According to the onscreen credit, Robert C. Dennis's teleplay for "The Diplomatic Corpse" is based on a story by Alec Coppel, a writer who was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1907. He moved to England in 1927 and his first play was produced in 1935. In 1937, he had a hit on the London stage with I Killed the Count, which was later adapted for the only multi-episode story of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, airing over a three-week span in March 1957. The play had been performed in the U.S. on Broadway in 1942, though Coppel returned to Australia during WWII. He continued to write plays, as well as novels and screenplays--his screenplay for The Captain's Paradise (1953) was nominated for an Academy Award.
|View of the mission from Vertigo|
Coppel continued to write novels, screenplays, teleplays, stage plays, and radio plays for another 15 years until his death in 1972. "The Diplomatic Corpse" does not appear to be based on any published short story. It is possible that Coppel pitched the story as an idea to Hitchcock or Joan Harrison while he was working on Vertigo. Robert C. Dennis's teleplay is in the Broadcasting Collection of the American Radio Archives; it is dated May 1, 1957, with a last revision date of October 4, 1957. The episode aired on December 8, 1957.
|The mission as seen in "The Diplomatic Corpse"|
|Isobel Elsom as Janet's aunt|
|George Peppard as Evan|
|Peter Lorre as Salgado|
|Mary Scott as Janet|
Resigned to going home without the corpse and down to their last $22, Evan and Janet sit dejectedly in their hotel room when Salado arrives and announces that Rafael had found their abandoned car in front of a funeral home, where Janet's aunt's body now lies. He takes the last of their cash and promises to make the arrangements to send the body back to America. Evan and Janet later watch as the hearse passes safely through customs.
Of course, "The Diplomatic Corpse" is a comedy of the sort that works perfectly on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The idea of a comedy involving an inconvenient dead body had been explored by Hitchcock in The Trouble With Harry (1955) and this episode of the TV series shares the same irreverent tone in its approach to a problematic corpse. The program is directed by Paul Henreid (1908-1992), the actor-turned-director who directed the prior episode scripted by Robert C. Dennis, "Silent Witness." Here, Henreid does his best to evoke the heat and discomfort of Tijuana, mainly through some shots from high above the hotel room that allow us to see the ceiling fan above Evan and Janet's heads, and also through some bits of business where a long piece of flypaper hangs from above in the middle of a scene.
The highlight of the show is Peter Lorre's performance as Salgado. He is delightfully enthusiastic and commands the screen every time he appears. In one funny moment that looks ad libbed, he searches in his pocket for something and pulls out a pair of handcuffs, shrugging and muttering, "Tools of my trade." Lorre was born in 1904 in Austria-Hungary and appeared in many great films in his long career, including Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). He was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the other was "Man From the South," one of the best of the series. It may seem odd to have an actor of central European heritage playing a Mexican character, but Lorre often played against ethnic type; he was the Asian detective Mr. Moto in a series of films and, in "Man From the South," his character is Hispanic.
George Peppard (1928-1994) plays Evan; he was well-known during a career that lasted over 40 years, but his most sustained exposure came from the 1980s TV series The A-Team (1983-1987). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.
Playing the role of his wife Janet is Mary Scott (1921-2009), who was not English after all. Born in Los Angeles, she appeared in movies beginning in 1942 and on TV beginning in 1951. She is best remembered today for her roles in eight episodes of the Hitchcock TV show. In the late 1940s, she was on Broadway in a production of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra when she met the English actor Cedric Hardwicke; she got pregnant and he divorced his wife. Hardwicke and Scott wed in 1950, when he was 57 years old and she was only 29. She later wrote an autobiography called Nobody Ever Accused Me of Being a 'Lady' and there is an interesting obituary here.
Janet's aunt, who is never given a name, is played by the English actress Isobel Elsom (1893-1981); perhaps the fact that she was English is why Janet's character had to be English as well, even though Mary Scott was from California. Elsom was a veteran of stage, film and TV, who appeared onscreen from 1915 to 1964, including roles in 1947 in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux and Hitchcock's The Paradine Case. She was on TV from 1950 to 1965 and appeared five times on the Hitchcock show, including "Back for Christmas" and "Final Vow."
Peter Lorre was born In Austria-Hungary and plays a Mexican. Mary Scott was born in California and plays an English woman. It's fitting that John Verros (1905-1996), who plays the police chief, was not Mexican, either--he was born in Greece.
"The Diplomatic Corpse" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read another assessment of the episode here.
"Aust Lit--Alec Coppel." <www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A46221>. Accessed 24 Feb. 2016.
Berard, Jeanette and Klaudia Englund, comps. Television Series and Specials Scripts: 1946-1992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2009. 12.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb. IMDb.com. 24 Feb. 2016.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. NY: Regan Books, 2003. 541-560.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 24 Feb. 2016.
In two weeks: "The Deadly," with Phyllis Thaxter and Lee Philips!