Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Seventeen: "A Crime for Mothers" [6.16]

by Jack Seabrook

Fortified by liquor, Lottie Mead takes a taxi to Queens, where she visits Artie Birdwell and his wife. Their daughter Eileen is at school and the Birdwells are uncomfortable with their visitor. Seven years before, they had paid Lottie to let them have the daughter she was ready to abandon and they went on to raise her as their own. Now Lottie wants her daughter back, or at least a weekly stipend. The Birdwells throw her out and she tries but fails to find a lawyer until, a week later, Phil Ames appears on her doorstep and offers to help. He recommends that she kidnap the child, insisting that the law will be on her side once she produces a birth certificate that proves she is the real mother.

Ames surveils the Birdwell family and hatches a plan. Lottie moves into a hotel and, a few days later, she picks up Eileen at the school bus stop, weaving a story about having been asked by Mrs. Birdwell to take the girl shopping for a dress. They take a taxi to Lottie's hotel, where the child soon gets bored and falls asleep. Ames calls and says he's on his way. Not long after, he shows up at Lottie's door with a policeman, who accuses Lottie of kidnapping. It seems that Ames is friend and lawyer to the Birdwells, and he and his friend on the police force have tricked Lottie into agreeing to leave the Birdwells alone and finally let them adopt Eileen.

Claire Trevor as Lottie Mead
Even the girl is a fake; she is the policeman's daughter, and she tells her father that she had fun and hopes she can help him again.

Henry Slesar's short story, "A Crime for Mothers," was first published in the December 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Like many of Slesar's tales, it is set in New York City and has as its theme the relationship between parent and child. Lottie is an entertaining character, a drunk and an extortionist who speaks with a Runyonesque directness. The twist ending is no great surprise and takes too long to play out, but the story is fun to read. Slesar adapted it for television and it was broadcast on January 24, 1961, midway through season six of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was followed on NBC that night by "Choose A Victim," a Thriller episode starring Boris Karloff.

Patricia Smith as Mrs. Birdwell
The TV version opens with a scene at the Birdwells' home that has been added to the story. Mrs. Birdwell has bought a life-sized doll for Eileen and her husband Ralph (not Artie) accuses her of spoiling the child. The scene quickly establishes that Eileen is seven years old and that her mother played with dolls until she was 12. The doll takes the place of the child in this scene and we never see the real Eileen throughout the episode. Slesar sets up this threesome as a loving family and, when Lottie arrives, the contrast between her and Mrs. Birdwell is striking. Mrs. Birdwell has short hair and wears a frock with a Peter Pan collar, appearing almost childlike, while Lottie wears a cloth coat with a fur collar, a gaudy bracelet and earrings, and has a brassy voice with a New York accent. She refers to Eileen as "'the little girl'" and either fails to recall her name or cares little enough about her to use it.

Robert Sampson as Ralph Birdwell
Claire Trevor is brilliant as Lottie, her exaggerated appearance and performance making it clear that she is crass and always at least a little bit drunk--she turns down an offer of coffee as if it is hardly her drink of choice. Lottie picks up the life-sized doll and Mrs. Birdwell takes it from her, symbolically protecting her real daughter from the unfit birth mother. Lottie even takes a drink from a flask concealed in her purse as she stands in the Birdwells' living room. There is a nice camera angle on an over the shoulder shot-reverse shot between Ralph and Lottie; director Ida Lupino subtly places the man on a higher plane than the woman to demonstrate which character in the scene wields power.

Lottie's subsequent search for a lawyer is condensed into a brief scene where she meets with a lawyer played by familiar character actor Howard McNear. She later reclines at home with a drink and a cigarette when Ames arrives at her door. He is flirtatious and wears a cheap suit; Biff Elliot gives a strong performance as Ames, playing well off of Trevor. Unlike the story, where he is a lawyer, he is now a private (or "confidential") investigator. Again, Lupino excels in using smooth camera movement in this scene to frame each character perfectly and direct the viewer's attention to what matters. Her camerawork is efficient and avoids showing off, letting the story and the fine acting do the work.

Biff Elliot as Phil Ames
Ames matches Lottie's style of speaking and attitude perfectly in order to gain her trust. When he suggests kidnapping, the camera switches to tight close-ups alternating between him and Lottie, thus underlining the importance of this part of their conversation. The dialogue throughout the episode is sharp: later, Lottie tells Ames, "'I'm sorry I'm late, I had something terribly important to do,'" and he replies, "'Scotch or rye?'"

One curious thing about the story that the show attempts to clear up is the fact that the little girl, whose real name is Margaret, is used as bait to trap an alcoholic woman. What father would trust his little girl alone with Lottie Mead? The child actress who plays Margaret seems to be from another era, speaking rather haltingly, like one of the children in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and wearing a skirt with a petticoat underneath. A great line from the story is improved upon in the TV show: Lottie tells the child that she is a governess and the child responds, "'A governess, like in Jane Eyre?'" In the story, Lottie replies, "'What's that?'" which is funny enough, but on TV, Lottie's reply is "'Where's that?'" which is even funnier and may well have been an ad lib.

"'Ya like anchovies?'"
The child, played by Sally Smith, does not appear to have been an experienced actress and seems to be reciting her lines by rote. But Trevor is a pro and does not let the scenes flag, offering the child "'movie magazines'" to read while killing time in her apartment. Margaret jumps up and down on Lottie's couch and Lottie rescues a liquor bottle that had been stashed under a throw pillow, taking a quick drink and offering the little girl anchovies as an after-school snack!

The time in the apartment is compressed from the story and the telephone rings right after Lottie and Margaret arrive. By the time Ames shows up, Lottie is noticeably drunker. Instead of a policeman, Ames is accompanied by Charlie Vance, an ex-FBI agent. The final twist is altered as well, as little Margaret is revealed to be the daughter of Ames, not the policeman. This makes it slightly more acceptable that she would be used as bait to catch Lottie, since Ames has her in his sights for all but a short while.

Howard McNear as the lawyer
"A Crime for Mothers" is a good story that became a great TV episode due to the combined efforts of Henry Slesar, Ida Lupino, Claire Trevor and Biff Elliot.

Ida Lupino (1918-1995) was born in London and appeared in movies starting in 1931. She came to the U.S. in 1934 and appeared in such films as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) and They Drive By Night (1940). She began directing films in 1949 and TV episodes in 1956; while she never acted in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, she directed two, as well as nine episodes of Thriller and one of The Twilight Zone.

Sally Smith as "Eileen"/Margaret
Claire Trevor (1910-2000) was born Claire Wemlinger in Brooklyn, New York. Her film career stretched from 1931 to 1982 and included such classics as Dead End (1937), Stagecoach (1939) and Key Largo (1948), for which she won an Academy Award. She won an Emmy Award in 1956 for "Dodsworth" and appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The Claire Trevor School of the Arts in California is named after her.

Biff Elliot (1923-2012) was born Leon Shalek and appeared in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the Slesar-penned "One Grave Too Many." A website is devoted to his career. Howard McNear (1905-1969), aka Floyd the Barber, also appeared in "One Grave Too Many." Mrs. Birdwell was played by Patricia Smith (1930-2011), who had an almost 40-year TV career but only appeared in this episode of the Hitchcock series. Robert Sampson (1933- ), who played her husband Ralph, was also seen in "The Changing Heart," while King Calder (1897-1964), who played Charlie Vance, was seen in "The Gloating Place."

"A Crime for Mothers" has just been released on DVD but may be viewed online for free here.

King Calder as Charlie Vance

"A Crime for Mothers." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 24 Jan. 1961. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
Slesar, Henry. "A Crime for Mothers." A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon, 1962. 9-17. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.


Harvey Chartrand said...

Biff Elliot always puts on a good show. He was a fine (and sadly underused) actor... the first guy to play Mike Hammer. Then he got too beefy (biffy?) to play guys who are catnip for the ladies.

Jack Seabrook said...

Speaking of Mike Hammer, I just saw Stacy Keach in "Nebraska." Very entertaining film.

Harvey Chartrand said...

Say, I just saw you on an extra feature for the new Blu-ray release of Philip Kaufman's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Great job! I remember 2 Jack Finney stories from Hitchcock anthologies: HEY, LOOK AT ME! and OF MISSING PERSONS. Eerie and unforgettable tales of unease.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks! I haven't even seen it yet!

Harvey Chartrand said...

Quick, before it disappears! You can see Alfred Hitchcock's Startime episode Incident at a Corner (1959) on YouTube at
Hitchcock's only TV presentation in color is nothing special. Great cast, though. Some nostalgia value. What could have attracted the Master to such a mundane project?

Jack Seabrook said...

Harvey, that is a great find. I have bookmarked it and will watch it this weekend. I had read about it before but I have never seen it. YouTube is great for stuff like this. I saw about the first 10 minutes of "I Kiss Your Shadow" on YouTube but I still haven't seen the whole thing.

Harvey Chartrand said...

Why not pause on the Henry Slesar series and review INCIDENT AT A CORNER before it's yanked from YouTube? Stumbling across that episode of STARTIME was a lucky break, for sure. INCIDENT AT A CORNER is the first work Hitchcock did after PSYCHO. In some ways, it reminds me of the only episode Hitch ever directed for THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR: I SAW THE WHOLE THING, about another incident at a corner.

Jack Seabrook said...

I plan to do a series on the Hitchcock-directed episodes that I have not covered elsewhere eventually, and perhaps I can include that one as well as the other one he did.

Jack Seabrook said...

I watched "Incident on a Corner" last night and was blown away. Great cast, gorgeous color, and it hits so many Hitchcock themes. The shot from high above near the end with the jump cuts moving in closer was amazing!

Harvey Chartrand said...

I much preferred FOUR O'CLOCK, the hour-long episode Hitchcock directed for SUSPICION in 1957. (I wonder if that legendary anthology series will ever be released on Blu-ray/DVD.) INCIDENT AT A CORNER is rather humdrum. Nothing new there. Of course, I've never been partial to stories by Charlotte Armstrong.

john kenrick said...

Some interesting comments here.

I enjoyed the episode. Ida Lupino's work as a director is often excellent. Her direction of the TV series Thriller's episode, Mr. George, which also revolved around a little girl and in this one greedy relatives, was very well done, featured a lovely Jerry Goldsmith score.

Miss Lupino directed very few movies, did a lot of television. She deserves more recognition, as much as a director as actress. The ending of this one was a pleasant surprise I did NOT see coming.

Claire Trevor sold the episode, and she actually looked good for her age even as she was playing a blowzy character; and yet I had reservations about her performance, which felt almost too strong, almost strident.

I'd rather she'd taken just the occasional sip from a bottle, that her drinking, while central to her character, had been handled with more subtlety, but I think that this being a television show made her and director Lupino ramp up the volume with what little time they had.

Still, a good entry for the series, and a nice change of pace (no murder, in other words).

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I wrote this 4 years ago and thought it was a strong episode.