Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Leigh Brackett Part Two: Terror at Northfield [9.3]

by Jack Seabrook

Leigh Brackett's second and last teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was "Terror at Northfield," which was based on a story called "Terror Town" by Ellery Queen that was first published in the August 1956 issue of Argosy.

The story begins as Susan Marsh, a young librarian in the New England town of Northfield, is driving the ramshackle 1940 Buick that was given to her by Flora Sloan, the town's "undisputed autocrat," and worrying about the missing Tom Cooley, the 17-year-old son of truck farmer John Cooley. She had encouraged the boy to consider college but he would not agree to leave his father to tend the farm alone. Tom disappeared in early November and now Susan is concerned enough to visit sheriff's deputy Linc Pearce, the only policeman in town. They had played together as children and it frustrates her that he still treats her like a tomboy. Linc agrees to ride out to the farm with her and makes fun of her car, which she got three weeks ago after Flora won a new one.

"Terror Town" was
first published here
At the Cooley farm, John says that Tom has not been seen for over a month. A search is organized and three search parties comb the woods and countryside for weeks without success. Susan grows frustrated with Linc's failure to find Tom; she hears disturbing rumors about the Cooley farm going to seed. In the spring, heavy rains reveal a hole not far from the farm, and in the hole are Tom's remains. At the site, Susan sees the boy's distraught father taking items from the hole and putting them in his coat pocket. The coroner says Tom's body has been there since the fall and the back of his head was crushed.

Linc at first rejects Susan's offer to help find Tom's killer, but he is unable to solve the case and one night he visits Susan at home and admits that he has no good theory. He gets a call telling him that the body of bar owner Frenchy Lafont has been found in the hole where Tom's body was found. At the site, townsfolk blame Linc for not finding Tom's killer before he killed again. No clear motive is seen for Frenchy's killing; the back of his head was knocked in, just like Tom's. Susan fails to find a link between Tom and Frenchy and grows frustrated with Linc.

Dick York as Will Pearce
Two nights later, Flora Sloan's body is found in the same place, the back of her head battered in, again with no clear motive. At a town meeting, Linc lays out the facts and the apparent lack of connection. This time, the townsfolk support him. Alone in his office, he recalls seeing John pick up items from the hole where his son was found and pocket them. He wonders if one of the items was a clue and rushes to Cooley's house, which is empty. Linc finds a piece of glass in the farmer's coat pocket; he suddenly realizes what happened and that Susan is in danger. At her house, John Cooley has broken down the door and she realizes that he killed Frenchy and Flora with the metal butt of Tommy's hunting rifle. John explains that Tommy was killed by Susan's old car, which had been owned previously by Flora and Frenchy. Since the exact date of death is unknown, he has been killing all those who might be responsible. Linc arrives just in time to rescue Susan. Soon, he has proposed marriage, and no one ever finds out who accidentally ran over Tom.

Jacqueline Scott as Susan
"Terror Town" is an entertaining story with a central mystery that is not hard to figure out. It's the only short story by Ellery Queen not to feature Queen as the detective, and Francis M. Nevins wrote that the authors hoped to sell it to television. Ellery Queen was the pen name of Frederic Dannay (1905-1982) and Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971), two men who were the most important figures in crime and mystery fiction in the twentieth century. Their novels and short stories, most featuring Ellery Queen, appeared from 1929 to 1971, and the character flourished on radio, TV, and film. The authors also championed other writers, especially in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which has been publishing great mystery fiction for over 80 years.

Unfortunately, the TV adaptation of "Terror Town," retitled "Terror at Northfield," is a mess. It aired on CBS on Friday, October 11, 1963, and it was director Harvey Hart's first effort for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He tries to create a spooky atmosphere with some unusual shots and lighting, but there's not much he can do with the flawed teleplay and poor casting.

R.G. Armstrong as John Cooley
The show begins with Will (as Linc has been renamed) pulling up in his police car to the Cooley farm, with Susan in the passenger seat. The farm appears to have been deserted for weeks, but we see John observing the visitors from the shadows. They soon hear him working in the barn, fixing a tire with the large hammer that he will later use to commit two murders. We learn that his son Tom is missing. By starting the story at this point, Brackett removes the first section of the short story, including background on Susan, Flora, and the car. Also gone are the details of Susan and Linc growing up together and their familiarity with each other, so the tension in their relationship that exists in the story is absent from the show.

Back in town, Susan gets out of the police car and into her own car; Will points out the broken headlight. Susan drives a short distance and parks outside the library, where she meets Flora; we learn that Flora sold the car to Susan.

Katherine Squire as Mrs. Lafont
A closeup of a library book on the ground, its pages blowing in the wind, begins the following scene; Tom's body has been found at the bottom of a steep hill. Frenchy Lafont is seen holding onlookers back from the edge, though his character is not yet identified. Gone are the story's search party and the extended period of time before Tom's body is found. Cooley leaps into the hole and picks up the button and piece of broken glass, but he conceals the glass from Will and only admits to finding the button, suggesting that the glass is an important clue, something that is not revealed in the short story until the end. In the next scene, Will, the mayor, and the coroner discuss the mystery of Tom's death, compressing the story's long investigation into a brief exchange.

A major change follows as the next scene begins with a closeup on the broken headlight on Susan's car. John fits the piece of glass into the broken section, so the viewer knows how Tom was killed, something that was not revealed until the end of the short story. John then looks into the window of Susan's home at night before he is chased off by a barking dog. Since we know from dialogue in an earlier scene that Flora sold Susan the car, we now know that Flora and Susan are in danger and that John is the villain.

Peter Whitney as Bib Hadley
The scene shifts to the Cooley farm, where we see John erecting a For Sale sign as Frenchy drives up and expresses interest in buying the property. They explore the farm until John suddenly takes his hammer and murders Frenchy. In the story, Frenchy's body is found in the same spot where Tom's body was found, so his murder is not described. However, Leigh Brackett decides to show the viewer the murder, which removes any mystery about the killer's identity. The only mystery in the show is why John kills Frenchy. John dumps the body in the ravine and in the next scene the crowd is back at the site as Will investigates.

Bib Hadley, who is a bartender at Frenchy Lafont's bar in the short story, excitedly tells Susan what happened. At the end of this scene, it's clear that Will and Susan are already a couple, unlike in the story, where they don't get together till the end. In the TV show, he calls her "'honey,'" says he'll pick her up and take her to work to keep her safe, and kisses her goodbye. In the following scene, set at the police station, another new character is introduced: Frenchy's mother, who Will interrogates as he tries to find a link between the murders. The show slows to a crawl here with the only interesting aspect being Bernard Herrmann's moody score.

A night scene follows, as John Cooley buys groceries in the town, which seems deserted. Director Harvey Hart tries to create viewer interest with unusual camera placements that only serve to draw attention to themselves, such as putting the camera on the far side of John's truck and shooting through the window at the action across the sidewalk. John's repeated references to "'the Lord'" also become tiresome very quickly. He creeps around outside the library after dark and the scene continues inside the library, where camera placement becomes a major problem as Hart continually shoots through the stacks, looking at people on the other sides of shelves of books.

Susan and Flora both work at the library in the TV show, unlike the story, where Flora is a wealthy town resident. They discuss the murders in the shadowy library interior until Susan sends Flora home early; the numerous shots through the stacks are a pointless exercise in trickery that distracts from rather than enhances the content of the scene. Outside the building, the camera briefly takes Cooley's point of view as he watches Flora drive away. Susan is left alone in the library, waiting for Will to arrive and take her home, when we see a shadowy figure approach the outside door and unlock it. We are meant to think it's Cooley coming for Susan, but the show's second commercial break postpones the truth.

After the break, Susan panics when a stranger enters the library, but it turns out to be Bib Hadley, whom we had seen briefly at the ravine, telling Susan about Frenchy's murder. He exhibits bizarre behavior and there is more showy camera work with the camera looking out from behind the stacks. The lighting and Bib's unusual proclivities make him seem like he might be the killer, but since we have already seen John commit the crimes, we know he is innocent. Susan does not, however, and as Bib talks about how much he used to enjoy slaughtering animals, she runs out the door and into Will's arms. Will puts her in his car and enters the library, gun drawn, to confront Bib in an anticlimactic, unnecessary scene. The entire section with Bib is a tasteless waste of time and feels like padding.

The real danger follows, as Flora is home alone. John Cooley knocks at her door and she lets him in, ironically commenting that he and Will are the only men she would admit. John asks her if she killed his son and confesses to killing Frenchy; she faints and he puts on gloves before the camera cuts away from her murder. For the second time in "Terror at Northfield," the story suffers a significant change; in "Terror Town," Frenchy and Flora are found dead in the same spot where Tom's body was found, but in the TV show we witness their murders (or the lead up to them) at the hands of John. The only mystery in the TV show is why Cooley is killing these people. In essence, a mystery short story has been converted into a TV show where suspense is more important than whodunit.

Dennis Patrick as Frenchy Lafont
As in the story, a town meeting follows, but even here it looks like Harvey Hart thought the dull teleplay needed some help, so he puts the camera in an odd place for a few shots, as if it's showing the point of view of someone in the back of the crowd. This dull scene goes on too long and ends on what is supposed to be a high note right before the third commercial break when Frenchy's mother walks to the front of the room and announces that Frenchy killed Tom. The short story ends with no one ever knowing which of the car's drivers actually killed Tom, but in the TV show, Mrs. Lafont hands over a confession that Frenchy wrote  before he died, explaining that Tom's death was due to a drunk driving accident, after which he sold the car to Flora.

In the story, Linc thinks about the clues before visiting Cooley's house, finding the piece of broken glass and realizing what must have happened. In the TV show, Mrs. Lafont's confession leads to Will's understanding the sequence of events and he rushes off to try to save Susan's life. Meanwhile, she is at home when she gets a call from John, who tells her that he is going to be with his son. He hangs up and she fears he means to commit suicide. A bit of suspense is created by using alternating shots to show Will telephoning Susan and the phone ringing in her empty house; we suspect that she has gone to try to prevent John's rash act.

Curt Conway as Dr. Buxton
Will then drives to the Cooley farm and the ravine where the bodies were found, looking for Susan. As he drives away from the ravine, we see John peek out from behind a bush. Susan drives up and stands at the edge of the road, calling for John, who comes up from behind, grabs her, and drags her down the side of the hill. He holds a hammer over her, but before he can kill her, Will appears and stops him, telling him that Frenchy killed his son. Will and Susan embrace and he explains what happened; he confronts John, who admits that he wanted to kill all of the car's owners because he did not know which one of them killed Tom. He hands Will the piece of broken glass and the show ends with everyone climbing up and out of the ravine, symbolically exiting the pit of Hell and returning to normal life on Earth's surface.

"Terror at Northfield" is a poor adaptation of a good story, where Leigh Brackett tries to turn an intriguing mystery into a TV film focused on suspense. The weak teleplay forces director Harvey Hart to resort to showy camera placement to try to create viewer interest, but it just ends up calling attention to itself and distracting from the events on screen. Dick York is miscast as the heroic, small town sheriff, and Jacqueline Scott gives a dull performance as Susan, the heroine of the short story, who is reduced to just another woman in peril in the adaptation. The best performance among the leads comes from R.G. Armstrong as John Cooley, though even he is saddled with repetitive dialogue that finds him constantly talking about the Lord.

Gertrude Flynn as Flora Sloan
Harvey Hart (1928-1989), the show's director, was born in Canada and worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Company from 1952 to 1963 before moving to the U.S. and working in Hollywood. He directed, mostly for TV, from 1949 to 1989 and this was the first of five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour where he was behind the camera. Another was the classic episode, "Death Scene."

Dick York (1928-1992) stars as Will Pearce. 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 Stephens 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. Among his other episodes was "The Blessington Method."

Co-starring as Susan is Jacqueline Scott (1931-2020), whose screen career stretched from 1956 to 2009, mostly on TV. She was on The Twilight Zone once and The Outer Limits twice, but her most significant role was probably as the sister of Dr. Richard Kimble on The Fugitive, a part she played in several episodes.

R.G. Armstrong (1917-2012) plays John Cooley. He was on four episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Final Vow," and had a long career, spanning the years from 1954-2001. He was also 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. One wonders what he thought of the character of John Cooley.

In smaller roles:
  • Katherine Squire (1903-1995) as Mrs. Lafont; she was on Broadway from 1927 to 1959 and on screen from 1949 to 1989. Squire was in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Man from the South," where she plays the scolding wife of Peter Lorre's character, and she was seen on Thriller and The Twilight Zone. Later in her career, she was a regular on the soap opera, The Doctors (1970-1975).
  • Peter Whitney (1916-1972) as Bib Hadley; seeming like a cross between Andy Devine and Pat Buttram, Whitney was busy in films from 1941 to 1970 and on TV from 1951 to 1972. He appeared in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) and his final role was in an episode of Night Gallery.
  • Dennis Patrick (1918-2002) as Frenchy Lafont; he was on the Hitchcock series three times, including "The Last Escape." Patrick made more than 1800 TV appearances in his career, including "Age of Peril" on Tales of Tomorrow and a recurring role on Dark Shadows.
  • Curt Conway (1913-1974) as Dr. Buxton; he was on screen from 1947 to 1974. He played Adolf Hitler on The Twilight Zone episode "He's Alive," appeared on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode, "Beast in View," and was in two episodes of The Outer Limits, but he is best known for his role as the judge in The Odd Couple episode, "My Strife in Court," when Felix Unger uses a blackboard to break down the word "assume."
  • Gertrude Flynn (1909-1996) as Flora Sloan; she was active on the Broadway stage from 1929 to 1952 and on screen from 1952 to 1987, including an episode of The Twilight Zone and five episodes of the Hitchcock series; one was "A Tangled Web."
Watch "Terror at Northfield" online here and judge for yourself.



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

Grost, Mike. Ellery Queen - by Michael E. Grost, 



Nevins, Francis M. "[Editor's Note.]." Hitchcock in Prime Time, edited by Francis M. Nevins, Avon, New York, 1985, p. 293.

Queen, Ellery. "Terror Town." Hitchcock in Prime Time, pp. 264–293. 

"Terror in Northfield." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 2, episode 3, CBS, 11 Oct. 1963. 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Better Bargain" here!

Unfortunately, Annie and Kathryn have suspended their podcast on Alfred Hitchcock Presents indefinitely; click here for a list of episodes they reviewed.

In two weeks: Harlan Ellison on Hitchcock? Don't miss "Memo from Purgatory," starring James Caan!


Grant said...

It might not be a movie for everyone, but Dennis Patrick is very convincing in JOE with Peter Boyle. (It isn't much of a spoiler, but he commits an accidental killing in that story too.)

Curt Conway is great in that Odd Couple episode. In fact, he gets to play a judge annoyed by Felix two other times.

Jack Seabrook said...

Funny you should mention JOE. I'm just finishing Quentin Tarantino's new book and he spends a whole chapter on JOE. Never seen it.

Grant said...

It can be pretty grim (not just grim but with a real "WTF" ending), but Peter Boyle also makes it very funny repeatedly.