Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Two: "Our Cook's A Treasure" [1.8]

by Jack Seabrook

The second episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be scripted by Robert C. Dennis was "Our Cook's a Treasure," which aired on CBS on Sunday, November 20, 1955. The teleplay was based on "Suspicion," a story by Dorothy L. Sayers that was published in the first issue of Mystery League Magazine (October 1933), the precursor to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The story by Sayers takes place in England. As it begins, Mr. Mummery is riding the train to work when his stomach begins to hurt. His wife, Ethel, is recovering from a nervous breakdown and their cook, Mrs. Sutton, served Mummery a fine breakfast that day. Among the news items he reads in his paper is a report that "the police were still looking for the woman who was supposed to have poisoned a family in Lincoln."

At the office, Mummery chats amiably with Brookes, who recalls that Ethel and her co-star, young Welbeck, "positively brought the house down" in a Drama Society play the year before. Brookes brings up the poisoner, Mrs. Andrews, referring to her as an "arsenic maniac." At home that evening, Mummery finds Ethel resting and Mrs. Sutton preparing dinner. A couple of pain-free days go by and Mummery has another spell of illness on Thursday night, prompting Ethel to call in the doctor. By Saturday, he's feeling well enough to complain about Mrs. Sutton reading his morning paper and not folding it neatly when she's done.

Everett Sloane as Ralph
He decides to do some gardening and, in the potting shed, finds a tin of "Arsenical Weed Killer." He notes that the stopper is loose, as if it has recently been opened. Back in the house, he finds young Welbeck and his chatty mother visiting; she wants to talk about the Lincoln Poisoning Case. After the guests leave, Mummery examines some newspapers that he finds in the kitchen drawer and discovers that all of the stories and photographs referring to Mrs. Andrews have been cut out. He realizes that Mrs. Andrews disappeared from sight right around the time he hired Mrs. Sutton and that his stomach troubles began not long after that.

Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Sutton
He tries to discuss the matter with Ethel, but she does not want to talk about it. He finds himself unable to bring it up with Mrs. Sutton. In the days that follow, he watches Mrs. Sutton as she prepares breakfast and he calls Ethel often from the office to make sure she is alright. After several days he begins to think himself a fool, until one night he comes home to find a note from Mrs. Sutton telling him that she left him a cup of cocoa. He takes a sip and thinks it tastes odd; he pours the cocoa into a bottle and checks the potting shed, where he finds that the stopper in the bottle of arsenic is loose again.

The next day, he takes the suspicious liquid to a chemist's to be tested and finds out that it does contain arsenic. He rushes home, worried about Ethel, but discovers that she's fine, having spent the afternoon entertaining young Welbeck and making arrangements for the Drama Society. Mrs. Sutton announces that Mrs. Andrews has been caught and Mummery realizes that she must not have been the one to put arsenic in his cocoa. "Who, then--? He glanced around at his wife, and in her eyes he saw something that he had never seen before . . ."

"Suspicion" is a classic story of suspense that Lee and Dannay liked well enough to include in the landmark 1941 Modern Library collection, 101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories 1841-1941. The story is lighthearted and builds to a subtle conclusion, as Mummery realizes that his wife, rather than his cook, has been trying to kill him.

Janet Ward as Ethel
The tale was adapted twice for radio and three times for television before Robert C. Dennis changed the title to "Our Cook's A Treasure" in his teleplay. The version aired on Alfred Hitchcock Presents updates the story, moves it to New York City and an unnamed suburb, and succeeds in streamlining the narrative, changing the focus, and providing a motive for the wife's behavior. The three lead actors give strong performances and Robert Stevens uses creative camerawork to make a visually impressive half-hour of television.

The TV shows begins as Ralph Montgomery (Mummery in the Sayers story) banters with Mrs. Sutton, the cook, over breakfast, complaining about how she folds his newspaper but praising her cooking. His much younger wife, Ethel, joins him and he comments that she is playing the lead in Summer and Smoke against Don Welbeck. Already, in the first scene, it is evident that scriptwriter Dennis is very familiar with the story and has taken bits and pieces of the narrative and woven them into his teleplay in a different order. This scene is followed by an extended tracking shot outside as Ralph and his friend Earl Kramer walk away from the house and discuss Mrs. Andrews, the poisoner.

Illuminated by the glow from the TV set
At work, Ralph suffers from severe stomach pains and, when he gets home, he insists that his wife go to her play rehearsal rather than stay to care for him. He gets up and putters in his workshop, where he finds the arsenic. Later, he sits alone in the living room watching TV (and sitting very close to what must have been a tiny screen); the lighting in this scene is particularly good, as Ralph's face is lit up by the glow from the TV set. Ethel comes home and replaces him in the chair; he brings up the idea of firing Mrs. Sutton but Ethel brushes it off. As they leave the room, we see Mrs. Sutton emerge from the kitchen, looking after them sternly. We are thus encouraged to think of her as a suspicious character.

The card game is reflected in a mirror
The next scene opens with another impressive shot, as a card game among Ralph and his friends is shot in reflection in an oval wall mirror. Ralph sees a newspaper article about Mrs. Andrews, and his friend Kramer, sitting at the table, discusses possible motives, setting up the show's conclusion by addressing a topic left out of the source story. In the next scene, director Stevens uses forced perspective to focus the viewer's attention on the pot of cocoa on the stove, then on Ralph's hands as he pours the liquid into a jar, and finally on the cup, foreshadowing the show's final shot.

Ralph has the cocoa tested and returns home after telephoning and reaching Mrs. Sutton, who tells him that his wife went out and that she doesn't know where she went. A low angle shot of Mrs. Sutton adds to her menace. At this point, the script diverges from the story by having Ralph fire Mrs. Sutton, who tells him that his wife can't be trusted. The scene is well-written and well-played; the viewer knows what Ralph is talking about but it starts to become clear that Mrs. Sutton does not and that she is talking about something else entirely. One question arises in my mind here: if Ralph has proof that his cocoa was poisoned and thinks that Mrs. Sutton is the culprit, why does he fire her rather than call the police? This does not come up in the story by Sayers, since he learns that Mrs. Andrews has been captured and never fires Mrs. Sutton.

Stevens draws our attention to the pot
by putting it in the foreground of this shot
In the TV show, Ralph tells Ethel that he has discharged their cook and then goes outside to get the newspaper, from which he learns about the poisoner's capture in Queens, which confirms that the show takes place in and around New York City. As Mrs. Sutton prepares to leave, Ralph apologizes and begs her to stay on, but she informs him that Ethel and Don Welbeck made her lie for them. She leaves and Ralph realizes that his wife not only has been having an affair with her co-star, she must be trying to kill him.

And now the motive is clear--a younger wife has fallen for another man and works to murder her older husband, using a method similar to that used by a famous murderer who is still at large. The final shot is memorable: Ethel emerges from the kitchen with a cup of cocoa for Ralph. She walks straight toward the camera, talking directly to it as it takes Ralph's point of view, and offers him the poisoned cup, which fills the screen in the show's last image.

The cup fills the screen in the final shot
"Our Cook's A Treasure" is an example of how the cast and crew of Alfred Hitchcock Presents could work together to take a classic short story and adapt it into a superb half hour of suspense. In addition to the fast-moving script by Robert C. Dennis, the direction by Robert Stevens is excellent. Stevens lived from 1920 to 1989 and directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock show, making him most responsible for setting the visual tone of the series. He won an Emmy for "The Glass Eye" and directed many other classic episodes.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was a poet, playwright, essayist and novelist, best known for her series of books featuring upper class English detective Lord Peter Wimsey. She was a founding member, with Agatha Christie and others, of The Detective Club in 1930. For more about Sayers, visit this website.

Elliott Reid as Kramer
Everett Sloane (1909-1965) gives another in a string of fine performances as Ralph. He began his career on Broadway in 1935 and was busy on radio, including work with Orson Welles's Mercury Theater. This led to his film debut in Citizen Kane (1941); he followed it with many roles, including The Lady From Shanghai (1947). He began TV work in 1951 and was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times. He also made a memorable appearance on The Twilight Zone. Sadly, he committed suicide in 1965.

Playing Mrs. Sutton is the familiar character actress Beulah Bondi (1889-1981), who began making films in 1931 and is best remembered today for her role as Jimmy Stewart's mother in It's a Wonderful Life. She only appeared once on the Hitchcock show, but she kept working on TV well into her 80s.

Janet Ward (1925-1995) plays Ethel, the scheming wife. She had a 40-year career in TV and movies but her roles were somewhat limited and this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show. She was 16 years younger than co-star Everett Sloane.

In a small role, we see Elliott Reid (1920-2013) as Ralph's friend Earl. Like Everett Sloane, Reid worked with the Mercury Theater and had an almost five-decade long career in movies and on TV. He was featured in Ray Bradbury's "Design for Loving" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also appeared once on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, but I will always think of him as Felix Unger's writing teacher on The Odd Couple. Olan Soule (1909-1994) appears briefly as the chemist who tests the cocoa for Ralph; he was on the Hitchcock series eight times and played many character roles in his long career; he later had many credits as a voice actor in animated cartoons.

"Our Cook's a Treasure" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.

Prior radio and TV versions were as follows (titled "Suspicion" unless otherwise noted):


Suspense, 12 August 1942 (30 minutes, lost)
Suspense, 10 February 1944 (30 minutes, same script as 1942 version, listen here)
Suspense, 3 April 1948 (60 minutes, listen here)


Suspense, 15 March 1949 (also directed by Robert Stevens, watch here)
The Actor's Studio, 17 February 1950 (as "Mr. Mummery's Suspicion", unavailable)
Studio One, 3 September 1951 (as "Mr. Mummery's Suspicion," watch here)

"Escape and Suspense!" 'Escape and Suspense!' N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2015.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2015.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 26 July 2015.
"Main Page." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 26 July 2015.
"Our Cook's a Treasure." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 20 Nov. 1955. Television.
Sayers, Dorothy L. "Suspicion." 1933. 101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories, 1941-1941. Ed. Ellery Queen. New York: Modern Library, 1941. 922-37. Print.

In two weeks: "Guilty Witness," with Joe Mantell and Kathleen Maguire!

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