Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part Six: A Personal Matter [4.15]

by Jack Seabrook

"A Personal Matter" is based on a short story by Davis Dressler (Brett Halliday) called "Human Interest Stuff" that was first published in the September 1938 issue of Adventure and later reprinted in the September 1946 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It was the lead story in a 1957 Mystery Writers of America anthology titled Dolls Are Murder, which may be where the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents spotted it when they chose it to be adapted for the television series. The TV version, retitled "A Personal Matter," was written by Joel Murcott and aired on CBS on Sunday, January 18, 1959.

The short story is told in the second person and narrated by an unnamed man in prison who is scheduled to be executed the next day. He speaks to a newspaper reporter, who is also unnamed and who never responds, about what really happened during the five weeks between the murder of Bully Bronson, an engineer on a job in Texas, and the capture and return of the narrator, who had been in Mexico.

The narrator explains that he "drifted into the railroad construction camp" in need of a job and discovered that the American engineer in charge of the project was sick and there were only six weeks before the start of the rainy season in which a gap in an important railroad line could be filled. The narrator was hired to replace the engineer and shepherd the project to completion. It was a difficult job, grading a four-mile stretch of dirt with Mexican labor and a time limit, and the narrator was relieved when another American appeared and signed on as a second engineer; the man, whose name was Sam,  wore a gun in a shoulder holster under his shirt.

"Human Interest Stuff"
was first published here

The project began to move swiftly toward its conclusion. One evening, the narrator and Sam heard a radio news broadcast about the search for an assistant engineer who murdered his chief, Bully Bronson, "'after an argument in a highway construction camp'" in Texas and escaped into Mexico. The narrator told Sam that Bronson deserved what he got and Sam replied that "'murder is still murder.'" The two men discussed the killing and the current engineering project and agreed to finish the job before talking about other matters. Sam removed his gun and holster and hung them on his bunk until the job was done.

Weeks of hard work brought the narrator and Sam close together. Near the end of the job, two men on horseback approached the camp and the narrator could see that they were armed; he shot and wounded them both, tied them up, and bribed a nearby police chief to lock them up until the engineering project was finished. The job was done a week early and the narrator saw that Sam had put his gun and holster back on. Sam explained that he had to go back across the border to Texas to do his job, now that he had helped see the construction project through to completion. "'I'm ready whenever you are,'" said the narrator, and they crossed the border together.

Newspapers carried headlines about "the lone American who had gone into Mexico and brought out Bronson's murderer single-handed," and the narrator tells the reporter that this is the first time that the story of what happened during those five weeks has been told. The narrator assures the reporter that he is not angry at Sam and knows that he, the narrator, will be electrocuted the next day for the murder of Bully Bronson. It turns out that Sam was a Texas Ranger, chosen to go after the narrator because he had studied engineering, and the two men had agreed to complete the railroad grading project together before Sam brought the narrator back to Texas to face justice.

Wayne Morris as Brett Johnson

There is not a single female character in "Human Interest Stuff," even though it is the lead story in a paperback collection called Dolls Are Murder, and the story recalls Hemingway's work in the way that men put aside other concerns to bond and complete a job. The narrative builds toward the ending, which is not terribly surprising yet effective and satisfying nonetheless. The setting is almost Western in that it takes place in a remote part of Mexico and men arrive on horseback with guns; the railroad that is being built will open a route from St. Louis to the west coast of Mexico. Todd Mason notes that Dresser's story mines "B. Traven territory"; Traven's novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was first published in English in 1935, three years before the publication of "Human Interest Stuff."

Davis Dresser had his own connections to Mexico and the American Southwest. Born in Chicago in 1904, the author's family moved to Texas when he was five years old. At fourteen, Dresser lied about his age in order to join the Army and served on the border patrol until his real age was discovered. After high school, he worked in construction camps in the Southwest and in Mexico, later studying engineering in college and working as a surveyor. His first novel was published in 1934. "Human Interest Stuff" has been referred to as probably his best story and is one of four engineering tales he wrote that were published in 1938.

Dresser is best remembered under the pseudonym of Brett Halliday. He wrote his first novel featuring private detective Mike Shayne in 1935 and it was published in 1939. Dresser went on to write at least 25 Mike Shayne novels, in addition to many short stories and novelettes; ghost writers penned numerous additional stories and novels starring the character and Dresser helped found Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine in 1956, a long-running digest that would compete with Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for three decades. Shayne was popular on radio and television as well. Dresser was a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America and won an Edgar Award in 1954 for Outstanding Mystery Criticism.

Joe Maross as Joe Phillips

The twist ending of "Human Interest Stuff" likely appealed to the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, who assigned it to Joel Murcott to adapt. In translating the story from page to small screen, Murcott made significant changes that end up reducing the story's effectiveness.

As is often the case when a story is adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Murcott eliminates the narrator and rearranges the events so that the story is told in chronological order rather than in flashback. This removes some of the story's suspense, since we don't know the narrator's fate from the start. It would have been difficult to use a narrator on TV, since the audience would have seen his face and known the identity of the man in prison, which would spoil the surprise ending. Had Murcott tried to conceal the narrator's identity in shadow or by filming him from behind, it would have created suspicion in the viewer's mind that is not present in the story.

Instead of grading ground to run a railroad track, the engineering project in the TV version involves digging through a mountain to create a tunnel. This allows for more visual excitement and danger. A sign outside the tunnel establishes the location as Mexico and there is a point of view shot, with the camera mounted on top of a wagon as it travels on tracks into the tunnel. This gives a sense of claustrophobia as we see timbers supporting the stone ceiling of the tunnel and bare electric light bulbs strung above the tracks to provide light.

Frank Silvera as Roderiguez

Joe Phillips, who corresponds to the unnamed narrator in the short story, is seen struggling to shore up part of the tunnel's ceiling as it begins to collapse; Mexican laborers run away from him and he follows them a moment before the ceiling falls. Phillips angrily asks the men if that is how the engineer he replaced was killed and laments that they just lost 20 of the 82 feet they had dug since his arrival. This opening scene establishes the location, the nature of the project, and the challenges faced.

Outside the tunnel, the men see an airplane approaching; modern methods of transportation have replaced the horses used in the short story! A pretty, Mexican nurse named Maria bandages a wound on Phillips's shoulder and a doctor gives him a shot to prevent infection; Maria is the only woman in the mining camp and serves a purpose in the show that is both decorative and representative of the viewer when she later speaks to the engineers and seems to intuit their thoughts. Senor Roderiguez, whose name we saw on the sign outside the entrance to the tunnel, arrives by jeep, having flown in on the plane. With him he brings a man named Brett Johnson, who corresponds to the character of Sam in the short story. Roderiguez tells an angry Phillips that he has brought Johnson to help; the nearest village is 100 miles away and the only way to get there is by air.

Roderiguez has six weeks to complete the tunnel or he loses his contract; unfortunately, there are still 700 feet left to dig and the most that the crew has dug in a week is 90 feet. Joe angrily goes to his bungalow to pack, intending to leave, while Roderiguez begs Brett to stay, hinting at a secret arrangement between them. Brett agrees that they made a bargain to help each other, but the nature of the agreement is not revealed until the end of the show. Brett enters the bungalow that he will share with Joe, who runs outside to see the plane departing; Brett reveals that Roderiguez will not return for six weeks, so Joe is stuck. Joe tells Brett that he will finish the tunnel as planned.

Frank de Kova as Pedro

One night, as Maria dances for the laborers in front of a campfire, Joe seems to be warming up to Brett. The tunnel is progressing but Brett is reticent to reveal personal details. At the infirmary, Maria treats a wound on Brett's hand and senses his unhappiness. As he gets ready for bed, Joe hears a news report on the radio about the search for the man who killed Dallas building contractor Arthur Bronson after "'a violent argument over safety precautions.'" This explanation for Bronson's death is absent from the story and suggests that the murdered man mistreated his workers. The announcer adds that there is suspicion that the killer crossed the border into Mexico under an assumed name.

Suddenly, as if in response to the news report, Joe begins to search Brett's belongings. Brett's hand reaches in through the door of the bungalow and shuts off the radio before he enters and pulls a gun on Joe. Joe admits that he does not have a gun and tells Brett that Bronson deserved to die. Brett promises to leave the gun in the bungalow until the project is finished.

In the tunnel, solid rock is discovered and an opportunity to speed progress by blasting arises, but Joe and Brett distrust each other regarding the danger involved. Privately, Joe asks one of the laborers to help him get a gun and, that evening, Joe sneaks away from the campfire to take a gun that a laborer has left for him under the saddle of a mule. Brett walks back to the bungalow with Maria, who senses trouble between him and Joe and asks why Joe bought a gun from a laborer. Brett pulls his gun (which he must have decided to carry with him, despite what he seemed to say to Joe earlier) and enters the bungalow, holding Joe at gunpoint while he searches for the newly-acquired gun. He does not find it and Joe reminds Brett that he cannot do anything with Joe until the plane returns.

Leonard Strong as the doctor

In the tunnel, a laborer is injured when a large rock falls. With four days to go and 130 feet to dig, prospects for success look bleak. Things are no better three days later, when 53 feet remain to be tunneled. Joe decides to try blasting through the remaining rock and dirt and the explosion succeeds in completing the tunnel, but Joe and Brett's elation is tempered by the realization that they must now face what comes next. In his bungalow, Joe is packing to leave when he hears the jeep pull up, signaling the arrival of the plane. He takes his gun from its hiding place in the back of the radio and waits for Brett, knocking the gun from Brett's hand when he enters.

Brett tells Joe that he could have killed him anytime, unlike the way Joe killed Bronson. Joe realizes that Brett is a cop and drops his gun. Brett admits that he made a secret deal with Roderiguez that if the contractor flew Brett in to the job site, Brett would help Joe finish the tunneling job. Joe says that he killed Bronson in self-defense when Bronson pulled a knife on him. Brett responds that he believes Joe and hopes a jury will agree.

The end of "A Personal Matter" is a shock to anyone familiar with the short story. Instead of being convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair, Joe faces an uncertain future where he will stand trial with the support of the policeman who brought him back from Mexico. Joel Murcott's decision to make the construction job a tunnel through a mountain rather than grading ground so it is level allows for some excitement in regard to the collapses of the tunnel's ceiling and the constant danger of more injury from unstable rock and dirt. The reworking of the story's structure to eliminate the framing sequence and the flashback, as well as the newspaper reporter listening to the story being told by a man on death row, makes the final revelation that Joe is a killer and Brett is a cop less surprising. The addition of a female character adds decoration to the show but does not add much substance to the story. "A Personal Matter" is an example of an episode where changes made for television serve to make the story less effective.

Anna Navarro as Maria
The show is 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."

Top billing in this episode goes to Wayne Morris (1914-1959) as Brett Johnson. Morris appeared in films starting in 1936 but enlisted in the Navy during WWII and had a distinguished record flying planes. After the war, he returned to films and started appearing on TV as well in 1955. His career ended suddenly when he had a fatal heart attack in 1959. "Human Interest Stuff" was his only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Joe Maross (1923-2009) plays Joe Phillips. Born Joseph Marosz, the actor served in the Marines in WWII and had a long career on screen, mostly on TV, from 1952 to 1986. He appeared on Thriller ("Knock Three-One-Two"), The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In smaller roles:
  • Frank Silvera (1914-1970) as Roderiguez; born in Jamaica, he was a busy actor on stage and radio and his screen career lasted from 1949 to 1975. He was in an episode of Thriller and also appeared in "The Life Work of Juan Diaz" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Often cast in Hispanic roles, Silvera was actually an African-American actor (born in Jamaica) whose complexion allowed him to play numerous ethnic roles. He appeared in episodes of Thriller and The Twilight Zone and died when he was electrocuted at home while trying to repair his kitchen sink’s garbage disposal!
  • Frank de Kova (1910-1981) as Pedro; born Frank Campanella in New York City, he had a long career on screen from 1947 until his death. He was Italian-American but often played ethnic roles, the most famous of which was as Chief Wild Eagle on F Troop (1965-1967). He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Leonard Strong (1908-1980) as the doctor; like Frank de Kova, he often played ethnic roles and was on screen from 1942 to 1968. He was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Canary Sedan," and he also was seen on The Twilight Zone and Get Smart.
  • Anna Navarro (1933-2006) as Maria; she had a long career on screen, from 1953 to 1999, and also appeared in Hitchcock's Topaz (1969).
Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story!

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred HITCHCOCK Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Halliday, Brett. "Human Interest Stuff." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Sept. 1946, pp. 100–109. 
Lachman, Marvin. "Brett Halliday (Davis Dressler) and the Border.", 2005. 
Mason, Todd. "FFB: 7 Quick Reviews: Harlan Ellison, Gary Jennings, R. A. Lafferty, John D. MacDonald, Evan Hunter, Avram Davidson, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, Et Al.." FFB: 7 Quick Reviews: Harlan Ellison, Gary Jennings, R. A. Lafferty, John D. MacDonald, Evan Hunter, Avram Davidson, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, Et Al., 15 Mar. 2013,
"A Personal Matter." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 15, CBS, 18 Jan. 1959. 
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central, 
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: "Ambition," starring Leslie Nielsen!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Creeper" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Sybilla" here!

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