Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Hitchcock Project-Jerry Sohl Part Two: The Doubtful Doctor [6.2]

by Jack Seabrook

The third episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to air with a teleplay by Jerry Sohl was "The Doubtful Doctor," which was based on a short story of the same name by Louis Paul that was published in the April 2, 1960 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

The short story begins as a man named Ralph sits in the office of Dr. Collins and tells a strange story. He had had a bad day, from cold coffee at breakfast to getting drenched by rain on his way to work. He arrived at the office to learn that his secretary was leaving to get married, and he was handed a summons telling him he was being sued over a fender bender. Things went from bad to worse, and when he got home, his wife Lucille had also had a tough day. The Hornsbys arrived for dinner and Lucille burned muffins in the oven, causing smoke to pour out of the kitchen window. At bedtime, Ralph spent an hour calming baby Rosemarie before returning to bed, only to get into an argument with Lucille. He took tranquilizers to go to sleep and told his wife that he wondered "'how he would go about things if he had it to do all over again.'"

Illustration from The Saturday Evening Post
Ralph awoke to find himself back in his bachelor apartment, two and a half years before. He soon discovered that the good old days weren't quite so good. He was overdue on his rent payments, and when he called his Uncle Phil for a loan, which had been gladly given the first time around, he was turned down. Ralph discovered that he had little money, was overdrawn at the bank, and even his mother was mad at him! Suddenly realizing that his life had changed for the better when he met Lucille, who was working as a receptionist, he took a cab to the Eagle Soap Company, only to discover that she didn't know who he was. Her name wasn't even Lucille anymore; it was Betty!

"The Doubtful Doctor"
was first published here.
Ralph persisted and she agreed to have lunch with him, but when he told her that they would marry and have a daughter, she called him crazy and told him to see Dr. Collins. That afternoon, Ralph called Ted Parkinson, his business partner in his other life, only to be rebuffed again. The next day, Ralph's mother urged him to move back in with her, and he couldn't even get his old job as a copy writer back. Distraught, Ralph walked to the river and tried to give a little boy his last $2.10. The boy insisted on giving him a few baseball cards in exchange, and Ralph jumped into the freezing water.

He emerged to find himself back where he started, with Lucille taking a wet towel off of his head. Certain that he had awakened from a nightmare, Ralph was thrilled with his life, even with all of its problems. His story finished, Dr. Collins assures him that it was just a hallucination brought on by the tranquilizers. There's only one problem: why does Ralph have wet baseball cards in his pocket?

"The Doubtful Doctor" is an entertaining story, very much in keeping with the type of fiction published in the slick magazines in the postwar years. The plot recalls the film, It's a Wonderful Life, with a man only realizing how happy he is when he is presented with an alternate path that his life might have taken. The gentle fantasy also recalls the short stories of Jack Finney, such as "Second Chance." The surprise ending, with the baseball cards casting doubt on the simple explanation that Ralph had a hallucination, is one that has been used many times.

Dick York as Ralph
Louis Paul (ca. 1902-1970) was the pen name of Leroi Piacet, an American author who wrote 13 novels and many short stories from the early 1930s to the early 1960s, usually published in the slicks such as Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. He won an O. Henry Award in 1934 and taught short story writing at Columbia University in the 1940s and 1950s. Six TV shows were adapted from his works between 1955 and 1960; "The Doubtful Doctor" was the last.

The TV version aired on NBC on Tuesday, October 4, 1960, as the second episode of the sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. At first glance, Jerry Sohl's teleplay seems to follow Paul's short story closely, but a more detailed examination reveals that Sohl removed extraneous characters and events in order to focus on the relationship between Ralph and Lucille.

The location of events is set as Manhattan in the first two establishing shots, a view of the skyline and a dissolve to a tall building, seen at first from sidewalk level, as a crowd of people rush by. The camera pans up the side of the building and there is a dissolve to the inside of the doctor's office, where the doctor speaks with Ralph. While the short story plants the seed of the surprise ending in the first paragraph, where Ralph says that the contents of an envelope are the reason for his visit, this is left out of the TV version, eliminating any suspense or question in the viewer's mind on that topic.

Gena Rowlands as Lucille
Instead, Ralph mentions that he had a similar experience once before, and this becomes the reason for his visit to the doctor's office; what he thought was a strange, one-time experience has become more concerning now that it has happened again. Some of the long list of problematic events from Ralph's day have been removed in order to streamline the story and, as Ralph begins to tell the doctor about his evening, the screen blurs and dissolves to a flashback sequence, allowing the events to be shown rather than told. For the most part, the next scene follows the story closely, even down to the dialogue. Dinner with the Hornsbys is deleted, as is the fire in the oven. In the story, Ralph takes tranquilizers to go to sleep, but there are no drugs in the TV show, perhaps due to self-censorship.

While in the story Ralph falls asleep, in the TV show he resumes his voiceover narration and stands up as if in a trance. He leaves the apartment and gets on the elevator. The doors close and there is a dissolve to a shot of Ralph sitting in his old apartment. The wall calendar says that it's December 1958 and Ralph's narration says that he's gone back two and a half years, which means that the scenes in the present take place in July 1961, even though the show was most likely filmed in the summer of 1960 and aired at the start of October of that year. Ralph stays put and Mr. Treadwell, the superintendent, comes to the door to demand the rent; this part of the show is an example of how Sohl streamlines events from the story, where Ralph goes outside and heads to his office. The story's three phone calls are eliminated and, instead, Ralph heads right to the Eagle Soap Co. to find Lucille.

John Zaremba as the doctor
Happily, her name in the show is Lucille, so the confusion with her being named Betty in this alternate reality is also eliminated. The interactions between the two characters are compressed, and instead of Ralph waiting for Lucille at the end of the work day, going home, and returning the next day, as in the story, he merely visits her in the morning and waits for her at lunchtime. The doctor is a psychiatrist, rather than the family doctor who delivered Lucille's baby. The scene in the restaurant is particularly good, and Gena Rowlands, as Lucille, gives a terrific performance, reacting to what Ralph says with a mixture of embarrassment, sympathy, and pity. In the story, Ralph mentions a mole on her upper thigh, but on TV, it's on her shoulder, and thus less suggestive.

The events that follow are also simplified. A phone call to Ted Parkinson is removed, and instead of spending the night at home alone, calling his mother the next morning, and being turned down when he tries to get his old job back, Ralph walks from the restaurant to an abandoned lot, where he sees a sign that says his future apartment building will be built there. In the story, he visits his apartment house and the doorman confirms that someone else lives in his apartment. In the TV show, Ralph's visit to the construction site and vacant lot underlines his predicament and the sadness of his life, contrasting a lot littered with rubble with his comfortable apartment.

Michael Burns as Sidney
Ralph sits down at the construction site and meets Sidney, the boy who is not given a name in the story. This scene is extended; Sidney is friendly toward Ralph and offers to play catch. He wears a baseball glove and has a ball, so when he pulls a handful of baseball cards from his pocket to sell to Ralph, it's in keeping with his love of the game. His friendly, open nature contrasts with Ralph's depression.

Ralph leaps into the river, but this time, instead of returning to the present to find Lucille holding a wet towel on his head, there is a cut from an overhead shot of the river to an extreme closeup of Ralph's face being pelted by water. The camera quickly pulls back to reveal that Ralph is in the shower. Throughout the show, these transitional scenes are accompanied by Ralph's voiceover narration. In the story, Ralph goes to sleep and awakens the next morning, but in the show, the events all seem to take place in a short time over the course of one evening. In the story, Lucille says: "'You weren't in such a loving mood last night,'" while in the show, she says, "'You weren't so loving before that shower.'"

The final scene in the doctor's office finds Ralph explaining that the first time something like this happened to him, he was in his second year of high school and he was worried about an exam. The doctor tells Ralph that he was worried right before both events and chalks them up to anxiety that caused him to flee into a world of fantasy. This replaces the story's explanation that drugs were the cause of Ralph's experience. The last lines of the story return to the envelope that Ralph mentioned in the first paragraph, closing the circle and satisfying the reader's curiosity. In the TV version, Ralph has not mentioned the envelope before, so when he pulls it out it is unexpected. The show ends with a closeup of the doctor, looking puzzled.

Joseph Julian as Treadwell
"The Doubtful Doctor" is a gentle fantasy made enjoyable by strong performances by the two lead actors, a well-structured teleplay by Jerry Sohl, and confident direction by Arthur Hiller, who keeps the story moving at a rapid pace. There is no crime or murder in sight, so the story's surprise ending with the baseball cards must have been what attracted the show's producers to it. In essence, it's a two-character show. Dick York is completely believable as Ralph, while Gena Rowlands gives depth to her character in a short time. The two are convincing as a married couple and equally convincing as a man and a woman who doesn't know him. The three other characters with speaking roles make only brief appearances and the focus is on the husband and wife, showing Ralph's gradual realization that his happy, successful life is due in large part to his marriage to Lucille.

"The Doubtful Doctor" is directed by Arthur Hiller (1923-2016). Born in Canada, Hiller had a long career as a director, from 1954 to 2006, starting out in TV and ending up in film. He was president of the Director's Guild of America from 1989 to 1993 and he directed 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Disappearing Trick." He also directed three episodes of Thriller and the classic comedy, The In-Laws (1979).

Ralph Smiley as Jimmy
Dick York (1928-1992) stars as Ralph. York was born in Indiana and his screen career lasted from 1953 to 1984. Plagued by terrible back pain caused by an injury sustained on the set of a film, he nevertheless appeared in seven episodes of the Hitchcock show, as well as being on The Twilight Zone and Thriller. York's most famous role, however, was as Darrin Stevens on Bewitched, the popular situation comedy where he co-starred with Elizabeth Montgomery from 1964 to 1969, when he quit the show due to his back problems.

Gena Rowlands (1930- ) plays Lucille and gives her usual strong performance. Rowlands was on screen from 1954 to 2017, often working with her husband, John Cassavetes, and she received an honorary Academy Award in 2015. She also won three Emmy Awards and appeared in four episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Murder Case," with Cassavetes.

John Zaremba (1908-1986) plays the doctor; he started out as a journalist at the Chicago Tribune before becoming an actor. He was in movies from 1950 and on TV from 1954, including regular roles on I Led Three Lives (1953-1956) and The Time Tunnel (1966-1967). He appeared on The Twilight Zone and Batman and he was on the Hitchcock show eleven times, including "The Kind Waitress."

In smaller roles:
  • Michael Burns (1947- ) as Sidney; he appeared on TV and film from 1960 to 1986 and was a regular on It's a Man's World (1962-1963) and Wagon Train (1963-1965). He was also seen on Thriller and he was on two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Special Delivery." Burns grew up to be a history professor and writer.
  • Joseph Julian (1910-1982) as Mr. Treadwell, who comes to Ralph's door to demand payment of the rent; he was a busy voice actor on radio for decades, from the 1930s to the 1980s, and he appeared onscreen from 1950 to 1970, mostly on TV. Like so many other actors on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he was a victim of the blacklist.
  • Ralph Smiley (1916-1977) as Jimmy, the waiter at lunch who doesn't recognize Ralph or Lucille; he was on screen from 1951 to 1977 and also appeared in "A Piece of the Action" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
Read "The Doubtful Doctor" online here, watch the TV show here, or order the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps review here.


"Archives West Finding Aid." Joseph Julian Papers - Archives West,,in%20the%20Red%20Channels%20list. 

"The Doubtful Doctor." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 2, 4 Oct. 1960. 


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


"Louis Paul, Author of 13 Novels, Dead." The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 1970, 

Paul, Louis. "The Doubtful Doctor." The Saturday Evening Post, 2 Apr. 1960, pp. 25, 55, 57–60., 

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central, 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Jonathan" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "The Doubtful Doctor" here!

In two weeks: Our look at episodes written by Jerry Sohl wraps up with "A Secret Life," starring Ronald Howard!


Grant said...

I don't know this episode well, but I've always liked Michael Burns in MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION. Judging by that film, he must be a very believable child actor in this story.

Jack Seabrook said...

Yes, he's quite natural in his scene with Dick York.