Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-John Williams Part Five: The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater [2.30]

by Jack Seabrook

Ernest Findlater, a 48 year old bank manager, has a vivid life of daydreams. He fantasizes about spending his time, naked, with a beautiful native girl named Lalage on a Pacific island. He also dreams of arriving home one day to find that his overbearing wife Minnie has suffered a sudden and fatal stroke. A third daydream begins to penetrate his consciousness one day when he finds himself accidentally locked in the lavatory at his club. Findlater notices that there is a window from which he could reach the ground unseen, 30 feet below, and he realizes that the club's porter would never know that he had left and come back.

Weeks later, he gets lost in the country while visiting a client. Coming upon an empty car, he looks in the glove box for a map and finds a gun, which he impulsively decides to keep. Findlater realizes he has means, motive and opportunity to commit the perfect crime and murder his wife. A patient man, he sets his plan in motion and gives himself a year to carry it out. He convinces his wife to make a will and leave nothing to him, eliminating money as a motive for murder. The details of his plan are worked out in imaginary conversations with Lalage. He begins spending Wednesday afternoons at the club and works out a disguise. A week before the day on which he intends to murder his wife, Findlater dons his disguise for a successful dry run, but as the day approaches he begins to doubt his resolve. The day before he is to carry out his plan, he returns home to find that Minnie has suffered a stroke, exactly as he had dreamed it.

"The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater"
was first published here
"Three Dreams" is a delightful story by A.A. Milne that was first published in the April 1949 issue of Cosmopolitan. It was reprinted in Milne's 1950 collection of short stories titled A Table Near the Band, where the story's title was expanded to "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater," the title it would retain when adapted in 1957 for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The short story is almost all narrative and description with little dialogue, save the imaginary conversations between Findlater and Lalage. A meek man who fancies himself bold, Ernest plays Patience (solitaire), likes crossword puzzles, and has a "childish taste for stories of adventure." Even his discovery of the weapon is fantastic: "he found himself fingering what his detective stories called a gun." Like the detective-story loving man in "Nightmare in 4-D," Findlater is tempted by a sensual woman (both times played by Barbara Baxley), but this time his plan is foiled by a natural event--would he have gone through with the murder? He has read enough detective stories to know what trips up the average murderer and his disguise is a success when he tries it out and fools his own wife and her friend. His dream of his wife's death comes true almost exactly as he imagines it--but what then? What does the future hold for Ernest Findlater at the end of this story? One suspects he will never reach that South Seas island to romp naked with Lalage.

Barbara Baxley as Lalage
Sarett Rudley adapted the story for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and it was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, April 21, 1957. The outstanding cast features John Williams as Findlater and Barbara Baxley as Lalage. As the show opens, we see Findlater playing Patience while Minnie harangues him. Her constant chatter establishes their relationship and he suddenly rises and walks upstairs as if in a trance; mysterious music plays on the soundtrack. In his bedroom, we see travel posters lining the walls and the camera focuses on one for the South Seas. He addresses Lalage and there is a dissolve to the Pacific island, where Ernest interacts with Lalage. The setting is clearly on a sound stage, with rear projection waves lapping at a beach lined with palm trees. Unlike the story, where both are nude, Ernest is in a suit and tie and when Lalage unbuttons his vest he says, "I say, do you think it would be proper to go that far?" The contrast of the buttoned-up Findlater with the sensual and relaxed Lalage adds humor to the basic situation set out in the story.

Rudley's teleplay makes Lalage seem less innocent than she does in Milne's story; she suggests what Ernest's life "might have been like if it weren't for Minnie." Barbara Baxley does not seem like a native girl from the South Seas, except for her sarong; rather, she seems like a noir heroine from Brooklyn who is gently nudging her boyfriend to do away with his nagging wife. In the scene where Findlater relates his second dream to Lalage, Williams does the voices of the maid and the doctor telling him that his wife has had a stroke. When he is left alone in the house, he smiles with delight at the knowledge that he is free. Back on the island, Lalage says "it's a lovely dream" but their reverie is interrupted by knocking and the scene cuts back to Ernest alone in his bedroom. Minnie opens the door and is shot from a low angle, making her seem large and threatening.

Isobel Elsom as Minnie
Instead of getting lost after meeting a client in the country, as in the story, Findlater is taking a stroll through the woods when Lalage appears beside him to discuss his wish that Minnie were dead. He finds the car and the gun, which is in plain sight on the driver's seat; again, Lalage is more a catalyst for murder than she is in the story. At the club, she appears beside him in the lavatory and reminds him that "I only come when you want me." Though he suggests that she might have a life apart from him she tells him that "I'm only part of you." Ernest tries to disassociate himself from his evil thoughts but cannot. She plants the idea of the window and the rope to climb up and down and it is almost like he has dual personalities, one of which is a beautiful, South Seas bad girl.

The second act begins with a scene paralleling the one that opens the show: Ernest plays Patience again as he and Minnie discuss her making a will; this time, however, he is confident and in control of the situation, bolstered by thoughts of his plan to murder his wife. There is a dissolve to the island, where Ernest is more relaxed than before as he plans the murder with Lalage. At home, he tries on an absurd beard and sunglasses with Lalage looking on--he chooses a huge mustache that is barely less ridiculous than the beard. He visits the club and again Lalage appears, yet the other members are asleep in their chairs and Ernest is sure that they will not see her, though we know she's a figment of his imagination. There is another dissolve to his bedroom, where he does push ups to prepare to climb 30 feet of rope to the club's bathroom window; this is a shortcut to show the conditioning that Milne accomplishes in the short story by having Ernest throw himself into gardening.

A.E. Gould-Porter as the doctor
Another cut finds Lalage in the club lavatory, where Ernest successfully climbs in through the window as the native girl times him with a stopwatch; she suggests that he kill his wife the next day but he resists her entreaty. At home, he suggests a vacation together to Minnie in a last-ditch effort to reach her but she rebuffs him cruelly. Up in his bedroom, he packs the gun and the rope with Lalage's help. Finally, the last scene finds Ernest coming home in disguise and the scene from his dream is replayed. He looks ridiculous and no one is fooled. The doctor tells him to "take off that silly mustache; this is no time for playing jokes." Instead of a grin, Findlater slowly turns and looks at the stairs, a look of shock on his face.

The TV show takes its time building up the situation but then resolves it too quickly at the end. The disguise goes too far toward humor and becomes unbelievable, reducing the effect of Milne's clever twist. The casting is perfect and the script does a fine job of dramatizing the story, though Lalage becomes much less of an innocent participant and much more of a catalyst in the murder plot. The direction, by Jules Bricken, uses numerous techniques to move back and forth between fantasy and reality, often blending the two in a manner  both humorous and unsettling. Only the ending fails to satisfy, resolving the show too quickly and puncturing the illusion by having the disguise fail to fool anyone.

John Williams as Ernest Findlater
A.A. Milne (1882-1956), who wrote "Three Dreams," was born in London and fought in WWI. He began publishing verse and essays in 1906 and went on to a long writing career, publishing plays, novels, poetry, short stories and non-fiction. He is the author if the classic novel, The Red House Mystery (1922), and many of his stories and plays were adapted for film and television. Two of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Of course, everything he wrote has been overshadowed and essentially forgotten except for the wildly popular and beloved children's stories about Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Less information is available about Sarett Rudley, one of a small group of women writing for TV in the 1950s. She wrote a play and has a handful of TV credits, the most well-known of which are the nine teleplays she wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including an adaptation of Fredric Brown's "The Cream of the Jest."

Mollie Glessing as the maid
Only three episodes of the half-hour Hitchcock series were directed by Jules Bricken (1915-1987); he was born in New York, went to Harvard, and served in WWII. He worked for Columbia Pictures for many years and was a producer as well as a director. He also directed three episodes of Thriller.

Barbara Baxley (1923-1990), who plays Lalage, was a product of the Actors Studio whose first film was East of Eden (1955). She had a long career on stage and was on screen from 1950 to 1990, appearing in six episodes of the Hitchcock half-hour series. The last one reviewed here was "Nightmare in 4-D."

Oddly enough, four of the actors in "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater" had appeared together in a prior episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called "Back for Christmas." John Williams plays a henpecked husband both times, Isobel Elsom plays his wife, and Mollie Glessing plays their maid. A. E. Gould-Porter also appears in both episodes.

Isobel Elsom (1893-1981) was born Isobel Reed in England and had a 50-year career on stage and on screen. She was in Chaplain's Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and in Hitchcock's The Paradine Case that same year; she was in five episodes of the Hitchcock series in all and also appeared on Thriller.

A.E. Gould-Porter (1905-1987) plays the doctor; he was in no less than ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the last of which was "I Killed the Count."

Walter Kingsford as the porter
Mollie Glessing (1891-1971) plays the maid; she made a habit of this and was in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, always in similar, small roles.

Finally, Walter Kingsford plays the porter; he was in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "John Brown's Body."

One could say that "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater" was a collection of Hitchcock TV regulars, playing variations on roles that they would play over and over.

"The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater" is available for viewing online for a fee through Hulu here and the DVD is available here.

Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

Sources:

"BRICKEN, STOLOFF." Sfgenealogy.com . Marin County Obit Board . N.p., 9 May 2008. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
Milne, A. A. "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater." 1949. A Table Near the Band. New York: Dutton, 1950. 97-113. Print.
"The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 21 Apr. 1957. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
"Women in Television." Detroit Free Press [Detroit, MI] 20 Nov. 1960: 125. Print.

In two weeks: Our series on John Williams wraps up with "Banquo's Chair," directed by Alfred Hitchcock!

2 comments:

zomby woof said...

This is one of my favorite episodes. It's so wonderfully bizarre.

Jack Seabrook said...

You're right. Williams and Baxley are perfect in it. Thanks for taking the time to comment!