Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Eighteen: "The Diplomatic Corpse" [3.10]

by Jack Seabrook

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
Moving to Hollywood in 1954, Coppel wrote teleplays and screenplays, including some uncredited rewrites on Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1954). He worked closely with Hitchcock in 1956 and 1957 on the script for Vertigo (1958), which was filmed in the fall of 1957, the same period in which "The Diplomatic Corpse" was filmed. Early in the episode, the main characters visit a Spanish mission in southern California; Vertigo also featured a Spanish mission prominently. It may well be the same mission, in San Juan Bautista--Hitchcock added the high tower with a matte shot for the film.

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"
"The Diplomatic Corpse" opens with a shot of a car driving along a California highway, then moves inside the car,where rear projection shots continue the journey. Traveling together are three people: Evan Wallace, a young architect, Janet, his wife, born in England but now an American citizen, and Janet's aunt, who expresses her displeasure with the scenery and cannot understand why Janet left England for California. They stop at a Spanish mission about 60 miles from Tijuana and the aunt is unimpressed when Evan remarks that the building is over 200 years old; she responds that Westminster Abbey is over 900 years old. The show was filmed in a studio and the scenes at the mission are also done with rear projection.

Isobel Elsom as Janet's aunt
Janet's aunt announces that she wants to go to Mexico and, after some argument about the rules governing border crossings, Evan agrees to take her. The three cross the border as the aunt naps in the back seat. Arriving in Tijuana, Evan and Janet try to wake her up, only to discover that she has died. At this point in the show, the music cues make it clear that it is a comedy. "The Diplomatic Corpse" is one of those stories where characters do not go to the police when it would make sense to do so and, as a result, their problems mount. Evan and Janet cover the body with Janet's coat and enter the Cantina El Toro; there, Evan reveals that: "She was an old tyrant. We put up with her crazy whims for only one reason." Janet explains that, as the aunt's only relative, she stands to inherit 30,000 pounds.

George Peppard as Evan
When Evan and Janet come out of the cantina, they discover that their car has been stolen, the corpse along with it. Evan refuses to call the police because he fears that they will be accused of smuggling a corpse into Mexico. The idea of simply telling the truth does not seem to enter his head, but then doing so would not allow the plot to unfold. He suggests hiring a private detective and they are next seen in the office of Tomas Salgado, who rightly assumes that they are in trouble. Evan and Janet tell him that their car was stolen but do not mention the corpse in the back seat. Salgado asks if "the car she is hot" and whether they would object to him notifying the police. He recommends that they check into a local hotel and charges them $20 in advance for his services.

Peter Lorre as Salgado
Salgado is the stereotypical foreigner taking advantage of wealthy American tourists. Evan and Janet check into a hotel and soon the police knock on the door. They have found the missing car and Evan expects the worst, but the lighthearted music cues telegraph to the viewer that there is nothing to worry about. Evan walks gloomily out to inspect the car but, when he looks inside, the body is gone. It seems that a young man took the car for a joy ride. But where is the body? Janet wants to go home but Evan explains that they need her aunt's body in order to prove that she is dead and collect the inheritance.

Mary Scott as Janet
Back at the cantina, they find Salgado napping and wake him; he cannot understand why they are not satisfied with the service he has rendered. They explain about the missing body and his face lights up at the suggestion of "Kidnapping!" or "Murder!" but he is disappointed to learn the truth. Charging another $40 in advance, Salgado soon locates the car thief but tells Evan and Janet that he needs another $10 to get him out and learn what happened to the body because "freedom will loosen his tongue." Evan and Janet join Salgado in the cantina, where they meet Rafael, a teenage boy who speaks no English. He admits to having stolen the car but says that it was empty when he found it.

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.

In the final scene, they are back in the U.S., waiting in an ante room until a doctor calls them in to a room where a coffin lies. The doctor tells Evan that death was due to natural causes, but when Evan looks at the body in the box, he sees the corpse of an elderly Mexican man where his aunt's body should be. "We'll have to go back to Mexico!" he says. "I'm gonna murder that crook, Salgado!"

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." <>. Accessed 24 Feb. 2016.

Berard, Jeanette and Klaudia Englund, comps. Television Series and Specials Scripts: 1946-1992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2009. 12.

"The Diplomatic Corpse." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 8 Dec. 1957.

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

IMDb. 24 Feb. 2016.

McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. NY: Regan Books, 2003. 541-560.

Vagg, Stephen. "Alec Coppel: Australian Playwright and Survivor." Australasian Drama Studies 56 (April 2010): 219-232.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 24 Feb. 2016.

In two weeks: "The Deadly," with Phyllis Thaxter and Lee Philips!


Brian Durant said...

Great review, Jack. I hadn't seen this one but I enjoyed it. The three leads were all good. Peter Lorre as a Mexican is hilarious but he knocks it out of the park as always. I wasn't familiar with Alec Coppel but I'll look into him. I enjoy the show's adaptation of I Killed the Count. It has the same whimsical pace that this one has and John Williams is great.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Brian! I'm a big fan of John Williams too, especially when he's selling classical music on TV.

John Scoleri said...

Did someone say John Williams? ;)

Brian Durant said...

Priceless. I didn't know this even existed.

Unknown said...

In case your interested the mission shown in the episode is Mission San Luis Rey De Francia located in Oceanside, Ca

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for the clarification!