Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-James P. Cavanagh Part Two: The Creeper [1.38]

by Jack Seabrook

On May 8, 1945, Winston Churchill announced that World War Two had come to an end in Europe, but the fight was ongoing in the Far East. In Chicago, while soldiers were still far away and their wives and girlfriends were making the best of things on the home front, a woman named Josephine Ross was found stabbed to death in her apartment on June 5th. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, bringing fighting overseas to a close, but the Ross murder went unsolved and, on December 10, 1945, a second murder in Chicago set the stage for "The Creeper," the second episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with a teleplay by James P. Cavanagh.

The second murder, of a woman named Frances Brown, who was found dead of a stab wound and a bullet wound, was a spectacular news event because, written on the wall of her apartment in lipstick, was the message: "For heavens/Sake catch me/Before I kill more/I cannot control myself." A third murder followed, when six-year-old Suzanne Degnan's body was found in pieces after she had been reported missing from her family's apartment on January 7, 1946.

An intense search for the killer was underway when, on March 29, 1946, the radio show Molle Mystery Theater presented "The Creeper," by Joseph Ruscoll, a dramatization that fictionalized the story of the Lipstick Killer, as the unknown murderer had been dubbed, compressing the time of the murders, moving the location to New York City, and suggesting a solution. The radio broadcast was a success and led to numerous re-stagings of the tale on radio and television until it aired as the next-to-last episode of season one of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The radio play begins as husband and wife Steve and Georgia Grant hear a radio news broadcast reporting that the Creeper has struck again, strangling his third female victim in as many days and leaving a note scrawled on the wall begging police to catch him before he kills again. The Grants bicker over breakfast: he has been suspended from his job as a policeman due to overeating and she is getting over the flu. Although the lock on their apartment door is broken and there have been murders in their Washington Heights neighborhood three days in a row, Steve goes out and leaves Georgia home alone.

Steve goes to a bar and runs into Pearley Chase, a newspaper reporter who drinks too much; we learn that Georgia is a beauty who used to be on the stage. Steve and Pearley speculate on the Creeper's identity and mention that all of his victims have been redheads. Pearley comments that there seems to be a pattern: the women lived in apartments numbered 1-A, 2-B, and 3-C. Steve discounts the alarming fact that his wife is a redhead who lives in Washington Heights and that their apartment number happens to be 4-D.

Meanwhile, Georgia walks to the drugstore to buy medicine. The druggist is flirtatious, but Georgia refuses his offer to deliver her order to her apartment and leaves the store in terror after he quotes the Creeper's message. She runs into Mrs. Stone, who lives across the hall, and talk turns again to the Creeper; when Mrs. Stone suggests that the Creeper might be a woman, Georgia flees in fear. Things don't go much better for Georgia when she returns to her apartment building. The doorman's comments unnerve her and the elevator boy makes a pass at her and causes the elevator to get stuck between floors until she tells him to get moving.

Constance Ford as Ellen
Back in her apartment, Georgia struggles with the broken door lock and telephones a locksmith but receives an unexpected visit from Pearley Chase, who claims that her husband asked him to keep an eye on her and who tells the locksmith he need not bother to come. Pearley knew Georgia when she was on the stage, before she married Steve and, though she tries to get rid of him, he insists that she turn on the radio and forces her to dance with him. Pearley still loves her but she despises him; in frustration, he remarks that he could kill her and get away with it. She breaks down in tears and he finally leaves, after telling her that she will be the Creeper's next victim.

The doorman buzzes through and tells Georgia that the druggist has arrived with her medicine; she will not let either man come up and instead calls the locksmith and begs him to come in a hurry. Mrs. Stone from across the hall tries to come in but Georgia will not let her; at last, Steve telephones and says he is back on the police force and on his way home. They apologize to each other for their behavior that morning and Steve tells her that he did, in fact, ask Pearley to keep an eye on her. Though Steve tells her not to let anyone in, she admits the locksmith, just as her husband tells her that the police have a new theory about the Creeper's identity: that of a locksmith! The locksmith/Creeper strangles Georgia as Steve speaks frantically on the telephone, then the Creeper picks up the phone and repeats his famous message to the husband of the woman he has just killed.

In the final scene, reporter Pearley Chase calls in a story to the newspaper to say that the elevator boy heard Georgia scream and called a cop; the Creeper was shot running from the building but it was too late for Georgia Grant.

Steve Brodie as Steve
In the summer of 1946, 17-year-old William Heirens was convicted in Chicago of the three real-life murders and sentenced to life in prison. He was not a locksmith. In the world of entertainment, Joseph Ruscoll's radio play "The Creeper" became a staple of the airwaves. A new production was broadcast on the series, Murder at Midnight, on November 25, 1946, and by this time it was referred to as "a classic in terror and suspense." This version ends with Georgia's death and omits the final scene where Pearly Chase reports the capture of the Creeper.

A second broadcast on Molle Mystery Theater followed on April 11, 1947, but this version has been lost. "The Creeper" was then adapted for the television show, Suspense, and aired on April 19, 1949. This early TV show has not survived. It was back to the radio for the next adaptation, which aired on Murder By Experts on July 18, 1949; this version dramatizes the third murder in the opening scene and alters the scene where Georgia (renamed Vicky) takes the elevator and fends off a pass by the elevator boy--here, the elevator operator is older and less forward. The original ending is restored this time around, with Pearley reporting the capture of the Creeper.

A second TV version followed, on the series The Web on November 29, 1950; unfortunately, like the version on TV's Suspense, this broadcast has been lost. The last radio version aired on a series called The Chase on January 25, 1953; the announcer calls it "Joseph Ruscoll's famous thriller" and this version includes the original ending.

Harry Townes as Ed
The year 1953 saw publication of The Bloody Spur, a Dell paperback original by Charles Einstein that fictionalized the story of William Heirens and the Lipstick Killer murders in Chicago, though the novel, like the radio plays before it, moves the action to New York City. Lucy Freeman's non-fiction study of the murders, Before I Kill More, was published in 1955 and, on May 16, 1956, While the City Sleeps, Fritz Lang's filmed adaptation of The Bloody Spur, was released.

Joseph Ruscoll (1906-1956), who started it all with his radio play, "The Creeper," in March 1946, began his career as a freelance radio scriptwriter in the early 1940s before joining the CBS radio writing staff in 1943. A two-year stint in the Army from 1943-1945 was followed by a return to radio writing, and a number of his stories were adapted for early TV anthology shows in the 1950s. He did not write any scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but another radio play of his, "A Bullet for Baldwin," was adapted during the show's first season. Ruscoll was protective of his famous radio play, "The Creeper," and sued the producer of an unrelated 1948 film called The Creeper for using the title.

Ruscoll died on November 19, 1956 at the age of 50. Before he died, he may have seen the adaptation of "The Creeper" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; this has become the most familiar version due to regular reruns over the last six decades. While the various radio versions that survive stick closely to the original broadcast of the radio play that aired in March 1946, the Hitchcock version makes significant changes, perhaps because it was ten years' removed from the actual event on which the story was based.

The show begins with a street scene that is set on the front stoop of a New York apartment building, where the Grants' neighbor, Mrs. Stone, chats with George, the new janitor, and we see a newspaper headline: "East Side Killer Still At Large--Police Tag Killer Of Two Women 'The Creeper.'" Mrs. Stone strikes a moralistic tone, remarking that "'Decent women don't get themselves murdered,'" and Mrs. Grant sticks her head out the window to tell George that she has been trying to get someone from the hardware store to come and install a bolt and chain on the inside of her apartment door. Mrs. Stone notes that both of the women who were murdered had husbands who worked the night shift, as does Mr. Grant.

Reta Shaw as Mrs. Stone
The location then shifts indoors to the Grants' apartment, where the next scene follows the first scene of Ruscoll's radio play as the Grants bicker. Georgia has been renamed Ellen and she is over the flu; Steve asks her to go to the shoe store to pick up his shoes, and this outing will later replace her visit to the drugstore from the radio play. The most notable change in this scene--and in the show as a whole--is the absence of any mention of the lipstick message scrawled on the wall of the murdered women's apartments. Gone is the plea to "catch me before I kill more" that was such an integral part of the radio show; in its place is a more run of the mill serial killer.

In addition to this important change, James P. Cavanagh's script moves events around and eliminates characters from the radio show. The scene in the Grants' apartment is followed by a visit from Mrs. Stone that corresponds to Georgia Grant's walk back from the drugstore in the radio play; here, Mrs. Stone stops by from across the hall and we see that the Grants' apartment number is 1-A, not the 4-D of Ruscoll's original. The bar scene with Steve and Ed (as Pearley is renamed) follows, but instead of three redheads killed in apartments 1-A, 2-B, and 3-C, here two blondes have been killed and both were left alone by husbands working the night shift.

The location of the next scene is changed from a drugstore to a shoe store, though the content is essentially the same; Ellen then returns home, skipping the walk with Mrs. Stone. Also gone are the interactions with the doorman and the elevator boy; the Grants are too poor to live in a building with such services and those characters are replaced by George, the janitor, who replaces a light bulb in the dark entranceway as Ellen scurries to safety in her apartment.

Percy Helton as George
She turns to see that Ed Chase has let himself in and the scene that follows is quite similar to the one in the radio show with her and Pearley. When Ed turns the music up loud to drown out her screams, it causes the janitor to come knocking; of course, Mrs. Stone has complained about the noise. Ellen is able to get rid of Ed, but Mrs. Stone witnessed him leaving her apartment and takes the opportunity to do some more moralizing, equating Ellen with  the other immoral women who have been the victims of the Creeper. In the final scene, the locksmith calls on the intercom and we hear his voice, though we never see him. Steve telephones and there are cuts back and forth between him and Ellen as they converse; we hear the locksmith come in and, just as Steve warns Ellen about the police suspicion that the Creeper is a locksmith, the terror of who she has admitted to her apartment fills Ellen and her face shows fear as a hand comes from offscreen to cover her mouth. The show ends here, without the final commentary by Pearley Chase about the capture of the killer, though Hitchcock delivers much the same commentary in his closing remarks.

The original radio play of "The Creeper" revolved around the horrible message written in lipstick on the wall of the victims and repeated numerous times throughout the show by various characters. Why did James P. Cavanagh decide to eliminate this central point when he adapted the show for television? Perhaps it had to do with While the City Sleeps having been released just a month before this episode aired on CBS on Sunday, June 17, 1956. The episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents appear to have been filmed no more than a couple of months before they aired, so it may be that the producer was aware of the impending release of the Lang film at the time the script was assigned and the decision was made to avoid telling a story that was so close to that of the film. It would be interesting to see if the prior TV adaptations of "The Creeper" included the lipstick message; unfortunately, neither televised version seems to have survived.

In any case, the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock Presents version of "The Creeper" is an excellent half hour of suspense, with a fast-moving script, solid direction, and an outstanding cast. Starring as Ellen is Constance Ford (1923-1993), who was born Cornelia Ford in the Bronx, just across the Harlem River from Washington Heights, where Joseph Ruscoll's radio play of "The Creeper" is set. She started modeling at age 15, was in the original cast of Death of a Salesman in 1949 as Miss Forsythe, and began her screen career in 1950. She was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice and also had roles on The Twilight Zone and Thriller. She had a long-running role on the soap opera Another World, from 1967 to 1992, and died in 1993.

Alfred Linder as the shoe store man
Ellen's husband, Steve, is played by Steve Brodie (1919-1992), who was born John Stevenson and who took as his stage name the name of the man who famously claimed he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. Brodie was on screen from 1944 to 1988 and was seen in the classic noir film, Out of the Past (1947). He was in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Enough Rope for Two," and he was also on Thriller.

Giving a fine performance as Ed Chase is Harry Townes (1914-2001), an actor who could seem intense and menacing one moment yet sad and vulnerable the next. He was on Broadway before serving in the Army Air Corps in WWII; his screen career lasted from 1949 to 1988 and included an important role in The Screaming Mimi (1958). He was on the Hitchcock show four times and also appeared in classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller. Oddly enough, in addition to being an actor, he was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1974.

The redoubtable Reta Shaw (1912-1982) plays Mrs. Stone; she was on Broadway beginning in 1947 and had a screen career from 1952 to 1975. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show but she is remembered for her role in Mary Poppins (1964) and as a regular on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir from 1968 to 1970. She was also on Thriller.

Always-welcome Percy Helton (1894-1971) plays George, the janitor; he began his career in vaudeville as a child and served in Europe in WWI. His career on screen lasted from 1915 to 1922, then again from 1936 to his death; he was on The Twilight Zone twice and on Alfred Hitchcock Presents seven times, including "Nightmare in 4-D."

William Heirens, who served a
life sentence for the murders
Alfred Linder (1902-1957) plays the man behind the counter in the shoe store; he was on screen from 1939 to 1957 and also appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Shopping for Death."

Finally, "The Creeper" was directed by Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), who directed 27 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Cure," and who also directed 16 episodes of Thriller.

"The Creeper" was remade for the 1980s' revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and aired on March 16, 1986. Though the credits say the teleplay is based on Cavanagh's 1956 teleplay and Ruscoll's story, the latest version is almost unrecognizable. Karen Allen stars as a woman who lives alone in a dirty and dangerous big city; the menace comes more from the fragmented metropolis and its unfriendly denizens than the serial killer himself. This show is a disturbing portrayal of a woman alone.

The surviving versions of "The Creeper" may be accessed online for free as follows:

Molle Mystery Theater, March 29, 1946
Murder at Midnight, November 25, 1946
Murder By Experts, July 18, 1949
The Chase, January 25, 1953
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, June 17, 1956
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, March 16, 1986.

The Hitchcock versions are also available on DVD here and here.

Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

"The Creeper." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 17, NBC, 16 Mar. 1986.
"The Creeper." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 38, CBS, 17 June 1956.
Ellett, Ryan. Radio Drama and Comedy Writers, 1928-1962. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Ruscoll, Joseph. "The Creeper." The Chase, 25 Jan. 1953.
Ruscoll, Joseph. "The Creeper." Molle Mystery Theater, 29 Mar. 1946.
Ruscoll, Joseph. "The Creeper." Murder at Midnight, 25 Nov. 1946.
Ruscoll, Joseph. "The Creeper." Murder By Experts, 18 July 1949.
Stewart, Bhob. "Lipstick Traces." Confessions Illustrated. Gemstone Pub., 2006.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Nov. 2018,

In two weeks: Fog Closing in, starring Phyllis Thaxter!


Grant said...

Any dramatic story with both Reta Shaw and Percy Helton could almost make me feel like I'm watching a comedy instead.

Jack Seabrook said...

They are both very good in this episode.

Peter Enfantino said...

Good research, Jack! I gotta fire this one up again sometime soon.

john kenrick said...

Thanks, Jack, for your detailed analysis of this quietly excellent episode. The first couple of times I watched it I found it competent and yet somewhat bland.

Now, as Hitchcock Presents airs regularly on weeknights I'm on my fourth or fifty (at the very least) go-round with The Creeper, and it just gets better each time.

The first two or three scenes give no hint of what's to come; and then the plot thickens. Harry Townes (superlative in this) has a drink or two with the frightened woman's husband, and there's some exposition.

Then comes the final part of this short show, with Harry and the wife; and it starts to feel like Jack the Ripper time. One senses a red herring, but who else could the killer be? Several minor characters have been presented thus far, and it could be any one of them aside from the too reddish Percy Helton's smiling janitor.

The ending is, not surprisingly, a shocker. It was easy to guess that there was going to be a twist, and in this case, a big surprise; and so there was. Considered purely as a story The Creeper doesn't jump off the screen, however the characters ans the actors who play them do.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter.

John, as I work my way through the series, not always chronologically, I start to have ideas about how it developed from year to year. I had been thinking that the first season was a bit of a mixed bag, with weaker episodes aired toward the end. While "The Creeper" does fit into the first season's reliance on stories that had been told many times before, it is a real highlight even though it came very near the finish of the initial group of 39 episodes. As always, thanks very much for reading and for leaving a thoughtful comment.

john kenrick said...

You're welcome, Jack, and I agree that the Hitchcock show, not just the first season, truly developed over time. I wish I could say "grew" but I don't see much of this; by which I mean it became a better series over the years. Not in my book. It reached a certain level of quality, of true excellence, then pulled back to something more routine.

My guess is that Hitchcock, not a highly educated man, while he wanted to please the "highbrows", he also wanted to cater to a larger audience, and not not for financial reasons alone. Maybe, being Brit, he felt ambivalent regarding high quality material, by which I mean stories with a literary bent rather than a purely thriller or mystery one.

Two that come to mind of the "better" sort: The Foghorn and The Glass Eye, which both feature women who got old who either never found true love or found it at a terrible price. That the show was eclectic is a point in its favor taking into consideration the tastes of the average TV viewer. For the top shelf of the of those kinds of episodes I find the ones featuring pudgy Robert Emhardt among the best.

Grant said...

John Kenrick's third paragraph is interesting to me for one reason. I know that Hitchcock has been described as a sexist, but along with PSYCHO, a lot of episodes of the show are "women's stories," like the famous "Lamb to the Slaughter." I especially notice that when it comes to the hour show, with ones like "Where The Woodbine Twineth" and "Consider Her Ways."

Jack Seabrook said...

I've never been sure how much Hitchcock had to do with the story selection and I know he did not have a lot to do with the production. Perhaps having Joan Harrison in charge (at least at first) made it more likely that stories about women would be dramatized.