Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part Eight: What Frightened You, Fred? [7.30]

by Jack Seabrook

"What Frightened You, Fred?" begins with the title character back in prison, less than 48 hours after he was released, being questioned by Warden Bragan and a psychiatrist named Dr. Cullen. The psychiatrist asks probing questions to try to find out what drove Fred to commit an act that would land him back in jail. Fred is 55 years old and he has been in prison on and off for 25 years. He has been a typist and file clerk for the warden, who recently announced that he is running for governor.

Fred recalls walking out of the prison gates on Thursday, hoping that Tony Wando might have sent a car to pick him up for old time's sake after he had been in prison for four years. No car arrives, so Fred takes a two-hour train ride back home and approaches Big Mike Kowalski's bar, but he refuses to go inside for a drink because he is on parole and he is supposed to report to work at a warehouse the following Monday.

Back in the present, Dr. Cullen and Warden Bragan continue speaking with Fred, who got drunk and broke a tavern window, a parole violation that will result in him spending another fourteen months in jail. The warden recalls that Fred's only trouble during his prior four-year stint in prison occurred when he was caught hiding a knife in his mattress; Fred recalls that he intended to kill another inmate, but someone else did the job first. Dr. Cullen theorizes that Fred was frightened of the outside world and wanted to be back in prison where he felt comfortable. Bragan does not believe it and the two men argue about Cullen's theory.

"What Frightened You, Fred?"
was first published here
Fred recalls going back to his old rooming house and convincing Mrs. Carr to let him stay. He lay in bed, alone in his room, listening to sounds inside and outside the rooming house and thinking about how they differ from the sounds inside the prison. Back in the present, Dr. Cullen continues to explain Fred's situation and motivation; Fred's four-year jail term was punishment for armed robbery and Bragan insists that Fred is back because he is "'plain stupid.'"

Fred remembers that, on Friday, Tony Wando telephoned him and he visited Wando at his apartment on the top floor of the Sheldon Building. Fred told Tony that he sweats when he thinks of being in prison and Tony told Fred about a job that he wanted Fred to do, adding that Fred is perfect for the job because he is good with a knife and will be able to direct suspicion away from the syndicate. The victim is getting independent ideas and will start his own organization if he gets to the state capitol. "'Bragan was nothing when I picked him up,'" says Tony, who promised to pay Fred $1000 per month for his fourteen months in prison. After this conversation, Fred left Wando's apartment, got drunk, "smashed a tavern window and waited for the cops to pick me up. I had a job to do inside the walls."

R.G. Armstrong as Fred Riordan
"What Frightened You, Fred?" was written by prolific short story author Jack Ritchie and was published in the May 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Told in the first person by Fred, the story alternates between scenes in the present, as Bragan and Cullen speak with Fred, and scenes in the days before that, between Fred's release from prison and his impending return to prison. The title is ironic; it turns out that nothing frightened Fred! Dr. Cullen is wrong in his assessment of Fred's reasons for returning so quickly to jail. Warden Bragan's assessment is closer to the truth, but Fred is not stupid; his act was calculated and intentional, driven by greed and a life of crime.

Joel Murcott adapted the story for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and it aired on NBC on Tuesday, May 1, 1962, near the end of season seven. The title question has a much different answer in the TV version than it does in the short story.

While the story begins after Fred has already smashed the bar window, been arrested, and been taken to prison, the TV show begins with two policemen sitting in a patrol car as they observe Fred stagger out of the bar, take a drink from a bottle, then turn and throw the bottle, smashing the front window. He is arrested on the spot and found to be a parole violator.

Edward Asner as Warden Bragan
Fred is brought into the warden's office and the scene closely follows the first part of the corresponding scene in the short story, though it ends before any discussion of Fred's former job in prison or the warden's plan to run for governor. Instead, there is a dissolve to Fred preparing to leave the prison. He signs for his possessions and speaks with Bragan; Fred's demeanor and mood are noticeably brighter than they were in the first scene, which took place after his arrest. It is immediately clear that he and the warden have a friendly relationship; he was the warden's clerk and his boss made sure he had a suit that fit when he was released. Bragan compliments Fred and encourages him to succeed, adding that they were raised in the same neighborhood and mentioning that he is running for governor. Fred says that he would vote for Bragan if he had a vote and, in this scene, Fred's future looks as bright as possible under the circumstances.

There is another dissolve (the way scenes move between the present and the past) to the sidewalk in front of the bar, where Kowalski, the bartender, is much friendlier and more welcoming on Fred's arrival after his release from prison than he is in the short story. Kowalski's attitude toward Fred makes life outside the prison walls look promising, if only for a moment. Another dissolve returns to the present in the warden's office as Dr. Cullen probes, trying to discover what happened while Fred was outside that led him to act in a way certain to send him back inside. For the TV show, this scene is shortened from what it is on the page. The TV version presents a clear contrast between the scenes inside and outside the prison, though the welcome greeting Fred receives from Kowalski is not to be repeated when he gets to his old rooming house.

Adam Williams as Dr. Cullen
The short story's Mrs. Carr becomes Mae in the TV show, and she is a middle-aged, attractive woman who is not happy to see Fred. He is surprised and disappointed but he keeps at it until she relents a bit and invites him into the kitchen for coffee. It becomes apparent that the two had a romantic relationship before he went to prison--she tells him that she was "'not waiting for you'" and when he mentions that he wrote to her she says that she used his letters to light the fire. He puts his hand on top of hers but she pushes it off and, when she stands up, he grabs her from behind and kisses her neck. She pulls away and tells him, "'You're a roomer, Fred--that's all.'" This scene demonstrates that life on the outside may not be so great for Fred; Joel Murcott's decision to expand this scene from the short story is an effective way to show that Fred's life outside the prison walls may not be all that he had hoped for.

There is another dissolve back to the warden's office, where it is established that Bragan will let Fred resume his job as the warden's clerk. Cullen asks once again, "'What frightened you out there?'" but Fred lies and says that nothing happened. After another dissolve, the scene returns to the rooming house, where Mae takes a telephone call for Fred, who comes downstairs and speaks to Tony Wando. Wando asks Fred to meet him at the cemetery where he visits the grave of his mother every Wednesday; the gangster tells Fred that there is a grave next to the grave of Wando's mother that nobody ever visits. The scene that follows replaces the scene that ends the short story and takes the show in a new direction.

Steven Peccaro as Tony Wando
There is no dissolve from one scene to another this time, since the scene does not switch back to the present in the warden's office. Instead, there is a fade out and then a fade in to the cemetery, where Tony approaches his mother's grave and places a bouquet of flowers on the ground. Fred soon follows and stands in front of the adjoining grave. Tony offers Fred $25,000 for the two years he will spend in prison for violating parole but, unlike the story, where Fred does not reject the offer, in the TV show he initially refuses. Tony then threatens Fred, telling him that he knows about the only job Fred ever got away with, when he held up a delicatessen and killed a man with a knife. Tony tells Fred:

"I could send you to the death house with a ten-cent phone call. A guy saw you throw a paper bag down the sewer the night that delicatessen owner was murdered. A guy who works for me. There was a knife in the bag, Fred. I still got it. I'll bet your fingerprints are still on it. ... Whose grave will I put flowers on the next time, Fred? Yours, or Warden Bragan's?"

With this scene, Joel Murcott makes a significant change to the story. In Ritchie's short story, Fred was not frightened at all and Dr. Cullen was off the mark in his assessment of his reasons for returning to prison. In the TV show, Cullen is correct--Wando's threat did frighten Fred and that's why he's back in jail. Fred's past criminal activity has him in a moral dilemma. Should he accede to Wando's wishes and earn $25,000 for murdering a man who has been a friend to him, or should he refuse to do the gangster's bidding and face the death penalty for a crime he committed in the past? The decision seems obvious for Fred, who long ago went down the wrong path in his life and now finds himself unable to break the cycle of crime and prison.

Eve McVeagh as Mae
Murcott adds one more short scene, back in the warden's office. Fred maintains that he did not see or speak to anyone before getting drunk and Bragan promises to reassign the convict to his office as a clerk. Fred smiles and thanks the warden, and the viewer understands what Bragan and Cullen do not--that Fred plans to carry out Wando's order and murder the man who has helped him.

"What Frightened You, Fred?" is a good short story that was adapted into an excellent episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Joel Murcott's changes to the story expand its scope, make it more visually interesting, and make the title, Dr. Cullen's questions, and Fred's motivations more clear.

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."

Jack Ritchie (1922-1983), who wrote the short story on which the TV show was based, was born John Reitci and had over 500 short stories published between 1953 and 1983. Three of his stories were adapted for the Hitchcock show, including "Anyone for Murder?" He won an Edgar Award in 1982 and there is an extensive website dedicated to him here.

Kreg Martin as Kowalski
R.G. Armstrong (1917-2012) stars as Fred Riordan. Armstrong was on four Hitchcock shows, including "Final Vow," and had a long career, spanning the years from 1954-2001. He was in many westerns. Online sources report that he grew up in a family of fundamentalists and that his mother wanted him to be a pastor, but he became an actor instead and his onscreen roles sometimes played off the tension between his upbringing and his profession.

Co-starring as Warden Bragan is Edward Asner (1929-2021), whose long career on screen lasted from 1957 until his death. Asner appeared in one other episode of the Hitchcock TV show, along with an episode of The Outer Limits, but he is best known for his role as the crusty news editor Lou Grant, first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and then on Lou Grant (1977-1982). In his career, Asner won an impressive seven Emmy Awards.

Adam Williams (1922-2006) plays Dr. Cullen; a Navy pilot in World War Two, he was on screen from 1951 to 1978. He appeared in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) and he had a memorable role in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959). He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Listen, Listen.....!") as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

In smaller roles:
  • Steven Peccaro (1929-2005) as Tony Wando; born Ignacio Pecoraro, he also acted under the name Steven Peck. He was a choreographer who ran a dance studio in the 1950s before embarking on a screen acting career that lasted from 1958 to 1986.
  • Eve McVeagh (1919-1997) as Mae; she acted on Broadway and on radio and had a screen career from 1946 to 1987. She was on The Twilight Zone and Thriller and she appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Gloating Place."
  • Kreg Martin as Kowalski; in a short TV career from 1962-1963 he was seen on The Twilight Zone and in seven episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Maria."

Watch "What Frightened You, Fred?" for free online 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.

Ritchie, Jack. "What Frightened You, Fred?" Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 1958, pp. 15-21.

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central, 
"Steven Peck (1929-2005) - Find a Grave Memorial." Find a Grave,
"What Frightened You, Fred?" Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 7, episode 30, NBC, 1 May 1962.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: Our series on Joel Murcott concludes with "The Dividing Wall," starring James Gregory!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Momentum" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "What Frightened You, Fred?" here!

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