Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-John Williams Part Two: Whodunit [1.26]

by Jack Seabrook

The second episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to feature John Williams was "Back for Christmas," adapted from John Collier's short story of the same name and discussed here.

Williams then appeared in a third episode of the first season of the series. This one was titled "Whodunit" and first aired on CBS on Sunday, March 25, 1956. It was adapted from a short story called "Heaven Can Wait" by C. B. Gilford that first appeared in the August 1953 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The story won an award in the magazine's 1952 contest and was collected in the book, The Queen's Awards, Eighth Series, which was published in 1953. I previously discussed C.B. Gilford's career here, and the editor of EQMM writes, in an introduction to the story, that this was the third time that Gilford had submitted the story for publication--it had been revised and rewritten in response to comments and suggestions from the editor.

Alan Napier as Wilfred
As the story begins, Alexander Arlington, age 52, finds himself in Heaven before the archangel Michael, who tells him that he was murdered: stabbed in the back with his own letter opener. Arlington demands to know who killed him but Michael does not know the answer. It seems that, under the pen name of Slade Saunders, Arlington wrote 75 mystery novels during his time on Earth and now is miserable because he does not know the identity of his own killer. Michael suggests sending Arlington back to relive his last day to see if he can find the solution.

Arlington finds himself back on Earth, waking up at noon on his last day. His secretary, Mr. Talbert, hand-delivers a letter from his publisher, who expresses concern with the declining quality of his recent novels. Talbert suggests that he can write future Slade Saunders books better than Arlington could, at which point Arlington fires the man and Talbert threatens him, thus becoming Arlington's first suspect.

Amanda Blake as Carol
Arlington next confronts his 28-year-old wife regarding her affair with a man named Armbruster; he tells her that she must choose between her rich husband and her penniless lover. Arlington decides that his wife and her lover are the second and third murder suspects. Another suspect arrives in the guise of his fat, worthless nephew Andrew, who asks for a $500 advance on his future inheritance and threatens to do something drastic when Arlington refuses to grant his request. He becomes suspect number four.

The fifth and final suspect is the gardener, Henry, a former criminal who is worried that Arlington will report him to the police once he gives up his career as a mystery novelist. Arlington sets up dinner with all five of the suspects and invites them to attend a farewell party in his study that night at ten o'clock. Throughout the story, Arlington receives occasional telephone calls from Michael the archangel, who checks on his progress and offers advice.

Waiting for midnight
Arlington packs a suitcase and carries a gun and at 10:45 he returns to his study to find all of the suspects gathered there. He locks the door and addresses them, telling them about his murder and his trip to Heaven. When Michael calls, Arlington explains that this is an old gimmick used in mystery novels. He then goes over each person's motive for murder and they question how he will ever solve the crime before it occurs. Arlington states that he has made sure that the murder will not happen by having them all present as witnesses; after midnight, when he survives, he plans to leave them all behind and write a book about his experience.

Just before midnight, Armbruster goes to the door and says that all he has to do to prevent anyone from witnessing the murder is to turn off the lights--and he does! Arlington is murdered as before and finds himself back in Heaven, no wiser than he was as to the identity of his killer. Michael helps him deduce that his wife was the guilty party and Armbruster her accomplice. The archangel then invites Arlington to "come in and meet the boys . . . Edgar and Sir Arthur and G.K.C.," noting that "all mystery writers go to Heaven."

"Heaven Can Wait" was
first published here
It's easy to see why "Heaven Can Wait" won an award from EQMM, since it is clever, witty and fun. Gilford plays with the classical mystery format and the gathering of the suspects, which was so often used by Ellery Queen himself, and the idea of the angel sending a man back to Earth and then providing assistance recalls Frank Capra's classic film, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). It also recalls the 1941 film, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on a 1938 stage play called Heaven Can Wait. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was also remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait. According to The FictionMags Index, "Heaven Can Wait" was the first story Gilford had published after his twelve-year absence from writing fiction and it led to a long career as a short story writer.

The producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents bought the rights to the story and it was adapted for television by the husband and wife writing team of Francis and Marian Cockrell, who retitled it "Whodunit." Francis Cockrell wrote 18 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I discussed his career here; Marian Cockrell wrote 11 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I discussed her career here. Francis Cockrell also directed this episode, one of two episodes of the series he would direct.

The TV version of the story retains the overall plot and structure of the short story while changing various details. The direction is particularly good and, combined with an excellent cast, the video version improves upon the source. The show begins as we hear heavenly choirs of angels singing as a woman in a diaphanous gown walks through two enormous doors toward a large, marble-top desk. Behind the desk sits Wilfred, Arlington's recording angel. (Perhaps the Cockrells did not think it would be suitable for television audiences to use the name of a real archangel from the Bible!) The woman introduces Arlington, who floats into the room on a small cloud, a miniature harp in one hand, a look of mild discomfort on his face. The room is bordered by pillars and beyond them float clouds, showing us that this is a stylized version of Heaven.

Arlington sports little, cardboard wings on his back and complains about the uncomfortable cloud and his own lack of skill in playing the harp. He also flexes his shoulders to try out his new wings. Cockrell really plays up this opening scene and its artifice is quite amusing. Arlington boasts that he'll have the crime solved long before midnight and agrees to relive his last day up to five minutes before the murder.

Philip Coolidge as Talbot
The setting becomes much more realistic and mundane when Arlington wakes up back on Earth, where he is awakened by an Asian houseboy rather than his secretary, whose name is now Talbot. At first, Arlington thinks his trip to Heaven was a dream, but Wilfred quickly telephones to correct him. Williams gives a wonderful performance throughout the episode--finishing his breakfast in bed, he pours his daily spoonful of medicine and make a face before realizing he no longer needs to swallow it.

The scene in the story where Arlington confronts his wife and her lover is cut and the show moves right on to the conversation with Arlington's nephew, now named Vincent, rather than Andrew. He sees his wife kissing Benson (not Armbruster) outside and confronts her alone when she comes in the house. He writes down a list of suspects and their motives, though the character of Henry has been deleted, leaving only four potential killers rather than five.

Instead of having dinner with the suspects and inviting them to a party in his study, Arlington decides to wait and see who returns to the house that night, thinking that whoever comes back will have to be the killer. As midnight nears, Talbot returns, followed soon by Carol and Benson. Frustrated by the failure of his plan, Arlington calls Vincent down from his bedroom and the five of them go into his study, where he tells them about his impending murder. Unlike the story, he does not make explicit reference to the mystery trope of the gathering of the suspects, but the result is the same. Williams is especially good here, accusing each person in turn, filled with his own sense of self-importance. He never pulls a gun, as he does in the story; instead, Arlington is consumed with fussiness and frustration.

Making a list of suspects and their motives
Arlington wishes he could extend his time to solve the crime and Wilfred telephones to grant his request. The murder is staged in shadows, as flashes of lightning intermittently reveal the silhouettes of figures moving about the room. Back in Heaven (the angel choir chants, helpfully, "Now he's back in Heaven"), the author finds that he doesn't mind returning without an answer. The Cockrells make an interesting change in the story here, as the mystery writer decides that "Somehow, it doesn't seem to matter so much this time . . . you see, nobody seemed at all upset at the idea of my being killed. And now, I'm beginning to wonder what sort of person I was." Wilfred guides him to the solution of the crime and Arlington thinks he must have been "rather obnoxious" and wonders how he got into Heaven. He expresses surprise when Wilfred tells him that all mystery writers go to Heaven, something the angel is unable to explain! At the end of Gilford's story, the assertion about the destination of genre writers is the humorous cap to the tale, something well calculated to appeal to both the editors and the readers of EQMM.  On TV, where the writers may have felt more marginalized, the same assertion is met with befuddlement!

"Whodunit" is an excellent adaptation that improves on its source by cutting some characters and scenes and reorganizing others. Humor is added to good effect and the direction and acting are outstanding. John Williams was 52 years old when he played this role, just as the character is in the short story. His wife, 28 years old in the story, is played here by 26 year old Amanda Blake (1929-1989), who was born Beverly Neill. Her onscreen career lasted from 1950 to 1989 and mostly consisted of an almost twenty-year run as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Jerry Paris as Benson
Her lover, Benson, is played by Jerry Paris (1925-1986), a busy character actor who is today better known as a director of TV sitcoms. He acted in films from 1949 to 1986 and on TV from 1951 to 1983, including a recurring role on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 to 1966), but his name is more familiar from his work as a director, which lasted from 1964 to 1986. He made two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Talbot, the secretary, is played by the familiar Philip Coolidge (1908-1967), who was onscreen from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. He was in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959) and appeared in seven episodes of the Hitchcock TV series, including "De Mortuis."

Ruta Lee
Alan Napier (1903-1988) plays Wilfred, the angel. Born Alan Napier-Clavering, he will always be remembered as Alfred the butler on Batman from 1966 to 1968, but his career onscreen was a long and busy one, stretching from 1930 to 1981. Other TV appearances includes Thriller, The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery; his many film roles included parts in Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944) and Moonfleet (1955), Val Lewton's Isle of the Dead (1945), and Hitchcock's Marnie (1964).

Finally, Ruta Lee (1935- ) plays the angel at the beginning of the show who introduces Arlington to Wilfred. Born Ruta Kilmonis in Quebec, she had a 60-year career onscreen, including two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an episode of The Twilight Zone. She maintains her own website here.

"Whodunit" is available on DVD here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story.

"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
Gilford, C. B. "Heaven Can Wait." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine Aug. 1953: 126-43. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.
"Whodunit." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 25 Mar. 1956. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.

In two weeks: "The Rose Garden," starring John Williams and Patricia Collinge!


Grant said...

Probably one of Ruta Lee's biggest roles was on the game show High Rollers with Alex Trebek. She was that show's answer to the Wheel of Fortune "letter turner," since her job (apart from banter with the host and contestants) was to roll a pair of oversized dice.

Jack Seabrook said...

I will resist the temptation to respond to the "pair of oversized dice."

Brian Durant said...

I agree, Jack. This episode is whimsical and witty-despite the subject matter-and I think most of the credit goes to Williams although the Cockrells deliver a pretty clever teleplay. I am not that familiar with C.B Gilford. I see his work in anthologies a lot but I don't think I have ever read any of his stuff.

Jack Seabrook said...

I've written about a few other episodes that were adapted from Gilford stories. I had never read his work before, either, but I'm enjoying it.