Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Fourteen: "Pen Pal" [6.6]

by Jack Seabrook

Henry Slesar's contributions to the sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents began with "Pen Pal," which was based on the story of the same name that had been published in the December 1957 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

"Pen Pal" begins as 53 year old spinster Margaret Lowen receives a visitor, Lt. Berger from the Eighth Precinct. He is looking for her niece, Margie, who lives with her but is away for the weekend. Margie is 22 years old and has lived with her aunt since her parents were killed six years before. She has been conducting a relationship by mail with 28 year old Raoul Collins, who is serving a life sentence at the State Penitentiary for killing a man during a robbery 11 years before. Berger shows Margaret a photo of Margie that was found in Collins's cell and reads a love letter that she wrote to him. He tells Margaret that Collins led a jailbreak and escaped; he may come looking for money or a place to hide.

Katherine Squire
Berger warns Margaret and asks her to call him if Collins shows up at her home. He warns her not to call her niece and then leaves, after which Margaret goes upstairs and does her makeup before going grocery shopping. She returns home and takes a nap, then peers outside as evening comes on. While watching TV she hears a noise in the cellar. Collins has arrived! He comes up the stairs and they meet in the kitchen. He wants to get in touch with Margie and professes his love for her.

Pretending to telephone Margie, Margaret calls Lt. Berger. Collins realizes what she is doing and lunges at her; she bashes him over the head with a candlestick before falling to her knees in front of the now-unconscious killer, calling him "My darling"! The police come and take him away; after they have left, Margaret tears up the photo of her niece that Berger had brought and sits down to write a letter. Pretending to be Margie, she writes to Collins to say that she is glad he is back in prison so that they can continue to exchange letters.

"Pen Pal" is an outstanding story with a shattering twist ending that seems to come out of nowhere and puts everything that happened before it in a new light. Reviewing the story again with the knowledge that Margaret has been pretending to be her young and pretty niece Margie, one finds clues sprinkled throughout: when Margaret learns that Collins has escaped and may be on his way to her house, she does her makeup and goes grocery shopping, making herself look presentable and stocking the house with food for what will surely be a famished guest. Yet when the reality of the situation becomes unavoidable, she takes action to send her unknowing suitor back to the safety of prison, first calling the police and then conking him on the head with a candlestick.

Clu Gulager
The description of the candlestick is illuminating: it is described as a "tarnished silver candlestick that had long ago lost its mate." Although there is no indication that Margaret was ever married, the candlestick represents her strength as an aging, single woman; she may be tarnished, and any hope at love may have disappeared years ago, but she is still able to summon the courage she needs to take action in a crisis and light the way toward a more positive future.

In several ways, "Pen Pal" is similar to "The Deadly Telephone," the story that served as the basis for the prior Slesar/Hitchcock adaptation, "Party Line." In both stories, a lonely, middle-aged woman sits alone in her house, waiting for an escaped criminal to arrive. Each man enters through the cellar (the subconscious level or that which lies below the surface) and comes up the stairs to the kitchen (traditionally, the woman's domain) before threatening the woman. In "The Deadly Telephone," the woman presumably is killed, while in "Pen Pal," she defends herself successfully.

"Pen Pal" also features themes of role playing, transference and doubling. Margaret plays the role of Margie when she corresponds with Collins, but when she meets him in person she must switch gears and play the role of Margie's concerned aunt, pretending not to know the man with whom she is secretly in love. She transfers her feelings for him onto her niece, and she transfers her concern for herself and their future onto the young girl as well. Finally, Margaret and Margie are mirror images of each other, living together in the same house and sharing the same name.

Stanley Adams
One question that cannot be answered is whether Margie is real or whether she is a product of Margaret's imagination. When Lt. Berger comes to the house, it is clear that he does not know anything about Margie beyond what he read in the letters Margaret wrote to Collins; he says that they traced Margie to this address through the Pen Pal club. Margaret claims not to know where Margie has gone for the weekend, beyond a vague notion that she is visiting friends. Collins has never seen her or spoken to her; he only has a snapshot of her that was sent by Margaret, and the snapshot could be of anyone.

The question of Margie's existence becomes more acute in the first television adaptation of "Pen Pal," which was broadcast on November 1, 1960, on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For the sixth season, the program had moved from Sunday nights on CBS, where it had been shown for its five years, to Tuesday nights on NBC, where it immediately preceded the new hour-long series hosted by Boris Karloff, Thriller ("The Watcher" followed "Pen Pal").

Unfortunately, "Pen Pal" is an episode that is more interesting to discuss than it is to watch. It is hobbled by uninspired direction by John Brahm and by a weak performance by Katherine Squire as Margaret. Unlike the house in the story, which had a basement and a second floor, the house on TV is a tiny ranch, with all of the rooms on the same level. Much of the show takes place in the front parlor; there is also an extended scene in the kitchen and a key event occurs in Margaret's bedroom, which is visible just off the parlor. When Collins (his first name has been changed from Raoul to Rod) breaks into the house, he comes in through Margaret's bedroom window rather than through a cellar window, perhaps symbolizing a more direct assault on her maidenhood rather than her subconscious.

The snapshot of "Margie" (Gloria Ellis)
The small house and the three sparse rooms lead the viewer to wonder if Margie really exists. Margaret tells both Lt. Berger and Collins that Margie lives there with her, but where? Does she sleep on the couch at age 22? There are no decorations that suggest the presence of a young woman, and the TV show strongly suggests that Margie is a creation of the lonely spinster. Unfortunately, Squire's performance as Margaret fails to develop any of the emotion that the role demands, either on the surface or simmering underneath. Margaret should have a barely hidden tenderness for the man she loves, yet she is cold, her expression barely changing throughout the encounter. At one point, Collins calls her a "dried up old crab," and the description fits.

Brahm's direction does not help matters--the show is filled with dull shot/reverse shots, medium closeups, and barely any camera movement. In the long kitchen scene, Margaret is shot in closeup in front of a blank wall. The only time the show demonstrates a hint of atmosphere is near the end, when night has fallen and the lights are on in the parlor. In this scene there is a hint of evocative lighting, matched by a shot of Lt. Berger on the other end of the telephone, sitting at his desk with a desk lamp casting light on his face.

Worst of all is the scene in the kitchen, which should be tragic but is instead dull. As it ends, Collins grabs Margaret's arm and she puts her hand on his chest to hold him back in a twisted near-embrace that has different meanings to each of them. Hidden beneath their interaction is the implied threat of rape, far from the romantic fantasy Margaret has spun in her solitude.

The twist ending is slightly changed from the story--Margaret does not call Collins "darling" as he lies on the floor; instead, after the police leave, she sits at her desk and composes a letter, revealing for the first time to the viewer what has really been going on. She stares at a snapshot of Rod and exclaims, "My poor darling!" before collapsing on the desk in tears.

The teleplay is credited to Hilary Murray, who appears to have no other credits. Is Murray yet another pseudonym for Slesar? Can one assume that the two prior teleplays that were credited to Eli Jerome were actually written by Slesar because they resulted in good episodes, while this one is not because it is mediocre? Adding to the mystery is the fact that Hilary Murray's only other credit is for the teleplay of the remake of "Pen Pal," which was aired as part of season four of the 1980s color remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on October 15, 1988.

In a rare turnabout, the color remake is far superior to the black and white original. In this version, Margie, the niece, clearly exists, because we see her in the show's first and last scenes. The role of Margaret is played by Jean Simmons, who turns in an excellent performance, finding all of the emotional depth and complexity in the role that Katherine Squire missed. The story and both TV shows quote 19th-century English poet John Clare in the letter Margaret wrote to Collins:

          Language has not the power to speak what love indites
          The soul lies buried in the ink that writes.

Jean Simmons
In other words, words cannot express what is felt in the heart; the soul is in the writing, as is evident with Margaret, who cannot say what she can put down on paper.

In the remake, Simmons is too pretty and charming to be completely believable as a spinster, but her strong performance makes the episode succeed. Page Fletcher, as the convict (now renamed John Harris), looks like he escaped from a music video rather than from prison (he sports a mullet) but he, too, gives an emotionally satisfying performance. The direction, by Rene Bonniere, is much more lively than that of Brahm in the original, with the camera moving about and opening up the story. One key scene follows the action from the kitchen up to Margie's bedroom, where Margaret tenderly puts her hand on John in a gesture that is maternal on the surface but passionate underneath.

One other important change in this version is that John brandishes a revolver, and it is this gun that Margaret grabs from his rear waistband near the end when he threatens her. She shoots him--not fatally--rather than hitting him with a candlestick.

For the first time, I can recommend the 1980s remake over the original!

The story on which both shows were based was co-written by Henry Slesar and Jay Folb (1922-1997), who had also co-written the story, "A Night With the Boys." Director John Brahm (1893-1982) was at the helm of ten episodes of the half-hour Hitchcock series and five episodes of the hour series; his daughter maintains an interesting website about her father here.

Katherine Squire (1903-1995), who plays Margaret in the 1960 TV show, appeared on stage, in movies, and on TV for many years, including roles in five episodes of the Hitchcock series. Clu Gulager (1928- ) plays Collins in the black and white version, giving a better performance than Squires. This was one of three appearances for him on the Hitchcock series. He also had regular roles on two series: The Tall Man (1960-62) and The Virginian (1963-68). He is still acting at age 84 and has a website. Finally, making his only appearance on the Hitchcock series is Stanley Adams (1915-1977), who plays Lt. Berger. He is best known to classic TV fans for his key roles in "The Trouble With Tribbles" on Star Trek and "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" on Lost in Space.

Jean Simmons (1929-2010), so good as Margaret in the remake, was one of the great British actresses of the twentieth century, appearing in films from 1944 to 2009 and on TV from 1966 to 2003. She was unforgettable in roles such as Estella in Great Expectations (1944) and Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls (1955). This was her only appearance on any of the Hitchcock series.

The 1960 TV show is not yet available on DVD, but Amazon recently announced that they will soon release season six on DVD, though it will be manufactured on demand, which will mean a price increase. The show may be viewed for free online here.

The 1988 remake may be viewed for free online here.


"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
"Pen Pal." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 1 Nov. 1960. Television.
"Pen Pal." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. USA. 15 Oct. 1988. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "Pen Pal." Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. New York: Avon, 1960. 22-29. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.


Walker Martin said...

Jack, this episode really sounds interesting especially when you say that the 1988 remake is even better than the original 1960 version!

At first I thought someone had hacked into your email account and made the outrageous statement about the later version being better. This I have to see!

Jack Seabrook said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think. I liked the story best, the remake next, and the original least.

Harvey Chartrand said...

Jean Simmons was a very handsome woman at age 59. I don't think the Pen Pal (Page Fletcher) would have minded if she'd revealed her true identity. This is probably the best of the new Hitchcocks, along with THE HUNTED, a two-parter starring Edward Woodward and Kate Trotter.

Jack Seabrook said...

When you start out as beautiful as she did, it's not surprising she still looked great at 59. Take a look at her in Great Expectations as Estella. No wonder Pip was obsessed.

Grant said...

When it comes to playing threatening characters, Clu Gulager really outdoes himself in the TV mini-series ONCE AN EAGLE (one of the first mini-series, really). His character keeps popping up in the story only after long intervals, but when he does, he really "radiates" that whole threatening quality.

Jack Seabrook said...

Don't think I ever saw that one!

john kenrick said...

Jack: thanks for the reviews (reviews, really) of Pen Pal, a Hitchcock episode I have not thus far seen. I wanted to drop by and say a few kind words about Katherine Squire, an actress I've grown very fond of from watching old black and white TV shows from way back when. She impressed as a fine, classy actress, excellent at playing ladies of quality often caught up in intrigues of one kind of another that were "beneath" her, with the difficulties she encountered in the course of the story bringing out a melancholy dignity in her that has often moved me and made me wonder who this excellent, middle aged actress is. This has happened only in the last five years or thereabouts, thanks mostly (but not entirely) to MeTV.

Miss Squire was in real life married to character actor George Mitchell, with whose work you're probably familiar. He rather resembled the somewhat better known, but not by much, (alas, not LOL emoticon for this) John McLiam, only Mitchell seems somewhat shorter. Both men specialized in playing small town or rustic types, often sheriffs or local authority figures of some kind. But back to Mr. Mitchell's gifted wife: with better luck she might have enjoyed a career along the lines of Mildred Dunnock, Patricia Collinge or Spring Byington, but it wasn't there for her. Miss Squire was maybe somewhat limited. I don't think I've ever seen her portray a happy, fulfilled character. She had a corner on aging, isolated, depressive women for a while there, and I've never seen her give a bad performance.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your comment, John. Katherine Squire was much better in "Man from the South" than she was in the uninspired "Pen Pal." Her husband was good in "Forty Detectives Later."

john kenrick said...

At last, Jack, I've seen Pen Pal. It doesn't jump out at ya' like some of the best Hitchcock half-hours, but it gets the job done.

Clu Gulager was excellent, and Miss Squire struck me as somewhat miscast. She didn't tend to play characters with much in the way of imagination, and this detracted from the otherwise,--and I guessed it right, telegraphed ending.

I agree that this wasn't exceptional work from her. I can imagine Jessica Tandy being just fine for a British version, though ideally it would have been, if set in England, the perfect part for a middled aged Joan Plowright.

I hope you're in good health, and that you wear (that awful) mask every time you go outside. (There's really no choice in this, though, is there?)

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! All is well and I'm sticking to my bi-weekly schedule of writing about AHP/AHH episodes. I hope you and your family are well, too.