Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Roald Dahl Part Three: "Poison" [4.1]

by Jack Seabrook

The third episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from a story by Roald Dahl was "Poison," which Dahl wrote in January 1950. First published in the June 3, 1950 issue of Collier's, "Poison" begins as Timber Woods arrives at Harry Pope's bungalow, only to find Pope lying motionless in bed. Pope whispers to Woods, who thinks:

"The way he was speaking reminded me of George Barling after he got shot in the stomach when he stood leaning against a crate containing a spare airplane engine, holding both hands on his stomach and saying things about the German pilot in just the same hoarse straining half whisper Harry was using now."

"Poison" was first published
in this issue of Collier's
This paragraph recalls Dahl's earlier short stories that took place in World War Two and which were collected in Over to You (1946). It suggests that the events in this story take place after the war and that Woods fought in that war. He sees the current crisis from the perspective of a former soldier who has experience dealing with men in extreme situations.

Harry tells Timber that a krait (a deadly, venomous snake found in India) crawled into his bed and is lying on his stomach. He has been lying still for hours, afraid that movement would awaken the snake and cause it to deliver a fatal bite. The location of the story is established through Timber's narration when he tells us that "they kill a fair number of people each year in Bengal, mostly in the villages." Bengal is a region in Southeast Asia that was partitioned along religious lines in 1947, part of it ending up in India and part in Pakistan. The Bengal region played a major role in the Indian independence movement, a detail which will become important later in the story.

Wendell Corey as Timber Woods
Harry asks Timber to telephone Dr. Ganderbai and ask him to come and help. Ganderbai arrives and carefully injects Harry with anti-venom serum. Outside Harry's room, "the little Indian doctor" tells Timber that the serum is not very effective. He decides to administer chloroform to the snake to slow it down and spends a long time carefully pouring the liquid anesthetic through a tube in order to soak the mattress beneath Harry. Timber smells it and has "faint unpleasant memories of white-coated nurses and white surgeons standing in a white room around a long white table." The Indian doctor is using a medication that Timber, the British ex-military man, associates with white men and the war.

Chloroforming the krait
Harry yells with impatience and Ganderbai's "small brown face" grows angry; he stares down Harry in an attempt to keep him still and quiet. Here, Ganderbai is like a snake charmer, fixing his gaze on a snake in order to keep it motionless. Timber thinks of an image that is a good metaphor for suspense: "I had the feeling someone was blowing up a huge balloon and I could see it was going to burst, but I couldn't look away."  Harry and Dr. Ganderbai draw back the sheet very slowly and find no snake. The doctor checks all around the bed and Pope leaps up and shakes out the legs of his pajamas, yet no snake appears.

James Donald as Harry Pope
Dr. Ganderbai asks Harry if he is quite sure he saw the snake, at which point Harry shouts at the doctor and calls him a "dirty little Hindu sewer rat" and a "dirty black ---." Timber is mortified by Harry's behavior but Ganderbai just remarks, "All he needs is a good holiday," before driving away.

"Poison" is an allegory about the British experience in India. Harry represents the colonial Englishman and Ganderbai the Indian; in an incident that recalls E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, the Indian man risks his life to help the British man and is rewarded with scorn and derision. Dahl creates suspense only to deflate it (like the balloon Timba imagines), forcing the reader to consider the story's real purpose. The poison of the story's title is in Pope's words to Ganderbai, making Pope the real venomous snake and, by extension, suggesting that the British Empire's influence in India was a deadly one.

Arnold Moss as Dr. Ganderbai
with Wendell Corey
"Poison" was quickly purchased for adaptation on radio and was broadcast on July 28, 1950, on the CBS radio anthology, Escape. The radio play was written by James Poe and starred Jack Webb as the Timber character and William Conrad as Harry. In this version, Harry is an American in India who hates foreigners and calls everyone who is not American a "gook." The show plays up Harry's racism and, instead of making his outburst a surprise at the end, the racism is explicit from the start of the show. Harry's final verbal attack on Ganderbai is extraordinary, including the line: "I oughta split your head wide open, ya gook!"

The radio play sounds extreme today, but one should recall that North Korea had just invaded South Korea on June 25, and the anti-Communist Red Scare was in full swing in the U.S., so the thought of an American in India who fears and hates foreigners and calls them all "gooks" probably did not sound unusual to listeners at the time. It is unfortunate that Poe took Dahl's subtle story and made its point so obvious.

"I've been bitten!"
The first television adaptation of "Poison" was written by Casey Robinson for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As he did with "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "Dip in the Pool," Hitchcock himself directed "Poison," rehearsing and filming it quickly on August 21 and 22, 1958, less than a week before he would leave for New York City to start filming North By Northwest on August 27.

Robinson does not follow Poe's radio play. Instead, he does a very careful job of taking the majority of Dahl's story almost word for word and translating it to the small screen, while making small but significant changes that alter the point and climax of the story completely.

The first sign of Harry is
just a twisted hand
The first change is telegraphed by the opening title card, which reads "Malaya." Malaya, like India, was a British colony that was dissolved right after World War Two, but the fact that the setting for the story has shifted from Bengal to Southeast Asia is the first clue that this version of the story will be different. Hitchcock gets the suspense underway immediately when Pope's twisted hand reaches up and into the frame as Woods enters his room. The room itself is lit in high contrast by a table lamp next to the bed; the camera then pulls back to show Harry in bed and Timber at the door.

The second change comes when Timber tells Harry: "You been hittin' the booze," introducing a theme absent from Dahl's original, that Pope's story about a snake is a figment of his imagination connected to his drinking problem. Other than these changes, Robinson's teleplay follows the story closely and Hitchcock's shot choices depict Pope bathed in sweat and Woods often seen from the perspective of Pope, looking up from his bed.

Harry insists he's telling the truth
Another major change in focus is shown by Timber's apparent lack of concern for Harry's plight; in the story, Timber is a good friend who works hard to save Harry, but in the TV version he seems to delight in prolonging his business partner's agony. As we have seen in other episodes of the series, simple contrasts between shots illuminate the power relationship between the characters: Pope is motionless and lying on his back, while Woods stands above him, able to move freely and in control of his partner's fate. Hitchcock alternates between extreme closeups of Harry's face and shots looking up at Timber. The director surely enjoyed the challenge of filming a tense drama in an enclosed space, since he often remarked on how the technical challenges of telling a story were what interested him most.

Timber almost looks gleeful
In a brief exchange, Woods adds an element of a love triangle with a woman named Julie to his relationship with Pope, telling Harry "once a lush, always a lush" and reminding him that Julie came all the way from Paris to see Pope. Harry accuses Timber of trying to make him act rashly and Timber admits having made a drunk out of Harry in order to take over the business. Robinson's decision in adapting "Poison" to remove the elements of racism and allegorical commentary on the British Empire in India made it necessary to introduce a new plot thread to replace the story's key point; unfortunately, the rivalry between men adds little to the story, whose most memorable parts remain the suspenseful efforts of the doctor to deal with the snake.

It wasn't in his pants!
In contrast to Dahl's story, there is no outburst from Woods directed at the doctor. Instead, the metaphoric snake of the original becomes an actual snake onscreen. After the sheet is pulled down and no snake is seen, Harry leaps up and shakes out the legs of his pajamas. We then see an insert of a small snake slithering out from beneath a pillow when no one is watching and then slithering back to safety. After the doctor leaves, Timber pours drinks for himself and Harry and Harry throws the drink in Timber's face. Another insert of the snake is shown and then Timber laughs at Harry, sits on the bed, and lies back on the pillow, at which point he is bitten on the side of his face by the krait. Timber sits up in shock and begs Harry to get the doctor, but Harry stands there and tells Timber that the doctor is gone. The show ends with Pope watching Woods as the screen fades to black.

Harry tells Timber that the doctor has gone.
Anyone reading "Poison" and then watching the TV adaptation of it is in for a surprise, since the main point of the story is completely discarded and an allegory is turned into a literal tale of suspense. Yet, if one follows the story on the page while watching the TV show, it is clear that Casey Robinson followed much of the story very closely, almost word for word in spots. It is impressive that such significant changes in focus were wrought by such minor additions and deletions in the script. I suspect that Hitchcock was intrigued by the suspenseful aspects of the story and by its technical challenges and decided that American audiences would have little interest in watching a subtle tale about racism and colonialism. The show succeeds in its use of lighting, camerawork, and the performance of James Donald as Harry Pope. It fails in its change of focus and in the performance of Wendell Corey as Timber Woods.

The snake makes an appearance!
Wendell Corey (1914-1968) was an actor who progressed from stage to screen to television, appearing in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). He was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1963 to 1965 and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. His portrayal of Timber Woods as cruel and unconcerned with his partner's welfare detracts from the success of "Poison."

James Donald (1917-1993) was born in Scotland and followed a similar path as an actor as Corey. He was in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice. For more about Donald, see this website.

Weaver Levy as the houseboy
Playing Dr. Ganderbai was Arnold Moss (1910-1989). Moss was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was mostly a stage actor, specializing in Shakespeare. His well-trained voice made him a good fit for radio shows; he appeared in movies and on TV as well, including twice on the Hitchcock series and once on Star Trek.

Finally, the small role of Dr. Ganderbai's houseboy is played by Weaver Levy (1925-?) who, despite his name, was an American actor with Chinese parents. He was seen twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also played Chop-Chop in the 1952 serial, Blackhawk: Fearless Champion of Freedom, based on the DC Comics series.

Casey Robinson (1903-1979), who adapted Dahl's story for TV, was called "the master of the art--or craft--of adaptation" by Richard Corliss and counted Casablanca as one of the films he co-wrote, even though he was uncredited onscreen. Other screenplays included Captain Blood (1935), Dark Victory (1939), and Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956). He wrote two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

One last shot of Harry sweating
"Poison" was adapted for television a second time, decades later, when Robin Chapman wrote a new teleplay for Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. This version first aired on March 29, 1980, and it eschews the tight space of the prior version in favor of a long opening sequence where Harry wanders around his bungalow and we learn that he is an alcoholic on the wagon who hates India and looks forward to leaving. There is no doubt about the snake's presence this time, since it is shown slithering along the floor, up the leg of the bed, under the sheet, and up Harry's chest. He even lifts the sheet and comes face to face with the krait! In addition, a female character is introduced as Timber's married lover; she comes back to the bungalow with him after a party and spends most of the show hiding from the doctor, afraid that her extra-marital activities will be discovered.

As in Dahl's story and the radio play, there is no conflict between Pope and Woods; instead, this version sets up a parallel story between Harry's predicament with the snake and Sandra's predicament with hiding her presence. Pope's final outburst is reinserted into the story, though--as with so much TV of this era--it is overdone, with Harry insulting the doctor and starting to choke him. Sandra steals the doctor's car and drives off, forcing Timber to drive the doctor home in his own car. Harry is left alone in the bungalow, where he reaches for a bottle of alcohol and is bitten by the snake.

This version of "Poison" is neither subtle nor suspenseful, yet the key scenes with Harry in bed and the doctor trying to help him remain so captivating that the episode is not a complete failure.

"Poison" is a fascinating story, as is the way its themes changed depending on who was adapting it and what was going on in the world at the time of each adaptation. The 1950 version focuses on xenophobia, the 1957 version focuses on rivalry, and the 1980 version focuses on adultery. Quite a journey for a little tale about a snake that was not really there in the first place!

Read Dahl's story for free online here. The radio version is available here. The Hitchcock version is available on DVD here or for free online viewing here. The Tales of the Unexpected version may be seen here.

Dahl, Roald. "Poison." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. Ed. Jeremy Treglown. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 259-69. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.
"Poison." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 5 Oct. 1958. Television.
Rudel, Ulrich. "Cinema En Miniature: The Telefilms of Alfred Hitchcock." The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Ed. Martin Grams and Patrik Wikstrom. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. 97-108. Print.
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius. London: Collins, 1983. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.


Grant said...

I'm always surprised when a poisonous snake survives at the end of a story (though not disappointed, since I'm funny about every kind of reptile). That makes this story a kind of non-comical answer to the episode ANNIVERSARY GIFT.

Jack Seabrook said...

You're right! "Poison" started season 4 and "Anniversary Gift" was near the start of season 5, so perhaps the Collier episode was in answer to the Dahl episode. Thanks for the comment!

john kenrick said...

A good episode, and thanks for the review, Jack. I've heard the radio version, too, and it's a pip, in some ways better than the Hitchcock, in my opinion, due to its pulling out all the stops. William Conrad really sells it. The Hitchcock works well enough but doesn't rise too high above the average. I like the casting of James Donald and Wendell Corey, who look like they could have been brothers. They were similar types as actor, too, though I find Donald overall a more credible and accomplished player. Corey had that droll sense of humor, while Donald has sometimes been called humorless. No matter. That the Indian doctor was the nearest to a true hero in the story is worth a mention, as neither of the white guys comes across as particularly admirable or likable.

Jack Seabrook said...

This episode just looks great, doesn't it? You couldn't do that in color. It holds up much better if you haven'e read Dahl's story, which is more thoughtful than suspenseful. Still, I love the direction, especially that hand that shoots up.

John, did you write a book on musical theater?

john kenrick said...

No, but thanks for asking, Jack. I'm curious who you think I am...

Jack Seabrook said...

There's a writer named John Kenrick who teaches at NYU.

john kenrick said...

Fascinating, Jack. That's not not my real name. Kenrick, I mean. Its significance is geographical and yet difficult to "deconstruct"; easy for me to remember; tough to hack.

Si said...

Great review, enjoyable read, much appreciate the extensive research. What disappoints me in this otherwise solid AHP episode is the stupidity of the three characters near the end, when the bedsheet is pulled and they see no snake, and the doctor even says "We must be careful, it could be anywhere", yet they don't bother to check around or under the bed pillows, where indeed the snake is shown lurking?

john kenrick said...

True about the looseness, Si, the ambiguity,regarding the issue of whether this was an actual snake in the bed. We, the viewers, can catch a glimpse. This is unsettling, but do kraits always kill people? Just because he was under the pillow doesn't mean he won't slither away and seek to kill elsewhere, or he was going to kill at.