Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Cornell Woolrich Part Three: "Post Mortem" [3.33]

by Jack Seabrook

"Post-Mortem" first
appeared here
"Post Mortem" is an example of a mediocre Cornell Woolrich story that was vastly improved when adapted for television. The story, titled "Post-Mortem," was first published in the April 1940 issue of Black Mask. The TV adaptation on Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired on CBS on Sunday, May 18, 1958, with a teleplay by Robert C. Dennis. It starred Joanna Moore, Steve Forrest and James Gregory and it was directed by Arthur Hiller.

Woolrich's original story begins as the former Mrs. Josie Mead receives a visit from three reporters who tell her that she is one of three Americans to win the Irish Sweepstakes, to the tune of $150,000. She tells them that she is now Mrs. Archer, having remarried after the death of her first husband, Harry Mead. Knowing nothing about a sweepstakes ticket and unable to collect the winnings without it, she and her new husband Stephen search their house without success. Once Mrs. Archer is alone, she receives a return visit from Westcott, one of the reporters, whose probing questions lead to the conclusion that the winning ticket must have been in the pocket of the suit in which Harry Mead was buried.

Although Westcott and Mrs. Archer discuss exhuming the body, when she proposes the idea to Stephen he has a negative reaction, saying that "It gives me the creeps!" Without Stephen's knowledge, his wife and Westcott go to the cemetery, where workmen dig up the grave of Harry Mead.  Westcott and Mrs. Archer open the coffin and Westcott locates the winning ticket in the corpse's suit pocket. He also notices something else and asks that the body be removed and sent for an autopsy.

Joanna Moore as Mrs. Archer
Mrs. Archer figures out that Westcott is a detective, not a reporter, and explains that her first husband died suddenly after her second husband had sold him a life insurance policy. Westcott admits having noticed that the corpse had a fractured skull and thinking that Archer murdered Mead. Though Mrs. Archer confesses to the murder, he tells her that she has the details all wrong and that he knows she is trying to protect her new husband.

Mrs. Archer explains to Westcott that her second husband bought a new sun lamp for her to use while in the bathtub but that he keeps accidentally knocking it over. She also mentions that Archer brought Mead a bottle of whisky right before he died, but Westcott's suspicion that the bottle was poisoned does not make sense because the bottle dropped and smashed on the floor. The delivery man who brought a replacement bottle helped her pick up the pieces and said that there was enough for a stiff drink in some of the larger fragments.

Westcott leaves Mrs. Archer home alone and Stephen returns. When she is in the bathtub, her new husband knocks the sun lamp over and it falls in the water, but she is not killed because the power goes out right before the accident. Westcott sneaked into the basement and turned off the power just in time! He accuses Archer of the inadvertent murder of the delivery man, who died of poisonous liquor that he drank from a broken fragment of the bottle with which Archer had planned to murder Mead.

Steve Forrest as Archer
It turns out that Harry Mead had died a natural death after all, but his sister suspected foul play and got the police involved. The fractured skull that Westcott saw on Mead's corpse was due to an accident that occurred when the undertaker's assistant dropped the coffin while loading it into the hearse! Westcott remarks wryly that he happened upon one murder unexpectedly while investigating what turned out to be a case of death from natural causes.

It's clear from the convoluted plot of "Post-Mortem" that Woolrich got tied up in knots while writing this story and had to come up with some wild coincidences to wrap up all of its dangling threads. Robert C. Dennis had a challenge ahead of him when he was given the task of adapting the story for the small screen, a challenge that he solved quite neatly by streamlining the plot and utilizing a comic tone.

The TV show begins with a scene where Judy (Josie in the story) relaxes in a bubble bath. Steve brings in an electric heater and places it on the side of the tub before plugging it in. They argue about money; she has savings from her first husband's life insurance policy and he thinks they should invest the money in something risky but potentially rewarding. He accidentally knocks into the heater and burns his hand. This scene sets up the attempted murder at the end of the episode nicely and provides a welcome opportunity to see the lovely Joanna Moore in a bubble bath!

It's not in the attic!
The second scene corresponds with the beginning of Woolrich's story, as the reporters arrive at Mrs. Archer's home. Unlike the source, Westcott is not among them, and it becomes apparent that the story will be told with a light touch, taking full advantage of Moore's excellent comic timing. She banters with the reporters who keep pressing her to pose on the sofa for flattering photographs as she tells them about her life "on the stage" before she met her first husband. Moore plays the role with a delicate southern accent and her performance is perfect.

In the next scene, Steve and Judy search the attic for the ticket and realize where it must be. Steve turns down Judy's suggestion of digging up the body, so we get another scene of her in the bubble bath, this time telephoning the cemetery to arrange the exhumation all on her own. The scene then shifts to the Shady Rest Cemetery, where Judy, all in black, arranges the grisly task. Finally, Westcott makes his appearance, entering the cemetery office and volunteering to search the body, claiming to be a reporter doing a human interest story on the sweepstakes winner.

James Gregory as Westcott
James Gregory, as Westcott, adds an amusing touch when he comes back into the office after going over the corpse--he has to ask the cemetery clerk for a bottle and glass so he can down a quick drink before he is able to answer any questions. Back at the Archer homestead, Judy tells Stephen about finding the ticket and he resents her plan to manage the money wisely. Westcott then visits Judy and admits to her that he is an insurance investigator, not a detective as in the story. He suspected Steve of murdering Harry and now has an autopsy report to prove that Judy's second husband poisoned her first. With this simple change, script writer Dennis cleans up much of the muddle that occurs at the end of Woolrich's story. Gone is the skull fracture, gone is the delivery man, gone is the broken bottle fragment with enough poisoned liquor in it for a deadly drink.

Phoning the cemetery
Westcott suggests to Judy that her new found wealth puts her in danger from a husband who has already murdered for a much smaller sum and, though she argues that Steve loves her, the seed of doubt has been planted in her mind. The episode's climax finds her back in the bathtub, as Steve first gives a fake apology and then throws the electric heater into the tub! She screams, the doorbell rings, and Steve races downstairs, where Westcott and some policemen rush in and arrest him. Steve tells them that there was an accident and that Judy may be dead, but she marches down the stairs in a robe and sadly tells them that he tried to kill her. Fortunately, Westcott pulled the fuse before leaving the house, so even though the heater was plugged in it had no electric power and was thus harmless.

Best of all is the conclusion to the episode, completely new in Dennis's script. The cops take Steve out of the house and Westcott tells Judy that he will be electrocuted, the very fate she avoided. Suddenly, she runs outside and approaches Steve before he is put into the police car. She hugs him and observers think this strange, but we see that she has removed the winning ticket from his pocket. "Thank goodness I remembered!" she says. "I don't want to go through that again!"

Robert C. Dennis should get much of the credit for cleaning up Woolrich's somewhat tortuous story and turning it into a straightforward half hour of television. The rest of the credit goes to the three lead actors. Joanna Moore is especially good and carries the show. Steve Forrest is competent as Archer, and James Gregory is his usual, gravelly-voiced self as Westcott. The program is quite enjoyable and a real improvement over the source.

"Post Mortem" was directed by Arthur Hiller (1923- ), who directed 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in all. Among them were two comic tales that were less successful than "Post Mortem": "The Right Price" and "Not the Running Type." Robert C. Dennis (1915-1983), who wrote the teleplay for "Post Mortem," wrote thirty episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Right Kind of House" and "Dip in the Pool."

Starring as Judy Archer is Joanna Moore (1934-1997), who was in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and another two of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Her outstanding comic timing and beauty add immeasurably to the success of "Post Mortem," as they do to "Most Likely to Succeed" and "Who Needs an Enemy?"

Archer tosses the heater into the tub
Steve Forrest (1925-2013) plays Steve Archer with a quiet strength; his chiseled features make him perfect for the role of a husband who turns out to be a murderer. Forrest was in the U.S. Army in WWII and fought at the Battle of the Bulge; after the war he embarked on a sixty-year career on stage, in movies, and on TV. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice, along with episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. The twelfth of thirteen children, he was sixteen years younger than his brother, Dana Andrews, who starred in many classic films noir.

James Gregory (1911-2002) plays Westcott; his career stretched from the forties to the eighties and he played numerous cops on countless TV shows. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including Fredric Brown's "The Cream of the Jest" with Claude Rains, he turned up in a single episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and he appeared on episodes of Thriller, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Night Gallery, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. One of his most memorable roles was a recurring part as Deputy Inspector Lugar on the series Barney Miller from 1975 to 1982.

Roscoe Ates with Joanna Moore
Familiar faces in smaller roles include Roscoe Ates (1895-1962) as the cemetery clerk, who was in six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His long career began in vaudeville and included a role in Freaks (1932) and small parts in King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind (1939), Sullivan's Travels (1941)and The Palm Beach Story (1942). Playing one of the reporters was David Fresco (1909-1997), who appeared in twelve episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Gloating Place," "Water's Edge," and "The Second Wife."

David Fresco is behind Joanna Moore
Woolrich's story had been adapted twice before, once on radio and once on TV, both times for Suspense. The radio version aired on April 4, 1946, and starred Agnes Moorehead; the script was by Robert Tallman. Like the Hitchcock version, this version begins with a scene involving the bathtub and the sun lamp, but then follows the story more closely, leaving out the business with the delivery man and the broken bottle. This time, Josie confesses to murder but it turns out to be a ploy to trap Stephen. Listen to this version online here.

The Suspense TV version is a primitive half hour of live television that aired on May 10, 1949, and stared Sidney Blackmer and Peggy Conklin. A tedious show to sit through, it makes significant changes to the story. This time, Archer is the doctor who signed Mead's death certificate, and he is suspicious from the start. The winning sweepstakes ticket isn't even mentioned until halfway through the show, and it turns out to be a fake story planted by the insurance investigator. The only plus to this show is that it is the only version in which we get to see Archer visit the grave, although when he inspects the body he finds no ticket! Frank Gabrielson wrote the script and Robert Stevens directed; this version may be viewed for free online here.

The Alfred Hitchcock Presents version of "Post Mortem" is available on DVD here; it is not currently available for online viewing.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville,
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Nevins, Francis M., Jr. "Introduction." Rear Window: And Four Short Novels. New York: Ballantine, 1984. Vii-Xx. Print.
"Post Mortem | Suspense | Thriller | Old Time Radio Downloads." Post Mortem | Suspense | Thriller | Old Time Radio Downloads. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2015. <>.
"Post Mortem." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 18 May 1958. Television.
"Suspense (1949): "Post Mortem" (10 May 1949; Season 1, Episode 9)." YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 14 June 2015. <>.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 June 2015. <>.

Woolrich, Cornell. "Post-Mortem." 1940. Rear Window: And Four Short Novels. New York: Ballantine, 1984. 41-74. Print.

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