Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-John Cheever Part One: The Five-Forty-Eight [6.5]

by Jack Seabrook

Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, John Cheever (1912-1982) is widely acknowledged as a "master of the short story"[1] whose fiction often focused on the "'rich suburban communities of Westchester and Connecticut.'"[2] His stories were published from the 1930s until his death in 1982 and The Stories of John Cheever, a large collection that was published in 1978, won a Pulitzer Prize. In its sixth season, Alfred Hitchcock Presents adapted two of Cheever's stories, the first of which to air was "The Five-Forty-Eight," originally published in The New Yorker on April 10, 1954.

"The Five-Forty-Eight"
was first published here
As the story begins, a Manhattan businessman named Blake steps out of the elevator at 5:18 p.m. and sees Miss Dent, a woman who looks at him with loathing. She follows him down the street in the rain and he sees her reflection in a store window. Thinking she means him harm, he ducks into a men's bar and recalls that she had been hired as his secretary. She had thanked him for giving her a chance, since work had been hard to find after an eight-month stay in the hospital. One night, she invited him home and he took advantage of her; he had her fired the next day.

Leaving the bar, he boards the 5:48 train and sees familiar faces, though his own quarrels with his wife have made his friends and neighbors less cordial. The train gets underway and Miss Dent appears and sits next to Blake. She tells him that she has been ill and unable to get another job; he must talk with her or she will kill him with a pistol she carries. The train makes its way toward Shady Hill and Miss Dent gives Blake a letter; he reads it and sees the depths of her despair and mental instability. At the Shady Hill stop, they disembark and she holds him at gunpoint as the crowd of commuters disperses. They walk to a coal yard near the station and she makes him lie down and put his face in the dirt. Satisfied, she walks away, leaving him to make his way home alone.

Phyllis Thaxter as Miss Dent
"The Five-Forty-Eight" has received critical attention and is a rewarding subject for study. Early in the story, Blake looks in a store window to avoid turning around to see if Miss Dent is following him. He sees what had been a domestic display but we are told that "the flowers were dead and the cups were empty and the guests had not come." Blake "saw a clear reflection of himself," and the author compares the bleak domestic scene with the heartless, disliked businessman, who thinks of himself as "an insignificant man," not worthy of pursuit.

His recollection of his first sight of Miss Dent (even her name suggests that she is damaged) demonstrates his cruelty and his sense of superiority: her "dress was simple, her figure was not much, one of her stockings was crooked." When he goes home with her, he thinks that her room "seemed to him like a closet." His taking advantage of her is inferred: "When he put on his clothes again, an hour or so later, she was weeping." In his role as her boss at the office, he has power over her. The cruelty he shows to Miss Dent is mirrored by the cruelty he has shown his wife at home; he recalls thinking that his spouse had lost the "physical charms that had been her only attraction" and he refused to speak to her for two weeks.

Zachary Scott as Blake
The pistol that Miss Dent carries is an equalizer, leveling the power relationship between her and Blake. She is mentally disturbed, but it is not clear if her mental problems are organic or whether they are a reaction to her treatment at the hands of men like him. During her conversation with Blake on the train, she quotes from the twenty-eighth chapter of Job, implicitly aligning herself with the Old Testament prophet who could not understand why such great misfortune had been heaped upon him. Miss Dent asks Blake, "'if there are people in the world who represent evil, is it our duty to exterminate them?'"

At the story's climax, she guides him to a terrible place near the railroad station, where he sees "a rat take its head out of a paper bag." She tells him that she dreams of "'picnics and heaven and the brotherhood of man'" and says that "'I want to help you'" before she makes him put his face in the dirt. "He fell forward in the filth . . . He stretched out on the ground, weeping." Miss Dent forces Blake to his lowest point before "he raise[s] himself out of the dust" and walks home. Is this a resurrection? Is Blake a phoenix rising from the ashes? Will he change his behavior and live a good life? The story ends without telling us. One of the many fascinating things about "The Five-Forty-Eight" is that its characters have a life before the story starts and they have a life after it ends. We get small hints about their lives before but we are left to ponder the course of their lives after.

The story's title, "The Five-Forty-Eight," refers to the train Blake and Miss Dent ride. It is a commuter train that runs every day at the same time, and the banal situation of people going home from work at the end of the day is contrasted with the deep emotion and dramatic confrontation between the two characters whose lives intersect briefly. Perhaps the saddest moment in the story is when Blake reads the letter that Miss Dent wrote to him but never mailed. It begins, "Dear Husband," and those two words tell us a great deal about her state of mind. One may assume she was a virgin before their one night stand; seduced and abandoned, possibly even pregnant, she took a very traditional approach and thought of Blake as her spouse because they had slept together. She tells him that she has been very sick and has not been outside for two weeks--did she have a miscarriage? Cheever's characters are so full of life that many readings are possible.

Penny Edwards as Miss Smith
The producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents took on a challenge when they bought the rights to adapt Cheever's story for the small screen. They made an excellent choice by selecting Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) to write the teleplay. Born in Michigan, Armstrong had been writing mysteries since 1942 and addressed "the injustice that the wealthy and powerful often inflict upon the less fortunate."[3] An article on her work is titled, in part, "The Mean Streets of the Suburbs, the Kindness of Strangers." As a woman and a former office worker, she was an inspired selection for this task.

The TV version follows the plot of the story but Armstrong's script makes some alterations that help increase the story's dramatic effect. The show opens as Blake walks out of his office and says goodnight to Miss Smith, a buxom blond who has replaced Miss Dent as his secretary. We have yet to meet Miss Dent, but the comparison between the meek brunette and the beautiful blond says something about Blake's hiring decisions.

When he exits the elevator in the lobby, where the story begins, Miss Dent approaches him and speaks to him, whereas in the story he sees her following him. In the show, he does not speak and only responds to her by touching his hat and walking around her.  Cheever's woman has a look of "loathing and purpose," but on screen, Miss Dent's appeal to Blake is more in the nature of pleading. Even the clothing choices serve to define the characters: Blake has a hat, coat, and scarf on, protecting him from the elements, while Miss Dent wears a two-piece cloth suit, carries her raincoat, and wears no hat--her hair is blown by the cold wind and she is in too much of a hurry to put on her coat.

Blake sees Miss Dent reflected in the window
Director John Brahm uses a reverse tracking shot to follow Blake and Miss Dent as they rush along the busy sidewalk, the camera moving backwards to keep pace with them as he strides confidently forward and she is buffeted by the other bodies. Oddly enough, the two of them are walking against the flow of the crowd.

Instead of seeing her reflection in a store window, Blake sees Miss Dent's reflection in the window of a coffee shop right before he ducks into a "Men's Bar" that has a neon sign above the door that reads, "Ladies Not Admitted." From the bar, he turns and sees her through a glass window in the bar door, watching him: he is safe in the company of men while she, as a woman, is left out in the cold. After a quick stock shot of the exterior of what looks like Penn Station in 1960, there is a dissolve to the interior of the train. A man named Watkins sits next to Blake for a moment but is relieved to be summoned to another seat by a woman named Mrs. Compton; their brief dialogue establishes that Blake is not well-liked by his neighbors. The train scenes and the theme of the unhappy businessman recall the Twilight Zone episode, "A Stop at Willoughby," which aired on May 6, 1960, less than six months before "The Five-Forty-Eight" premiered on NBC on Tuesday, October 25, 1960.

Miss Dent is shut out of the bar

Brahm creates a sense of motion as the train moves along through the night, with images passing by outside the windows and appropriate train sounds that include the rumble of the wheels and signals clanging. Armstrong lifts dialogue right from Cheever's story and uses it in her script, supplementing it with new dialogue when necessary to replace narration. There is a well-composed shot of Blake and Miss Dent when she first reveals her gun: he is larger in the picture, but he is trying to push himself against the right side of the frame, while she is smaller but has unexpected power over him due to the firearm.

Note the frame composition

The picture then dissolves into an extended flashback sequence that is much longer than the brief sequence in the story. We see Blake and Miss Dent working late together at the office. He invites her to dinner and we see them walking along the sidewalk on the same set used for the climactic scene of "The Day of the Bullet," where Iggy runs off past the line of stone stoops with curved handrails, yelling, "You'll see!"

The same set as in "The Day of the Bullet"

Miss Dent invites Blake to her apartment and he checks his watch and remarks that he has 45 minutes till his next train. He measures his life by the train timetable! They go into her apartment and she tells him that she is alone and lonely in New York City. They drink Scotch and dance to a record she puts on the turntable. After they sit on the couch and talk, she demonstrates her vulnerability and happiness at the situation through silent gestures and movements. He toasts, "'Here's to--something or other,'" showing that their time together is less significant to him than it is to her, then puts an arm around her and pulls her mouth to his in a sudden kiss. She is concerned that he will miss his train, but he tells her, "'There's always another train.'" Careful viewers will recall that this line was said to him earlier in the show by the bartender in the men's bar and Blake had replied that he'd heard that line before. He did not reveal then that he was the one who said it to his vulnerable secretary three months earlier and that now she was pursuing him through the streets of Manhattan.

After a fadeout, the picture fades back in and it's the next day at the office. Armstrong once again dramatizes an event that was told briefly through narration in Cheever's story, and Brahm stages the scene brilliantly. Miss Dent sits at her desk, typing, when Blake enters and is brusque with her. We see him in his office through plate glass double doors that separate his office space from the outer office area where Miss Dent sits; we can see him arguing with a man named Johnson but we can't hear what is being said. Johnson then comes out and tells Miss Dent that she is fired. She is distraught and questions this decision. The shot is set up so that we see Miss Dent and Johnson speaking in the foreground while at the same time we can see Blake sitting at his desk in the background, through the glass doors. She insists on going into his office to talk to him and there are two quick close-ups, one of her and one of Johnson, that mask Blake's exit out a back door, so when Miss Dent rushes in he's already gone and all we see is a coat hanger swinging on a hook; he grabbed his coat and ran in order to avoid her.

Another great frame composition

The long flashback ends and the screen dissolves to Miss Dent and Blake on the train. She tells him that she knew he was married and would have understood and not told his wife; this is an addition to the story. Armstrong removes all of the biblical quotations from Job but follows the rest of the events closely. When Brahm has the camera pull back from the tight two shot to show the rest of the people in the train car, we see how the intense drama between these two people is separate and apart from the uneventful daily trip of the rest of the commuters, who are unaware of what's going on among them. There is a very nice shot of Blake and Miss Dent's reflection in the train window, and soon the train arrives at Shady Hill, where the action once again shifts back to the outside world. Other commuters are met by their happy spouses and everyone disperses, leaving the unhappy couple of Blake and Miss Dent alone on the platform. All of his neighbors have abandoned him, just as he abandoned Miss Dent.

Reflected in the train window

Left alone on the platform

She guides him out of the light of the station and over to a siding area where sit a couple of old, abandoned train cars. The final confrontation takes place and it is essentially a soliloquy for Miss Dent; after they disembark from the train, Blake never speaks again. The scene is played beautifully by Phyllis Thaxter as Miss Dent, but does it work dramatically as the conclusion to a TV show? It certainly works on the page, where Cheever narrates as Blake watches Miss Dent walk away before he "got to his feet and picked up his hat from the ground where it had fallen and walked home." In the TV show, she turns and walks away and he lifts his face from the dirt as the picture fades out. I find this to be a disappointing finish to a thrilling drama and perhaps some sort of voice over narration might have helped. In any case, "The Five-Forty-Eight" is a brilliant adaptation of a classic short story, with a fine script, inventive direction, and a standout performance by the leading lady.

The abandoned siding

John Brahm (1893-1982) was born in Germany and brought some of the expressionism of that country's late silent film period to his work in Hollywood. He began directing films in 1936 and his best work is thought to be on display in The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945). He began directing for television in 1952 and he would direct a large number of TV shows in the next 15 years, including episodes of Thriller, The Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone. He directed ten half-hour Hitchcock shows and five hour ones; "A Night with the Boys" and "Murder Case" are good examples of his work.

Giving her all as Miss Dent is Phyllis Thaxter (1919-2002), an actress who started out on Broadway before moving to film in 1944 and TV in 1953. In addition to roles on Thriller and The Twilight Zone, she appeared in nine episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Long Silence." Later in her career, she played Ma Kent in Superman (1978) and her last screen role came in 1992.

The caddish Blake is played perfectly by Zachary Scott (1914-1965), who had played a similarly despicable character in Mildred Pierce (1945). Like Thaxter, his career began on Broadway before he moved into film in 1944 and TV in 1950. His career ended early, at the age of 51, when he died of a brain tumor. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

In supporting roles:
  • Irene Windust (1921-1999) as Mrs. Compton, the gossipy woman on the train who likes Blake's wife but can never find much to say to him; she had a brief screen career from 1958 to 1963 but managed to appear in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Blessington Method."

Irene Windust and Raymond Bailey

  • Raymond Bailey (1904-1980) as Mr. Watkins, who sits briefly with Blake but then moves to sit with Mrs. Compton; he was on screen from 1939 to 1975 and appeared in 11 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Backward, Turn Backward." He had a regular role on The Beverly Hillbillies as Mr. Drysdale from 1962 to 1971.
  • Penny Edwards (1928-1998) as Blake's new secretary, Miss Smith; her screen career lasted from 1947 to 1961 and she was also in "The Blessington Method" with Irene Windust.

Charles Davis

  • Charles Davis (1925-2009) as Johnson, who fires Miss Dent in the flashback; he was on screen from 1951 to 1987 and he was in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "I Killed the Count."

Paul Gordon
  • Paul Gordon (1916-2010) as the bartender in the flashback; he was on screen from 1959 to 1969 and played bartenders in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Man from the South."
  • Joseph Hamilton (1899-1965) as the train conductor; he was on screen from 1954 to 1965 and may be seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock show.

Joseph Hamilton

John Cheever's story may be read for free online here. The Hitchcock show may be viewed for free online here or may be ordered here on DVD. The story was remade in 1979 for PBS and that DVD is available here.

If IMDb is to be believed, "The Five-Forty-Eight" had been adapted for television in 1955 and broadcast live on March 7th of that year as part of the series Robert Montgomery Presents. The title of the episode was "A Matter of Dignity" but the summary shows it was the same story as "The Five-Forty-Eight." What is surprising about this entry is the alleged identity of the actor playing Blake: John Cheever himself! I have not been able to find any corroboration for this credit, though, and the episode appears to be lost.

Notes:

[1] "John Cheever."

[2] Ibid.

[3] "Charlotte Armstrong."

Sources:

"Charlotte Armstrong." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003. Contemporary Authors Online, http://link.galegroup .com/apps/doc/H1000003000/CA u=lawr69060&sid=CA&xid= bd5286ca. Accessed 10 June 2018.

Cheever, John. "The Five-Forty-Eight." The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf, 1978, pp. 236–247.
The FictionMags Index. www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
"The Five-Forty-Eight." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 5, NBC, 25 Oct. 1960.
Galactic Central, philsp.com/.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
"John Cheever." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2004. Contemporary Authors Online, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1000017448/CA?u=lawr69060&sid=CA&xid=7db0ff1e. Accessed 10 June 2018.
"The Last Word: The Mean Streets of the Suburbs, the Kindness of Stran..." Archive.is, 29 June 2013, archive.is/20130629214925/http://mcfarland.metapress.com/content/ 542u870u0570u55k/.
"The New Yorker April 10, 1954 Issue." The New Yorker, The New Yorker, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1954/04/10.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 June 2018, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: Our short series on John Cheever concludes with "O Youth and Beauty," starring Gary Merrill and Patricia Breslin!

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