Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Thirteen: "One for the Road" [2.23]

by Jack Seabrook

"One for the Road" is based on a short story called "Partner in Crime" by Emily Neff. In the story, Marcia Hendrix, a "sweet-faced but plain" former nurse, has been married to Charles Hendrix for 11 years and is devoted to him, so when she finds a woman's cigarette lighter with the monogram "B.A." in his coat pocket she thinks nothing of it. He often travels in the course of his job and tells her that the lighter belongs to "a female buyer in Hadley" who has "knock-knees and a hooked nose." Marcia's suspicions are aroused when she finds a crumpled piece of paper in the trash with a note signed "B," but she chooses not to confront Charles.

When she tries to telephone him at the hotel where he always stays in Lockton, she learns that he stopped staying there months ago. She calls a forwarding number and, when a woman named Beryl Abbott answers, Marcia realizes that Charles has a mistress. Meanwhile, Beryl is having martinis with Charles; she presses him to divorce his wife and marry her, but he grows angry and she quickly backs off.

As Charles drives home, he thinks that "he had always been prudent, confining his amours to other towns and keeping the relationships casual and brief." He gets home and Marcia confronts him about Beryl. Charles angrily says, "I can't stand a jealous woman" and, from then on, for Marcia, "Their life together, which had always seemed so perfect, had suddenly crumbled into a travesty of marriage."

Louise Platt as Marcia
Beryl continues to suggest marriage. Marcia sinks into despair and convinces herself that Charles is a victim, so she comes up with a plan: she visits the hospital where she used to work and then drives to Lockton and finds Beryl's home.  Pretending to be a door to door salesperson to gain entrance, Marcia drops "deadly powder" into the coffee pot in Beryl's kitchen. She drives home and learns that Charles will not be home until late, having gone to Lockton. She tries to call Beryl but the number has been changed, so she starts the three-hour drive back to Lockton. Meanwhile, Charles visits Beryl, having decided to make a clean break. Marcia arrives at Beryl's and reveals who she is and that she poisoned the coffee. Beryl says she's too late--Charles drank his coffee and left half an hour ago.

John Baragrey as Charles
Marcia leaves and Charles comes out of hiding. Beryl asks him if he's sure about his decision to break up with her. He says yes and she offers him a cup of coffee for the road.

At the end of the story, the reader is left to wonder, who is whose "Partner in Crime"? Charles deserves what he gets but it is ironic that he was in the process of breaking up with Beryl when Marcia set in motion events that would lead to his death. Beryl is the one guilty of murder, since she has the knowledge needed to stop the crime but chooses to allow it to happen. Charles will surely die after the story ends, leaving both Beryl and Marcia alone. Marcia will think she is solely responsible for her husband's death and will never know that Beryl was her secret "Partner in Crime."

Georgeann Johnson as Beryl
Emily Neff's story was first published in a paperback original called Wicked Women. The copyright page says that the book was first printed in December 1959 and published in February of 1960; the story is copyright 1960 and is printed by permission of McIntosh and Otis, Inc. The author, Emily Neff, is herself a mystery. I have been unable to find any biographical information on her in any print or online sources. A query to McIntosh and Otis, a literary agency, garnered a response that they have no information about her. I have found six stories credited to her, four of which were adapted for the Hitchcock show; one of those four was "Mr. Blanchard's Secret," which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. "Partner in Crime" was chosen by Barzun and Taylor for inclusion in their 1983 collection, Classic Short Stories of Crime and Detection, which was part of their series, 50 Classics of Crime Fiction 1950-1975. Why is Emily Neff unknown today? Is the name a pseudonym? If anyone has any information about her, please comment!

Although it was first published in 1960, "Partner in Crime" must have been written prior to Sunday, March 3, 1957, when the TV adaptation was broadcast on CBS. Written by Robert C. Dennis and directed by Robert Stevens, the show is a triumph of television craftsmanship that tells its story with only three actors: John Baragrey as Charles, Louise Platt as Marcia, and Georgann Johnson as Beryl.

The first closeup of a hand

A detailed examination of the show and a comparison of it to the story will demonstrate that everyone involved was performing at a high level. The show opens with a closeup of Charles's hand spooning two teaspoons of sugar into a coffee cup; this is followed by a deep-focus shot with Charles in the foreground and Marcia far away in the bedroom, seen through an open door.

This deep focus shot shows Charles in the
foreground and Marcia far in the back

She watches his diet carefully and they seem very much in love, but the first surprise comes when she holds out the cigarette lighter and the shot shows her hand with the lighter in the foreground and Charles in the background.

The lighter in the foreground

There is an insert of the lighter in closeup as Charles caresses it with his thumb; it is as if he is caressing Beryl.

Charles's thumb caresses Beryl's lighter

He walks out, carrying his suitcase, and the scene dissolves to Beryl, glamorous in a sleeveless black dress that contrasts with the apron worn by Marcia in the prior scene.

Both women's faces merge in this dissolve

Beryl holds two martini glasses and hands one to Charles, who reclines on the couch. She refers to having to fill up four days; Charles is leading a double life, where he spends four days each week with Marcia and the other three with Beryl. Another hand holds out a lighter in a shot similar to the one in the first scene--this time, it's Charles's hand as he confronts Beryl. The scene ends with a closeup of Beryl's face that dissolves to that of Marcia, who excitedly opens a box containing an anniversary gift from Charles: it is a broken vase that recalls the complex symbol of marriage and adultery in Henry James's novel, The Golden Bowl.

The broken vase

Marcia calls Charles's secretary and gets a telephone number, with which she telephones Beryl. As they speak, she writes the woman's name on a pad of paper and, after she hangs up, she has a thought and circles the "B" in Beryl and the "A" in Abbott, the initials recalling those on the cigarette lighter.

Marcia figures it out

Later, Charles is at home and Marcia confronts him; her anniversary present arriving in a broken state "seemed like an omen." Charles at first denies and then admits the affair. The shot dissolves again to Beryl, as she and Charles discuss his talk with Marcia--he lies and says that he told Marcia that he would not see Beryl any more. He suggests that Beryl change her telephone number and the camera frames the two of them with a pot on the stove between and behind them, foreshadowing the deadly cup of coffee that will appear at the end of the show.

We then see Charles and Marcia in twin beds and Charles is reading a book that looks like the same paperback read by Henry Jones's character in "Nightmare in 4-D," the last episode written by Robert C. Dennis.

Charles is reading Night of Horror, the fake
paperback we've seen before

A closeup of the cover

Marcia accuses Charles of still seeing Beryl; he claims that he's breaking it off slowly in order to avoid scandal and protect Marcia. She seems to accept his story and we can tell from the look on her face that she's hatching a plan as she asks her husband if she can use the car tomorrow. The shot then dissolves to the next day, as Marcia drives with an intent look past a sign that says "Lockton City Limits." Framed behind the wheel, Marcia is a noir heroine on a deadly mission.

Another dissolve (this episode is full of them!) and we see another closeup of a hand--this time, it's Marcia's as she rings Beryl's doorbell. She waits for an answer and clutches her purse tightly, making us wonder what's inside.

In the scene that follows, Beryl answers the door and Marcia sizes her up, pretending to be collecting old clothes for the Welfare Association. Marcia ignores Beryl's initial resistance and keeps at it, sneaking into the house while Beryl is in the back closet looking for clothes to donate. We see a framed photo of Charles on a table in the front room before Marcia notices it. Marcia walks into the kitchen and spies a bowl of sugar; she pours a large amount of powder into it from a packet in her purse.

Beryl comes out as Marcia hurries from the kitchen and they talk; Marcia's eyes light on the photo of her husband as Beryl gives her an old raincoat. The way Marcia looks at the coat tells us that it must have belonged to Charles. Marcia comments on how she has trouble keeping her husband on a diet while Beryl says she rather indulges hers--it is as if they are both married to Charles and he is leading a double life. There is a constant theme of doubling throughout this episode, including shots that dissolve from one woman to the other, alternating scenes, and the final two meetings between the rivals.

At the end of this scene there is another dissolve from Beryl's face to Marcia's; she looks despondent as the phone rings. She answers and learns that Charles was called out of town, went to Lockton and won't be back till late. Another dissolve back to Beryl and we see her doing the dishes and wearing an apron, which she quickly removes, not wanting Charles to see her in a domestic role. Charles breaks it off with her, though he suggests that they get back together after a few months. She responds, "Well how very clever of you to work it out so neatly."

Marcia drives up and rushes to Beryl's door, where she identifies herself and admits to poisoning the sugar bowl. Beryl says it's too late: "You know Charles and his coffee. Exactly two teaspoonsful for every cup." The women seem united for the first time but it's all a lie. Just as Marcia lied to Beryl the first time she visited, Beryl now lies to Marcia. Marcia leaves to go to the police, saying "Nothing matters except Charles" when Beryl tells her that she's a murderess.

After Marcia leaves, Charles emerges from a room off the kitchen and Beryl says it was a woman from the Welfare Association collecting old clothes, making reference to Marcia's lie of earlier that day. Beryl lights her cigarette with her lighter, reminding us of how it all began to fall apart back in the first scene. Charles says he's tired of hiding every time someone comes to the door and Beryl tells him that it "adds spice," recalling his words from an earlier conversation about their relationship. "Too much seasoning can spoil any dish," he comments, unaware of the sugar seasoned with poison that sits in a bowl nearby. "Your troubles will soon be over," says Beryl, and there is another closeup of her hand turning on the burner to heat the coffee pot. Her hand is shown again in closeup as she takes the bowl of poisoned sugar.

Their conversation is banal but what's going on in their heads is very different from the words they speak. Charles thinks that he has gotten away with adultery once again while Beryl is sad about the end of their affair and her decision to kill him. Her hand is seen in closeup as she puts the sugar bowl and coffee cups on the tray and pours coffee. He confirms that he won't divorce Marcia and she takes the tray to him. The camera follows the bowl of sugar as the tray is carried across the room. "How about one for the road?" she says and hands him a cup of coffee. The last shot is another closeup of a hand--this time, it's his as he spoons two teaspoons of sugar in, stirs the cup, and lifts it to drink.

"One for the Road" is an exemplary episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that rewards close attention. Robert C. Dennis's adaptation takes a strong story and turns it into a finely crafted script, using doubling and parallel scenes to compare and contrast the two female characters. Robert Stevens does superb work directing the episode, with extensive use of dissolves and closeups to focus the viewer's attention on small details and make sure that we understand what is going on at all times. Were you to listen to this episode without watching it, you would not have any idea of what is really happening. Were you to watch it without listening to the dialogue, you would miss so much of the richness and subtlety that comes from the contrast between what is seen and what is heard. Putting the two together flawlessly is what Stevens does best.

Robert Stevens (1920-1989) directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series. The last one reviewed here was "John Brown's Body."

The three actors also turn in fine performances. John Baragrey (1918-1975) had a long career on stage and on screen, beginning when he toured the South Pacific with the USO from 1943 to 1945. He appeared on many early TV shows and was in two episodes each of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller.

Georgeann Johnson (1926- ) is still alive today at age 89. She was on screen for over 50 years, from 1952 until 2007, and her three appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents also include Henry Slesar's "Night of the Execution."

Finally, the best performance of the episode comes from Louise Platt (1915-2003) as Marcia. Se began her career on stage in 1936 and was in movies from 1938 to 1942, including a key role on John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). She then went back to the stage for a decade before an 11-year career on TV from 1952 to 1963 that included two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: this one and Roald Dahl's "Dip in the Pool."

Do yourself a favor and either order the DVD of "One for the Road" here or watch it for free online here. It's a great show.


Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.

IMDb. 27 Dec. 2015.

Neff, Emily. "Partner in Crime." Wicked Women. [Pocket Book no. 1263.] Ed. Lee Wright. NY: Pocket Books, 1960. 73-85.

"One for the Road." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 3 March 1957.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 27 Dec. 2015.

In two weeks: "Martha Mason, Move Star," starring Judith Evelyn and Robert Emhardt!


Mathew Paust said...

Couldn't happen to a nicer cad.

Todd Mason said...

A BUTCHER'S DOZEN OF WICKED WOMEN editor (Ms.) Lee Wright was, btw, the editor at Random House who oversaw Robert Arthur's ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: and AH YA anthologies...have to wonder if Neff might be Wright.

Jack Seabrook said...

I had the same thought and searched for some connection but found not a shred of evidence. I figured the link would have come out at some point, especially in light of the Barzun selection, but it never did, so I decided it was unlikely. I was also troubled by the stories in Cosmo in the early '50s--why the need for a pseudonym there?

john kenrick said...

Good work from cast in just average episode, with Louise Platt a standout. In looks and attitude she reminded me a bit of Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed, among other things, from late in her career. The desperation and hysteria just beneath the surface made her character believable. Good direction, some real suspense, but as with so many "domestic murder" Hitch half-hours it's easy to see the resolution early on.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I was really knocked out by this episode.

john kenrick said...

That's great to hear, Jack. No, seriously. We all have our favorite episodes, stories, subject matter, etc., and we can't agree on everything. The Hitchcock half-hour was a very high concept series, even more so than the hour long one. There was a major focus on intimacy,--all kinds--and its discontents.