Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Richard Matheson Part Two: The Thirty-First of February [8.15] and overview

by Jack Seabrook

First edition
Fans of the popular TV series Mad Men, which portrayed the ups and downs of a New York City advertising agency throughout the turbulent decade of the 1960s, might be surprised to find that life was not all that different in London in 1950, as it is portrayed in Julian Symons's novel, The Thirty-First of February, published in that year.

A brilliant and multi-layered tale of psychological suspense, the story begins at a police inquest following the death on February 4th of Valerie Anderson, the 28-year-old wife of ad executive "Andy" Anderson. The woman fell down the cellar stairs of her home in the dark and her demise is ruled "accidental death" by the coroner.

The bulk of the novel takes place during the four days from February 25th to February 28th, as Anderson returns to work and is slowly driven mad by a series of events. The actions and concerns of his daily life as an ad man are occasionally interrupted by inexplicable oddities, such as his desk calendar that is set to February 4th, the date of his wife's death. Called on to mentor a newly-hired young man named Greatorex, Andy is given the task of developing an ad campaign for a lotion that removes the need for men to shave every day. As the novel unfolds, Andy is portrayed as a man with a "double nature"; he is both a sharp ad man at work and an irresponsible private citizen outside of it. His youth was mundane and he only began to taste success when he found himself working in advertising, where falsehoods and masks are the norm.

Interspersed with the satirical portrait of the advertising industry and Anderson's less than impressive behavior in the evening hours are hints of suspicion about his wife's death. Returning home on the evening of February 25th, Anderson is confronted by his neighbor, Fletchley, who tells him that a police inspector visited that day and asked many questions. Anderson keeps a small notebook hidden in his home, and while he writes that "I can't see why I didn't push her down the stairs long ago," he also notes that, after Valerie's death, he feels an "extraordinary sense of loss." Did Andy kill his wife, or was it merely an unfortunate accident? These questions are of great interest to Inspector Cresse, who pays a call on Andy that night, having received two letters casting suspicion of murder on the widower. Cresse cannot understand why a box of matches was found by the side of Valerie's body and he and Andy banter about the possibility of guilt and the lack of evidence.

1958 paperback edition
On Tuesday the 26th, Anderson awakens after having slept in a room decorated in pink by his late wife. He tests out the lotion for which he is supposed to develop an ad campaign, only to discover that it seems to remove all traces of his beard without the need for shaving. Both the night in the pink room and the removal of his masculine facial hair represent a form of castration for Andy, who goes to work and meets the man who runs the lotion company; there is a suspicion that the lotion is the work of a con artist although, like so much else in the ad industry, exactly what is wrong is hard to pin down. Andy and his colleagues rush around all day keeping busy at meaningless work. Once again, an unexpected and small item throws Andy's day into a tailspin; this time, in his daily office mail, he finds a love letter written by his wife and assumes that it was addressed to another man in the office. That evening, he visits a pub and flirts with Molly, a colleague from the agency, before taking her home where he "coupled with her," his wife's framed photograph falling to the floor and the glass smashing. Early the next morning, Andy awakens to find that he has nearly strangled Molly in bed, having mistaken her for his wife. Andy is fighting both the metaphoric threat of castration and the meaninglessness of his daily life in the world of artifice that is the ad agency.

On his third day back at work, Wednesday the 27th, one of Andy's colleagues decides to call the face lotion "Hey Presto!" Like magic, it is a quick and easy solution to one of the daily annoyances of life, yet is it, like stage magic, merely an illusion? Andy's boss remarks that "there's nobody more easily sold on a simple nostrum for all human ills than a good advertising man . . . because we make such a mess of our own lives." The pressure of the work environment and the small oddities that have made him think someone suspects him of murder begin to wear on Andy, who loses his temper at lunch. He then visits a brothel, where he is a regular customer, and learns that they have assigned to him the code "MM51," which stands for "mild masochism." As he leaves the establishment, he catches a glimpse of Inspector Cresse and realizes that the policeman is keeping an eye on him.

David Wayne as Anderson
That afternoon at the office, he tells one of his colleagues about the letter from Val and then confesses to Molly that he thinks one of the other ad men was his wife's lover. That evening, Anderson's life begins to spin further out of control. He accompanies his boss to the man's home, where he attends a bizarre birthday party for the man's 14-year-old stepdaughter; her mother is chronically ill and her stepfather may be having an illicit relationship with the precocious teenager. Leaving that house, Anderson proceeds to another party, where he gets drunk and ends up punching Fletchley, his neighbor, after the man refers to Valerie's "sudden death." The night only gets worse when Andy returns home to find his house a shambles and Inspector Cresse waiting for him, claiming that the house was burgled by a stranger. Cresse is philosophical, commenting that "the impulse to make disorder out of order" is "the same as the impulse to kill." He appears to facilitate Andy's progression toward breakdown and confession; Andy even associates the rotund policeman with a dominatrix from the brothel, fearing that the man will produce a whip from behind his back.

William Conrad as Cresse
Andy's downfall reaches its conclusion on Thursday, February 28th, when he oversleeps and arrives at work to find that a simple mix-up of two letters has caused the agency to lose an important account. The calendar on his desk now reads February 31st, an impossible date that represents Andy's descent into madness: he is having a mental breakdown in reaction to his work life and his concerns about the investigation into his wife's death. The literal mask of lotion on his face is causing him pain just as the figurative mask he wears at the office each day forces him to behave in ways that cause him harm; by the end of the day, both masks will be removed. His colleagues also wear masks: one frequents the same brothel as Andy yet appears to be happily married, another seems like a kindly older man yet may be having a sexual relationship with his teen aged daughter.

Andy has gone mad
After losing the account, Andy is given a six-month holiday and replaced by a younger man. He escapes into a movie theater, where a mysterious woman who holds his hand in the dark is shown to be drab and ordinary when the lights come up. Outside, he meets Elaine Fletchley, who reveals that Fletchley, Andy's neighbor, was jealous of him and told Inspector Cresse things to make the policeman suspicious; he also sent letters to the police to cast suspicion on Andy as a murderer. She denies that his wife had a lover and Andy goes home to find Molly waiting for him. He rejects her violently before descending into complete madness and being taken away by Inspector Cresse and the police.

The final section of the novel takes place six weeks later, on the 14th of April. Cresse visits a mental hospital with another policeman, and it is revealed that the younger policeman was the young ad man whom Andy was assigned to mentor when he returned to work. The young policeman was responsible for changing Andy's desk calendar and giving him the forged letter from Valerie and he is now uncomfortable about having been made to play a part in driving Anderson to madness. Cresse defends his unorthodox methods but, when he visits Andy and sees that the man's mind is completely gone, he realizes that he must resign from the police force. Andy's guilt remains unproven.

Elizabeth Allen as Molly
The Thirty-First of February is a stunning work of psychological suspense, both a satire of the advertising industry and a portrait of a man being driven mad by suspicion and innuendo. Until the very end, it is not clear whether the events are really happening or whether they are only occurring in Andy's mind, and even when it is revealed that it was all a cruel trick to try to uncover a murderer, the fact remains that the story has brought to light many unsavory aspects of post-war life in London, at least among successful businessmen.

Julian Symons (1912-1994) was one of the most important figures in crime fiction in the twentieth century, both as a prolific novelist and short story writer and as an indefatigable critic. Born in London, he left school at age 14 and founded a poetry magazine in 1937. Though he tried to avoid service in the war as a conscientious objector, he ended up serving in WWII before working as an ad copywriter and eventually turning to fiction. He published dozens of crime novels and short story collections from 1945 to 1994, as well as a considerable amount of non-fiction and criticism. He won two Edgar Awards and was named an MWA Grand Master in 1982. Not much of his fiction was adapted for film or television, and this was his only book to be adapted for the Hitchcock series.

Bob Crane as Lessing
When Alfred Hitchcock Presents expanded to an hour in the fall of 1962 and was renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the producers made some ambitious choices, trying to adapt great novels of crime and suspense into TV shows of approximately fifty minutes. Like may other episodes in the first season of the hour-long shows, "The Thirty-First of February" demonstrates the problems that can occur when a complex novel is stripped down to its most basic parts to fit a short time slot, with necessary dramatic crescendos every thirteen minutes or so for commercial breaks.

Richard Matheson wrote the teleplay and the show was broadcast on CBS on Friday, January 4, 1963. Matheson later said that he liked the novel but did not "like what they did to the script," so he asked that his name be removed from the credits and replaced with his pseudonym, Logan Swanson. Without a copy of Matheson's original script to compare with the filmed version, it is not possible to tell if wholesale changes were made, but the speed with which these shows were produced makes it unlikely that the director, Alf Kjellin, made significant alterations. Perhaps Matheson was also unhappy with himself for being unable to convey the depth, intensity and humor of the novel within the limited confines of an hour-long television show.

Kathleen O'Malley as Valerie
As usual, the show is divided into four parts to accommodate commercial breaks. Part one opens with the coroner's inquest, where Anderson explains what happened, narrating the events surrounding Valerie's accident as they are shown in mostly silent flashback. The District Attorney asks why she used matches when there was a flashlight handy; Matheson's script features several instances of characters using matchbooks in order to emphasize the importance of this item to Sergeant (not Inspector) Cresse, who participates in the inquest and who gives Anderson a matchbook at the end of the scene.

Part one continues at the office of Vincent Industrial Design, the office that replaces the Vincent Advertising agency of the novel. In a sponsored show such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hitchcock could get away with verbal jabs at the advertisers but Matheson could not present an ad agency with anything approaching the vicious satire that Symons uses in his novel. Instead of coming up with ad copy, Anderson designs containers; he is assigned to come up with an exciting, modern package for "Whisker Off," the product that was called "Hey Presto" in the book. Matheson has moved the story's setting from London in 1950 to New York City in 1962, and all of the British references are gone.

The first part includes Anderson's discovery of the date of February 4th on his desk calendar and ends as he returns home in the evening to find Cresse waiting at his house. The sergeant brings up matches again, pointing out that no burnt match was found on the cellar floor near Valerie's body. The first part ends as Anderson asks if he is being accused of murder.

Valerie's broken body
Part two follows Andy's second day at work, as he finds the letter from Valerie to a lover, insists that Molly join him for dinner, and admits to her that "I'm not the most stable person in the world. I had an emotional breakdown during the war. Battle fatigue." He brings Molly home and rants about his late wife's bad taste, remarking that "I should have pushed her down the steps a long time ago" and then failing to clarify his meaning, instead telling Molly that "I should've married a girl like you" and kissing her. She puts him to bed fully dressed, at which point he hallucinates and sees Valerie's face replace Molly's. He tries to strangle her and the second part ends.

This part demonstrates how Matheson's script is like a shorthand version of the novel. Anderson's hidden notebook is replaced by a verbal rant to Molly and (of course) they do not spend the night in bed together; she puts him to bed in a chaste, motherly fashion. Unfortunately, the action is so compressed that some of Andy's actions seem to lack motivation; he is quick to think that someone is out to get him, he blurts out confidential information to Molly, he hallucinates and tries to strangle her. In streamlining the narrative of Symons's novel, Matheson is forced to sacrifice much of the depth that makes it work.

The mannequin Andy thinks is his wife
Falling victim to the most cutting is Part Three, which corresponds to Wednesday in the novel. Back at work, Molly forgives Andy for attacking her the night before. He dictates the letter and memo that will get mixed up and result in his discharge, his colleague tells him that his work is slipping, he begins to rub his face in discomfort, and he returns home to find his house a mess and Cresse again waiting for him. Cresse gives him another matchbook and Andy tells him either to charge him with murder or to get out.

Matheson has deleted much of what happens in this section of the novel. There is no visit to the brothel, the uncomfortable birthday party at the boss's home is removed, and the party where Andy gets drunk and punches Fletchley is nowhere to be found. In fact, the character of Fletchley is entirely absent from the TV show; his role as the man who first sets the police investigation in motion is deleted. The short running time of the TV show makes Matheson focus on hitting all of the key plot points but results in removing much of the novel's character development and psychological nuance.

Andy confuses Molly's face with Valerie's
Things speed up in Part Four, as Matheson has to cover Andy's last day at work and the conclusion at the mental hospital. Andy is at the office, rubbing his face often to show discomfort, when he sees the date of February 31st on his desk calendar. He is put on leave and complains that using Whisker Off has made his face exquisitely tender; that night, he arrives home and has his final breakdown. There is no visit to the movie theater or exchange with Elaine Fletchley, nor does he encounter Molly and throw her out. Instead, he goes straight home, where he finds a strange scene. Valerie's favorite record is playing on the phonograph and dinner is cooking on the range, just as it was the night she died. The door to the cellar stairs is ajar, and Anderson picks up a flashlight and ventures down. He sees his wife's body sprawled on the floor and attacks it, at which point Cresse steps out of the shadows along with another policeman who had been posing as the new man at the office. The body that Andy attacks is a mannequin made up to look like his wife. Andy snaps and rushes at the policemen, at which point there is a cut to the scene six weeks later, when Cresse visits the mental hospital.

The conclusion of the show tracks that of the novel, with a matchbook falling through a hole in Cresse's coat pocket onto the floor, leading him to realize that there may have been an innocent explanation for the matchbook found on the cellar floor. A close up of Cresse's face ends the show, as he wonders if he has driven an innocent man to madness.

"The Thirty-First of February" is an attempt to adapt a brilliant novel into a fifty-minute television show and, by necessity, much of the book's richness is gone. The acting is fine, though David Wayne, as Anderson, is asked to make so many swift changes in personality that it sometimes strains believability. The direction by Alf Kjellin is unremarkable, for the most part, though there are a few highlights: the trips down to the cellar at the start and end of the show are atmospheric, the trick shot when Molly's face is replaced by Valerie's works reasonably well, and Anderson's final scene in the mental hospital is effective.

Cresse realizes what he has done
Alf Kjellin (1920-1988) was born in Sweden and started out in the movies in 1937 as an actor. He began acting on TV in 1952 and continued until 1979. He started directing films in 1955 and worked as a director on American television from 1961 to 1985, concurrent with his work as an actor. He directed one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and eleven episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "Isabel"; he also appeared in one of the hour-long shows as an actor.

Born Wayne McMeekan in Michigan, David Wayne (1914-1995) served in the Army in WWII, appeared on Broadway, and was a member of the Actor's Studio. His film and television career stretched from 1944 to 1987. He made many appearances on episodic TV, including twice on the Hitchcock show. He was on The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery and he played the Mad Hatter on Batman. He is fondly remembered for his role as Inspector Queen, Ellery's father, in the short-lived Ellery Queen TV series (1975-1976).

William Conrad (1920-1994), who plays Sergeant Cresse, possessed one of the great voices in American radio and television, playing Marshall Dillon on the radio series Gunsmoke from 1952 to 1962 and narrating The Fugitive on TV from 1963 to 1967. He starred in Cannon (1971-1976), Nero Wolfe (1981), and Jake and the Fatman (1987-1992). Born in Kentucky, he may not always have been as corpulent as he was by the time he became a TV star, since he was a fighter pilot in WWII. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Receiving third billing in the credits is Elizabeth Allen (1929-2006), who plays Molly. She was born Elizabeth Gillease in New Jersey and her career on screen lasted from 1952 to 1995. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show, but she was also seen on The Twilight Zone and in two of the best episodes of Thriller: "The Hungry Glass" and "The Grim Reaper."

Robert Carson as the coroner
Bob Crane (1928-1978) plays Lessing, who has the office next to Anderson. Born in Connecticut, Crane worked as a radio host before his career on screen began in 1961 with an uncredited role as a disc jockey on The Twilight Zone episode, "Static." This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series, but he was a regular on The Donna Reed Show (1963-65), starred in Hogan's Heroes (1965-71), appeared on Night Gallery, and starred in The Bob Crane Show (1975) before being murdered in 1978.

Other familiar faces in this episode include Robert Carson (1909-1979), who plays the coroner.

"The Thirty-First of February" is not yet available on DVD, nor is it available for viewing online.

Sources:
Bradley, Matthew R. Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.
Symons, Julian. The Thirty-First of February. New York: Harper, 1978. Print.
"The Thirty-First of February." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 4 Jan. 1963. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.

In two weeks: Our series on writer James Bridges begins with "A Tangled Web," starring Robert Redford and Zohra Lampert!


Richard Matheson on Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Overview and Episode Guide

Richard Matheson only wrote two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and none for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. "Ride the Nightmare" was an adaptation of his own novel and "The Thirty-First of February" was an adaptation of a novel by Julian Symons. Both teleplays suffer from trying to compress novel-length stories into fifty-minute time slots, and neither represents anything more than an average to below-average episode of the hour-long series. It's too bad that Matheson was not tapped to write any of the half-hour shows, because--as he showed with his scripts for The Twilight Zone--he excelled in that format.




EPISODE GUIDE-RICHARD MATHESON ON ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS

Episode title-“Ride the Nightmare” [8.11]
Broadcast date-29 Nov. 1962
Teleplay by-Richard Matheson
Based on-Ride the Nightmare by Matheson
First print appearance-1959 novel
Watch episode-unavailable
Available on DVD?-unavailable

Episode title-“The Thirty-First of February” [8.15]
Broadcast date-4 Jan. 1963
Teleplay by-Matheson (as Logan Swanson)
Based on-The 31st of February by Julian Symons
First print appearance-1950 novel
Notes
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Available on DVD?-unavailable

6 comments:

Jon H said...

January 4, 1963 fell on a Friday, not a Sunday. This was just days after Robert Carson, who played the coroner, lost his more famous brother, Jack Carson.
I saw part of this episode on Me-TV recently and remembered Mitchell Hadley's post about it on www.itsabouttv.com. Thanks for doing a great job covering both the episode and the novel on which it was based.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your comment and for the correction!

Grant said...

If I remember correctly, Bob Crane's junior executive character is such a "hot shot" one that it's easy to sympathize with David Wayne when he thinks that HE'S part of the plot against him. In other words, someone trying to drive him crazy to maybe get his job, instead of any other reason. If I remember that correctly, Crane seemed like just the right actor to play a "red herring" part like that, because he seemed almost TOO friendly to Wayne.



Jack Seabrook said...

I think that's a fair interpretation, Grant. Perhaps I didn't see it because I read the novel first and knew where the story was going. Crane did a nice job in this episode.

Grant said...

Yes, I haven't seen it in a long while, but one scene that stays with me is Wayne confronting Crane with the "February 31st" calendar page, and Crane laughing at the "gag" someone played on him. Of course, Wayne isn't really buying that.

Everyone has seen detective stories where the detective plays elaborate tricks on a GUILTY person. The great thing about this story is that it shows the negative side of that.

Jack Seabrook said...

You should read the novel--it's so much better!