Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Two: The Star Juror [8.24]

by Jack Seabrook

James Bridges's second script for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was "The Star Juror," which aired on CBS on Friday, March 15, 1963, It was based on a 1958 French crime novel called The Seventh Juror by Francis Didelot.

Born in Madagascar in 1902 as Roger-Francis Didelot, the author trained and worked as a lawyer but became famous as a writer of novels, plays and non-fiction; he also wrote for radio, television and film and many of his works were adapted for the screen by other writers. The Seventh Juror is his best know novel and, in addition to the adaptation on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, it was filmed in France in 1962 and again for French television in 2008. In 2013, Variety reported that The Seventh Juror was being developed for the big screen again, but to date it has not been released. Didelot died in 1985.

First edition in English
The novel concerns Gregoire Duval and his wife Genevieve, who own a pharmacy in a town in France. A successful businessman with three children, Duval spends evenings with his friends playing cards at a cafe. One Sunday afternoon, he takes his family to a restaurant outside of town for lunch. After lunch, when the rest of his family has wandered off, Gregoire takes a walk in the woods, where he observes Lola, the town prostitute, bathing naked in the river. When she emerges from the water, he grabs her passionately, but when she begins to scream he strangles her and returns to the restaurant, unseen.

News of Lola's murder sweeps through the town and an investigation gets underway. Her boyfriend, Sylvain Sautral, is arrested, and Gregoire finds himself on the list of jurors for the upcoming trial. He becomes determined to prevent Sautral from being found guilty and telephones the defense lawyer to confess to the murder without giving his name. He visits a church in Paris and confesses to a priest, who writes to the judge without revealing Gregoire's identity. He even sends an unsigned letter declaring that Sautral is innocent, but the process of justice moves on and the trial grows near.

Dean Jagger as George
Gregoire studies the rules of court and, when he is selected as the seventh juror, he disrupts the trial by posing questions to the witnesses and by showing how weak the case is against Sautral. The jury returns a verdict of not guilty and the townspeople blame Gregoire for depriving them of an execution by guillotine. Gregoire confesses to the murder but is laughed out of the police station. Determined to clear the cloud of suspicion that still hangs over Sautral, Gregoire visits the man and ends up shooting and killing him. No longer burdened with the need to save an innocent man, Gregoire's conscience is clear, and he waits for the police to come. However, the townsfolk prefer to believe that Sautral killed himself. Gregoire tells his wife that he has an idea for a "harmless sleeping tablet . . . a formula which'll guarantee restful, dreamless sleep."

Betty Field as Jenny
Does Gregoire plan to kill himself? The end of the story is left ambiguous. Didelot's novel is a satire of French provincial manners. Duval murders Lola to prevent a scandal involving a town leader--himself. The townsfolk are easily led into believing Sautral to be guilty and, no matter what happens, they cling to that belief. Gregoire feels no remorse for killing Lola; his quest to prove Sautral innocent seems driven by a desire to demonstrate his own cleverness. The story resembles that of the 1970 Italian film, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, where a police officer commits murder and everyone refuses to consider him a suspect in spite of overwhelming evidence.

Will Hutchins as J.J.
James Bridges adapted The Seventh Juror for television under the title, "The Star Juror" and, as in his script for "A Tangled Web," he does a fine job of selecting key moments in the novel and stitching them together to remain faithful to the book. Unfortunately, due to uninspired direction and off-key performances by some of the main players, the televised version does not work and fails to capture the tone of the source.

The story is moved from a French town to an unspecified location in the American south and it begins with George (Gregoire) and Jenny (Genevieve) dozing on a picnic blanket. George wanders off, finds Lola and strangles her; she is young, vivacious and clad in a swimsuit, in contrast with Jenny, who is middle-aged, dumpy and snoring loudly. Of course, Lola is not nude, as she is in the novel, but she does flirt with George, offering him a beer. There is a moment of suspense when her boyfriend J.J. (Sylvain) floats by in a rowboat and George cowers behind a bush, but George is able to return safely to the picnic blanket and go back to sleep next to his wife.

Crahan Denton as the sheriff
The sheriff and his sons come to the lake to fish and wake George and Jenny; she offers fried chicken and comments that "George loves necks." George silently sees the irony when Jenny tells him, "George, here's that nice fat neck you were eyeing before church. You want it now?" Having had enough of necks for one day, he declines her offer. The sheriff comments that the only criminal in town is time and says that he would like to send Old Man Time to the electric chair. George is a victim of the ravages of aging and thinks of himself as Old Man Time when he hears what the sheriff has to say.

After Lola's body has been found and George is back at home with Jenny, he says that the sheriff is "up to his neck in trouble," ending the litany of neck references. He goes to his favorite beer joint and is accused of being the murderer when he walks in the door, but everyone laughs and it is revealed that each man was accused on entering the room. J.J. is arrested and has a violent fit in his cell, destroying his bedding and requiring George to bring a sedative from the pharmacy. Will Hutchins overacts wildly in these scenes and is much different from the Sautral of the novel, who is philosophical. James Best might have been a better choice for the role. Continuing the theme of having characters say things that mean one thing to George and another to everyone else, J.J. addresses George and states, "You know I didn't kill her." Of course, George knows this all too well but J.J. does not realize it.

George Mitchell as the judge

George telephones the sheriff and confesses to the murder but hangs up the phone before speaking his own name aloud. J.J. is bailed out by his mother and takes up with Alice, another attractive young woman who scandalizes the older women of the town by "wearing shorts on the street." Bridges adds a new scene to the story and shows J.J. at home with Alice and his mother, who washes people's clothes to earn a living. J.J. is fatalistic and thinks he will fry, while Alice slinks around the room seductively. George telephones J.J. to provide another anonymous warning, sends the letter to the judge, and is selected for the jury.

The sign attached to George's back door
The trial begins and is very compressed from what is in the novel. George becomes the star juror when he stands up to start asking questions. That night, a doll in a chair with a sign reading "electric chair" is pinned to George's back door; perhaps Bridges thought the show needed a bit more excitement. After the not guilty verdict, the townsfolk boo and hiss at George as he leaves the courthouse and children throw mud at J.J.'s mother's washing as it hangs on the line. The townsfolk boycott the pharmacy and George says to Jenny, "Well, what have I done, Jenny? Have I committed a crime? You act like you'd like to see me electrocuted." George has committed a horrible crime, yet he deludes himself into thinking that he is a crusader for justice when he tries to save J.J.

Jennifer West as Alice
Later, J.J. and Alice visit the pharmacy and J.J. is dressed like a caricature of a TV western bad guy, in black cowboy hat, black leather jacket, jeans, and black boots. He is the town outlaw, whose mother takes in washing and who dates women from the lowest stratum of society--Lola lived in a hotel and Alice is just down from the mountain. Despite the verdict, the townsfolk treat him like a killer. He was fired from his job and someone tried to burn down his house. He was offered a new job killing chickens, and one only has to think about how this is done--by strangulation--to recall the scene at the picnic when Jenny kept taking about George's love for chicken necks.

George visits the scene of the crime and is tortured by voices in his head accusing him of being a "killer." He visits the sheriff and confesses, to no avail. Meanwhile, young men throw rocks through J.J.'s windows and beat him up before Alice comes outside and fires a gun in the air to scare them off. George visits and prevents J.J. from committing suicide, but in the struggle over the gun George shoots J.J. dead. As in the novel, he is not thought to have been responsible for a second killing, and the show ends with the sheriff telling George that he has been working too hard.

Katherine Squire as J.J.'s mother
"The Star Juror" is directed by Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), who worked mainly in television from 1952 to 1975. He directed 24 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as many episodes of Thriller and a few of The Twilight Zone. "The Star Juror" is not among his more impressive efforts.

Starring as George, Dean Jagger (1903-1991) gives a nuanced performance, standing out as the best in the show. He was in vaudeville and on the radio before starting his movie career in 1929 and his TV career in 1948. He won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and appeared in many films, including Fritz Lang's Western Union (1941). He was also a regular on the TV series Mr. Novak from 1963 to 1965. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series. He also made an appearance on The Twilight Zone.

Cathie Merchant as Lola
In the rather unforgiving role of Jenny, Betty Field (1913?-1973) is loud, shrill and unpleasant to watch. Her date of birth varies depending on the source, variously 1913, 1916 or 1918, and she started out on stage before beginning a screen career that lasted from 1939 to 1968. Her first husband was playwright Elmer Rice and her films included Of Mice and Men (1939) and Bus Stop (1956). She was in "The Star Juror" and one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Will Hutchins (1930- ) was born Marshall Lowell Hutchason and his career on screen lasted from 1956 to 2010. He was a regular on three TV series: Sugarfoot (1957-1961), Hey, Landlord (1966-1967) and Blondie (1968-1969), but this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Josie Lloyd as Pauline
Playing the sheriff is familiar character actor Crahan Denton (1914-1966), who was on screen from 1945 until his death. He appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in "Coming Home" and "Incident in a Small Jail" but he is best remembered for his role in "Pigeons From Hell" on Thriller.

J.J.'s mother is played by Katherine Squire (1903-1995), who was on screen from 1949 to 1989 and who gave similarly odd performances in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "Pen Pal" and "Man From the South" (as Peter Lorre's wife). She was also in two other episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller. Her husband, George Mitchell (1905-1972), plays the judge and was on screen from 1935 to 1973. He appeared in a total of four episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Forty Detectives Later" and "The Black Curtain." Like his wife, he was seen on The Twilight Zone and Thriller; he also appeared in the classic western, 3:10 to Yuma.

Possibly the tightest pair of shorts
ever seen on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
The episode's two beauties were played by Jennifer West (1939- ) and Cathie Merchant (1945-2013). West plays Alice and her career on screen lasted from 1958 to 1970, including two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. She has written a memoir that can be ordered here. Merchant plays Lola and had a brief screen career from 1961 to 1965 that included roles in four episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and a part in Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (1963).

Finally, George and Jenny's daughter Pauline is played by Josie Lloyd (1940- ), daughter of producer Norman Lloyd. Her brief screen career lasted from 1960 to 1967 and included six episodes of the Hitchcock series.

"The Star Juror" is not yet available on DVD in the U.S. but may be found online at various torrent sites.

Didelot, Francis. The Seventh Juror. New York: Belmont, 1963. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.
McNary, Dave. "Francis Didelot's 'The Seventh Juror' Heading for Big Screen (EXCLUSIVE)"." 8 Oct. 2013. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.
"The Star Juror." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 15 Mar. 1963. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.

Poster for the 1962 French film version

In two weeks: "Death and the Joyful Woman" starring Gilbert Roland and Laraine Day!


john kenrick said...

The Star Juror was a huge disappointment for me. I've watched it just once, and that was enough. The material was promising but the execution (so to speak) poor. Maybe the fact that none of the characters were sympathetic hurt it. A charismatic or charming villain can raise a mediocre movie or TV episode in quality, especially if the writing is good. No such luck.

Dean Jagger has never appealed to me as an actor, though I can see his talent. There's a coolness to him even when he plays folksy, as if he thought he was better than the material. Maybe he was. Betty Field was a train wreck here, and painful to watch, especially as I found her attractive and sympathetic when she was young. Even with such capable players as Crahan Denton, Katherine Squire and George Mitchell on board The Star Juror failed to deliver. An episode that affected me similarly: The Black Curtain, from a Cornell Woolrich story. Again, strong cast, nothing much worked.

Jack Seabrook said...

I agree with you about both episodes. The Hitchcock Hour seems to have struggled in its first year with adapting novels. I think it did better expanding short stories than contracting novels, though there are exceptions.