Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Alfred Hayes Part Three: The Paragon [8.20]

 by Jack Seabrook

After adapting a story by Sir V.S. Pritchett for the small screen ("Bonfire"), Alfred Hayes next adapted a story by Dame Rebecca West, continuing the trend of the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to seek out works by prestigious authors.

The episode titled "The Paragon," which was broadcast on CBS on February 8, 1963, was adapted from a story called "The Salt of the Earth" that was published in two parts in the March and April 1934 issues of Woman's Home Companion. It was collected in a 1935 volume by West titled The Harsh Voice: Four Short Novels, and it had been adapted for television four times before it aired on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The first four TV versions were:

  • Actor's Studio, May 12, 1949, teleplay by Elizabeth Hart
  • The Revlon Mirror Theater, June 30, 1953
  • Encounter, January 4, 1955, teleplay by Elizabeth Hart
  • Playdate, November 29, 1961, teleplay by Elizabeth Hart
Part one of "The Salt of the Earth"
was published here
As the story opens, Alice Pemberton accepts a young man's offer to drive her home after she has spent time convalescing at her mother's house. Her mother seems relieved to see Alice leave, and the 40-year-old daughter wonders why her mother has not "valued her properly," despite all that Alice has done for her. She returns home to Camelheath, near London, and is greeted by her servants; she inspects each room and finds everything clean and in order, until she discovers a framed photograph of herself that has been torn in half and clumsily repaired. While inspecting her husband Jimmy's suits, she finds a small tube partially filled with white powder that tastes bitter when she examines it.

Alice walks across the fields to visit her sister, Madge, whom she has spent a lifetime "telling her all the things she had done wrong." Madge seems anxious to get rid of Alice, who next proceeds to the home of her brother, Leo. His wife lies and says that he is not home, even though Alice can hear him coughing in another room. Alice returns home and berates the cook for the food she plans to serve for dinner; when her husband arrives, she laments the poor treatment that she has received from everyone since she got back.

Alice tells Jimmy, "'you'd never have any civilization at all if you didn't have the people who knew best teaching all the others what to do.'" Jimmy asks her to leave her siblings' families alone for a while. He and Alice host an older man named Mr. Norman for dinner, but the guest leaves early, and Alice refuses to recognize that her behavior drove him away. Getting ready for bed that evening, Alice suggests that her sister needs a vacation, but Jimmy explains that Madge and her husband cannot afford it, due to his bad investments. Jimmy compares Alice to a fairy-tale princess who cannot stop herself from doing the one forbidden thing that causes her downfall. He calls her "'the salt of the earth'" but cautions that "'nobody likes having salt rubbed into their wounds...'" Jimmy tells Alice that she hurts people, using her brother as an example, and that her family resents and avoids her.

Part two was published here
Alice feels unfairly treated and Jimmy again begs her to leave her siblings alone. Alice tells him about her nightmares, where she is in her bedroom and "'something awful comes nearer and nearer to me, circling round me, drawing in on me, and I know that in the end it's going to destroy me utterly.'" She mentions the torn picture in the frame and asks about the vial of medicine she found in Jimmy's pocket. He say that it is "'just something that sends people to sleep,'" and rolls it back and forth in his hand, looking at it. She pours a glass of her bedtime hot chocolate and Jimmy asks her why the cook is down the hall, causing Alice to go out of the bedroom to check. She returns and he tells her to drink her chocolate, then he takes the glass and washes it out. Alice begins to sweat and Jimmy carries her to the bed, saying "'Poor little Alice'" as he pulls the covers up around her, and "'her mouth was full of a haunting bitterness.'"

"The Salt of the Earth" is the story of a woman whose husband murders her because he is tired of her cruelty to those around her. He attempts to show her the error of her ways, but she is so convinced of her own righteousness that he decides to end her life. By doing so, he may also put a stop to the misery she spreads. In retrospect, it seems likely that the stomach ailment that sent Alice to her mother's to recuperate was a first attempt by her husband to poison her. The story never specifies what is in the vial, but the fact that it tastes bitter when Alice examines it suggests cyanide.

Joan Fontaine as Alice Pemberton
In 1935, Edith Walton, reviewing the story in The New York Times, called it "a curiously fascinating yarn, which... makes its heroine so obnoxious that one gleefully assents to murder." Read today, the story is rather dull and seems an odd choice to adapt for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Alfred Hayes was assigned the job of writing the teleplay, and he succeeds in remaining quite faithful to West's story while inserting some elements that fit the conventional methods of creating suspense on television.

The show opens with a close-up of Alice in bed, experiencing a nightmare in which she sees the curtains of her bedroom blowing and a large shadow approaching and overtaking her. Hayes has taken the nightmare that Alice relates to her husband in the story and placed it at the beginning of the episode in order to create an instant feeling of suspense. The show then follows the story faithfully, other than moving the setting from England to America and updating it from the 1930s to the 1960s. Jimmy has been renamed John and, before Alice finds the vial in his jacket pocket, we see him put on the jacket and take the vial out himself to inspect it. There is a close-up of the bottle's warning label and we see that the drug is called Hexitone; this is more commonly known as methohexitone, a barbiturate that came into use in the late 1950s as an anesthetic for surgical patients.

Hayes is careful to show the bottle of medicine early and to return to it a few times throughout the hour to make sure the viewer does not forget about it. When Alice finds the vial, there is another close-up of the warning label. Later on, when John asks Alice to promise to leave her sister alone, Hayes adds a bit of dialogue that foreshadows the ending when John smiles and says, "'I might do something violent if you don't [leave them alone]... [I might] murder you.'" It appears to be said in jest, and Alice takes it that way, but the viewer--conditioned by the repeated shots of the medicine bottle and warned by the opening sequence with the nightmare--knows better.

Gary Merrill as John Pemberton
After the scene where John compares Alice to a fairy princess who brings on her own destruction, Hayes adds a short scene in which John visits the public library and looks up Hexitone in a medical book. A close-up of the page in question tells the viewer that the medication is a barbiturate that, when given in overdose, can cause coma and death. As in the story, we never actually see John poison Alice's drink; he looks at the cup and then there is a cut to Alice in the hall. She returns and drinks the fatal cup of cocoa. The camera follows the cup in close-up, recalling for Hitchcock fans the glass of milk in Suspicion, but this time the danger is real. Once again, the viewer knows more than the victim and is thus complicit with John in the murder of his wife.

Alice sinks back into her pillows as John washes out the cup. He sits across the room and lights a cigarette, watching her as she falls asleep. She has the same nightmare that she did at the start of the show and it becomes clear that this time, it is no dream: her nightmare in the opening scene predicted her death in the closing scene. In the end, one is left thinking that murder is an extreme way to deal with a difficult person, and that the show, while somewhat dull overall, is most notable for the strong performances of its two leads.

Joan Fontaine (1917-2013) plays Alice as a strong-willed woman, a far cry from her timid roles in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland to British parents living in Tokyo, her film career lasted from 1935 to 1966 and her TV career spanned the years from 1953 to 1994. She also appeared in Fritz Lang's noir classic Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), won an Oscar for Suspicion, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her autobiography is No Bed of Roses (1978). This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

Her husband John is played by Gary Merrill (1915-1990), who holds his own on the small screen with Fontaine. He was on film from 1943 to 1977 and on TV from 1953 to 1980, appearing in Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends and the classic, All About Eve, both in 1950. He was on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and "The Paragon" was one of seven episodes of the Hitchcock TV show in which he was featured.

In smaller roles:
  • Virginia Vincent (1918-2013) plays Madge Fletcher, Alice's sister whom she finds lying on the couch in the dark. She was seen mainly on TV from 1952 to 1988 and this was her only role on the Hitchcock show. She was born Virginia Vincent Grohosky and also made an appearance on Night Gallery.
Virginia Vincent
  • Linda Leighton (1917-2005) plays Evie Wales, Alice's sister-in-law. Born Bertie Mae Johnson, she was on screen from 1940 to 1977 but did not appear in any other Hitchcock shows.
Linda Leighton
  • June Walker (1899-1966) makes the most of her short scene as Alice's mother. She had a long career on Broadway from 1918 to 1958 and was the first actress to play Lorelei Lee when Gentleman Prefer Blondes opened in 1926. She was seen in a handful of films and started turning up on TV in 1949. She appeared on Thriller as well as three episodes of the Hitchcock show; "Return of Verge Likens" was her last credit.
June Walker
  • Irene Tedrow (1907-1995) is a familiar face to fans of classic TV. Here, she plays Alice's maid. She started out on radio in 1929, was in films from 1940 to 1981, and was seen on countless TV shows from 1949 to 1989. She was on The Twilight Zone twice and she was also in "Don't Come Back Alive," one of the first episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Irene Tedrow
  • Susan Gordon (1949-2011) plays Betty, Madge's daughter. The daughter of filmmaker Bert I. Gordon, she had a brief career on screen from 1958 to 1967 and appeared on The Twilight Zone and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Summer Shade."
Susan Gordon
  • Richard Carlyle (1914-2009) plays Leo Wales, Alice's coughing brother. He was on screen from 1950 to 1994, appeared in one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and was seen on Star Trek.
Richard Carlyle
  • William Sargent (1930- ) plays Madge's husband, Walter. On screen from 1960 to 1997, he was on The Twilight Zone twice and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour three times, including "The Thirty-First of February." He was also on Star Trek. He was born Wolf Jakubowicz in Berlin and his family fled the Nazis in the early 1930s.
William Sargent
  • Jesslyn Fax (1893-1975) plays Mrs. Bates, Alice's cook. She was on screen from 1950 to 1969 and had small parts in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and North By Northwest (1959), as well as on five episodes of the Hitchcock TV show, including "Coming. Mama" She was also on Batman.
Jesslyn Fax
  • Willis Bouchey (1907-1977) plays the dinner guest, Mr. Norton. He was the voice of Captain Midnight on radio and played numerous character roles in a screen career that spanned the years from 1951 to 1972. He was in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) and John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and his many TV roles included episodes of The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and thee Hitchcock hours, including "I Saw the Whole Thing."
Willis Bouchey
  • Lester Maxwell plays Colin, the teenager with the big glasses. He had a brief screen career from 1959 to 1962 and this episode was his last credit.
Lester Maxwell
  • Donald Elson (1923- ) plays the mailman. He was on screen from 1953 to 2008, appeared on Thriller and Batman, and was also seen in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?"
Donald Elson

"The Paragon" is directed by Jack Smight (1925-2003), who directed for television from 1949 to 1986 and for film from 1964 to 1989. Among his many films were Harper (1966) and Midway (1976); he also directed four episodes of The Twilight Zone and four of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "What Really Happened." He won an Emmy for directing in 1959.

Finally, Rebecca West (1892-1983) was born Cicily Isabel Fairfield in London. She took the pen name Rebecca West from a character in an Ibsen play and had a son by H.G. Wells. A prominent feminist and progressive writer, she was respected as a novelist, a literary critic, and a journalist. She covered the Nuremberg trials for The New Yorker and her major works included Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1949). She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1959.

"The Paragon" is available for free viewing online here.


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


"The Paragon." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 8, episode 20, CBS, 8 Feb. 1963.

Walton, Edith. "Four Stories by Rebecca West." New York Times, 3 Feb. 1935,

West, Rebecca. "The Salt of the Earth." Rebecca West: A Celebration, Viking Press, 1977, pp. 69–111.

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: Beyond the Sea of Death, starring Mildred Dunnock and Diana Hyland!


Grant said...

I keep thinking that Madge Blake was in this. Judging by that photo, Jesslyn Fax really reminds me of her.

Jack Seabrook said...

She does bear a resemblance to Aunt Harriet.

Unknown said...

One of the few shows that made me sympathize with the murderer.

Jack Seabrook said...

Sad but true!