Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Eight: "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" [1.29]

by Jack Seabrook

Stanley Ellin's short story, "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby," first published in the May 1950 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, was adapted for television twice and is a good example of how the changes made for televised versions in 1956 and 1980 reflect the tastes and mores of the times.

Mr. Appleby, a "small, prim man," as described by Ellin, decides to murder his wife and consults a "text on forensic medicine" that he finds in a used book store. He reads of a case where a woman died "after what was presumably an accidental fall on a scatter rug in her home." A lawyer charged her husband with murder but the accused died of a sudden heart attack before anything was proved. Mrs. X had been bringing her husband a glass of water and the lawyer speculated that the man could have put "one hand behind his wife's shoulder, another hand along her jaw, and with a sudden thrust" produced the same result as a fall on a scatter rug.

Appleby is devoted to his shop, where he sells antiques and curios, but when his mother died he needed a new source of money to support the unsuccessful business. He married a woman who did not appreciate his love for the items on his shop, so he murdered her and used her money to stay in business. He married and killed five more wives, each time moving to a new location, but eventually the money ran out and he was forced to seek out a new bride.

Robert H. Harris as Appleby
He meets Martha Sturgis who, though "slovenly and strident," has half a million dollars in the bank. He woos and wins her and she comments often on how Appleby reminds her of her own father. Her lawyer, Gainsborough, makes the arrangements and soon Appleby is once again thinking of murder for profit. Forced to live in his new wife's disorderly home and fed meals too rich for his taste, "Appie," as Martha takes to calling him, is miserable.

One evening, he decides to set his plan in motion and asks her to bring him a glass of water. As she approaches, Appleby places one hand on her shoulder and the other on her jaw, only to hear Martha ask, "Is that what happened to all the others?" To his surprise, she knows all about his prior wives. It seems Martha's parents were the couple that Appleby read about in the textbook: her father murdered her mother by the very method that Appleby adopted for his own series of crimes. Martha decided to get revenge by marrying a man similar to her father and making him unhappy for the rest of his life.

Martha tells Appleby that Gainsborough has enough evidence to convict him of six murders. The lawyer calls every night to check on her and will turn the evidence over to the police if she is not there and in good health when he telephones. Gainsborough calls and Appleby summons his wife, who promptly slips on the scatter rug, falls, and fatally hits her head. Appleby hears Gainsborough on the other end of the telephone line telling him, "Your time is up!"

Meg Mundy as Martha
Like "The Cat's Paw," the prior story by Stanley Ellin to be adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents by Robert C. Dennis, "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" is a perfect fit for the series. The main character is an ordinary, rather dull man who does extraordinary things. Domestic murders are committed, and there are not one but two twist endings. The first TV adaptation was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, April 15, 1956, near the end of the first season. The title card states that the teleplay is by Victor Wolfson and Robert C. Dennis, based on the story by Stanley Ellin. At this late date, it is not likely that we will determine why it took two writers to adapt this story for the small screen, but it is possible that Wolfson had some difficulties and Dennis corrected them.

While the TV show follows the same basic plot as the story, it also includes significant changes.The show opens by cutting out the story's first section, in which Appleby has already murdered six wives. Instead, we see Martha Sturgis shopping at Appleby's store. A new character named Dizar is introduced; he demands payment of $12,000 for inventory that his father shipped to the curio shop. This increases the pressure on Appleby to come up with money in a hurry and dramatizes his dilemma by adding a somewhat threatening character from the Middle East. Martha drops a valuable antique and it shatters on the floor, foreshadowing her own fall at the end of the show.

We then see Appleby at home with his current wife, who is slovenly and unhappy. He asks her to cash in her insurance policy so he can pay Dizar, but she refuses. He takes a book that was hidden at the back of his bookcase and consults it; the book's title is Accident or Murder, and the fact that it was already there and hidden suggests that he was already thinking about killing his wife.

Appleby brings in a throw rug and arranges it on the floor in front of his chair. He consults the book, asks for a glass of water, bends down as if to tie his shoelace and, when his wife is in position, yanks the rug out from under her. The image of Appleby sitting back in his chair with the rug pulled up to his chest and a stricken look on his face is quite memorable and will be repeated later in the episode. His wife falls and dies when her head hits the stone fireplace hearth; presumably, Wolfson and Dennis decided that a fall to the floor was insufficient to ensure sudden death and added the contact between head and stone.

Appleby immediately calls the police to report an accident, foreshadowing his position at the end of the episode, where he remains on the telephone after Martha's fatal fall. The fact that he has to consult a book to follow the steps to murder suggests that he has not done it before, unlike the story, where he already had murdered six wives without getting caught. The financial pressure on Appleby continues to be a focus of the teleplay, as he pays Dizar the money he owes and then learns that he will not receive any more inventory unless he pays for it on delivery. Dizar suggests to Appleby that he sell more items to Martha Sturgis, who was in the shop when Dizar first visited, and Appleby takes this advice to heart, visiting the woman at home and attempting to make a gift to her of an antique jewel box, though she insists on paying for it.

Gage Clarke as Gainsborough
Appleby begins to court Martha, and Robert H. Harris, in the lead role, is delightfully smarmy in the way he flatters the lonely spinster. They are married and he moves into her home, where he is unhappy with the disorder around him. She, on the other hand, is pleased at the thought that he might lose his shop, since it would mean that he would spend all of his time at home with her. Gainsborough telephones, as he has done every night since her father died, and we see a shot from Appleby's point of view of Martha's feet on a small throw rug. It is clear that he is starting to think about murder. By adding the detail of Gainsborough's nightly call prior to the conclusion, Wolfson and Dennis set up the climax neatly.

Money troubles again rear their ugly head and Appleby comes home one night to say that he must pay Dizar $7000 by the next day or he will lose his shop. Martha refuses to lend him the money. In a parallel to the earlier scene with his first wife, the desperate need for quick cash drives Appleby to attempt a murderous act. Once again he arranges the rug on the floor, sits down, requests a glass of water, bends to tie his laces, and suddenly yanks the rug from the floor, this time pulling it all the way up to his chin. However, there is no sudden fall; instead, Martha asks: "Was that how you did it before? Was it Accident or Murder?" She tells him that she found the book and Gainsborough found out about his first wife.

Michael Ansara as Dizar
Here, the show diverges in a very important way from the story, as there is no mention of Martha's parents. Instead of seeking revenge for her mother's murder, she sees it as her duty to protect other, unsuspecting women from Appleby by remaining his wife. Wolfson and Dennis must have decided that the coincidence of having Martha be the child of the couple about whom Appleby reads in the textbook was too far fetched, and they may have been correct. The Martha of the TV show appears to have been genuine in her affection for Appleby and it is clear that she was disappointed to discover his true colors. The final scene is the same as that in Ellin's story, though when Martha falls she hits her head on a stone hearth, just like Appleby's first wife.

Other than streamlining the plot and making it fit into a half-hour format, the changes wrought by Wolfson and Dennis make Appleby less of a Bluebeard and more of a victim of circumstance, if that can be said of a man who murders his wife to get her money. The threat of financial ruin is increased and is used as the explanation for his crimes. Perhaps the killer of six wives would not have been as palatable to the censors in 1956 as the killer of one wife.

The story was first
published here
"The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" was again adapted for television in 1980, this time by Robin Chapman, and broadcast on June 7, 1980, during the second season of Tales of the Unexpected. While the color remakes of stories originally shown on the black and white Alfred Hitchcock Presents are usually not as good as the originals, this episode is an exception and may be a better adaptation of Ellin's story than the 1956 version. This time, voice over narration by series host Roald Dahl explains that Appleby had already killed three wives to support his business; from 1956 to 1980, the acceptable number of wife murders had tripled! The show occurs, inexplicably, in what appears to be England between World War One and World War Two; perhaps the events of the tale seemed to require an old-fashioned setting. In this version, Martha is presented as a much stronger and more forthright woman. She smokes cigarettes incessantly and dominates Appleby physically and emotionally from the first time they meet. Unlike the 1956 version, she often comments on how much Appleby reminds her of her father; this is carried over from Ellin's story but had been removed from the earlier teleplay by Wolfson and Dennis.

Once Appleby and Martha are wed, there is a strong undercurrent of sex in the show that was lacking in the story or the earlier TV version. Martha walks around the house in a nightgown, seems to have a ravenous sexual appetite, and wants her husband to spend more time at home so he can share her bed more frequently. At one point, she hops into bed and says to him, "I'm looking for a distinct improvement tonight." The most memorable images from the earlier version are removed: Appleby does not kill his wives by yanking the rug out from under them. Instead, as in the short story, they slip on the rugs themselves. In another detail from the story, Martha reveals to Appleby at the conclusion that she hated her father, who married and killed her mother for her money by means of a slippery rug on a polished floor. There is no mention of the textbook, Appleby does no formal research into murder techniques, and Martha's parents were not written up in a true crime narrative.

Martha's accidental death
The concluding fall is done in slow motion and is not terribly convincing, especially since Martha hits her head on a wood floor and immediately dies. Elizabeth Spriggs gives an outstanding performance as Martha and Robert Lang is very good as Appleby, though not as wonderfully obsequious as Robert H. Harris in the earlier version. In all three versions, a killer gets away with murder but is done in due to a death he did not engineer; in this way, "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" fits in with other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents where a criminal is punished by fate for past crimes.

Victor Wolfson (1909-1990), who is credited as having co-written the teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Robert C. Dennis, wrote books, plays, documentary films, and episodic television. He wrote eight episodes of Suspense, the precursor to the Hitchcock series, in 1951 and 1952, and he wrote an episode of Janet Dean, Registered Nurse, the series produced by Joan Harrison, in 1954. He wrote or co-wrote six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including another Stanley Ellin classic, "Specialty of the House."

"The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" was directed by James Neilson (1909-1979), who directed twelve episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Help Wanted."

"Your time is up!"
Appleby is played by Robert H. Harris (1911-1981), a great character actor who started in theater and then had an onscreen career from the late 1940s to the late 1970s. He was in nine episodes of the Hitchcock show, including Ray Bradbury's "Shopping for Death," Fredric Brown's "The Dangerous People," and Robert Bloch's "The Greatest Monster of Them All."

Meg Mundy (1915- ) plays Martha; this was one of her two appearances on the Hitchcock series. She was on TV from 1949 to 2001 and turned 100 years old earlier this year.

Playing Gainsborough, Martha's lawyer, is Gage Clarke (1900-1964); he was also in Henry Slesar's "The Right Kind of Medicine" and appeared in two other episodes of the Hitchcock program.

Finally, Michael Ansara (1922-2013) is effortlessly menacing as Dizar. Born in Lebanon, his long career on screen stretched from 1944 to 1999. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "Shopping for Death," and his many other TV credits included starring in Broken Arrow (1956-1958), "Soldier" on The Outer Limits, and a classic role on Star Trek. He was married to Barbara Eden from 1958 to 1974.

Note the interesting radio on the left
I plan to write a piece discussing the relationship between Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents/Hour and Tales of the Unexpected in the future; the three series (and the 1980s color remake of the Hitchcock series) have much in common and often adapted the same stories for television.

The 1956 version of "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" is available on DVD here but is not currently available for free online viewing. The 1980 version may be viewed for free online here.


Ellin, Stanley. "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (May 1950). Rpt. in Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories. Ed. Donald Westlake. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 298-315. Print.

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville: MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
"The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 15 Apr. 1956.
"The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby." Tales of the Unexpected. 7 June 1980.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

In two weeks: "The Belfry," starring Jack Mullaney and Pat Hitchcock!


Mike Doran said...

I know this might be a bit late to bring this up ...

Grouping the Hitchcock shows by authors by author seems a tricky proposition, given the issues of collaboration and adaptation.

I was wondering when you were going to get around to Stanley Ellin.

Just now, I looked back at the archives and found that you've already done several of the Ellin Hitchcocks, under the headings of the screenwriters involved.

Taking nothing away from those screenwriters, I do feel that this isn't entirely fair to Stanley Ellin, who did after all create the original stories, even if he didn't do the scripts.

I looked up Grams's Companion to see who did the adaptation of "The Specialty Of The House", and found that one writer is the guy who collaborated with Robert C. Dennis on this episode (whose name I've momentarily misplaced), working with Bernard C. Schoenfeld.

I guess what I'm asking is, whose section gets "Specialty" when you get around to it?

Just askin', is all ...

Jack Seabrook said...

I may need to do a group of posts on Stanley Ellin though, as you say, I've already done a few of his stories under other headings. He was a very good short story writer but I don't think he ever wrote any teleplays for AHP.

Grouping by writer was an idea I had at the beginning of this series as a way to organize other than going chronologically by air date. I think that, so far, it has allowed me to develop themes with each writer. John Collier turned out not to have much of an overall theme, and Robert C. Dennis seems to be heading the same direction. I think it's a valid way to group them because, in those days, I think the writer had the most influence over the individual episodes. Another one I'm looking forward to is James Bridges, but that is a bit daunting because the hours take a lot more work than the half-hours!

Grant said...

Robert Harris was also in "Consider Her Ways," which has to be just about the most bizarre episode of either Alfred Hitchcock show. He didn't get to play a strange character in it, and he was only in one scene, but it was a big one.

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't seen "Consider Her Ways" in decades but I sure remember it!