Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part One: A Tangled Web [8.18]

Robert Redford as David
by Jack Seabrook

James Bridges began his career as a screenwriter with his work for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and, with 16 episodes to his credit, wrote more teleplays for the hour-long series than anyone else. Born in Arkansas in 1936, he acted in a handful of TV episodes and movies in the 1950s (including Invasion of the Saucer Men). He was also a playwright and, when Norman Lloyd saw one of his plays in Los Angeles, he hired Bridges to write for the Hitchcock TV series. Among the episodes written by Bridges were "The Jar," which was nominated for an Emmy in 1964 (Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama [Adaptation]) and "An Unlocked Window," which won an Edgar in 1966 (Best Episode in a TV Series).

First edition
After The Alfred Hitchcock Hour came to an end in 1965, Bridges began to write screenplays and, in 1970, he began to direct his own films. Aided by his partner Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen on The Adventures of Superman), Bridges had a successful career in film and on TV. Highlights included The Paper Chase (1973) and The China Syndrome (1979); he received Academy Award nominations for both films and The Paper Chase was followed by a TV series that Bridges also created. Sadly, James Bridges developed cancer and died in 1993 at the age of 57.

The first episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour written by James Bridges was "A Tangled Web," based on the 1956 novel of the same name. An introductory note by Nicholas Blake says that the story follows "in broad outline a criminal cause celebre of the early years of the century," but I have not been able to figure out what true crime story he means.

The novel takes place in London, where a beautiful 17-year-old girl named Daisy Bland has a chance meeting with Hugo Chesterman, a 28-year-old man who admits that he is a "bad hat" but whom she finds charming. She moves in with him and gradually learns that he is a minor criminal, a cat burglar with a violent temper. Turning 18, she meets Hugo's friend John Jacques, known as Jacko, an older doctor and impotent abortionist who tips Hugo off to burglary opportunities. Daisy is innocent and maintains her faith in Hugo, even when she suspects that he has given her a piece of stolen jewelry.

Zohra Lampert as Marie (Daisy)
A meeting with Hugo's brother Mark and Mark's wife Gertrude goes badly; Hugo is the family black sheep and he pulls a gun when Gertrude is rude to Daisy. After Daisy confides her fears to Jacko, a robbery is botched and she and Hugo move to a seedy part of town and lie low. Daisy gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, even though she does not press Hugo to marry her. The couple go on holiday to the beach at Southbourne, were Hugo hears of a woman who keeps expensive jewelry at home. In another failed robbery attempt, a police inspector is shot and killed. Hugo denies involvement but insists on running away, telling Daisy that the police will be sure to suspect him. Daisy helps Hugo bury the gun at the beach and Mark and Jacko help him escape.

The police began to search for the killer. Daisy stays with Jacko, convinced of Hugo's innocence, but Jacko goes to the police and informs on Hugo, leading to his arrest. Jacko lies to a distraught Daisy about how her lover was apprehended. Though no one can identify Hugo in a police lineup, he is charged with the murder anyway, and Jacko tells Daisy that she cannot visit him in jail and that she must tell the police the truth. When questioned, she provides no alibi for Hugo on the night of the murder and, at a preliminary hearing, her testimony is the strongest evidence against Hugo.

Barry Morse as Karl (Jacko)
Realizing what she has done, Daisy seeks out Hugo's lawyer and says that she was coerced into giving false testimony. At trial, she changes her story but Hugo is convicted and sentenced to death. The day before he is to be hanged, Hugo finally confesses to Daisy.

A Tangled Web is an interesting novel that focuses on the relationship between three main characters. Daisy Bland is a young flower whose innocence leads her to fall in love with a criminal and to remain blind to his flaws, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Hugo is a bad seed who is redeemed only by his love for Daisy; despite a violent streak that causes him to murder a policeman, he confesses his guilt to Daisy at the end of the book and demonstrates that, in loving her, he has finally found a way to put the needs of another person ahead of his own. The villain of the story is Jacko, who betrays his friend Hugo in part because he desires Daisy and in part because he hates their happiness. Jacko is described as an older, degenerate man--he is a doctor who performs abortions, which were illegal in 1956 England. His decision to inform on Hugo to the police leads to Hugo being captured; his testimony at trial leads to his conviction. Worst of all, he manipulates Daisy so that she gives evidence to ensure Hugo's conviction.

Karl removes his own wig
Like The Thirty-First of February, by Julian Symons, A Tangled Web is a crime novel that deals with the psychological problems of its characters and is not focused on mystery and detection. Its author, Nicholas Blake, was a pseudonym for Cecil Day Lewis (1904-1972), British poet laureate from 1968 to 1972 and father of the actor, Daniel Day Lewis. Born in Ireland, Lewis wrote his first book of poetry in 1925 and later served as a professor at Oxford and Harvard Universities. During his long career as a writer, he wrote poetry, novels and literary criticism and worked as an editor and a translator. Under the name of Nicholas Blake, he wrote many crime novels, starting in 1935, most of which feature amateur detective Nigel Strangeways. Critic Anthony Boucher wrote that Lewis/Blake's stature among mystery novelists was at least as high as his stature among poets. While several of his novels were adapted for film or television, A Tangled Web is the only one that was adapted for the Hitchcock series.

The TV episode, "A Tangled Web," works on many levels and demonstrates that Norman Lloyd made a wise choice when he hired James Bridges to work as a writer for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Premiering on CBS on Friday, January 25, 1963, the show was directed by Alf Kjellin and stars Robert Redford as David Chesterman, Zohra Lampert as Marie Petit, and Barry Morse as Karl Gault--these three characters correspond to Hugo, Daisy and Jacko in the novel. The script by Bridges is not so much an adaptation of Blake's novel as a re-imagining; he preserves the relationships between the characters and the basic outline of the plot while turning the story into something rather different and successful.

Gertrude Flynn as David's mother
Set in an unnamed American city (Beacon Hill is mentioned at one point, suggesting Boston as a location, but later the characters plan to flee to Mexico, which argues against the Northeast), the first scene shows David being surprised in the act of robbing a woman's house. We next see him at home, where he lives in luxury with his mother. When she catches him kissing Marie, the French maid, he declares that they are to be married and she throws him out. The first flash of David's violent temper is seen when he throws a vase at his mother and it smashes on the wall, narrowly missing her head. This scene establishes that David comes from a privileged background, that he makes impetuous decisions, and that he can turn violent in an instant. It also shows that Marie is an innocent--rather than a 17-year-old girl, as in the novel, here she is a French maid, whose foreign background and discomfort with the language erect a barrier between her and the world she now inhabits. Zohra Lampert was 25 years old when she played this role, making her considerably older than the character in the novel. Her beauty in the show comes from her smile and her mannerisms, unlike the Daisy of the novel, whose striking physical beauty was apparent to all who saw her.

The third key character in the show is introduced next, when David and Marie visit Karl Gault, who owns a wig shop and lives in the rooms behind it. The wigs symbolize his false nature and he wears hairpieces on and off throughout the show. Like Marie, he speaks with a heavy accent that is probably meant to be French; the name Gault is of Norman origin, suggesting his descent from earlier invaders of Britain. Gault is a complex character: on the surface, he appears to be in love with Marie, but there is a strong indication that he may be a coded gay character whose real interest is in David. When Karl first meets Daisy, he tells David, in a way that seems to be joking, "I declare my love for her here and now. I'm going to steal her from you." His actions later prove the truth of this statement. Karl is a tortured soul, who admits that he once believed in happiness but now thinks that "love does not exist." David views him as a father figure, telling him that "we can't get married . . . unless you say yes," but in this case the father lusts after the daughter in law and perhaps after the son as well.

Gender reversal
David and Marie are married between this scene and the next one, something we only know because in the next scene David refers to them being on their honeymoon and calls Marie "Mrs." James Bridges wrote the script in an elliptical, impressionistic way, leaving out important events in order to spend time with the characters in scenes that probe their relationships. At a carnival, the newlyweds seem happy together and pose for a silly photo that shows her head above a cutout of a man's body and his head above a cutout of a woman's. This suggests a female role for David, and Karl will take this photograph and make devilish use of it. At the carnival, a young man insults Marie and David again displays his sudden and violent temper, beating the man severely. He is about to smash a bottle of acid in the man's face when Marie calls to him and he stops; she is the only one able to tame his rage. As David, Robert Redford gives a strong performance, his expressive face showing the turmoil inside the character's mind.

Karl's darts target David
Back at Karl's apartment, Marie remarks that "David only kills with kisses," showing her innocence and foreshadowing her husband's later, murderous act. Karl responds that this is "the most painful kind of death"--as Judas would betray Jesus with a kiss, so Karl will betray David with the words that escape from his lips. David comments that "the camera never lies," meaning that his solemn expression in the carnival photo shows his true nature, yet the picture of him dressed as a woman is taken by Karl and pinned to a dart board. He then throws darts at David's face, suggesting that he intends to eliminate the man as a rival for Marie's affections and perhaps symbolically committing sexual violence against David. At this moment, Karl removes his own wig, as if to reveal his genuine self: a balding, middle-aged man who sneers when he hears the young couple laughing in the next room.

In another instance of foreshadowing, Marie compares her own hair to the hair in one of Karl's wigs; she will later sell her hair to raise money to help David. Returning to his mother's house, David uses his burglar tools to break in, then leaves Marie there alone to go to meet someone on business. Not wanting to be by herself, the young woman goes to see Karl, whom she finds putting makeup on the disembodied head of a mannequin. When Marie remarks on how dark his rooms are, he tells her that "We are creatures of the dark, my dear." Karl reveals to Marie that David is "an accomplished, professional thief" and she returns to David's mother's home to find him wounded, shot in the arm during a burglary. She tells him that she will leave him but he argues that he is only stealing because he now has a wife to support.

Karl's knife slices through David's name
There is another jump forward in time, and David, Marie and Karl celebrate David's birthday at Karl's home. Karl cuts the cake, the knife slicing through David's name written in icing--another symbolic, sexual attack? David has gone straight after his injury and Karl tells him, "You're so respectable! It makes me sick!" (Karl has a habit of stating the truth in a jesting tone.) Marie tells Karl that "You're wrong--love does exist!" but when she leaves the room, David confesses to Karl that he quit his job without telling his wife. Karl admits that "love does exist" but makes this statement while staring directly at Marie, suggesting that his love is directed at the wife of his friend. Karl gives David another tip, this time about a wealthy woman who has died and is to be buried in her expensive jewelry. David rushes off to commit the crime. He enters the funeral home and approaches her casket, breaking another taboo: he is caught in the act of removing jewelry from an unseen corpse.

A television news report follows and explains that the caretaker at the funeral home was murdered and a scarf with the initials "D.C." was found beside the body. This scene parallels the earlier scene where David was caught in the act of burglary and then listened to a radio news report about his own crime. David admits the robbery to Marie but denies the murder and flees. In the next scene, Karl is working with a woman who is having trouble selecting a wig. She admires Marie's hair and Marie agrees to sell it to her for $200. Karl cuts her hair off and then styles it; as he works on her body in this intimate fashion he asks her what love feels like and admits that "I know what the opposite of love feels like. What the real core of love is like I don't know."

Joan Houseman as the woman
who buys Marie's hair
David returns and he and Marie leave to head for Mexico, but as soon as they are out the door, Karl picks up the phone and calls the police. Bridges's script is elliptical again here, for in the next scene David is already being held in prison, where Marie pays him a visit and David warns Marie that Karl is in love with her. More time passes between scenes and now David's trial is underway. Karl gives Marie sleeping pills to knock her out and then testifies in court, sealing Karl's doom, Close-ups of Karl on the witness stand are intercut with shots of Marie struggling between sleep and waking. Karl testifies that David "told me he had killed the caretaker" and a very tight closeup of his mouth shows his lips curling up into a cruel smile.

Marie's hand grabs the dart to stab Karl--
notice how many holes are in David's face now
Karl returns home with flowers and a gift, telling Marie that David is guilty and will be sentenced that afternoon. Karl makes a play for Marie but then confesses that "I hate David! I hate your love for each other!" He tries to force himself on her and she is pressed up against the wall where the dart board hangs; she pulls the dart from David's photo and stabs Karl with it before escaping. Marie rushes to the courtroom, which is empty but for a reporter and a photographer. Frantic, she climbs out of a window and onto a ledge, high above the street, threatening to jump if David does not come to talk to her. He is brought in and finally tells the truth, noting that "the only happiness I've had in my life has been our love." Marie climbs back in through the window and they embrace, the story coming to an end as she forgives him.

Marie threatens to jump

"A Tangled Web" is an excellent short film that shows how a creative approach to adaptation can bring a novel alive on the small screen. In addition to the fine script by James Bridges, the show benefits from strong acting by the three leads and from clever direction by Alf Kjellin, whose shot choices are unobtrusive but succeed in telling the story quickly and effectively. When he does use an unusual shot, such as the tight closeups on Karl on the witness stand, it works very well. The gay subtext is not buried very deep and adds an interesting element to the show, since Bridges himself was a gay man writing in Hollywood at a time when the topic was still taboo. The title, "A Tangled Web," comes from the epic poem, Marmion (1808) by Sir Walter Scott: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive!" Each of the three main characters weaves a web of lies that leads to destruction. David Chesterman withholds the truth of his profession from Marie and then lies about the murder; Marie lies to herself about David's profession and accepts his lie about the murder; and Karl lies to Marie about his actions that send David to death. Does he also deceive David and himself about where his attractions really lie?

Karl's testimony begins with a closeup

Then the camera gets closer

Until it focuses on his lying lips

That curl into a smile after he has sealed his friend's fate

Alf Kjellin (1920-1988), who directed "A Tangled Web," was a Swedish actor/director who directed 12 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Thirty-First of February."

As David Chesterman, Robert Redford (1936- ) is both charming and dangerous. This was one of three appearances he made on the Hitchcock show, including "The Right Kind of Medicine."

Zohra Lampert (1937- ) gives a likable performance as Marie. Born in New York City, she appeared on stage and her career on screen began in 1954 and continues today. She is currently married to New York radio DJ Jonathan Schwartz.

The broken taboo that leads to David's downfall
Giving an excellent, nuanced performance as Karl, Barry Morse (1918-2008) adds another memorable part to his long screen career. Born in London, he worked on stage and in radio and he was on screen from 1942 to 2007, with but a single appearance on the Hitchcock show and appearances on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. He is best known for his co-starring roles on The Fugitive (1963-1967) and Space: 1999 (1975-1976). A website devoted to him may be found here.

"A Tangled Web" is dominated by Redford, Lampert and Morse, but two other actresses make an impression in short scenes. Gertrude Flynn (1909-1996) plays David's mother, who tosses a handful of coins on the floor and tells him to "buy a toaster" as her wedding present. Flynn had a long career on stage and was on screen from 1952 to 1987. She appeared in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Party Line" and "The Second Wife."

The small role of the woman who ends up buying Marie's hair to make a wig for herself is played by Joan Houseman (1916-2001), the wife of actor/director John Houseman. She only has three credits on IMDb, including "A Tangled Web." According to Jack Larson, James Bridges was a protege of John Houseman, so it is possible that their connection led to Mrs. Houseman being hired for this episode. Years later, Bridges asked Houseman to act in The Paper Chase, a role that made him famous and led to many other acting roles in the latter years of his career.

"A Tangled Web" is not currently available online or on a DVD released in the U.S.

Blake, Nicholas. A Tangled Web. New York: Bloomsbury Reader, 2012. Electronic book.
"C(ecil) Day Lewis." Gale, 2003. Contemporary Authors Online. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
"DP/30: Jack Larson & James Bridges - A Hollywood Partnership (1 of 3)." YouTube. YouTube, 12 Aug. 2011. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
"DP/30: Jack Larson & James Bridges - A Hollywood Partnership (2 of 3)." YouTube. YouTube, 12 Aug. 2011. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
"DP/30: Jack Larson & James Bridges - A Hollywood Partnership (3 of 3)." YouTube. YouTube, 13 Aug. 2011. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
"James Bridges." Gale, 2005. Contemporary Authors Online. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
"A Tangled Web." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 25 Jan. 1963. Television.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

In two weeks: "The Star Juror," starring Dean Jagger and Betty Field!


Grant said...

Robert Redford has been described as bad in his Twilight Zone episode "Nothing In The Dark," due to it being such an early role.
I don't know about that, but he's certainly good in all of his Hitchcock episodes.

Speaking of early roles, I have a lopsided attachment to an odd comedy called "Situation Hopeless, But Not Serious," which is nearly his first movie role.

Jack Seabrook said...

I think he's a very good actor! He was very good in "The Right Kind of Medicine" and also "A Tangled Web." But then, I also thought he was good on the Twilight Zone.

Elliot James said...

Syndicated shows are often cut by the networks to squeeze in more ads. In the version of this episode I saw on MeTV, there is no scene of Gault cutting Marie's hair. It jumps from Marie agreeable to selling her hair to Marie showing her new, shorter hairstyle to David in the living room.

The unhealthy, claustrophobic relationship of the three principals is depicted in that masked way that early TV was forced to do by Standards and Practices. David is a psychopath getting pleasure from crime, Marie is the uneducated, goodhearted innocent and Gault is the manipulating, Satan of the trio. Barry Morse's odd accent adds strangeness to his effete mannerisms that television and cinema assigned to gay characters. The story gives the impression that he prefers David, not Marie, so his pursuit of Marie is more motivated by the idea of hurting David, who he can't have, than coveting Marie.

The ending is weak. Morse's dart wound doesn't look serious despite his dramatic passing out and the ledge routine has been done many times before. Even so, the story has its moments of Hitchcockian strangeness.

Jack Seabrook said...

Those are good points, Elliot. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Cuts made by stations rebroadcasting the show are certainly problematic. I wish Universal would release the hour long shows on DVD in the US!

Elliot James said...

Thanks Jack. There's another practice that the stations use to cram in more commercials and that's speeding up the video. Get TV does this on the Burt Reynolds cop show Dan August. After listening to 20 minutes of people speaking like tobacco auctioneers, I'm inclined to switch channels.

Jack Seabrook said...

I've never noticed that, but then I can't watch the classic TV channels for long due to the overabundance of commercials.