Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Twenty-Three: "Fatal Figures" [3.29]

by Jack Seabrook

Robert C. Dennis followed "Guest for Breakfast" with his adaptation of "The Right Kind of House," which was discussed here in my series on Henry Slesar.

After that came "Fatal Figures," adapted from a story by Rick Edelstein. In the story, we meet Harold Goams, who has been passing the same flower store on the way home from work at 6:12 PM every day. He always exchanges a friendly wave with the shop's owner, so when he passes the shop one Friday evening and sees a sign that reads "Mr. Rubin died. Store for Rent," his world is shaken. Arriving home, he tells his spinster sister Margaret about the man's death, but she calls him "ridiculous." Harold laments his own lack of importance and comments that he was excited to see in the company newspaper that there are 8,756 employees; he was proud to have "contributed to an important figure."

Margaret takes out the World Almanac and shows him that he is one of 9,113,614 people born in New York State in 1910. Harold begins to study the Almanac, looking for figures in which he is included, such as "Employment Status of the U.S. Population" and "Male Labor Force." He stays up all night, "finding himself in every table," until he happens on the statistic for "Auto Thefts . . . 226,530." He disappears and returns ninety minutes later, wearing "soiled trousers."

"Fatal Figures" was
first published here
In the morning, he breaks with routine and walks out to get the newspaper. Returning home, he goes to his room and searches the paper until he finds a headline that reads, "Councilman Barnett's Cadillac Stolen and Found in Bronx River." That afternoon, Harold again breaks with routine and retires to his room, where he crosses out the auto theft statistic in the Almanac and writes in a new number, increasing the total by one. He sees the next entry: "Robberies . . . 63,197" and leaves the house again, heading for "the corner drugstore." He returns an hour later and Margaret hears sirens outside. Alone in his room, Harold removes two bottles from his pocket and updates the statistic for robberies in the Almanac.

Margaret enters and asks Harold what is wrong, pointing out that he has been acting different since "we had that conversation about your being important." Seeing that one of the bottles contains a perfume called "My Sin," she concludes that he is "having an affair with some hussy" and insults him, saying that he had "better become resigned to the fact that you and I are nobody, and we're even less without each other." She leaves the room, goes downstairs, and calls up to ask him if he would like some tea.

Harold reads the next entry in the Almanac: "Murders and Manslaughters . . . 7, 124." He disposes of the perfume bottle but notices that the other bottle is labeled "As2 03," which his chemistry book reveals is highly poisonous white arsenic. Harold goes downstairs and pours tea for himself and Margaret. He goes back upstairs to drink his tea alone, ignoring his sister's "aborted cry." He revises the figure in the Almanac for murders and, laying down in bed for a nap, looks at the next entry in the book: "Suicides . . . 16,000."

Vivian Nathan as Margaret
"Fatal Figures" is a clever story, in which the author repeatedly uses the word "figures" both to describe the numbers in the Almanac and to describe Harold and his sister; all represent in one way or another the "Fatal Figures" of the title. Like many of the protagonists on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Harold is no one special--a middle-aged bookkeeper who lives with his spinster sister. His daily routine is interrupted when Rubin dies, so he snaps, but in a manner entirely consistent with his personality; his crimes proceed in an orderly fashion and he carefully updates the statistics in his Almanac after each incident.  The perfume called "My Sin" describes his transgressive behavior and the ending is subtle, but we realize that he has no choice but to kill himself.

Rick Edelstein (1929?- ), who wrote the story, is quoted in The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion as saying that this was the first story he ever wrote. It was sold for publication and the TV rights were purchased soon after. He has numerous credits as a TV script writer from 1969 to 1986, including 349 episodes of the soap opera The Doctors from 1968 to 1969. He directed a handful of TV shows and also wrote plays, film scripts, novels, and short stories. He worked as a stage director, teacher and acting coach, and he was married to actress Sally Kellerman from 1970 to 1972. He is still writing today and samples of his recent work can be found online.

John McGiver as Harold
Robert C. Dennis adapted "Fatal Figures" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the episode was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, April 20, 1958. The show opens with a postman delivering the mail. Harold comes out of his house to get it, but tells Margaret that it's "just your Almanac." As he so often does, Dennis takes a key element of the story and introduces it right away. Harold complains that "I haven't missed my bus in 13 years" and Margaret replies that she doubts that a wife would have done much better. Margaret's initial comment comparing herself to a wife sets up a motivation that is lacking in Edelstein's story.

Harold passes a florist shop and sees a "For Rent" sign; he speaks to a man on the sidewalk in front of a store next door and learns of the florist's death and his name. This adds another character to the story, however briefly, and reveals the news of Rubin's death through dialogue rather than narration. When Harold gets home, he tells Margaret that "I'm mourning for myself. Mr. Rubin is me and I'm Mr. Rubin . . . when I die there'll be no more notice taken of me than there was of Mr. Rubin." Margaret is hurt and again takes on the role of surrogate wife, whining "after all the years I spent making a home for you." Harold tells her that he should have gotten married and had children; she responds that she would have gladly stepped aside if he'd brought home a wife.

Margaret shows Harold the Almanac in order to underline his insignificance, but he begins to read it and we hear his thoughts in voice over. Dennis again shows actions rather than telling them, letting us see Harold steal the car and later enter the drugstore to rob it. Harold comes home with a bottle of perfume but no second bottle of Arsenic; instead, he takes a gun out of his pocket and we realize that he held up the pharmacy at gunpoint.

The final statistic
Harold behaves almost like a husband disobeying his wife when he refuses to play checkers with Margaret and goes up to his room to read. When he claims to have bought the perfume for his sister, it once again underlines the curious relationship between the siblings, a relationship that is, in many ways, similar to one of husband and wife. Margaret certainly reacts as a spouse would: "I have devoted half my life to your comfort, your well-being, and this is the thanks I get?" She fears that he will turn her out and bring another woman into the house.

Margaret tells Harold that she saved him from making a fool of himself, presumably referring to a long-ago relationship he had with another woman, and he thinks that he would "rather have been a fool." This sets up a motive for murder. Harold then reads the statistic for that crime and the screen fades to black. Oddly enough, Dennis removes the scene where Harold prepares the poisonous tea. Instead, the next scene finds him in the parlor, wearing a black armband and speaking to a police detective about Margaret's death. The detective thinks that Margaret died of food poisoning and Harold asks if it could have been murder. He is clearly disappointed at the detective's conclusions and frustrated that he will have to change the statistic back to the original number in the Almanac.

Te detective returns for a second visit and Harold confesses to having murdered his sister with rat poison. The detective represents the viewer here, wondering why Harold would have committed such a crime and why he is now confessing to it. Harold explains his reasoning and is pleased with himself for ensuring that the statistic will have to be changed. He goes up to his room to get his coat and cannot resist another look at the Almanac. He sees the suicide statistic, picks up the gun, and announces the new number. The camera pans away, we hear a shot, the room shakes--and the episode is over.

Ward Wood as the detective
A strange ending, indeed! Dennis shows rather than tells the car theft and the scene leading up to the drugstore robbery, but then he leaves out Margaret's murder and adds on scenes at the end with the detective; a somewhat subtle conclusion on the printed page becomes a more obvious one on the TV screen.

Rick Edelstein, again quoted in The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, praised Robert C. Dennis for going "that one step further" and dramatizing the suicide as much as he could within the confines of network television in 1958. Edelstein thought Dennis "did it tougher than me."

Harold is played by John McGiver (1913-1975), an actor with a face and voice like no other. Funny in a deadpan way, he was born in New York City and began his acting career in Irish Repertory Theater. He served in WWII and then worked as teacher, appearing in plays Off-Broadway before becoming a full time actor in 1955. He had ten children and was on screen from 1955 to his death in 1975. He was seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice and also appeared on The Twilight Zone twice.

Vivian Nathan (1916-2015) plays Margaret; she was a founding member of the Actors Studio in 1947 and was on Broadway starting in 1949. She was born Vivian Firko in New York City and made a handful of appearances on screen from 1953 to 1989. This was one of her two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Nesdon Booth
The detective is played by Ward Wood (1924-2001). He was acting in his first movie, Air Force (1943) at age 18, for director Howard Hawks, when he received word that his twenty year old brother Charles was missing in action. Ward wanted to quit the picture and enlist right away to avenge his brother's death, but Hawks talked him into finishing filming his part. Wood then joined the Marines. When he got out of the service, he returned to acting, appearing on screen from 1947 to 1982. This was his only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but he also appeared once on The Twilight Zone and was a semi-regular on Mannix from 1968 to 1975 as Lt.Malcolm.

The man on the street is played by Nesdon Booth (1918-1964), who started in movies in 1949 and later appeared in many TV episodes, including twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, twice on The Twilight Zone, and once on Thriller.

"Fatal Figures" was directed by Don Taylor (1920-1998), the actor-turned-director who acted in one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Silent Witness") and directed seven episodes, including "The Right Kind of House" and "The Deadly." In "Fatal Figures," he takes a humorous approach, as shown by the light, bouncy music that plays during several scenes.

"Fatal Figures" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story.

"Death in Pacific Came--Not to Actor, But Brother." St. Petersburg Times 13 Aug. 1942: 1.
Edelstein, Rick. "Fatal Figures." Mystery Digest Mar. 1958: 4-12.
"Fatal Figures." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 20 Apr. 1958.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 14 May 2016.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 14 May 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb. Web. 14 May 2016.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 May 2016.

In two weeks: "The Crocodile Case," starring Denholm Elliott and Hazel Court!


Brian Durant said...

Great article, Jack. I saw this one once, years ago, so I gave it another viewing. An effectively brutal ending for a mostly whimsical episode. It totally works though, and I love the camera shake at the end. John McGiver makes this episode for me. A lesser actor might have easily made this an irritating character. But McGiver manages to bring a sympathetic quality to Harold by exploiting his insecurities which gives the episode an appropriate blend of absurdity and sadness. I dig it.

Grant said...

I feel the same way about it. Even though it's good in general, with no John McGiver, it would be trickier for me to watch.

The main thing I always remember is the detective's "dumbfounded" reaction to hearing the MOTIVE for the murder, a sort of "I thought I'd seen it all" reaction. You really sympathize with that in a slightly funny way.
The other part that stays with me is Harold's reaction to being asked to go with the detective, which is pretty hilarious, but I won't give away the actual line.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Brian! I agree with your analysis of McGiver's performance. At first he just seems weird but he does manage to make his characters plight seem poignant.

And thanks, Grant! The scenes with the detective are funny and strange, but it's odd that they take up so much of the episode when Dennis cut out the part where Harold actually poisons his sister.