Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-Charles Beaumont Part One: Backward, Turn Backward [5.18]

by Jack Seabrook

Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), whose star shone so bright in his scripts for The Twilight Zone and in his many short stories of the 1950s and early 1960s, wrote or co-wrote two forgotten episodes for the Hitchcock TV series, "Backward Turn Backward" and "The Long Silence." Born Charles Leroy Nutt in Chicago, he sold his first short story in 1950 and began writing for the screen by 1954. He wrote 22 episodes of The Twilight Zone and also contributed to One Step Beyond and Thriller; his screenplays included Premature Burial (1962), Burn, With, Burn (1962), and The Intruder (1962), adapted from his own novel. Beaumont took ill and deteriorated rapidly, dying in 1967.

"Backward, Turn Backward,"  which aired on CBS on Sunday, January 31, 1960, is based on a story of the same title by Dorothy Salisbury Davis that was first published in the June 1954 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The story follows Sheriff Andrew Willets as he investigates the death of Matt Thompson in the small town of Pottersville. Thompson's 19-year-old daughter Sue was engaged to be married to Phil Canby, a 59-year-old neighbor, and Thompson had tried to stop the upcoming marriage.

Tom Tully as Phil Canby
On the night of the murder, Canby swore he was at home babysitting his grandson, who remained quiet. However, a neighbor claims to have heard the baby crying, suggesting that Canby is lying about his whereabouts. Thompson was killed by a blow to the head with a wrench owned by Canby and Canby admitted having been at Thompson's house that evening and having quarreled with his fiance's father.

The only other person who could have killed Thompson was his daughter, Sue, yet she does not seem the type to commit such a violent act. Convinced that he has enough evidence to proceed against Canby, Sheriff Willets arrests the man for murder, when Sue suddenly bursts into tears and begins to cry, just like a baby. Willets figures out that she reverted to infancy on the night of the quarrel and killed her father after Phil had left, then cleaned up and went back to bed, awakening the next morning with no memory of the event. Hers was the crying heard by Mrs. Lyons.

Alan Baxter as Sheriff Willets
"Backward, Turn Backward" is a long and fairly-clued story of psychological and emotional injury leading to a needless murder. Willets is on the wrong track when the real killer unintentionally reveals herself, casting a horrific light on the truth and showing how mental cruelty can have deep and lasting repercussions. There is mention of Sue's visit to the insane asylum as a child, her room screaming with color and disarray, and her father's attempt to have her committed, all suggesting a young woman who was forced to keep her tumultuous feelings tightly controlled until the night when the promise of her escape seemed to be in danger, causing her to suffer a psychotic break and lash out violently in an act that she would not remember. At her father's funeral, she plucks a flower from a funeral wreath and gives it to her betrothed; the flower is a symbol of herself, taken from her dead father's clutches and presented to the man who represents freedom and the future. By using Phil's wrench to kill her father and remove the biggest obstacle to her own happiness, she was symbolically doing what she wished Phil had done on her behalf, completing the lover's act of killing the father to take his place.

The story's title is a clever bit of misdirection. It is based on a famous couplet that opens the poem, "Rock Me to Sleep":

Backward, turn backward, O time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight!

Phyllis Love as Sue Thompson
The poem was written by Elizabeth Akers Allen (1832-1911) and is spoken in the voice of an adult woman who longs for the loving companionship of her dead mother. It was first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1859 and became popular during the Civil War. As the events of the short story unfold, the reader might think that the title refers to Phil Canby, a 59-year-old man engaged to marry a 19-year-old woman; perhaps the title suggests that he would like to be younger to make the match more suitable. Yet the conclusion of the story reveals that the reference is to Sue Thompson, a young woman whose life has been shaped by the loss of her mother and who, on the night of the murder, finds that time does turn the clock backward and make her a child again, just for one night. Unfortunately, in her childish rage, she commits an unforgivable act.

Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2004), the author of the short story, grew up on Midwestern farms during the Great Depression and moved to the city as an adult. She wrote that "the soul is marked with childhood's wounds," something she explores in "Backward, Turn Backward." A writer of crime fiction who specialized in tales of psychological suspense, she authored 20 novels between 1949 and 2001, and the FictionMags Index lists 23 short stories under her name, spanning a fifty-year period from 1952 to 2002 and mostly appearing in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Nominated for eight Edgar Awards, she was president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1956 and she was named one of its Grand Masters in 1985. She wrote that she first got the idea for this story when her husband Harry, an actor, "brought home a broadcast experience that almost panicked him, the appearance during the show of a character not in the script." In her story, that unexpected character turns out to be the violent side of Sue Thompson.

Raymond Bailey as Harris
Charles Beaumont's teleplay for "Backward, Turn Backward" is a faithful adaptation of the short story upon which it is based. The show begins right where the story begins, without the addition of any scenes dramatizing prior events. Willets and a police chemist talk about the bloodthirsty crowd gathered outside the murder scene, quickly establishing the weapon used and the careful cleanup. Beaumont compresses the action and limits the number of locations, having an interview with busybody neighbor Mary Lyons occur in the Thompson house living room rather than in her house. To try to inject some excitement into the process, Beaumont has Willets ask Mrs. Lyons if she was in love with Matt Thompson and if she had hoped he would propose marriage to her.

In the show, Willets cross-examines witnesses like a lawyer in a courtroom; this approach seems exaggerated for dramatic effect. The interviews themselves are shortened to focus on key details. The scene at Canby's house includes a brief segment where Canby's grandson, here a toddler, cries and fusses until Canby shows up and the child calms down immediately. This is done in order to establish the sound of the child crying, a sound that will again be heard in the final scene.

Tom Tully, as Phil Canby, speaks his lines in a broad, New England accent that is at odds with the non-specific accents of the rest of the cast. There is a short flashback scene where we see Phil's first kiss with Sue, and the age difference is more disturbing to see than it is to read, even though Tom Tully was 51 at the time and Phyllis Love, the actress playing Sue, was 34!

The staging of the funeral scene
Harris, the state attorney, cross-examines Sue in her room, another example of Beaumont changing locations and compressing scenes to move the story along quickly. As a prosecutor, it makes more sense that Harris approaches his questioning of a witness in this way, even if it still seems unusual to do it in the young woman's bedroom. The funeral scene is well-staged, with all of the characters in attendance spread out on different planes around the grave site.

The show's final scene, which should tie everything up and serve to explain what happened, is a failure. As the tension mounts, Sue begins to cry and throws a tantrum on the living room stairs. Immediately, Willets and the others realize that she killed her father and does not know it. The solution seems to come out of nowhere and the show does not have the final, explanatory paragraphs that conclude the story and clarify what happened. Instead, the sheriff comes to arrest Phil Canby, Sue throws a tantrum, the sheriff says, essentially, "oh, that explains it," and the show is over.

After the broadcast, Dorothy Salisbury Davis commented that "I watched with fascination a story that was totally foreign to me," adding that "nobody in the audience understood the ending." In fairness to Charles Beaumont, the show does follow the story closely, even if the ending is flubbed. Henry Slesar commented, not specifically about this episode, that "a goodly number of television watchers were simply unable to grasp these droll, devastating , delightfully ironic twists," and it is true that Alfred Hitchcock Presents often takes subtle twist endings from stories and makes them more obvious and easily understandable, but the end of "Backward, Turn Backward," which is relatively clear on the page, is a complete muddle on the TV screen.

David Carlile and Rebecca Welles
as Canby's son-in-law and daughter
Perhaps most responsible for the problems with the TV adaptation of Davis's story is its director, Stuart Rosenberg (1927-2007), who would later do much better work in such films as Cool Hand Luke (1967). Rosenberg began as a TV director in 1949 and started making movies in 1960; by 1966 he had left TV behind and worked only in film until 1991. He directed five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Man With Two Faces," as well as three episodes of The Twilight Zone. He won an Emmy in 1961 for an episode of The Defenders.

Top billing goes to Tom Tully (1908-1982), a veteran character actor from stage, radio, film, and TV whose career on screen lasted from the early 1940s to the early 1970s. He was in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Playing Sue Thompson, a character 15 years younger than herself, is Phyllis Love (1925-2011); trained at the Actor's Studio, she worked on Broadway and most of her screen work was done on TV rather than on film. She also made appearances on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but this was her only role on the Hitchcock TV show.

Alan Baxter (1908-1976), as Sheriff Willets, is the closest thing this episode has to a leading man. His movie career began in 1935 and he started working on TV in 1949; his screen career ended in 1971. He was also seen in a Hitchcock Hour and on episodes of Thriller and The Outer Limits.

Paul Maxwell as Saul
The supporting cast includes:

*Paul Maxwell (1924-1991) as Saul, the chemist at the crime scene; he was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents four times, including "The Equalizer" and "The Right Kind of House." He later provided the voice for Col. Steve Zodiac on Fireball XL-5.

*Rebecca Welles (1928- ) as Betty, Phil Canby's daughter; born Reba Tassell, she was married to director Don Weis, who directed five episodes of the Hitchcock half hour. Welles was in four episodes of the show and her career was mostly on TV from 1951 to 1964. She is not the same Rebecca Welles who was the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

Peggy Converse as Miss Lyons
*Peggy Converse (1905-2001) as Miss Lyons, the busybody neighbor; she started on stage at age three and grew up to be a busy character actress, on screen from the early 1940s to the late 1980s.

*Raymond Bailey (1904-1980) as Harris, the state's attorney; a very busy character actor who is best remembered as Mr. Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies, he was on the Hitchcock show 11 times and had a small role in Vertigo (1958).

Selmer Jackson
*David Carlile (1931-2006) as Betty's husband; his career was mostly on TV from the mid-1950s to the late 1990s; he was on the Hitchcock half-hour seven times, including "A Night With the Boys."

*Selmer Jackson (1888-1971) as the minister at the funeral; he was in countless films and TV shows starting in 1921 and was seen on the Hitchcock show six times; his last credited role was as a chaplain in "Starring the Defense."

"Backward, Turn Backward" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.


"Backward, Turn Backward." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 31 Jan. 1960. Television.
Davis, Dorothy Salisbury. "Backward, Turn Backward." 1954. Tales for a Stormy Night. Woodstock, VT: Foul Play, 1984. 51-74. Print.
Davis, Dorothy Salisbury. "Introduction." Ibid. ix-xiii.
The FictionMags Index. Web. 22 July 2017.
Galactic Central. Web. 22 July 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 22 July 2017.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 22 July 2017.

In two weeks: "The Long Silence," with Michael Rennie and Phyllis Thaxter.


JP said...

Absolutely first-rate coverage of this episode, Jack. I wish Beaumont had found time to contribute more to the series. I found the episode lackluster overall despite the great talents involved but it remains interesting. Just covered Phyllis Love over at the Vortex for "Four O'Clock" playing a very different character, showing her versatility. As for the ending, I think this series fell into a similar trap as the Zone in that the audience is always watching for the big twist so that when it's handled in a subtle manner it can seem a bit ambiguous.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jordan! I thought it was lackluster as well. It just wasn't a great story to begin with.

Matthew Bradley said...

Must agree on this ending being an epic fail, but I think the pacing of the script overall is the culprit. Much less time should have been spent on, for example, the not terribly relevant detail of the wrench being washed with laundry soap, thus allowing more time for the twist to be clearer and less abrupt.

Jack Seabrook said...

You're right, Matthew--there's plenty wrong with this one.