Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Three: Death and the Joyful Woman [8.27]

by Jack Seabrook

One of the pleasures of reading the source for every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is the chance to be exposed to great works of crime fiction that I had never read before, both short stories and novels. Death and the Joyful Woman, the 1961 novel by Ellis Peters, was a delight to read. Awarded the Edgar for Best Novel in 1963, the book is the second in a series of thirteen mysteries concerning British Detective-Sergeant George Felse and his family. As the story opens, Felse's fourteen-year-old son Dominic is on his way home from a music lesson when he sees Kitty Norris at the Boat Club, dancing barefoot, and he falls in love at first sight. Fifteen months later, when he is sixteen, they meet again by chance at a blood drive. She gives him a ride home in her fancy car and he learns that she is not only beautiful but also the wealthy heiress to a beer fortune.

Not long after that, beer baron Alfred Armiger celebrates the opening of his latest "super-pub," The Jolly Barmaid, and DS Felse is in attendance. Later that night, he is awakened by a telephone call with the news that Armiger has been murdered, brutally bludgeoned with a bottle of champagne. Felse begins an investigation and discovers that Armiger's will leaves everything to Kitty Norris. Interviewing Kitty, Felse learns of a rift between Armiger and his son Leslie that developed when Leslie married a poor girl named Jean instead of Kitty, as his father wanted him to do. Dominic begins to worry that suspicion of murder will fall on Kitty, the object of his crush.

Gilbert Roland as Luis Aguilar (Alfred Armiger)
The investigation continues as Felse interviews Miss Hamilton, Armiger's long-time secretary and rumored lover, and learns more about the angry split between father and son. With a little pressing, Felse pokes holes in Leslie's account of where he was at the time of the murder. The son admits to having had an argument with his father that evening regarding a gift from father to son of an old sign that had hung outside the pub, which used to be called the Joyful Woman. An expert tells Felse that the sign is very old and possibly valuable. A local laborer finds a pair of stained gloves labeled L.A. in a dustbin and Kitty, nursing an unrequited love for Leslie, tells Dominic that she killed Armiger. The young man disbelieves her claim that she killed the beer baron when he proposed marriage to her. She says that she pushed the father down a flight of stairs and then fled. Dominic tells her that Armiger was killed with a champagne bottle, so when she confesses to Felse her story is accurate and Dominic is consumed with guilt. George comforts his son by telling him that Kitty's clothes had Armiger's blood on them.

Angry at himself for inadvertently giving Kitty information that supported her confession, Dominic is determined to help clear her name. On his bicycle, he tracks her movements on the night of the murder and deduces that she must have been given a ride by the real murderer but she refuses to confirm this. Felse doubts that Leslie is guilty and Dominic tells his father his theory of what really happened, concluding that finding a pair of bloodstained gloves is the key to solving the murder. The police fail to find the gloves and Dominic is determined to do something. He visits Leslie and Jean and tells them his theory, which leads Jean to explain something to him that is withheld from the reader. Dominic visits Armiger's office and speaks to his secretary, Miss Hamilton, revealing that he has found the bloodstained gloves that will clinch the case. He says the gloves belonged to Kitty and he wants to talk to her lawyer to get advice about what to do with them. Miss Hamilton offers to give him a ride that evening when he will give her the gloves to discard.

Laraine Day as Ruth Hamilton
An art history expert tells Leslie that the pub sign is very old and very valuable, a portrait of the Madonna from a church display before 1400. Leslie forgoes the money and insists that the sign be returned to the church. Armiger receives a note from Dominic asking him to notify the police that they need to be at a certain corner at nine o'clock to follow a certain car. The note arrives late and so Leslie and Jean alert the police and race to the scene. Dominic is picked up by Miss Hamilton and gives her a package with the gloves. As she drives through a remote area, she hits him in the back of the head after asking him to get something from the back seat. Leslie and Jean see Miss Hamilton's car speed by and follow it. She pulls off the road and nearly succeeds in dragging Dominic's body into the river when Leslie stops her. The police foil her attempt at escape and she confesses to murdering Armiger after he spurned her by proposing to Kitty.

Dominic recovers and explains how he figured out that Miss Hamilton was the killer. Kitty visits him in the hospital and says she is going away to start a new life. Nine months later, he receives a postcard from her, reporting that she is getting married. He has gotten over his crush and is now "a man with a future and a past."

Tom Lowell as Dominic Felse
Death and the Joyful Woman is an excellent novel. The character of Dominic Felse makes it more than a standard police procedural, since he can engage in activities that the police cannot. His teenage devotion to Kitty makes him determined to find evidence to clear her name, and his tenacity and bravery lead him to the solution. The novel is fairly clued and has an effective red herring in the pub sign, which seems to point to money as a motive for murder. The character of Miss Hamilton is introduced early, interviewed, and returned to in the end, but it is not clear whether Dominic's suspicions are correct until the moment when she attacks him in her car. The final scenes depicting his rescue are suspenseful and exciting. Peters allows her series character, DS Felse, to take a back seat to his own son in this classic mystery.

Watching the adaptation of this novel for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is an unsettling experience. James Bridges wrote the script, and the show, also titled "Death and the Joyful Woman," premiered on CBS on Friday, April 12, 1963. In my series of essays on the many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that were adapted by Robert C. Dennis, I observed that he had a tendency to take scenes that were flashbacks in the original stories and dramatize them on screen, moving them to the beginning of the show so that the events depicted unfold in chronological order. In his teleplay for "Death and the Joyful Woman," James Bridges takes a similar approach, though this time he essentially deconstructs the novel and rebuilds it into a story that is similar but also much different.

Laura Devon as Kitty
The setting has been moved from England to America, probably California, and the entire episode takes place in the course of one evening at the estate of Luis Aguilar, a wealthy winemaker. Unlike Alfred Armiger, who appears briefly in chapter two of the novel and is murdered by an unknown person, Luis Aguilar is a major character in the TV show. While people dance at Aguilar's harvest ball, young Dominic Felse works in the kitchen, hired as a waiter for the occasion. He flirts with Kitty Norris and their banter shows that they are old friends. His crush on her is played for laughs, unlike the novel, where it was the guiding force behind his actions.

Dominic delivers a bottle of Aguilar's wine, the Joyful Woman, to the man in his room, where he sits alone in the dark. After Dominic leaves, Aguilar removes a gun from a drawer and places it on a table. Later, he goes downstairs to join the party and takes his son Al to his new tasting room. Dominic goes with them, bringing two bottles of the Joyful Woman. Aguilar tells his son that he is no longer his son and challenges him to drink him under the table for $5000, something Luis had done with his own father at the same age. Dominic witnesses the game, which Al loses miserably. Already, the TV version of the story is very different from the novel, as we witness the events occurring in chronological order. The addition of the drinking challenge adds novelty and suspense to the story.

Frank Overton as George Felse
Kitty, Jean and Ruth (Miss Hamilton) arrive and Al leaves with Jean. Luis then proposes to Kitty and Ruth runs out of the room. Kitty shoves Luis down the stairs and flees before Ruth returns and kills him with the wine bottle. All of these events (with the exception of the drinking challenge) roughly correspond to what happens in the novel, but in Peters's original story the reader has to piece together what happened as it is uncovered through DS Felse's investigation. More important is the fact that, in the book, Dominic is not at the party, while in the show, he is an important figure in attendance. Outside the tasting room, Kitty confesses murder to Dominic, who goes in and finds Ruth standing over Luis's dead body. She points a gun at Dominic and makes him go to the wine vats, where she hits him over the head with the gun and dumps his body in a huge vat, turns on a water spigot, and leaves him to drown.

The show has now gone far afield from the novel, with the addition of the wine vat peril, which is something straight out of an old movie serial. For the rest of the show, shots of Dominic lying unconscious as the water rises around him are inter cut with scenes of people looking for him. Felse finally arrives in the scene and the search for his missing son is on. He questions Ruth and, after he leaves, she swallows a bottle of sleeping pills. Felse revives Ruth and she reveals Dominic's location. Felse, Kitty, and another policemen find and rescue the young man, and the show is over.

Don Galloway as Al Aguilar (Leslie Armiger)
Dominic's role as amateur detective, which is so important in the novel, is essentially removed from the TV show, though his father comments at one point that: "He would get mixed up in something like this. He's one of these 'I'll play detective' kind of kids." The remark seems forced, as if screenwriter Bridges thought he needed to give a nod to the novel, since Dominic hardly seems like the "I'll play detective" type in this episode.

The red herring of the pub sign has been removed entirely, as have all aspects of the investigation into the murder. We see the murder on screen and Dominic walks in right after it occurs, so solving the crime takes a back seat to the matter of Dominic in danger. The show is entertaining for the first three acts and it is only in the final act that too much happens too fast and the plot falls apart. Up until then, it works mainly due to strong acting by the lead players.

Ellis Peters, who wrote the novel, was a pseudonym of Edith Pargeter (1913-1995), a British novelist who worked as a pharmacist's assistant from 1933 to 1940 and then served in the Women's Royal Naval Service from 1940 to 1945. She began publishing books in 1936 and had a long career as a writer. Death and the Joyful Woman was the second of thirteen mysteries involving DS Felse and his family, published between 1951 and 1978. More famous were her 21 mystery novels featuring twelfth century monk Brother Cadfael, which were published between 1977 and 1992. The Brother Cadfael stories were adapted for television and shown on PBS's Mystery series from 1994 to 1997, starring Derek Jacobi. Very few of her other works were adapted for film or television, though Death and the Joyful Woman was adapted a second time, in 1980, for Czech TV. The CWA recognized her significance by naming the annual award for the best historical mystery after her. This was the only time one of her works was adapted for the Hitchcock series.

First edition
The show was directed by John Brahm (1893-1982), who began directing films in 1936. He directed fifteen episodes of the Hitchcock series and the last one reviewed here was "The Throwback."

Gilbert Roland (1905-1994) plays Luis Aguilar, a nasty father if there ever was one. Born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso in Mexico, his career on screen lasted from 1923 until 1982, but this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. He began as a Latin lover and made the transition to character parts; he played the Cisco Kid in six films in 1946 and 1947.

Second billing in this episode goes to Laraine Day (1920-2007), who plays the murderer, Ruth Hamilton. Day was born in Utah to a Mormon family and she was on screen from 1937 to 1986. A regular in seven Dr. Kildare movies from 1939 to 1941, she also was featured in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940). Her second husband, from 1948 to 1960, was Los Angeles Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Dominic Felse is played by Tom Lowell (1941- ), who was born in Philadelphia as Lowell Thomas. His first TV role was on The Twilight Zone episode, "The Changing of the Guard," and his career from 1962 to 1979 included a semi-regular role on Combat! from 1962 to 1964. Like all of the other lead players in this episode, this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Dominic is about to be knocked out and shoved into the vat
In his first non-soap opera role, and nearly his first role on screen, Don Galloway (1937-2009) plays Al Aguilar, the estranged son of Luis. Galloway started out on TV in about 1962 and was on screen until 1995, appearing as a regular in five different TV series. He is best remembered for his role on Ironside with Raymond Burr, where he co-starred from 1967 to 1975.

Laura Devon (1931-2007) plays beautiful Kitty Norris. Born Mary Briley in Chicago, she did some stage work in the 1950s before becoming a familiar sight on TV and in the movies from 1960 to 1967, when she married composer Maurice Jarre and retired from acting.

Finally, Frank Overton (1918-1967) plays George Felse, father of Dominic. He was in movies from 1948 and on TV from 1952 and this was one of his last roles before his untimely death at age 49.

"Death and the Joyful Woman" is not yet available on DVD or online, but the novel by Ellis Peters is easy to find and worth reading.

"Death and the Joyful Woman." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 12 Apr. 1963. Television.
Edgars Database. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
"Ellis Peters." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
Peters, Ellis. Death and the Joyful Woman. New York: Mysterious, 1995. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

In two weeks: "Dear Uncle George," starring Gene Barry!


Grant said...

I've only seen it once or twice, but one moment stays with me. In the next scene after Al Aguilar loses the drinking contest and passes out, I couldn't help noticing he's wearing different clothes. Since i usually hate for a story to spell a very obvious thing out to you, I was glad this was an earlier TV show. Any given LATER one would feel the need to show you exactly WHY he had to change his clothes!

One actor I've always liked was in this episode, Andy Romano. But even though I saw it probably twice, I just couldn't recognize him. (Of course, I know him best from the "Frankie and Annette" beach movies as a member of the comical biker gang, so recognizing him outside of that setting could be a little tricky.)

Jack Seabrook said...

The change of clothes struck me as odd. If Al is estranged from his father due to his marriage, where did he get the casual clothes? He surely didn't come to the party expecting to get drunk and have to change out of his tux, since he made a point of saying that he didn't drink. Andy Romano is billed as "the assistant." Do you remember what role he played in the show? I'm not sure who he is.

Grant said...

No, I had the same problem.