Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-Bill S. Ballinger Part Three: The Hero [5.29]

by Jack Seabrook

Bill S. Ballinger's third teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "The Day of the Bullet," a brilliant adaptation of Stanley Ellin's classic short story.

Next up was "The Hero," which Ballinger adapted from an obscure 1917 short story of the same name by Henry de vere Stacpoole. From a long-forgotten story, Ballinger fashioned an outstanding teleplay and the filmed version is a suspenseful examination of long-buried guilt.

As an ocean liner prepares to head out to sea, Sir Richard Musgrave says farewell to his wife and daughter before he returns to visit South Africa for the first time in twenty years. He catches sight of a man on deck watching him and inquires of the ship's purser if a man named Jan Vander Klaue is on the passenger list, but he learns that he is not. During the voyage, Musgrave exchanges glances with the same man at the bar and goes to the man's cabin, turning away before knocking on the door.

"The Hero" was
reprinted here
While having cocktails, Musgrave again sees the man, who claims that his name is Keyser, though Musgrave says he reminds him of Vander Klaue. Musgrave is called away but sends Vander Klaue a note asking him to visit Musgrave's cabin later that night. Musgrave waits nervously in his cabin, drinking, and thinks that he hears footsteps outside the door, but when he opens the door all he sees is an empty hall. However, Musgrave finds a newspaper clipping that was slipped under his door and reads it; it is dated October 19, 1939, and tells the story of Jan Vander Klaue, a prospector "beaten and left for dead in the veldt."

Before lunch, Musgrave sees Keyser at a table with another couple, but when Musgrave joins them, Keyser avoids conversation with him and leaves to have lunch with other passengers. That evening, Musgrave attempts to find out if Keyser has made phone calls or sent messages and, if so, what they were about. Finally, Musgrave finds Keyser alone on deck and approaches him. Musgrave insists that Keyser is Vander Klaue, though the man denies it. Musgrave says that, twenty years before, they argued and fought; Musgrave left Vander Klaue for dead after relieving him of 75 pounds in cash. Musgrave has since become rich and successful and says that any scandal would ruin his reputation and embarrass his family. Certain that Keyser wants something from him, Musgrave offers half a million pounds in exchange for a promise to remain silent. Keyser remarks that he is almost as wealthy as Musgrave and walks away.

Eric Portman as Musgrave
Later, Musgrave sits alone in his cabin, drinking, and hears Keyser pacing in the hallway, but when Musgrave opens the door, Keyser departs. Musgrave keeps drinking and again hears footsteps, but this time Keyser knocks and is admitted. He tells a story: long ago, in Africa, a prospector, unsuccessful at mining, had just 75 pounds left and had to get back to the city of Kimberly. The man lost the money but his life was saved and he went on to become rich. Keyser then shows Musgrave a picture of his wife and reveals that the man in the story needed the 75 pounds to pay for an operation for her. When he lost the money, his wife died. Having told this shocking tale to Musgrave, Keyser leaves.

In the morning, Keyser is standing on deck by the ship's railing, while Musgrave has been up all night, drinking. Suddenly, Musgrave runs up to the deck and leaps over the railing, falling into the water below. Keyser leaps in after him and swims to his side. From below, we see Keyser push Musgrave under the water, finally pushing him far below the surface by placing his foot on the man's head. Near the end of the voyage, the captain presents a cup to Keyser for his bold attempt to save the man who drowned, praising him for having been prepared to risk his life for a stranger.

Oscar Homolka as Keyser/Vander Klaue
Guilt is the central theme of "The Hero," in which an event twenty years in the past is so present in Musgrave's mind that a mere glimpse of Vander Klaue on deck is enough to bring the past back to him as if it were yesterday. Musgrave committed a cowardly act in 1939, beating his partner, leaving him for dead, and taking his money. Musgrave went on to a life of prestige and fortune, beloved by his wife and daughter, successful in business, and on the verge of being made a peer of the realm. The fact that he is returning to South Africa for the first time in twenty years must make the incident even more present in his mind.

Irene Tedrow as
Mrs. Musgrave
Is it coincidence that Vander Klaue is on the same ship? Probably not. At the start of the episode, a press photographer confronts the Musgraves, so news of his trip must have been known to the public. Perhaps Vander Klaue planned to haunt Musgrave on the voyage like a ghostly reminder of the crime that set his life on a path of success. Recall Balzac, in Pere Goriot: "The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed." Does Musgrave credit his personal success to this undiscovered crime? He certainly believes that bringing it to light after twenty years could undo his position in society and that of his family.

One question that is never answered directly is whether Keyser really is Vander Klaue. He never admits it; in fact, he denies it repeatedly, yet Musgrave is certain of it. In a sense, Musgrave acts like a detective in this episode, as his guilt slowly overtakes him. He questions the bartender, then the purser, then the telegraph operator, but none of these efforts succeeds. He asks Vander Klaue directly, but the man denies it. Yet Keyser can be the only source of the clipping that is slipped under Musgrave's door, and this, combined with the story Keyser tells, seems to make it clear that he is Vander Klaue.

Throughout the episode, Musgrave deteriorates, consumed by guilt and trying to dull his pain with alcohol, until finally Keyser comes to his cabin to deliver the coup de grace. Musgrave unburdens himself, admitting everything, and Keyser tells him a story, still pretending he is talking about someone else, but delivers the worst news of all by showing Musgrave the picture of his wife. Until then, Musgrave could delude himself that his crime was unintentionally victimless and that it was merely a matter of money that could be repaid, albeit with great interest. The fact that Vander Klaue still carries a picture of his late wife twenty years after she died shows that he, like Musgrave, has never forgotten what happened. Musgrave's selfish choice did not cause Vander Klaue's death, nor did it prevent him from making a fortune. What it did cause was the death of his beloved wife.

Ralph Clanton as the purser
In a way, the men are reflections of each other. Musgrave fears damage to his reputation because of the effect it would have on his wife and daughter, while his actions twenty years before deprived Vander Klaue of his wife and perhaps the opportunity to have a daughter of his own. Vander Klaue is like a living ghost, haunting Musgrave. After finally realizing the full extent of the damage he caused, Musgrave stays up all night, drinking, and in the morning he is a haunted man. He looks out the porthole, sees the sun coming up, and decides to take his own life. There is no hesitation when he leaps over the rail, nor does Keyser hesitate to leap in after him.

Why does Keyser do this? Perhaps he wants to ensure that Musgrave is not rescued by killing him himself. Yet there is a transfer of guilt here: Vander Klaue becomes like Musgrave, committing a crime and getting away with it. Unlike Musgrave, whose undiscovered crime ate away at him privately, Keyser's undiscovered crime results in him being lauded; he is given an award for heroism that he cynically accepts. It is ironic that he is celebrated for saving the life of a stranger; though he publicly denied knowing the man (as did Peter after Jesus' crucifixion), he (and we) know that Musgrave was no stranger to him.

Jack Livesey as the captain
When giving the award, the captain quotes John 15:13: "'Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.'" The captain quotes this verse and says that risking one's life for a stranger is even more honorable than risking one's life for an acquaintance, yet Vander Klaue secretly knows that none of this is true.

In his teleplays for "Dry Run," "Road Hog," and "The Day of the Bullet," Bill Ballinger was adapting contemporary short stories and, for the most part, his scripts did not veer far from their sources. However, with "The Hero," Ballinger had to adapt a story from over 40 years before, and this time he revised it a great deal, keeping the overall frame of the narrative but changing the approach.

The main character of the story is named John (not Richard) Musgrave, and he is about 45 years old, in contrast to Eric Portman, who pays the role on TV and who was in his late fifties at the time of filming. Musgrave is married but there is no mention of a daughter, and the story begins with him already sailing on the ship. Ballinger adds the show's initial scene in which we meet Musgrave's wife and daughter, and this helps reinforce their importance in his life. In the TV show, Keyser also sees the family together, something that will become very important when we examine the story's conclusion.

Richard Lupino as the photographer
The incident in South Africa occurred 24 (not 20) years before and, in the short story, Jan Keyser suddenly appears on deck next to Musgrave, grabbing his arm. We are told right away what happened between them and Keyser does not try to conceal his identity. In effect, what Ballinger does with the teleplay is to create suspense by making Musgrave an amateur detective and by making Keyser an alias for Vander Klaue, the man Musgrave thought he had killed long ago. In the story, there is no Vander Klaue at all; Keyser is Musgrave's former partner and neither man has any doubt about it.

When Keyser meets Musgrave on board the ship he calls him Dick Henderson, which was an alias that Musgrave used decades before in South Africa. Ballinger thus took the idea of having one character with an alias and flipped it onto another character, using the question of identity to create suspense. Also at this first meeting, Keyser slips a piece of paper into Musgrave's hand; it is a note explaining what happened to Keyser's wife. Once again, something that is delivered matter of factly in the short story is transformed by Ballinger for the TV show into a key piece of information, withheld until very near the end to create maximum tension.

Irene Windust as Janet Boswell
There is a detailed explanation of what happened 24 years ago in South Africa leading up to Musgrave's attack on Keyser; Ballinger omits this from the teleplay, since it would serve no purpose in advancing the suspense narrative. Musgrave is tortured by Keyser's presence and tries to disembark when the ship reaches a port, but Keyser blocks his way and forces him to remain on board. Near the end of the story, Musgrave tells Keyser that he has a wife. In the TV show, this is made clear in the first scene, but in the story it becomes important toward the end. Musgrave leaps out of his (much larger) porthole and the scene in the water between the two men includes dialogue between them that casts what happens in a much different light than the essentially silent scene in the TV show.

"'You told me you had a wife,'" says Keyser to Musgrave, "'For her sake I forgive you--for her sake I am doing this.'" Keyser then drowns Musgrave and it is clear that it is meant to be a mercy killing; Keyser ends Musgrave's self-torture because he feels pity for the man who has a wife. In the TV show, Ballinger's script has Keyser drown Musgrave in a particularly cruel fashion, by pushing his head down with his foot, and there is no sense that it is an act of kindness.

Bartlett Robinson as Henry Caldwell
The story's final sentence adds a coda that is also absent from the TV show: we learn that Musgrave's widow "is still searching for the hero to thank him for what he did; and the humorous thing in the tragic business is that he deserves her thanks--in a way." Unlike the TV show, the short story portrays Keyser as someone who kills out of kindness, to relieve his fellow man of all-consuming guilt.

Ballinger's changes to the story make the situation much more suspenseful and create a detective story of sorts, whereas Stacpoole's original short story contains little to no suspense and is more like a character study of two men and how an incident in their past affected the rest of their lives.

Barry Bernard as
the bartender
Born in Ireland, Henry de vere Stacpoole (1863-1951) had a brief career as a ship's doctor, visited the South Pacific, and was well-known as a popular writer of novels from 1894 to 1949. He is largely forgotten today but for one novel: The Blue Lagoon (1908), which was adapted for the big screen more than once, most famously with Brooke Shields in 1980.

"The Hero" is well directed by John Brahm (1893-1982), the German-born director who began making films in 1936 and moved to TV in 1952. He directed 15 episodes of the Hitchcock show; the last examined in this series was "Dry Run," also adapted by Bill Ballinger.

Barry Harvey as
the steward
Leading the cast as the tortured Sir Richard Musgrave is Eric Portman (1901-1969), who gives an excellent performance as a man wracked by guilt, deteriorating to the point of suicide. Born in England, Portman started on the stage in 1924 and began appearing in films in 1933. He was in 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) and began appearing on TV in 1953. This was his only role on the Hitchcock series; he was seen on The Prisoner not long before his death.

Oscar Homolka (1898-1978) is superb as Jan Vander Klaue/Keyser; a jolly angel of guilt who holds all the cards, he plays Musgrave like a fiddle, slowly driving the man to despair. Born in Vienna, Homolka served in the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI and began his career on the Austrian stage before leaving Germany when Hitler came to power. He was on screen from 1926 to 1976 and his films included Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), Ball of Fire (1941), and I Remember Mama (1948). He was on TV from 1951 to 1976 and was seen on Thriller and in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The rest of the characters have small roles, since the show is dominated by its two leads:
  • Irene Tedrow (1907-1995) as Musgrave's wife, seen in the show's first scene; she was on stage, on radio, and on film and television from 1940 to 1989. She had countless roles on TV, including two appearances on The Twilight Zone and four on the Hitchcock show, one of which was "Don't Come Back Alive."
  • Ralph Clanton (1914-2002) as the ship's purser; he was on screen from 1949 to 1983 and was seen in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Dip in the Pool." He was also on Thriller three times.
  • Jack Livesey (1901-1961) plays the ship's captain; he was on screen from 1917 to 1961, appeared on Thriller, and had parts in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Last Escape."
  • Richard Lupino (1929-2005) plays the press photographer who confronts Musgrave at the start of the episode; cousin to Ida Lupino, he was on screen from 1940 to 1983. He was seen on The Twilight Zone and Thriller and he was in four episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Murder Case."
  • Irene Windust (1921-1999) portrays Janet Boswell, another passenger; she had a brief screen career from 1957 to 1963 but appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Blessington Method."
  • Bartlett Robinson (1912-1986) plays Henry Caldwell, a passenger with whom Musgrave speaks at a table where Keyser sits; Robinson was on screen from 1949 to 1982 and was seen in no less than 11 episodes of the Hitchcock show; the most recent covered here was "Thanatos Palace Hotel."
  • Barry Bernard (1899-1978) as the bartender; he was on screen from 1919-1972, appeared in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Chaplin's Limelight (1952), as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Night Gallery. He was seen in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Barry Harvey has an uncredited role as the steward; he was on screen from 1955 to 1962 and appeared in eight episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Landlady." These eight episodes represent fifty percent of his total TV roles!

"The Hero" aired on CBS on Sunday, May 1, 1960, and is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here. Stacpoole's short story was reprinted twice, in the March 1924 issue of the British pulp The Story-Teller and in another British pulp, The Argosy, in the March 1929 issue. One wonders how the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents found the story, since it had not been reprinted in thirty years at the time it was assigned to Bill Ballinger to adapt for television.

The FictionMags Index,
Galactic Central,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
“The Hero.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 29, CBS, 1 May 1960.
Stacpoole, Henry de vere. “The Hero.” In Blue Waters, Hutchinson, 1917, pp. 220–230.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

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Grant said...

To me, one of Oscar Homolka's most entertaining roles was in the comedy THE HAPPENING from 1967, playing a Godfather type character (using his usual way of speaking, not an Italian accent). It's almost a crime that it's never made it to DVD officially (there are "okay" Gray Market copies), because it's a very strange comedy.

Oddly enough, I just saw Irene Tedrow two days ago, playing a missionary's wife in a KUNG FU episode, so she really got around when it comes to TV.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant. Tedrow was everywhere back in the day on TV. As for Homolka, I always think of a line from an episode of The Odd Couple, when Oscar remarks with astonishment: "You know Oscar Homolka?"

Grant said...

Yes, and he's saying it to "Crazy Rhoda Zimmerman," one of those TV characters you hear about over and over but never see.

Genresnaps said...

Your mention of The Odd Couple prompted me to track down that episode (S3E19). I still regard that as being maybe the funniest series in TV history, and that episode was classic. Anytime you get them in a courtroom, it is gold. That's even the one with the ASSUME bit. It is also the source of a line that I love, but have never quite figured out why: "Justice has a short menu!" The boys were great, the judge was great, there was a cute girl, plus the underrated Elinor Donahue.

Thanks for making my evening! Anyone with Hulu, watch immediately! Also, why the heck do you have Hulu?

BTW, the Homolka line is on You Tube.

Grant said...

All those Odd Couple comments are really preaching to the choir in my case.

Jack Seabrook said...

That is a classic episode, and the courtroom scene is hilarious. Thanks for reminding me which one the line came from! Had we the time, I think we could have a lot of fun doing an Odd Couple blog.