Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-John Williams Part Six: Banquo's Chair [4.29] and overview

by Jack Seabrook

"Banquo's Chair" is the last episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to star John Williams, and it is an outstanding half hour of television. The title refers to an incident in Shakespeare's 1606 play Macbeth. In Act three, scene three, Macbeth orders the murder of his friend Banquo. In scene four, at dinner, Macbeth learns that the murder has been carried out. The ghost of Banquo enters and sits in Macbeth's chair at the dinner table, but no one other than Macbeth can see the specter. Macbeth denies involvement in the crime and the ghost leaves, but it returns just as Macbeth drinks a toast to his absent friend, whom the others do not yet know is dead. Macbeth gets upset, begging the ghost to "Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves shall never tremble" (3.4.101-02) and the ghost exits. Macbeth has had his friend murdered to further his own ambition and a ghost, either a real one or one in his tortured mind, returns to haunt him.

A similar situation occurs in "Banquo's Chair," which was first published in July 1930 as Banquo's Chair: A Play in One Act by Rupert Croft-Cooke. The action of the play, which is only 15 pages long, takes place in "a large but rather decayed house on Sydenham Hill," which is located in southeast London and which features many large homes from the 1800s. Retired police chief Sir William Brent is setting the scene in order to conduct an experiment, aided by Lane, a butler. Robert Stone arrives in the company of Harold Gandy, a well-known novelist, and Brent reminds them of the Sydenham Murder, in which an old woman named Miss Ferguson was killed a year before and no arrest was made. The police were sure that the culprit was her nephew, John Bedford, but they could not prove it, so they allowed Brent to wait for the anniversary of the crime, in which the old woman was strangled in her chair while having dinner in the very room where the men now stand.

Bedford breaks down and confesses
Brent promises his guests that Bedford will confess tonight. The retired policeman rented the house and convinced Bedford to come to dinner with the promise of meeting the famous Mr. Gandy. Brent reminds his guests of Banquo's chair and promises that Bedford will see a ghost. He has hired actress May Dacklethorpe to impersonate the old lady and appear by candlelight. Bedford arrives and conversation follows; Brent explains that his regular cook left because she thought she saw the ghost of an old woman. The electric lights fail and candles are brought out for a game of cards. Bedford sees the figure of an old woman but the others pretend not to see her. He gradually gets more and more excited until he blurts out a confession of murder and is taken away by the police. To his great surprise, Brent receives a telegram telling him that May Dacklethorpe has the flu and cannot come that evening.

Banquo's Chair is a clever and atmospheric short play where a character is driven to admit his own guilt by what appear to be the machinations of a crafty police inspector. Only after the guilty party is gone do the other participants in the evening's events discover that their silent visitor may have been a ghost after all.

John Williams as Brent
Rupert Croft-Cooke must have known he had a good thing in this little play, because he rewrote it as a short story that was published in his own collection called Pharaoh With His Waggons and Other Short Stories (1937). The story may have been published in a periodical before that but I have not been able to find an earlier source. It was also collected that same year in an anthology edited by Hugh Walpole called A Second Century of Creepy Stories; as the last story in the book, it may have been the newest. The short story follows the action of the play but is in narrative rather than dramatic form. The scene is set with the background of Brent at Scotland Yard before the action gets going; he invites the narrator to dinner and the tale unfolds as in the play.

The author was born in 1903 in England and his first book, a collection of poems, was published in 1922. In a fifty-year career as a writer, he wrote over 100 books, including mystery novels as Leo Bruce. Eight of them featured Sergeant Beef, while another 23 featured Carolus Deene. Croft-Cooke was jailed for six months in 1953 and 1954 under England's laws that criminalized homosexuality; his case was among those that led to a change in the law. He died in 1979 and there is a website about him here. He did not write for film or television; only a handful of his works were adapted for those media and this is the only time one of his stories was adapted for the Hitchcock series.

Reginald Gardiner as Major Cooke-Finch
After its publication in short story form, "Banquo's Chair" lived on, first as a thirty-minute radio play on Suspense, broadcast June 1, 1943, and starring Donald Crisp. (Listen to this version online here.) The play was performed a second time on Suspense, again with Crisp, on August 3, 1944. (This version may be heard online here.) The next year, it was adapted for film as a 65-minute Republic Pictures feature called The Fatal Witness, starring Evelyn Ankers. One of the dinner guests in this film is played by Hilda Plowright, who would go on to play the ghost 14 years later in the version aired on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (There is a clip from The Fatal Witness online here.)

Suspense expanded the story to one hour and it was presented on radio for a third time, this time starring James Mason. The broadcast aired on March 9, 1950, and may be heard here. The final radio appearance of "Banquo's Chair" came on February 6, 1957, on a series called Sleep No More, where Nelson Olmsted reads the short story aloud, with musical accompaniment. (Listen to the reading here.)

Finally, Alfred Hitchcock Presents adapted "Banquo's Chair" for television and the show was filmed on March 25 and 26, 1959, and broadcast on CBS on Sunday, May 3, 1959, with a teleplay by Francis Cockrell and direction by Hitchcock himself, who was then doing the final editing work on North By Northwest. The show is a triumph, one of the best of the series. The credits say that it is based on a story by Rupert Croft-Cooke, so it is safe to assume that Cockrell had the story and not the play at his desk when he sat down to write.

The opening shot
The show begins with an outdoor shot that represents the point of view of someone traveling by carriage through southeast London. Titles tell us that the scene is set in "Blackheath, Near London," that the date is October 23, 1903, and that the time is 7:20 PM. The street is lighted by gas fixtures and the people passing by wear turn of the century clothes; there is the sound of horse's hooves and the street is wet from rain. The neighborhood is one of large homes and resembles that of the story's Sydenham Hill; both Blackheath and Sydenham Hill are in the eastern part of the city. The decision to move the story back more than two decades from the 1930 play is likely to allow for the use of gaslight rather than electricity.

The scene dissolves to the interior of the house, which is decorated in the Victorian or Georgian style. Inspector Brent arrives to visit Major Cooke-Finch, who lives in the house. Unlike the story, where Brent himself rented the house, in the TV version Cooke-Finch is the resident. John Williams plays Brent in an uncharacteristically brusque manner, unlike his other performances in the series but in keeping with the description of the character in Croft-Cooke's story. Brent drops hints of what is to occur that night and, on three occasions, a surprising word from Brent is followed by a close-up of another character who comments on it. The first time, when Brent utters the word "ghost," the camera focuses on the Major, who exclaims: "Odd, I thought he said ghost!" The Major acts as a stand-in for the viewer, saying aloud what the viewer is thinking.

Max Adrian as Stone
Robert Stone is the next guest to arrive. Here, Cockrell makes a change that allows him to have some fun with the script. Instead of being a famous writer, as in the story (or a female mystery writer, as in the 1943 radio play), Stone is a Shakespearean actor who is currently playing in Macbeth. The Major remarks that he has not seen the play yet and that he prefers the Tivoli and Gertie Gitana. The Tivoli Music Hall was one of London's leading music halls and opened in 1890. Gitana (1887-1957) was a British music hall entertainer who would have been 15 years old at the time this story took place (see a photo here or listen to her sing here); she made her London debut in 1900. Once again, the Major stands in for the viewer, who prefers popular forms of entertainment to highbrow drama.

Once again, Brent utters a key word and the camera moves in for a close up on another character's reaction: this time the inspector says "murder" and Stone's face is seen in close up. The murder occurred two years ago, twice as far removed from the gathering as in the story, and in Cockrell's teleplay Major Cooke-Finch admits that he could afford to "take" the house because the murder lowered its value. Here, it is the Blackheath Murder rather than the Sydenham Murder. Cockrell adds another nice touch: in addition to Miss Ferguson, her little Pekinese dog was also killed. The dog may have known the murderer, since no bark of warning was heard; this recalls the famous incident in Conan Doyle's 1892 Sherlock Holmes story, "Silver Blaze," where a dog did not bark because he knew the murderer.

The third and final time Brent's words elicit a reaction shown in close up occurs when he announces: "I intend to produce Miss Ferguson's ghost" and the camera moves in on the Major once again as he remarks, "He did say ghost!" These tricks help set a somewhat light tone in the first act of "Banquo's Chair" that contrasts with the growing suspense in the second act. Perhaps no one but John Williams could deliver this line as effectively: "We can't bring her on with the soup; that would be pushing it. I'll bring her on with the pheasant," he says, referring to the ghost. One more Shakespearean reference is made, as Stone comments that May Thorpe, the actress hired to play the ghost, had been featured in his version of Hamlet as the queen; of course, her husband also appears in that play as a ghost. Brent admits that he told Bedford that he had new evidence that he wanted to discuss and this is how he lured him to the scene of the crime on its second anniversary; this is a change from the story, where the chance to meet a famous writer was enough to attract the killer. Act one ends with Bedford's arrival, as he enters the dining room and approaches the camera.

The shot that opens Act Two
Act two opens with a shot from above that is unusual for Alfred Hitchcock Presents; it establishes the seating arrangement at the table and recalls a similar overhead shot in "Crack of Doom." For much of the rest of the scene, Hitchcock places his camera at a short distance from the table, shooting between Cooke-Finch and Stone to show Bedford, who asks Stone about Macbeth (another Shakespeare reference), followed by a shot from behind Bedford, showing his point of view of the doorway to the dark room behind the Major. As table talk progresses, the camera focuses on Bedford alone. The banal chatter continues and Bedford reacts as the sound of a dog barking is heard, reminding him of the dog that he killed two years before. There is a cut to a shot in the next room of a sergeant teasing a small dog with a treat in order to coax him to bark; the action of the sergeant underlines the extent of Brent's careful scene-setting and psychological manipulation of Bedford.

Thomas Dillon making the dog bark
The other men at the table claim not to hear the dog and Bedford lets the matter drop. Just then, the flames in the gas lamps go down and the room grows dim, lit only by flickering candlelight and what little remains of the gas flames. This is surely why Cockrell chose to move the date of the events back to 1903, so he could take advantage of the gaslight and its double meaning. Not only is the room lit by gaslight, but Bedford himself is being gaslighted--a term defined as "a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity." The term stems from the 1938 play, Gas Light, which was made into a movie with Ingrid Bergman in 1944; it fits perfectly the series of events staged by Inspector Brent to drive Bedford to confess to murder.

Kenneth Haigh as Bedford
There is a loud noise and the front door is blown open, revealing hard rain and driving wind outside, the ideal setting for the arrival of a ghost, who may have been the source of the door's sudden opening. Conversation around the table continues and the camera closes in on Bedford's face, as music begins to play on the soundtrack. From his point of view, we see a ghost walk slowly into sight in the dark doorway behind Brent; she seems to consist of a floating head, hands, and broach as her black dress fades into the dark background. Hitchcock develops a brilliant contrast between picture and sound here; he shows Bedford's agony while the banal conversation goes on around him and the music reflects his inner torment. Bedford looks around surreptitiously and returns to engaging with the others at the table, yet he is interrupted again as the ghost reappears, advancing and retreating from the doorway like a figure on a black movie screen. Bedford squeezes his eyes shut, trying to drive the horror from his sight, as Stone discusses Hamlet; Stone's mention of "the irrational acts of leading ladies" may be read as ironic commentary on what the actress playing the ghost is doing in the next room.

The music, the table talk, and the visions of the ghostly old woman continue; Stone goes on to mention an actress playing Ophelia--who dies in Hamlet--and her belief in astrology; in a way, Stone is laying it all out for Bedford, but the young man is too wrapped up in what he is seeing to pay attention to the clues provided by the actor at the table. Referring to acting, Stone comments that "the rewards are many," but this could also refer to the inheritance Bedford received for murdering the old woman. Bedford snaps out of it for a moment and asks Stone about the audience that keeps "you coming back for one curtain call after another," just as the ghost of Miss Ferguson keeps re-emerging to take center stage in Bedford's line of sight.

The close ups of Bedford's face get tighter and tighter; he is an audience of one, unable to fathom why no one else in the room can see the play being acted out before him and afraid that it is happening only in his mind. As in Hitchcock's Spellbound, a Theremin is used to good effect here, adding an aura of unreality to the proceedings. When Bedford finally loses control, the close up is so tight that the frame cannot contain his entire face. He leaps from his chair, yelling at the ghost and, in his threat to kill her again, he utters the confession that seals his doom. The music suddenly stops and Bedford realizes that he has been tricked. He is arrested and taken away, out into the rainy night and his bleak future which, in 1903, surely means hanging.

George Pelling as the butler
The coda to the show, where the surprise ending occurs, is different than it is in the story, where Brent receives a telegram with news of the actress's unavailability. Here, Cockrell and Hitchcock take a more visual approach by having the actress enter, dressed like the ghost. She apologizes to Brent for the delay that prevented her timely arrival and the music rises again as the men exchange looks. The show ends with another close up, this time of Brent's shocked expression.

"Banquo's Chair" is a bit shorter than the usual episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (only 18 minutes from start to finish), yet it is a brilliant show where the writing, direction, acting and music all work together to make a short film that has a great setup and payoff with a classic twist ending.

Francis Cockrell (1906-1987) wrote for movies from 1932 to 1956 and for TV from 1950 to 1973. He wrote 18 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; "I Killed the Count" was the last one examined here and "Banquo's Chair" was his last teleplay for this series to be aired.

The murderer, John Bedford, is played by Kenneth Haigh (1931- ), who was onscreen from 1954 to 2004. He was on the Hitchcock show twice and also appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

Reginald Gardiner (1903-1980) plays Major Cooke-Finch; his first film role was an uncredited part in Hitchcock's 1927 silent suspense classic, The Lodger. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show; he was also seen in Chaplin's The Great Dictator and he was on screen until 1968.

Shakespearean actor Robert Stone is played by Max Adrian, who was on screen from 1934 to 1971. He only appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents once and was later seen in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965).

Thomas Dillon (1895-1962) plays the sergeant who gets the dog to bark; in a 23-year career, he played bit parts in many classic films. Hilda Plowright (1890-1973) plays the ghost; in addition to her small role in The Fatal Witness she was on screen from 1938 to 1965. Finally, George Pelling plays the butler; he had small parts in no less than eight episodes of the Hitchcock series.

The music supervisor on "Banquo's Chair" was Frederick Herbert (1909-1966), who was a music mixer in films from 1937 on and who worked in episode TV from 1958 to 1960. His work on this episode is particularly striking.

Watch "Banquo's Chair" on Hulu here or order the DVD here.

"Banquo's Chair." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 3 May 1959. Television.
Croft-Cooke, Rupert. "Banquo's Chair." 1937. 65 Great Murder Mysteries. Ed. Mary Danby. London: Octopus, 1983. 156-61. Print.
Croft-Cooke, Rupert. Banquo's Chair; a Play in One Act. London: H.F.W. Deane & Sons, 1930. Print. Rpt. 1932 by The Baker International Play Bureau, Boston. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
Mogg, Ken. "Banquo's Chair (episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents)." Senses of Cinema. 21 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
"Rupert Croft-Cooke." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2003. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
Shakespeare, William, and G. Blakemore Evans. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Print.
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius. London: Collins, 1983. Print.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Message to the author. 12 Nov. 2016. E-mail.
"Suspense - Banquo's Chair." Escape and Suspense! Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.

John Williams on Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Overview and Episode Guide

John Williams was featured in ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, all during the first four seasons of the series. In season one, he appeared in "The Long Shot," with Peter Lawford, where he plays a con man with a special interest in facts about London. In "Back for Christmas," he plays a husband who murders his wife. In "Whodunit," he plays a mystery writer who is murdered and then sent back to Earth to try to identify his killer.

Williams appeared in six episodes of season two, his busiest year. In "Wet Saturday," he plays an outsider who happens upon a murder that is being covered up by a wealthy family. In "The Rose Garden," he plays a book publisher who discovers that a murder mystery novel is not as fictional as it seems. "I Killed the Count," the only multi-part episode of the entire series, finds him playing a Scotland Yard inspector with too many people confessing to murder. In "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater," he plays an unhappy husband with a rich fantasy life.

He did not appear in any episodes in season three, but in season four he made his last appearance, as a retired Scotland Yard inspector in "Banquo's Chair." While the casual viewer might remember Williams as having played one police inspector after another, following his successful role in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), the truth is that his roles on the Hitchcock series were diverse and demonstrated his acting range. These ten half hours are uniformly entertaining and often mix humor with crime to good effect. Williams continued as a busy actor for another two decades, but his appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents remain among his most memorable.


Episode title-“The Long Shot” [1.9]
Broadcast date-27 Nov. 1955
Teleplay by-Harold Swanton
Based on-"The Long Shot" by Swanton
First print appearance-none (radio play aired 31 Jan. 1946 on Suspense)
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"The Long Shot"

Episode title-“Back for Christmas” [1.23]
Broadcast date-4 March 1956
Teleplay by-Francis Cockrell
Based on-"Back for Christmas" by John Collier
First print appearance-The New Yorker, 7 Oct. 1939
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"Back for Christmas"

Episode title-“Whodunit” [1.26]
Broadcast date-25 March 1956
Teleplay by-Francis and Marian Cockrell
Based on-"Heaven Can Wait" by C.B. Gilford
First print appearance-Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 1953
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here


Episode title-“Wet Saturday” [2.1]
Broadcast date-30 Sept. 1956
Teleplay by-Marian Cockrell
Based on-"Wet Saturday" by John Collier
First print appearance-The New Yorker, 16 July 1938
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"Wet Saturday"

Episode title-“The Rose Garden” [2.12]
Broadcast date-16 Dec. 1956
Teleplay by-Marian Cockrell
Based on-unpublished story by Vincent Fotre
First print appearance-none
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"The Rose Garden"

Episode title-“I Killed the Count” [2.25, 2.26, 2.27]
Broadcast date-17, 24, 31 March 1957
Teleplay by-Francis Cockrell
Based on-I Killed the Count by Alec Coppel
First print appearance-play first performed in 1937 and published in 1938
Watch episode-here, here and here
Available on DVD?-here

"I Killed the Count"

Episode title-“The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater” [2.30]
Broadcast date-21 April 1957
Teleplay by-Sarett Rudley
Based on-"Three Dreams" by A.A. Milne 
First print appearance-Cosmopolitan, April 1949
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater"

Episode title-“Banquo's Chair” [4.29]
Broadcast date-3 May 1959
Teleplay by-Francis Cockrell
Based on-"Banquo's Chair" by Rupert Croft-Cooke 
First print appearance-play published in 1930; short story collected in the 1937 collection, Pharaoh With His Waggons and Other Short Stories
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

"Banquo's Chair"

In two weeks: Our short series on Richard Matheson starts with "Ride the Nightmare," starring Hugh O'Brian and Gena Rowlands!


Peter Enfantino said...

I thought I'd seen this one before (I've seen most of the Hitch episodes) but evidently not. Great show, great acting, great camerawork. One of the best of the series? That's a tough one, but it's a keeper, that's fersure. I love Williams' extended stare into the audience at the climax as if he's looking to us for an answer. It's also nice to finally find out where all those 1950s DC writers cribbed that "I'm sorry I'm late, inspector, but the bridge washed out. Do you still need me to dress like a werewolf?" chestnut from.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter! I tried briefly to find out if this was the origin of that trope, but I hit a dead end. An expert on ghost stories would know.

Grant said...

My favorite example of that idea is a relatively late one, and partly because it's my FIRST exposure to it that I can think of, a story in House of Mystery # 190.

It's a toss-up, but possibly my favorite John Williams AHP episode is "The Long Shot."
A favorite role of his altogether is even harder, of course. Two I can name are "The Doll" episode of NIGHT GALLERY and "The Bard" episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. (In the second one, he plays a very good comical version of Shakespeare.)

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! I saw "The Doll" decades ago and "The Bard" more recently and I agree that both are good shows. John Williams is such a pleasure to watch. I am sorry to be done with his episodes!

Matthew Bradley said...

Nicely done, Jack; quite agree that this is one of the best episodes, certainly of the relatively few that I have seen, and John “I’m sure you recognize this lovely melody” Williams is always welcome. Interesting that in establishing the date and time so precisely at the beginning, it anticipates the following year’s Psycho. Although I could see that ending coming a mile away, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment, while the way the ghost appeared to float in and out reminded me of the “Drop of Water” segment from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath.

Wasn’t timing it but sensed that this one must have been short, because they padded out the end credits interminably! It took me much of the episode, while watching it for the first time recently, to place Adrian—and even longer to dredge up his name—as the young Donald Sutherland’s colleague/competitor in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. Haigh, of course, starred in “The Last Flight,” the first Twilight Zone episode scripted by the late, great Richard Matheson.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Matthew. I think this episode is particularly strong and I love Hitch's work on it.