Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Cornell Woolrich Part One: "The Big Switch" [1.15]

by Jack Seabrook

"Change of Murder" was
first published here
The life and work of Cornell Woolrich are examined in great detail in Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die by Francis M. Nevins (1988). Woolrich's stories and novels were often adapted for the big screen, and in 1944 Joan Harrison produced the film adaptation of his novel Phantom Lady. Alfred Hitchcock directed Rear Window, the 1954 adaptation of his 1942 story "It Had to Be Murder," so it is not surprising that when Hitchcock and Harrison began to produce Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955 they would look to Woolrich as a source for stories. Throughout the ten-year run of the Hitchcock show, three half-hour episodes were based on Woolrich stories and an hour-long episode was based on one of his novels.

The first of the Woolrich episodes was "The Big Switch," broadcast midway through the first season on January 8, 1956, and based on the story, "Change of Murder," which was first published in the January 25, 1936 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. Nevins points out that this was one of the author's earliest crime stories. It takes place in Chicago and begins as Brains Donleavy calls on his friend Fade Williams. Fade's office is in the back of a bar in the Loop and he can provide an alibi for a price; after Brains pays Fade for the last time he used this service, Fade quotes a price of $500 to alibi Brains for killing a man on Chicago's North Side.

The story was reprinted
in this 1945 digest
Brains explains his plan and signs an IOU, after which Fade shows off his trick telephone booth, whose false wall opens into the garage next door. Fade has a habit of cleaning his gun and Brains warns him that this could be dangerous. The two men retire to the back room to play cards and Brains escapes through the telephone booth. He takes taxis to an apartment building and crawls on a plank across an air shaft and through an open window, hiding in a closet until a man named Hitch comes into the room and Brains emerges, gun pointed. Brains blames Hitch for stealing a woman named Goldie while Brains was in jail. Hitch tells Brains that he was just helping Goldie out when she was in trouble.

Hitch tells Brains that he married Goldie and that they had a baby and named it Donleavy Hitchcock after Brains. Brains lets Hitch go after learning this news and leaves the way he came. Hitch laughs at how he tricked Brains: the baby that Goldie referred to in a letter he showed to Brains was a gun! Brains uses the rick telephone booth to return to Fade's office without being seen. Just then a crowd rushes in and restrains Brains, who sees Fade slumped over dead behind his desk, accidentally shot by his own gun while cleaning it.

The trick phone booth
As Brains leads the crown to the trick telephone booth in an attempt to clear his name for the murder of Fade, he realizes that no one will believe him and remarks: "Six guys I killed and they never touch me for it; the seventh I let live, and they hook me for a killing I never even done at all!"

Nevins points out that the characters in "Change of Murder" are reminiscent of those that Damon Runyon wrote about and that the ending, where Brains is accused of a murder he did not commit after having gotten away with real murders, recalls the end of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, where Frank is convicted of murdering Cora, whom he did not kill, although he had gotten away with killing her husband, Nick.

George Mathews as Sam Donleavy
"Change of Murder" is an entertaining story with a twist ending that makes it perfect for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. One also wonders if Hitchcock and Harrison found it hard to resist a story where one of the main characters is named Hitchcock and goes by the nickname of Hitch! Richard Carr adapted it for television and title was changed to "The Big Switch"; this was not the only thing about the story that was changed, but the show is still quite enjoyable. Hitchcock's onscreen introduction to the show includes a rare mention of the author of the story, as one master of suspense pays tribute to another: after a joke about mouse traps, Hitchcock remarks that "Cornell Woolrich makes people traps, and very good ones, too."

Joseph Downing as Lt. Al
"The Big Switch" was directed by Don Weis and begins with a scene not in the story. Before that scene, a couple of title cards superimposed over a street scene tell us that it is "Chicago 1920" and "In the Days of Bullets, Bootleggers and Beautiful Babes." From these title cards, we know that this episode will be tongue in cheek.

We first meet Sam (not Brains) Donleavy in his apartment, where he talks to his pet bird, Edgar, and his pet cat, Schultz; Sam has a pronounced accent that is a mix of Brooklynese, Irish, and Chicago gangster. A police lieutenant named Al pays Sam a visit; the two have known each other since childhood and Al recalls how a teacher once took a switch to Sam. Sam asks Al if he'd like to do the same and Al replies that "The only switch big enough for you now is the one that throws the juice to the chair." This explains the episode's title, "The Big Switch," though it could also refer to the switch of places Sam later makes by means of the trick phone booth.

Goldie talks to Morg about Baby
Suspecting that Sam has come back to Chicago to cause trouble, Al asks him to leave town and needles him about a framed picture of Goldie. Al suspects that Sam came back to the city to punish Morgan, Goldie's new boyfriend. The banter between the two old friends/enemies is effective and is peppered with slang typically used by gangsters and cops in Hollywood movies.

The show then picks up where the short story began, as Sam visits the speakeasy owned by Barney (not Fade). Humor continues to be the dominant theme as Sam complains that Barney's demand of $2500 for an alibi for murder is dishonest--as if the idea of committing murder and getting away with it is honest! Unlike in Woolrich's story, however, this time Sam plans to kill Goldie rather than her boyfriend. Al, the police lieutenant, comes to the speakeasy to keep an eye on Sam.

George E. Stone as Barney
When Sam escapes through the phone booth and goes to Goldie's room, the entire episode of him crawling across a plank between two buildings to gain access is eliminated, which is too bad, since it is a suspenseful part of the story and one that the reader can easily imagine. In the TV show, Sam just climbs in through Goldie's window. The scene between Sam and Goldie is similar to the one between Brains and Hitch in the story. This time, Goldie asks if she can call her husband Morgan to say goodbye and while they talk we see him on the other end of the line admiring "Baby," his large gun. Goldie asks Sam to give "little Donleavy" a kiss through the phone and he not only backs off from his plan to kill her, he insists that she meet him the next morning to go shopping for gifts for the baby! He gives her a chaste kiss on the forehead and leaves.

Beverly Michaels as Goldie
Back at the speakeasy, Sam hears Barney pretending to yell at him during the imaginary card game. He then hears a gunshot and rushes in; this time, the crowd that rushes in is led by Lt. Al, who holds a gun on Sam, certain that he has committed murder. The final lines spoken by Sam are similar to those spoken by Brains in the story and underline the irony of the situation.

"The Big Switch" is a fairly faithful adaptation of "Change of Murder" that adds the character of Al, the police lieutenant, and changes the target of Brain's wrath from his former girlfriend's new boyfriend to his former girlfriend herself. Both new characters are welcome, partly because of good performances by the actor and actress. In fact, the performances in this episode are all good.

Al cleans his gun once too often
Richard Carr (1929-1988) adapted the story for television. He worked in TV from 1952 to 1981 and in movies from 1956 to 1981, though most of his work was for television. He began as a writer for radio and wrote three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, all during the first season. He later wrote two episodes of Batman.
Don Weis (1922-2000), who directed "The Big Switch," directed five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid" and Henry Slesar's "First Class Honeymoon." He worked in movies from 1951 to 1978 and on TV from 1954 to 1990, directing many episodes of various TV series. He directed a Twilight Zone, four Batmans and four Night Gallery segments. An entertaining article about his career may be found here.

Entering Goldie's room
Starring as Sam Donleavy is the huge, craggy-faced actor George Mathews (1911-1984), whose career began with the WPA Theatre during the depression. He started in movies in 1943 and on TV in 1949 and worked into the early 1970s. He was in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but he will best be remembered as Harvey, the pool hall bully in the episode of The Honeymooners called "The Bensonhurst Bomber." Mathews was born--where else?--in Brooklyn.

The sultry Beverly Michaels (1928-2007) plays Goldie with the same tawdry sensuality she brought to other roles, such as her starring turn in Wicked Woman (1953). She had a brief career, appearing in 11 movies and three TV episodes between 1949 and 1956, but those roles were memorable. She was born in the Bronx and this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show. She appears to have given up acting soon after it was filmed.

Pretending to play cards
The role of Barney is played by the diminutive George E. Stone (1903-1967), 5'3" tall to George Mathews's 6'5", who was born Gerschon Lichtenstein in Poland. He was in countless movies from 1927 to 1961, including Little Caesar (1931), 42nd Street (1933), The Man With the Golden Arm (with Mathews, not long before "The Big Switch"), and Some Like it Hot (1959). His TV career lasted from 1953 to1963 and included two appearances on Superman, though this was the only time he was seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Joseph Downing (1903-1975) plays Al, the police lieutenant. He was in movies from 1935 to 1957 and on TV from 1949 to 1963. He appeared in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times.

"Change of Murder" was also adapted as a half-hour live TV broadcast on May 21, 1950, as part of the Colgate Theatre series; newspaper listings report that the cast included Bernard Nedell, Charles Jordan, Alfred Hopson and Martin Kingsley. This show is almost certainly lost.

"The Big Switch" is available on DVD here and may be viewed online for free here.

"The Big Switch." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 8 Jan. 1956. Television.
"CTVA - The Classic TV Archive Homepage." CTVA - The Classic TV Archive Homepage. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <>.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <>.
Nevins, Francis M. Cornell Woolrich--first You Dream, Then You Die. New York: Mysterious, 1988. Print.
Nevins, Francis M. "Introduction." Rear Window and Four Short Novels. New York: Ballantine, 1984. Vii-Xx. Print.
"TV Listings." Brooklyn Eagle 21 May 1950: n. pag. Print.
"TV Listings." New York Times 21 May 1950: n. pag. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <>.

Woolrich, Cornell. "Change of Murder." 1936. Rear Window and Four Short Novels. New York: Ballantine, 1984. 110-33. Print.


john kenrick said...

Fun episode, Jack. I've seen it a number of times. George Matthews and Beverly Michaels keep my eyes glued to the screen, each for a very different reason from the other. Both had what seem to me to be truncated careers in films and on television. In this they seem a good fit for this particular episode, which is very well plotted.

This was I believe my first exposure to Mathews in anything that I can remember. My first impression was "William Bendix knockoff", but he proved himself better than that. There was a more physically intimidating quality to Mathews, and not just his height. He was a more rugged type. As a movie buff friend of mine once noted, re Bendix: he seemed frail. No, not physically. Something around the eyes; like he wasn't quite well. I'm inclined to agree. Mathews comes across as more the tough guy real deal.

Michaels was tall, nicely put together, had a toothy charisma all her own. She maybe came too late to the feast for a substantial movie career, given her urban persona (Nita Talbot's another like that, albeit more modern feeling). Michaels feels almost like a "gold digger" from the Depression era. Also, she lacked the vulnerability that made Marilyn Monroe such a good fit for the Fifties. Michaels was the perfect dame for the kinds of films Hugo Haas made back in the day. His 1951 Pickup is a terrific showcase for her.

These two types, Mathews and Michaels, fit the retro tone of The Big Switch nicely. They both seem somewhat like blasts from the past, from an earlier period than the Fifties. I do think, though, that the 1920 setting for this episode is a bit too early. Wasn't the Volstead Act, which is what really made selling alcohol and transporting it an enforceable federal crime, passed in 1920? I rather doubt that the Roaring Twenties kicked in literally overnight. These things take time. This would be like setting a story of "the Swingin' Sixites" in the Kennedy New Frontier era of the feelgood surfers and Beach party movies, with the atmosphere of the Summer Of Love and Woodstock. Whoa! Not bloody likely.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. Definitely a fun episode with very good performances across the board!

Anon said...

The part of the story that I found QUITE unbelievable was when Goldie asks for permission to call her "husband", and not only does Sam allow her to do it but he even encourages her to tell Morg that she was about to die a slow, painful death! A very strange decision for a man who just agreed to pay someone $2500 to provide him with an airtight alibi. Why go to such trouble and expense to establish you weren't at the scene of a crime only to then willingly give the girl an opportunity to blurt out to her boyfriend that you were in fact there? Wouldn't the boyfriend's testimony seriously weaken your alibi? Would a supposedly experienced gangster really behave this foolishly?

Jack Seabrook said...

I think that's the point--he's not the brightest gangster! Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment!