Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Stirling Silliphant Part Eight: The Crystal Trench [5.2]

by Jack Seabrook

At the Rifflealp Hotel in the Swiss Alps, a British climber named Dennis Challoner looks up at the nearby mountain and converses with a young woman named Stella Frobisher about the wisdom of climbing with guides. Later that day, a German tourist looks through the big telescope at the hotel and sees two men on top of the Weisshorn. Challoner is concerned that anyone would be so high on the mountain that late in the afternoon when a storm had occurred and, the next day, word comes of an accident. Two young Englishmen, Mark Frobisher and George Liston, had attempted a dangerous ascent in the company of Herr Ranks, who was known to take risks. After being caught in the storm, Frobisher collapsed and died, and his companions left his body tied to a rock because they were unable to bring him down.

As a fellow Englishman, Challoner is elected to break the news to Stella, the wife of the deceased climber. The next day, Challoner tells her that her husband is dead and she asks that the body be brought back to her. With a climbing party, Challoner ascends the mountain and finds the body, but in the process of bringing it down a rope gives way and the corpse slides down the side of the snowy slope, disappearing into a glacial crevasse. The climbing party descends and Challoner tells Stella what happened to her husband's body.

Just before the body slips off the ledge.
Challoner remains haunted by the memory of Stella, who sends him a letter of thanks at the end of the year. He visits her and they begin to spend time together; the next summer, he proposes marriage but she refuses. Stella tells Dennis that she has been to see Professor Kersley, an expert on the movement of glaciers, and that he calculated that, on July 21st, in 24 years, Mark's body will emerge from the glacier. Stella plans to devote her life to waiting for her late husband's body to reappear.

The years pass and, 24 years later, Dennis accompanies Stella back to the Rifflealp Hotel where, one morning in July, he finds a gold watch lying on the ice. Stella confirms that the watch belonged to Mark, and the two go to the spot on the glacier where her husband can be seen under the ice. His body has been preserved in its youth, unlike that of Stella, who has aged 24 years. The ice is cut away and, when the body is exposed to the air, it crumbles to dust, leaving only a gold locket on a thin chain. Challoner picks up the locket and opens it to find a portrait of a young woman other than Stella. He tells Stella that the locket contains a picture of her but she replies that "'He had no locket with a portrait of me.'" The story ends with this sentence: "Over the shoulder of a hill the sun leapt into the sky and flooded the world with gold."

James Donald as Mark Cavendish
"The Crystal Trench," by A.E.W. Mason, is a beautifully-written short story that was first published in the December 1915 issue of the popular British fiction journal, The Strand Magazine. It is a story of romance and irony, set in the Swiss Alps and the countryside of England. Working backwards from the date of publication and assuming that the conclusion takes place around 1915, the fatal climb at the start of the story must be dated to about 1890. In fact, the Rifflealp Hotel first opened in 1884 and a tram was built in 1899 to connect the hotel to a nearby railway; in the story, when Challoner returns to the hotel after a 24-year absence, he notes that "a railway climbed nowadays to the Rifflealp."

Challoner estimates Stella to be a girl of "nineteen or less ... who looks out at life from the secure shelter of a schoolroom," so even after the long wait to see her husband's body she would only be about 45 years old. Challoner himself is 26 when the story begins, making him about 50 at the end. When Frobisher dies, the woman who manages the hotel tells Challoner that "'they had only been married a couple of months ... I would not have trusted him with the happiness of anyone I cared for.'" Decades later, when Challoner finds the locket, he recalls the words of the hotel manager.

Patricia Owens as Stella Ballister
The truth of the locket and the picture it contains are a shock to Dennis and Stella, since both put their lives on hold for 24 years while they waited for natural processes to reveal the man Stella loved. The final line of the story suggests that the revelation of Mark Frobisher's deceit may have freed Stella to respond to Dennis's love; how else to interpret: "Over the shoulder of a hill the sun leapt into the sky and flooded the world with gold"? The gold with which the world is flooded is like the gold of the locket, and it may also be life and love that are flooding back into the hearts of Dennis and Stella when they discover that her devotion to her late husband was misplaced.

In addition to the story's romantic aspects, A.E.W. Mason writes two brilliant passages of horror. The first comes when the climbing party finds Mark's body, frozen atop the snowy mountain:

He was astride a narrow edge of snow, a leg dangling down each precipice. His eyes stared at them, his mouth hung open, and when any stray gust of wind struck the ridge, he nodded at them with a dreadful pleasantry. He had the air, to Challoner's eyes, of a live paralytic rather than of a man frozen and dead.

The second shocking passage occurs when the body becomes dislodged and tumbles down the side of the mountain:

The lashing of the rope got loose as they dragged the body down the glacier, and suddenly it worked out of the sacking and slid swiftly past them down a steep slope of ice. A cry of horror broke from the rescue party. For a moment or two they watched it helplessly as it gathered speed and leapt into the air from one little hummock to another, the arms tossing and whirling like the arms of a man taken off his guard. Then it disappeared with a crash into a crevasse, and the glacier was empty.

Even someone who has never climbed a snowy mountain can picture this horrible scene!

Werner Klemperer as Herr Ranks
The story's title, "The Crystal Trench," had a different connotation to British readers in 1915. World War One was raging just across the English Channel where, by the fall of 1914, enormous trenches filled with soldiers spanned the front in France and Belgium. Often seen as a symbol of the futility of war, the trench of this short story becomes a symbol of the futility of waiting; instead of bloody soil, this trench is made to seem like crystal by the snow and ice that surround it.

A.E.W. Mason (1865-1948) was a popular British author of plays, short stories, and novels, including The Four Feathers (1902). Many films were adapted from his works but this is the only episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be based on a story of his. The story may be read online here.

Ben Astar as the hotel manager
After not contributing any teleplays to the fourth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Stirling Silliphant returned to adapt "The Crystal Trench" for television, and the episode, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, October 4, 1959. Unlike the short story, which is told in the third person, the TV show is told in the first person by Mark Cavendish, as Silliphant has renamed Dennis Challoner. The first images we see are stock footage of the Alps, with glaciers and a train arriving, as the narrator recalls a day 40 years in the past, a Wednesday in September 1907. Already, Silliphant has made a significant alteration to Mason's work, moving the events of the past up to 1907 and the events of the present up to 1947, twelve years before the TV show aired. Instead of 24 years between fall and reappearance, as in the short story, the span of time is now 40 years, which allows for an even greater contrast between the youth of the man preserved in ice and the age of the man and woman who waited so long for him.

Challoner's first meeting with Stella is deleted and we instead see him arrive in the lobby and find the guides arguing by the telescope. More voiceover narration quickly sets the scene and creates suspense by suggesting an unforgettable event seen from 40 years in the future; it is made clear that what we are watching is an extended flashback.

Patrick Macnee as the professor
The next scenes follow the short story closely, until Cavendish meets Stella (her last name has been changed to Ballister) in the dining room. In the story, he sees her happily dancing alone and decides to wait until the next day to tell her about her husband's death. In the TV show, he joins her at her table and she invites him to dance; they waltz briefly before going out onto a balcony, where he breaks the news. As she looks up at the mountain, the camera focuses on the back of her head, setting up a similar shot in the show's final scene, when she has aged 40 years.

Particularly well done is the scene where the climbing party ascends the mountain to recover the body of Stella's husband; it is especially impressive for having been shot on a Hollywood soundstage. More voiceover describes the events as the wind blows on the soundtrack and there is a memorable shot from above as Ballister's body slides down the snow-covered side of the mountain.

Harald O. Dyrenforth
Stella next asks Mark to accompany her to the Swiss town of Brig, where Liston and Herr Ranks, both of whom accompanied Michael Ballister on his fatal Alpine climb, are recovering from injuries they sustained in the cold. She insists that she needs to find out the truth, suggesting that the story she was told of her husband dying of exhaustion and exposure could not have been accurate. This scene is an attempt by Silliphant to inject some drama into the story, and the following scene finds Mark and Stella interviewing Herr Ranks as he sits in a wheelchair. He takes some of the blame for the accident and Stella angrily accuses him of leaving her husband on the mountain to die, despite his insistence that they stayed with him until after he was dead.

Stella next tells Mark that she had a "'perfect marriage'" and announces that she will spend her life remembering every moment of her wedded bliss. The look in her eyes at the end of this scene suggests insanity, and John McCarty and Brian Kelleher suggest that the episode deals with "Romantic obsession a la Vertigo." Donald Spoto comments on "the stare of madness, the gaze of one immobilized within the prison of his own flesh or sin or emotional constriction," and I submit that Stella, in this scene, demonstrates the very emotional constriction of which Spoto writes.

Frank Holms
More voiceover narration accompanies Mark's visit to Stella at Christmas and his ill-fated marriage proposal. He misunderstood the purpose of her invitation, since she takes him with her to see a professor, who explains that the glacier will recede and reveal her husband's body. As the professor gives a detailed, scientific explanation, Stella sits enraptured while Mark paces the floor, distracted. Mark is shocked when the professor announces that Michael's body will emerge from the ice on July 21, 1947! In voiceover, he says that he now knows that Stella will wait 40 years for Mark while he waits for her.

There is a fadeout and then a fade back in to more stock footage of the Alps, mirroring the shots at the opening of the episode. Mark narrates again, calling the glacier "'a vast crystal trench which had enveloped us.'" We then see Mark and Stella from behind, watching as men with picks chip away at the ice. The camera angle shows the back of Stella's head, as it did in the earlier scene on the balcony, but this time we wait for her to turn around and reveal how she has changed in 40 years.

There is a shocking shot of Michael's frozen face, preserved in the ice, and Stella bends down to look closely, turning to let us see how she has aged in contrast with his unnaturally youthful appearance. The camera cuts to Mark, who has also aged significantly. He finds the locket and, after Stella tells him that Michael had no locket with a picture of her, he tosses it back onto the ice and turns with a look of despair. The shot fades to black and there is no sun flooding the world with gold as there is in Mason's short story; the TV version ends on an unhappy note with no indication that the characters have been set free from their self-imposed prison.

Oscar Beregi
In his article, "Cinema en miniature: The Telefilms of Alfred Hitchcock," Ulrich Rudel calls "The Crystal Trench" a "condensed epic, a futile love story encompassing four decades." He also asks whether Hitchcock may have been influenced by a 1929 film co-directed by G.W. Pabst called The White Hell of Pitz Palu, which concerns the search for a woman who falls into a glacier in the Swiss Alps. This film is available online here and features stunning camerawork.

Patrick McGilligan quotes screenwriter Evan Hunter, who visited the set while "The Crystal Trench" was being filmed from August 25, 1959, to August 27, 1959, and who recalls the technical difficulty of shooting the scene with Michael Ballister trapped under the ice: "'the ice was resting on a narrow wooden ditch into which the actor had crawled.'"

Finally, returning to Spoto and "the stare of madness," Stella is not the only one with madness in her eyes. Michael, Spoto writes, "gazes in apparent repose while actually in a timeless twilight of guilt." He is encased "within the prison of his own ... sin ..." Spoto may be stretching a point when he compares this to "the director's own deadpan attitude to camera and viewers each week," and argues that "the motif of fidelity and hidden passion" suggests Hitchcock's own "relationship with Alma and his yearning for several of his leading ladies."

In old age makeup, James Donald resembles Bill Nighy!
Clearly, "The Crystal Trench" can be read many ways, and Spoto refers to it as "the strangest teleplay of [Hitchcock's] career." During the summer of 1959, when this episode was filmed, Hitchcock was preparing to make Psycho, a movie whose contemporary American setting was in stark contrast to "The Crystal Trench," a story set in the past and taking place in England and the Swiss Alps. In a way, the episode harks back to Hitchcock's British films of the mid- to late-1930s, such as The Lady Vanishes.

James Donald (1917-1993) receives top billing as Mark Cavendish. Born in Scotland, he entertained troops in WWII before joining Army Intelligence. His screen career lasted from 1937 to 1978 and he was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Poison." Learn more about him here.

Stella Ballister is played by Patricia Owens (1925-2000), who was born in Canada. Thirty-four years old when "The Crystal Trench" was filmed, she was considerably older than the character in the short story. Her screen career lasted from 1943 to 1968 and she co-starred with David Hedison in The Fly (1958). This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

In supporting roles:
  • Werner Klemperer as Herr Ranks (1920-2000); born in Germany, his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1935 and he served in the Army in WWII. His screen career lasted from 1952 to 1993, mostly on TV, though he had a bit part in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956). He appeared in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, along with episodes of Thriller, Batman, and Night Gallery, but he is best known for his role as Colonel Klink on Hogan's Heroes from 1965 to 1971.
  • Ben Astar (1909-1988) as the hotel manager; he was on screen from 1950 to 1983. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.
  • Patrick Macnee (1922-2015) as the professor; born in London, he served in WWII and was on screen from 1938 to 2003. He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Arthur"), as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, but he will always be remembered as John Steed on The Avengers (1961-1969) and The New Avengers (1976-1977).
  • Harald O. Dyrenforth (1913-2005) as Frederick Blauer; born in Germany, he was on screen from 1945 to 1971 and had a small part in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.
  • Frank Holms (1931- ) as Hans Blauer; born Frank Diernhammer in Germany, he was in the Hitler Youth but joined the U.S. Army after the war and eventually became an actor, appearing in German films from 1955 to 1959. In the 1960s, he worked as a fashion and portrait photographer in Los Angeles; he made some more appearances on U.S. television in the 1980s. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.
  • Oscar Beregi (1918-1976) as the tourist who sees the climbers through the telescope; born in Hungary, he appeared on screen from 1959 to 1976. He had roles on Thriller and Batman and was in three episodes of The Twilight Zone.
"The Crystal Trench" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.


"The Crystal Trench." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 2, CBS, 4 Oct. 1959.
The FictionMags Index,
Frank Holms (Frank Diernhammer),
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Mason, A.E.W. "The Crystal Trench." The Strand Magazine, Dec. 1915, pp. 746–755.
McCarty, John, and Brian Kelleher. Alfred Hitchcock Presents: an Illustrated Guide to the Ten-Year Television Career of the Master of Suspense. St. Martin's P., 1985.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: a Life in Darkness and Light. ReganBooks, 2003.
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: the Dark Side of Genius. Collins, 1983.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: Our series on Stirling Silliphant concludes with "Graduating Class," starring Wendy Hiller!

Listen to a podcast on the adaptation of Fredric Brown's "Human Interest Story" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents here!


Grant said...

I'm not sure how easy it is to find (even online), but one of Patricia Owens' really surprising roles is in a war movie called FIVES GATES TO HELL. In that one she plays a really jaded character, just the opposite of the demure ones she plays in things like this and THE FLY.

Jack Seabrook said...

That sounds good. I'll keep an eye out for it.