Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-James P. Cavanagh Part Eight: Arthur [5.1]

by Jack Seabrook

After "Sylvia," James P. Cavanagh wrote the teleplay for "The Festive Season," then wrote no teleplays for season four of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He came roaring back with the script for the opening show of season five, a classic tale of macabre humor directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on a 1948 short story by Arthur Williams called "Being a Murderer Myself."

The story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed man (one can assume he is meant to be Arthur Williams, the pseudonymous author), who tells the reader that he is as interested in how a murder is committed as he is in who committed it and why. Remarking that some murderers get away with the crime and arguing that they can be "quite normal," he admits to having killed his former girlfriend, Susan, who had spurned him and married a man named Stanley Braithwaite. After tiring of Stanley's "insensitiveness," Susan returned to the narrator, who no longer cared for her. He tells the reader that he made his poultry farm in South Africa "self-supporting" by using "labor-saving devices" and that he runs it alone; he cares more for his 3000 chickens than he did for Susan and he found her presence unbearable.

Laurence Harvey as Arthur
Thinking, "'Really, I could wring her neck!'" he strangled her but was not affected by his deed. He disposed of her body "in the manner I had been stimulated to devise when reading of the difficulties other murderers had experienced in this regard." Police Sergeant Theron showed up about three weeks later and inquired as to her whereabouts. Though the narrator calls Theron "an alert and intelligent policeman," the officer was no match for the narrator, who said he was unaware that the newspapers had appealed for help when Susan disappeared and who explained that he and Susan quarreled and she stormed out, leaving her suitcase behind. Theron examined the contents of the suitcase and left.

About a week later, the sergeant returned with a constable and Inspector Liebensberg from the Johannesburg C.I.D. The narrator took the policemen on a tour of the house and farm, proud of all the devices he uses to raise his chickens, after which they left. Another week passed, and the narrator decided to taunt the police by pretending to run away, hiding for three days in a nearby cave, passing the time by reading detective novels. He returned home to find the police searching his house and farm and he told them that he went looking for Susan himself and got lost. He was taken to the police station for questioning and an attempt by the police to trick him into admitting guilt by claiming that the body had been found fell flat. The exhaustive search yielded no trace of Susan's body and, eventually, the police gave up.

Hazel Court as Helen
That Christmas, the narrator sent Theron "a brace of cockerels"; months later, Theron left to join the Rhodesian Police and the narrator hired a new housekeeper, explaining to the reader that Susan's body was ground up and mixed into meal that was fed to the chickens. He explains in great detail how every last bit of the woman was turned into chicken feed and that the chickens that feasted on it grew into "fine pullets and cockerels." He disposed of every bit of her and then got rid of every chicken that had fed on her remains, though he claims this is just a story he made up as "an ardent student of detective fiction." His new housekeeper, Ann Lissen, has fallen in love with him and he finds this "tiresome." He is "most eager to rear especially good stock next season" and the story ends with the implication that Ann will be his next victim.

The narrator of "Being a Murderer Myself" believes himself to be extraordinarily clever and charming. He thinks of himself as "quite normal" and not a "cold-blooded brute," yet his act is horrible. He criticizes the "insensitiveness" and "egoism" of Susan's husband, Stanley Braithwaite, yet the narrator's own crime and boastfulness demonstrate that he shares those faults. Pretending to listen to Susan while she "chattered away," the narrator indirectly reveals that he had been thinking about murder before Susan's arrival and that he had planned a way to dispose of a body without being detected; in a sense, her role is to supply the body to test his thesis. Despite the fact that South Africa had become independent from Great Britain in 1931, nearly two decades before this story was published, the narrator is understated and very British in his approach to crime. The story is fascinating mainly due to the charm of its narrator and the suspense created by wondering how he disposed of the body, though the narrative runs out of steam once he reveals his method; the details are rather disgusting and go on too long.

"Being a Murderer Myself"
was first published here
The author of the story, who uses the pseudonym of Arthur Williams, was discovered by Julian Symons to be a South African named Peter Barry Way (1917-1969), who never published another story. His tale may be based on a celebrated murder case from 1924, when a chicken farmer in Sussex, England, by the name of Norman Thorne murdered his pregnant former girlfriend and buried her dismembered body under the chicken run. He told the police that she had never arrived at his farm, but when they found her suitcase he claimed that she had actually come to visit and hanged herself while he was out. When he returned and found her dead, he grew afraid, cut up her body, and buried it. His story was not successful in preventing a jury from finding him guilty, and he was hanged.

It seems likely that Way read of this case and decided to come up with a method by which the killer could have escaped the hangman's noose. A 2006 book called Chickenfeed was also based on the Thorne case.

Critics of the short story have noted that there is some similarity in theme to Lord Dunsany's short story, "Two Bottles of Relish" (1932), in which a man murders a woman and there is a suggestion that the body was never found because he ate it a bit at a time. Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" (1953) followed Way's tale by five years and features a woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks the murder weapon and feeds it to the police investigating the crime.

Patrick Macnee as Sgt. Theron
Hitchcock had directed the television adaptation of "Lamb to the Slaughter" and it aired to great acclaim in April 1958, so it is no surprise that when James P. Cavanagh adapted "Being a Murderer Myself" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the great director jumped at the chance to direct it. The show was rehearsed and filmed over a three-day period from July 7, 1959, to July 9, 1959, and it was retitled "Arthur," after the name of the pseudonymous author of the short story who narrates it as if it were true.

"Arthur" is an outstanding black comedy, with a great script that improves upon its source, fine acting by all concerned, and direction that emphasizes the subject's black humor. The show opens with Arthur holding a chicken and standing in front of a roomful of chickens at his "poultry farm in New Zealand" (the location has been changed for no discernible reason). He addresses the camera and the audience directly, then speaks to the chicken and pats it before holding it down, out of view, and strangling it. The fowl lets out a final cluck as it dies, a sound that will be repeated later in the episode at a key moment. Instead of taking the story's narration and turning it into action or dialogue, Cavanagh takes the unusual step in "Arthur" of having the main character speak directly to the viewer, just as he speaks directly to the reader in the short story.

Arthur strangles a chicken

The scene dissolves to a roasted chicken being removed from the oven, and Arthur begins to talk about Helen (Susan in the short story) as he eats the bird. There is another dissolve to a flashback, in which Helen tells Arthur that she has fallen for Stanley and cannot marry Arthur. Now the story's narrative becomes dialogue between Arthur and Helen; they snipe at each other cruelly but civilly until she leaves. Sergeant Theron visits Arthur, who shows off his new grinder for mixing chicken feed, among his other labor-saving devices; a year has passed since the prior scene. After the policeman leaves, Arthur enters his house to find that Helen has returned. We witness how annoyed he becomes with her as he narrates the scene in voice over, and his motive for the murder that follows seems to be her sloppiness: she piles dirty dishes in the sink and puts out cigarettes in a ceramic dish. Arthur tells her: "'I like my life the way it is now and I won't have any changes.'" After she accidentally knocks a ceramic pitcher off the tea table and it smashes on the floor, Arthur comes up behind her and strangles her; like the chicken he strangled in the first scene, her face is out of view as she is killed and she emits a cluck that sounds just like that of the dying chicken.

Arthur strangles a woman

Theron visits, as he does in the story, and here Cavanagh invents more dialogue to replace the story's narration. The sergeant returns with Liebenberg and dialogue is interspersed with Arthur's voice over narration to move the tale along. The following scene, where Arthur pretends to run away and hides in the cave, is accomplished visually with voice over narration. He returns home to find the police searching his farm but, sadly, the budget must not have allowed Hitchcock to film thousands of hens running wild and interfering with the search, a scene that would have prefigured The Birds by several years. Instead of going to the police station, as he does in the story, Arthur is questioned in his home, and the constable's lame attempt to trick him by claiming that the body has been found occurs there.

Robert Douglas as
Inspector Liebensberg
After the policemen have left, more narration tells us that it is now Christmas, and we see Arthur placing two chickens in a basket to give to Sergeant Theron. In the final scene, Arthur once again speaks directly to the camera, as he did in the opening scene. He explains that the chickens he gave to the sergeant were raised on special feed made in his new mill, and it is clear--though unsaid--that he ground up the unfortunate Helen. He switches on the mill and smiles as the screen fades to black.

Cavanagh wisely omits the last section of the short story, in which the narrator explains in detail how he disposed of the body, not to mention the hiring of the housekeeper and his plans for her demise. The ending of the TV show is subtler and more effective. In effect, "Arthur" takes the premise of "Lamb to the Slaughter" one step further--there, the murder weapon was fed to the police, while here, the victim is fed to chickens, which are given to the police to consume.

Donald Spoto wrote that "Arthur" is "brusquely directed ... and the first Hitchcock production with a blunt and angry violence exercised against a female protagonist." He calls Strangers on a Train (1951) the exception to this rule but argues that it was "remarkably faithful to the novel," suggesting that the violence in "Arthur" is attributable to a change in Hitchcock's on-screen treatment of women, However, "Arthur" is "remarkably faithful" to the short story on which it is based, and I don't think that Spoto is convincing in his argument that it marks a turning point from the sort of worship of women displayed in Hitchcock's famous films of the mid-1950s to the abuse of women that would be displayed in films starting with Psycho (1960).

Barry Harvey
Steve Mamber is more on target when he notes that, like another episode directed by Hitchcock, "One More Mile to Go," "Arthur" deals with the problem of how to get rid of a body. One interesting aspect of the main character that is present in both the story and the TV film is his avowed interest in detective stories; in both story and TV show he refers to Crippen, saying "'My best plan, of course, was to make Crippen's mistake, and run away'" right before he heads to the cave for a three-day period of hiding. Harvey Hawley Crippen (1862-1910) was an American doctor who was hanged for the murder of his wife; he fled after being interviewed by police, who found the corpse after he left. Arthur, in his effort to taunt the police, pretends to run away, correctly predicting that the police would suspect him even more and search his farm, but this time the examination of the grounds yields no corpse.

The central role of Arthur is played to perfection by Laurence Harvey (1928-1973), who was born Laruschka Stikne in Lithuania but who, like the narrator of "Being a Murderer Myself," grew up in South Africa. He moved to England in 1946 and had a career on screen from 1950 to 1973. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, but he was also on Night Gallery and is best remembered for two films: Room at the Top (1959) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). A biography of Harvey, Reach for the Top, was published in 2003.

British beauty Hazel Court (1926-2008) portrays the unfortunate Helen Braithwaite; her career on screen lasted from 1944 to 1981 and included roles in such classic horror films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Premature Burial (1962), The Raven (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). This was one of four appearances she made on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Crocodile Case," and she was also seen on The Twilight Zone and Thriller. Her autobiography is titled, Hazel Court--Horror Queen.

Another British actor, Robert Douglas (1909-1999) appears as Inspector Liebenberg. Born Robert Finlayson, he acted on screen from 1931 to 1982 and was also seen in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "The Impromptu Murder." From 1960 to 1982, he was a busy director of episodic television, including directing four episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

In the final shot, Arthur reveals how he disposed of the body.
Sergeant John Theron is played by Patrick Macnee (1922-2015), who served in the Royal Navy in WWII and whose career on screen stretched from 1938 to 2003. He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, but he will forever be remembered for his long-running role as John Steed on The Avengers and, later, The New Avengers. He wrote an autobiography called Blind in One Ear: The Avenger Returns and a website devoted to him is here.

Finally, Barry Harvey plays Constable Barry; he does not have many credits in his short screen career from 1955 to 1961, but he did appear in eight episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole."

Read "Being a Murderer Myself" for free online here and watch "Arthur" for free online here or buy the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. The story appears to have been adapted for radio under its original title, "Being a Murderer Myself," on BBC Radio on January 18, 2014; however, I have been unable to find a recording. There were five episodes of this series, and the publicity materials say that the stories were deemed too gruesome for the original TV show, despite the fact that two of the stories were, in fact, adapted for the original TV show! Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that the tales were collected in the anthology, Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV (1957).

"Arthur." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 1, CBS, 27 Sept. 1959.
Galactic Central,
Giblin, Gary. Alfred Hitchcock's London: A Reference Guide to Locations. Bear Manor, 2019.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Mamber, Steve. "The Television Films of Alfred Hitchcock." pp. 3–4,
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: the Dark Side of Genius. Collins, 1983.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,
Williams, Arthur. "Being a Murderer Myself." Best of the Best Detective Stories, edited by David C. Cooke, Dutton, 1960, pp. 58–74.

In two weeks: Coming, Mama, starring Eileen Heckart and Don DeFore!

Listen to the podcast, Presenting Alfred Hitchcock Presents, here, as Al Sjoerdsma discusses "The Long Shot."


Unknown said...

Very detailed background and analysis of the story to an episode of AHP I found unusual. Thank you.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your comment!