Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Fifteen: Relative Value [4.21]

by Jack Seabrook

Having written bad checks to support his bad habits, John Mansbridge arrives by train at Gorse Hill intent on murdering his cousin Felix and thus preventing his forgeries from coming to light. John establishes an alibi by making sure he is seen by a ticket collector and a policeman before taking a bicycle that he had previously hidden in a shed and riding to his cousin's home. He was seen setting out on foot for the 45-minute trip, so his speedy cycling allows him to arrive before anyone would think he could. On arrival, John lets himself in the front door with a pilfered key, creeps up behind Felix, who is dozing in an armchair, and bashes in his skull with an Indian club.

After arranging the room to make it look like his cousin was killed during a robbery, John finds the bad check he was seeking in the pocket of his brother's jacket, ignoring a letter folded around it. He then goes outside and pretends to have just arrived, making a fuss when no one answers the door. A passing constable shows up right on time, enters the house, and finds Felix dead. He also finds a note in which Felix confesses to having committed suicide by taking poison. John is stunned, so the constable gives him a drink to calm his nerves.

Torin Thatcher as Felix
The police superintendent, sergeant, and constable later piece together what must have happened, realizing that John intended to murder his cousin without realizing he was already dead. They cannot figure out how John got to the house so quickly and they will never know, since the drink the constable gave John to calm his nerves was the same poisoned liquid that Felix had imbibed and John died almost instantly.

"Superfluous Murder," by Milward Kennedy, is the type of story that depends on giving the reader all of the clues while leaving out important details. In the first paragraph, we are told that John intends to murder his cousin. His carefully planned alibi seems to work and the murder is described in such a way as to avoid the suggestion that the victim is anything but asleep. When the constable finds the suicide note, John is shocked and takes the offered drink without comment. The scene then jumps to a discussion among three policeman about how the murder was accomplished. The author omits the fact of John's sudden death until the final paragraphs and it comes as a second surprise to the reader.

Tom Conway as the superintendent of police
I have been unable to pinpoint a date or place for the original publication of this story, but it was included in G.K. Chesterton's 1935 collection, A Century of Detective Stories, and the first publication I could find for any work by Kennedy dates to 1928, so it is reasonable to assume that this story was originally published between 1928 and 1935. The title may refer to cousin Felix's self-murder by suicide, which turns out to be superfluous because he would have been murdered anyway by John, or to John's supposed murder of Felix, who was already dead. The act of murder is also superfluous because Felix left a letter to say that he was killing himself and leaving his money to John. Consequently, the entire process that John goes through is superfluous.

Francis Cockrell was assigned to adapt Kennedy's short story for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959, and he changed the title to another one with more than one meaning: "Relative Value." John and Felix are, of course, relatives, and Felix's value to John lies in the money he can provide, either dead or alive. John's seeming murder of Felix is also of relative value, since it turns out to have been superfluous. Kennedy's story is so tightly plotted that its essence survives what is a somewhat sloppy script by Cockrell, at least judging from what appears on screen.

Frederic Worlock as Betts, the butler
The show opens with a close up of a check dated June 5, 1930, thus telling us that the story takes place almost three decades before it was aired on CBS on Sunday, March 1, 1959. We then see a scene that was only described as having happened in the past in the story, as John visits Felix and is chastised for forging a check and then having the temerity to request more money. This initial scene follows the pattern established by Cockrell in many other shows of taking events from a story and rearranging them to present them in chronological order.

Unfortunately, to the careful viewer, the time sequence in "Relative Value" refuses to make sense. In the initial scene, Betts, Felix's butler, tells John that he is going on vacation on Thursday and that a woman from the village named Mrs. Simpson will "come in by the day" to look after Felix. We can assume that this scene takes place some time between Friday and Tuesday; Betts would not say he was leaving on Thursday if the scene occurred prior to the preceding Friday; he would say "next Thursday" or give a specific date. If the conversation occurred on Wednesday, he would say he was leaving "tomorrow." The forged check seen in the first shot is dated June 5, 1930, a Thursday, so it must have been written at least a day before the scene takes place, and probably more than that.

Walter Burke as Benny, the bookie
Things begin to get confusing when John leaves Felix's home. He goes outside and examines a nearby pond, then sees the constable bicycle by on the road and checks the time on his watch. Readers of the story know what is going on, but viewers of the show are left to wonder what John is up to. The next scene takes place in daylight, which suggests that time must have passed since the last scene. In an incident added by Cockrell, John stops in a shop to see Benny, a bookie. John asks Benny if he will know if a check John gave him was fraudulent by "Thursday" and Benny replies that he'll know "tomorrow," which strongly suggests that tomorrow is not Thursday.

Even worse, after Felix has been murdered, Cockrell has the policemen interviewing Mrs. Simpson in Felix's living room. Now, if Betts the butler was not leaving till Thursday, and Simpson was going to come in "by the day," the earliest she would have come would be Thursday, and she says that this was her first day there. The times just don't add up. Cockrell should have either added some title cards to clarify the timing of events or added a few lines of dialogue to explain matters. As it plays on screen it looks like John leaves Felix's house, goes to the village, and then returns to Felix's house that same night, but this is clearly impossible and not Cockrell's intention. Instead, we are meant to understand that there is a break in time between the night when John leaves Felix's house and the afternoon when he arrives back in the village.

There are still other problems. After visiting Benny the bookie, John goes to a village pub, where last call is announced; this is usually 11 p.m. John then runs down the road and into the woods, where he finds a bicycle. In Kennedy's story, it is explained that John had hidden the bicycle in a shed previously so that it would be available for him on the night of the murder. In the TV show, it looks like he just happens to run into the woods and find a handy bike lying on the ground. Where did it come from? This is never explained. In the short story, a month passes between John's visit to Felix and his return to commit murder. In the show, the viewer is left confused.

Denholm Elliot as John Mansbridge
At Felix's house, John stands outside his cousin's window and hears a program on the radio (or perhaps a disc on a phonograph) in which a man explains life insurance--a nice touch, considering what is about to happen. In the short story, Kennedy has the superintendent explain that Felix bought a policy that was not invalidated by suicide; this detail is missing from the teleplay and one is left wondering why Felix would think that he could leave his life insurance benefits to John and then kill himself. John hits Felix with a fireplace poker, not an Indian club, and one is reminded of how many fireplace pokers have been used on television to commit homicide. John finds his second bad check in Felix's pocket and we see that it is dated June 5, 1930, just like the check in the show's first scene. Why did John write two bad checks--one for 50 pounds and another for 100 pounds--both on the same day, and why did one make its way to Felix long before the other? Who knows?

Most frustrating of all, perhaps, is what happens when the constable gives Felix's suicide note to John. John begins to read it aloud, there is a cut to the actual note, and then the screen begins to blur and there is a fade to black. We do not see the constable give John the poisoned drink! The shot then fades back in on the three policemen discussing the murder, and it is not until the show's final lines that we learn that John drank poison. This seems like an inexcusable failure to show an extremely important incident. In the last scene, the police refer to John being in the next room and comment that they will leave him there; we assume he is sitting in a chair, recovering. The last shot has the police go into the next room, where Felix and John's bodies are laid out side by side on the floor, so we get a visual representation of the fact that both are dead. The constable admits to having given John a poisoned glass of whisky and there is a fade out.

The final surprise!
"Superfluous Murder" is such a strong story that it manages to survive the clumsy adaptation for television under the title "Relative Value," despite the confusion as to timing, the mysteriously convenient bike in the woods, and the failure to show the key drink being administered. Some credit for this likely goes to the director, Paul Almond (1931-2015), a Canadian filmmaker and novelist who worked on TV and in film from 1955 to 1992. He directed "Seven-Up!," the first in the long-running series of features that have tracked a group of children every seven years as they grow up. In addition to "Relative Value," he directed one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His shot choices and handling of the cast make "Relative Value" an enjoyable half-hour, despite its internal inconsistencies.

Starring as John Mansbridge, who passes bad checks to support a gambling habit, kills a corpse, and accidentally drinks poisoned whiskey, is Denholm Elliot (1922-1992), a British character actor who was a gunner in the RAF during WWII. His plane was shot down in 1942 and he sat out the rest of the war in a POW camp. After the war, he had a long career on screen, from 1947 until his death. He appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Crocodile Case." His career peaked in the early 1980s, with notable roles in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Trading Places (1983), and A Room With a View (1985).

A.E. Gould-Porter as Tom, the bartender
Receiving second billing for a brief appearance is Torin Thatcher (1905-1981), who plays Felix Mansbridge. A British actor born in India, Thatcher was on screen from 1927 to 1976 and took a break to serve in the Royal Artillery in WWII. Among the many classic films in which he appeared were Great Expectations (1946) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). He was on the Hitchcock show three times, including "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole," and he also was seen on Thriller, Star Trek, and Night Gallery.

Tom Conway (1904-1967) plays the police inspector who figures out what really happened. Born Thomas Sanders in Russia, Conway's family fled to England at the time of the 1917 revolution. He was on screen from 1940 to 1964 and is best remembered as the star of the Falcon series of films in the 1940s. He was also in Cat People (1940). Conway appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Glass Eye."

In smaller roles:

*Frederic Worlock (1886-1973) as Betts, the butler; he was on screen from 1914 to 1970 and appeared on the Hitchcock show four times, most recently in Francis Cockrell's "The Impromptu Murder."

*Walter Burke (1908-1984) as Benny, the bookie; born in Brooklyn, his face is familiar from countless TV roles between 1950 and 1980 but this was his only time on the Hitchcock show.

Mollie Glessing as Mrs. Simpson
*A.E. Gould-Porter (1905-1987) as Tom, the bartender; seen in numerous films and TV shows from 1942 to 1973, he was in ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "I Killed the Count."

*Mollie Glessing (1891-1971) as Mrs. Simpson, who came in "by the day" to look after Felix; this is one of her seven appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last was "The Impromptu Murder."

Milward Kennedy (1894-1968), who wrote "Superfluous Murder," was born Milward Rodon Kennedy Burge and was a British novelist and short story writer active from 1928 to 1958. This appears to be the only time one of his works was adapted for the screen. In her introduction to Great Tales of Detection, Dorothy L. Sayers writes that, in this short story, Kennedy "uses the method first popularised by R. Austin Freeman of showing the method of the crime first and the method of detection after; adding a cynical twist in the modern manner." R. Austin Freeman claimed to have invented the "inverted detective story" in 1912; his most famous detective was Dr. Thorndyke. Those of us who remember the long-running TV series Columbo are quite familiar with the technique of showing how the murder was done first and how it is solved second.

"Superfluous Murder" is available in many collections of classic detective stores. "Relative Value" may be viewed online for free here or is available on DVD here. Read the Genre Snaps take on this episode here.

Sources:
The FictionMags Index, 1 Mar. 2018, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, 1 Mar. 2018, www.imdb.com/.
Kennedy, Milward. “Superfluous Murder.” Great Tales of Detection, edited by Dorothy L. Sayers, Dent, 1976, pp. 309–323.
“Relative Value.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 21, CBS, 1 Mar. 1959.
Sayers, Dorothy L. “Introduction.” Great Tales of Detection, Dent, 1976, p. xiv.

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Mar. 2018, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: Our series on the Cockrells wraps up with a look at "The Schartz-Metterklume Method," starring Hermione Gingold!

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