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. <


Matthew Bradley said...

Per Spock, "Fascinating!" I took at face value Bloch's statement in his delightful "unauthorized autobiography," ONCE AROUND THE BLOCH, that the original was also called "The Cuckoo Clock," so I didn't dwell on the fact that the episode is credited as being based on "a" rather than "the" story by Mace, which often suggests a title change. Bravo to you for your diligent detective work, which allowed a comparison between story and script.

Straight's escalating terror certainly showed the thespian skills that would, uh, net her an Oscar 16 years later. Without knowing their actual ages, I bought her and Pat Hitchcock as mother and daughter; of course, it's worth noting that Bloch and the Hitchcocks would be "reunited" on PSYCHO that same year. My only lament about the episode is the too-convenient plot twist--which I assume Bloch inherited from Mace--of telling us that an escaped psycho is on the loose but not his or her gender. Another excellent entry in a fine series, Jack.

Jack Seabrook said...

I heard from Ramsey Campbell today that he agrees with my conclusions regarding "The Man in the Raincoat" as the source for this program.

Peter Enfantino said...

Great detective work, Jack!
As for Straight's thespian skills, I thought she was magnificent in the three minutes she was actually in Network, but an Oscar? I remember thinking, in my 15-year old brain, "What's next, an Oscar for Best Crowd Extra?"

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

As a fan or Robert Bloch I really enjoyed reading this detailed analysis, but I got really caught up in the literary reserahc aound 'Frank Mace'.

Amazing amounts of research on display here and all of it totally faascinating, even if (as in my case) you haven;t actually watched the episode in questions. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to commend you for the research. I’m making my way through the series and I’m always so excited when there is a blog post about an episode. These are absolutely top notch.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks very much! I'm glad you like them.

john kenrick said...

I like them, too, Jack. One thing that might have notched The Cuckoo Clock up somewhat, might have been a better use of the strange looking and strangely handsome Donald Buka, at the peak of his thespic (sic?) powers, and in such capacity might have not only give the episode more bang for the buck but enhanced it somewhat; though keeping this in mind it would have been difficult to keep the attention of the viewers with such a twisted, elliptical story, allowing for censorship issues. As it stands, the story creates and sustains a powerful sense of the Uncanny. It just is. There's no "figuring' this one out.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John!

Anonymous said...

Great To Have Reviews On Hitchcock! He Always Makes You Think! The Reviews Give A Fresh Perspective On Each Episode!

Anonymous said...

I always love seeing recent comments like this because it means we both just watched the same episode at the same time. Cheers to Jack for bringing us all together and providing so much valuable insight!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your comments! It's always great to hear from readers.

Dee said...

I've been reading your blog for years, it is so good! I didn't realize I could still comment.. I love these shows and am rewatching so I always come here to read your thoughts and opinions. Thanks so much for this!

Edit... This particular episode I find particularly dark and disturbing..

Jack Seabrook said...

You're right, it is dark and disturbing. Thanks for reading and for your comment!