Saturday, November 26, 2011

Robert Bloch on TV Part Three - Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “The Cuckoo Clock"

by Jack Seabrook

Robert Bloch recalled that “The Cuckoo Clock” was his first assignment to write a teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He said that, starting with this episode, he adapted his own stories and those of others except when he was busy writing for Thriller or working on screenplays—then other writers would adapt his stories for TV.

“The Cuckoo Clock” was broadcast on April 17, 1960, during season five. It stars Beatrice Straight, who would later win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Network (1976), and Fay Spain, who was in Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957). As the story begins, Ida Blythe and her daughter Dorothy (Pat Hitchcock) arrive at a General Store in the mountains, where they purchase groceries before heading to their isolated cabin. Ida’s husband died suddenly the year before and she has not been back since then; she returns now only to prepare the cabin to be sold.

Bert the shopkeeper tells them that a patient recently escaped from the asylum just outside nearby Ardmore, and Dorothy is worried about her mother staying alone in the cabin overnight, especially since the telephone service has not been turned on yet. But Ida insists that she’ll be fine, and Dorothy leaves her at the lonely cabin after darkness has fallen and a steady rain has begun.

Beatrice Straight and Pat Hitchcock as
mother and daughter
Ida’s watch is broken, so she sets the time on the cabin’s little cuckoo clock. After tidying up, Ida goes outside to the shed for some firewood, returning to the cabin to find a young woman inside. The woman, whose name is Madelene Hall, is worried about the escaped lunatic. She had spent the afternoon walking and painting on Hunter’s Ridge. At sunset, she saw a man in a raincoat on the hill staring into the sunset. Sure he was the lunatic, she dropped everything and ran until she saw the light from Ida’s cabin.

Fay Spain

Hall is sure that she hears the man outside and there is a knock at the door. She and Ida ignore it out of fear and the knocking stops. Hall begins to express pity for the lonely, misunderstood man outside alone in the rain and the darkness. She seems to empathize a little too much with someone who is sick and alone and wants to lash out and hurt people. Hall tells Ida about her Aunt Dora, who kept a canary until one day she lopped off its head with her pinking shears. She tells Ida that even ordinary people can snap. She admits that her doctor told her to quit her job, and her bizarre behavior makes Ida suspect that Madelene is the escaped lunatic. Hall denies it. Ida suspects that she invented the man in the raincoat, but suddenly there is another knock at the door. Opening it, Ida sees a man in a raincoat who tells her that she should watch out for the escaped lunatic, whom he describes as a clever, dangerous woman. Ida notices blood on Madelene’s arm and throws her aside, letting the man in.

Donald Buka
He turns and locks the door, then explains, with a crazed look in his eye, that he followed Hall and guessed where she might be. Pleased that his trick has worked, he has a violent reaction to the striking of the hour on the cuckoo clock, tears it from its place on the wall and smashes it to the floor. “It was mocking me!” he cries—“I can’t stand being mocked!” The telephone rings, its connection finally made, but it is too late for Ida.

The lunatic instructs her to look at the clock, and we see the cuckoo on the floor, having been ejected from its place of safety, its head severed from its body. The lunatic plunges his knife into the body of the decapitated, mechanical bird, and we suspect that Ida’s fate will mirror that of the poor cuckoo.

“The Cuckoo Clock” is directed by John Brahm without his usual noir reliance on shadows. The program is instead rather high contrast, with several bright close-ups, and reminded me a bit of the videotaped Twilight Zone episodes made in that program’s 1960-1961 season.

This episode, like “The Cure” and “Madame Mystery,” was among the 26 programs selected for the 1981 PBS series The Best of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Notably, most of the episodes picked for that series were from the fifth season of the original series.

Jack Black
Beatrice Straight lived from 1914 to 2001, making her 46 years old when this show was broadcast in April 1960. Pat Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter, was born in 1928 (and is still living), so she was 32 years old at the time of the broadcast. Straight looks a bit younger than 46 and Hitchcock looks a bit older than 32 in the show, making it difficult to accept them as mother and daughter. Fay Spain only lived from 1933 to 1983, so she was 27 at the time of broadcast. Rounding out the cast were Donald Buka (1920-2009) as the lunatic, who has a passing resemblance in this show to Jack Black, and Don Beddoe (1903-1991) as Bert, the shopkeeper, one in a long string of small roles he played over the course of almost 50 years in the business.

The original story on which this show was based was difficult to track down. The title card credits Frank Mace with the story. Mace was born in 1931 and was a “young British author who writes primarily in the general field of mystery-from ‘old-fashioned “straight” horror to semi-humorous detective stories,’ as he puts it,” according to the Internet Book List. It was also noted that “writing is not his primary occupation, thus far” and that he “lives in Liverpool, England.”

Monthly Murders lists the following seven stories by Mace:

“Cum Grano Salis” London Mystery Magazine 27 (March 1955)
“After Sunset” London Mystery Magazine 32 (March 1957)
“The Man in the Raincoat” London Mystery Selection 39 (December 1958)
“Happily Ever After” London Mystery Selection 43 (December 1959)
“Impromptu Part” London Mystery Selection 46 (September 1960)
“Punter’s Tale” John Creasey Mystery Magazine March 1961
“The Fixers” John Creasey Mystery Magazine Spring 1963

An exhaustive internet search turned up one more story:

“The Ideal Type” collected in Dark Mind, Dark Heart, Arkham House, 1962

Finally, there is an erotic novel called The Sensualists that is credited to Frank Mace, though it appears to be a retitled reprint of Tender Buns, by someone named P.N. Dedeaux. I find it hard to believe that this Frank Mace is the same Frank Mace who wrote mystery short stories.

Where does that leave the story supposedly called “The Cuckoo Clock” that was adapted by Robert Bloch for Alfred Hitchcock Presents? There are two sources that say that the original Frank Mace story was titled “The Cuckoo Clock.” The first is Bloch himself, who was quoted as saying that he adapted “The Cuckoo Clock” by Frank Mace. The second is an Internet post by Ramsey Campbell (called “Britain’s most respected living horror writer” by the Oxford Companion to English Literature), who wrote in February 2011 that Frank Mace was a pseudonym used by John Owen of the Liverpool Science Fiction Society. Campbell added that Owen only learned that his story, “The Cuckoo Clock,” had been adapted for television when the producers of the 1980s remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents contacted him about the rights. Apparently, Norman Kark, editor of London Mystery Selection, had sold the rights for the 1960 adaptation and kept the money.
One of John Wood's line
drawings accompanying
"The Man in the Raincoat"
Now, according to Monthly Murders, there were five stories published in London Mystery by Frank Mace and two in John Creasey Mystery Magazine. As far as I know, John Creasey edited the magazine with his name in the title and Norman Kark edited London Mystery Selection. Campbell’s post also mentions London Mystery in this anecdote, so one may assume that the Frank Mace story appeared there—yet none of the five stories listed in Monthly Murders is titled “The Cuckoo Clock.”

Logically, we can eliminate “Impromptu Part,” since it was not published until September 1960, after “The Cuckoo Clock” had already aired. That leaves four stories as possible sources for Bloch’s teleplay, assuming he and Campbell are remembering incorrectly that the original story was called “The Cuckoo Clock.” Using internal evidence from the program, I began to suspect that the story it was based on was in fact “The Man in the Raincoat,” published in the December 1958 issue of London Mystery Selection.

Fortunately, there was a copy of issue 39 for sale on eBay recently, and it arrived in my mailbox today! A quick read confirmed that "The Man in the Raincoat" is in fact the basis for "The Cuckoo Clock."

The Man in the
Bloch did quite a bit of revising and expanding to adapt the story for television. He added the initial scene at the General Store and he invented the character of Mrs. Blythe's daughter. The story takes place entirely in Mrs. Blythe's house, which is not described as a lonely mountain cabin. Instead, Mrs. Blythe is an old woman who lives alone by a moor. She lets in the young woman voluntarily, and later she is tricked by the man in the raincoat, who convinces her that the young woman is the escaped lunatic. In Mace's story, Mrs. Blythe does not suspect the young woman on her own.

Most surprisingly, the anecdote about the canary getting its head cut off with pinking sears is nowhere to be found, and there is no mention of a cuckoo clock at all! Bloch expanded the source by opening it up, adding characters, and building suspense. The canary story foreshadows the fate of the cuckoo at the end of the show, and the cuckoo clock's occasional striking of the hours adds a sense of foreboding and insanity (one character is thought to be "cuckoo" and another actually is). The closing image of the mechanical bird with a knife in its belly is a successful way of showing violence on television without actually portraying anything offensive.

I suspect that the reason Bloch and Campbell recalled the story as "The Cuckoo Clock" was because Bloch's changes to the original were so powerful that the televised tale replaced the original in the memories of those recalling it.


Cook, Michael L. Monthly Murders: a Checklist and Chronological Listing of Fiction in the Digest-size Mystery     Magazines in the United States and England. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982. Print. 
"The Cuckoo Clock." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 17 Apr. 1960. Television.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. 304, 572. 
Internet Book List : Home. Web. 24 Nov. 2011. <>.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 24 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Jack Black | Hot Celebrity Photos." Hot Celebrity Photos | Celebrity News in Pictures. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
"London Mystery Magazine." Wikipedia. Web. 2011. <>.
Ramsey Campbell. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <>.
Vault of Evil. Web. 24 Nov. 2011. <

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Robert Bloch on TV Part Two - Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “Madame Mystery"

by Jack Seabrook

"Madame Mystery" was broadcast March 27, 1960, during the fifth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  It was the second Robert Bloch story to be adapted for this anthology program, and it was based on a short story titled "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" that was first published in the April 1958 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Both story and teleplay concern Steve, an unsuccessful Hollywood writer who rents a cottage at the beach to write and meets Jimmy Powers (Dolan in the teleplay), a young and successful public relations man in the movie business.  Steve is jealous of Jimmy's inexplicable success at the young age of twenty-three. Betsey Blake, known as the Screen's Blonde Baby or Miss Mystery, has been killed in a speedboat accident. She had just finished filming Splendor, an expensive movie scheduled for release in several months.

The studio is worried that her death will hurt the picture's chances for success, so Jimmy pitched a publicity campaign idea that the studio loved--lots of news about her life and death will create interest in the upcoming film, and the news campaign will include a rumor that she is still alive. Jimmy asks Steve to work on the campaign but Steve refuses.

As the months go by, the publicity campaign around Betsey Blake is a huge success. By the time Splendor is ready to open, Betsey Blake fever has gripped the nation. Jimmy visits Steve to boast about his success, when a dumpy, drunken woman appears in the doorway. She is Betsey Blake, back from an extended trip. She explains that she survived the boat accident and spent some time in South America. She came home when she ran out of cash.

Audrey Totter as Betsey Blake

Betsey has been following her rise in popularity and now wants to reveal to the public that she is still alive. However, instead of the mysterious blonde siren, she has become a fat, drunken brunette. She goes home with Jimmy, who later returns to Steve's cottage alone, explaining that the woman who had claimed to be Betsey Blake was really just a fraud trying to cash in on the dead star's sudden fame.

Joby Baker as Jimmy

Jimmy tells Steve that there was an accident near Jimmy's house and the woman fell off of a steep cliff to her death. Jimmy is in no hurry to tell the police and doesn't want any mention of the woman's claim to be Betsey Blake, fearful that it would ruin the publicity machine he has so successfully engineered. Steve calls the police. Jimmy admits that he never liked Betsey Blake and offers to pay Steve to keep quiet about the dead woman's claims. Steve realizes that the woman's death was no accident and that Jimmy killed her. "You'd murder your own mother for a story," he says, and Jimmy replies: "How'd you guess?"

Harp McGuire as Steve

When William Fay adapted "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" for television, he made some changes. The story begins with a young, blonde starlet named Lois stumbling into Steve's beach cottage as he works at his typewriter. Lois is on a date with Jimmy, who soon arrives. Her character adds nothing to the plot, but she does set up a nice contrast with the aging, faded Betsey Blake who appears at the end of the first act. Lois is the "before" picture in the arc of a Hollywood starlet; Betsey is the "after."

Instead of "The Screen's Blonde Baby" or "Miss Mystery," as in the story, the TV Betsey has the nickname, "Madame Mystery," presumably because Fay thought "Madame" was more exotic and mysterious. The biggest change in the teleplay is that Jimmy is successful in convincing Steve to work on the publicity campaign by putting three one hundred dollar bills down in front of him. In the story, Steve remains pure and does not succumb to the lure of easy Hollywood money. In the teleplay, there is no such resistance.

When Betsey appears, she looks frazzled but not quite as slovenly as she is described in the story. When Jimmy takes her home and she dies in the story, the action is described in rather vague detail by Jimmy when he returns to Steve's cottage. In the teleplay, we see it all, and it is different. Jimmy walks Betsey back to his house, which is reached by a long set of steep wooden stairs on the outside. At the top of the stairs, they fight bitterly, as Jimmy insists that he made her movie a guaranteed hit and Betsey reminds him that it was she who got him a job at the studio in the first place. Jimmy violently shoves Betsey through the landing's flimsy wooden railing and she falls to the beach below. We see her lying on the beach, dead.

The teleplay then ends as does the story, with Steve calling the police and telling Jimmy, "You'd kill your own mother to be a big man at Goliath Studios, wouldn't you?" and Jimmy replying, "My mother? That's right, Stevie. But how did you know that's who she was?"

William Fay, who adapted the story for television, was born in 1918 and is still alive. He wrote for many TV shows from 1954 to 1967, including 16 episodes of the Hitchcock series. He was also a writer of short stories and the editor of Popular Publications starting in 1935.

John Brahm directed "Madame Mystery." Brahm directed ten episodes of the Hitchcock series and his dark, brooding style has been discussed before on bare*bones and also on A Thriller A DayBrahm of the chance to show something moody and mysterious.

Betsey did not survive a fall from a not very great height.

The star of the show is Joby Baker, as Jimmy.  Baker was born in 1934 and is still alive.  He appeared in four episodes of the Hitchcock series and was on TV and in movies from 1952 to 1984, including a regular role on the series Good Morning, World (1967-1968). In "Madame Mystery," Baker chews the scenery in his attempt to portray a brash, young Hollywood publicist who covers up his feelings of self doubt with loud talk and a flashy style.

Harp McGuire plays Steve as a slightly older, more mature writer. He lived from 1921 to 1966 and was on TV from 1953 to 1963. His performance is low key and not very memorable.

Best of the cast is Audrey Totter as Betsey Blake. She was born in 1918 and appears to be alive today and living in a Hollywood nursing home. She had a small part in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and a lead role in The Lady in the Lake (1947). She appeared in numerous TV episodes and movies from 1945 to 1987 and was a regular on four different TV series. As Betsey Blake, she is brash and loud, looking every bit the aging starlet who still has a thing or two to say to anyone who will listen.

Meri Welles
Rounding out the cast as Alfredo the plumber is Mike Ragan, who was born Hollis Bane and who appeared in countless movies and TV shows starting in 1924. Playing the part of Lois, the starlet, is Meri Welles, who had a role in Little Shop of Horrors (1960) as the blonde who Seymour meets by a park bench, accidentally knocks out with a rock, and then feeds to his carnivorous plant.

"Madame Mystery" will be available in January 2012 when Universal releases the DVD set of Alfred Hitchcock Presents season five.  The short story, "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" was reprinted in the Robert Bloch collections Blood Runs Cold (1961), Bitter Ends (1990), and in the multi-author anthology, Silver Screams: Murder Goes Hollywood (1994).


Bloch, Robert. "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" Silver Screams: Murder Goes Hollywood. Stamford: 
Longmeadow, 1994. 253-67. Print. 
Galactic Central. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. <>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <>.
"Madame Mystery." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 27 Mar. 1960. Television.
Wikipedia. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <>.