Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part Nine: The Dividing Wall [9.9] and Wrapup

by Jack Seabrook

"The Dividing Wall" opens with a shot that pans along a glass case displaying Halloween masks until the camera comes to rest on the face of a pretty shop girl named Carol Brandt, who looks out from behind the case as she waits for two children to choose a mask; the gag is an old one, going back at least as far as the films of Abbott and Costello, and it suggests that the story that follows will be comic, which it definitely is not. The boy chooses a mask and chases the girl out of the candy store and down the sidewalk. Carol follows them outside and glances at an auto repair garage next door.

There is a cut to inside the garage, where three mechanics work on a car. Terry, the youngest of the trio, climbs down into a repair pit and has an attack of claustrophobia; he sweats profusely as the camera zooms in on each of the walls to make it look as if they are closing in on him. A car pulls over the top of the pit to complete his terror and he scrambles out of the pit to safety. It seems that Terry has been out of prison for only a month and the two other mechanics, Fred Kruger and Al Norman, discuss his condition. Terry escapes the dark garage out onto the sidewalk, where he encounters Carol, also outside and enjoying the sun.

James Gregory as Fred Kruger

Terry and Carol shyly converse and it is clear that they know each other; her father Otto runs the candy store. They make plans to go to the park that afternoon and there is a dissolve to a shot of them walking into the park later that day. Terry explains that he was raised in an orphanage and his claustrophobia prevents him from taking the subway back to the candy shop and the garage. He admits that he was in prison and she admits that she has not dated since high school. They spend time talking together and he tells her about his time at the orphanage. The only time he was allowed outside was for an occasional bus trip; eventually, he stole a bus and was sent to a reformatory. Unable to get a job on release, Terry stole more cars and went to prison.

Carol dreams of getting a job so that her father can close the candy store; she only keeps working there because she is all he has. The duo walk back to the store together and, once they are inside, Terry grabs Carol and kisses her. She resists; he reacts badly and walks out.

Act one of "The Dividing Wall" is lovely, as two lonely young people tentatively come together and we learn about Terry's troubled past. Details of Carol's past will have to wait until later in the show, but she has a secret of her own.

Chris Robinson as Terry
The second act begins at the garage, as Fred lays out his plans to rob a safe, despite Al's misgivings. Fred is impatient and hot-headed, insisting that his plan is flawless. The trio then carry out the robbery late at night, with Terry as the driver. To conceal their identities, they wear Halloween masks similar to those seen in the show's first shot; the effect is to transform their faces into those of eerie creatures in the nighttime shadows. When they reach the safe, they find that it is unexpectedly heavy and difficult to move, requiring the use of a forklift to load it onto the back of their truck. A suspension spring breaks due to the weight and the truck is chased by a police car; they barely make it over railroad tracks just ahead of an onrushing train.

Once they cross the tracks, there is a sudden cut to the inside of the garage, where Al uses a welding torch to open the safe. Inside they find a payroll, totaling $112,000, and an unexpectedly heavy object--a small cylinder that Al opens and then probes inside with his fingers, trying to determine what it contains. They notice a warning label and realize that the cylinder houses Cobalt 60, a dangerous, radioactive material. Terry, Fred, and Al quickly vacate the garage, with Al terrified at having touched the radioactive material.

Katherine Ross as Carol Brandt

The second act of "The Dividing Wall" is thrilling and very different in tone from the first act. The contrast of the two acts sets up the second half of the show as one where the viewer wonders how the two storylines will converge. Terry is likeable and vulnerable when he is with Carol, yet he drives the truck in the robbery, despite his earlier protestations of having been pushed into a life of crime as a young man. How will his claustrophobia figure into the denouement and what will happen to Al as a result of radiation exposure?

Unfortunately, Act three adds a third group to the increasingly complex narrative, as agents of the Atomic Energy Commission, including Frank Ludden, investigate the robbery of Cobalt 60. They identify the location of the events as Long Island City, a section of Queens on New York's Long Island that is represented by a nondescript street on a Hollywood soundstage. There is nothing in "The Dividing Wall" that looks remotely like a New York location; the only way viewers know where the events take place is this one offhand remark and a sign on a door near the end of this act. 

There is then a cut to the robbers, who are hiding out in what appears to be a basement apartment, watching a television news report about the robbery and the Cobalt 60. Now that they understand the danger of their situation, Al wants to see a doctor, but Fred resists, promising that they will fly to Mexico City, where Al can seek treatment for his radiation burn. Fred downplays the injury and the danger and finally punches Al in the stomach when Al insists on seeing a doctor. Fred is an amoral criminal who has no concern for anyone or anything other than himself and his desire for financial gain. In contrast, Terry expresses concern about Carol and her father having been exposed to radiation by being in the candy shop on the other side of the titular "Dividing Wall," yet Fred brushes off Terry's concerns.

Norman Fell as Al Norman
Ignoring Fred's wishes, Terry visits the candy store on his own to borrow a hammer and tacks from Carol in order to put a sign on the door to the garage to tell the public that it is closed. Terry lies and tells Carol that he has landed a new job in Mexico and will not return to New York. Carol reveals that she went to the garage around midnight to look for him; of course, this is precisely when he and his co-workers were out committing the robbery. There is a bit of business with another customer, Mrs. Collucci, who enters the store to use the telephone; Terry hangs the sign on the front door of the garage and a cut to the interior demonstrates that the Cobalt 60 remains inside, silently emitting dangerous radiation.

Terry returns to the candy store and, after Mrs. Collucci leaves, he and Carol embrace and kiss; he tells her that he loves her for the first time. Their moment of bliss is interrupted when Carol notices that a bird in a cage inside the store is dead. Otto emerges from the back room and Terry suddenly begs Carol to come with him to Mexico City, where they can get married. Otto cryptically tells her to be sure this time, and Carol confesses to Terry that she, too, has a secret in her past: she met a boy when she was 15 years old and ran away with him to get married. They were divorced three months later, but she went on to have a baby boy who was given up for adoption right after he was born. Seeing his own unhappy childhood reflected in the situation, Terry gets angry at Carol and rushes out of the store.

Simon Scott as Durrell
That night, Fred follows Al to the emergency room (whose front door bears a sign identifying the location as Long Island City), shooting him dead as he enters the hospital. Act three of "The Dividing Wall" is not as tight as the first two acts, with dull staging of the opening scene at the Atomic Energy Commission and the unbelievable shooting of Al adding an unexpected jolt right before the commercial break. The two shots fired don't seem to go anywhere near him and no one in the hospital seems concerned by his murder at the ER door.

The final act begins as an Army truck rolls into the neighborhood. In the back are two of the three agents seen earlier in the office at the Atomic Energy Commission; they are desperately trying to locate the Cobalt 60. The third agent, Larry, calls from the ER to say that Al died of a gunshot wound and his hand displayed evidence of radiation exposure. Meanwhile, Terry sits at home watching TV when Fred returns. Once again displaying empathy that Fred lacks, Terry remarks that the next day is Saturday and neighborhood kids will be home from school and outside playing near the garage, where they will be exposed to radiation. Fred reassures him, lying that Al is okay, but soon Terry hears the truth from a TV news bulletin that reveals that, while Al was shot and killed, he also had radiation burns. The news report also reveals that a manhunt is on for Terry and Fred.

Robert Kelljan as Frank Ludden

The two men argue and Fred locks Terry in a closet, where his claustrophobia again surfaces. Terry will agree to anything in order to be let out. Elsewhere, the federal agents locate the Cobalt 60. Later that evening, Fred returns to the apartment to find Terry gone. Carol is tending to Otto, who suffers from the effects of radiation poisoning, and when Terry arrives and tries to get her to leave with him, she resists. She says that she also has been sick and Otto emerges from the rooms behind the store to order Terry to leave.

Terry goes outside and chases away kids who were playing in front of the garage. He then goes inside and tries to lift the heavy canister without touching it so he can load it into the back of a van and remove it from the area. Fred surprises him, insisting that Terry, an expert driver, come outside and drive Fred to safety. Terry says that he will call the police, so Fred knocks him back into the grease pit, where another attack of claustrophobia cripples the conflicted hero. Fred drives a vehicle over the top of the pit, sealing Terry in before leaving the garage just as Army trucks and a police car cordon off the neighborhood. Fred tries to walk away but is ordered to stop; he whirls and tries to shoot it out with one of the agents but is shot and killed.

Rusty Lane as
Otto Brandt
Carol runs into the garage and Terry calls out from the pit, warning her and telling her to leave and call the police. Terry is later brought out onto the sidewalk, where Carol asks the agent to show mercy on the troubled young man. She sits down on the curb next to Terry, who apologizes, and the show ends as they silently contemplate their uncertain future together.

Act four of "The Dividing Wall" is unsatisfying because there is too much happening and the story is wrapped up too quickly. The eruptions of gunfire at the end of Acts three and four are unnecessary and feel tacked on. Terry and Carol's story is intriguing, but Fred is a one-dimensional character and Terry's claustrophobia is overplayed. Perhaps the two times that Terry descends into the grease pit represent his own personal descent into Hell; each time, he has a terrifying experience and each time he emerges and goes out into the sunlight, where he is met by Carol, who seems to represent a potentially good future for him.

The credits for "The Dividing Wall" state that the teleplay by Joel Murcott is based on a story by George Bellak, but it must have been either an unpublished story or (more likely) a teleplay that Murcott was hired to revise. George Bellak (1919-2002) wrote a handful of plays beginning in the late 1940s but was most prolific as a TV scriptwriter from 1951 to 1982. He wrote two films, in 1958 and 1966, but most of his writing was for episodic television, including an episode of Thriller and the pilot for Space: 1999. Bellak also wrote two novels in the 1980s. "The Dividing Wall" is his only credit on the Hitchcock series.

Director Bernard Girard (1918-1997) was born Bernard Goldstein and worked as both a writer and a director of movies and TV from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s. He directed a Twilight Zone as well as four half-hour Hitchcock episodes and eight hour-length Hitchcock episodes, including the Robert Bloch classic, "Water's Edge."

James Gregory (1911-2002) receives top billing as the murderous, amoral Fred Kruger. He started on Broadway in 1939 and served in the Navy during WWII. Gregory appeared in films from 1948 to 1979, including Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), and was very busy on television from 1950 to 1986, including roles on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Star Trek, Night Gallery, The Night Stalker, and Barney Miller, where he was a semi-regular from 1975 to 1982. He was also on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "The Cream of the Jest."

The real star of "The Dividing Wall" is Chris Robinson (1938- ), as Terry. He started out on Broadway in 1954, then began acting in films in 1957, including a role as the title monster in Beast from Haunted Cave (1959). He appeared frequently on episodic TV during the 1960s, including two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He wrote the screenplays for three films in the mid-1970s and also directed movies and TV shows during that period. As an actor, he had long-running roles on two soap operas: General Hospital, from 1978 to 2002, and The Bold and the Beautiful, from 1992 to 2005. Robinson is still acting today, in his 80s.

Norman Fell, Chris Robinson, and James Gregory (L to R)

Not surprisingly, Bernard Girard's camera lingers on beautiful Katherine Ross (1940- ) (as Carol Brandt), who was born in Hollywood and who was just beginning an acting career that would last from 1957 until 2019. Although this was the only episode of the Hitchcock show in which she appeared, she would become a big star just a few years later with her role in The Graduate (1967), followed by such notable films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Stepford Wives (1975). She was also a regular on a TV series, The Colbys, from 1985 to 1987.

The unfortunate Al Norman is played by Norman Fell (1924-1988), who was born Norman Feld and who served in the Air Force in WWII. He later joined the Actors Studio before embarking on a career on the big and small screens that ran from 1954 until his death. Fell was Juror Number One in the original Studio One TV broadcast of Twelve Angry Men (1954) and he was a regular on the TV version of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct (1961-1962). This was the only episode of the Hitchcock show in which he appeared. He later was seen with Katherine Ross in The Graduate and he was a regular on the TV series Dan August (1970-1971) and Needles and Pins (1973-1974). However, Fell is best-remembered as the leering Mr. Roper on Three's Company (1976-1981) and its spinoff, The Ropers (1979-1980).

In smaller roles:
  • Simon Scott (1920-1991) as Durrell, the federal agent who shoots Fred at the end; he was on screen from 1952 to 1985, appeared in three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and one episode of The Twilight Zone, and was a regular on the TV series, Trapper John, M.D. (1979-1985).
  • Robert Kelljan (1930-1982) as Agent Frank Ludden, who takes the first telephone call about the robbery of Cobalt 60; he acted on screen from 1960 to 1969 and directed for film and TV from 1969 to 1982. Kelljan also appeared in "Forty Detectives Later" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and was seen on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. In addition, he wrote and direct the horror classic, Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), and its sequel, Return of Count Yorga (1971).
  • Rusty Lane (1899-1986) as Carol's father, Otto Brandt; born James Russell Lane, he was in nine episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Manacled."
Watch "The Dividing Wall" for free online here.

"The Dividing Wall." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 9, episode 9, CBS, 6 Dec. 1963. 
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred HITCHCOCK Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001. 
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

*  *  *  *  *

Joel Murcott on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: An Overview and Episode Guide

Joel Murcott began writing teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents midway through the second season with "Number Twenty-Two," an outstanding adaptation of a short story by Evan Hunter. The show features great acting and direction.

Murcott contributed four scripts to the show's third season. In "Enough Rope for Two," he made some changes to Clark Howard's story that lessened its effectiveness. However, he improved "Last Request," expanding a very short tale and examining a pathological misogynist. In "Flight to the East," Murcott made major changes when adapting a very short story, but events come at the viewer so fast toward the end of the show that it's hard to keep up. "Death Sentence" adds scenes and themes to the short story but is, in the end, an unsatisfying adaptation.

For season four, Murcott wrote the teleplay for "Man with a Problem," one of the most memorable half-hours of the entire series, bolstered by superb acting and effective direction. His other script for this season, "A Personal Matter," is less successful and does not work as well as the story on which it is based.

Murcott wrote nothing for season five, but in season six he wrote the teleplay for "Ambition," an episode where the changes to the story don't improve upon it. His single script for season seven is "What Frightened You, Fred?" where a good story becomes an excellent episode in large part due to the changes and additions made by Murcott.

For The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Joel Murcott wrote two teleplays and co-wrote a third. In season eight, "The Black Curtain" does a poor job of adapting a flawed novel by Cornell Woolrich, while the ninth-season episode, "The Dividing Wall," starts well but goes off track in its second half. Finally, Murcott is credited as co-writer of the teleplay for "Behind the Locked Door," with Henry Slesar. A terrific performance by Gloria Swanson and a haunting score by Bernard Herrmann help make this a classic hour-long episode, and a brilliant change to the end of the story makes the show unforgettable.


Episode title-"Number Twenty-Two" [2.21]

Broadcast date-17 February 1957
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "First Offense" by Evan Hunter
First print appearance-Manhunt, December 1955
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"Enough Rope for Two" [3.7]
Broadcast date-17 November 1957
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "Enough Rope for Two" by Clark Howard
First print appearance-Manhunt, February 1957
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"Last Request" [3.8]
Broadcast date-24 November 1957
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "Last Request" by Helen Fislar Brooks
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January 1957
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"Flight to the East" [3.25]
Broadcast date-23 March 1958
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "Night Flight" by Bevil Charles
First print appearance-The Creasey Mystery Magazine, August 1957
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"Death Sentence" [3.30]
Broadcast date-27 April 1958
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "Death Sentence" by Miriam Allen de Ford
First print appearance-Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 1948
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"Man with a Problem" [4.7]
Broadcast date-16 Nov. 1958
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "Man with a Problem" by Donald Honig
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July 1958
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"A Personal Matter" [4.15]
Broadcast date-18 Jan. 1959
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "Human Interest Stuff" by Davis Dressler
First print appearance-Adventure, Sept. 1938
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"Ambition" [6.38]
Broadcast date-4 July 1961
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "Ambition" by Charles Boeckman
First print appearance-Keyhole Mystery Magazine, Aug. 1960
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-no

Episode title-"What Frightened You, Fred?" [7.30]
Broadcast date-1 May 1962
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on "What Frightened You, Fred?" by Jack Ritchie
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 1958
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-no

Episode title-"The Black Curtain" [8.9]
Broadcast date-15 Nov. 1962
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on The Black Curtain by Cornell Woolrich
First print appearance-1941 novel
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-no

Episode title-"The Dividing Wall" [9.9]
Broadcast date-6 Dec. 1963
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on an unpublished story by George Bellak
First print appearance-none
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-no

Episode title-"Behind the Locked Door" [9.22]
Broadcast date-27 March 1964
Teleplay by-Henry Slesar and Joel Murcott
Based on "Behind the Locked Door" by Henry Slesar
First print appearance-Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January 1961
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-no

In two weeks: Our coverage of William Gordon begins with "The Lonely Hours," starring Nancy Kelly and Gena Rowlands!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Momentum" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Sybilla" here!


Grant said...

I've always liked Chris Robinson in STANLEY, a sort of WILLARD variation with snakes instead of rats (unfortunately with some real-life animal violence). It isn't very famous, but he's really believable as the Willard of that story.

And of course there's his other ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, "Forecast: Low Clouds and Coastal Fog."

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! I liked him in this episode. I've never seen STANLEY and it sounds like I'm fortunate.