Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Morton Fine and David Friedkin Part Two: The McGregor Affair [10.7]

by Jack Seabrook

The second teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour by Morton Fine and David Friedkin was "The McGregor Affair," which aired on NBC on Monday, November 23, 1964. This episode was based on a short story of the same title by Sidney Rowland that had been published in the July 1953 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

In the late 1820s, a man named McGregor lived in Edinburg, Scotland, and worked as a porter, hauling heavy boxes filled with tanbark from Burke's cobber shop to the city's medical museum, where young men trained to become doctors. McGregor is fed up with his drunken wife, Aggie, who has stopped sharing her whisky with him. One evening, he notices a strand of hair trailing from one of the crates he carries. McGregor has heard the rumors that Burke and his partner, Hare, are resurrectionists, supplying bodies to medical schools, and realizes that if the boxes contain bodies and not tanbark, those bodies must have come from visitors to Burke's shop.

Andrew Duggan as McGregor
He inspects the box and sees that it contains the body of Effie Mattoon. He begins to think of a way to rid himself of his wife. McGregor's efforts to convince her to leave the house and get drunk at a tavern fail, so he gets her drunk at home and carries her body to Burke's shop, depositing it on the doorstep, where it is soon discovered by Burke and Hare, who bring her inside and murder her. The next day, McGregor visits Burke's shop and, that evening, he is given a very heavy box to deliver to the museum.

Having rid himself of his wife, McGregor enjoys his solitude and heads for a tavern, where he drinks himself into a stupor. Later that night, he becomes the next victim of Burke and Hare.

Published in the magazine's Department of First Stories, "The McGregor Affair" is preceded by an introduction in which the editor comments that he was attracted by the author's decision to keep Burke and Hare in the background and instead focus on McGregor. When the story was reprinted in the collection, Butcher, Baker, Murder-Maker, the editor noted that Rowland had done research on Burke and Hare for a true crime article but wrote this story instead. McGregor was based on John McCulloch, a real porter who carried corpses from Burke's shop to Dr. Knox's medical museum.

Elsa Lanchester as Aggie
Sidney Rowland (1922-2008) was born in New York, studied journalism, and worked as a newscaster in Columbus, Ohio, before moving to New York City to pursue a writing career. He instead had a long career in market research in New Jersey. In 1947-48, he attended the Columbia University School of Professional Writing and studied under Paul Gallico; however, despite his education and the success of "The McGregor Affair," The FictionMags Index lists no other published stories by this author.

The term "tanbark" is defined as tree bark that is used for tanning hides into leather. The tannins are removed for use and the remaining mulch is then discarded. It is this spent mulch that is supposed to be inside the large crates that McGregor takes from Burke's shop to the medical museum.

The team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin was an appropriate choice to adapt the short story for the small screen, since they had written a radio show for the series Crime Classics a decade earlier that told the story of Burke and Hare. The episode, titled "If a Body Need a Body, Just Call Burke and Hare," was broadcast on December 2, 1953, and is available to listen to online here. The radio play includes two bits of dialogue that are reproduced almost word for word in the 1964 teleplay.

John Hoyt as Dr. Knox
In adapting Rowland's short story for television, Fine and Friedkin expanded it greatly, adding characters and scenes to flesh it out for the hour-long running time and deepening the tale's emotional impact. They also cure a problem with the story's ending.

A bagpipe theme by Bernard Herrmann plays over the opening credits to establish that the story takes place in Scotland, and the first shot has a title card superimposed over it, setting the time and place as Edinburgh, Scotland, 1827. Life goes on in the busy street outside the McGregors' home, but John is trapped inside with his drunken, bedridden wife, Aggie, who won't share her whisky and who has not ventured outside in two years. McGregor speaks his thoughts aloud, both to a sleeping Aggie and to himself; he misses enjoying the outdoors with his bride.

Meanwhile, outside, we see Burke and Hare conversing on a street corner until McGregor approaches and takes a large box of tanbark to carry to the museum. He tells Burke that he has heard the rumors about him; this foreshadows the end of the show and is the first signal that McGregor himself is in danger. As he carries the heavy box along a country road, he talks to himself and rests in the shade of a tree. He delivers the box to Dr. Knox outside the medical museum and asks why he needs so much tanbark; Dr. Knox replies offhandedly that they "'spread it around'" and gives McGregor a coin as a tip.

Bill Smith as Tommy
Two medical students, Becker and Jarmley, carry the box inside, where they open it and see the corpse of a man. Becker questions its source and Knox reminds him that they need bodies to study and insists that no murder was committed. Some of the dialogue in this scene is lifted almost verbatim from Fine and Friedkin's 1953 radio play.

Outside, in the street, a woman named Elsie Muldoon offers to sell McGregor a match and implies that her body is also available, but he defers and returns home, where Aggie selfishly wants to keep both bottles of whisky that he bought. She is a mean, selfish drink, yet he seems devoted to her. Aggie passes out and he continues his monologue, beginning to think that he would be happy if she were gone.

In the morning, McGregor sits alone on a log by a pond until he is joined by Elsie, who has taken up with a handsome young man named Tommy. McGregor then has three fantasies that play out on screen like short, silent films (recall similar scenes in Hitchcock's "The Perfect Crime"): in the first, he tries to bash Aggie's head with a rock; in the second, he tries to drown her; in the third, he tries to hang her from a tree limb. Each scene is at once horrible and humorous, as his attempts at murder fail and he is shown as inept and no match for Aggie. Bernard Herrmann's music for these short scenes is perfect and Elsa Lanchester, as Aggie, is clearly enjoying herself and playing the part to the hilt.

Arthur Malet as Burke
We then see Burke and Hare place another corpse in a box and McGregor arrive unexpectedly. They nail the lid on in a hurry but don't do a good enough job so, when the porter sits in his favorite spot to rest, he sees a lock of hair hanging outside the box. Suspecting it contains a corpse, he pries off the lid and sees the corpse of Elsie Muldoon; McGregor realizes that the rumors about Burke and Hare are true and that the young woman was murdered. Tommy happens along inconveniently as McGregor is nailing the lid back on and Tommy helps him. They sit together on the box (think of Hitchcock's Rope, where a chest containing a dead body is used as a buffet table), and now McGregor is a liar, complicit in covering up the murder. He delivers the box and asks Dr. Knox if he'll ever stop needing tanbark. McGregor is planning the end of Aggie already, though it's not spelled out explicitly.

Back at home, Aggie is unusually nice to her husband, reminding him to kiss her later and complimenting him on the haggis he made that morning. Yet when she passes out drunk, he rationalizes that he must kill her in order to be happy. In Burke's shop, he and Hare enjoy themselves with drinks and two young women, while outside McGregor deposits Aggie, still unconscious. Burke and Hare hear her loud snores and investigate; Hare sends the young women away and he and Burke bring Aggie inside, another body for Dr. Knox.

Michael Pate as Hare
At home, McGregor revels in his freedom but fears being questioned by the police. He has gone from innocent participant to willing participant to active participant. There is a knock at the door, but it's not the police--it's Tommy, still looking for Elsie. McGregor paints a dismal picture of Elsie's future, using Aggie's decline as a model. Along comes a new young woman, selling matches just like Elsie, and Tommy is attracted by her beauty, immediately forgetting his last girlfriend. McGregor visits Burke, looking for work, and that evening he drinks at the tavern, waiting for nightfall, when he can take Aggie's body to Dr. Knox.

Burke asks McGregor to tell Dr. Knox that he'll visit him soon to discuss the new price of tanbark, as McGregor carries off the box containing Aggie's body. After a short rest, where McGregor speaks aloud to his late wife, he delivers the box and gives Burke's message to the doctor, though this time he refuses the coin tossed to him as a tip. The porter returns home and imagines he sees his wife lying in her bed, smiling at him. He buys more whisky at the tavern and meets the new match girl on his way back home. He warns her of the dangers of the street and she accompanies him home, but he tells her that he misses his wife and grows angry when she lies in Aggie's bed.

Betty Harford as Elsie Muldoon
Alone, McGregor remarks that he is lonely and misses Aggie. As written by Fine and Friedkin, McGregor is a more complex character on the small screen than he is in Sidney Rowland's short story; he regrets killing his wife and feels bad about not having said goodbye to her. He visits the medical museum and pounds on the door, demanding to be allowed in to say a final goodbye to Aggie, but Dr. Knox intercepts him and insists that the box contained only tanbark.

At the tavern again, McGregor is blind drunk and allows himself to be taken away by Burke, who has spoken to Dr. Knox and learned that McGregor is now aware of the contents of the boxes he has been carrying. Ominously, Burke and Hare walk off with McGregor. In the show's final scene, another man, who resembles McGregor, delivers a box to Dr. Knox; his students open it and see that it contains McGregor's body. They argue that his death was for a good cause, and the show ends.

Michael Macready as Jarmley
The conclusion of the short story has McGregor become the next victim of Burke and Hare for no particular reason, and the twist ending is simply that the man who delivered the corpses to the medical museum will be the next corpse to be delivered. In the TV show, Fine and Friedkin do a better job of plotting, setting up McGregor's doom early on, as he begins to suspect what's really going on with the boxes, and then tracing his dawning realization of the truth. We see him use his knowledge to his own ends when he sets his wife up to be murdered, and we witness his remorse and the way it causes him to speak incautiously and seal his fate. When Burke and Hare come along at the end of the TV show to collect and kill McGregor, it makes sense--they are covering up their own crimes and eliminating a potentially dangerous witness.

William Beckley as Becker
"The McGregor Affair" is a great hour of television, where a strong, well-plotted script is brought to life by great acting, solid direction, and a haunting musical score. David Friedkin uses a number of creative shots throughout the show, such as a slightly tilted camera for one of the scenes in Burke's shop and fuzzy edges in the triple fantasy of McGregor's when he imagines ways to murder his wife. The choice to have McGregor speak his thoughts in monologue rather than in voice-over is interesting and succeeds because of the skill of the actor Andrew Duggan, who convinces the viewer that this simple-minded Scotsman would do nothing else but speak aloud and address himself by name as he processes his thoughts ever so slowly. The result is a haunting, enjoyable show that makes its central characters the poor, forgotten folk of history rather than the famous murderers, something the editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine admired about Rowland's short story.

Janine Gray as the second match girl
As John McGregor, Andrew Duggan (1923-1988) is superb. After serving in the Army in WWII, his screen career began in 1949 and lasted until 1987. He appeared in the film of Rod Serling's Patterns (1956) and was a regular on three TV series: Bourbon Street Beat (1959-60), Room for One More (1962), and Lancer, (1968-70).

Elsa Lanchester (1902-1986) gives an effective performance as the lazy, fat drunk, Aggie. Born in London, she studied dance with Isadora Duncan and began acting on the stage following WWI. She married actor Charles Laughton in 1929. Her long screen career lasted from 1925 to 1980 and her most famous role was probably that of the title monster in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series; she later appeared on Night Gallery.

Iris Bristol as Rosie
Dr. Knox is played by the familiar character actor John Hoyt (1905-1991), who was born John Hoysradt and who was on screen from 1946 to 1987. Among his many appearances in classic films and TV shows were When Worlds Collide (1951), Spartacus (1960), and Roger Corman's X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963). On TV, he was seen in two episodes of the Hitchcock series, as well as on The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and The Night Stalker.

Bill Smith (1933- ) plays Tommy, the young man who is attracted to the young women selling matches. His long screen career spanned the years from 1942 to 2014, starting as a child actor and including an interruption when he served in the Air Force during the Korean War. He played many small parts, often in exploitation films, and appeared in one episode of the Hitchcock show, as well as on Batman and The Night Stalker.  There is a website devoted to him here.

Harriett Harper as Glynis
Hare is portrayed by Michael Pate (1920-2008), an Australian actor who worked in radio drama in the 1930s, served in the Australian Army in WWII, and began appearing on film after the war. He came to the U.S. in 1950 and returned to Australia in 1968. His screen career lasted from 1940 to 1997, and he appeared in two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, along with appearances on Thriller and Batman.

Arthur Malet (1927-2013) plays Burke. He was born in England and was on screen from 1956 to 1998. He was seen in two episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Coming Home," and he was also seen on Night Gallery and in the film, Young Frankenstein (1974).

In smaller roles:
  • Betty Harford (1927- ) as Elsie Muldoon, the first young woman selling matches whose hair spills out of the box McGregor carries; on screen from 1951 to 1991, she was in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Manacled," and she was seen on The Twilight Zone and as a regular on The Paper Chase (1978-86). Coincidentally, she also played roles on radio in the 1950s and was in the cast of Fine and Friedkin's "If a Body Need a Body, Just Call Burke and Hare."
  • Michael Macready (1932- ) as Jarmley, the medical student who keeps repeating "'I agree'"; he was on TV from 1958 to 1978 and appeared in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.
  • William Beckley (1930-2015) as Becker, the medical student who expresses concern about where the bodies come from; born in London, he was on screen from 1962 to 1991. He was on just this one episode of the Hitchcock show and also was seen on Batman and Night Gallery. He was a regular on the series, Dynasty (1982-1989).
  • Janine Gray (1942- ) as the second young woman selling matches; born Janine Glass in Bombay, India, she had a brief career on screen from 1960-69 and also appeared on The Avengers. Her blond, blue-eyed beauty assured that her photos would be associated with this episode, even though her part is small.
  • Harriett Harper (1942- ) as Glynis, the woman with Hare in the scene where Burke and Hare drink and watch two young women dance; she was on screen from 1963 to 1973 and later married director Nicholas Roeg.
  • Iris Bristol (1931- ) as Rosie, the young woman with Burke in the same scene; she made some appearances on screen between 1961-64 but is mainly known as a model in men's magazines, pinups, and nude films.
"The McGregor Affair" is not yet available on U.S. DVD but may be viewed online here.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
"If A Body Needs A Body Just Call Burke And Hare: Crime Classics: Crime: Old Time Radio Downloads." If A Body Needs A Body Just Call Burke And Hare | Crime Classics | Crime | Old Time Radio Downloads,
"The McGregor Affair." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 3, episode 7, NBC, 23 Nov. 1964.
"Obituary of Sidney Rowland: Poulson-Van Hise Funeral Home." Poulson & Van Hise Funeral Directors -...,
Rowland, Sidney. "The McGregor Affair." Butcher, Baker, Murder-Maker, Alfred A. Knopf, 1954, pp. 272–282.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Feb. 2020,

In two weeks: "Crimson Witness," starring Peter Lawford, Martha Hyer, and Joanna Moore!


vanguard2003 said...

Why do you think the networks don't usually broadcast the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Is it strictly the length not being conducive to syndication programming? Fortunately a lot of the episodes are available to stream. We're still working through Season 1 of the Hour long ones - but not in any given order. I hear they markedly improve the style of the stories in the subsequent final seasons. Something to look forward to.

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't know why they don't broadcast the hour-long episodes more often. It probably has to do with the length and available time slots. From what I've seen, the hour shows do improve in the second and third season. I think it's because they stopped trying to adapt novels and switched to short stories. The writers seem better at expanding short stories than cutting novels.

vanguard2003 said...

That's what I heard too. We're still winding our way through them. I hope I enjoy this one.

Jack Seabrook said...

I think you will.

Anonymous said...

Great Review Of A Great Episode!!!

Jack Seabrook said...