Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Morton Fine and David Friedkin Part Three: Crimson Witness [10.12]

by Jack Seabrook

Peter Lawford as Ernest Mullett
"Crimson Witness," the third episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to be adapted for television by Morton Fine and David Friedkin, is a good example of how to take an unremarkable short story and expand it into an entertaining hour of drama. Nigel Elliston's story of the same title was published in The London Mystery Selection no. 55 [December 1962] and never reprinted.

Ernest Mullet's two successes in life are marrying Judith Harlow and displaying a perfect bloom from his own garden in his lapel each day. When his wife's affections are stolen by his co-worker Roger Farnum, Ernest resolves to kill the man. The Mullets are divorced and things settle down for a few months, but when Roger begins sporting a flower in his buttonhole each morning from a local florist, Ernest's anger and jealousy are rekindled and he sets his mind to murder.

"Crimson Witness"
was first published here
A news report about a bank robbery in which a manager is killed gives Ernest an idea and, after figuring out that Roger has changed the combination on his large office safe to J-U-D-Y, Ernest visits the man one afternoon and kills him with a blow from a lead pipe before hiding his body in the safe. When Farnum's secretary looks into his office before leaving for the day, she thinks that her boss has already departed by the other door when, in reality, Ernest has hidden his body in the safe.

Ernest spends the evening at home with his sister before returning to the office after two a.m. He opens the safe, takes $5000 in cash, and leaves Roger's corpse in full view. A cleaner finds the body just after 6 a.m. and the police question employees as they arrive. Unfortunately, Ernest confirms that Roger had a white gardenia in his buttonhole, while the crimson rose petal found inside the safe matches the flower in Ernest's lapel.

Martha Hyer as Judith Mullett
Just six pages in length, "Crimson Witness" is a brief tale whose success hinges on its twist ending, a conclusion that is set up when writer Nigel Elliston makes the flowers in the main characters' buttonholes affectations that the reader notices, fails to focus on, but recalls at the end. The story's author has no other credits on IMDb or in The FictionMags Index, and a detailed search has only revealed two other possible mentions: the British radio program Morning Story aired a reading of a tale called "Off the Record" by Nigel Elliston on March 7, 1960, and the 2017 obituary of a woman named Olive Elliston, who died in Ipswich Hospital in Southeast England, mentions her late husband, Nigel Elliston. Any other information about the author would be appreciated.

Surely attracted by the twist ending, the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour bought the rights to the story and assigned it to the writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin, who expanded it into a highly entertaining television program that aired on Monday, January 4, 1965. Everything works in "Crimson Witness": the dialogue is sparkling, the direction solid, the performances perfect. The music score, by jazz musician Benny Carter, underscores each scene and highlights the absurdity of the situation.

Joanna Moore as Madeline
While the short story is focused on Ernest and the murder of Roger, the TV show takes a different approach and focuses on three beautiful women and their shifting loyalties between the two men. Instead of being co-workers, as they are in Elliston's piece, Ernest and Roger are brothers, even though Peter Lawford, as Ernest, and Roger C. Carmel, as Farnum, look nothing alike. The show begins with Ernest in his large, fancy office, as he checks the walk-in safe that is hidden behind two curtains. When he is done admiring the safe, he turns his attention to his gorgeous secretary, Barbara, who resists his amorous advances in the workplace and instead comments on his habit of embezzlement. Benny Carter's jazzy score serves as a transition between scenes, and the boss, Mr. Baldwin, summons Ernest to his office, only to inform him that he lacks drive and is being reassigned.

Baldwin points out that Ernest wears a different rose in his lapel each day and Baldwin's own beautiful secretary enters, demonstrating that this office is one where women are hired for their looks. The entire episode of "Crimson Witness" is almost like an episode of the much later TV series Mad Men in its depiction of the relations between the sexes in a big-city office in 1965. In any case, Baldwin tells Ernest that he is being replaced as plant manager by his brother Farnum. There is a cut to Ernest's home, where we see Farnum, overweight, balding, and sporting a walrus mustache, contrasted with Ernest, who is suave and handsome. Ernest's wife Judith is nonplussed when Ernest tells her that Farnum is replacing him at work; poor Ernest can't even get the best of his brother physically, as he learns when he tries to throw his long-term house guest out and instead ends up on the floor himself.

Julie London as Barbara
Even worse, Farnum announces that Judy loves him and is leaving Ernie, which she does right then and there. Ernest's life is not all bleak, however, as we see when the scene moves to the apartment of his secretary Barbara, with whom Ernest is carrying on an extra-marital affair. She informs Ernie that Farnum is "'self-centered, cunning, greedy, and calculating'"--and that she finds him "'fascinating, cruel, exciting.'" Like Judy, Barbara is in love with Farnum! Ernest's brother has now stolen his wife, his lover, and his job, and Ernest understandably lashes out, telling Barbara that Farnum has taken up with Judy. Barbara is upset but sighs that she will wait for Farnum to tire of the woman and turn to her.

In his new (smaller) office, Ernest meets his new secretary, Madeline, whom which he shares with five other men. Madeine is beautiful, yet less refined in speech and manner than Barbara. Even she brags about Farnum! Ernest visits his brother in the office that used to be his and Farnum remarks that he now wears a flower in his lapel, though his flower is exotic and must be flown in, unlike Ernest's home-grown variety. Farnum has an annoying habit of quoting great authors, such as Jane Austen and Hegel, and has already discovered that Ernest was "'dipping into the till,'" something he volunteers to cover up. Farnum does not even try to disguise his glee at stealing Ernest's job and wife; in addition to the other negative qualities that make him a success in business and with beautiful women, Farnum is a blackmailer, offering to keep quiet in exchange for his brother's friendship.

Roger C. Carmel as Farnum Mullett
Ernest gets Farnum to open the safe, in a not very subtle attempt to learn the new combination, but Farnum conceals it from view. At home, Ernest prepares the murder weapon, a pipe concealed in a sock, and back at the office Ernest begins to set up his alibi for murder by inviting his new secretary to dinner. He visits Farnum, kills him with a blow to the head, and hides the body and the murder weapon in the safe. Fine and Friedkin pepper the script with repeated references to the safe and the flowers, keeping both in the viewer's mind in preparation for the show's conclusion, while playing out a black comedy of manners and shifting alliances between the two brothers and the three women.

Ernest and Madeline dine out together, allowing him to establish an alibi; she is forward and invites him back to her place for drinks but he declines, instead returning to the office to stage the murder scene for discovery in the morning. When the sun comes up, Ernest is interviewed by two detectives in Farnum's office, where a black outline has replaced the corpse. Now that Farnum is dead, Ernest's unfaithful wife rushes to his arms, begging forgiveness. As Judy, Martha Hyer really pours it on in this scene; she is deadpan and funny, kissing his head and caressing his ear while he speaks to his boss on the phone. It is a credit to Peter Lawford as an actor that he made it through this scene without dissolving into giggles.

Alan Baxter as Baldwin
Madeline catches him kissing his wife and calls him a rat out in the hallway; this is the same term Barbara had used earlier in the episode to describe Farnum. Ernest visits Barbara, who is also suddenly attracted to him once again and, just as he is leaving, the detectives summon Ernest back to Farnum's office, where their discovery of the rose petal in the safe reveals Ernest as the killer. By this time, the mystery has become secondary to the fun of seeing the three beautiful women throw themselves at two undeserving men, making "Crimson Witness" a wry commentary on relationships between the sexes in 1965. Making Ernest and Roger brothers rather than co-workers heightens the irony; the men are physical opposites, yet their natures are similar.

Paul Comi
Peter Lawford (1923-1984) plays Ernest perfectly, never losing his cool and always appearing smooth and refined. Born in London and married to the sister of President John F. Kennedy at the time this show aired in 1965, Lawford was in the middle of a long career on screen that begin in 1931 and ended in 1990. He was in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents way back in 1955 and he later was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Lawford was a member of the Rat Pack, the group of swinging actors and singers who hung around Frank Sinatra, and appeared in many films.

Judith Mullett, Ernest's unfaithful wife, is played with icy cool by Martha Hyer (1924-2014), who was on screen from 1946 to 1974 and who appeared in one other episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. She published her autobiography in 1990.

Larry Thor
The chatty secretary, Madeline, is played by Joanna Moore (1934-1997). Born Dorothy Joanne Cook, she was on screen from 1956 to 1984 and had a role in Orson Welles's classic film noir, Touch of Evil (1958). She appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Most Likely to Succeed," and was the mother of actress Tatum O'Neal.

Nancy Hseuh
Julie London (1926-2000) plays Barbara, Ernest's first secretary. She was born Nancy Gayle Peck and her parents had a song and dance team in vaudeville. In addition to being a busy actress on screen from 1944 to 1978, London was an accomplished singer who released many record albums. She was a regular on the TV series Emergency from 1972 to 1978 but this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Giving an entertaining performance as Farnum Mullett is Roger C. Carmel (1932-1986), who seemed to light up the screen whenever he appeared. He was on TV and in film from 1958 to 1986 and played memorable roles on Batman and Star Trek, as well as being a regular on the TV series, The Mothers-In-Law (1967-68). Unfortunately, this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

In smaller roles:
  • Alan Baxter (1908-1976) as Baldwin, Ernest's boss; he served in the Army Air Corps in World War Two and studied at the Group Theatre; he was on screen from 1935-1971 and had a part in Hitchcock's classic, Saboteur (1942). He was also seen on Thriller, The Outer Limits, and in one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Backward, Turn Backward."
  • Paul Comi (1932-2016) as the younger of the two detectives who interview Ernest after the murder; he was on screen from 1958-1995, mostly on TV, and appeared on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Larry Thor (1916-1976) as the older detective; he was born in Canada as Arnlelfur Lawrence Thorsteinson and he was known chiefly as a radio broadcaster and announcer, playing roles in film and television from 1952-74.
  • Nancy Hseuh (1941-1980) plays Baldwin's secretary; she was on film briefly as a child from 1945-1947 and then had a career as an adult onscreen from 1960-1978, including a role in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968).
Benny Carter (1907-2003), who composed the score for this episode, was a saxophone player and bandleader who had a long and successful career writing and playing jazz and swing music. He composed scores for TV and film from 1957-1986 and there is a website devoted to him here.

Once again, David Friedkin did not just co-write "Crimson Witness" with Morton Fine; he also directed it, and he does a fine job, keeping the action moving swiftly and handling the humor deftly.

"Crimson Witness" is not yet available on DVD in the U.S. but it may be viewed online for free here.

Sources:
"Crimson Witness." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 10, episode 12, NBC, 4 Jan. 1965.
Elliston, Nigel. "Crimson Witness." The London Mystery Selection, Dec. 1962, pp. 21–26.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
"Olive Elliston." Olive ELLISTON - Death - Ipswich Star Announcements - Family Notices 24, www.familynotices24.co.uk/est/view/4289640/olive-elliston.
"Radio Times 1923-2009." BBC News, BBC, genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/light/1960-03-07.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Apr. 2020, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: "Thou Still Unravished Bride," starring Ron Randell and David Carradine!

4 comments:

Mike Doran said...

This is a little out of the ordinary scope here, but I thought I'd pass it along:

In 1965, the Chicago Sun-Times had a columnist named Paul Molloy, who was the paper's TV columnist.
Molloy had had that position since the late '50s, but had long since expanded to a general column; He still wrote anything about TV that he felt strongly about.
In his Sunday column one week (actually, it was in the Sun-Times's TV magazine), Molloy wrote a very negative column about this very Hitchcock Hour.
Paul Molloy was a strict Catholic, the father of eight children, and an extremely moralistic man; his disapproval of "Crimson Witness" centered on the fact that almost all of the characters were far from moral in their behavior, and that was not suitable for the "family medium" that TV was supposed to be.
In passing, Molloy noted his own disapproval of Alfred Hitchcock's two most recent movies, Psycho and The Birds; he denounced Psycho in toto, and dismissed The Birds as "a bomb"; I can't recall offhand, but I think Hitchcock's own Catholicism may have entered into Molloy's criticism.
This was part of an overall campaign on Molloy's part to "clean up TV", which in his view was already headed to hell in a basket in 1965; Molloy was already on the record opposing people saying damn and hell (the "slippery slope" argument), so you can probably guess what the other arguments were.
There might have been an oblique reference to Peter Lawford's then-Kennedy connection, but I can't find the column to confirm that.
Oh, by the way, Roger Ebert didn't land at the Sun-Times for another two years, so there's that …

My point is that when you deal with TV of A Certain Vintage, you ought to check out the context of its own era.
In the '60s, Paul Molloy was hardly unique in his views; as a columnist for an important Chicago newspaper (publisher Marshall Field syndicated his work nationally), he commanded a considerable audience - most of which followed him avidly.

Just thought you might be interested …

Jack Seabrook said...

That's very interesting and thanks for pointing it out. I'll look for the article online.

Grant said...

You mention it already, but about the biggest attraction of this one is seeing the two actors "play against type," with Peter Lawford as a likable "loser" and Roger Carmel as his "hot shot" brother.

One of Peter Lawford's underrated roles in suspense stories is an early ' 70s TV movie called A STEP OUT OF LINE, with Peter Falk and Vic Morrow. It's a heist story, making it SLIGHTLY like OCEAN'S ELEVEN with him, but it's a whole lot more downbeat than that one.

And even though I mention it a lot, one of Martha Hyer's more unusual ones is in the 1967 film THE HAPPENING, a really strange comedy-drama about a kidnapping that happens accidentally. Speaking of her and "shifting loyalties," she plays the victim's wife, who tries to avoid paying the ransom!
(But it always seems to fly completely below the radar, so I'm pretty sure it's never made it to DVD.)

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! There's a funny scene in this episode where Lawford attacks Carmel and Carmel flips him over his shoulder. It's completely the opposite of what one would expect.