Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Bryce Walton Part One: Touché [4.35]

by Jack Seabrook

Bryce Walton wrote about
Iwo Jima for Leatherneck

The last episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be written by frequent contributor Robert C. Dennis was "Invitation to an Accident," which aired on June 21, 1959, as the final show of the series's fourth season. The week before that, on June 14, 1959, the first episode of the series to be based on a story by Bryce Walton aired. That episode was titled "Touché." Over the next three years, Walton would contribute to six episodes, either as author of the original story, as writer of the teleplay, or as both.

Bryce Walton was born in Missouri in 1918. He worked as a sailor, migrant farmer, gold miner, and railroad section hand from 1938 to 1941, spent some time at Los Angeles Junior College from 1939 to 1941, then served in the Navy and Marines from 1942 to 1945, earning a special citation from Admiral Nimitz for his coverage of action at Iwo Jima. He started writing freelance in 1945 and spent time at California State College in 1946 and 1947.

Walton is said to have written over 1000 short stories in his career and he also wrote six novels between 1952 and 1974. His work was mostly in the genres of science fiction and mystery; a blog post here features many good illustrations. Though some sources say that he won an award in 1961 for best short story of the year from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, this appears to be incorrect. He did have a story published in that year's volume of Best Detective Stories of the Year.

"Touche" was first
published here

His television credits include a stint as a writer for Captain Video in 1949, but very little else. In 1991, a TV movie called "Into the Badlands" was adapted from Walton's story called "The Last Pelt." Other than that, three of his stories were adapted by other writers for episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Walton then wrote teleplays for two episodes of the series and co-wrote a third with Henry Slesar. Only one of his three teleplays was an adaptation of his own story.

"Touché" was first published under the pen name of Kenneth O'Hara in the November 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. A pseudonym was used presumably because Walton also had another story, "The Mind Reader," published in the same issue under his own name.

"Touché" concerns Big Bill Fleming, a rich man with a problem. His young, second wife is having an open affair with a man named Phil Baxter. Fleming wants to kill Baxter but does not want to go to jail for murder. While at a hunting lodge, he discusses his problem with a bright young man who is studying to be a lawyer. The young man considers the problem from all angles and suggests that Fleming challenge Baxter to a duel with swords, where Baxter would be forced to defend himself. The young man guarantees that Fleming would be acquitted under California law if he killed Baxter in these circumstances.

Paul Douglas as Fleming
Fleming drives home and finds his wife Lara in bed with Baxter. Telling Baxter that he intends to kill him, Fleming begins to slash and poke at his rival with a saber until Baxter picks up a sword and attempts to fight back. Fleming swiftly kills him and Lara begins to laugh.

Big Bill goes to the police station and turns himself in. The trial that follows results in a not guilty verdict, as predicted, but the judge tells Fleming that state law requires him to support Baxter's son. The judge orders him to pay the young man $100,000 now and then $1000 per month for life.

Not wanting to see his wife anymore, Fleming returns home to collect some personal items. He finds Lara with Phil Baxter, Jr., who turns out to be none other than the bright young man who had suggested the duel.

The title of the story has a double meaning: it refers both to the swordplay between Fleming and Baxter and to the clever way young Baxter tricks Fleming into killing the elder Baxter and, at the same time, providing financially for the younger Baxter.

Robert Morse as Phil Baxter Jr.
"Touché" was adapted for television by William Fay (1918-1981), who wrote teleplays for sixteen episodes of the Hitchcock series. Fay was a short story writer who had been an editor at Popular Publications in the late 1930s and who, by the late 1940s, was the sports editor for Collier's magazine. He had been a Golden Gloves star and a sportswriter there and in Chicago, and the FictionMags Index lists short stories by him that were published from 1938 to 1962. Most of his stories appeared in slick magazines such as Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, and Argosy, and he was "generally acclaimed" as the "standout story teller of the ring." It may be the case that his background in telling stories having to do with sports is why he was given the assignment of adapting "Touché," which has at its center a sword fight. Many of his stories are available for free online here.

Hugh Marlowe as Baxter
The TV show follows the story closely and is broken down into six scenes. The first scene, by far the longest, takes place at the hunting lodge, where Fleming, played by Paul Douglas, and the young man, played by Robert Morse, discuss Fleming's problem and its possible solution. William Fay turns pages of narrative into dialogue and both actors give fine portrayals of two very different men. At one point, Morse grabs a foil off of the wall and begins to practice some fencing maneuvers; Douglas, as Fleming, is charmingly self-deprecating for someone so successful. Morse speaks as if he is a lawyer presenting a case to a jury and trying to win them over. In retrospect, that is exactly what he is doing, since he has planned out his pitch to Fleming and convinces him to go through with it.

The menacing shot of Douglas
In the second scene, Bill arrives home and enters his house, where a shot shows him looming large and menacing above the sunken living room, his body bathed in high contrast lighting, his shadow large and ominous on the door behind him. In the story, he finds Lara in bed with Baxter. In the show, she lounges on a circular sofa, Baxter sitting languidly on the floor beside her. Hugh Marlowe plays Baxter as a decadent playboy, reclining calmly with a drink in his hand. Dody Heath, as Lara, is given little to do in the show but look sexy, though her sudden laughter after her husband kills her lover provides a chilling moment. The swordplay is awkward, as it should be between two inexperienced fencers, and takes place in Fleming's expansive living room rather than in the bedroom. At one point, Baxter throws a vase and hits Fleming in the head; Fleming trips and falls, then runs Baxter through the stomach with an upward sword thrust.

James Flavin as Dan
This is followed by a scene at the police station, where Baxter's confession to Dan, the desk sergeant, is expanded from the brief mention of the event in Walton's story. Also longer is the courtroom scene that follows, though it looks like it was done on a tight budget, since all we see is the judge's bench and the witness box. The scene is played out in closeups and medium shots, with no sign of a jury or any onlookers in the courtroom. We only see Bill testify, not Lara (she does so in the story and fully supports her husband), yet when Fleming emerges from the courtroom there is a crowd of spectators gathered around the door!

The judge explains his ruling to Bill and his lawyer in a short scene in the judge's chambers, then we see the lawyer and Bill drive up to Bill's house. The final scene occurs back in the living room, where the duel had taken place. The camera is focused on the back of the long couch and Lara pops up, having been lying in the arms of an unseen man. We soon see him sling his leg over the back of the couch, and his shoe is similar to that worn by Baxter in the duel scene. Bill comes in, glowering at his unfaithful wife, who tells him that they have company. Bill responds, "You expect me to be surprised?" and she says, unexpectedly, "Yes, dear!" Baxter Jr. then leaps over the back of the couch to face Bill, who registers shock. Unlike in the story, there is no mention of an estranged relationship between Baxter Jr. and his father, but the episode ends ironically, as the young man asks Fleming, "Would you mind if I called you Dad?" This is followed by a closeup of Bill's scowling face and a musical sting as the screen fades to black.

The living room set where the duel takes place
William Fay and director John Brahm do a fine job of translating Walton's short story to the small screen, aided greatly by strong performances by Paul Douglas and Robert Morse. There are few significant changes to the plot, other than toning down the sexual nature of the situation by moving the confrontation out of the bedroom and into the living room.

John Brahm (1893-1982) was born and raised in Germany but left in the early 1930s when Hitler came to power. He started out as an actor but gained fame as a director, making movies from 1936 to 1967 and directing many episodes of TV shows, starting in 1952. Two of his best films were The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945), and his work is notable for its shadows and sense of menace. He directed 15 episodes of the Hitchcock series, as well as many episodes of other genre series such as The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and The Outer Limits. The last episode directed by Brahm that I examined was "The Throwback," which also featured a duel.

Dody Heath as Lara
Portraying Big Bill Fleming is Paul Douglas (1907-1959), who made his Broadway debut in 1936 and who also worked as a radio announcer during that decade. He started in movies in 1933 and became a feature film star in 1949 with his role in A Letter to Three Wives. He worked on film and TV throughout the 1950s before dying suddenly in 1959. "Touché" was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series and it was one of his last roles.

Hugh Marlowe (1911-1982) gets second billing as Phil Baxter. Born Hugh Herbert Hipple, be started onstage in the 1930s and also appeared on radio. He played Ellery Queen on radio and television and also appeared in movies beginning in 1936. He had a role in All About Eve (1950) and began appearing in TV shows that year. He was seen in six episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last discussed here was "John Brown's Body." Later in his life he was a regular on the soap opera Another World, from 1969 to 1982.

King Calder as the lawyer
Giving an energetic performance as Baxter's son is Robert Morse (1931- ), who started out on stage, film and TV in the mid-1950s. He is best known for his starring role on Broadway and on film in How to Succeed I Business (1967) and he had an important role as Bert Cooper on Mad Men from 2007 to 2015. He was seen twice on the Hitchcock series and his career is still going strong today.

In smaller roles, Dody Heath (1928- ) plays Lara Fleming. Her career on screen lasted from 1954 to 1974, and this was one of her three appearances on the Hitchcock series. King Calder (1897-1964) plays the lawyer who examines Fleming at trial; he was on screen from 1949 to 1964 and appeared in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series. James Flavin (1906-1976) plays Dan, the desk sergeant at the police station. He had character parts in nearly 400 movies and 100 TV episodes from 1932 to 1971 and was in four episodes of the Hitchcock series. Finally, Robert Carson (1909-1979) plays the judge; he was in eleven episodes of the Hitchcock series and had many credits as a character actor in a career that ran from 1939 to 1974.

Robert Carson as the judge
"Touché" does not appear to have been reprinted after its initial publication in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and I thank Peter Enfantino for providing a scan of the story and for looking through a couple of years' worth of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine to see if there was an award for Best Short Story of 1961 given to Bruce Walton. The TV show is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.

"Bryce Walton." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Contemporary Authors [Gale]. Web. 5 July 2016.
"Find Items in Libraries near You." The World's Largest Library Catalog. Web. 05 July 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 05 July 2016.
"Touché." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 14 June 1959. Television.
Walton, Bryce. "Touché." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine Nov. 1958: 24-36.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 09 July 2016.

"William Cullen Fay, Writer - on" Web. 05 July 2016.

In two weeks: Brian Keith and James Best in "Cell 227"!


Don said...

Hey Jack,

I was a little late finding your post. Blogspot is quite the dilettante and demands the accent be included in the search. Something made me try searching for Robert Morse last night (something I will never do on Netflix) and there it was.

I imagine you following each writer, cutting straight criss-crossing swaths across the seasons like a Roomba. I see there will be a lot of one-timers left over. Hopefully you don’t end up spinning in tight circles and making grinding noises like mine did.

Your professional posts remind me to not be negative for negativity’s sake (like that Robert Morse crack above). Our differing opinions on this one and Banqo’s Chair make me want to take another look. So, thanks for that.

Also learned today: dilettante doesn’t mean exactly what I thought it did.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Don. I always get a good laugh out of your posts and I'm glad you found mine. I have never been compared to a Roomba before and I like the image!

Anonymous said...

I Enjoyed This Episode! Especially The Twist Ending!

Anonymous said...

I have been watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents for the first time, and I just want to say that these posts are fantastic.

Jack Seabrook said...