Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part Four: Death Sentence [3.30]

by Jack Seabrook

Norman Frayne is shocked to receive a telephone call from Al Ravenel, who has tracked him down at Frayne's real estate office in New Jersey. Years before, Ravenel and Frayne had both been involved in a robbery in which a night watchman with an axe had chopped off Frayne's finger. Ravenel shot and killed the guard and was sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter, while Frayne ran away and was not implicated in the crime. The men had grown up together in a St. Louis orphanage and now Ravenel expects payback for keeping his mouth shut about Frayne and serving twenty years in jail.

Frayne has spent those twenty years establishing himself in a small town. He got a job, married the boss's daughter, and inherited the business. Ravenel reminds Frayne that the police still have his severed finger and he insists that advances in fingerprint identification mean that Frayne could be matched to the digit. Frayne agrees to let Ravenel stay with him and his wife Paula; Ravenel at first demands $10,000 but quickly agrees to take his money in installments. Norman convinces Paula that Al is an old friend and she welcomes the stranger into their home.

After three months, however, Paula misses being alone with her husband. Frayne appeals to Ravenel, but the ex-con refuses to leave, so Frayne decides that a fatal accident is needed. He plans to rub soap on the floor of the bathtub and cause a fall and he ensures that an electric heater is positioned on a shelf just above the tub where it can be knocked off and land in the water. One morning, Norman rises early after a sleepless night, goes into the bathroom, and prepares the scene. Following the death, there is an inquest, and the death is ruled an accident, but the victim was not Al Ravenel--it was Norman Frayne, who committed suicide.

"Death Sentence" was first published here

"Death Sentence," by Miriam Allen de Ford, was published in the May 1948 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The author plants clues from the first line of the story as to what will happen, but it is not until the final line that she reveals the truth and the reader understands her misdirection. The story begins: "From the moment that Al Ravenel came back into his life, Norman Frayne had known that death was the only solution of the problem." Later in the story, she writes that "It was obvious that his secret would never be safe while he and Ravenel were both alive." Al found Norman because Norman had been in New York on a business trip when he encountered the head of the orphanage where they had both grown up, and the man had gone home to spread the word that one of the boys had become a success. When Norman tells Al, "'I'll never be safe while we're both on earth,'" Al responds that "'You haven't the guts to kill a mosquito, let alone a man.'" The narrator adds that, "In that instant, from the utter depths of despair, Norman Frayne knew what he must do." Once Norman makes up his mind to act, he concludes that, "for Paula's sake it had to be... an accident." The story's final line reveals that Norman, not Al, is dead, and that he committed suicide. The "Death Sentence" of the title was rendered when Al arrived in town.

Joel Murcott adapted the story for television and the episode, with the same title as the short story, aired on CBS on Sunday, April 27, 1958. It's possible that James Allardyce, who wrote Hitchcock's introductions and concluding remarks, was given the short story to read and not the teleplay, since Hitchcock appears in a bathtub covered with bubbles. At the end of the episode, Hitchcock returns, still in the tub, and pulls a note from a bottle that he says he found floating in the water. Hitchcock says that it is from Big Brother (referring to the sponsor) and comments that "'I'll just put some soap on the floor and slip back at the conclusion of his remarks.'" The inference is that Hitchcock, like Norman Frayne in the short story, will create a dangerous condition by rubbing soap on the floor. Murcott changed the end of the story for the TV version, so Hitchcock's remarks only make sense if one has read the story.

James Best as Norman Frayne
The show begins with a new scene where Norman and Paula are lying in twin beds in their bedroom. He is unhappy due to a business setback and his comments demonstrate a great deal of self-pity. Paula tries to cheer him up and there is some expository dialogue to establish his upbringing in an orphanage and his entry into the real estate business after working for Paula's father and marrying her. Norman appears to lack self-confidence due to his difficult childhood.

In the following scene, Norman arrives at work and Al enters; here, he spent just twelve years in jail but was convicted of second-degree murder, not manslaughter. He found Norman because Paula, unbeknownst to her husband, sends the orphanage $100 every Christmas "'to buy toys for the kids.'" Al's demand has gone up from the 1948 short story and he now wants $50,000; Norman says that Al is violating parole by leaving the state of Missouri. Al blackmails Norman by mentioning the second set of fingerprints on the gun, which were not on file with the police; this replaces the gruesome (and far-fetched) detail of Norman's severed finger in the short story. Al demands fifty percent of the business's profits and offhandedly remarks that he staked out Norman's house that morning and saw Paula through the window.

That night, at the Frayne home, Al tells Norman and Paula a fictional, tragic story about himself, inventing a fatal car accident that killed his wife and son. In the next scene, Norman is at his office when Al arrives, demanding more money and the use of Norman's car to visit a nearby town that has legalized gambling. Al has been in town at least a month, since Norman says that he gave Al $800 "'last month.'" Police Chief Walt Haney enters and meets Al; Walt tells Norman that Al goes home for lunch every day and Norman immediately jumps to the conclusion that Walt is suggesting that Al and Paula are having an affair. The demonstration of poor self-confidence that was shown in the first scene returns and makes Norman doubt the loyalty and love of his seemingly devoted wife.

Katharine Warren as Paula Frayne

Norman then confronts Al and tells him to stay away from Paula; Norman threatens Al with a letter opener but backs off when Al goads him. Al humiliates Norman by punching him in the gut and then says that he plans to go to Detroit next week when the racetrack opens. Al adds to Norman's doubts about his wife by telling Norman to keep him occupied so that he does not get bored and move in on Paula. One evening, Al drives off in Norman's car and Norman and Paula share tea in the living room. He is angry with her, confronting her with Al's lunchtime visits. She protests her innocence and says that she plans to go to Detroit next weekend with a girlfriend.

At the office, Norman telephones the hardware store and asks if they carry dynamite; he says he wants to clear some stumps on his lot. In the following scene, Norman pulls his car into the garage and Al gets out and goes into the house. After he's gone, Norman opens the hood and rigs dynamite to blow up the engine. Inside the house, Paula is packing to leave on her trip to Detroit, but Norman enters the bedroom and angrily confronts her, accusing her of planning to go away with Al. He tells her the truth of his and Al's criminal past but she replies that she loves him and asks why he didn't trust her enough to tell her before. Norman says that he has to stop Al and he leaves the room and locks Paula in from outside.

We then see Al finish getting ready and leave his room, followed by a shot of Paula on the telephone in her bedroom, where she hears a huge explosion from outside that knocks a picture off of the wall. Locked in, she is unable to go outside to see what happened. There is then a cut to a scene, still in Paula's bedroom, where she tells Police Chief Haney what happened. Paula asks to "'see him... before he goes,'" and we think she means that she wants to see Norman, who presumably has been arrested for killing Al. Instead, a policeman brings in Al and Paula collapses in tears. Walt tells her that Al will do life for parole violation and she says of Norman that "'he killed himself.'" Walt responds that Norman must have loved her very much to do what he did.

Steve Brodie as Al Ravenel

In adapting "Death Sentence" for TV, Murcott adds a new opening scene to establish Norman's unhappiness and to increase Paula's role in the story. Her kindness is shown by her annual gift to the orphanage, yet that is what leads Al to Norman. Al is a parole violator, and thus still a criminal, so at the end he is arrested rather than leaving on his own. Instead of the far-fetched notion of getting fingerprints from a severed finger, Norman's fingerprints were on the murder weapon. Murcott also introduces the theme of jealousy, which is absent from the short story, adding to Norman's unhappiness and stemming in part from his lack of self-confidence. The plan to cause a fatal accident in the bathtub is replaced by the more exciting dynamite in the car engine. Norman confesses his criminal past to Paula, who remains blissfully ignorant in the short story. Walt's assertion that Norman loved Paula so much that he killed himself--and her agreement with this statement--rings false at the end of the show.

Miriam Allen de Ford (1888-1975), who wrote the short story, was a socialist, feminist, and suffragist who wrote for progressive magazines in the 1920s and participated in the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s. A follower of Charles Fort who did fieldwork for the author, she wrote many non-fiction books and numerous short stories, often in the mystery and science fiction fields, between 1916 and 1975. She won an Edgar Award in 1961 for Best Fact Crime Book for The Overbury Affair. Of six TV shows to be based on her short stories, two were for the Hitchcock series: "Death Sentence" and "Beyond the Sea of Death."

Frank Gerstle as Walt Haney

This episode was directed by Paul Henreid (1908-1992), who began his career as a film actor. His career as a director started in the early 1950s and he directed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "A Little Sleep."

James Best (1926-2015) stars as Norman Frayne. Born Jewel Jules Franklin Guy, Best was onscreen from 1950 to 2013 and is best remembered for his role on The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85). He was on the Hitchcock show four times, including a role in "The Jar." He wrote an autobiography called Best in Hollywood and there is a website about him here.

Paula Frayne is played by Katharine Warren (1916-1983), who was ten years older than the actor playing her husband. Perhaps this was intentionally done to make it look like her businessman father had been so grateful to marry off his spinster daughter that he gave his son-in-law his real estate business. Bard was on screen from 1951 to 1978 and also appeared in "Day of Reckoning" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Steve Brodie (1919-1992) portrays ex-con Al Ravenel; the actor was born John Stevenson and took as his stage name the name of the man who famously claimed he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. Brodie was on screen from 1944 to 1988 and was seen in the classic noir film, Out of the Past (1947). He was in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Enough Rope for Two," and he was also on Thriller.

Finally, Frank Gerstle (1915-1970) is a familiar face as Police Chief Walt Haney. Gerstle played similar roles in two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Deadly," and he also had a role in Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman (1959).

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story! Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. "Death Sentence is available on DVD or may be viewed online here.

"Death Sentence." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 30, CBS, 27 Apr. 1958. 
deFord, Miriam Allen. "Death Sentence." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 1948. 121-27.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred HITCHCOCK Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001. 
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central, 
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: "Man With a Problem," starring Gary Merrill!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Decoy" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Sybilla" here!

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