appearing in nearly every episode of the series, which ran from 1958 to 1963.

As Mrs. Davidson, Mercedes Shirley (1926-1999) gives an enthusiastic performance. William Boyett (1927-2004) appears in the last scene as her husband. The policewoman is played by Katherine Warren (1905-1965) and the pretty blonde student who tries and fails to get extra help from Professor Mason is played by Theodora Davitt.

"Silent Witness" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the original short story here. The episode aired on CBS on Sunday, November 3, 1957. For a more irreverent look at this episode, click here. The website Genre Snaps has reviewed episodes from late in season one through season four from a lighthearted and entertaining perspective.

Sources:

Barry,Jeanne. "Eyewitness." Collier's. 16 July 1949. 42.

FictionMags Index. 17 Feb. 2016. <http://www.philsp.com/homeville/fmi/0start.htm>.


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

Hart, Dolores. The Ear of the Heart: An Actress' Journey From Hollywood to Holy Vows. Ignatius Press, 2013. Accessed through Google Books on 17 Feb. 2016.

IMDb. IMDb.com. 17 Feb. 2016.

"In Memoriam - Jeanne Barry." DES News Updates. 1 Oct. 2010. Accessed 17 Feb. 2016. <http://desretirees.blogspot.com/2010/08/in-memoriam-jeanne-barry.html>.

"Silent Witness." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 3 Nov. 1957.


Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 17 Feb. 2016.


In two weeks: "The Diplomatic Corpse," starring Peter Lorre and George Peppard!


3 comments:

Michael Salmons said...

What a treat to find your blog! Looking forward to perusing your back posts and good things to come.

Grant said...

If you know her mainly from comedy-dramas like "Come Fly With Me" and "Where The Boys Are," the idea of Dolores Hart playing a manipulative character who also becomes a murder victim is pretty strange. I don't know if I've ever seen this episode, but that's enough to make me curious about it.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Michael!

Grant, I've never seen those movies so I have no frame of reference for Hart, but she's very good in this episode. I was also impressed by her decision to leave Hollywood for the religious life.