Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-James P. Cavanagh Part One: The Hidden Thing [1.34]

by Jack Seabrook

James P. Cavanagh (1922-1971) was a writer whose flame burned brightly but burned out early when he died at the young age of 49. His first writing credit was as one of three writers on the 1951 crime drama, The Family Secret; the other two writers were Francis Cockrell and Andrew Solt, both of whom would later write teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Born in New York City, Cavanagh spent the 1950s and 1960s writing mostly for TV, penning 15 episodes of Suspense in 1953-54 and adapting Daphne Du Maurier's story, "The Birds," for the series, Danger, in 1955, nearly a decade before Hitchcock would film the same tale. Cavanagh wrote nine episodes of Climax in 1955-57 and adapted Cornell Woolrich's Rendezvous in Black for Playhouse 90 in 1956.

Starting in 1956, Cavanagh became a frequent writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, scripting 15 teleplays over the next 6 years. He won an Emmy for the 1956 episode, "Fog Closing In."

Biff McGuire as Dana
On June 8, 1959, at the recommendation of Joan Harrison, Hitchcock hired Cavanagh to adapt Robert Bloch's novel, Psycho, for the screen. Cavanagh flew from Paris to Hollywood on June 10th and began work on the screenplay, which still survives. Hitchcock was not happy with the script, however, and fired Cavanagh on July 27th, but the author continued to write for the director's television show.

In 1960, he became the associate producer and story editor for the first eight episodes of Thriller, and he also wrote the script for the first episode to air, "The Twisted Image." After leaving the team making Thriller, Cavanagh wrote a few more teleplays and was nominated for an Edgar Award for his screenplay for Murder at the Gallop (1963), which he adapted from an Agatha Christie novel. Other than a single teleplay in 1967, Cavanagh had no more credits and died in Los Angeles in 1971. I have been unable to identify any books or stories that he wrote, which suggests that all of his writing was done for the large or small screen.

In this series of articles, I will examine the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents written by James P. Cavanagh.


Robert H. Harris as Hurley
The first episode that Cavanagh wrote for the Hitchcock show was "The Hidden Thing" which, according to the onscreen credits, was adapted from a story by A.J. Russell (1915-1999). The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion claims that Russell actually provided an original story idea, and this appears to be likely, since I can find no published books or stories by Russell. Instead he, like Cavanagh, was a very successful writer for television, beginning in 1950. He wrote 11 episodes of Lights Out and adapted Fredric Brown's story, "Crisis, 1999" for the series, Tales of Tomorrow. He began writing for The Jackie Gleason Show in 1952 and was one of the writing staff responsible for the classic 39-episode season of The Honeymooners in 1955-56. He went on to write for The Phil Silvers Show in 1957-58 and shared an Emmy with the rest of the show's writing staff in 1958. He continued writing for television into the 1980s. In addition to "The Hidden Thing," he wrote one other episode of the Hitchcock show, "Kill with Kindness."

Russell may have focused on writing comedy in the 1950s, but "The Hidden Thing" is no comedy. It opens with Dana Edwards and his fiance, Laura, sitting in the front seat of his car, parked at the side of the road and necking in the dark. Deeply in love, he marvels at his good fortune that they are to be married in two days and fears losing her. They walk across the street to a hamburger stand but she turns back to retrieve her purse from the car. As she crosses the road alone, she is struck and killed by a hit and run driver.

Judith Ames as Laura
Later, sitting in the hamburger stand, police lieutenant Shea questions Dana, who is distraught and unable to recall any details of the car. A week later, Dana lies in bed at his mother's home, depressed. An unknown man telephones and then shows up, having let himself in through the open front door. His name is John Hurley and he demands to speak to Dana, explaining that he lost his son in the same way that Laura was killed. Hurley says that he is a former teacher who wants to help Dana remember details of the accident by means of total recall.

As Dana's memories are probed in the days that follow, he grows increasingly frustrated by his lack of progress and curious about Hurley and his motives. Finally probing Dana's memories of the day of the accident, Hurley begins to draw out details; Lt. Shea arrives, having been summoned by Hurley, and Dana has a breakthrough, recalling the license plate number of the car that killed his fiance. Dana explains that guilt caused a mental block, but Shea has a surprise for him: Hurley had no son killed in a car accident and is "just a nut" who turns up in similar situations and annoys the police.

Theodore Newton as Lt. Shea
"The Hidden Thing" is ostensibly focused on the notion of "total recall," or the ability to remember every detail of an event. Yet the episode seems slight, as if Cavanagh was given just a brief idea and had to flesh it out to fill the show's running time. Robert Stevens, the director, does his best to make the story interesting, but ultimately fails. The dialogue in the first scene foreshadows Laura's death and Dana's despair:

"Sometimes when I'm not with you, I close my eyes and I can't remember what you look like."--Dana

"I'm afraid I'm going to lose you. I couldn't live if I did."--Dana

"Probably I'm a punishment, not a reward."--Laura

Katherine Warren as Dana's mother
Stevens frames Laura in a medium shot, illuminated by car headlights, right before she is run down. Two scenes later, Dana lies on is bed, humming the same tune that was playing on the radio when he and Laura were kissing. He stares at a circular light fixture on the ceiling and it seems to resemble a car's wheel. Stevens inserts two close ups of the light to suggest that it will be important, but it is not. His next directorial trick comes when Hurley enters the house and Dana's mother speaks to him. The camera stays focused on her, even though the viewer expects the usual shot/reverse shot. Up in Dana's room, he hears the exchange and rushes down; still, the camera stays away from Hurley until he finally enters the frame. This unusual decision by Stevens heightens the viewer's anticipation that there will be some surprise when Hurley is shown, but there is none. The effect merely seems showy, while the result is disappointing.

The most interesting shot in the show occurs in Dana's bedroom, when Hurley begins to probe his memory. The camera focuses on a mirror attached to the dresser and slanted slightly downwards to reflect Dana and Hurley, with the physical relation between the two men resembling that of a psychiatrist (seated) and his patient (lying down). Next to the mirror, prominently displayed and larger than either of the two male figures, is a framed photo of Laura; this shot composition allows Stevens to put the three main characters in the frame together, with Laura's memory looming large over the interrogation process. Clever camera setups like this are a hallmark of the episodes directed by Robert Stevens.

In the show's latter scenes, it appears that budget-cutting measures may have been in order, since Dana's memories of the events preceding the accident are simply replayed from the episode's first scene. The effect is tedious. Oddly enough, Dana's comments from the initial scene, wondering how Laura can be real and commenting that he has trouble recalling what she looks like when they're apart, almost suggest a different ending to the story, one in which it is revealed that she was a figment of his imagination. Alas, the real ending is a letdown, as the mystery is solved but the twist turns out to be that Hurley is not a grieving father but "just a nut."

Robert Stevens (1920-1989) directed 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

"He's just a nut!"
Starring as Dana Edwards is Biff McGuire (1926- ), who was born William McGuire and who started out on Broadway, including a role in the original cast of South Pacific (1949). He acted on TV and in film from 1950 to 2013 and was in the classic 1973 film, Serpico. He appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Gentleman from America," where he also was directed by Robert Stevens.

Robert H. Harris (1911-1981), who was born Robert Hurwitz, plays John Hurley. He began in Yiddish Theater and moved on to roles on Broadway before embarking on a screen career that lasted from 1948 to 1978. His special brand of creepiness can be seen in nine episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Dangerous People," and he was also on Thriller.

In supporting roles:
  • Judith Ames (1929- ) as Laura; she was born Rachel Foulger and her screen career began with her debut in 1951 in When Worlds Collide. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show, but she was on Thriller and, from 1964 to 2015, she had a long-running role on the daytime soap opera, General Hospital. After 1960, she was credited as Rachel Ames.
  • Theodore Newton (1904-1963) as Lt. Shea; he was on Broadway from 1928-1951, in film from 1933-1963, and on TV from 1949-1963. He was in seven episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "O Youth and Beauty!" and "What Really Happened."
  • Katherine Warren (1905-1965) as Dana's mother; her screen career spanned the years from 1941 to 1963 and she was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Back for Christmas." 
"The Hidden Thing" aired on CBS on Sunday, May 20, 1956, and may be viewed for free online here. Order the DVD here and read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

UPDATE (June 23, 2021): In his podcast on "The Hidden Thing," Al Sjoerdsma points out that A.J. Russell is credited as the writer of an episode of the early TV series, The Clock, entitled "The Hidden Thing," that aired on July 13, 1951. The Classic TV Archive provides this synopsis: "A man's memory plays tricks on the conflicting evidence he knows about." Al suspects that this was the source for the 1956 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The Classic TV Archive page is here and you can listen to Al's podcast here.

The FictionMags Index,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
“The Hidden Thing.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 34, CBS, 20 May 1956.
“Personal Mention.” Motion Picture Daily, 10 June 1959, p. 2.
Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Marion Boyars, 2013.
Warren, Alan. This Is a Thriller: an Episode Guide, History and Analysis of the Classic 1960s Television Series. McFarland, 2004.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: The Creeper, starring Constance Ford and Steve Brodie!


arredondo said...

I've recently started watching this show on Peacock and like you, was disappointed by the VERY flat ending. In fact, I was locked in to the plot more than most episodes to where I thought I had guess the ending only to find out I was wrong. I believe my idea for the final scene is infinitely better than the show:

Dana the husband has his break through as he writes out the license plate number on the chalk board with great relief. Hurley beams with menacing approval when the two are interrupted by the detective who comes in to warn the men that a car outside belonging to one of them is double parked and might get a ticket.

Hurley asks what the license plate of the car outside is and the detective reads it off. Dana looks at the board then at Hurley in horror as it is clear that the two plates are one and the same.

Dana softly asks Hurley in a whisper, "But why?", referring to the revelation that it was Hurley who killed his wife and sped off. Hurley coldly replies that it is because some years ago, a car with Dana's license plate had killed his his son, and he finally found Dana to exact his revenge, making sure he would forever be emotionally tormented for losing a loved one like Hurley had been.

After the confession, the last shot would have Hurley handcuffed by the detective and trotted out to go on trial for murder.

Jack Seabrook said...

That's a clever ending! I like it! Let's get in the time machine and pitch it to the producer.