Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-John Williams Part Four: I Killed the Count [2.25] [2.26] [2.27]

The only multi-part episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was based on Alec Coppel’s I Killed the Count, a play that had its first performance 18 years earlier on December 10, 1937, at the Whitehall Theatre in London. In the brief prologue, a maid named Polly brings morning tea to Count Mattoni at ten a.m. and screams when she finds him dead in his armchair, a single bullet wound in his forehead.

Act One begins an hour later, by which time Inspector Davidson and Detective Raines, both of Scotland Yard, have arrived at Oxley Court to investigate the murder. They speak to Martin, the manager of the apartment building, and question Polly, the maid. Davidson reads a letter from Lord Sorrington and telephones the man to ask him to come for an interview. Louise Rogers, a young woman tenant, tells the investigators that she was asleep all night and never met the count. Renee La Lune, an American showgirl, claims that she came home late and went straight to sleep. Samuel Diamond, an American businessman, reveals that he had to take the stairs when he came home at two a.m. because the elevator was not working, but when he got to the fourth floor he saw that the elevator was there, open and unattended.

John Williams as Davidson
Davidson notices that the door between Mattoni’s apartment and the one next to it is bolted on the other side but not on Mattoni’s. Johnson, one of the elevator operators, says that he brought Mattoni up to his floor around 9:30 p.m. and never left the elevator unattended after that. He mentions having heard of an American whom the count said never to let into his rooms. Davidson begins to suspect that Rupert, a mysterious man who rented the apartment next to Mattoni’s, is the American whom Mattoni feared. A spent cartridge case found on the floor in Rupert’s room adds to his suspicions, as does a letter in Mattoni’s typewriter that implicates another American named Bernard Froy. Mullet, the other elevator operator, claims to know Rupert by sight, and Froy is brought in by a constable.

Roxanne Arlen as La Lune
The first act of I Killed the Count establishes a light, comedic tone while setting up the mystery. Davidson is full of self-importance and Raines is his foil, always ready with a quip when the senior inspector gets too pompous. Polly, the maid, has extensive experience in being interrogated, since corpses keep turning up wherever she works. La Lune’s character is particularly dated; she is a tough-talking American floozy who does not like being addressed by her real name, which is Rosie Lipmann. Diamond is also dated; he is a Jewish businessman who is more interested in money than murder. The first act ends on a suspenseful note, as the audience wonders if Mullet will identify Froy as Rupert.

Act two picks up right where act one ended, as Froy denies having known Mattoni. Johnson, the elevator operator, identifies him as one of the count’s visitors, so Froy must change his story. When confronted with Mattoni’s typed note, Froy explains that the count had been blackmailing him over a gambling debt. He admits visiting Mattoni the night before, seeking a cache of letters. A struggle ensued and he shot and killed the count. Davidson is shocked when Mullet says that Froy is not Rupert. Even more vexing is the fact that important details of Froy’s story do not fit with the evidence found at the scene of the crime.

Alan Napier as Lord Sorrington
Lord Sorrington arrives and, to everyone’s surprise, Mullet identifies him as Rupert! Sorrington is caught in a series of lies. He admits to having killed Count Mattoni, who was his son in law. The count had married Sorrington’s daughter, Helen, and ruined her. Sorrington went to Mattoni’s room and, after a struggle, he shot and killed the count. “And so ends my perfect crime!” he remarks. Davidson and Raines struggle to reconcile the dual confessions. As they review the stories of each person they interviewed, they realize that neither confession entirely fits the physical evidence. They re-interview various people and begin to uncover more lies. Davidson recognizes Mullet as an ex-convict named Lummock and Mullet admits having stolen money from the count’s wallet. When the count caught him, a struggle ensued and he shot and killed the count.

Act two features three confessions to murder, each of which is acted out in flashback onstage. This adds to the excitement of the play by having the actors demonstrate the action rather than describe it. One begins to wonder if Coppel’s play is heading in the direction of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, in which multiple people participate in a murder to prevent discovery of a single culprit.

Charles Davis as Raines
The final act begins as Davidson decides to bring the three men who have confessed to murder together to see if any will try to back away from their stories. He and Raines exit and leave Lord Sorrington, Froy and Mullet alone on the stage. At this point, we learn that they planned the murder in concert, figuring that three imperfect murders would keep the police from deducing the truth. Yet none of them committed the crime, to their great surprise. They all confessed according to plan, not knowing which of them was really guilty.

Louise Rogers is the fourth person to confess to the murder. She reveals that she is Count Mattoni’s widow and Lord Sorrington’s disgraced daughter. She explains how she confronted her husband and, after a struggle, she shot and killed the count. Yet her story also does not fit the physical evidence. Davidson does not know that the actions of the three men to confuse the crime scene served to make Louise’s true story seem impossible. Raines points out a quirk of English law, that “Two or more persons cannot be charged as principals with a crime known to have been committed by only one person.” They realize that they can’t solve the crime and the play ends on a comic note as Diamond rushes in to tell Davidson that he thinks he has killed his business associate.

Louise Rogers, Mullet, Froy, Lord Sorrington
Act three includes one last flashback to the moment when the three conspirators planned the murder of Count Mattoni. I Killed the Count turns on a coincidence that Louise happens to kill her husband on the same night that her father, a man who loves her (Froy) and a man Froy saved in the Great War (Mullet) were going to kill him by means of an elaborate plan to cover up their act. It all works out to be a perfect crime, which is acceptable morally because Mattoni was such an unlikable character. Coppel plays with the conventions of the British murder mystery and, instead of featuring a brilliant detective who unravels the tangled knots of a complex crime, he portrays Davidson, an inspector who is unable to put the pieces of the puzzle together in a coherent way. Instead of the multiple murderers of Christie’s novel, we have multiple confessions, only one of which is true.

Why did Joan Harrison decide to adapt Coppel’s play for Alfred Hitchcock Presents as a three-part episode? According to Patrick McGilligan, Coppel was a member of Hitchcock’s social circle. In late 1956 and early 1957, he was working on a treatment for Vertigo and, during this period, he also wrote the original stories for two other episodes, “The Diplomatic Corpse” and “Together.” I suspect that Hitchcock and Harrison were happy to purchase the rights to Coppel’s first and biggest hit, a play that was a success in London in 1937-38, the last quiet days before storm clouds of war would gather over the city.

The establishing shot of the Thames at daybreak
Francis Cockrell was selected to adapt the play for television. One might suspect that he would take the easy way out and use act one of the play for part one of the show, act two for part two, and act three for part three, but this was not the case. An examination of Cockrell’s script in comparison with Coppel’s play shows that Cockrell made significant changes and used his great skill to maximize the impact of presenting this story in the half-hour television format.

“I Killed the Count” aired on CBS on three successive Sundays in March 1957, on the 17th, 24th and 31st. In addition to Cockrell’s clever reworking of the story, director Robert Stevens uses his considerable talent to open up the action so that the show does not feel like a filmed stage play. The first episode begins with an establishing shot showing Big Ben and the sun rising over the Thames; this immediately tells the viewer that it is early morning in London. The camera dissolves to the prologue, with Hitchcock’s daughter Pat playing Polly, the maid. The next dissolve is to Davidson’s arrival and, in a perfect piece of casting, John Williams plays the senior inspector. The story unfolds in a compressed fashion, with a nice shot early on as high contrast lighting shows Davidson’s face in close-up with Raines behind him in the middle distance. Davidson is bigger and in the upper part of the frame, with Raines smaller and in the lower part, suggesting their relationship as chief and subordinate.

Charles Cooper as Froy
Raines goes over the clues, showing them to Davidson and, by extension, to the viewer. A large chunk of the first act of the play is jettisoned, as Cockrell chooses to omit interviews with Louise Rogers, Renee La Lune, Diamond and Johnson. In fact, Louise, who turns out to be the real killer, is not even introduced until the second episode, and then only in a brief scene. Davidson finds Lord Sorrington’s letter and telephones the man, who is played by Alan Napier, another quintessential TV Brit, who had appeared with John Williams in the first-season episode “Whodunit.” Cockrell’s script is a textbook adaptation for TV, removing unnecessary details, focusing on key events, and building suspense at commercial breaks and the end of the episode. Stevens uses a mobile camera and dissolves to great effect. When Froy arrives, he is played by Charles Cooper as an aggressive, confrontational American. He seems like a transplant from a 1940s movie and does not initially fit well with the rest of the suave British actors who make up the cast.

Stevens continues to set up shots to demonstrate the balance of power between characters: the camera looks up at Davidson in close-up as he looms over the seated Froy, then the camera looks down at Froy, who confesses to murder at the first commercial break. This is quite a departure from the play, in which no confession occurs until the second act. There is no flashback yet to Froy’s version of the killing; this will occur in the second episode. Lord Sorrington arrives and Mullet identifies him as Rupert. Sorrington rapidly confesses to having killed Mattoni and the first episode ends with a close-up of Davidson’s confused face after Sorrington says, “I killed the count.” In short, Cockrell takes the first two confessions and moves them to the first act, using them as cliffhangers at the commercial break and the end of the episode.

If you think this close up is tight . . .
In keeping with the unusual nature of this multi-part episode, part two of “I Killed the Count” begins with Alfred Hitchcock summarizing the first episode and showing clips of the two murder confessions. The episode then picks up with Lord Sorrington explaining his motives, after which his version of the killing is shown in flashback. Robert Stevens uses some tight close-ups to heighten the suspense and Alan Napier provides voice over narration at the beginning and end of the flashback sequence. Davidson then re-interviews Froy, who says that his own love for Mattoni’s wife was his motive for murder. By changing Froy’s motive from one of revenge against a blackmailer to one of love for an unhappily married woman, Cockrell clears up a subtle point in Coppel’s play, since Froy’s relationship with Mattoni’s wife is only mentioned briefly in the play’s third act, during the flashback to the planning of the murder among the three conspirators.

. . . take a look at this one!
Stevens again uses extremely tight close-ups in this exchange, including one that is so close that it shows only about a quarter of John Williams’s face! A second flashback presents Froy’s version of the killing and, once again, Robert Stevens does nice work here. As the flashback begins, we look down the hall where a ceiling light is dark and a window behind it lets in daylight. The shot dissolves to the night before and we see the ceiling light switch on and darkness fall outside the window. The start of the struggle between Froy and Mattoni is filmed with a close-up of both men’s torsos and there is a tricky shot at the conclusion of the flashback: we see Froy exit the room and go down the hall to the left, then the camera pans right as the lights come up and we see Froy in the hall telling the story. There is a very subtle cut as the camera is focused on the door and this is the only way we know how Stevens made it look like Froy exited the screen to the left and then appeared on the right in what looks like a single shot. After this, Raines points out to Davidson that they have too much evidence and there is a break for the first commercial.

Rosemary Harris as Louise
In the second half of this episode, we are finally introduced to Louise Rogers, who denies knowing Mattoni and who says she was asleep in her room all night. By moving her first scene to the mid-point of the trilogy, Cockrell ensures that her character will not be forgotten at the end when she becomes very important. After this, we finally meet La Lune, whose extensive, comic dialogue from the play has been cut almost entirely from the televised version. Unlike the play, where she was a tough-talking showgirl, in the TV show she is soft-spoken and polite, while still quite attractive. The actress who plays her in this short scene is Roxanne Arlen, who was nicknamed “the wiggle” for her physical assets.

Melville Cooper as Mullet
Episode two ends with Mullet’s confession, which dovetails nicely with the end of Act Two in Coppel’s play. Once again, the show ends with Davidson, flustered and angry, unable to accept the situation. Episode three begins with another summary by Hitchcock and clips of the three confessions from the prior episodes. Following these is a flashback to Mullet’s version of the killing, with voice over by the character at the beginning and end and more good camerawork from Stevens. This time, the camera pans down and right from Mullet’s face to the bottom of the connecting door between rooms. A change in the light showing under the door signals that the time has shifted from late morning to two a.m. We see Mullet’s shadow approach under the door and he enters; we see his legs, now clad in the uniform of an elevator operator, and the camera pans back up so we can see his face. After the killing, Mullet exits the room, closes the door, the light again changes to daytime, and the camera pans left back to where Mullet stands in the same place as before, telling his story. If you watch carefully you can see a cut with the door closed, but it looks as if Mullet as exited the room at night and appeared in it by day in one continuous shot. In a sense, Stevens is doing what Hitchcock did in Rope, using tiny cuts at the end of each reel to give the impression of one long shot.

The three conspirators
Cockrell further opens up Coppel’s play near the end of the third episode by having the suspects taken to Scotland Yard for the final confrontation. Similar to the exterior shot of Big Ben at the start of the first episode, the change in locale is signaled by an establishing shot of what is presumably the entrance to Scotland Yard. The camera then dissolves to the interior offices, where Davidson leaves Froy and Mullet alone. They whisper to each other and we learn for the first time that Mullet staged the scene by putting the corpse in the armchair. In an update to make some sense of the timing, Mullet says that Sorrington saved his life in Burma, rather than in the Great War. Burma, which is now Myanmar, had been part of the British Empire since 1886 and was invaded by Japan in December 1941, so we can assume that Mullet and Sorrington were fighting for England there, 16 years before this episode aired in 1957. In another change from the play, Cockrell chooses not to present a flashback to the three men planning the murder of Count Mattoni. Instead, the entire plan is reduced to a comment by Mullet about having drawn the black Ace. The commercial break comes after the three men huddle privately at Scotland Yard and realize that none of them knows who killed the count.

A brief moment of enthusiasm
The final segment of the trilogy finds Louise arriving at Scotland Yard, confessing to the murder and divulging her real identity. Hers is the only version not portrayed in flashback and this gives it a more factual feeling than the three other versions, which seemed more like stories. Her version does not fit the physical evidence because she says that she left the body on the floor and everyone knows it was found in the armchair, so we are faced with a situation where the viewer and the four suspects all know the truth of what happened but the inspector does not. Raines shows the legal point to Davidson and Davidson realizes that the whole thing was a conspiracy. In Coppel’s play, he understands that the crime will go unpunished and then Diamond provides a comic ending with his own confession to a new murder. In the TV version, Raines speaks last and says, “It’s lucky he deserved killing, isn’t it, Sir?” The show ends with a close-up of the exasperated Davidson.

Note the composition and lighting of this shot
Between December 10, 1937, when I Killed the Count premiered on the London stage, and March 17, 24 and 31, 1957, when it appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Coppel's play was a popular story. After 185 performances in London, it opened on Broadway in New York City on August 31, 1942, but this time it was not a hit and ran for only 29 performances. Perhaps the comic murder mystery that worked so well in peacetime London did not translate to wartime New York. Coppel had turned his own play into a novel that was published in 1939, and it was filmed in England in 1939 as well. The film, titled I Killed the Count in the U.K., was re-titled Who Is Guilty? for its release in the U.S. in 1940.

The play was also performed on radio in Australia, Coppel’s native country, in 1941, and it was performed on BBC radio in England in 1945 and again in 1948. It was performed on Britain’s ITV in 1956, before the Hitchcock version was shown in the U.S., and again on Belgian TV in 1959. But it is the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version that has run in syndication for nearly 60 years and which was released on DVD, so that is the version that is most familiar today. The film version is not available and I have not been able to locate any recording of the radio performances or the other TV plays. The novel was never reprinted but can be found on the used book market. The play is still in print and can be purchased from Samuel French, the famous play publishing company; it is possible that some theater group somewhere in the world could even now be considering a revival of Coppel’s play.

"The wiggle"
Alec Coppel (1907-1972) wrote stories that served as the basis for this trilogy and two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. An overview of his career appeared in my review of “The Diplomatic Corpse.”

Francis Cockrell (1906-1987) wrote 18 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one I reviewed was “Whodunit,” also starring John Williams.

Director Robert Stevens (1920-1989) put his distinctive stamp on 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including “The Glass Eye” and “Place of Shadows.”

Joining John Williams in the cast is Alan Napier (1903-1988), who was eight episodes of the Hitchcock series. The last one reviewed here was “Whodunit.”

The actor who seems so out of place in the first episode as Froy, the American, is Charles Cooper (1926-2013), whose career on screen stretched from 1950 until his death. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series but he did play a role in The Wrong Man (1956).

Patricia Hitchcock as Polly
Giving a wonderful performance as Mullet, the elevator man with the hangdog face, is Melville Cooper (1896-1973). He started out on stage before fighting in World War I and spending some time as a prisoner of war. He was on screen from 1930 until 1961 and among his many roles were parts in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1940). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

Another enjoyable performance is given by Charles Davis (1925-2009) as Raines, the junior inspector who serves as a foil for Davidson. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Davis was a busy stage actor who began appearing on screen in 1951. He appeared in four other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also on Night Gallery.

Anthony Dawson as Count Mattoni
Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia (1928- ) plays Polly, the maid who has seen it all before, with a good comic delivery. She appeared on screen starting in 1949 and was in some of her father’s films and ten episodes of the half-hour TV series.

Poor Anthony Dawson (1916-1992) does a lot of rolling around on the floor (when not replaced by stunt doubles) as Count Mattoni and finds himself shot three times in flashbacks. He was born in Edinburgh and was on screen from 1940 to 1991. He had an important role in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) but this was his only appearance on Hitchcock’s TV show. Other roles included appearances in three James Bond films, twice as Blofeld: Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965).

Raines is ever so helpful
The two notable female roles in “I Killed the Count” were played by Rosemary Harris
(1927- ) and Roxanne Arlen (1931-1989). Harris began on stage in 1948 and moved to film and TV in the early 1950s; she was also in “The Glass Eye,” which was directed by Robert Stevens. Her most memorable role in recent years was as Peter Parker’s Aunt May in the three Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire. Arlen was born in Detroit and later was crowned “Miss Detroit”; she was on screen for about ten years from the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s. There is a very entertaining overview of her life and career here.

“I Killed the Count” is on DVD here and you can read the GenreSnaps take on these episodes here.

Coppel, Alec. I Killed the Count, a Play in Three Acts. London: William Heinemann, 1938. Print. Reprinted by Samuel French, NY, n.d.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
"I Killed the Count." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 17 Mar. 1957. Television.
"I Killed the Count." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 24 Mar. 1957. Television.
"I Killed the Count." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 31 Mar. 1957. Television.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
League, The Broadway. "" IBDB. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Regan, 2003. 541-44. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

In two weeks: “The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater,” starring John Williams and Barbara Baxley!


don said...

Thanks for another shout-out. I really enjoy your in-depth analysis and research. As I went back and looked at the IMDb page again, I noticed a couple of oddities. You mention Anthony Dawson being in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, but I don’t think you mention that John Williams was also in it.

Strangely, Williams & Dawson were both also in a 1958 TV version of Dial M for Murder, along with Rosemary Harris from this episode -- c’mon, they at least waited five years between Spiderman movies. Williams and Dawson originated their roles on the stage and apparently hung on to them like Clayton Moore hung on to that mask. TCM even says Williams played the role again on TV in 1967, but IMDb disagrees.

Even more stranger, and even furtherer off-topic, is the IMDb page of the director of the TV version of Dial M, George Schaefer. He was a one-man cover band: He also remade Little Foxes for TV 15 years after the Bette Davis version, remade Meet Me in St Louis for TV 15 years after the Judy Garland version, remade Lost Horizon for TV (as Shangri-La) 23 years after the Frank Capra version . . . holy smoke, he also made TV movies of Arsenic and Old Lace,Teahouse of the August Moon, Pygmalion, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Inherit the Wind, Our Town, Harvey, Anastasia and others. OK, I guess he was actually re-imagining the source materials, but still that is an odd niche.

He also managed to squeeze in a lot of Shakespeare (more bloody remakes!) and two Barry Manilow specials. Wait, what? To be fair, he was hugely respected by his peers, racking up an impressive list of awards.

Sorry to ramble so far off-topic. Sometimes the IMDb pages really get me going.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment. IMDb really is a fun site, isn't it? George Schaefer sounds like the go to guy for TV adaptations back in the day.

Grant said...

Even though I've never known "Dial M For Murder" TERRIBLY well, I always associate John Williams with Scotland Yard detectives thanks to "Midnight Lace." It's a "stalker" kind of story (before that term became popular), with Doris Day - of all people - as the stalking victim. I don't want to give too much away, but if I remember correctly, Williams isn't the only thing the two films have in common.

Jack Seabrook said...

I'll have to watch Midnight Lace. I feel like it was on TCM recently. The fact that it stars Doris Day means I would not typically be drawn to it.