Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Stirling Silliphant Part Three: A Bottle of Wine [2.19]

by Jack Seabrook

Published in the very first issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (December 1956), Borden Deal's short story, "A Bottle of Wine," opens as a man known as the judge sits alone in the house his father built, waiting for his wife Grace to return. When she does, she tells him that she came to get her clothes and confirms that she is leaving him; her lover waits in a car outside. She heads upstairs and the judge takes a pistol from his pocket, looks at it, puts it back, and walks out of the house, approaching a car parked in the street and greeting a young man named Wallace. The judge insists that the man come inside, out of the summer heat, and Wallace takes a seat in the living room while the judge goes to the cellar and selects a dusty bottle of sherry.

The judge joins Wallace and opens the bottle while telling the young man that he had planned to shoot and kill him and that no one in town would convict him for it. Yet he is a lawman who "'never believed in violence.'" Pouring glasses of sherry for himself and Wallace, the judge reveals that he and his wife had been saving the bottle for their 25th wedding anniversary. Grace had smuggled the "'rare old amontillado'" out of Spain on their honeymoon and it has been in the cellar for ten years. The judge tells Wallace that he was 50 years old when he met Grace, who was his secretary and first love. The judge was older and established, while she was 25 and new in town; after a year, she agreed to marry him.

"A Bottle of Wine"
was first published here
They have a son, "'away in school now,'" and the judge knew that Grace had lovers. He insists that he and Wallace finish the bottle together and the judge concludes that Wallace's youth is what makes him attractive to Grace. Wallace insists that he loves her and thanks the judge for his "'reasonableness.'" As Wallace finishes his sherry, the judge takes out his pistol and shoots his rival in the head. The judge goes to the stairs and Grace rushes down, shocked. The judge tells her that they "'killed the bottle of old wine we were saving,'" drops the pistol, and turns toward the telephone. He still holds the bottle, which no longer contains "the magic of old wine within it."

Deal capitalizes "The Judge" throughout the story; this is how the man is known and how he thinks of himself. He and his house represent tradition and stability; at one point, he refers to himself as "Carter" and to the town as "Cartersville," suggesting that the town was named after his family. Even his wife calls him "Judge"; his first name is never revealed. When he first takes out the gun and looks at it, the seed is planted in the reader's mind--will he use it?--and when the judge tells Wallace, "'This heat will kill you,'" it is not the heat that represents danger for the visitor. More clues are planted when the judge tells Wallace that he had planned to kill him and would not be convicted for the crime and when the judge tells Wallace, "'You'll never taste the like again.'"

Herbert Marshall as the judge
Borden Deal toys with the reader's suspicions by having the judge mention that the sherry is amontillado, recalling Poe's famous story of revenge and murder, and for the first time we suspect that poison may be involved. Throughout the story, tension builds as we wonder if the judge will kill Wallace and, if so, by what method? The murder is done suddenly and without hesitation: "He hadn't believed he was going to do it until the last moment ..." and when the judge tells Grace "'We killed it between us,'" referring to the bottle of wine, he is also referring to the love he had shared with his wife. At the end of the story, the bottle is "empty now, and ordinary; just old glass" and we know that the judge's love affair has come to an end.

Borden Deal (1922-1985) was born Loyse Youth Deal in Mississippi and most of his work was set in the Deep South. He wrote over 100 short stories and 21 novels from 1946 to 1979, though he was most active from 1950 to 1967. He became a full time writer in 1956, the year "A Bottle of Wine" was published, and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation was one of a handful of TV shows and films based on his work. This was the only time that one of his stories was adapted for the Hitchcock series.

Stirling Silliphant had a challenge when turning "A Bottle of Wine" from a story on the printed page into a dramatic half hour of television; he solved it by following the source closely up to a point before taking it in a completely new direction at the climax.

The show begins with an overhead shot of a hand taking a revolver out of a drawer; director Herschel Daugherty uses this perspective a couple of times during the episode to inject variety into what is essentially a two-character play. The camera pulls further up so we can see a God's-eye view of the judge as he walks slowly across the room examining the gun. The judge puts the gun away in a different drawer after making sure it is loaded; presumably, he is putting it in a particular place to have it handy for later use. Moving this bit of business to the very start of the show adds a sense of menace to the short story, which begins more quietly, with the judge sitting and waiting for Grace to arrive.

The scenes then play out much as they do in Deal's original, with Silliphant taking lines of dialogue  off the page but adding many more. The judge does not go down to the cellar to retrieve the wine, which is instead in the room adjacent to where Wallace sits; this allows the two to continue talking while the judge gets the bottle. The judge does not tell Wallace that he had thought about killing him, at least not yet; he does, however, mention that he bought the wine in Spain on his honeymoon. He quotes Aristotle and takes the gun out of the drawer; as he speaks, Wallace stares at the gun and the camera focuses on it in the judge's hands with Wallace in the distance paying more attention to the weapon than to the judge's words.

Suddenly, the judge points the gun at Wallace and insists that he keep drinking the wine, which they will finish together. By having the judge hide the gun at the beginning and brandish it in the middle of the show, it becomes more effective dramatically. Now is the time when the judge tells Wallace he could shoot him and get off scot-free; Silliphant has rearranged events from the story to increase the suspense.

The two-character play continues with small changes; there is no mention of the judge's son and the judge is 64 years old rather than 60, surely a change that was made due to the age of Herbart Marshall, the actor playing the judge, who looks every one of his 66 years. The camera again returns briefly to the Godlike perspective above the ceiling fan, looking down at the two men as they converse, and the judge moves from discussing Aristotle to reading from a book about the death of Socrates, who took poison. It is at this point that the TV show diverges completely from the short story.

The judge tells Wallace to sit down to lessen the pain from the wine, and there is a cut to a low angle shot looking up, with the bottle front and center and the men farther off. Like the earlier shot with the gun in the foreground, the bottle is now in the position of importance and Wallace stares at it as the judge speaks, suspicious of another weapon. The judge claims that he poisoned the bottle and that Wallace has two or three minutes to live. Wallace grabs the telephone but the judge tells him it's too late to call a doctor. He locks Wallace in the room and tells him, through the door, that he has prepared an antidote for himself.

Wallace pulls at the door and yells for help; Grace descends the stairs and Wallace promises to go away and leave them both if the judge will save his life. The judge tells Grace he's just having fun and had to prove to her that Wallace is just a child. Suddenly, Wallace shoots four times through the door and hits the judge, who was standing in front of it; was Wallace's intent to kill the judge or just to shoot out the lock? It is never made clear. However, Wallace opens the door, sees the judge lying dead on the floor, and is not alarmed at the sight. Grace tells her lover that the judge could not have poisoned him, remarking that "'in 20 years he never once sentenced a man to death.'"

Robert Horton as Wallace
Wallace says that the judge told him that he had poisoned the bottle of wine that he bought for Grace in Spain on their honeymoon, but she replies that they never had a honeymoon in Spain and "'there was nothing wrong with that bottle of sherry.'"

Silliphant must have decided that the story lacked the excitement necessary to sustain a half hour of suspense, and I think he's correct; Deal's short story builds quietly to the sudden explosion of violence, yet when the judge shoots Wallace in the head it happens so quickly that it has little dramatic effect. The story's conclusion is subtle and undramatic. The show, on the other hand, plods along in a fairly dull way as the judge and Wallace talk, with some interesting camera angles added to spice things up. Silliphant wisely creates tension by having  the judge pull out the gun at a key moment, but the climax, where Wallace believes he's been poisoned and shoots the judge, is much more exciting than anything on the page. I'm not sure it all makes sense, though, since the judge seems to change suddenly from a man of thought to a man of action, and the final sting of Grace telling Wallace that there never was a honeymoon seems an unnecessary attempt to add a surprise twist.

"A Bottle of Wine" was directed by Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), a prolific TV director from 1952 to 1975 who also directed a couple of movies. He directed 27 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in all, including "The Blessington Method," and he directed 16 episodes of Thriller. I find his work on Thriller to be more interesting than his work on the Hitchcock show; he seems to have more success with the macabre than with suspense.

The great Herbert Marshall (1890-1966) plays the judge. Born in London and the child of two stage actors, Marshall fought in the trenches in WWI and lost his right leg after being shot in the knee in 1917. His long stage career had begun back in 1909 and he overcame his disability to become a respected and beloved actor on film, starting in 1927, on radio, starting in 1936, and on television, starting in 1950. His many film roles included Hitchcock's Murder! (1930), Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), Crack-Up (1946), which was based in part on a Fredric Brown novelette, and The Fly (1958). "A Bottle of Wine" was one of his two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Jarma Lewis as Grace
Television stalwart Robert Horton (1924-2016) plays Wallace. He was in a handful of films but made his mark in television from 1951 to 1989, starring in Wagon Train  (1957-1965) and A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-1966). This was one of seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in which he was featured, including "Crack of Doom," and after his television career ended he spent many years on stage.

Finally, Jarma Lewis (1931-1985) appears briefly as Grace. She played minor roles, often uncredited, in a short screen career from 1952-1957; she married an heir to the Brunswick bowling fortune and retired from acting to raise a family.

Borden Deal's short story, "A Bottle of Wine," is available to read for free on the Internet Archive here. You can order the DVD of the TV show here or watch it for free online here.

"A Bottle of Wine." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 19, CBS, 3 Feb. 1957.
Deal, Borden. "A Bottle of Wine." Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Send Chills Down Your Spine, The Dial Press, 1979, pp. 1–9.
The FictionMags Index,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Jarma Lewis - The Private Life and Times of Jarma Lewis. Jarma Lewis Pictures.,
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: The Perfect Crime, starring Vincent Price!


Grant said...

In some ways it sounds like SLEUTH and also the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR episode "See The Monkey Dance." In each one of those, the husband plays a lot of tricks on the other man, and of course it backfires for one of them.

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't seen either one in decades but I trust you!

john kenrick said...

Decent episode, Jack, yet I can't work up any enthusiasm for it, possibly due to my lack if interest in the characters, none of whom struck me as appealing or even interesting. The Judge might have been but for his (or there a better way to put this) passive aggressive suicidality. He just doesn't draw me in, and he's certainly not sympathetic.

Laurence Olivier's character in the already mentioned Sleuth positively swaggered, and he put on one heck of a show. Yet he was so charismatic that he came off as (almost) the hero of the piece. I was sort of rooting for him (no, not condoning his sadism, but entertained by his diabolical schemes). It's like he had nothing better to do with himself, and he did it well.

Robert Horton, like Michael Caine, was a likable actor with a strong virile presence; and also like Caine there was something bland and generic about him. He could charm the ladies, for sure, and pretty much get his way with them as he pleased. But after the fact, was he someone who could as something other than a lover, a boytoy, sustain the interest of a sophisticated woman?

In each story, A Bottle Of Wine and Sleuth, the older man had the upper hand in the brains department, the younger man equipped much better, shall we say, below the waist. Such tales can draw me in as studies in contrasting types, however as stories they carry the baggage of irony; too much irony, with scarcely a breath of fresh air,--of real life, real sex--to be found in the tales themselves.

Grant said...

In SLEUTH, Milo SORT OF loses my sympathy by getting even with Andrew TWICE. Whether Andrew deserves it or not, Milo really presses his luck by doing that. So it's even sadder when the "other man" in this story either gets killed or commits an accidental killing (depending on the version), since in this story the husband is the ONLY one playing "games."

john kenrick said...

Good points there, Grant. Also, Sleuth is stylishly written, has the charm of a Cole Porter musical, and it even channels Porter's songs. Yet the ending is as serious and chilling as that of A Bottle Of Wine, even with all of Andrew's toys seemingly in over-drive. Yes, indeed, Milo got into the spirit of Andrew's gamesmanship, and it cost him plenty.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for the interesting discussion, guys!