Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Fourteen: Death Scene [10.20]

by Jack Seabrook

When I wrote my series on Robert Bloch's contributions to the Alfred Hitchcock TV show, I wondered why I did not see an episode with a scene that stuck in my head after I saw it in 1988 when the USA network ran the entire series. The scene involved John Carradine in a wheelchair asking a young man named Dancer to dance for him. I have now located that episode, and it's as good as I remembered; aspects of the story remind me of the work of Robert Bloch, but "Death Scene" is actually based on a short story of the same name by a mystery writer named Helen Nielsen, and the teleplay is another fine piece of adaptation by James Bridges.

Helen Nielsen was an American writer who lived from 1918 to 2002. The first of her 18 mystery novels was The Kind Man, published in 1951, and she had about 50 stories published in the digests between 1954 and 1991. She also wrote teleplays and had some of her works adapted for the screen, mostly on television, from 1959 to 1982. Five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents featured her work as well as a single episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Death Scene," which aired on NBC on Monday, March 8, 1965.

"Death Scene" first appeared here
In Nielsen's short story, which first appeared in the May 1963 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, auto mechanic Leo Manfred is smitten when Monica Revere brings her father's Dusenberg in for repair. A ladies' man, he drives her home to Mon-Vere, the fading Hollywood estate built by her father, film director Gavin Revere, for his bride, Monica Parrish. Leo is 30 years old and went to see Monica's movies when he was 11 or 12. Revere was injured while playing polo and ended up in a wheelchair; his wife divorced him and disappeared.

Leo sets his sights on the valuable property and resolves to seduce the film director's lovely daughter. Bonding with the older man over talk of the expensive car, Leo quickly appeals to his daughter, Monica, and the courtship is rapid and successful, though Monica shuns "popular clubs and bright lights." Leo soon becomes "firmly entrenched at Mon-Vere" and observes that the rear of the property is in disrepair and overlooks "a sheer drop of at least two hundred feet."

Leo proposes marriage and Revere agrees, with the condition that Leo purchase a $50,000 insurance policy naming Monica as beneficiary. After the arrangements have been made, Leo, Monica, and Gavin discuss honeymoons on the rear patio, near the crumbling wall that overlooks the precipice. Monica sits on the wall and Leo moves to keep her from falling,  but as he does so Gavin pushes him over the edge and he falls to his death. As he falls, he sees Monica's face clearly and realizes she is Revere's wife, not his daughter.

Vera Miles as Nikki Revere
The life insurance check is delivered and the Reveres agree that the money will come in handy for Gavin's comeback as a director.

James Bridges adapted "Death Scene" for the small screen and top talent was used to ensure that it made an engrossing hour of television. Harvey Hart directed the show and Vera Miles stars as Nikki Revere, while the great Hollywood actor John Carradine plays Gavin Revere and young star James Farentino plays Leo Manfred.

As the opening credits appear, we hear a musical theme on brass and strings and know that we are in for another treat, because the score of this episode was composed by Bernard Herrmann and lives up to his usual high standards. Establishing shots show the gate to Mon-Vere and its grounds; the famously elaborate and expensive Beverly House compound was used for location filming. The property once was owned by William Randolph Hearst and has been seen in many films, including The Godfather.

James Farentino as Leo
Nikki (as Monica is called here) emerges from the house wearing a scarf and sunglasses and checks her face in the mirror; Hart uses a mirror shot to provide the first look at her close up. Inside the house, Gavin watches her from a window and then wheels himself through an ornate room. She drives through the streets on her way to the garage and her classic British car is in contrast with the modern vehicles that surround it. This opening sequence is brief and wordless; the scene then shifts to the garage, where the show begins to track Nielsen's story.

James Bridges adds a buddy character named Dancer Smith, an aspiring actor who is both co-worker and roommate to Leo Manfred. Adding this character allows Leo to express his thoughts in conversation. Hart uses various low- and high-angle shots to keep the scene in the garage interesting, including alternating zooms on Leo and Nikki as their eyes lock while he revs the motor, suggesting that his heart races at the sight of her. Unlike the story, Leo insists on driving her home (rather than being told to do so) and, as he drives, he puts popular music on the radio, begins to bop around in his seat, and asks Nikki if she does the Swim or the Watusi. Instead of the faint smile she gives Leo in the story, Nikki does a sultry swim move at the door before disappearing into the house.

John Carradine as Gavin
This entire conversation is new to the teleplay; in the story, Leo did not know who Nikki was until they got to her house, while in the show, he recognizes her right away and takes the initiative to drive her home so he can talk to her about her parents' films. Here begins one significant change from the story that helps set up the show's surprise ending: Leo mentions that Nikki's parents' careers started in silent films, meaning that they are much older than they are in the short story. The silent era ended almost 40 years before 1965, when the show was broadcast, and Leo remarks that he has seen some of the films on The Late Show. In the story, he saw them as a child, less than 20 years before, which makes it more plausible that Nikki could convince him she is Revere's daughter rather than his wife.

Buck Taylor as Dancer
A new scene follows in Leo's apartment as he and Dancer discuss Nikki's parents and their estate; in the story, a similar conversation occurs between Leo and his boss at the garage. Leo and Dancer then ride Dancer's motorcycle to Mon-Vere after dark, where Leo rings in and Nikki tells him to go away. There is an extended scene between Leo and Gavin, where the old director warns Leo to stay away from Nikki. Leo pulls an ignition cable from the car, is summoned back to Mon-Vere, and has another scene with Gavin. The young Lothario casually tosses a rock into the large, empty swimming pool and looks over the edge of the cliff at the far end of the property, also tossing a rock down into this abyss and showing how much farther the drop is there than it is into the pool. His courtship with Nikki seems to occur entirely at Mon-Vere, while in the story they go out to secluded night spots.

After another scene with Dancer at the apartment, where Nikki telephones Leo, Leo speaks to Gavin about marriage and pushes the old man's wheelchair slowly along the edge of the pool, suggesting that he's thinking about causing an accident, then pushes him near the edge of the precipice. Bernard Herrmann's score features descending and ascending plucked strings and ominous horns to add to the sense of menace.

Mon-Vere
Dancer then brings Leo to Mon-Vere and Leo invites him in, leading to Dancer's finger-snapping, hand-clapping demonstration of modern dance that involves acrobatic flips and nearly ends in Dancer going over the edge of the cliff. This results in more discussion of the retaining wall and the 100-foot drop that is beyond it. Gavin screens Death Scene for his guests in his private home theater. It is a silent film and Leo and Dancer laugh loudly at the dated story and exaggerated acting; Gavin, offended, throws them out. In the film, Monica Parrish, Gavin's wife, plays an orphan named Susu. This scene corresponds to an earlier one in the short story where Leo tells Nikki that the small shrine her father has built around his Oscar statuette is stupid; here, his alcohol-fueled behavior drives a wedge between him and Gavin.

Later, Leo calls Nikki and she says that Gavin has forbidden her to see him. She invites him over the next morning, saying that they'll speak to Gavin together. By the pool, Gavin tells Nikki that she must choose between him and Leo. She approaches Leo as if to embrace him but then shoves him backward toward the edge of the pool. Gavin wheels forward and provides the final push. Instead of falling 100 or 200 feet over the edge of a cliff, Leo falls into the nearly empty pool and is killed. We see his body floating in a few inches of water at the bottom, in a shot slightly reminiscent of the one that frames Sunset Boulevard.

Why did James Bridges decide to have Leo die in a fall into a pool rather than over the side of a cliff? Perhaps it was easier to film and more dramatic to see Leo's body clearly from the point of view of Gavin and Nikki, not far away. Unlike the short story, Leo never seems to realize that Nikki is really Gavin's wife. Bridges cleverly foreshadows the ending near the beginning of the show, when Leo asks Nikki about the dance called the Swim and she shows him that she knows how to do it; subsequent scenes showing the pool and the one where Leo wheels Gavin along its edge suggest a pool-related accident is coming, but until the end of the hour it's not clear whether the fall will occur there or at the edge of the property, much less who will be the one to fall.

Virginia Aldridge as Susu
James Bridges has one final surprise up his sleeve, a surprise that Helen Nielsen later called "an added twist-on-my-twist ending" that she "loved." There is no sign of the insurance agent who appears in the story. Instead, Nikki speaks by telephone with her daughter Susu (recall the name of the character in Death Scene), who is shown taking care of her own small child. As Nikki talks, she removes makeup in front of a mirror, including small appliances that hide wrinkled skin. She removes her long, blond wig and is revealed to be an old, wrinkled woman with wispy, white hair. It is a shock to see the young, beautiful Vera Miles transform into the elderly character. This is a conscious, dramatic choice that works well on the TV screen but would not work as well on the printed page. In Nielsen's story, Monica Parrish is a middle-aged woman who convinces Leon that she is 15 to 20 years younger than she really is by wearing scarves and hats and avoiding bright light. In the TV show, Vera Miles plays her real age but then makeup is used in the final shots to age her a good 40 years, making it plausible that she had been a young woman when she acted in silent films and is now an old woman in 1965. The transformation requires some suspension of disbelief but, as with other such shocking transformations in classic TV shows, it was seen originally on a small, black and white TV by viewers who were not expecting it and who did not have the advantage of watching it in high definition and freezing the frame. In 1965, this climax must have been quite a surprise!

Nick Borgani as Sam Gread
In a sense, "Death Scene" is the flip side of "An Unlocked Window," since both shows feature key characters who disguise their identity and reveal it in the final moments. In "An Unlocked Window," a man dresses as a woman and is unmasked as he commits a murder. In "Death Scene," a woman uses makeup to pass as a younger woman, and removes the makeup to reveal her real face after committing a murder.

Harvey Hart (1928-1989) does a superb job of pacing in his direction of "Death Scene," and the narrative never slows down. He uses occasional mirror shots and angled shots to make the show visually interesting. Hart was a Canadian director who worked mostly in episodic TV from 1955 to 1989; he directed five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Vince Williams as Our Hero
Playing Nikki Revere is the gorgeous Vera Miles (1929 or 1930- ), who was Miss Kansas in 1948 and who had a long career in movies and on TV from 1950 to 1995. She was in "Revenge," the very first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and she appeared in two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Among her many film roles were parts in Ford's The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) and Psycho (1960). She was on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Famously, she was supposed to star in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) but got pregnant and was replaced by Kim Novak.

The great film actor John Carradine (1906-1988) plays Gavin Revere. He was the father of film stars Keith and David Carradine and he was on stage, in film, and finally on TV for over 60 years, from 1930 to his death. Among his many great films were The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Man Hunt (1942), and House of Frankenstein (1944); he also appeared in other films directed by John Ford and Fritz Lang, as well as other horror pictures. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, but he made memorable appearances on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Night Gallery.

James Farentino (1938-2012) plays Leo. Born in Brooklyn, he was in two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ("The Black Curtain" was the other) and his career on screen lasted from the early 1960s until 2006. He was also on Night Gallery as well as several short-lived TV series.

Leonard Yorr as Wagner
Looking like a cross between Tony Dow and a young Burt Reynolds, Buck Taylor (1938- ) demonstrates acrobatic skill as Dancer Smith. The son of Dub Taylor, he has been on screen since 1961 and is still working; he was a regular on Gunsmoke from 1967 to 1975 and was seen on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twice, as well as on The Outer Limits. He has a website here.

In smaller roles:

*Leonard Yorr (1915-1994) plays Wagner, Leo's boss at the garage; this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show and he made a handful of appearances on screen from 1952 to 1972.

Horace Brown as Harry (?)
*Virginia Aldridge (1938- ) plays Susu, Gavin's real daughter; she had a brief career on screen and appeared on Star Trek as well as in "Final Vow" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. She made two films with intriguing titles: Riot in Juvenile Prison and High School Big Shot, both in 1959.

*Captain Horace Brown (1905-1972) plays Harry, who (I think) has a brief scene as another mechanic at the garage; he has five credits on IMDb.

*Nick Borgani (1904-1987) plays villain Sam Gread in Death Scene. He had a career that spanned over 40 years on screen but most of his roles seem to have been uncredited bit parts.

*Vince Williams plays Our Hero in Death Scene; he was in four episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "Starring the Defense."

Sources:
"“The Bodyguard” Mansion – Aka The Beverly House Compound | IAMNOTASTALKER." IAMNOTASTALKER The Bodyguard Mansion Aka The Beverly House Compound Comments. Web. 24 June 2017.
"Death Scene." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC. 8 Mar. 1965. Television.
The FictionMags Index. Web. 24 June 2017.
Galactic Central. Web. 27 June 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
"Helen Berniece Nielsen." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2003. Web. 24 June 2017.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 24 June 2017.
Nielsen, Helen. "Death Scene." 1963. Hitchcock in Prime Time. New York: Avon, 1985. 330-41. Print.
Norris, J. F. "Pretty Sinister Books." FFB: The Kind Man - Helen Nielsen. 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 24 June 2017.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 24 June 2017.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 June 2017. Web. 24 June 2017.

In two weeks: We conclude our series on James Bridges with a look at "Power of Attorney," starring Richard Johnson and Geraldine Fitzgerald!

2 comments:

Grant said...

I'm glad you mention Buck Taylor's resemblance to Burt Reynolds, because I thought of that immediately the first time I saw it. I suppose he resembles him in other roles, but in this role it's really uncanny. But I don't know if I ever knew he was Dub Taylor's son.

Thanks to MST3K, I'm very familiar with "High School Big Shot." Virginia Aldridge makes a very good femme fatale in that one.

Speaking of MST, that's what I couldn't help thinking of when Farantino and Taylor started heckling Carradine's film! After all, they don't exactly heckle it, they start talking for the characters in it.

Jack Seabrook said...

I think it's partly because he wears that sleeveless shirt that looks like one Burt wore in Deliverance, if memory serves. I like your comparison to MST3K.