Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Twenty-Nine: "The Case of M.J.H." [7.16]

by Jack Seabrook

Henry Slesar did not often miss a chance to open up one of his short stories when adapting it for television, but "The Case of M.J.H." is a notable exception. First published in the August 1959 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (and reprinted in A Crime for Mothers and Others as "Won't You Be My Valentine?"), the story concerns lonely Maude Sheridan, who gave up on love years ago and is comfortable living alone and working for Dr. Ernest Cowper, a psychoanalyst, until she meets Jimmy French at a party. French pursues her and she begins to care about her appearance once again.

Soon, Jimmy professes his love for Maude while admitting that he's "'a pretty rotten guy'" who got in trouble in his youth. Maude falls hard for Jimmy and Dr Cowper notices that she seems happier. Meanwhile, the doctor is worried about a patient of his named Harrison. Jimmy tells Maude that his criminal life is not all in the past, confessing that "'I'm a crook, and a cheap one at that.'" He says that he needs money to marry her and he asks her to bring home some of Dr. Cowper's files for him to review.

After three weeks of resistance, Maude agrees and brings home a stack of files, which Jimmy combs through, settling on one labeled "M.J.H." Maude explains that M.J.H. is Martin J. Harrison, a 54-year-old securities analyst who is married but who is seeing a 17-year-old girlfriend on the side. Jimmy plans blackmail and calls Maude the next day to say that his plan is working.

Robert Loggia as Jimmy French
On Monday, Maude goes to work and Dr. Cowper does not show up until 2 P.M. He is upset at having lost a patient and blames himself. He tells Maude that Harrison shot and killed a man the day before and was arrested. Cowper explains that there was no young girlfriend--it was a delusion. "'And when a blackmailer threatened him, he protected his fantasy with murder.'"

In late 1961, Slesar adapted his own story for television, writing the teleplay for an episode with the same title that was broadcast on Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC on Tuesday, January 23, 1962. Robert Loggia starred as Jimmy French and Barbara Baxley was featured as Maude Sheridan. The program was directed by Alan Crosland, Jr.

Barbara Baxley as Maude Sheridan
As was often the case when adapting a short story for television, Slesar expanded his story, showing events that were only told in the story and adding scenes. However, as I will explain, he missed his chance to make the most dramatic change of all.

The show opens with a nicely played scene where Jimmy and Maude meet for the first time in an automat. Maude is nervous and shy, unused to being the object of a man's attention, while Jimmy is confident and gregarious. Slesar does a nice job of dramatizing their meeting, which in the story had simply been referred to as having occurred at a party. Automats were popular, inexpensive places to eat in 1962, especially in New York City, and seeing one in this episode provides a window into the past. The last Horn and Hardart's automat in New York closed in 1991.

The second scene shows Maude at work at Dr. Cooper's office (the spelling of his name is simplified for the TV show), where she is confident in her exchange with the doctor but less so when Jimmy surprises her by telephoning her and asking her out to dinner. Barbara Baxley shows Maude's shyness both in her voice and in her mannerisms, as she plays with her hair nervously, reverting to behavior befitting a schoolgirl.

Maude protects herself with her cat
In the third scene, Jimmy comes home with Maude after their date and joins her in her apartment. Again, Baxley uses physical cues to demonstrate her character's internal feelings; she rather comically holds her housecat to her chest protectively throughout the scene, using it as a barrier to keep Jimmy from coming too close. As in prior episodes directed by Alan Crosland, Jr., tight closeups are used to underline moments when the characters discuss particularly serious or emotional issues.

Scene four takes place some time later, since Maude is now much more comfortable around Jimmy as they share a candlelight dinner at her apartment. She has fixed her hair in a more flattering style and she wears an attractive dress. Her speech and mannerisms also display an easy familiarity with her companion and she calls him "'darling.'" However, he appears unhappy, confesses that his criminal activity is not just in the past, and tells her that he is in debt for $2000 is at risk of going to jail. He swears that he will change after "'just one more job'" and asks her to bring home the files. When she refuses, he storms out.

Jimmy looks through the patient files
In scene five, Maude buzzes Jimmy's apartment and then waits for him alone in the hallway of his building after an unpleasant interaction with his rude landlady. He comes home at night and we realize that she has been waiting there for a long time. She confronts him with the fact that he has ignored her calls for two weeks and then she hands him a bag with the doctor's files.

The next scene is set in Jimmy's apartment, as he goes through the files. He sees one marked "M.J.H." and the camera dissolves to the office of Martin J. Harrison, where another scene occurs that was only hinted at in the story. Jimmy visits Harrison in his office and blackmails him; this time, Diana--Harrison's teenaged girlfriend--is 18, not 17, surely a change required by the television censors. Jimmy is cocky and arrogant, demanding $10,000 in cash. When Harrison says he needs time to raise the money, Jimmy tells him to bring it to his place at 9 P.M.

Theodore Newton as Dr. Cooper
Here is where Slesar makes a surprising blunder. The show ends as Maude arrives at work the next morning and Cooper tells her the bad news. This would have been a perfect time for Slesar to add a scene dramatizing the interaction between Jimmy and Harrison at Jimmy's apartment, where Jimmy could have confronted Harrison with the details of his illicit affair and Harrison could have turned the tables by shooting and killing him. This would have added a dramatic climax to the show and would not have ruined the final revelation that Diana did not exist. It would have been more exciting than the dull expository of the final scene where Dr. Cooper explains what happened. It is curious that Slesar would miss this opportunity to add excitement to a script.

The direction by Alan Crosland, Jr. (1918-2001), is competent, as always, but without any particularly clever or unusual camera setups. This was one of the nineteen episodes he directed for the Hitchcock series; the prior one was "The Right Kind of Medicine."

Robert Loggia (1930- ), who stars as Jimmy, has been on TV since 1951 and in movies since 1956. He appeared in four episodes of the Hitchcock series, including Slesar's "The Money," and his long career continues to this day.

Richard Gaines as Martin J. Harrison
Barbara Baxley (1923-1990) trained with the Actors Studio and began her TV career in 1950, branching out into movies in 1955 with a role in East of Eden. She was on the Hitchcock show six times, including "Design for Loving" and "Anniversary Gift." She usually played a more alluring character, but here she shows her range by portraying a shy secretary.

Martin J. Harrison, the unfortunate victim of attempted blackmail, is played by Richard Gaines (1904-1975), a character actor who appeared in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Ace in the Hole (1951), as well as making 14 appearances as a judge on the Perry Mason TV series. "The Case of M.J.H." is listed as his last acting credit.

Henry Slesar adapted this story once more, expanding it to an hour for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater broadcast on August 22, 1974. This radio version may be heard online here. The TV show is not yet available on DVD or online.

"The Case of M.J.H." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 23 Jan. 1962. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 25 May 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 25 May 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "Won't You Be My Valentine?" 1959. A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon, 1962. 141-49. Print.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 25 May 2014.


john kenrick said...

Strangely done episode, Jack. Something's missing. Good actors, director and author but it failed to pay off except as a tall tale. This kind of story needs more work, more time maybe, than went into the episode, as I see it anyway.

Jack Seabrook said...

I agree. An unusual miss for Slesar.