Thursday, November 5, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Alfred Hayes Part Two: Bonfire [8.13]

 by Jack Seabrook

The second teleplay by Alfred Hayes to air on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was "Bonfire," which premiered on CBS on Thursday, December 13, 1962. Credited to Alfred Hayes and William D. Gordon, the script is based on "The Wheelbarrow," a short story by V.S. Pritchett that was published in the July 16, 1960 issue of The New Yorker. A comparison between the short story and the TV show demonstrates the way in which a short story that does not include a crime was transformed into a TV show that features two murders.

V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997) was an English journalist, critic, and fiction writer who wrote novels but who was best known as a writer of short stories. Knighted in 1975, he has been called "the finest English short-story writer of the 20th century" by the Royal Society of Literature. Only two films and two television shows have been made that were based on his stories; "Bonfire" was one of them.

"The Wheelbarrow" was
first published here
In Pritchett's story, Laura Wantage, having taken the train from London, arrives in the town where she grew up, and is taken by taxi to the home of her recently-deceased aunt. The taxi driver, a rough Welshman named Robert Evans, is quickly hired to help her clean out the house in preparation for its sale. He finds a new wheelbarrow in a garden shed and, over the next several days, uses it to convey large amounts of junk from the house to incinerate in a bonfire. An oddly intimate relationship develops between the 45-year-old divorcee and the younger, married man, who reveals that he is a former sinner who became a believer when he was trapped in a mine collapse and who now preaches nightly in a nearby revival tent.

Most of her aunt's possessions have little effect on Laura, but when she discovers an old trunk that contains souvenirs of her life as a carefree young woman, she finds herself moved. Evans notices her reaction and compares it to his own, when he was trapped in the mine, calling hers "'the mine of the past.'" She spurns his attempt at physical intimacy and tells him to burn everything, remarking that "'I've been trapped down the mine, too, and long enough.'" She tells him that she will make a gift of the wheelbarrow to him and their time together ends. Two days later, when she has finished with the house and walks to the bus station, she passes the gospel tent and hears Robert preaching. She hears him say that he had been a sinner but that he had "'burned the adulteress in the everlasting fire, my friends, and all her property.'" "'Well, not quite all, Robert,'" Laura says aloud, as she walks to the bus stop.

Peter Falk as Robert Evans

"The Wheelbarrow" is a beautifully-written character study that focuses on two very different people who find themselves spending several days together. Laura is referred to through most of the story as "Miss Freshwater's niece," erasing her own identity and seeing her only in relation to her elderly, deceased aunt. Though only 45 years old, she sees herself as someone whose youth is long past, and when Robert suggests that they became lovers, she responds, "'I am far past that sort of thing.'" Robert, on the other hand, is a creature of the earth, or perhaps beneath it. He was a Welsh miner who was trapped in a mine collapse and who now preaches nightly at tent revival meetings. He has a habit of squatting and she thinks that he looks like "an imp or a devil."

Dina Merrill as Laura Freshwater

The ending is subtle and requires thought. When Robert preaches that he "'burned the adulteress in the everlasting fire, my friends, and all her property,'" he speaks metaphorically, and the reader may understand that he has not killed a real person but rather that he destroyed the last remnants of Laura's youth and all of those things that remained in the old house to tempt her. Laura's response, "'Well, not quite all, Robert,'" is said "pleasantly, aloud" as she walks to the bus stop, and it causes a child who watches her walk by to think that "the old lady was mad." She is referred to as Mrs. Wantage now, not as Miss Freshwater's niece, signifying that she has put her youthful, carefree self to the side and accepted her age and station in life. The "'not quite all'" may refer to the wheelbarrow of the title, a shiny object that Robert coveted and one of the only items from the house that avoided the bonfire.

Lighting is used to make Evans look ominous
as he withholds the heart medicine from Naomi
From the first scene of the TV adaptation of "The Wheelbarrow," which is retitled "Bonfire," it is clear that Pritchett's short story has undergone significant revision. The show begins with a scene (and a character) not in the short story, as Evans visits Naomi Freshwater (Laura's aunt) one evening and flirts with her. They share a bottle of wine and he compliments her appearance; he insists on getting her up out of her chair to dance, then spins her around so fast that she has a heart attack. He refuses to give her the heart pills she requests and she dies on the spot. Before her heart attack, Naomi tells Robert that he deserves her house and that she wants to show her gratitude for his kindness in visiting her. When she is dying on the sofa, there is a shot of him looking up from below that uses high contrast lighting to demonstrate his evil nature; Naomi suddenly realizes that he is not going to save her and cries out, "'Oh, Robbie!'" just before she dies.

By adding this scene, which runs about six and a half minutes, the writers of the teleplay frame the story in an entirely different light. We see Mrs. Freshwater die and we see that Robbie is responsible; we can infer that he commits this crime in order to speed up his inheritance of the old woman's house. By portraying Evans in this way at the start, all of his interactions with Laura are cast in a different and more ominous light; instead of a character study, the viewer is left waiting for him to turn on the niece of his first murder victim. And turn on her he does.

Patricia Collinge as Naomi Freshwater

The show then continues where the story begins, with Robert picking up Laura at the train station and taking her to her aunt's house. When they get there, he tells her that he knows who she is and that her aunt left the house to her in the will; he admits that he and Naomi were "'kind of close'" and that she "'toiled right there beside me'" at the Gospel Mission. The emphasis on the wheelbarrow is removed from the script, but Evans displays a flash of anger when he discovers that the garden shed has been left unlocked by the gardener's son. This small detail will be important at the show's conclusion. Just before he leaves, Robert tells Laura: "'I was with your Aunt Naomi when she passed away.'" This comment is surprising to Laura but, to the viewer, it obscures the truth of what happened. He describes his visits to Naomi in a way that makes him look kind, then snaps that "'She meant for me to have this house for the Mission. It didn't work out that way but it was in her heart. She promised it to me.'" He adds that "'The last word she said was my name,'" a statement taken out of context.

As she begins to sort through the junk in her aunt's house, Laura is surprised by the return of Evans, who tells her: "'You need a man. I looked around and all I could find was me.'" Laura asks about his wife and he shows that he has the gift of gab, something he demonstrated earlier with Naomi; he tells Laura, "'Ma'am, my wife's dead and my home's wherever my heart is, and my heart's wherever there's work to be done.'" He estimates that he'll need to dig a fire pit outside, four or five feet deep, and we next see him waist-deep in a large, rectangular hole that looks like a grave. This foreshadows Laura's fate at the end of the episode. "'That's deep enough to burn Sodom and Gomorrah,'" quips Robert. Sitting beside the fire pit, Laura and Robert discuss his background, and he says he was born in "'a Pennsylvania mining town,'" showing that the locations in the short story, which were England and Wales, have been moved to America for the TV show. He describes his experience with the mine collapse much as he does in the short story, again demonstrating an ability to weave a captivating story that serves him well as a preacher.

Robert begins to strangle Laura

In the next scene, Laura visits the Gospel Mission to watch Robert preach, something she never does in the short story. His eloquence is on display and, as she looks around at the others in the tent, she sees that they are mostly much older than she is, contemporaries of her late aunt. In the next scene, Laura finds, in the attic, the old truck that contains her souvenirs. Robert becomes too familiar, touching Laura's waist and then helping her try on an old shoe, his hand lingering on her calf. He suggests that she is not cut out for a life of travel and that she needs the right man; she does not take him seriously and he leaves when he hears the mission bell toll. He returns sometime later with a bottle of champagne and catches her trying on one of her old dresses and admiring herself before a mirror; downstairs, presumably after they have had dinner together, he holds a glass of champagne and she sits on the sofa in the same spot where her aunt died, unaware of the parallels between Robert's flirtations with her and those he directed toward her aunt. Laura asks about Robert's wife and how she died; he says she died from an accidental fall and that it was the "'hand of providence--she wanted me to get back in the mine.'" Laura has no reason to suspect foul play, but the viewer, having seen Robert let Naomi die, immediately suspects that he murdered his wife as well.

Lighting is again used to portray
Evans in a chilling fashion.
Robert recreates the scene with Naomi by sharing wine, candlelight, and music with Laura. They dance, and he paints a picture in words of the two of them sharing the house together and having children, her living a happy life as a wife and mother in place of her current, transient existence. She rebuffs his proposal even as he tells her to burn her past. They kiss, and the scene fades to black. The next day, Robert arrives with flowers, excited to see Laura, but for her the magic of the night before has evaporated and she avoids his attempt at another kiss. She tells him that she's leaving but he argues, saying that she promised to stay with him--this is the second time Evans thinks that a Freshwater woman has broken a promise to him and destroyed his vision of his future. He grows angry with her and, despite her calm, rational explanation of her decision, he cannot accept it and snaps. Robert essentially confesses to having murdered his wife and then puts his hands around Laura's throat and chokes the life out of her. As she dies, just below the frame, the lighting changes to the same high-contrast lighting that was used in the first scene, again depicting Evans as a monster.

The TV adaptation of "The Wheelbarrow" has, by this point, deviated far from the short story. The last scenes are completely new. With Laura's dead body lying in the background, Robert sees the open trunk and there is a cut to a shot of him dragging the heavy, closed trunk across the attic, the implication being that it contains Laura's corpse. He struggles to maneuver the trunk down two flights of stairs to the first floor, unaware that, outside, the gardener and his son have arrived to tend to the lawn. In a Hitchcockian moment, the young man rings the doorbell just as Robert stands next to the trunk in the foyer; the young man asks Evans for the key to the toolshed and we recall the earlier scene where Robert had complained about the same door having been left open.

Paul von Schreiber as the gardener's son
Robert goes outside to ask the young man to get the wheelbarrow from the shed and to help him move the trunk. Unaware of its contents, the young man helps Robert lift the trunk and carry it to the wheelbarrow; the trunk nearly falls after Robert has to stop to give the young man a half dollar that he promised for his aid. This scene is not as effective as it could be due to some inappropriately cheerful moments in Pete Rugolo's musical score. The gardener and his son leave and Evans dumps the trunk into the fire pit, where flames begin to engulf it. Darkness falls and Evans remains, crouched by the pit, a demon observing the flames of Hell as they devour his victim. He hears the mission bells sounding in the distance, and there is a cut to him once again preaching in the tent.

Evans leads the congregation in singing "Shall We Gather By the River" and God must be listening, because a heavy rain suddenly begins to fall. Trapped at the Gospel Mission, Evans looks up to Heaven as the rain pours down, and we see the trunk, burning in the fiery pit, the water beginning to douse the flames and reveal a hole that has been burned in the side of the trunk, permitting Laura's clothing to be seen. A police car pulls up outside the tent and the gardener's son, still afraid of the wrath of Evans, asks the policeman not to tell the preacher that he left the shed door open, had to go back and lock it, and thus saw what was inside the trunk. The show ends with Evans preaching as the police enter the tent. He tells the congregation that he set his wife straight with his two hands, that promises must be kept, and that he will have a temple with loudspeakers at the corners, suggesting his future home in prison.

Sam Weston as the taxi driver

Comparing "Bonfire" to "The Wheelbarrow" is instructive in that it shows how the writers who adapted the story for television changed its focus and added opening and closing scenes that transformed it into a tale of murder. The short story is great on its own and the TV show is impressive, but they have very different tones. Evans is changed from a man of the Earth to a psychotic killer, who kills three women: his wife when she told him to return to the scene of a tragedy, an old woman out of greed, and a younger woman because she would not agree to marry him. The portrait as developed by the screenwriters and the actor is complex and compelling.

When two writers are credited with a teleplay, and they are not known as a team, like Levinson and Link, one may assume that one of them wrote a teleplay that was rewritten by the other one. In the case of "Bonfire," it is tempting to speculate that Alfred Hayes wrote an adaptation of "The Wheelbarrow" that hewed too closely to the source and was not thought to contain enough excitement for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, so William D. Gordon was assigned to add a couple of murders and some suspense.

William D. Gordon (1918-1991) wrote for radio in the 1930s, served in the Infantry during WWII, and had dual careers as an actor and as a writer and story editor for TV from the late 1950s through the mid-1980s. As an actor, he appeared twice on The Twilight Zone and once on Thriller. As a writer, he wrote two episodes of Thriller and six episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including two where he is co-credited with Alfred Hayes. He also worked as a story editor/supervisor for four TV series, from 1963 to 1981.

"Bonfire" is directed by Joseph Pevney (1911-2008), who started out as an actor in vaudeville in the 1920s and had a short career as a film actor from 1946 to 1950. He then became a director and was more successful, directing films from 1950 to 1966, including Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). His career as a TV director spanned the years from 1959 to 1985 and included 14 episodes of Star Trek and five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of which was "Starring the Defense."

Craig Duncan as the policeman

Giving a superb performance as Robert Evans is Peter Falk (1927-2011). Born in New York City, he started out on Broadway in 1956 and began appearing on TV in 1957. Film followed in 1958. He appeared in one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in addition to his role on "Bonfire," and he also was seen on The Twilight Zone. He will always be remembered as Lieutenant Columbo, from the long-running series of TV mysteries that aired, on and off, from 1968 to 2003. He won five Emmy Awards during his career, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and wrote an autobiography, Just One More Thing (2006).

Dina Merrill (1923-2017) holds her own with Falk and portrays Laura Freshwater with an appealing mix of vulnerability and toughness. Merrill was also born in New York City but came from a much different background than did Peter Falk; her father was the famous stockbroker, E.F. Hutton, and her maternal grandfather was the cereal pioneer, C.W. Post. She was on screen from 1955 to 2009 and she appeared on Batman, Night Gallery, and The Odd Couple. "Bonfire" was her only role on the Hitchcock show.

Seen in the first scene as Naomi Freshwater is Patricia Collinge (1892-1974), who creates a believable and lovable character in a very short time on screen. She was born in Dublin, Ireland, and began her career on stage in 1904, coming to the United States with her mother in 1907. Collinge appeared on Broadway from 1908 to 1952 and played roles on screen from 1941 to 1967. Her films included Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and she was seen on the Hitchcock TV show six times, including "The Landlady."

In smaller roles:

  • Paul von Schreiber (1937- ) as the gardener; he had a brief screen career from 1959 to 1963.
  • Sam Weston (1927-2000) as the taxi driver who complains when Evans rushes off with Laura after she arrives in town; born Samuel Weinstein, he was the brother of actor Jack Weston. Sam acted on TV mainly from 1961 to 1970, then he adopted the pseudonym Anthony Spinelli and had a long and successful career as a director of pornographic movies from 1971 to 1997.
  • Craig Duncan (1918-1994) as the policeman who arrives at the end to arrest Evans; he was on screen from 1947 to 1967 and appeared in three other episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Bang! You're Dead."
  • Craig Curtis (1939- ) is credited as "young man," but I have been unable to pick him out in this episode. He was on screen from 1959 to 1983 and also appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "The Woman Who Wanted to Live."
Watch "Bonfire" for free online here; it is not available on U.S. DVD.


"Bonfire." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 8, episode 13, CBS, 13 Dec. 1962. 

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001. 


Pritchett, V.S. "The Wheelbarrow." The New Yorker, 16 July 1960, pp. 30–40. 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: The Paragon, starring Joan Fontaine and Gary Merrill!


Grant said...

It's tempting to think that Peter Falk never had a bad performance.

And I've always liked Dina Merrill (though I guess I didn't know her actual background till I read it here).
One entertaining thing she did out of many was two pairs of BATMAN episodes with her husband Cliff Robertson.

Jack Seabrook said...

She's very good in this and I do remember her as Calamity Jan on Batman!