Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Eight: The Gentleman From America [1.31]

by Jack Seabrook

In "The Gentleman from America," writer Francis Cockrell and director Robert Stevens combine to update a classic ghost story from the World War One era to the World War Two era. Michael Arlen's short story of the same name was first published in the Christmas 1924 issue of the British magazine, The Tatler, and begins as Englishmen Sir Cyril Quillier and Mr. Kerr-Anderson bet American Howard Cornelius Puce 500 pounds that he cannot spend the night in a haunted room. Left alone in the room with but a single candle, Puce reclines in bed, certain that ghosts do not exist and comforted by the automatic pistol at his side.

Puce picks up a book called Tales of Terror for Tiny Tots and reads "The Phantom Footsteps," a story about twin sisters spending the night alone in a strange house. Julia ventures downstairs to investigate a noise and Geraldine is terrified when her sister returns. The next morning, their father finds Julia dead, "her head half-severed from her trunk," and Geraldine driven mad by fright. Puce slams the book closed and accidentally blows out his candle. He begins to doze off but wakes to sense someone at the foot of the bed, cloaked in darkness. He threatens the figure, sure that it is Quillier masquerading as a ghost, and fires shot after shot into the specter, to no avail. He empties the gun and screams.

Biff McGuire as Latimer
Eleven years later, Quillier and Kerr-Anderson encounter Puce outside an inn in the English countryside. Quillier lost an arm in the first world war and Puce is "a wreck of the hearty giant" of years before. The Brits explain what happened on the fateful night: they had thought Puce dead and run off, leaving him alone in the house where he was later discovered to be suffering from shock and nervous breakdown. Quillier had impersonated the ghost and they had replaced the bullets in his gun with blanks.

The truth revealed, Puce attacks Quillier and has to be pulled off him by "the men in dark uniforms"; it is explained that Puce is now a homicidal maniac who had escaped that morning. " 'Been like that eleven years. Got a shock, I fancy. Keeps on talking about a sister of his called Julia who was murdered, and how he'll be revenged for it,' " says the head-warder. " 'God have mercy on us!' " sobs Quillier.

Arlen's story has been anthologized many times, and in the 1944 collection, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, the editors comment that it is a "clever and exciting story; but when the titular hero opens his lips, he speaks in the weird tongue that is employed only by 'American' characters on the British stage." Some examples:
  • "You get a guy so low with your talk that I feel I could put on a tall-hat and crawl under a snake."--Puce
  • "Sir, you are one big bum phantom!"--Puce
  • "Jupiter and Jane, but he'd learn that ghost to stop ghosting!"--narrator
Ralph Clanton as Sir Stephen Hurstwood
In addition to the dated writing style, there is a subtle, anti-American message in the story. Puce, "like a good American, could never get the cold dope on all this fancy title stuff," and bristles at addressing Quillier as "Sir." The narrator also comments that "Travellers have remarked, however, that the exciting traditions behind a hundred-per-cent American nationality have given birth in even the most gentle citizens of that great republic to a feeling of familiarity with 'guns' . . ." Despite his large, athletic frame and his boasting about guns, Puce is put into a state of fright by a children's book of ghost stories and, in the end, driven insane by Quillier's prank. Perhaps this is a subtle jab at Americans in the years following World War One, aimed at British readers tired of Americans reminding them of the role that the former colonies played in winning that war.

John Irving as Derek
The story's author, Michael Arlen (1895-1956), was not English by birth, having been born Dikran Kouyoumdjian in Bulgaria to parents of Armenian heritage. His family moved to England in 1901 and he began writing in 1916. His 1924 novel The Green Hat was a big success and he became a celebrity in the Twenties, writing a number of novels and short stories. Arlen created the character of the Falcon in a short story called "Gay Falcon" that was published in 1940; this led to a series of Hollywood films. After his loyalty to England was questioned in 1941, Arlen moved to America, and many film and television adaptations of his novels and stories have been produced.

"The Gentleman from America" has been adapted for the large and small screens more than once. A 1948 film called The Fatal Night was an official adaptation, and on April 25, 1950, the story was adapted for the television series Suspense, in an episode directed by Robert Stevens. On December 18, 1958, a Canadian TV show called The Unforeseen produced another adaptation of the story, and it was also the uncredited source for an episode of Thriller called "The Purple Room," which aired on October 25, 1960.

A typical Robert Stevens shot
The most well-known adaptation of the story was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, April 29, 1956, near the end of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The story has been updated, as shown by the opening title card superimposed over a street scene; the title reads, "London/ May, 1940." Francis Cockrell's script adds scenes to the beginning of the story to provide background. The first takes place inside a men's club, where a radio broadcasts a horse race. Puce, Quillier, and Kerr-Anderson have been renamed Howard Latimer, Sir Stephen Hurstwood, and Derek; the two Brits discuss their impending military service while Latimer roots for his horse. He bet five hundred pounds on a pony with odds of ten to one, establishing that he is a reckless gambler who has money. One hallmark of director Robert Stevens's style is apparent right away as he has actors approach the camera to show their faces in extreme close up so that we can read their thoughts while they listen to dialogue spoken by other characters off screen. Here, we see Stephen in close up and Derek off to the side and just behind him. Stephen realizes that Latimer is wealthy and asks Derek to introduce him to the American.

Latimer refuses Stephen's invitation to play poker but is intrigued when Stephen mentions the ghost at his family estate called Hurstwood; skeptical but intrigued, Latimer asks to stay the night in the haunted room and Stephen insists that he never bets less than 1000 pounds, a 100 percent rate of inflation since the short story was published thirty-two years before. The scene changes and the location is provided by another title card that reads "Hurstwood Manor" and is superimposed over an exterior shot of a large, gloomy estate. Inside, the terms of the bet are agreed on and Stephen gives Latimer a gun and shows him how to use it. Unlike the American in the story, who at least gave the impression of familiarity with guns, Latimer is resistant to the idea and not a great marksman, as shown by his attempt to fire a test shot into the fireplace, a shot that lodges itself in the wooden molding around the fireplace's opening.

These added scenes dramatize events leading up to the frightful night and help to introduce the story's three main characters. Cockrell updates the time of the events and removes the anti-American sentiment that was present in the source; here, Stephen and Derek are shown to be duplicitous and Latimer seems to be an honest man. Director Stevens creates interest with good camera movement and creative shots, including one where he frames Latimer between two candles in a candelabra held by Stephen. When the trio enter the haunted room, the scene features wonderful shadows, though they do not quite match up with the room's only light source. Instead of the children's ghost story book of Arlen's tale, Latimer picks up a volume entitled Ghosts of Notable British Homes; a nice detail here is that the table on which the book rests is covered in dust, and when the book is picked up it leaves a dust-free rectangle, showing that it has not been looked at in some time.

Left alone in the room, Latimer reads the Tale of the Hurstwood Ghost and Cockrell and Stevens dramatize the story as a flashback: the camera focuses on Latimer reading in bed, then pans right to focus on his bedside candle, then pans back left to show the two sisters in the same bed as Latimer narrates the story in voice over. There are dissolves back and forth between shots of Latimer reading and the girls acting out the story, and the effect generates suspense. The dated humor in Arlen's story has been removed and what remains is more effective.

The scene where the ghost appears to Latimer may have worked better at the time of its original broadcast, when the ghost was only glimpsed several times on black and white television sets, rather than today, when a viewer can scrutinize it in high definition on a large screen. The ghost is luminous and there is no explanation for this, unless it is meant to be an expression of what Latimer perceives rather than what he actually sees. Shots of Latimer in bed alternate with shots of the glowing ghost slowly approaching, and Latimer progresses quickly from confident to angry to frantic--his collapse occurs rapidly.

The final scene of the show begins with another title card, superimposed over the same exterior shot of the estate, reading "Hurstwood Manor/October, 1945." Instead of meeting on a country road, the three men meet back at the scene of the haunting. In the story, Quillier lost an arm in the war; here, Stephen walks with a limp. Latimer shows up unexpectedly at the door and Robert Stevens again uses extreme close ups to show Latimer listening to the other men speaking. When Julia and Geraldine are mentioned, he snaps and attacks Stephen. The final images of the show are well done, as orderlies from the asylum rush in, subdue Latimer, and take him away in a strait jacket.

John Alderson as the asylum attendant
Francis Cockrell's script updates Michael Arlen's story and removes much of what makes it difficult to read with enjoyment today, while Robert Stevens uses various techniques to translate the story from the page to the small screen and create a suspenseful half hour of television. Stevens (1920-1989) directed no less than 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last one reviewed here was "You Got to Have Luck."

Starring as Latimer is Biff McGuire (1926- ), who was born William McGuire Jr. and acted mostly on TV for over 60 years, from 1950 to 2013. He was in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Ralph Clanton (1914-2002) plays Sir Stephen Hurstwood; his screen career lasted from 1949 to 1983 and included seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (including "Dip in the Pool") and three episodes of Thriller.

Derek is played by John Irving (not the writer of The World According to Garp), who had a ten-year career on TV from 1955 to 1965 but was only in this episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Finally, John Alderson (1916-2006) plays the attendant from the asylum; at end the of the show, he tells Stephen and Derek that Latimer escaped. Alderson had a 40-year career on screen, from 1951 to 1990, and appeared in three episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Crocodile Case."

"The Gentleman from America" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here. The 1950 version produced for Suspense is lost. Read Arlen's short story here.

Arlen, Michael. “The Gentleman from America.” Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. New York: Random House, 1944. 212–230. Print.
The FictionMags Index. 26 Nov. 2017. Web.
“The Gentleman from American.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 31, CBS, 29 Apr. 1956. DVD.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville: OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb. 22 Nov. 2017. Web.

Wikipedia. 22 Nov. 2017. Web.

In two weeks: "Conversation Over a Corpse," starring Dorothy Stickney and Carmen Mathews!


Grant said...

In a way, the ending is like the ending of "The Cadaver" on THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR.
Of course, the practical jokers get off a lot more lightly here.

Jack Seabrook said...

That they do, and that's the point. They have to live with the knowledge that their gag ruined a man's life!

john kenrick said...

I'm very fond of this one, Jack. It's got a larger than life quality to it, which is there even in the classy title. The setting is just right, as is the time frame, for the television adaptation. Fine performances all-round. I like Biff McGuire naturalistic playing more now, with the return of the Hitchcock half-hours to MeTV, than in the past.

McGuire is in another early one in which he doesn't seem quite "up to it", but not this time. There's that conventional, to my way of thinking, ending. It's not that I saw it coming or anything like that. I expected more, that's all. First rate television from what's now about sixty years ago.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. This show certainly holds up better than the short story on which it is based. Any episode directed by Robert Stevens is worth a look. I'd love to do an in-depth study of his TV work but it would probably be the end of me.

Lucas said...

Why does the Conversation over a corpse link lead here?

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for the tip. I fixed the link.