Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Nineteen: "The Deadly" [3.11]

by Jack Seabrook

"Suburban Tigress" was
first published here
In a 1911 poem, Rudyard Kipling wrote that "the female of the species is more deadly than the male." Robert C. Dennis alludes to this sentiment with his teleplay for "The Deadly," which is based on a short story by Lawrence Treat called "Suburban Tigress," first published in the July 1957 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

As the story begins, Margot Brenner sits at home alone, thinking of her husband's upcoming promotion and of their plans to adopt a baby. A plumber named Jack Staley arrives to fix a leak in the cellar. Margot is nervous at the thought of being alone in her home with the burly man, and she is concerned when he says that he needs to open a valve upstairs to keep the basement from flooding. When they are upstairs together, he is entirely too familiar, commenting on a painting she made, as well as her bedroom slippers and the quilt on her bed.

Staley fixes the leak and tells Margot that his fee is $500. He plans to blackmail her, explaining that he has been there for three hours on what was a five-minute job and that he can describe her bedroom in detail. Though he has already collected money from other women in the neighborhood, Margot resists and so he gives her until the next day to get the money.

Phyllis Thaxter as Margot
Meeting her husband at the train station, Margot keeps quiet about the plumber's blackmail scheme. The next morning, she calls the police to report Staley. She goes to the bank to withdraw money and comes home to meet Detective Thompson, who listens in hiding when Staley arrives. Somehow tipped off to danger, the plumber denies having asked for money and Thompson does not believe Margot's story.

After the men leave, Staley telephones; he returns to the house that afternoon. To his surprise, Margot has gathered three other women whom Staley had blackmailed. They record his demands on tape and he agrees to stop his blackmail. The women inform him that they will only remain quiet if he provides free plumbing for the new preschool nursery. He likes the idea of the good publicity it will bring for his business and leaves feeling satisfied with himself.

That evening, Margot meets her husband at the train station, able to say truthfully that "I settled with the plumber."

In a comment on the TV adaptation of his story, Lawrence Treat expressed astonishment that the teleplay used his story and much of his dialogue and he got "nothing extra." Perhaps Treat's memory was fuzzy when he wrote this comment for the book, Hitchcock in Prime Time, which was published in 1985, since a comparison of the show with the story demonstrates that Robert C. Dennis did a fair amount of rewriting.

Retitled "The Deadly," the episode was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, December 15, 1957. Once again, Dennis adds expository scenes to the beginning of the story. Here, Margot arrives at the train station, where two women gossip about Anne Warren, who does not look like a "happy young bride." Margot approaches Anne, who knows that she is the object of gossip and asks Margot how to balance a bankbook. Margot tells her, smiling: "That's simple! You just doctor the books, cheat on the budget, and steal from yourself!" It's meant to be a humorous comment, but in the first scene we see that Margot is a bit older than Anne, as well as wiser and more pragmatic. These qualities will allow her to deal with the blackmailing plumber more successfully than did her neighbors.

Jacqueline Mayo as Anne Warren
Anne is sad, so Margot invites her to dinner; Anne tells Margot that she and her husband Joe have not been going out much. Margot's husband then gets off of the train and she drives him home, telling him about the leak in the basement. Her husband says that Joe Warren is a "jealous, suspicious guy," and Margot comments on the lack of excitement in the suburbs, causing her husband to remark that "what you need is a good knife murderer or one of those juvenile gangs." Margot drives on, very much in charge of the situation. At home, she prepares dinner while her husband makes a brief and unsuccessful effort to fix the leak in the cellar himself. They joke about his not being the jealous type and this sets up an unspoken contrast with the Warrens.

The initial scenes of "The Deadly" tell us all we need to know to set up what follows, which corresponds to the plot of the story almost to the end. We discover the source of Anne Warren's sorrow and watch as Margot demonstrates how to handle a blackmailer. Staley lingers in her kitchen and uses what he observes to estimate her husband's income. Dennis removes elements of the story, including the Brenners' plan to adopt a baby, Mr. Brenner's impending promotion, and Margot's concern that her husband does not telephone her while the plumber is in the house. In their place, he presents a stripped-down version of the story that demonstrates why "the female of the species is more deadly than the male."

Lee Philips as Jack Staley
In Treat's story, Staley fixes the leak and charges $500; in Dennis's teleplay, Staley merely gives an estimate, which makes the duration of his stay even more suspicious. The scene where Staley returns to the house and is overheard by the police detective in hiding is curious, since there is no clear explanation of how Staley is tipped off to the presence of the law. Margot thinks he might have seen two cups of tea on the living room table, but this is not possible, since their initial dialogue occurs before Staley enters the room. An important change from the story comes when the detective suggests to Margot that she get other female victims together; this leads to the climax, where Margot and six of her neighbors gang up on Staley in the living room. This time, instead of telling him to do the plumbing at the preschool, they make demands that are more selfish, giving him a list of projects in their own homes that they expect him to do for free. Staley's crimes have been dealt with in kind: the blackmailed have become the blackmailers in a humorous and very fitting transference of guilt.

Craig Stevens as Lewis Brenner
"The Deadly" is directed by Don Taylor (1920-1998), who played the murderous college professor in "Silent Witness," another episode written by Robert C. Dennis and Taylor's only appearance on the Hitchcock show as an actor. Behind the camera, he directed seven episodes of the series, including Henry Slesar's "The Right Kind of House," in a directing career that spanned over thirty years.

Phyllis Thaxter (1919-2012) stars as Margot; she was onscreen from 1944 to 1992 and appeared in nine episodes of the Hitchcock series. She was also seen on Thriller and The Twilight Zone, and later in her career she appeared as Ma Kent in Superman (1978).

Playing Jack Staley, the plumber, is Lee Philips (1927-1999). Like Don Taylor, he started out as an actor and later became a director. His acting career spanned the years from 1953 to 1975; as a director, he worked from 1965 to 1995, almost exclusively in television. He was seen on The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and four times on the Hitchcock show, including Cornell Woolrich's "The Black Curtain."

Frank Gerstle
Margot's husband is played by Craig Stevens (1918-2000), a familiar face to fans of classic TV. Born Gail Shikles Jr., he was on screen from 1939 to 1988, including a role in Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). On TV, he was the star of Peter Gunn (1958-1961) and he was also a regular on the short-lived Invisible Man (1975-1976).

Smaller parts in "The Deadly" are played by:

*Frank Gerstle (1915-1970) as the detective; he was a busy character actor between 1950 and 1970 who appeared on the Hitchcock series three times and in Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman (1959).

*Anabel Shaw (1921-2010) as Rhoda Forbes; her career mainly spanned the years from 1944 to 1958 and she was in Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door (1947) and Gun Crazy (1950). This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Peggy McCay, Anabel Shaw, Sally Hughes
*Peggy McCay (1927- ) as Myra Herbert; she has been onscreen since 1949 and on the soap opera Days of Our Lives since 1983; she also had important roles in two of the Hitchcock hours--"House Guest" and "The Magic Shop."

*Jacqueline Mayo (1933- ), who plays Anne Warren and resembles Mia Farrow; she had a decade-long career but only got small parts and not many of those.

*Sally Hughes as one of the blackmailed women; notable for her later role as the pulchritudinous Miss Putney, the dental assistant on "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat."

"The Deadly" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. For a funny take on this episode, click here.

"The Deadly." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 15 Dec. 1957. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.
"Lawrence Treat." Lawrence Treat. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.
Treat, Lawrence. "Suburban Tigress." 1957. Hitchcock in Prime Time. Ed. Francis M. Nevins and Martin Harry Greenberg. New York: Avon, 1985. 137-51. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

In two weeks: "Together," starring Joseph Cotten.


SteveHL said...

A fine, fascinating post, as always.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thank you, Steve!

john kenrick said...

Once more: thanks for a fine review, Jack. I like The Deadly, though I still think the title was just plain wrong. It's a rare Hitch half-hour that doesn't feature a murder, hey? This one dang near promises one, then fails to deliver.

No matter, It's a good, well acted episode. It worked like a charm till the end. I thought the suspense was nicely done, the pace just right, and then they go and spoil it all with what to my way of thinking was a dumb ending.

The plumber got off way too easy: he was engaging in some seriously criminal behavior and in my opinion deserved to have the book thrown at him. The humorous quid pro quo style ending gave the viewer no sense of justice AND it made ALL the women look bad.

Lee Philips' youth, charm and good looks took some of the menace out of the character initially,--imagine if it had been Ralph Meeker!--but then his making himself way too comfortable in Phyllis Thaxter's home made him feel like a real threat, and this was a nice set-up for his character: I mean, this isn't Robert Ryan terrorizing Ida Lupino in an old Victorian house, and yet he's dangerous in other, non-psycho ways.

Otherwise, a very nicely made episode that I wish the Hitchcock production people had thought out more thoroughly.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I liked the ending and thought it improved on the short story.