Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Forty-Seven: "Isabel" [9.31]

by Jack Seabrook

The last episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to be written by Henry Slesar (with William Fay), "Isabel" is based on The Bronze Perseus, a novel by S.B. Hough that was first published in England in 1959. A comparison of the novel with the televised adaptation provides an interesting lesson on how Slesar and Fay were able to alter a complex story involving rape and murder in order to make it appropriate for television in 1964.

Set in England, the novel begins as Harold Clemens, a serious and studious young man on a business trip to Lepley, takes his usual evening walk through the "misty, night shrouded streets." The roads lead him out of town into a suburb, where he hears a woman scream "about two streets away." Later, a police car picks him up and takes him to "an isolated modern house," where he is shown to a woman "lying in a state of nervous prostration." She looks at him and says "Yes!"

Clemens is arrested, tried for raping the woman, whose name is Emma Smith, and convicted. Released after spending five years in prison, he robs a bank messenger in Hapton and escapes, following a carefully laid out plan. We then meet Emma, who runs the Eventham Private School and Kindergarten. One Friday morning, she claims to have a toothache and prepares herself for a visit to the dentist.

Bradford Dillman as Clemens
Clemens leaves town by bus and then switches to a train, where he is shocked to see Emma. He avoids her and gets off the train at Popley, only to see her get off at the same station. He changes his plan, not aware that Emma had seen him on the train. She thinks back to the events of the trial and the attack, events she had closed off in her mind. It is clear that she identified him falsely. At the dentist, she is given gas for a tooth extraction and she imagines that the dentist attacks her. She accuses the dentist but a female nurse who witnessed the procedure prevents her claims from being taken seriously and she returns to school.

Clemens visits the police station in Popley and tells Sergeant Huntley about his criminal past. He has purchased a small shop in town and wants to be left alone. Later, a local crook tells Sgt. Huntley that a man named Harper will "put the screw on" Clemens. Harper later tells Huntley about Clemens's criminal past and Huntley checks with Clemens's banker, only to learn that his financial affairs are in order. Clemens arranges to encounter Emma on the street and, when she sees him, she collapses. Witnesses care for her and Clemens goes to the police station, pretending to be disturbed to find Emma living in the same town. She is brought to the station and accuses Clemens, which causes Huntley to suspect that he is innocent of any current or prior crimes and that she is hysterical. Clemens thinks, "It was the next step, the step the sergeant did not even dream of yet, that would call for the utmost caution."

Barbara Barrie as Isabel (Emma in the novel)
Huntley visits Emma at school but she refuses to complain or even to explain. He leaves, puzzled by her attitude. Clemens goes out for a walk at night and confronts Emma, whose habits he has studied. She falls into his arms and kisses him. "Oh," she tells him, "If only I'd known you cared." Sgt. Huntley visits her at school at her request and realizes that she has become involved with Clemens, causing the Sergeant silently to question the man's motives. Clemens and Emma meet again at night and he resists her overture to accompany her home. Soon after, they marry in a well-attended church ceremony. Sgt. Huntley meets Jackson, a reporter, who questions Clemens's motives.

On honeymoon in Monaco, Clemens thinks that he must kill Emma today, having fulfilled her desires three nights earlier on their wedding night. He rents a boat and takes her out sailing, causing the boat to capsize in front of a large crowd of onlookers. Despite efforts to save Emma, she is drowned.

Edmon Ryan as Huntley
Some time later, Sgt. Huntley visits the bank manager and learns that Clemens had suddenly made a ten thousand pound deposit in his account. Jackson, the reporter, tells Huntley of Emma's death. Sgt. Huntley sets out to discover where Clemens got the money.

One year later, Clemens is sitting in the Piazza della signoria in Florence, Italy, when he is approached by Sgt. Huntley, who tells him that "Interpol has a line on you" and that he could have Clemens arrested "for the Hapton crime," i.e., the robbery of the bank messenger. Clemens tells Huntley about the horrors of prison life, and the sergeant explains why he has tracked Clemens to Florence. While he could have him extradited for robbery, he is more interested in finding justice in regard to Emma's murder. Sgt. Huntley explains that witnesses identified Clemens from a photograph of the Hapton robber and he wants to hear Clemens's explanation for murder. Huntley tells Clemens that he will live in fear of capture and a return to prison.

Clemens explains why he killed Emma, arguing that it was not murder. He compares himself and his situation to the nearby bronze statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa, arguing that Emma was similar to the Gorgon in her effect on men. She was insane and believed that "men loved her secretly and wished to rape her," as the only explanation for why men had always fled from her. Clemens knew that she would eventually be found out, judged insane, and locked away, so he killed her to end her suffering and to prevent her disgrace.

Honeymooners on the boat
Sgt. Huntley does not accept Clemens's reasoning and explains that his first crime was to ignore the woman's scream that he heard during his nighttime walk. It was his own egotism that led to his conviction, even more than Emma's false testimony. His second crime, the theft, was done out of spite rather than greed. Everything that followed with Emma was also done out of spite. Having destroyed Clemens's belief in his own innocence, Huntley dismisses him.

In the novel's final scene, Sgt. Huntley and his wife sit at a table in the piazza and he tells her that Clemens is "the only successful murderer I know. I wanted to put the fear of God in him." Clemens will be free of prison but he will never be free of the fear of capture, even though no one is looking for him. Huntley asks, "How can there be justice . . . when there is no court to decide those cases where the victim is the guilty party?" He concludes: "I broke down the story he'd been telling himself about it. Perhaps that's the most fatal punishment you can give to any man."

Clemens "accidentally" runs into Isabel in the library
The Bronze Perseus is a fascinating thriller with several themes, first among them being the question of innocence and guilt. Harold Clemens is an innocent man who is sent to prison by a woman's false testimony. She is guilty of lying, but as her personality is gradually revealed it becomes clear that she knows not what she does and thus her guilt is questionable. Clemens robs a bank messenger and is guilty of theft and violence, but he believes these acts are justified as responses to his unjust imprisonment. He then entices Emma into a relationship that ends in marriage followed by murder, but he argues to Sgt. Huntley that he was actually being merciful. Sgt. Huntley lies to Clemens in order to try to instill a sense of guilt in the man. Neither guilt nor innocence are simple concepts in this novel, in which the three main characters all deal in shades of grey.

Insanity is another theme that runs through the book, mainly in the character of Emma Smith. Why does she falsely accuse Clemens? Was she really attacked, or was it a figment of her imagination like the unreal attack by her dentist? There is surely some insanity in her later behavior toward Clemens, when she suddenly falls in love with him. Clemens tells Huntley that her insanity was the reason for his murdering her; perhaps he, too, is a bit insane in the way he rationalizes his criminal acts.

S.B. Hough explores themes of violence towards women in The Bronze Perseus and asks if it is ever justified. Emma's fear of men leads her to extreme acts, but is this a fear based in reality? And what does love have to do with it? Does Emma love Clemens, and vice versa? His rationalization for murder seems to suggest that there was some sort of mutual affection between the two, an affection that both repelled and attracted Clemens to Emma, his own personal Medusa.

The Bronze Perseus has an interesting publication history. It was first published in England in 1959, then in the U.S. in 1962. It was reprinted in the U.S. in paperback in 1964 as The Tender Killer, and subsequent reprints under this title followed in 1975 in England and in 1984 in the U.S. In the meantime, it was reprinted in hardcover under its original title in 1983 as part of the 50 Classics of Crime Fiction, 1950-1975 series. Its inclusion in this series was subsequent to Barzun and Taylor having listed it in A Catalogue of Crime as one of the classics of crime from 1900 to 1975. In a 1962 review, Anthony Boucher called it one of the best debut mysteries of the year.

S(tanley) B(ennett) Hough (1917-1998) was born in England and worked as a radio operator before and during WWII. He was self-employed in the yachting business in the years following the war until he began writing fiction and travel books in 1951. He wrote thrillers as S. B. Hough and science fiction novels as Rex Gordon and he is said to have used the pen name Bennett Stanley for other writing. He won the 1957 Infinity Award for the novel No Man Friday. IMDb lists only two adaptations of Hough's works: "Isabel," on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and "International Incident," broadcast on June 16, 1952, as part of the TV series, Studio One in Hollywood.

Howard and Isabel's first meeting
"Isabel" was the last episode of season nine of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to be broadcast, and it was first aired on CBS on Friday, June 5, 1964, on CBS, making it the last new episode of the series to be shown on that network.While the televised version follows the same general pattern as the novel, the changes are significant enough to warrant a detailed description of the story.

The show begins as a man and a woman (Harold has become Howard and Emma has become Isabel) pass each other on a sidewalk on a chilly, windy evening; he trips over some construction debris and falls. Later, he is picked up by a police car and taken to a house, where he is questioned by Sgt. Huntley. Howard's raincoat is dirty, his face is bruised, and his trousers are torn. He tells Huntley that he is new in Lewisburg, New Hampshire, and that he works for Futurama Plastics, having relocated from their Chicago office. Isabel identifies him as her attacker. She relates that she screamed and fought him off and found her way to the nearest house. The sergeant plans to charge him with attempted assault with criminal intent.

The changes from the novel are readily apparent in the first scene. Now, Howard and Isabel do pass each other on the street, whereas in the novel, they never meet. The setting has been changed from England to New England, and Sgt. Huntley is involved in the case right from the start, rather than coming into it when Clemens moves to town after the robbery. Most important is the change in the nature of the crime: instead of a rape, which presumably would not be appropriate for a TV show, the charge here is attempted assault.

Les Tremayne as Selby
In the following scene, Clemens is in the law office of an attorney named Selby, who tells him that Isabel runs a private girls school and that her reputation in the community makes the defense of the case difficult. Selby calls her a spinster and Clemens agrees that she is no beauty; Selby surmises that "she wanted it to happen and she picked you." This scene is absent from the novel and was likely added to provide some quick background on Isabel and to inject a bit of psychology into the narrative.

A brief courtroom scene follows, in which Clemens is found guilty of attempted criminal assault and sentenced to one to five years in the state penitentiary. On release, Clemens meets with the warden in another scene not found in the novel. The warden tells Clemens that he earned $105 in the prison machine shop and Clemens replies that he would have earned $13,000 outside of prison. This scene is important because it sets up the basis for the robbery that follows. Clemens then wears a hat and false mustache to rob a bank messenger in Capital City; he next counts out the money and mails back all but $15,000 (an error, the amount is later given as $13,000) of the loot. These scenes clarify the motive for the robbery and suggest that Clemens is not your run of the mill thief since he only keeps what he thinks he should have earned had he not been falsely imprisoned.

At the record store
Clemens takes a bus to Lewisburg and watches Isabel leave after a day's work at the Evendon House Day School. Omitted from the TV show is the episode with the dentist and any effort by Clemens to go to the police proactively to establish himself as a new community member with good intent. The TV show deviates from the novel in the scenes that follow more in tone than substance, as Clemens manages to run into Isabel in various public places until she complains about him to a cop on the beat. Clemens has opened a record store in town, and Isabel enters as a customer. She buys an LP and apologizes for her conduct of the day before. They begin to chat amiably. At home, she listens to the record that she bought, The Damnation of Faust (is Clem a demon?). Martha, her cleaning lady, remarks that Isabel already has the same record and Isabel races back to the record store to exchange it for a copy of Swan Lake (does Isabel see herself as an ugly duckling emerging as a swan in response to Clem's attention?). Clem invites her to a concert performance that night of Debussy's La Mer (the sea reference foreshadows the later boat accident) and they attend the concert together.

This series of scenes changes the cipher that is Emma Smith in the novel into the flesh and blood woman that is Isabel Smith in the TV show. The strange behavior of Emma in the book is hard to understand and her bizarre romance with Clemens never really makes sense unless she is considered to be insane. For the TV show, the writers chose to make Isabel a sane woman with a history of being unloved. Her reconciliation with Clemens and their romance are handled sensitively and make much more sense than does their relationship in the book.

Sgt. Huntley sees Clemens and Isabel together in the street. One evening, she invites Howard to her home and tells him that Huntley came to see her earlier that day, asking about Howard. Unlike in the novel, Huntley had been a friend of her father's. Isabel brings up the night of the assault and wonders if she was wrong when she identified Howard. He tells her that he could never hate her and they kiss, but the look in his eyes that she does not see makes clear his evil intent.

Lt. Huntley (he is twice called sergeant in the early scene at Isabel's house, as in the novel, but for the rest of the show he is a lieutenant) visits Isabel at home and tells her that he has a bad feeling about Howard. Since he was involved in the investigation of the original attack and has known Isabel since she was a girl, their relationship is different than it is in the book--here, he is a protective, paternal figure. She boasts that a man is interested in her and recalls her father thinking of her as his ugly ducking (recall her purchase of the Swan Lake LP). Howard walks in and they announce their upcoming wedding. Isabel is a realistic figure in the TV show, unlike in the novel, and making Huntley her lifelong friend deepens their relationship.

Dabney Coleman as Lou Snyder
The wedding that occurs in the novel is omitted from the TV show, as is the character of Jackson, the suspicious reporter. Instead, there follows a long and talky scene between Huntley and another policeman, Lou Snyder, in which they discuss Howard and Isabel, who are honeymooning at the nearby coast, instead of far away in Monaco. They wonder where Howard got his money and Huntley telephones the bank. He learns that Howard had deposited $13,000 on June 9 and remembers the robbery in Capital City of that same amount on June 6. Huntley suspects Howard of having murderous intentions.

On their honeymoon, Howard and Isabel relax together on a rented motorboat. Howard thinks that the boat is about to run out of gas but Isabel explains that it has two gas tanks and, by throwing a switch, she can access the second tank. Back at the boat dock, Howard speaks with an old sailor who tells him about a fatal boat explosion two years before. Howard visits the library and reads an article in the Creedon Cove Weekly about the accident, learning that a loose coupling could cause an explosion when the switch is made from one gas tank to the other. That night, he loosens the coupling on the boat and then returns to the hotel room he shares with Isabel. He tells her that he must take an important business call the next day and urges her to take the boat out alone. The next day, he waits in the hotel room while she is out on the boat. As planned, when she flips the switch to change gas tanks the boat explodes.

The final, reluctant embrace
The change from murder by capsized sailboat to murder by sabotaged motorboat is important because it allows Howard to avoid being present at the scene of the crime. In the book, he carefully stages the accident in front of witnesses in order to avoid being accused. In the TV show, he makes sure that the boat will blow up and manages to keep himself safe. Yet, in the most significant change from novel to TV show, Isabel survives the explosion! In the last scene, Lt. Huntley visits Howard in his hotel room the next day and accuses him of murder. Howard scoffs at the policeman's lack of proof but the telephone rings and Huntley gets the news that Isabel was thrown clear and is alive and well. Huntley tells Howard that he knows about the bank robbery and essentially blackmails him into staying with Isabel and remaining faithful to her. If not, Huntley will find proof of the bank robbery and have him sent back to jail. Isabel returns and embraces Howard; he reluctantly embraces her as well, knowing he is trapped.

In the novel, Harold successfully murders Emma and gets away until Huntley tracks him down and instills fear into him. In the TV show, Howard fails in his attempt to murder Isabel and Huntley confronts him with the knowledge of the robbery in order to prevent him from leaving his wife. In this way, writers Fay and Slesar avoid an ending where a murderer gets away, satisfying the censors in a way that the Hitchcock show's writers often left to the great director's sarcastic epilogues.

Howard's face is superimposed over
the boat moments before the explosion
The Bronze Perseus is a psychological thriller that examines various themes of guilt and mental instability. "Isabel," on the other hand, is a more straightforward exploration of a man who is wrongly accused and seeks revenge on his accuser. The writers who adapted the novel for TV faced a challenge and chose to solve it by humanizing the main female character and deepening her relationship with the police officer involved in the case.

William Fay (1918-1968?), who co-wrote the teleplay with Henry Slesar, wrote numerous short stories for the so-called slick magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was an editor for Popular Publications beginning in 1935 and he began writing scripts for TV shows in 1954. He wrote or co-wrote 16 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including adapting Robert Bloch's "Madame Mystery."

"Isabel" was directed by Alf Kjellin (1920-1988), who was born in Sweden and who had careers as an actor and as a director. He began acting in films in 1937 and on TV in 1952; he began directing in 1955. As an actor, he appeared in the 1966 film adaptation of Jack Finney's Assault on a Queen and in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. As a director, he was at the helm for one episode of the half-hour Hitchcock series ("Coming Home") and eleven episodes of the hour series.

Howard Clemens was played by Bradford Dillman (1930- ), who began acting on stage, in film and on TV in the 1950s. He was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twice and Night Gallery once and continued acting until 1995. In 1997, he published an autobiography entitled Are You Anybody?: An Actor's Life. In 1963, he married model Suzy Parker, one of the most famous and beautiful models in America at that time. The wedding was on a boat at sea. Perhaps viewers had his real wife in the back of their minds in 1964 when watching "Isabel," in which he marries a woman described as "no beauty" and honeymoons with her on a boat.

Barbara Barrie (1931- ) played Isabel Smith. Born Barbara Berman, she began her acting career in the mid-1950s and continued for over 50 years. She was on the Hitchcock show twice and The Twilight Zone once, but her most memorable roles were as the title character's wife on the TV sitcom Barney Miller and as the young cyclist's mother in Breaking Away (1979).

Doris Lloyd as Martha
Lt. Huntley was played by Edmon Ryan (1905-1984), who was born Edmon Ryan Mossbarger. He started in films in 1936 and began working in TV in 1950. He was in four episodes of the Hitchcock show and made an appearance on Thriller. One of his last roles was in Hitchcock's 1969 film, Topaz.

Supporting players included Les Tremayne (1913-2003) as Selby, the lawyer; Dabney Coleman (1932- ) as Lou Snyder, the policeman who talks with Huntley; and Doris Lloyd (1896-1968) as Martha, Isabel's housekeeper. All three were busy character actors with long careers.

"Isabel" is available for free online viewing here.

Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print.
Boucher, Anthony. The New York Times 2 Dec. 1962: n. pag. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Hough, S. B. The Bronze Perseus. New York: Walker, 1962. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.
"Isabel." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 5 June 1964. Television.
Reginald, R. Contemporary Science Fiction Authors. New York: Arno, 1975. 111. Print.
"Rex Gordon - Summary Bibliography." Rex Gordon - Summary Bibliography. Internet Speculative Fiction Database, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.
"S(tanley) B(ennett) Hough." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.

*The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is now airing every night but Sunday on MeTV at 3 AM Eastern time!
*In two weeks: a brief bio of Henry Slesar with an overview of his contributions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, along with an episode guide to his hour-long shows and an updated list of all Hitchcock series episodes reviewed to date in The Hitchcock Project!


Peter Enfantino said...

You outdid yourself this time, Jack. Lots and lots of detail and fascinating insight here. This is one of my Top Ten hour-long Hitches. Dillman could be one-note at times but when he needed to be, like here, he was spot-on.
Have you really been working on Slesar for 94 weeks? Where does the time go?

Grant said...

This one has so many things going for it.
There's one slightly FUNNY moment that stays with me, partly because it's very underplayed. After the charge against him, which of course is a sexual one, Dillman's lawyer tells him that one of the things that could go against him are "those pictures" he owns. Dillman kind of rolls his eyes and tells him that you can find prints of those pictures in any respected art gallery or store. So evidently it's a little reference to nude paintings, and how even ones that are considered highbrow could get him in trouble.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter! Only about 500 weeks to go.

Grant, that's a good scene. The incident is also in the book, but it's structured differently. It's funny how they had to work so hard to avoid anything having to do with rape, since that's what the book is all about. I'm puzzled that the producers would have wanted to adapt this book, but they put an interesting spin on it.

Grant said...

One of the few moments that bother me is when the warden tells Clemens very angrily "No one owes you anything!"
The funny thing is, in a way the whole point of the story is that people DO (even if it doesn't include that bank messenger he mugs).
One interesting thing about your description of the book is the episode with the dentist. Not to make light of any true stories of that kind, but that book was written long before that kind of story became such a trendy subject, on the talk shows and so on.

Jack Seabrook said...

Good points, Grant. I guess if he sued for false imprisonment he could have gotten compensation! I think you are right that the book was ahead of its time in that way. It's a very interesting read.