Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Richard Matheson Part One: Ride the Nightmare [8.11]

by Jack Seabrook

In David Cronenberg's 2005 film, A History of Violence, a woman living peacefully with her husband in a small town discovers that he has a criminal past that was completely unknown to her. The catalyst for this discovery is a sudden explosion of violence, followed by the arrival of an old associate of her husband's.

Richard Matheson portrayed a similar situation in his 1959 novel Ride the Nightmare, a paperback original published by Ballantine and based on Matheson's short story, "Now Die In It," which had been published in December 1958 in the first issue of a digest called Mystery Tales.

Born in New Jersey in 1926, Richard Matheson served in the Army in WWII and began having short stories published in 1950. His first novel followed in 1953, and he began writing screenplays in 1957 with The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on his own novel. Teleplays were added to his body of work in 1959, and his many credits over the following decades included scripts for The Twilight Zone and the Edgar Award-winning teleplay for The Night Stalker (1972). Lauded with accolades in later years, he won the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a place in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He died in 2013.

Hugh O'Brian as Chris
Ride the Nightmare is a short novel that is divided into three sections: Wednesday Night, Thursday Morning, and Thursday Afternoon. The story begins as the telephone rings in the home of Chris and Helen Martin; the caller asks for Chris Phillips and Helen assumes it's a wrong number, but the caller tells Chris that he is going to kill him. Chris refuses to call the police and he and Helen lock the doors and windows, afraid for their own safety and that of their young daughter, Connie. A man with a gun breaks a window and enters the kitchen, where he and Chris struggle until the man succeeds in holding the couple at gunpoint. Helen learns that the stranger, whose name is Cliff, holds a grudge against Chris, who has a past about which she never knew. After another struggle, Chris kills the man with a kitchen knife.

Helen is shocked to discover that her husband has a criminal past; he confesses to her that he was the driver in a 1943 bank robbery gone bad and that, although he escaped, his three partners were sentenced to life in prison. Before they can clean up the blood, neighbors arrive to borrow some ice cubes, a mundane interaction made suspenseful by Helen's fear that Cliff's body will be discovered. After the neighbors leave, Chris and Helen take their sleeping child and drive toward the hills outside Santa Monica, California, intending to bury the body. Another tense moment occurs when they are stopped for speeding  by a policeman, but they manage to remain calm and he does not discover the corpse. They drive to Topanga Canyon, where Chris buries Cliff's body by the side of the road. Helen recalls how she and Chris met and fell in love; in retrospect she remembers events that she discounted at the time that might have suggested that he was hiding aspects of his past.

Gena Rowlands as Helen
In the morning, Helen tells Chris that she plans to take Connie to stay with her mother, but Chris is distracted when the telephone rings again and Adam is calling--he is another member of Cliff's gang. Chris agrees to meet Adam, who demands $3000 for his silence. Chris hides this from Helen, afraid of going to jail himself and concerned about preserving the music store he has spent years building into a successful business. Helen visits Chris at the store and tells him that Connie has been kidnapped. Chris visits the bank to withdraw the money and is impatient when he has to hide his sense of urgency, first from a woman who talks about an upcoming concert and then from the bank employees who are slow to release the funds. Chris drives Helen to Latigo Canyon, where he is intercepted by Adam, who reveals that the final gang member, Steve, is holding Connie in a shack. Chris and Adam fight, Adam's car goes off a cliff, and Chris forces Adam at gunpoint to lead him and Helen to the shack, where Chris shoots Steve in the shoulder before he is kicked unconscious by Adam.

The third and final section of the novel finds Helen returning to the shack to protect her daughter as Steve, badly wounded, begs for a doctor. Adam gives Chris 45 minutes to return with a physician and Chris must drive back toward Santa Monica; on the way, he is again delayed by a policeman who stops him for speeding. He visits his doctor's office but cannot convince the man to accompany him; he returns home to get Cliff's gun and is forced to bring Helen's mother back to the shack when she discovers him with the weapon. At the shack, Steve is near death and he and Adam fight over another gun as Helen and Connie run outside and escape into the bushes behind the building. Adam kills Steve and then chases the hostages into a small canyon, where Helen uses kitchen matches to set the dry brush on fire after she realizes that she is trapped.

John Anderson as Adam
Chris returns to the shack and, after finding Steve dead, he sees Adam running, consumed by flames. He locates Helen and Connie in the burning canyon and helps them climb to safety. Back at home, Chris tells Helen that he will finally go to the police and come clean, as she asks him to give her a chance to process their new relationship.

Ride the Nightmare is a short, suspenseful novel that benefits from attention to structure but shows some of the hallmarks of having been expanded from a short story. Matheson remarked that a few of the scenes have a British feel to them, such as the one in the bank where Chris must engage in small talk while feeling that he is working against the clock. There are three such scenes in all: the others are the neighbors' request for ice cubes and the trip to the doctor's office. Having Chris stopped for speeding by a policeman twice in the same book is once too many, and the segments where first Helen and then Chris reminisce about how they met and fell in love and how the business was developed seem like padding. The author's decision to confine the events of the story to a period of less than twenty-four hours serves to keep the action moving and the tale speeds along briskly from start to finish. It may be over-reading, but one might suggest that a cliff sets the story in motion (when Cliff telephones Chris) and another cliff ends it (when the Martins climb to safety up a canyon cliff to escape the fire). In between cliffs, they race through a valley of despair, created by an old crime and a long period of concealment.

Three years after the novel was published, Richard Matheson was hired to adapt it for an early episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Directed by Bernard Girard, "Ride the Nightmare" aired on CBS on Thursday, November 29, 1962. Matheson later complained about the difficulty of condensing a novel to fill an hour long television slot, and the episode starts out well but ends badly.

Opening with a point of view shot taken from the perspective of Cliff (Fred in the TV show) as his car approaches the Martin home, there is a dissolve to the interior of the house. The camera zooms in on the telephone as it starts to ring. The early scenes with Chris and Helen inside the house benefit greatly from high-contrast lighting and many shadows. It quickly becomes apparent that Matheson chose to delete the character of Connie from his teleplay; instead of a family of three, the Martins are a family of two. Rather than refusing to call the police, Chris pretends to call them and acts out his end of the conversation for Helen to hear. There is a nice, stylized shot of Helen's face framed by a shelf--she looks like she is on the outside looking in on something disturbing, i.e., the threat of violence that disrupts an otherwise uneventful evening.

At the end of the fight in the kitchen, Chris shoots Fred with Fred's gun, perhaps because this seemed more visually exciting than having the killing be done with a knife as it is in the novel. The cast of characters continues to be diminished when neighbor Bill visits for ice cubes; his wife from the novel is nowhere in sight. The scene where the policeman pulls Chris's car over for speeding is also gone, as are the recollections of earlier times by Chris and Helen. When Adam telephones, the couple are not cleaning up blood, nor does Helen plan to go to her mother's house; in fact, the mother has been eliminated. Chris works at "the plant" and does not own a music store. Since Connie no longer exists, Helen is the kidnap victim. One scene that does survive mostly intact in the transition from the novel to the small screen is the one in the bank; Matheson must have liked this scene, since he mentioned it in an interview years later.

The novel Ride the Nightmare was
based on the story, "Now Die in It"
Since Helen is being held hostage at the shack, Chris must drive there alone. After he shoots Steve, the TV show diverges greatly from the novel, as Chris and Helen run off into the brush together, chased by Adam. The chase continues into a canyon, where the couple are cornered and Chris sets fire to the dry grass. When Adam backs off and appears to be engulfed in flames, Chris and Helen climb to safety and return to their car, sitting quietly as fire trucks and a police car pass them by.

Matheson's teleplay jettisons nearly the entire third section of the novel, replacing it with a chase scene and a wildfire that makes little sense, since the way it is filmed suggests that Adam should have been able to back away from the flames with ease. In the end, Chris and Helen exchange knowing looks and that's all--there is no promise to go to the police and no discussion of a new life together. Director Girard fails to create a sense that the couple are trapped with no choice but to start the fire; this makes Chris's decision to start a brush fire in the dry hills of Southern California seem bizarre and inappropriate, especially when viewed from the perspective of more than fifty years later. It's unfortunate that the story is wrapped up so quickly and ineffectively in the TV version, because the opening scenes portray a good sense of menace and the novel is much more successful in creating suspense.

"Ride the Nightmare" is a rare miss for Bernard Girard (1918-1997), who wrote and directed movies and TV shows from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. He directed twelve episodes of the Hitchcock series and the other three reviewed so far in this series have all been very good: "The Matched Pearl," "Blood Bargain" and "Water's Edge."
Olan Soulé as
Bill, the neighbor

Hugh O'Brian (1925-2016) stars as Chris; born Hugh Charles Krampe, he was in the Marines in WWII and had a long career on screen from 1948 to 2000. He became famous playing the title role in the TV show, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp from 1955 to 1961; this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series. He wrote an autobiography and there is a website devoted to his career here.

A fine actress with a long career, Gena Rowlands shines as Helen in this episode. Her career on screen began in 1954 and continues today; she has won four Emmy awards and was seen on the Hitchcock series four times. She was married to John Cassavetes, who also acted on the Hitchcock series, and she appeared in some of his films.

As Adam, the leader of the gang, John Anderson (1922-1992) gives another in a long line of strong performances. His extensive credits on TV and in the movies stretched from 1950 until his death, and he appeared in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) as well as in three episodes of his TV series. Other credits included roles on The Twilight Zone, Thriller and The Outer Limits.

George Gaynes as
the bank manager
The other roles on "Ride the Nightmare" are all small and are filled with character actors. The most notable are Olan Soulé (1909-1994), who plays the neighbor who comes to borrow ice cubes, and George Gaynes (1917-2016), who plays the bank manager. Soulé was on the Hitchcock show eight times and is best known for his voice acting, which began in the 1930s on the radio and lasted through the 1980s, especially as the voice of Batman in several cartoon series. Gaynes is best remembered today for his roles in the Police Academy  movies, his starring role in the TV series Punky Brewster (1984-1988), and his role as a hammy soap opera actor in Tootsie (1982).

Unfortunately, "Ride the Nightmare" is not currently available on DVD or online. The novel is now available as an e-book and can be ordered here. It was remade in 1970 as Cold Sweat, starring Charles Bronson. Thanks to John Scoleri for providing a copy of "Now Die In It."

Sources:
Bradley, Matthew R. Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. <http://www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, Web. 20 Nov. 2016. 
Matheson, Richard. "Now Die In It." 1958. Matheson Uncollected, Volume Two. Colorado Springs, CO: Gauntlet, 2010. 57-67. Print.
Matheson, Richard. Ride the Nightmare. Rosetta, LLC, 2014. Electronic. 1959.
"Ride the Nightmare." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 29 Nov. 1962. Television.
Scoleri, John. "Richard Matheson--The Original Stories: The Mystery Digests." Blog post. Bare Bones E-zine. 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. <http://barebonesez.blogspot.com/2010/10/richard-matheson-original-stories.html>.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. <http://philsp.com/>.
Weber, Bruce. "Richard Matheson: Writer of Haunted Science Fiction, Dies at 87." The New York Times 25 June 2013. Nytimes.com. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

In two weeks: "The Thirty-First of February" starring David Wayne and William Conrad!

7 comments:

John Scoleri said...

Great write-up, Jack. I just wish there were more Matheson Hitchcock's for you to cover! For anyone who has read a lot of Matheson's fiction, the recurring names he tends to use for characters are often drawn from friends and family members. In this case, Chris (the name of one of Matheson's sons who was born in February of 1959) and Helen (his close friend Chuck Beaumont's wife's name).

Jordan Prejean said...

Great work, Jack. I had no idea the novel first appeared in short story form in a mystery digest. Hope it's not too difficult to get hold of. I agree with you that the show crashes and burns in the second act but I still greatly enjoy it. Great cast in this one. John Anderson is always good and he has this understated acting style that works well in this type of story.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! As the resident expert on Matheson, your opinion is important to me.

And thanks, Jordan! If you want to read the story, email me and I'll send it to you.

Peter Enfantino said...

Just watched this the other night, fully expecting to disagree with your rave of the show but completely agreeing with your summing-up as a "rare misfire." I would say it's a good bet that Wagner and Locke were "inspired" by Ride the Nightmare when they wrote History of Violence. This one smolders but the fire goes out long before the climactic fire gets started.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter! Sadly, many of the episodes in the first season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour are disappointing.

Grant said...

I'm sorry to hear about Hugh O'Brien (and George Gaynes in the same year).
It isn't everyone's kind of comedy, but I've always especially liked him in COME FLY WITH ME, where his character is at least partially the "swinging airline pilot" cliche. Thanks to that one single role, I always think of him that way.

Jack Seabrook said...

He'll always be Wyatt Earp to me!