Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Twenty-Six: "Invitation to an Accident" [4.36], Robert C. Dennis Overview and Robert C. Dennis Episode Guide

by Jack Seabrook

The last two scripts that Robert C. Dennis wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents were "A True Account," where the teleplay is credited to Dennis and Fredric Brown, and "Invitation to an Accident," which aired on CBS on Sunday, June 21, 1959, as the final new episode of the fourth season of the series.

This episode was based on a story of the same title by Wade Miller that ran in the July 1955 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The tale begins as Albert Magnum, a bachelor in his forties, visits his old friend Virgilia Pond, who lives in an exclusive neighborhood in San Diego. He meets her second husband, Joseph Pond, and looks down on the man's recently-acquired fortune in comparison with the inherited fortune of her first husband, Cam Bedsole. Albert and the Ponds share drinks, small talk, and dinner, and after the meal Virgilia leads Albert outside to the rear garden, where she confesses that she is having an affair with her ex-husband. As she heads back to the house, scaffolding from an upper floor suddenly is dislodged and crashes to the ground, nearly killing her.

Albert soon comes to believe that Pond staged the accident in order to murder his unfaithful wife. He visits Virgilia again and she tells him that Joseph has a "touch of ptomaine." Albert sneaks into her garden shed and finds a box arsenic missing that had been there the week before. He concludes that Pond took poison to immunize himself before feeding a fatal dose to his wife. Albert decides to invite Joseph on a fishing trip to Mexico, planning to confront the man about Virgilia. They travel together to an empty beach and make camp, spend the day fishing, and then sit around the campfire after dark.

Albert brings up the subject of murder in a roundabout way, trying to suggest to Pond that he knows what the man is planning to do to his wife. Pond finally catches on but admits that he thinks that Virgilia's lover is Albert! The scaffolding had been meant to kill him but, when it failed, the arsenic in the coffee he just drank should do the trick.

Miller's story is very well written. Magnum underestimates Pond at every turn, thinking himself smarter and more refined that Virgilia's rough-hewn husband. Magnum believes that he was invited to be a witness to the accident that nearly killed Virgilia; in reality, though, the real accident occurs when Pond mistakes him for his wife's lover and murders him!

Gary Merrill as Joseph Pond
Wade Miller was a pseudonym for Robert Wade (1920-2012) and Bill Miller (1920-1961), a duo who began writing together as teenagers, joined the U.S. Air Force in WWII, and wrote their first novel in 1946. They wrote many novels together, including a series featuring private eye Max Thursday. Their novel, Badge of Evil (1956), was adapted as the film Touch of Evil (1958), directed by Orson Welles. They wrote over 30 novels together but only about a dozen short stories, one of which is "Invitation to an Accident." After Miller died in 1960, Wade kept writing until 1979. A handful of television episodes and movies were adapted from their work but this was their only contribution to the Hitchcock TV series.

Robert C. Dennis's script for this episode displays traits recognizable from his other work on this series: adding opening scenes to set up the story, a heightened focus on key objects, and a tendency to hammer the point home at the conclusion.

Alan Hewitt as Albert Magnum
The show opens at a party, where Albert tells Mrs. Bedsole (Cam's aunt) that Virgilia is in the garden with her ex-husband. Pond, her current husband, has been drinking all night and might get violent. Albert goes out to the garden and interrupts the lovers; when Virgilia goes back inside and speaks to Pond, he angrily grabs her wrist, demanding to know whom she has been with in the garden.

This is followed by a short scene of Virgilia driving Pond home, where he suggests inviting a friend over for dinner and she responds by saying that she will invite a "very old admirer." It is clear that Pond seeks to identify her lover and thinks that the man she invites will be the guilty party.

The following scenes follow the story closely. When Virgilia and Albert go into Joseph's garden shed workshop, Albert picks up a can labeled "Arsenic" and looks at it; the can is shown in closeup and Dennis thus foreshadows the show's climax. Later, when Albert goes back to the Pond house and checks the workshop, it is made very clear that the can of arsenic has disappeared--Albert even traces his finger over the missing spot to underline the point for the viewer. Albert visits Mrs. Bedsole and outlines his suspicions about Joseph's plans; she tells him that he must protect Virgilia. He visits the Ponds, but this time, unlike in Miller's short story, it is Pond who invites Albert on a fishing trip, not the other way around.

Highlighting the arsenic


Later, it's missing

The shot dissolves to the two men on the beach at night, sitting by the campfire. The conversation goes as it does in the story and Albert begins to sweat profusely. At the end, however, there is an additional bit of dialogue. The story ends as Pond tells Albert that he poisoned him: "Albert Magnum was no longer listening. He had rolled face downward on the sand with the first clawing agony in his belly." The TV show goes further. After Pond tells Albert what he has done, Albert tells him: "But it isn't me--it's Cam!" Pond replies: "Cam!" Albert begins to sob in pain, and Pond again exclaims, "Cam!" as the screen fades to black. In the show, unlike in the story, Pond learns right away that he has made a fatal mistake.

Albert and Joseph on the beach
Perhaps because I watched this in 2016 and not 1959, I saw a very subtle hint in this episode that Albert is a closeted gay man and that Pond, the macho man who builds iron lawn furniture "with his own hands," murders him while they are both engaged in a vacation for two alone on a remote beach. The story points out that Albert "preferred a woman to be on his arm rather than in his arms" and in the show, Virgilia tells Albert that he should have married her and then laughs at her own suggestion.

"Invitation to an Accident" is an entertaining episode with effective direction by Don Taylor (1920-1988), the actor-turned-director who starred in one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and directed seven. The last episode he directed that I covered in this series was "Fatal Figures."

Gary Merrill (1915-1990) receives top billing as Joseph Pond. After serving in the U.S. Air Force in WWII, Merrill portrayed Batman on the Superman radio show and appeared in movies from 1943 to 1977. He was one of the stars of All About Eve (1950) and was married to his co-star, Bette Davis, from 1950 to 1960. He was on TV from 1953 to 1980 and appeared on the Hitchcock show seven times, as well as making appearances on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Joanna Moore as Virgilia Pond
The unfaithful wife, Virgilia Pond, is played by Joanna Moore (1934-1977), an actress whose comedic skills are only hinted at in this episode. Born Dorothy Cook, she was the mother of actress Tatum O'Neal. She had a role in Touch of Evil and was onscreen from 1956 to 1984, appearing in six episodes of the Hitchcock series. I last wrote about her in connection with the episode, "Post Mortem."

Alan Hewitt (1915-1986) plays the third member of the trio, Albert Magnum, with a light touch that stands in contrast to the performance of Gary Merrill as the gruff and blunt Pond. Hewitt had an unremarkable screen career from 1956 to 1978 and was seen on the Hitchcock show three times. He also played Detective Bill Brennan on 28 episodes of My Favorite Martian.

"Invitation to an Accident" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for a copy of the story.

Sources:
"Authors and Creators: Wade Miller." Authors and Creators: Wade Miller. Web. 24 June 2016.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 27 June 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 24 June 2016.
"Invitation to an Accident." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 21 June 1959. Television.
Miller, Wade. "Invitation to an Accident." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 1955: 131-43.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 June 2016.

Next week: An episode guide of all of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Alfred Hitchcock Hour episodes reviewed to date as part of The Hitchcock Project with links to all posts.

In two weeks: Our series on Bryce Walton begins with "Touché," starring Paul Douglas and Hugh Marlowe!

Gary Merrill and Joanna Moore

OVERVIEW: ROBERT C. DENNIS AND ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS

In the first four seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, from October 1955 through June 1959, Robert C. Dennis wrote or co-wrote the teleplays for 30 episodes, making him the show's most frequent writer during that period.

Dennis wrote nine teleplays in season one, two of which were based on his own short stories. From the start, he showed an ability to improve on his source, even when he wrote the source as well! He also adapted stories by such authors as Dorothy L. Sayers and Stanley Ellin, and he co-wrote one script with Victor Wolfson. Dennis's teleplays benefited from strong direction by Robert Stevens, Robert Stevenson and James Neilsen, and the shows often had strong casts.

His contributions to season two were slightly less, at six episodes, through four of the six were very strong. Added to the list of directors putting his teleplays on the small screen was Paul Henreid, and authors whose stories were adapted included Don Marquis and Thomas Burke. Some of the episodes used humor successfully, while in others it fell flat. There were good performances by the cast of "Crack of Doom" and by Barbara Cook in "A Little Sleep," and Dennis showed an ability to add scenes and update stories to make them fit with then-current themes.

Dennis's biggest contribution to the series came in season three, when he wrote the scripts for 12 of the 39 episodes shown. His ability to turn narrative into dialogue continued to be impressive, and in "Silent Witness" he took a germ of an idea from a very short story and turned it into a fascinating exploration of a man's guilty conscience. Don Taylor starred in that episode and also directed four of the episodes written by Dennis in this season. Other great directors assigned to film Dennis's scripts in this season included Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman. Dennis also showed an affinity for highlighting key objects in his scripts and for making subtle climaxes more apparent for viewers.

His contributions trailed off in season four, when he was only responsible for three scripts, one of which he co-wrote with Fredric Brown. These final three episodes featured strong casts, exhibited a judicious use of humor, and benefited from solid direction.

In the first four seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Robert C. Dennis wrote more scripts than anyone else. Beginning in season five, he would be replaced by the equally prolific Henry Slesar.


EPISODE GUIDE-ROBERT C. DENNIS ON ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS


Episode title-“Don't Come Back Alive” [1.4]
Broadcast date-23 Oct. 1955
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Don't Come Back Alive" by Dennis
First print appearance-Detective Tales, November 1945
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Our Cook's a Treasure” [1.8]
Broadcast date-20 Nov. 1955
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Suspicion" by Dorothy L. Sayers
First print appearance-Mystery League Magazine, October 1933
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Guilty Witness” [1.11]
Broadcast date-11 Dec. 1955
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Innocent Bystander" by Morris Hershman
First print appearance-Shadow Mystery Magazine, Spring 1949
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“The Older Sister” [1.17]
Broadcast date-22 Jan. 1956
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-Good-Bye, Miss Lizzie Borden by Lillian de la Torre
First print appearance-1947
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“The Derelicts” [1.19]
Broadcast date-5 Feb. 1956
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-an unpublished story by Terence Maples
First print appearance-none
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"Place of Shadows"
Episode title-“Place of Shadows” [1.22]
Broadcast date-26 Feb. 1956
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Place of Shadows" by Dennis
First print appearance-Crack Detective Stories, Jan. 1947
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here


Episode title-“Help Wanted” [1.27]
Broadcast date-1 Apr. 1956
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"The Cat's Paw" by Stanley Ellin
First print appearance-Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 1949
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby” [1.29]
Broadcast date-15 Apr. 1956
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" by Stanley Ellin
First print appearance-Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 1950
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby"
Episode title-“The Belfry” [1.33]
Broadcast date-13 May 1956
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"The Belfry" by Allan Vaughan Elston
First print appearance-Adventure, 15 Oct. 1932
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Crack of Doom” [2.9]
Broadcast date-30 Dec. 1956
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"The Crack of Doom" by Don Marquis
First print appearance-Collier's 6 Sept. 1930
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“John Brown's Body” [2.14]
Broadcast date-25 Nov. 1956
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"John Brown's Body" by Thomas Burke
First print appearance-Vanity Fair, May 1931
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Nightmare in 4-D” [2.16]
Broadcast date-13 Jan. 1957
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-an unpublished story by Stuart Jerome
First print appearance-none
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"One for the Road"
Episode title-“One for the Road” [2.23]
Broadcast date-3 Mar. 1957
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Partner in Crime" by Emily Neff
First print appearance-Wicked Women (1959)
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Martha Mason, Movie Star” [2.34]
Broadcast date-19 May 1957
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Martha Myers, Movie Star" by Raymond Mason
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan. 1957
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“A Little Sleep” [2.38]
Broadcast date-16 June 1957
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Lullaby" by Joe Grenzeback
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Feb. 1957
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"A Little Sleep"
Episode title-“Mail Order Prophet” [3.2]
Broadcast date-13 Oct. 1957
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"The Strange Case of the Mail-Order Prophet" by Antony Ferry
First print appearance-Maclean's,15 Apr. 1954
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Silent Witness” [3.5]
Broadcast date-3 Nov. 1957
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Eyewitness" by Jeanne Barry
First print appearance-Collier's, 16 July 1949
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“The Diplomatic Corpse” [3.10]
Broadcast date-8 Dec. 1957
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-an unpublished story by Alec Coppel
First print appearance-none
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"The Diplomatic Corpse"
Episode title-“The Deadly” [3.11]
Broadcast date-15 Dec. 1957
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Suburban Tigress" by Lawrence Treat
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July 1957
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Together” [3.15]
Broadcast date-12 Jan. 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-an unpublished story by Alec Coppel
First print appearance-none
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“The Equalizer” [3.19]
Broadcast date-9 Feb. 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"The Equalizer" by C.B. Gilford
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 1957
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Guest for Breakfast” [3.21]
Broadcast date-23 Feb. 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Guest for Breakfast" by C.B. Gilford
First print appearance-Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine, October 1956
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"Guest for Breakfast"
Episode title-“The Right Kind of House” [3.23]
Broadcast date-9 Mar. 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"The Right Kind of a House" by Henry Slesar
First print appearance-Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine, February 1957
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Fatal Figures” [3.29]
Broadcast date-20 Apr. 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Fatal Figures" by Rick Edelstein
First print appearance-Mystery Digest, Mar. 1958
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Post Mortem” [3.33]
Broadcast date-18 May 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Post-Mortem" by Cornell Woolrich
First print appearance-Black Mask, Apr. 1940
Watch episode-unavailable
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“The Crocodile Case” [3.34]
Broadcast date-25 May 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"The Crocodile Case" by Roy Vickers
First print appearance-Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March 1949
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Dip in the Pool” [3.35]
Broadcast date-1 June 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Dip in the Pool" by Roald Dahl
First print appearance-The New Yorker, 19 Jan 1952
Watch episode-unavailable
Available on DVD?-here

"Dip in the Pool"

Episode title-“Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" [4.12]
Broadcast date-28 Dec. 1958
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore" by Donald Honig
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May1958
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“A True Account" [4.34]
Broadcast date-7 June 1959
Teleplay by-Dennis and Fredric Brown
Based on-"Curtains for Me" by Anthony Gilbert
First print appearance-London Evening Standard, 3 Oct. 1951
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Invitation to an Accident" [4.36]
Broadcast date-21 June 1959
Teleplay by-Dennis
Based on-"Invitation to an Accident" by Wade Miller
First print appearance-Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 1955
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

5 comments:

john kenrick said...

A very good, more dramatically intense than usual Hitchcock episode, I've only seen this once, remember the ending, which I found more moving than most due to its coming from within the the major characters, their personalities, as much as the plot. Gary Merrill and Alan Hewitt were perfectly cast and gave excellent performances as a kind of Odd Couple from hell.

In this case, however, there was subtext abounding, and it was obvious in an early scene, as I recall, just to make sure the viewer understood where Hewitt's character was coming from. For all that, he was the good guy; and the good guy lost. That final campfire scene is memorable, with the startled look on Merrill's face highly effective.

There were also some class issues in the story, also nicely handled, and without resorting to stereotypes. Indeed, the story would have worked just as well, arguably, without the gay subtext, yet it was the straight man's inability to recognize, much less understand a gay one, that gave it the sting in the tail.

I can't help but wonder,--if you'll excuse the ramble--whether the inability of people to recognize one another for who (and what) they really are is a central theme in the Hitchcock series, both of them. In the half-hours it's often this theme that constitutes the Big Twist at the end. The Dangerous People is another instance of this; and so is, raised to the level of massive heartbreak and madness, The Glass Eye.

Jack Seabrook said...

That's an intriguing idea. I'm glad you saw the same subtext in this episode. I wondered if I was digging too deep and putting a 2016 overlay on it. I like the "Odd Couple from Hell" idea! Gary Merrill is one of those movie stars who I never could quite figure out, kind of like his wife, Bette Davis. Their appeal is not timeless--it is of another time.

john kenrick said...

Thanks for the response, Jack. I've always liked Gary Merrill, not sure I understand your "of their time" remark about Merrill and wife Bette Davis. Merrill strikes me as an American Everyman leading man type, more inner directed than most, he seems best when cast as a man whose intelligence cannot by itself save him despite his clarity of thought, even wit, due to some character flaw that isn't always evident on screen, thus he intrigues me. His performance in Invitation To An Accident, while fine, is unusual for him in his playing a clueless character, a man with one idea, and it's a wrong one. Usually he's more ahead of the curve than behind it.

He never made it to the big leagues as a star due to probably his age, his too rugged looks (for the kind of actor he was) and the ferocious competition in the postwar years. At his best I see him as a kind of brainier, more reflective Glenn Ford, but Ford got there first, got the big breaks, was better looking than Merrill, and he didn't seem to carry so much (as we like to say) "baggage". As to Bette Davis, I find her riveting and very gifted. Yes, of her time, but all actors are. So were all the great stars of her generation. People born in the late Victorian to Edwardian and even world war era and just after came of age in a very different world from the one you and I were raised in. Even as they "became modern" they did it via adjustment, not internally. Nowadays, it seems, people are born hip. There's no need to go out and acquire it, as was the case in the past.

This topic, while I'm still on it, is actually quite relevant to the Hitchcock half-hour we've been discussing. If one, in a symbolic sense, views the homosexual as a modern man, reasonably at ease with himself, trying to do the right thing, and Merrill's more self-made, rough hewed sort as an evolutionary throwback (to, say, the robber barons and their kind), there's subtext of another kind in spades to explore in Invitation To An Accident.

Jack Seabrook said...

I think you're right, but I also think that the story and teleplay are written to present the dandy as the old fashioned/cultured man and the rough-hewn character as the modern, less refined man. Interesting.

john kenrick said...

Yes, one could call it either way, Jack. A lot of it is what kind of country club they belong to: old money kind or nouveau riche? Also, the author of the story's intent. If it had been, say, John P. Marquand, Hewitt would represent the status quo; but if was John Updike, or better still, John Cheever, Merrill would represent the newly minted status quo, Hewitt the fading Old Guard. Either way, that's probably more analysis than the story, as presented on television, warranta. Go back a couple of generations, to Henry James or Edith Wharton, and the characters would be fleshed out more, the author's perspective, easier to see.