Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-Arthur A. Ross Part One: Three Wives Too Many [9.12]--Our 200th episode reviewed!

by Jack Seabrook

Arthur A. Ross (1920-2008) wrote the teleplays for eight episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour during its final two seasons, in 1964 and 1965. He had begun his career writing scripts for films in 1942, and he branched out to radio in 1951 and television in 1952. He wrote the screenplays for The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Creature Walks among Us (1956) and was blacklisted for a time in the 1950s. He shared an Edgar Award for co-writing an episode of Kraft Mystery Theatre called "The Problem in Cell Block 13" (1962) and continued to write for the small and large screens until 1980. His papers are housed at the University of Iowa.

"Three Wives Too Many"
was first published here
"Three Wives Too Many" was the first episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to feature a script by Ross and it was based on a short story of the same name by Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961). The story was published in the first issue of Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine (September 1956), an issue that included the first publication of Robert Bloch's story, "Water's Edge," which was also adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Kenneth Fearing was a poet, novelist, and short story writer who helped found The Partisan Review. Though best known for his poetry, he wrote seven novels, including The Big Clock (1946), which was the basis of a film of the same title released in 1948. The Big Clock was later adapted as No Way Out in 1987. Fearing's novel, The Hospital, was adapted twice for television in the 1950s. He wrote short stories under his own name and under the pen name of Kirk Wolff from 1921 to 1960, and from 1955 to 1960 he had a number of stories published in the crime and mystery digests. "Three Wives Too Many" was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and broadcast on CBS on Friday, January 3, 1964.

Fearing's short story tells of Richard C. Brown, who shares a home in Camden, NJ, with his third wife, Marion. He has another wife, Bernice, his fourth and most recent, in Newark, NJ and keeps a careful schedule to juggle his four wives and prevent them from knowing about each other. Marion, going gray, is as old as Richard and they have been married for five years. His first wife, Lucille, lives in Hartford, CT, while his second, Helen, lives in Boston, MA. He considers matrimony his profession, "a special type of career" that has its risks and rewards.

Dan Duryea as Brown
Often away on business, Brown insists that each of his wives "make most of the household decisions" and he believes that this keeps them happy. Neither Romeo nor Bluebeard, Brown has undertaken marriage four times both for money and for love. Marion reminds him that they are overseeing an improvement in the heating system at their home, having an auxiliary fuel tank installed in the basement, and shows her husband a gaping hole that has been dug in the cellar floor. Next to the hole are a mound of loose dirt and a bag of cement. The scene makes Richard uneasy and he thinks for some reason of "the shadowy half-world of Lonely Hearts clubs." Taking his sample case, he sets out, reminding Marion that he will return in 11 days.

Three hours later, Richard switches identities in "a busy railroad checkroom in Philadelphia." He puts his sample case of knives away, takes out his sample case of cosmetic novelties, and changes his name from Richard C. Brown to Robert D. Brown. His other identities are Raymond A. Brown (in Hartford) and Raymond B. Brown (in Boston). "He looked like any respectable, married, thirty-nine-year-old businessman ..." and married his first wife, Lucille, 15 years ago; he considers betting on horses his full-time job and studies the racing forms carefully.

Teresa Wright as Marion
Brown wishes that the behavior of horses was as easy to predict as that of his four wives. In his first two years of marriage to Lucille, his gambling nearly exhausted the $27,000 "with which she had opened their joint bank account." He then wed Helen, who deposited $40,000 in another joint bank account. His third wife, Marion, deposited $18,000 and Bernice, his fourth, deposited $20,000. His success at gambling has been "moderate" and he wonders if he will need to become "Rudolf E. Brown" and take a fifth wife.

That evening, Brown arrives at the apartment house in Newark, NJ, that he shares with Bernice. He sees a police car and an ambulance parked outside and takes the elevator to the fourth floor, where he finds his apartment door open. Police lieutenant Storber tells him that his wife is dead, having taken "'a stiff dose of cyanide in a cocktail, probably a side-car,'" around noon that day. An unknown woman called the police with a tip. Brown insists that Bernice would not have killed herself. He has a solid alibi for the time of death and realizes that his rigid schedule is to his benefit in such a situation.

After Bernice is buried, Brown again switches identities and becomes Raymond A. Brown, salesman of smoking accessories. He arrives in Hartford, CT, at the home he shares with Lucille, only to find a scene similar to the one he encountered in Newark; police lieutenant Todd tells him that Lucille committed suicide. Once again, Brown insists that his wife had no reason to end her life. The lieutenant tells Brown that Lucille "drank a cocktail, an old-fashioned this time, loaded with cyanide." Three days later, Lt. Casey of the Boston police tells Brown that Helen killed herself in the same manner. Brown suspects that someone "had a profound grudge against him and his wives." He thinks that the same person visited each wife and poisoned their drinks.

Jean Hale as Bernice
On the 16th, he returns to Camden, as scheduled, and Marion meets him at the door. On the living room table he sees pamphlets from Lonely Hearts clubs. Marion, who never drank alcohol, offers to mix cocktails, explaining that she forced herself to experiment with them. She offers to make Brown an old-fashioned or a side-car. He grows suspicious and checks the basement, where the large hole remains. Back upstairs, Marion has prepared cocktails. She suggests that he looks "'haunted, like some fugitive from justice'" and tells him that he needs to stop traveling for work and settle down.

Marion insists that she will keep the books from now on and Brown realizes that he will have to give up gambling. Marion tells Richard that she had the fuel tank removed "'until you finally decided'" and trades cocktails with him. She tells Richard that the decision is up to him "'about that hole downstairs.'"

Well-written and cleverly plotted, "Three Wives Too Many" takes a man who thinks he is in control of his life and turns his world upside down. His wife out-plots him, committing three murders in three different states on a carefully worked out schedule and successfully making them look like suicides. She has outwitted her husband at every turn without him suspecting her, and she has given him a choice: either settle down with her or become her fourth victim. Fearing's story is an outstanding mystery and it served as the basis for an excellent episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Linda Lawson as Lucille
In adapting the short story for the small screen, Arthur A. Ross knew that the narrative would have to be expanded and he made an interesting choice, one that elevates the character of Marion to a level of importance at or above that of her husband. The mood is set as Lyn Murray's playful yet eerie woodwind and string score is heard over the opening title cards and we see a jet plane landing and a superimposed title telling us that the location is Newark, NJ. There is a dissolve to a shot of a taxi arriving at an apartment building and a well-dressed, middle-aged woman emerges from the vehicle.

There is a closeup of her lower legs as she walks along a hall and then a closeup of her finger as it presses the button to ring the doorbell of an apartment; a card above the button reads, "Mr. & Mrs. R. Brown." Cut to inside the apartment, and we see another closeup of the lower legs of a younger woman in pants getting up from a sofa to answer the door. The visitor, Marion, tells the resident, Bernice, that she flew in from Baltimore just to see her.

To readers of the short story, this first scene is unexpected, since all of Marion's visits to her husband's other wives were not described. During this scene, we learn of Brown's bigamy at the same time Bernice does, since Marion reveals that they are married to the same man. Bernice is upset and Marion suggests that they band together to punish their husband, yet Marion shows her own devious nature when she fixes drinks for the two of them and poisons the drink she gives to Bernice. Marion has planned this murder carefully and wipes her fingerprints from the bottle and the glass. Bernice drinks the poisoned liquor and immediately falls to the floor; we then see another plane taking off, presumably carrying Marion back home to Baltimore.

Steven Gravers as Lt. Storber
The tone of the show is set right away and it is a mix of comedy and tragedy. "'You are a beautiful woman, Bernice,'" says Marion. "'You'll have no trouble at all finding a new husband. But a woman my age, now I would have a problem.'" Therein lies the key to "Three Wives Too Many": the only way a middle-aged woman can hang on to her husband and her comfortable, secure lifestyle is to murder her rivals!

The scene then shifts to Baltimore and picks up where the short story begins, as Brown cuts a flower outside his house and enters to give it to Marion; to all appearances, they are a very happy couple. Yet their banter takes on a sinister subtext, since we and Marion know that she is aware of his other wife, whom she has already murdered. Brown knows that he is leading a life much different than that which he presents to each of his wives, yet he also does not know that Marion is well aware of his duplicity. Both husband and wife play a role, each hiding secret knowledge from the other; however, Brown only thinks he knows what is going on beneath the surface while Marion has a deeper level of understanding.

When Richard and Marion go down to the cellar to inspect the hole and the oil tank, the scene is shadowy and dangerous. Richard slips and falls into the hole, lying there like a corpse, fearing that the tank, which is suspended above the pit by a chain, will fall and crush him. Marion instinctively grabs a crank handle that could release the tank suddenly and he warns her to be careful, unaware of her knowledge of his infidelity. Richard goes back upstairs and Marion caresses the tank handle and looks up after him, thinking about her opportunity to kill him. The entire show is about her realization that he would be hard to replace and her decision to kill his other wives and give him the chance to settle down with her.

Robert Cornthwaite as Bleeker
Another plane lands and this time Brown drives to a public park where he meets Bleeker, who looks like a businessman but is really a bookie. Brown makes a large wager and Bleeker asks his advice on women; Bleeker is on his third wife and says that they fight all the time; Brown tells him cryptically that one can marry "'for love and money.'" Everything about Brown's life is a lie: he juggles four wives at the same time and spends their money on gambling, only pretending to be a successful traveling salesman. It is ironic that Brown and each of his wives seem to have been happy together while Bleeker, who married women sequentially rather than concurrently, complains that he and his spouse fight all the time.

Brown arrives at the building where Bernice lives and the scene where he finds the police investigating her apparent suicide plays out much as it does in the short story, though Dan Duryea's performance as Brown verges on comic and suggests that everything his character does is a role that he is playing for someone else's benefit. After the funeral, Bernice's shrewish sister and brother-in-law confront Brown at the now-empty apartment he shared with Bernice. The sister reveals that Bernice cried every day, a very different portrait of the marriage than the one painted by Brown. She accuses him of killing his wife by making her lonely but, as they leave, her mousy husband tells Brown: "'I envy you,'" presumably wishing his own overbearing wife would suffer the same fate as Bernice.

Lew Brown as Detective Lanning
Another male viewpoint follows, when police lieutenant Storber enters just as Bernice's sister and her husband leave; Storber comments that if Brown's late wife was anything like her sister, he would have a motive for murder. This portrait of the relationship between the sexes circa 1964 suddenly begins to resemble similar relationships on the TV series Mad Men! In "Three Wives Too Many," the men team up against the women. Brown has four wives, his bookie asks him for marriage advice, his brother in law envies him, and even the police lieutenant is understanding. On the other hand, the women battle each other, and even when Marion suggests to Bernice that they team up it is only a ruse to gain her trust before killing her.

Brown goes to a phone booth and telephones another wife in Hartford; a policeman walks toward the booth but veers off at the last minute. We think Brown is a logical murder suspect but no one else seems to think so. Another beautiful woman answers another door, and once again Marion stands outside, this time getting right to the point by asking: "'Why did you marry my husband?'" Marion pulls a gun on Lucille, in another scene added to the story, and Lucille reveals that she has been married to her husband for five years, making her a senior wife to Marion, who has only been married to Richard for three.

Marion lies and says that she has not yet decided to kill Lucille. The women discuss their husband, and Marion remarks that "'A man is what he does, not what he says.'" Marion's approach to each of the wives she has visited is a performance in which she works to build trust but ends with murder. Lucille, surprisingly, says that "'I admire any man who can get along with so many women ...'" and calls Brown a "'hero'"! We see Marion in shadow in the kitchen preparing drinks, then we see her poison the bottle ... and another plane takes off. "Three Wives Too Many" is a delicious blend of comedy and murder, with each takeoff and landing of a plane showing either husband or wife proceeding along parallel paths, though only Marion knows what is really going on.

Duane Grey as Detective Millard
We see another dead body being wheeled out of an apartment as Brown arrives, again met by a policeman and again unable to believe that his wife killed herself--"'She loved life too much!'" he cries. As before, he is not suspected by another policeman who finds it easy to believe that women kill themselves and their husbands are above suspicion.

Brown telephones Marion to tell her that he is leaving Hartford sooner than expected to go to Boston; this time, she asks to join him and he agrees. Another plane lands and this time Brown and Marion together enter a hotel room after she has had a "'wonderful day.'" Brown reveals that he has an appointment with Bleeker later that night (his real business cannot wait!) and she announces that she is going home "'tonight.'" "'I know I'm becoming more important in your life every day,'" she says, and he responds, "'More than you realize ...'" Brown still does not know that Marion is on to him and that she now controls his life. She looks out the window to see him getting into a taxi and her perspective, looking down from above, is God-like; her husband is unaware that she is the puppet-master, nearing the end of her devious plan.

Brown meets Bleeker in a bar and speaks of his wives as his businesses, telling the bookie that he cannot wager again until he takes care of his financial backers. As with so much of the dialogue in this episode, the subtext is everything.

Dee J. Thompson as
Bernice's sister
Finally, the police surround another dead woman and Brown walks in, a quizzical expression on his face. By now, the murder and its aftermath are understood by the viewer and all that matters is Brown's reaction. He arrives home to the Baltimore house he shares with Marion and sees her lying motionless on the couch. He fears that she is dead like the other three, and when she awakens and he sees that she is alive and well he is visibly relieved. Marion suggests a cocktail and, as in the story, Brown begins to grow suspicious. He sees pamphlets on the coffee table that include one titled The Widow's Guide and he checks the basement, where the grave-like hole remains but the tank suspended above it is gone. Unlike the short story, whose conclusion is more subtle, in the TV show he confronts his wife directly, saying "'You killed them!'" Marion does not blink an eye and takes a sip from each glass, explaining calmly to her husband that the police will see that he had a motive for killing each of his wives. He picks up the phone and calls the police, but she threatens him by telling him that she "'will see you executed for murder if you leave me.'" Marion tells Richard that she will cure him of his false happiness and the show ends just like the story, with her giving him a choice to live with her or be convicted of murder.

Arthur A. Ross's teleplay for "Three Wives Too Many" is a brilliant example of how to expand and deepen a short story for an hour-long television slot. While Fearing's story slowly builds suspense as Brown discovers that each of his wives is dead, the TV version eschews suspense and instead provides wry commentary on the relationship between husbands and wives in the early 1960s. In the short story, the reader does not know for certain that the women have been murdered, nor is the murderer's identity revealed until very near the end. The TV show presents the murderer right up front and, instead of concentrating on a mystery, plays out as a black comedy. By adding the scenes where Marion visits Bernice and Lucille, Ross fleshes out her character, making her plight seem sympathetic as she is a woman fast approaching middle age who decides to eliminate her competitors, three beautiful women who are much younger than she.

David Fresco as Bernice's brother-in-law
Joseph Newman (1909-2006), who directed "Three Wives Too Many," started out in Hollywood in the 1930s as an assistant director, then moved up to directing shorts, and finally became a feature director in 1942. Among the films he directed between then and 1961 was This Island Earth (1955). He directed for television from 1960 to 1965, including four episodes of The Twilight Zone and ten episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of which was the classic, "An Unlocked Window."

Starring as Marion is Teresa Wright (1918-2005), who began on stage in Life with Father (1939) and whose long career on film and television spanned the years from 1941 to 1997. She won an Academy Award for her role in Mrs. Miniver (1942) and starred in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943). "Three Wives Too Many" was one of two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which she appeared. Donald Spoto published a biography of Wright in 2016 called A Girl's Got to Breathe. Spoto describes "Three Wives Too Many" as "a flippant, funny satire on murder as a fine art" and describes Ross's script as "a darkly witty teleplay worthy of Saki."

The role of her husband, Richard Brown, is played by Dan Duryea (1907-1968), who also started out on Broadway in the 1930s before moving to film in 1941. Among the many classic films in which he appeared are Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945); he was also seen on the Twilight Zone. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

In supporting roles:
  • Linda Lawson (1936- ) as Lucille, the second wife Marion visits; born Linda Gloria Spaziani, she was on screen from 1958 to 2005, mainly in television roles. She was in the film Night Tide (1961) and she was seen on the Hitchcock show three times.
  • Jean Hale (1938- ) as Bernice, the first wife Marion visits; she was on screen from 1960 to 1991 and she was also seen on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in "Starring the Defense." Hale also appeared on Batman and in Roger Corman's film, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
  • Steven Gravers (1922-1978) as Lt. Storber, who investigates Bernice's death; trained at the Actors Studio, he was on screen from 1950 to 1978, mostly on television, and he appeared in four episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Thirty-First of February."
  • Robert Cornthwaite (1917-2006) as Bleeker, Brown's bookie; he was on screen from 1950 to 2005 and made numerous appearances on television, including roles on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, Batman, The Night Stalker, and two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He was also seen in The Thing from Another World (1951).
  • Lew Brown (1925-2014) as Detective Lanning, who investigates Lucille's death; he was on screen from 1959 to 1992 and he was seen on The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Night Stalker. He was in Hitchcock's Topaz (1969) and he played roles in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Run for Doom."
  • Dee J. Thompson as Bernice's sister; she was on screen from 1949 to 1967 and appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock series.
  • Duane Grey (1921-2001) as Detective Millard, who investigates the third murder; he was on screen from 1952 to 1991 and he was seen in House of Numbers (1957), as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller. This was his only role on the Hitchcock show.
  • David Fresco (1909-1997) as the husband of Bernice's sister in law; he was on screen from 1946 to 1997 and had roles in many television shows, including The Twilight Zone, Batman, Night Gallery, and The Odd Couple; he was seen in no less than 12 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Gloating Place."
Finally, Lyn Murray (1909-1989), who wrote the entertaining score or "Three Wives Too Many," was born Lionel Breeze in London. He worked extensively in radio from 1931 to 1947 as a conductor, arranger, and composer. He worked in film from 1947 to 1987 and on television from 1956 to 1986. In addition to composing the scores for 34 episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Murray wrote scores for a musically-themed episode of The Twilight Zone ("A Passage for Trumpet") and for Hitchcock's 1955 film, To Catch a Thief.

"Three Wives too Many" is not available on US DVD but may be viewed online here.

Sources:

Fearing, Kenneth. “Three Wives Too Many.” Best of the Best Detective Stories, Dutton, 1960, pp. 215–238.
Galactic Central, philsp.com/.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
Spoto, Donald. A Girl's Got to Breathe: the Life of Teresa Wright. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
The FictionMags Index, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
“Three Wives Too Many.” The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 9, episode 12, CBS, 3 Jan. 1964.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: The Evil of Adelaide Winters, starring Kim Hunter!
* * *

Listen to two great podcasts on Alfred Hitchcock Presents:

Presenting Alfred Hitchcock Presents (website here)


Good Evening: An Alfred Hitchcock Presents Podcast (website here)


Both are highly recommended!

2 comments:

Grant said...

Maybe it makes me anti-feminist, but I was so glad to hear Hitchcock's little disclaimer at the end about Marion eventually getting caught, gladder than with almost any other disclaimer like that on the show. But I've always felt the opposite way about Ruth Roman in "What Really Happened" and Theresa Wright herself in "the Lonesome Place," so that isn't the reason. Instead, it's of course what she does to those other women who are in the same boat she's in.
In fact, at first you expect them to band together, just as one of the other wive's suggests.

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't think it's anti-feminist to find comfort in the arrest of a triple murderer. It's just hard for me to wish ill on a character played by Teresa Wright!