Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-William Fay Part Four: The Last Dark Step [4.18]

 by Jack Seabrook

What would cause a man or a woman to take "The Last Dark Step" and murder another human being? In the story of that title by Margaret Manners, the answer seems to be greed and selfishness. Brad Buckley is driving back home to New York City and being careful not to attract attention. He stops at a service station to wash blood from his hand and to burn and dispose of a stained handkerchief. Engaged to be married to a woman named Eleanor Wraight, he has killed a woman named Winifred "Freddie" Lenox. He recalls the first time he met Freddie, a bold, passionate freelance writer. Life with her was exciting, but he never thought of marriage and did not suspect that she did until he told her that he was planning to marry Eleanor.

Both women are blonde and tall, with good figures, but Eleanor has money. Freddie angrily declares that Brad cannot marry her and promises to make it impossible, snapping: "'you'll never marry anyone but me.'" Brad's thoughts immediately turn to murder. He quickly formulates a plan and asks her to meet him the next night for dinner. Back in the present, as he drives home, Brad recalls carrying out his plan earlier that day. He moved Freddie's car to a hidden spot in the Palisades, the steep cliffs in New Jersey overlooking the Hudson River, not far from the George Washington Bridge that leads into New York City.

"The Last Dark Step"
was first published here

Brad covered his tracks by taking two buses and the subway to get home; that evening, he parked uptown to wait for Freddie, who was late. She arrived, looking disheveled, and told him, "'Some day you'll be proud you were with me, glad to tell the world you were with your future wife, Freddie Lenox... Let's pretend I wasn't late...'" Freddie has spots of blood on her dress and blames them on a sudden nosebleed that developed while she was in the subway, on her way to meet Brad. Brad, always focused on himself, thinks that the blood will fit in well with his plan to murder her. As they drive to the Palisades, Freddie remarks that "'You won't marry Eleanor. In a few hours the very thought will be repulsive.'" She gives him his clasp knife, saying she always forgets to return it.

Brad pulls off the road near the spot where he hid her car and goes through the contents of her purse by making a friendly wager that she can't name everything inside it. She gives him back a key to his apartment and he gives her back her car keys. Brad suggests they walk to a nearby spot to go dancing and, on the path, he hits Freddie in the head with a rock and throws her off the cliff into the river. He enters her car and uses his handkerchief to hold the wheel, since he has blood on his hand. Back in the present, he exits the service station men's room, having cleaned the blood off of his hand and disposed of the hanky. He drives home and finds three detectives waiting in his apartment. Accusing him of murder, they search his person and find the clasp knife, recently cleaned, and the extra key, which does not fit his apartment door.

Of course, it will fit Eleanor's door. The detectives show Brad a letter found half-burned in his fireplace. It's from Eleanor, telling him that she hates him and can't marry him. They accuse him of stabbing Eleanor eight times and he recalls Freddie telling him, "'You won't marry her...'" He realizes that Freddie has killed Eleanor and framed him, and he also understands the meaning of her statement, "'Some day you'll be glad...'": she was his alibi for the time of the murder and would have forced him to marry her with the threat of letting him be convicted of Eleanor's murder.

Robert Horton as Brad

"The Last Dark Step" was published in the October 1957 issue of Argosy. The author is listed as Martin Manners, not Margaret Manners and, when the story was reprinted in the 1958 collection, Best Detective Stories of the Year, editor David Cooke points out that it is "written from the masculine viewpoint." Both Brad and Freddie commit murder, taking the last, dark step of the title in an attempt to eliminate the person who might stand in the way of their getting what they want. Brad wants to marry Eleanor and kills Freddie, who would have made his marriage a difficult proposition. Freddie wants to stay together with Brad and murders Eleanor, but she is smarter than Brad and takes one more step than he does: by framing him and making herself his alibi, she not only eliminates her rival but also ensures his loyalty to her, despite guaranteeing his hatred.

"The Last Dark Step" is an extremely well-plotted story, and the plot was retained by William Fay when he adapted it for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The episode aired on CBS on Sunday, February 8, 1959, directed by Herschel Daugherty and starring Robert Horton as Brad (whose last name is now Taylor) and Fay Spain as Leslie (as Freddie has been renamed.) It opens with a scene involving a character who is only spoken of in the short story: Janice Wright (Eleanor Wraight in the story), Brad's fiancee. Over tea in a restaurant, she admires the engagement ring that Brad has given her. (Dialogue reveals that the TV version is set in Los Angeles instead of New York.) Janice wants to have a big wedding right away and is thrilled when Brad suggests that they marry in three weeks. He claims that he has to rush off to see a business associate and promises that he is not going to see Leslie, whom Janice calls "'that lady novelist.'"

Fay Spain as Leslie

Of course, Brad heads straight for Leslie's home, where she sits in a large room dominated by a stone fireplace, with shelves crammed with books visible in the next room. In contrast with Janice, who wore a dress in the first scene, Leslie is hard at work at her typewriter, glasses on and hair pulled back, wearing a button-down shirt and slacks. She struggles with a faulty desk lamp and, when Brad arrives, kisses him passionately, joking that his lack of response must mean that he has been with another woman. Leslie is writing a TV script to get "'rapid money so I can continue to afford you.'" She asks Brad to fix the lamp's plug because he's "'so clever at fixing things.'" She chides his dream of success in real estate and reminds him that she previously financed his sporting goods store. Clearly, Leslie works hard to earn enough money to hold onto her kept man.

Brad tells her that he wants to marry someone else and she bluntly tells him that "'You belong to me. You're like a sink or a stove or a clock on the wall. You're bought and paid for.'" The pocket knife that will figure in the show's climax is planted early in the viewer's mind as Brad uses it to fix the lamp cord and then throws it down on the desk in frustration. Leslie is cruel and angry as she and Brad discuss Janice and it becomes evident that she has sacrificed her own pleasures to keep Brad in suits and a fancy car. He even pawned an expensive ring of hers. Leslie insists that she will do anything to keep Brad. This scene features excellent dialogue and a strong performance by Fay Spain, who nails her lines and embodies the character of Leslie.

Joyce Meadows as Janice

The situation between Brad and Leslie is the opposite of that of a man with a mistress; Leslie has a strong desire for Brad and works hard to afford and keep him. It is sexism in reverse! Robert Horton is perfect as handsome, dumb Brad, who takes Leslie's car keys and goes outside to begin carrying out the murder plot that has quickly formed inside his head. Unlike the story, where the events alternate between flashback and the present, William Fay's teleplay unfolds in chronological order, and we do not have the benefit of a narrator telling us what Brad is thinking. He fiddles with the engine on Leslie's Triumph convertible so it won't start and, when he gets home, calls to tell her about the car and agrees to pick her up the next day at six p.m. so they can go to the beach. As he talks, he gazes at a framed photo of Janice on his desk, showing where his thoughts really lie.

The next day, Brad, disguised as an auto mechanic, fixes Leslie's car and drives it to a spot near her beach house, parking it behind a clump of bushes before taking the bus home. There is a dissolve to Brad sitting in a different car, waiting for Leslie, who is a half-hour late for their date. Unlike the story, she gives no explanation and has no blood soiling her clothes. She also does not make the prophetic remarks about his lover and herself that he will recall at the end. Instead, she kisses him passionately and he drives her to the beach house as dusk falls.

They arrive at the beach house (the same one that will be used just over a year later in "Madame Mystery") and there is a dissolve to the interior of the home as they prepare to go swimming. Leslie returns Brad's knife to him and they run across the beach and into the ocean, where he wastes no time in holding her under the water and drowning her. Back inside, he has already changed into dry clothes and leaves with his knife and a wet towel in a bag. Brad moves Leslie's car to a spot in front of the house and there is a dissolve to him entering his apartment to find two detectives waiting.

"The Last Dark Step"

"Madame Mystery"

The policemen tell Brad that his "'lady friend'" was murdered and interrogate him, finding the wet towel in his bag. He denies having been to the beach, thinking (wrongly) that they are talking about Leslie. They find the clasp knife in his pocket and see that it was recently cleaned but has three strands of hair stuck to it. They reveal that his "'lady friend'" was stabbed seven times and Brad realizes that they are talking about Janice. He admits that he was lying about his whereabouts and says he was at the beach, as he realizes what Leslie has done. The episode ends with Brad understanding his own predicament.

For a change, the TV version of "The Last Dark Step" is more subtle than the story and leaves out Leslie's prescient comments and the sense that she set herself up as Brad's alibi to ensure that he stays with her. Instead, he is accused of a murder he did not commit and can't discuss where he was or what he was doing because that would involve confessing to murder.

Leslie, hard at work 

Margaret Manners Lippmann (1914?-1974), author of "The Last Dark Step," mainly wrote short stories, though she also seems to have written poetry and had one novel published, a 1961 paperback original tie-in with the TV soap opera, Love of Life. She wrote under the name Margaret Manners (or, in the case of this story, Martin Manners) and her husband, Albert Lippmann, was a professor of French at New York University and Princeton University. The FictionMags Index lists short stories by Manners published from 1943 to 1961, and five of her stories were adapted for television, four of which were for the Hitchcock show.

Herb Ellis as Detective Breslin
This episode was directed by Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), a prolific TV director from 1952 to 1975 who also directed a couple of movies. He directed 27 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in all, including "The Blessington Method," and he directed 16 episodes of Thriller.

Television stalwart Robert Horton (1924-2016) plays Brad. He was in a handful of films but made his mark in television from 1951 to 1989, starring in Wagon Train (1957-1965) and A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-1966). This was one of seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in which he was featured, including "Crack of Doom," and after his television career ended he spent many years on stage.

Fay Spain (1932-1983) is outstanding as Leslie. She was on screen from 1955 to 1977 and appeared in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Cuckoo Clock." She also appeared on Night Gallery. Two years before "The Last Dark Step," Spain had co-starred in Roger Corman's Teenage Doll (1957) as the leader of a teen-girl gang, despite being 25 years old at the time. That same year, she starred as a hot-rod-crazy teen in Dragstrip Girl. In 1958, she co-starred in Rod Serling's "A Town Has Turned to Dust" on TV's Playhouse 90, where she shared the small screen with William Shatner and Rod Steiger. Quite a change from Teenage Doll and Dragstrip Girl!

David Carlile as Sergeant Langley
Joyce Meadows (no relation to Audrey or Jayne) was born in 1933 as Joyce Burger and is still performing today. She appears briefly in the show's first scene as Janice. Meadows started in movies and on TV in 1956 and appeared four times on the Hitchcock series. She maintains her own website and was kind enough to comment for this blog in 2013.

Herb Ellis (1921-2018) appears in the final scene as Detective Charlie Breslin, who does most of the talking. Born Herbert Siegel, Ellis co-created Dragnet with Jack Webb and was on screen from 1950 to 1975, mostly on TV. He also had a role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in "Not the Running Type."

David Carlile (1931-2006) plays Sergeant George Langley; his career was mostly on TV from the mid-1950s to the late 1990s; he was on the Hitchcock half-hour seven times, including "A Night With the Boys."

"The Last Dark Step" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps review of this episode here.


The FictionMags Index, 

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


"The Last Dark Step." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 18, CBS, 8 Feb. 1959. 

Manners, Margaret. "The Last Dark Step." Best Detective Stories of the Year, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1958, pp. 69–84. 

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central, 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: "I'll Take Care of You," starring Ralph Meeker and Russell Collins!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma's podcast about "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn's podcast about "Silent Witness" here!


Grant said...

Fay Spain also managed to make her mark on Peplum films by playing a great "evil queen" in HERCULES AND THE CPATIVE WOMEN.

Jack Seabrook said...

I had to Google "Peplum Films." When I was a kid I saw Hercules in New York with Arnold Schwarzenegger. His flexing his chest muscles in time to the music was hilarious.

Grant said...

Yes, I've always liked that one.