Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Five: A Bullet for Baldwin [1.14]

by Jack Seabrook

After "The Case of Mr. Pelham," the next episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be written by one of the Cockrells was "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid," with a teleplay by Marian Cockrell. That show was discussed here.

It was followed by "A Bullet for Baldwin," which rang in the New Year on CBS on Sunday, January 1, 1956. Eustace Cockrell and Francis Cockrell wrote the teleplay and the title card says that it is based on a story by Joseph Ruscoll (1906-1956), who wrote for radio in the 1940s and 1950s. The Radio Gold Index lists 29 radio shows with scripts by Ruscoll, from 1942 to 1956; he also served in WWII, which may be the reason for a gap in credits from early 1943 to late 1945. Ruscoll's stories were adapted for several television shows from 1949 to 1957; two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adapted from radio plays that he wrote. One was "The Creeper," and Ruscoll sued film producer Edward Small for using that title for a 1948 film. There is a photo of Ruscoll here, sitting with a group of mystery writers.

The radio play upon which "A Bullet for Baldwin" is based was called "Five Bullets for Baldwin," and no recording of it survives. It was first broadcast on April 16, 1948, on the Molle Mystery Theater; a second performance occurred on August 1, 1949, on Murder By Experts. No copy of the script exists and, since there is no published story to compare to the TV version, any changes made by the Cockrells must be left to conjecture.

The show opens with a Hitchcockian series of shots that set the scene. A superimposed title card reads "San Francisco 1909" and a shot of a street scene dissolves to one of an office door with "Baldwin King & Co. Investment Bankers" stenciled on the glass; the final dissolve takes us inside the office, where a dejected man named Stepp sits at his desk, working late on a Saturday night. A mousy clerk who wears sleeve protectors on his forearms, Stepp sighs and looks at a revolver in his open desk drawer before getting up to walk across the otherwise empty office and knock on the door of his rotund boss, Nathaniel Baldwin.

John Qualen as Stepp
Why is Stepp unhappy? It seems that, despite 21 years of loyal service to the firm, he is being fired by his uncaring employer. Stepp meekly asks the man to reconsider but is rebuffed and walks slowly back to his desk, where he methodically removes the sleeve protectors and dons his suit jacket before sitting back down in his chair. Taking the gun from the drawer, he raises it almost to his temple, a look of deep sadness in his eyes, before suddenly being seized by an inexplicable feeling of courage. He rises from his chair, walks back to Baldwin's office, and shoots and kills the man where he sits.

Stepp is nothing if not a creature of habit, and his routine kicks back in as he returns the gun to his desk drawer, then dons rubber overshoes, overcoat, and hat, grabs his umbrella, and walks slowly out of the office and down the stairs. At the building's exit door he is met by a janitor and Stepp instructs the man to wait until Monday to clean the office, thus buying himself some time before Baldwin's body is discovered. Stepp walks out into the rain, umbrella raised, and in the next scene it's Sunday morning and he's returning home, where his landlady greets him. Stepp tells her that he spent all of Saturday night riding the ferry and retires to his room.

On Monday morning, his landlady wakes him at 10:30; Miss Wilson, a secretary from Baldwin's office, has telephoned to ask why Stepp has not arrived at work. Stepp, naturally surprised to hear that Baldwin is alive and well, rushes to work, where no one seems to realize that he murdered his boss two nights ago. Baldwin's partner, Walter King, emerges from Baldwin's office and summons Stepp to his own office, where Stepp confesses to having murdered Baldwin. King tells Stepp that he suffered a hallucination and proves it by opening the door to Baldwin's office to demonstrate that the boss is in fine fettle--Baldwin's wife pays her husband a visit as King and Stepp look on. King tells Stepp that he has been working too hard, gives him a five-dollar raise, and instructs him to hire an assistant.

Philip Reed as King
Wondering how all of this can be possible, Stepp returns to his desk, where he takes out the revolver, checks how many bullets are in the chamber, and sniffs the barrel's opening. Later, in Baldwin's office, the partners meet with a group of investors and successfully close a deal. Baldwin tells the men that he plans to go with his wife to their private cabin that afternoon and, after the visitors have left, we finally learn the truth as King and Baldwin--whose real name is Davidson--speak privately. King saw Davidson perform an impression of Baldwin the year before at a smoker in Los Angeles and now King has hired Davidson to impersonate Baldwin so the business deal can go through and the company can avoid ruin. King gives Davidson the agreed-upon fee of $2000 and claims that the real Baldwin had a stroke and is recovering at his cabin, but Davidson sees through the ruse and refuses to be an accessory after the fact to murder.

King admits that he and Baldwin's wife are having an affair and explains that Stepp shot and killed the man two nights before. King came upon the scene soon after Stepp left and quickly came up with a plan to avoid discovery and avert business collapse. Baldwin's wife will set fire to the cabin and destroy the corpse; King agrees to make Davidson his partner in order to buy his silence.

Later that night, in a scene that mirrors the episode's opening scene, Stepp is once again alone in the office and working late. In an eerie replay of his encounter two nights before, he enters Baldwin's office, but this time it is King who fires the loyal employee, accusing him of giving himself a raise and hiring an assistant without authorization. King offers Stepp two weeks' severance pay and a train ticket back to St. Louis; Stepp offers mild resistance but King dismisses him. Doubtless thinking that he got away with murder once and so it must have been imaginary, Stepp repeats his desk routine and shoots and kills King before donning his outerwear and heading downstairs to leave the building. This time, however, Stepp tells the janitor to go ahead and clean the office, certain he has hallucinated again and it will be empty.

"A Bullet for Baldwin" ends with the mousy little man striding confidently into the rain, unaware that the consequences that he escaped forty-eight hours before will be visited upon him very soon. The show features two cold-blooded murders yet feels light-hearted; the performances by the three leads are excellent, especially that of John Qualen (1899-1987) as Stepp. His voice sounding a bit like that of Tex Avery's cartoon dog Droopy, Qualen inhabits the role of the put-upon office worker and is completely convincing. His despair after the initial murder is replaced by confused acceptance, and later by a misplaced belief in his own invincibility. Double murder cannot be excused, but we root for Stepp nonetheless to exact vengeance on his heartless bosses.

Sebastian Cabot as Baldwin
It's fun to speculate how the Cockrells changed the radio play "Five Bullets for Baldwin" to create the TV show "A Bullet for Baldwin." Is it a coincidence that, in his introduction, Alfred Hitchcock lines up five bullets on the desk in front of him? And how do the five bullets figure in the radio play? Perhaps it is the fact that, after the initial murder, Stepp's gun still has five bullets remaining. One thing the writers must have done is to take descriptive narration, possibly by Stepp or a narrator, and turn it into pictures; this is most obvious in the scenes at Stepp's desk, which are without dialogue in the TV show but which must have been described in the radio play. If anyone reading this has more information about Ruscoll's radio show, please leave a comment!

John Qualen was born in Canada and began appearing in films in 1931; he became a member of John Ford's stock company and had roles in such classic films as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He began appearing on TV in 1951 and was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Shopping for Death" and "Help Wanted." He last appeared on screen in 1974.

Playing dual roles as Baldwin and Davidson is Sebastian Cabot (1918-1977), a British actor who was on screen from 1935 until the year of his death. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, but over the years he was a regular on four TV series: Checkmate (1960-1962), The Beachcomber (1962), Circle of Fear (1972), and Family Affair (1965-1971), where he played Mr. French, the butler.

Suave Philip Reed (1908-1966) plays King, the second boss to be shot by Stepp. Born Milton LeRoy in New York City, the actor was on screen from 1933 to 1965 and was seen on the Hitchcock show five times, including "The Derelicts" and "The Big Score."

Co-writing the teleplay with his brother Francis was Eustace Cockrell (1909-1972), a fellow author of short stories who had some work in the 1950s on television. The Fiction Mags Index lists his short stories appearing in magazines from 1932 to 1957 and IMDb lists TV shows (and two movies) either adapted from his short stories or written by him from 1950 to 1962. Many of his short stories may be read for free here and there is an informative website devoted to him here.

Finally, "A Bullet for Baldwin" is directed by Justus Addis (1917-1979), who worked mostly in episodic TV from 1953 to 1968. He directed ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and was the partner of Hayden Rorke, who played Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie.

"A Bullet for Baldwin" is available on DVD here or can be watched online here.

Sources:

"A Bullet for Baldwin." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 1 Jan. 1956. Television.
"The Creeper (1948) - Notes." Turner Classic Movies. Web.
"Eustace Cockrell and the Art of Story Telling." Eustace Cockrell Famous Writer. Web.
The FictionMags Index. Web.
Goldin, J. David. "Joseph Ruscoll." RadioGOLDINdex.com, Old Time Radio Show Database. Web.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Haendiges, Jerry. "Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs." Molle' Mystery Theater .. Episodic Log. Web.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web.
Kogan, David. "Murder By Experts." Thrilling Detective. Web.
UNZ.org. Web.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Oct. 2017. Web.

In two weeks:  "You Got to Have Luck," starring John Cassavetes.


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