Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Cornell Woolrich Part Four: "The Black Curtain" [8.9], overview and episode guide

by Jack Seabrook

First edition
Cornell Woolrich's 1941 novel, The Black Curtain, is two-thirds of a great thriller. The version aired in 1962 on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is half of a good television show. Surprisingly, each starts out in an intriguing fashion before failing in different ways.

The Black Curtain was Woolrich's second thriller to be published after he had spent the better part of the 1930s writing short fiction for pulp magazines. The story begins as Frank Townsend wakes up on Tillary Street (the city is never identified, but we assume it is New York, though the Tillary Street of Woolrich's imagination bears little resemblance to the real Tillary Street in Brooklyn) after having been knocked unconscious by a piece of molding that fell from a building. He identifies himself as Frank Townsend but notices that the initials in his hat are D.N. Finding his way home, he learns that his wife Virginia has moved. When he locates her, she tells him that he left for work on January 30, 1938, and never came home until today, May 10, 1941!

Assuming that amnesia was caused by one blow to the head and cured by another, Frank wonders where he has been for more than three years. He gets his old job back but is soon pursued by an ominous man with a gun, barely escaping him by dashing through the closing doors of a subway car. He is forced to give up his job to avoid his pursuer and, when the man locates his residence, Frank and Virginia make a daring escape. Sending Virginia away for her own safety, Frank returns to Tillary Street, hoping it will hold clues to his recent past and help him understand why he is being pursued.

Richard Basehart as Townsend
After more than a week of fruitless searching up and down Tillary Street and the surrounding area, he meets a young woman named Ruth Dillon, who was in love with him during his lost years. She tells him that his name is Daniel Nearing and he learns that on August 15, 1940, he supposedly murdered a man for whom he worked as a groundskeeper in New Jericho. Frank is sure he is not guilty and decides to return to the scene of the crime to prove his innocence. He takes a train to the Diedrich estate and hides out in an unused caretaker's lodge. Frank reconnects with Emil Diedrich, an old invalid who communicates by blinking his eyes in Morse Code. Frank learns the truth, that the murdered man's wife and brother killed him and framed Frank.

The killers catch Frank and tie up him and Ruth, intending to kill them both, but Emil sets fire to his mattress and the house goes up in flames. Frank is saved but Ruth is killed, the man who had been pursuing him turns out to be a policeman, and Frank is able to explain everything that happened and clear his name. As the novel ends, he rides the train back home to his wife, finally able to resume the life that had been interrupted.

Lola Albright as Ruth
My summary of the novel leaves out a great deal but conveys the gist of the plot. The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Frank discovers that he has lost a period of his life and that something must have happened that put him in danger. In the second, he uncovers the details of who he was, where he lived, and why he is being pursued. In the third, he goes back to the scene of the crime and, through a series of extraordinary events, is able to prove his innocence. Woolrich's touch for setting up a suspenseful situation and taking it to extremes serves him well in the first two sections, but the third is too dependent on pulp magazine conventions and rapid fire events to fulfill the promise of the novel's beginning.

The adaptation on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that aired on November 15, 1962, was not the first time that The Black Curtain had been produced, but it is the only time it has been adapted for television. The novel was first made into a movie and released in in 1942 with the title Street of Chance. The film stars Burgess Meredith and Claire Trevor and is not available on DVD or online, though there is tantalizing clip here. The radio series Suspense then aired the story three times: on December 2, 1943, November 30, 1944, and January 3, 1948.

Joel Murcott adapted The Black Curtain for television in 1962 and made enormous changes to the story in order to fit it into a running time of about 50 minutes. Unfortunately, most of the changes are not for the better. The show begins with Phil (not Frank) Townsend being hit over the head by a blackjack wielded by a young tough who robs him on a dark city street one night. A taxi happens on the scene and scares the young man and his friend away; the cab driver then helps Townsend to an all-night drugstore, where Phil recalls that he had just been discharged from the Army that morning and was on his way to City Hall to get married when he got out of a taxi and felt dizzy.

The cab driver takes Phil to see his girl, but she has married and had a baby since Phil disappeared. It is September 23, 1962, and he has been gone for three years. She went to the police and even hired a private detective but never found Phil; instead, she married the private eye. The cabbie and Phil visit an all-night diner and Phil sees an inscription on his watch that tells him that his other name was David and that a girl named Ruth loved him. The cabbie advises him not to go to the police and suggests he spend the night in a cheap hotel.

The coach tackles Carlin
The next morning, Phil wanders into a park, where boys are playing football. He meets Ruth by chance and suddenly a man takes a shot at him. He runs, avoiding more gunfire, and escapes when the shooter is tackled by the football coach. Going to the address Ruth gave him, Phil finds the apartment where he had been hiding out as David and meets the young man who mugged him but Phil does not make the connection because he never saw the boy's face. The young man infers that he will blackmail Phil and Phil finds a newspaper clipping that says he is wanted for the murder of the wife of a famous lawyer.

Meanwhile, the man who shot at him turns out to be a private investigator who is tracking him down. Hiding in the apartment, Phil and Ruth talk (and talk and talk) and he learns that he worked for her uncle. The private eye is a man named Frank Carlin, who was hired by Ruth's uncle to look into the murder of the uncle's wife, whose body was found in Phil's apartment above his employer's garage. Phil had chronic migraines and would either pass out, grow violent, or go blank; after one of these events, he confessed to murder.

Ruth lures Carlin
Eventually, Phil convinces Ruth to go outside and act as bait to lure Carlin to the apartment. When the private eye arrives, Phil overpowers him and demands the truth. Carlin admits that Ruth's uncle murdered his own wife and then asked Carlin to frame Phil and kill him; Carlin agreed because he had fallen in love with Phil's wife. The show ends as Phil tells Ruth that he plans to go to the veterans' hospital for treatment and they express a desire to see each other again.

The TV version of "The Black Curtain" is so different from the novel that it is necessary to relate the plot of each one in order to make sense of the changes. One of the aspects of the novel that I find most disturbing is the way that Townsend forgets about his wife, who has already had to fend for herself for over three years during the Great Depression, and takes up with a young woman/lover. The TV show solves this, surely pleasing the censors, by making Virginia not his wife but his former fiance. She is now married and has a baby, so there is no concern about adultery with Ruth or abandonment of Virginia.

Harold J. Stone as the cabbie
The minor characters in the TV show are good additions. The cabbie helps Townsend find his way in the first half, and the druggist provides a bit of useful information as well as being an entertaining character. Starting out on a dark, wet city street in the middle of the night is a promising way to begin the episode and the early scenes have a noir feeling to them that is first supported then sabotaged by the awkward musical score by Lyn Murray. Initially, the jazzy score seems to work with the events onscreen, but as the show goes on it seems more and more like someone pulled music cues and slapped them onto the show without paying attention to what was going on; it's hard to believe that this score was written specifically for this episode.

Townsend is hit on the head
The show goes badly awry starting with the scene in the park, when Carlin appears out of nowhere and begins shooting at Phil. Intended to be a surprise, it instead seems ridiculous, especially when Carlin runs onto the field in the midst of a group of teenage boys and takes more shots at Phil. Worst of all is when the football coach tackles the gun-toting private eye! The show grinds to a halt not long after that as Phil takes up residence in the apartment where he lived as Dave. In fact, he never leaves it for the remainder of the show, and much of the second half is taken up by Ruth talking endlessly, explaining what happened with the murder. It is difficult to condense a novel into an hour of television, but other episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour do a much better job than this!

Having the private eye take on such a key role in the story does not work at all. In the end, he turns out to be Virginia's husband and Phil's pursuer, having covered up for the real killer after he was hired by Virginia to find Phil. It's too much to put on a single character, especially one who gets little screen time or dialogue until the end. In adapting Woolrich's novel for TV, Murcott made the mistake of trying to simplify some things while making others overly complex. The result is a boring mess, something Woolrich's stories rarely are. They may depend on wild coincidences, but they are entertaining, something "The Black Curtain" on TV is not.

Lee Philips as Carlin, the private eye
The prior adaptations of The Black Angel are different from the TV version. The first radio adaptation aired on Suspense on December 2, 1943, and Francis M. Nevins Jr. calls this the best radio adaptation ever broadcast of a Woolrich tale. I have not heard many others, but I can attest to the quality of this show. It stars Cary Grant as Townsend and it was adapted by George Corey. In this version, the character of Virginia is wholly omitted, as is much of the book's first section. Townsend finds Ruth quickly, so much of the search in the book's second section is omitted as well.

The thrilling escape made by Frank and Virginia in the novel is made by Frank and Ruth in this version, which compresses events but follows the novel's general plot. The old man's Morse Code eye blinks are simplified to "blink twice for yes and once for no," which works better, but the biggest shock of all comes at the end, when the old man identifies Ruth as the killer! She murdered a man who would not leave her alone and kills herself at the end when the truth comes out. Having the hero's love interest turn out to be the killer is a wonderful way to wrap up the story and it packs a hardboiled punch that the novel and TV show lack. (Although I have not seen the movie Street of Chance, online reviews state that it was the first to change the identity of the murderer to Ruth.) Listen to this great half-hour of old time radio here.

George Mitchell as the druggist
The Suspense version of The Black Curtain must have been popular, and deservedly so. It marked the first episode of the series to be sponsored by Roma Wines ("made in California for enjoyment around the world") and almost exactly a year later it was produced live for a second time, again with Cary Grant, for the show's first anniversary on November 30, 1944. The second live production uses the same script by George Corey but moves the date ahead a year from 1943 to 1944. Listen to it here.

A third radio production of The Black Curtain marked the first episode of the expanded, hour-long Suspense series on January 3, 1948. George Corey again wrote the script; this time, Robert Montgomery stars. The story takes place in 1944 and is padded, making it less exciting than the half-hour versions that preceded it. There is a clever bit of business early on when Townsend learns that he missed the start of World War II, much like Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the American Revolution, but the additions made to stretch the broadcast to an hour do not improve it. Listen and decide for yourself here.

Noir lighting
Joel Murcott (1915-1978), who adapted The Black Curtain for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, wrote for radio and then for television from 1955 to 1975, including nine episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and three of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. With Henry Slesar, he co-wrote the excellent hour-long episode, "Behind the Locked Door."

"The Black Curtain" was directed by Sydney Pollack (1934-2008), who had a long and successful career as a director and sometimes an actor. He began as a TV director from 1961 to 1965, then switched to movies from 1965 to 2005, winning an Oscar for Out of Africa (1985). He directed two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

The unfortunate score by Lyn Murray (1909-1989) was one of 35 he wrote for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; among his many credits were Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955).

Gail Kobe as Virginia
Starring as Phil Townsend is Richard Basehart (1914-1984), whose career was discussed in the article on Henry Slesar's "Starring the Defense." Basehart's website here has plenty of information about the actor.

Lola Albright (1924- ) co-stars as Ruth; her career began in movies in 1947 and added TV in 1951. She was a regular on Peter Gunn from 1958 to 1961 and was in three episodes of the Hitchcock series.

The helpful cabbie is played by Harold J. Stone (1913-2005), a wonderful and prolific actor who was on TV and in movies from the late 1940s to the mid 1980s. His career has been discussed in connection with "The Night the World Ended," "Lamb to the Slaughter," and "The Second Verdict," which represent three of the five times he appeared on the Hitchcock show.

James Farentino
Gail Kobe (1931-2013) appears as Virginia in one of her two roles on the Hitchcock series. She was a TV actress from 1956 to 1975 and then had a career change and produced soap operas in the '70s and '80s. She was also on The Twilight Zone three times and The Outer Limits twice.

In only his second acting credit, James Farentino (1938-2012) portrays the young tough who mugs Townsend and hits him over the head, setting the story in motion. This was the first of Farentino's two appearances on the Hitchcock series, and he frequently was seen on TV and in the movies from 1962 to 2006, including twice on Night Gallery.

Celia Lovsky
Celia Lovsky (1897-1979) is seen briefly as Townsend's landlady; she was on three episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Kind Waitress."

The druggist at the all-night pharmacy is played by George Mitchell (1905-1972), who also appeared in Henry Slesar's "Forty Detectives Later," as well as two other hour-long episodes. He was in movies from the mid-'30s to the early '70s and on TV from 1949 to 1973. He was on Thriller twice and The Twilight Zone four times.

Finally, the private detective, Carlin, is played by Lee Philips (1927-1999). He acted in TV roles from 1953 to 1975 and in movie roles from 1957 to 1965; he continued to work in the industry as a TV director from 1965 to 1995. He was on the Hitchcock show four times, The Twilight Zone twice, and The Outer Limits  once.

Watch "The Black Curtain" for free online here. It is not yet available on DVD.

Overview: Woolrich on Hitchcock on TV

Cornell Woolrich was not well served by the Hitchcock TV show. Of the four episodes that adapted his stories and a novel, only one is memorable, and none capture the suspense for which he was famous.

"The Big Switch" is an average episode from the first season with good performances, but it fails to live up to "Change of Murder," the story from which it is taken.

"Momentum" is a weak episode that strips the original story of the title attribute.

"Post Mortem" is the most successful of the lot, due to a strong script by Robert C. Dennis and a terrific comedic performance by Joanna Moore.

"The Black Curtain" is a failure that turns an entertaining novel into a boring hour.

The best adaptation of Woolrich's work connected with Hitchcock is, of course, the masterful 1954 film Rear Window. The TV shows don't even come close to its brilliance.


Episode title-“The Big Switch” [1.15]
Broadcast date-8 Jan. 1956
Teleplay by-Richard Carr
Based on-"Change of Murder" by Woolrich
First print appearance-Detective Fiction Weekly, 25 Jan. 1936
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Momentum” [1.39]
Broadcast date-24 June 1956
Teleplay by-Francis Cockrell
Based on-"Murder Always Gathers Momentum" by Woolrich
First print appearance-Detective Fiction Weekly, 14 Dec. 1940
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“Post Mortem” [3.33]
Broadcast date-18 May 1958
Teleplay by-Robert C. Dennis
Based on-"Post-Mortem" by Woolrich
First print appearance-Black Mask, April 1940
Watch episode-unavailable online
Available on DVD?-here

Episode title-“The Black Curtain” [7.9]
Broadcast date-15 Nov. 1962
Teleplay by-Joel Murcott
Based on-The Black Curtain by Woolrich
First print appearance-1941 novel
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-no



"The Black Curtain | Suspense | Thriller | Old Time Radio Downloads." The Black Curtain | Suspense | Thriller | Old Time Radio Downloads. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2015. <>.
"The Black Curtain | Suspense | Thriller | Old Time Radio Downloads." The Black Curtain | Suspense | Thriller | Old Time Radio Downloads. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2015. <>.
"The Black Curtain | Suspense | Thriller | Old Time Radio Downloads." The Black Curtain | Suspense | Thriller | Old Time Radio Downloads. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2015. <>.
"The Black Curtain." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 15 Nov. 1962. Television.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 01 July 2015. <>.
"Main Page." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 July 2015. <>.
Nevins, Francis M. Cornell Woolrich--first You Dream, Then You Die. New York: Mysterious, 1988. Print.
Woolrich, Cornell. The Black Curtain. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.


Grant said...

Even if it is hit-and-miss, it's the actors as much as anything else that make me watch it, especially Stone and Mitchell as the cabbie and the pharmacist, and James Farentino.

Jack Seabrook said...

You're right--Stone is great in this and the show really loses steam once he exits. Thanks for reading!

Bobby j said...

Jack, you may also like to try two episodes from Thriller, that do a pretty terrific job adapting Woolrich.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks! All of us here at bare*bones are big fans of Karloff and Thriller!

john kenrick said...

Jack, I wholeheartedly agree that the Hitchcock Hour version of The Black Curtain is a disappointment, although I watched it again the other night and it managed, amazingly, to hold my interest. Much of it was the actors. I wasn't sure I was actually watching Lola Albright, who looked heavier and somewhat darker than on Peter Gunn.

Richard Basehart was a good actor, and I was a big fan of his when I was a kid, though his work doesn't wow me as it once did. When I was growing up he struck me as a great master class actor who deserved way better than he got in Hollywood (this was before his foray into deep waters); and he now strikes me as somewhat mannered, and I often get an unpleasant air of self-pity in his work. It's there in The Black Curtain, and it drags the episode down. The Mark Stevens of The 1946 The Dark Corner would have been perfect, but it's an imperfect world.

Between them, Harold J. Stone's cabbie and George Mitchell's druggist (as they used to call them) kept me interested just for their acting skills. Stone's warmth and Mitchell's professionalism rang effortlessly true. Yet fine players do not a fine episode make. The writing was off in this one. The show's trademark suspense was handled near amateurishly at times, like one liners in a grade B comedy. Those lines are never funny and The Black Curtain's "suspense plotting" didn't amount to much.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I studied The Black Curtain before I wrote an introduction to a reprinting a few years back and I think the TV show is not a good adaptation. Overall, my impression so far (and I've written about over half of the Hitchcock hour shows to date) is that the attempts to adapt novels to the 50-minute format did not work. The first season of hour-long shows saw a bunch of novel adaptations, and I suspect the producers realized the problem, since the second and third seasons (wisely) concentrated on adapting short stories, which worked much better.

Anonymous said...

It Is Indeed A Confusing Episode, But I Still Enjoyed It!