Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Four: The Case of Mr. Pelham [1.10]

by Jack Seabrook

Self-help books tell us to be the best version of ourselves. But what if the best version of yourself is not you but someone else who is trying to take your place? That is the problem confronted by a London businessman in "The Case of Mr. Pelham," a short story by Anthony Armstrong that was published first in the November 1940 issue of Esquire.

Poor Mr. Pelham has a series of uncomfortable experiences. An acquaintance claims to have seen him in the Hippodrome when he was not there. Another friend chastises Pelham for ignoring him when they passed on the street. A business associate writes to confirm an appointment that Pelham never made. He begins to suspect that he has a double who has been taking his place at his club without anyone being able to tell the difference. His own butler, Peterson, is unaware of an impostor in Pelham's own home. Pelham consults a doctor, who suggests calling the police, but instead Pelham decides to make small changes in his own habits, sure that his double cannot duplicate them.

"The Case of Mr. Pelham"
was first published here
At the office, Pelham discovers that his double has been there, too, writing letters in his name and acting more boldly in business matters than Pelham is used to doing. Pelham begins to suspect that something of "more than purely human agency" is at work and determines to fight against the terror. The double begins to take over Pelham's life at home, so Pelham goes out and buys a uniquely colored tie to try to distinguish himself. He telephones home from his club and finally speaks to his double, who insists that he is the real Mr. Pelham. Pelham rushes home and confronts the impostor but is unable to convince his butler of his real identity, partly because of the changes he has made to his own appearance, and goes mad. The double takes his place and succeeds wildly in business, becoming a millionaire.

"The Case of Mr. Pelham" is in the tradition of stories of innocent people who find themselves mysteriously troubled and soon in danger of being replaced by a double. From James Hogg's The Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) to Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955), the theme has been one that writers find themselves returning to again and again in order to investigate man's capacity for good and evil and the duality that is inherent in human nature. In Armstrong's story, no explanation is given for the sudden appearance of Pelham's double or for his gradual success in replacing the unfortunate Londoner.

Tom Ewell as Mr. Pelham
The story was published in an American magazine with a cover date of 1940 but takes place in London. By the time of publication, London had been under attack by Germany for a year and one reading of the story is as an allegory for the danger the British people face of having their identity stolen from them and replaced by that of a conquering nation. Yet the events of the story seem to take place in a time before the war; Pelham is a single man with a manservant and, though he is a reasonably successful businessman, he lives an empty life. Easy to replace and thus a prime target, he is all artifice and only his associates at the office or the club, not to mention his employee at home, know him at all. He has so little individuality that a change in something as minor as a necktie is enough to give him away as false.

Why is he being targeted? Pelham gets the chance to ask his double this question directly but gets no answer, and the existential crisis and lack of resolution of the central conflict that threatens his life finally drive him mad. The only goal of the double who replaces Pelham seems to be wealth: six months after the real Pelham goes insane, the double is shown to have made a killing in business and now inhabits Pelham's life comfortably. A capitalist reading of the story is possible: an average man is replaced by a duplicate who is better at making money for no other reason than that.

Alfred Hitchcock directed the TV adaptation of "The Case of Mr. Pelham," which was filmed from October 7th through 10th of 1955 and which premiered on CBS on Sunday, December 4, 1955. This was the third short film Hitchcock made that fall for his new TV series and, like the two prior episodes he directed, this one had a script by Francis Cockrell. The teleplay is faithful to the short story, though Cockrell shifts the location from London to New York City and uses a framing sequence to tell much of the tale in a series of flashbacks.

Raymond Bailey as Dr. Harley
The show begins as Pelham walks up to the bar in his club and asks if Dr. Harley has been in yet. Harley arrives and Pelham asks him to have lunch to discuss his problem. Over lunch, Pelham tells his story, narrating the events both in the present at the table and as voice over in flashbacks. In between events, the scene shifts back to the present as Pelham tells his tale to Harley. Cockrell uses lines directly from the short story--most notably, Pelham's suspicion that what is happening to him is due to "more than purely human agency"--and the flashbacks gradually get closer and closer in time to the present until they catch up and the time lines collide.

Hitchcock's direction is not showy, with two exceptions. When Peterson tells Pelham that the double let himself in to Pelham's apartment, there is an insert shot of Pelham's hand fingering the key to the front door; this recalls a similar shot in Hitchcock's Notorious and allows the viewer to get a glimpse of what the character is thinking about without interrupting the flow of dialogue. After he finishes telling his story, Pelham asks Harley if he could be imagining the whole thing, but the doctor says that it seems clear that the double is a real person. After lunch ends, the rest of the story is told chronologically in the present. Hitchcock's second clever scene occurs near the end of the episode, when Pelham confronts his double in the hall at his apartment. The trick photography is excellent and Tom Ewell plays the two roles with subtle differences, making it easy to keep track of who is the real Mr. Pelham and who is the impostor.

The look of madness
In Armstrong's story, Pelham begins to scream when he realizes that he has lost his identity. In the TV film, he does not scream, but rather looks of into the distance as a hint of a smile plays across his lips. The final scene occurs in Pelham's club instead of on the links, as in the short story, but the result is the same.

Donald Spoto wrote that "The Case of Mr. Pelham" is "perhaps the single most typically Hitchcockian television program," adding that the end recalls The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where the doctor is revealed to be a madman. He adds that the TV film "fuses the established Hitchcock theme of the double with the terror of madness and enclosure as the inevitable result of the loss of security." Steve Mamber called the film "a veiled and characteristically Hitchcockian attack on personal security." Hitchcock's next project was The Wrong Man (1956), in which another innocent man is mistaken for someone else who resembles him.

Anthony Armstrong (1897-1976), who wrote the short story, was born George Anthony Armstrong Willis in British Columbia and began writing for Punch in 1924 as "A.A." He wrote many novels and plays over the ensuing decades and was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1944. This was the only episode of the Hitchcock TV show to be adapted from one of his works, but he did contribute to the screenplay for Hitchcock's 1937 film, Young and Innocent.

The insert of Pelham fingering his key
Mr. Pelham, who was given the name Albert for the TV version but who was not given a first name in the short story, is played by Tom Ewell (1909-1994), who was born Samuel Yewell Tompkins in Kentucky. He began acting in 1928 and soon moved to New York City to join the Actors Studio. He appeared on Broadway in 1934 and his first film role was in 1940. He served in the U.S. Navy in WWII and his TV career began in 1948. He is best remembered today for his starring role in The Seven Year Itch (1955) for which he previously had won a Tony Award on Broadway. He was in three TV series: he starred in The Tom Ewell Show from 1960 to 1961, he had a recurring role on Baretta from 1975 to 1978, and he was in The Best of the West from 1981 to 1982. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

Raymond Bailey (1904-1980) plays Dr. Harley; this was one of his ten appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the previous one being the last collaboration between Francis Cockrell and Alfred Hitchcock, "Breakdown."

Justice Watson as Peterson
Pelham's manservant, Peterson, is played by Justice Watson (1918-1962), who was born in Philadelphia and who appeared on TV from 1951 to 1962, when he died at the young age of 44. He also appeared in "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid."

The rest of the cast is unremarkable and is made up of little-known bit players.

The 1955 version of "The Case of Mr. Pelham" was not the first time Armstrong's story was adapted for film. On October 30, 1948, the story was adapted for early television in England on the BBC.

The 1957 novel
Armstrong's short story was reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the June 1955 issue; this may be where the producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents saw it and purchased the rights to adapt it. The author may have decided to cash in on the prestige of having his story adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, because he expanded his own short story to novel length and it was published in book form in 1957 as The Strange Case of Mr. Pelham. The story was adapted for film once more in 1970 as The Man Who Haunted Himself, starring Roger Moore. In this version, an explanation is given for the appearance of the double: after a car accident, Pelham briefly dies on the operating table and a double is released into the world.

Watch "The Case of Mr. Pelham" online here.


Armstrong, Anthony. "The Case of Mr. Pelham." Esquire, Nov. 1940: 36, 160-65. Web.
"The Case of Mr. Pelham." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 4 Dec. 1955. Television.
"(George) Anthony Armstrong Willis." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale: 2002. Web.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. 30 September 2017. Web.
Mamber, Steve. "The Television Films of Alfred Hitchcock." Cinema (1971): 2-7. 30 September 2017. Web.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: ReganBooks, 2003. Print.
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: the Dark Side of Genius. London: Collins, 1983. 375, 578. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 30 September 2017. Web.
In two weeks:

"A Bullet for Baldwin," starring John Qualen and Sebastian Cabot!


Unknown said...

During the closing credits, mention is made of Tom Ewell's starring in the feature The Seven Year Itch, then in theatrical release.
This was something to which attention was called back in those days, when the "wall" between films and television was rarely if ever breached.
I'm guessing that this was supposed to demonstrate Hitchcock's trans-media clout in such matters, which would go some ways in attracting non-TV personalities to making appearances on AHP.

I have a question:

When you toted up Raymond Bailey's AHP appearances, did this include his walk-ons in Hitchcock's comedy introductions?
He did at least three that I can think of (correction welcomed, if needed) - and he wasn't the only actor to do that ...

Jack Seabrook said...

Mike, I have the Universal DVD and the closing credits just say "Tom Ewell." I presume the reference you mention was removed for the DVD set. Perhaps it was in Ewell's contract that the credit had to read that way. As for Bailey, I was just referring to his roles in the stories, not to any cameos in the intros. Now that you mention it, I do think I recall one where he was a psychiatrist listening to Hitch. For the most part, I'm only paying attention to the stories, unless something in an intro adds to the information about the story. Thanks for stopping by to comment!

Grant said...

It can take a long while to notice that Raymond Bailey was all over TV, even outside of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES. Of course, a lot of those times were without his toupee, which could make him hard to recognize.
One of his best movie roles has to be as the visiting officer in NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS. His reaction to the Andy Griffith character is pretty priceless.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant. It's funny how some actors just seemed to pop up everywhere like that.

Matthew Bradley said...

This is another episode that, like “Lamb to the Slaughter,” I just saw for the first time, and thus had never realized that The Man Who Haunted Himself, which I saw decades ago, is a remake, albeit based on Armstrong’s expansion rather than on his original story. Granted, the car-crash rationale there isn’t exactly plausible, and I’m admittedly not a big fan of ambiguity in general (or of Tom Ewell, for that matter), but I found the utter absence of any explanation or true resolution here especially annoying. Do we even know for sure that the Pelham who has been telling the story is the “real” one, and has been somehow supplanted by an impostor? To me, it just seems gratuitous and self-indulgent, the worst kind of lazy writing. Feh.

Jack Seabrook said...

The lack of an explanation does not bother me at all. I think it's haunting and the ambiguity of the ending actually increases the horror of the situation. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

ericpaddon said...

Actually one of the "little known bit players" in the cast, Diane Brewster as Pelham's secretary went on to some greater TV fame in first a recurring role on "Leave It To Beaver" as teacher Miss Canfield, then as lady gambler Samantha Crawford on "Maverick" and finally Dr. Richard Kimble's doomed wife in "The Fugitive."

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Eric! She was in some good shows!

Anonymous said...

Reading about the book short story , watching the Twilight Zonish Hitchcock version, after viewing th roger Moore film psyhco horror version,

IMHO What I like interpret is the man's psychological turned psychotic to such a point that paranormal metaphysically Mr. Pelham split himself literally in two as his core ID was tired of the outer restricting conservative social construct ego he lived as and he became his real self that the people all around him actually liked & loved more than the construct he'd made imprisoning himself.

Jack Seabrook said...

That's an interesting perspective. Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Harlan Ellison did a variation of this called "Shatterday." It was filmed as an episode of the 1980s version of "The Twilight Zone" with Bruce Willis in the lead. In that version, there is no explanation given for the situation, except that the doppelganger is an ethical and moral improvement on the original, who seeks to correct his past misdeeds. It all goes back to Dostoevsky and before him, E.T.A. Hoffmann. You can pretty much trace every good idea for a spooky story back to Hoffmann.
I prefer the ambiguity of this version. In the end, we never know for sure if the narrator is the original or the duplicate.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for pointing that out! I always liked Ellison's stories.