Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Stirling Silliphant Part Six: The Canary Sedan [3.37]

by Jack Seabrook

When James St. George Bernard Bowlby is promoted to the top position at the Grand Oriental Bank in Peking, his wife, recently recovered from a series of illnesses, leaves England and joins him in China, moving into a large house by the bank and purchasing "The Buick Saloon," a large car recently redone and painted blue. She begins to make the rounds, paying calls on the wives of important men in the city. Soon, she begins to hear a woman's voice, speaking in French, making small remarks whenever Mrs. Bowlby is being driven in her car.

The woman's voice speaks to a man named Jacques and Mrs. Bowlby wonders about the identity of the woman and the man, gradually realizing that they had been having a love affair that found them at many of the same places Mrs. Bowlby visits. Her husband does not hear the voice when he joins her in the car and she begins to enjoy listening to the haunting, one-sided conversation of the mysterious woman.

Jessica Tandy as Mrs. Bowlby
Mrs. Bowlby reasons that the pair had a secret meeting place, and one day she repeats to her chauffeur an address that she heard the voice utter. She is taken to a house in the East City and discovers a hidden garden where the lovers met. Somewhat sad that she and her husband don't share such a relationship, she resolves to try to determine the identity of the duo. She learns that the house had been occupied by Count d'Ardennes, whose wife went everywhere in a yellow Buick that was known as the Canary. The Countess grew ill and went back to France, while the Count was transferred to Bangkok.

Murray Matheson as Bowlby
Mrs. Bowlby leaves Peking for a seaside resort during the hot summer months and thinks about the affair that must have taken place between the Countess d'Ardennes and her lover, Jacques. The Countess's voice now haunts the Buick, and Mrs. Bowlby hears echoes of the woman's side of her conversations. Puzzled as to why no one has discussed what must have been a scandal, she begins to feel pity for the Countess.

Returning to Peking in the autumn and resuming her round of social calls, Mrs. Bowlby hears the Countess sobbing and suddenly decides to return to the hidden garden. Feeling sad at her own solitude and sorry to have involved herself in the misery of a woman she never met, she is startled to see an inscription carved in plaster. The initials of the lovers are clear and she realizes that the Jacques of the pair is none other than her own husband.

"The Buick Saloon"
was first published here
"The Buick Saloon," by Mary O'Malley, first appeared in the June 1930 issue of The Cornhill Magazine, a British literary journal that was published from 1859 to 1975. Though seeming dated when read today, it is a well-told, haunting ghost story. The surprise ending, when Mrs. Bowlby discovers that the lover of the woman whose voice she hears in the car was actually her husband, is fairly-clued when the tale is reviewed in retrospect. The French name Jacques is the equivalent of the English name James, so when it turns out that the Jacques of the whispered remarks is really James St. George Bernard Bowlby, it makes perfect sense, especially since the pair of lovers frequented the same places as Mrs. Bowlby, knew the same people, and Jacques even played polo, as does James.

Mary O'Malley (1889-1974) was born Mary Ann Dolling Sanders in England. She married a British diplomat named Owen St. Clair O'Malley, and her marriage was described as unhappy. She moved to Bridge End in 1919 and, in 1925, she and her children went with her husband to Peking for two years, where he had a diplomatic posting. (One wonders if the main character in "The Buick Saloon" may have some autobiographical elements.) She began writing after returning to England in 1927 and, though "The Buick Saloon" was first published under her real name, she soon began to use the pseudonym Ann Bridge: Bridge, after the town of Bridge End, and Ann, her middle name. She went on to write many books, including 14 novels, as well as short stories and autobiographical works.

Barry Bernard as the bartender
A saloon is an old-fashioned term for a sedan and, by the time the short story was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1958, it made sense to change the title of the show to "The Canary Sedan," sedan being a more modern synonym for saloon and Buick not being a sponsor of the TV show!

Stirling Silliphant wrote the teleplay and took pains to make the character of Mrs. Bowlby, who is given the first name of Laura, someone who has a history of being sensitive to supernatural forces. In the first scene, which is not found in the short story, we see her on a cruise ship bound for Hong Kong (which has replaced the Peking of the story), using a Ouija board with a group of passengers gathered around, watching. A theremin is heard on the soundtrack, making the proceedings seem weird and spooky and, as Laura uses the Ouija board, a nearby bartender and steward converse about her, allowing the viewer to learn her name and the purpose of her voyage. The Asian man whose hands join hers on the Ouija board's planchette tells her that she is "'possessed of the most extraordinary powers,'" a statement that appears to make her uncomfortable.

Barry Harvey as the steward
The ship arrives in Hong Kong and we see the first of many uses of stock footage of the location that will be used in the course of the show. When she meets her husband dockside, she is visibly disappointed by his cool demeanor, setting up a contrast between her relationship with him and the romance she overhears in the car. At the auto dealer, she is drawn to a particular sedan and says that she wishes it were painted canary yellow; the salesman tells her that it was that color before it was repainted, suggesting that some psychic pull attracted her to the car.

As she is first being driven around Hong Kong, director Robert Stevens inserts a close up of her calling card so that we see her unusually long name with the initial letters of each word capitalized; this sets up the final scene, where she sees the inscription in the garden. There is some dated, racist interaction with Chang, her chauffeur, who calls her Missy and has a limited understanding of the English language, but such portrayals of Asians were common on American television even into the late 1970s, on shows like Barney Miller.

Leonard Strong at the Ouija board
By the window in front of Laura in the back seat of the car is a small metal tube holding a flower. The camera focuses on it when she hears the ghostly remarks, thus creating an association in the viewer's mind between the flower and the disembodied voice. When Laura begins to hear the voice, the theremin is again heard, underlining the supernatural nature of the experience. Rather than have the voice speaking in French, as it does in the short story, Silliphant has the voice speak in English with a French accent and uses a few commonly understood French words, like "'Cheri.'" Presumably, viewers in 1958 were not expected to understand French, unlike readers in 1930.

Gavin Muir as Thompson
The voice speaks of the house where the lovers met and Silliphant streamlines the events of the story, leaving out other topics discussed by the voice. At one point, Laura takes the flower out of its tube and smells it while riding with her husband. She suddenly begins to hear the voice again, reinforcing the connection between voice and flower. Her husband refers to her history of "'seeing things'" and blames her parents for bringing up a sensitive child with a "'superstitious old Irish nurse.'" The teleplay provides various examples of why the main character is more likely to hear a ghostly voice, while the short story simply presents her as an unremarkable woman who experiences a strange event for no clear reason.

At a party, a man tells Laura the name of the woman whose husband had been the previous owner of the car, as well as the fact that she left the country and that her husband was not named Jacques. Back in the car, Laura hears the voice again and is surrounded by a sort of mist that dulls our view of the sights outside the vehicle. For the first time, she speaks to the voice, questioning it. The teleplay is more straightforward than the short story and compresses the time of the events, omitting the summer months that Laura spends at the seashore. There is only one visit to the garden and she quickly finds the inscription with her husband's initials.

The episode as a whole features none of director Robert Stevens's usual camera trickery, save for a shot looking through an ornate door in the garden. The garden itself is beautiful and Laura is enchanted by it until she sees the inscription. To help make the point clear to the viewer, Laura holds her calling card next to the initials carved in plaster so that we see the connection. Both the short story and the TV show depend on the fact that her husband's name is long and unusual; if his name were John Smith, she would not likely assume that the initials "J.S." in the garden were suspicious!

Patrick Westwood as
Nixon, the car salesman
"The Canary Sedan" is a haunting episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that does a fine job of adapting a short story about ghostly events for the small screen. The show is dominated by the main character, played memorably by Jessica Tandy (1909-1994). Born in London, she began acting on the stage in 1927 and her screen career lasted from 1932 to 1994. She emigrated to the United States in 1940 and also played many roles on Old Time Radio. She won Tony Awards for her performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1948), The Gin Game (1978), and Foxfire (1983), an Emmy for the TV version of Foxfire (1987), and an Oscar for her late-career role in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), a film in which she spends a good bit of time being chauffeured around in the back of a car, much as she does in "The Canary Sedan." She appeared in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) and in two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Glass Eye."

Laura's unfaithful husband, James, is played by Murray Matheson (1912-1985). Born in Australia, he had a long career on screen from 1945 to 1983. He was seen on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Night Stalker, and he appeared in four episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Murder Case."

Weaver Levy as Chang
Thompson, James's "'number two man'" who takes Laura to buy the car, is played by Gavin Muir (1900-1972). His screen career lasted from 1931 to 1965 and he was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Back for Christmas."

The car salesman, Nixon, is played by Patrick Westwood (1924-2017), whose career on screen spanned the years from 1948 to 2003. He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Avengers, and Space: 1999.

In other roles:
  • Weaver Levy (1925-2018) as Chang, the chauffeur; he was on screen from 1945 to 1981 and also appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Poison."
  • Barry Harvey as the steward in the first scene; he had a short TV career from 1955 to 1961 but managed to appear in eight episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole."
  • Barry Bernard (1899-1978) as the bartender in the first scene; on screen from 1919 to 1972, he appeared in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, as well as on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Night Gallery. He was also in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "The Hero."
  • Leonard Strong (1908-1980) as the man at the Ouija board with Laura; he often played Asian roles and was on screen from 1942 to 1968. He was on one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also was seen on The Twilight Zone and Get Smart.
  • Owen Cunningham (1902-1983) as Adams, the man at the party who tells Laura about the Countess; he was on screen from 1957 to 1978 and was seen on Night Gallery and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Dip in the Pool."
Owen Cunningham
  • Tetsu Komai (1894-1970) as the old man who tells Laura that the Countess's house is no longer occupied; he was on screen from 1925 to 1964 and he and his family were interred in a camp in Arizona for three years during World War Two with other Japanese-Americans. He also appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Specialty of the House."
Tetsu Komai
Read "The Buick Saloon" at the Internet Archive, here. Buy the DVD of "The Canary Sedan" here or watch the episode for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

"The Canary Sedan" was remade in color for the 1980s' series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the story was greatly altered. This time, the main character is American and the Asian stereotypes present in the 1958 version have been eliminated. Ann Foley (rather than Laura Bowlby) learns early on that her husband was unfaithful and, rather than a disembodied, French-accented voice in the car, the other woman is Chinese and appears in person sitting next to the startled wife. It seems the woman is now dead and Mrs. Foley must perform a ritual to free her spirit and allow her husband to reconcile with her. The episode is available to watch online here and was originally broadcast on March 2, 1986.

Sources:
Bridge, Ann. “The Buick Saloon.” Creepy Stories, Bracken Books, 1994, pp. 544–559.
“The Canary Sedan.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 37, CBS, 15 June 1958.
The FictionMags Index, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: "Little White Frock," starring Herbert Marshall and Julie Adams!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma's terrific podcast about the first-season episode, "The Derelicts," here!

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