Thursday, March 22, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Eleven-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "Annabel"

by Jack Seabrook

Alfred Hitchcock Presents expanded to an hour in the fall of 1962, after seven seasons as a half-hour program. Rechristened The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, it relied more on novels than on short stories as the source for its programs. For his first hour-length effort for the Hitchcock series, Robert Bloch adopted Patricia Highsmith’s 1960 novel, This Sweet Sickness, as the episode titled “Annabel.” The teleplay streamlines the story and makes significant changes, including an ending that was much more Bloch than Highsmith.

The book is a story of psychological suspense that concerns David Kelsey, a young man with an obsessive love for Annabelle, a beautiful woman with whom he had been in love prior to her marriage to Gerald Delaney. Highsmith writes that “David Kelsey had an invincible conviction that life was going to work out all right for him.” He lives at Mrs. McCartney’s boarding house in Froudsburg, New York, and works at a chemical company, but he spends his weekends at a house he has purchased near Ballard, New York. This  is where he lives out a fantasy life as William Neumeister, pretending to share the house with Annabelle. 

David‘s closest friend is Wes Carmichael, and they both befriend Effie, a young woman who is attracted to David. David repeatedly writes to Annabelle, who rarely responds. He is shocked to get a letter from her with news that she has had a baby. He goes to her house and confronts her husband. As time goes by, David continues to pester Annabelle with letters and telephone calls, refusing to accept that she is now married and has a child. One day, Gerald shows up at David’s weekend home. They have an altercation and David punches Gerald; Gerald falls and hits his head on the front step. David puts him in his car before realizing he is dead.

David, as William Neumeister, tells the police that Gerald was a stranger who threatened him and died accidentally. David learns that Gerald had first sought him out at the boarding house and that Effie had directed him to David’s weekend house. David continues to lie to his friends about his second identity. He packs up his weekend house belongings in order to sell the place. The police seek William Neumeister because Annabelle wants to speak to him about the accident. David visits Annabelle at her home in Hartford, Connecticut, but she will not go away with him.

Dean Stockwell as David
David’s alter ego begins to unravel as Effie figures out the truth. Annabelle has lunch with David and encourages him to date Effie; he instead proposes marriage to Annabelle. Effie begins to lie to the police to help David maintain his cover story regarding Gerald’s accident and the Neumeister identity. David is determined to keep the truth from Annabelle, thinking that she would blame him for Gerald’s death if she knew what really happened.

Annabelle soon takes up with a new man named Grant Barber. David still refuses to admit the truth and continues to pursue her. When she tells him that they cannot even be friends and should stop seeing each other he vomits, but eventually he rationalizes the situation to himself. He again goes to Annabelle’s home but this time is thrown out by Grant. His job performance begins to suffer and he soon discovers that Annabelle has married Grant. Wes and Effie visit David in a new house he has bought for himself and Annabelle. The dinner party devolves into disaster—Wes leaves and David begins to hallucinate, mistaking Effie for Annabelle and throwing her to the floor.

David goes on the run and learns from a newspaper that Effie is dead and that he is wanted for her murder. Believing that he is a failure and Neumeister a success, he disappears further into his alter ego, imagining that Annabelle is with him. He goes to Manhattan with his imaginary companion and orders dinner for two in an expensive restaurant. Unable to pay for it, he visits an old friend from college, Ed Greenhouse, whose wife summons the police. David climbs out of the window of Ed’s apartment onto a ledge, nine stories above the street. Police and firemen try to save him but, thinking Annabelle is beckoning to him from the crowd below, David steps off the ledge and falls to his death.

Patricia Highsmith, the author of This Sweet Sickness, lived from 1921 to 1995 and has been the subject of at least three biographies and a fair amount of literary criticism. In the 1940s she wrote for comic books, and her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was published in 1950. The film adaptation of that book is considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest works. Her 1955 novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, has also been adapted for film twice.
Susan Oliver as Annabel
This Sweet Sickness was published in 1960 and quickly adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962. A summary of the episode is necessary to form the basis for a discussion of the changes made to the novel. In the televised version of the story, David drives to the house he keeps as William Newmaster (note the spelling change from the book) and telephones Annabel (another spelling change), who tells him not to call her anymore. Gerald tells Annabel that David will have to accept the fact that Annabel is a married woman.

Linda (not Effie) visits the apartment that David shares with Wes. She is smitten with David, and Wes tells her that his roommate spends weekends visiting his father in the country. David visits Annabel at home and Gerald confronts him; David leaves but does not accept the reality of the situation.

At the office, Linda learns from David’s personnel file that his parents are dead. She waits in her car outside his apartment, follows him to his house in Ballad, peeks in the window and sees Annabel’s clothing laid out on the bed.

David calls Annabel again, frustrating Gerald, who goes to David’s apartment looking for him. Linda provides him with David’s address in Ballard, claiming that it’s his father’s home (though she knows his father is dead). David is at the house, imagining he is dining with Annabel, when Gerald arrives. Gerald barges in, telling David to stay away from Annabel. Gerald pulls a gun. When he tries to take Annabel’s picture from the mantle, David grabs him from behind and throws him to the floor, where he hits his head on the fireplace stones. While Gerald is groggy from the fall, David grabs him and bashes his head into the stones repeatedly.
Kathleen Nolan as Linda

David reports the accident to the police, pretending to be Newmaster, then sends a telegram to Annabel, telling her to come to the address in Ballard for some important information about her husband’s accident. She arrives that evening only to encounter David, who takes her inside. She quickly determines that the house belongs to David and that he and Newmaster are the same person. She tells him that she never loved him and he snaps, accusing her of being an impostor and strangling her in the bedroom.

Linda hears of Gerald’s death on the radio and rushes to David’s house. He lets her in and she questions him about Gerald. When he lies to her she confronts him and he admits that he is Newmaster. He tells Linda that he wants her to meet Annabel and takes her into the bedroom, where he has laid Annabel on the bed, her neck obviously broken. David’s calm demeanor and the sight of the corpse horrify Linda, who tries to run. David stops her and starts to strangle her, but he is distracted when he seems to hear Annabel calling him from the next room. He forgets about Linda and joins Annabel in the bedroom, holding her hand and talking to her about their future as police sirens approach.

While Bloch retained many of the details of the novel when he adapted it for television, the change in focus could not be more significant. Highsmith’s novel is a harrowing tale of psychological suspense told in a subtle manner, while Bloch’s teleplay is a simple, linear horror story that ends in a nightmare. Gone is the dichotomy between the warm, supportive family of the boarding house where David lives during the week and the cold, empty house he inhabits on weekends; in its place is a barely sketched out relationship with Wes in an apartment. Instead of the irony of the weekend visits to mother, a clear reference to one of Annabel’s functions in David’s life, he is said to visit his father.
David murders Annabel

The character of Effie, so tragic and vulnerable in the novel, is replaced by that of Linda, who quickly shifts from adoring potential girlfriend to betrayer when she gives Gerald the location of David’s house in the country. In the novel, Effie goes out of her way to protect David, even when she suspects he is a liar. In the teleplay, Linda snoops on him and eventually turns him in to the police after seeing Annabel’s dead body.

And what of Annabel herself? The David of the novel would never intentionally harm Annabelle, the love of his life. In fact, the novel ends with David stepping off of a high ledge, nine stories above the street, because he thinks he sees Annabelle in the crowd below, looking up at him. It is truly shocking when David murders Annabel in the teleplay, since this is so utterly in contrast with the thrust of the novel. Bloch took Highsmith’s story and removed the subtlety, replacing it with shock.

The conclusion of the teleplay is very disturbing, as the lyrical theme music plays while Linda accompanies David into his bedroom, where he introduces her to Annabel. While David is living in a fantasy realm at this point, speaking as if Annabel were alive, Linda sees the true crime set out before her, in a horrible medium long shot of Annabel’s disfigured body lying on the bed. Up to this point, the program had been vaguely uncomfortable, mostly due to the odd behavior of David and his violent murder of Gerald. It is the shots of Annabel as a corpse that really jar the viewer and make this a classic of TV horror.
Henry Brandt as Gerald

The murder of Gerald is also anything but subtle. In the novel, Gerald’s death is an accident, since he falls and hits his head on a step after David punches him. In the teleplay, a similar accident occurs, but the fall and blow to the head do not kill Gerald—it is David’s act of grabbing his head and bashing it into the stones that finishes off his rival.

Why did Robert Bloch make such significant changes to This Sweet Sickness? Perhaps he was under time pressure to provide a script and had to simplify the complex story for what was essentially a 45 minute TV play. It is surprising that the censors in 1962 allowed the shots of the dead Annabel on the bed, since they are brightly lighted and gruesome. It seems fair to say that “Annabel” is more Robert Bloch than Patricia Highsmith, with the violent deaths of two major characters and, especially, the concluding scenes where a corpse is treated as if it were a living, breathing woman capable of returning love.

“Annabel” was directed by Paul Henried, the actor turned director who directed 28 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and only one episode (this one) of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. His work on “Annabel” is outstanding, drawing a haunting performance from Dean Stockwell (whom he had also directed in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Landlady”) and using fluid camerawork and occasional odd angles and high contrast lighting to suggest David’s inner turmoil. Another highlight of this episode is the lyrical score by Lyn Murray, which makes great use of woodwinds, strings and what sounds like a harpsichord to highlight the strange moods of David Kelsey and the weird and troubling events that follow him. The final scene in David’s house features strangely calm music that fits perfectly with David’s inappropriate affect. Murray lived from 1909 to 1989 and scored Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) as well as 35 episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
Lighting and camera angle express David's inner turmoil

David is played by Dean Stockwell, who also starred in “The Landlady.” His long career in movies and television has been well documented. Playing Annabel is Susan Oliver, who was arguably one of the most radiant actresses in 1960s television. Oliver was born Charlotte Gercke in 1932, and appeared on episodes of numerous TV shows and in movies from 1956 to 1988. Her appearances on The Twilight Zone (“People Are Alike All Over”), Thriller (“Choose a Victim”), and Star Trek (“The Menagerie”) cemented her place as one of the most beautiful actresses of her day on television.

In The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, Henry Brandt, who played Gerald in the TV program, recalls that this episode was originally filmed with leads other than Stockwell and Oliver and then re-filmed with the actor and actress seen in the televised version. No explanation is given other than that the original stars’ performances were not successful.

Rounding out the cast were Gary Cockrell as Wes and Kathleen Nolan as Linda. Nolan was born in 1933 and has been acting on TV and in movies since the early 1950s.

“Annabel” was broadcast on CBS, where The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was shown at 10 p.m. on Thursdays. The series had returned to CBS after the half-hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents had moved to NBC for the last two seasons of its seven-year run.

This Sweet Sickness was adapted a second time in 1977 as the French film Dites-lui qui je l’aime (literally translated as "Tell Him Who I Love"), starring Gerard Depardieu. The novel is easy to find online in paperback and is well worth reading. “Annabel” can be seen on YouTube in an excellent print that is much clearer (and five minutes longer) than the version available on DVD online, which has been recorded from a badly edited presentation on the Hallmark Channel.


"Annabel." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 1 Nov. 1962. Television.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Highsmith, Patricia. This Sweet Sickness. 1960. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. Print.
IMDb. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <>.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <>.


Matthew Bradley said...

Nice job, Jack. Brandt had, of course, previously appeared in Bloch's "The Gloating Place" (with Henreid's daughter Monica, as you noted in that post).

Highsmith must have been fascinated with the concept of multiple identities, judging by not only this and the "doubling" in the oft-filmed (and even more oft-ripped off) STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, but also her Tom Ripley novels. It's worth noting that RIPLEY'S GAME was also filmed twice, once under its own title and once by Wim Wenders as THE AMERICAN FRIEND.

Richard Matheson's experiences adapting his own RIDE THE NIGHTMARE and Julian Symons's THE THIRTY-FIRST OF FEBRUARY for the same series demonstrated some of the difficulties that were faced while trying to compress an entire novel into a 45-minute (give or take) episode.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks! I was really surprised when David killed Annabel in the TV show, since that's unthinkable in the novel. It was very interesting to watch the 40 minute version I have on DVD and then the 48 minute version on YouTube. The cuts really ruined the show.

Walker Martin said...

Thanks for this commentary on the TV version of ANNABEL. The book sounds better to me and more believable. I watched the TV episode a couple years ago and had problems believing that the husband and Annabel would put up with this jerk as long as they did. Watching it again just now, I still had problems.

My bootleg copy is 50 minutes with the Hitchcock commercials, so I have the complete show. Too bad crazy David didn't kill the stalker girl also!(Sorry, my MANHUNT MAGAZINES must be influencing me).

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Having just re-read the novel and seen the TV version on YouTube for the first time, I really enjoyed your analysis of the differences. Personally I actually really liked Bloch's ending - it is quite at odds with the book of course though psychologically I find it quite plausible - what would Kelsey have really done with Annabelle if they had married? Eventually I suspect the ending would have been the same - it is certainly a great shock on TV though. Based on the version on YouTube it looks to me as though the final shot was zoomed in to reduced the visibility of Annabel on the bed, which is still thoroughly disturbing!

Jack Seabrook said...

Disturbing is right! How could they do that to Susan Oliver???

Grant said...

I definitely agree with Jack Seabrook about that. Though I can't help also liking the Linda character more than you're evidently supposed to.

Even if countless people know him best from QUANTUM LEAP, where he played such an easy-going character, for a long while no one could play a SPOOKY character better than Dean Stockwell. Those close-ups of him (like in that photo above) really say it all.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading, Grant! I had a crush on Susan Oliver from Star Trek's "The Menagerie" and Twilight Zone's "People AreAlike All Over."