Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Twenty-Four: "The Crocodile Case" [3.34]

by Jack Seabrook

Robert C. Dennis adapted "Fatal Figures" for the small screen, then followed that teleplay with his adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's story, "Post Mortem," which I discussed here in my series on Woolrich.

Next up for Dennis was to adapt a story by Roy Vickers titled "The Crocodile Case," which was first published in the March 1949 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Vickers (1889-1965) was born William Edward Vickers in England. He studied at Oxford but did not earn a degree; he worked as a salesman, a newspaper crime reporter and a ghostwriter before settling into a long career as a writer. In his lifetime he wrote over 70 books, the first in 1914, but he is best remembered today for his mystery short stories, especially the series known as the Department of Dead Ends, which concerned a "fictional department of Scotland Yard where evidence from unsolved crimes is kept." Many of his stories in this series were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and they have been called "the best detective stories of the 1940s."

One of the stories in this series is "The Crocodile Case," which has been reprinted several times as "The Crocodile Dressing-Case." The story begins by referring to the famous "Thomson-Bywaters case" of 1922. Though Vickers does not go into detail, the case involved a British couple named Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, both of whom were executed in 1923 for the murder of Edith's husband Percy. To summarize the facts briefly, Edith married Percy and later had an affair with Frederick. One night, when Edith and Percy were returning home from a show in London, Frederick jumped out from behind some bushes and stabbed Percy to death. Frederick was soon caught and arrested, and Edith was arrested as well under the British legal theory of Common Purpose, which said that anyone involved in participating in a criminal enterprise is guilty of the crime even if they did not carry it out.

Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, Percy Thompson.jpg
Frederick Bywaters, Edith Thompson and Percy Thompson

The case became famous after Edith's trial and execution by hanging. She was the first woman to be hanged in England since 1907 and she was one of only 17 women hanged in the United Kingdom in the twentieth century. There has been quite a bit written about the case and, in 1937, Alfred Hitchcock himself expressed an interest in making a film about it. Critics have speculated that this case was one of the influences that led Hitchcock to explore the idea of women being punished for their morals, a theme that appears repeatedly in the director's works, including Stage Fright (1950).

Vickers mentions this case briefly at the beginning of his tale and uses it as an inspiration for his fictional murder mystery, which he refers to as the Chaundry-Lambert case of 1936. In the story, Phyllis Chaundry is 24 years old and married to Arthur Chaundry, a much-older 47 years old. After only two years of marriage she begins to lament her husband's "infirmities of age" and to say that his death would be a "mercy-murder." A 26 year old car agent named James Lambert begins to think that her suggestion is a good one and "his passion for Phyllis overwhelmed him." Lambert ambushes and murders Chaundry on a lonely stretch of road as the husband drives to pick up his wife at the Palais, where she and her sister had been dancing.

"The Crocodile Case" was
first published here
Lambert arrives at the Palais to take Phyllis and her sister home and Phyllis does not seem to realize that he had planned to murder her husband: "I never supposed for a moment that you would be mad enough to do it!" Phyllis asks Jim if her crocodile dressing-case was in the car and wishes that he had brought it along with him. Jim takes her home and instructs her on how to behave when the police arrive. The police later question the widow with the Thompson-Bywaters case in mind, wondering if this is another example of a wife and her lover murdering her husband. Phyllis is genuinely upset when the police tell her that her crocodile dressing-case was not found in the car and must have been stolen.

The police suspect Jim of the murder but have no proof. Jim tells Phyllis that they can't be seen together, they can't be married for at least six months, and they should not write to each other. When they do marry in October, Jim realizes that "the sense of triumph, of at last possessing the object of his desire, was altogether lacking." Phyllis continues to complain about the lost dressing-case, so Jim buys her a replacement but she is disappointed when it is not as nice as the one she lost. Soon, Phyllis leaves Jim for another suitor named Wilfy. Seventeen months after the murder, Chief Inspector Karslake of Scotland Yard tracks down the dressing-case, which had been stolen by a passing tramp. The case has the initials "P.C." (for Phyllis Chaundry) carved into its side.

Superintendent Karslake with the crocodile case
The inspector calls Lambert to Scotland Yard to identify the thief, assuming that the thief must be the murderer, but when Jim explains that the case bore the initials "P.C." then Karslake realizes that he must be the murderer. Phyllis had described the case in detail but never mentioned the initials, which had only been added when it was repaired right before Arthur's death. Karslake knows that the only way that Jim could have known about the initials is if he himself were the killer. The story ends with Jim telling the police that Phyllis never knew of his plan.

Comparing the story by Vickers to the details of the famous murder case reveals that, while Vickers may have used the real crime as the inspiration for his short story, he did not use many of the actual details. In fact, the main thing the two tales have in common is this: a woman's lover murders her husband and, when caught, tells the police that the woman had nothing to do with the crime.

A.E. Gould-Porter as Arthur Chaundry
Robert C. Dennis wrote the teleplay for "The Crocodile Case," which was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, May 25, 1958, near the end of the third season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In adapting the story for the small screen, Dennis followed its events faithfully, taking a work that was mostly narrative and turning it into a lively, dynamic half-hour that is driven by dialogue. The show opens with a scene that shows Arthur driving alone at night. He is forced to stop because a car is blocking the narrow road. He gets out to investigate and is bludgeoned by Jack Lyons, who drags his body off to the side of the byway. Lyons then leans inside Chaundry's car to turn off the radio and inspects the dressing case. We see the initials "P.C." clearly on the front of the case. Once again, Dennis is careful to highlight a key object right at the start of the show.

The scene at the Palais follows, and Phyllis Chaundry's sister Aileen gets more exposure than she does in the story, perhaps because she is played by Patricia Hitchcock. Phyllis arrives home and, after she confirms that her husband is not home, she turns with a devilish smile on her face and embraces Jack. This is the first time we realize that they are lovers.The performances by Hazel Court as Phyllis and Denholm Elliott as Jack are outstanding.

Denholm Elliott as Jack Lyons
When Superintendent Karslake arrives and questions Phyllis, he mentions that Arthur was attacked "on a deserted road leading to Bywater"--this is a sly reference by Robert C. Dennis to the Thompson-Bywaters case, which Vickers had mentioned in the original story. Hazel Court is wonderful in this scene, as she is able to turn her crying on and off instantly to suit the occasion.

Later, when Jack and Phyllis are trying to stay apart to avoid causing suspicion to fall upon them, Phyllis and her sister "accidentally" run into Jack in a restaurant and Robert C. Dennis works in another reference to the Thompson-Bywaters case when Jack tells Phyllis that they'll be sunk if they write to each other and the police find even one letter--this recalls the real case, where love letters exchanged between Edith and Frederick were used as evidence to convict her.

Hazel Court as Phyllis Chaundry sports a devilish
grin when she realizes that her husband is not home.
Throughout the episode, Hazel Court is very amusing in the way she ignores the fact of her husband's death and fixates on her lost item of luggage. At the end, Dennis makes the tramp who stole the case into a former car washer at Lyons's garage and Karslake intentionally tricks Lyons into identifying the case with the initials; in the story, it was a happy accident.

"The Crocodile Case" is another example of a very good mystery story that was adapted by Robert C. Dennis into a highly entertaining half-hour of television, helped immeasurably by strong performances by the two lead actors.

Denholm Elliott (1922-1992) gets top billing and plays Jack Lyons (James Lambert in the story). Born in London, Elliott served in the Royal Air Force during WWII; he was shot down and spent the rest of the war as a POW. His movie career began in 1947 and TV work followed soon after in 1949. He worked until his death from AIDS-related pneumonia. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice and made many other TV and movie appearances. His most famous roles were in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Trading Places (1983).

John Alderson as Karslake
The gorgeous Hazel Court (1926-2008) gives an enthusiastic performance as Phyllis Chaundry. She made movies from 1944 to 1981 and was on TV from 1956 to 1975, appearing in episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller. Born in England, she starred in many great horror films of the 1950s and 1960s, including Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Premature Burial (1962), The Raven (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Her autobiography, Hazel Court-Horror Queen: An Autobiography, was published in 2008. Court said that CBS brought her to America, where she appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; this was the first. When she filmed this episode in 1958 she was married to actor Dermot Walsh; however, in 1963, she divorced Walsh and married Don Taylor, whom she had met when he directed "The Crocodile Case."

The role of Superintendent Karslake, the investigating policeman, is played by John Alderson (1916-2006), who was onscreen from 1951 to 1990. He appeared in many TV episodes and movies, including Fritz Lang's Moonfleet (1955) and Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955). He was on the Hitchcock show three times and on Night Gallery once.

Pat Hitchcock and Hazel Court--sisters?
In smaller roles are Pat Hitchcock (1928- ), the director's daughter, who was last seen in this series of articles when she appeared in "Silent Witness," which starred Don Taylor, the director of "The Crocodile Case." British character actor A.E. Gould-Porter appears briefly as Arthur Chaundry, who is murdered in the first scene. He was onscreen from 1942 to 1973 and appeared in Assault on a Queen (1963), Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966) and ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Back for Christmas" and "The Glass Eye." The tramp who stole the crocodile case is played by Frederic Worlock (1886-1973), who was onscreen from 1914 to 1970 and who was in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Frederic Worlock
Robert C. Dennis's script for"The Crocodile Case" is in the collection at Duke University. Roy Vickers, who wrote the story on which it was based, never wrote for the screen himself, but three of his stories were adapted for episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and three others were adapted for films. A French TV series titled Le service des affaires classées that ran in 1969 and 1970 dramatized thirteen of his stories from the Department of Dead Ends series.

Don Taylor (1920-1988), the episode's director, was at the helm for seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the previous one was "Fatal Figures," which also featured a teleplay by Robert C, Dennis.

"The Crocodile Case" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online for free here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

"The Crocodile Case." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 25 May 1958. Television.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 30 May 2016.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 30 May 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 30 May 2016.
"Roy Vickers." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2000. Web. 30 May 2016.
Vickers, Roy. "The Crocodile-Dressing Case." 1949. The Black Cabinet: Stories Based on Real Crimes. Ed. Peter Lovesey. London: Xanadu Publications, 1989. 151-69. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 30 May 2016.

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