Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Four: Dear Uncle George [8.30]

by Jack Seabrook

The fourth episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to be credited to James Bridges is "Dear Uncle George," which first aired on CBS on Friday, May 10, 1963. A delightful hour, the teleplay is credited to William Link, Richard Levinson and James Bridges, with Link and Levinson getting an additional credit for the story. A thorough search has failed to turn up any published story that would have served as the source material for this episode, so I suspect that it was a treatment by Link and Levinson. Perhaps they then wrote a teleplay and Bridges was brought in to do some revisions.

Richard Levinson (1934-1987) and William Link (1933- ) were one of the great writing teams in television mystery series. They met in school in 1946 and went on to a long and fruitful collaboration on radio scripts, plays, teleplays and two movies. The team was active in TV from 1959 until Levinson's untimely death in 1987 and together they created Mannix (1967-1975), Columbo (1971-2000), Ellery Queen (1975-1976), and Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996). They also had a number of short stories published between 1954 and 1966 and won four Edgar Awards during their career as partners. After Levinson died, Link continued to write and his short stories have been appearing on and off since 1996. He was president of the MWA in 2002 and has a website here.

Gene Barry as John Chambers
There has been some speculation among writers online that the character of Lt. Wolfson in "Dear Uncle George" was a prototype for Lt. Columbo, but I do not think this is true. Wolfson does wear a rumpled raincoat, but that is where the resemblance ends. Link and Levinson created Columbo in their short story, "Dear Corpus Delecti," which was published in the March 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. They then adapted the story for TV on The Chevy Mystery Show under the title "Enough Rope," and the episode aired on July 31, 1960, with Bert Freed as Columbo. The detective next appeared in Prescription: Murder, a play by Link and Levinson that opened in San Francisco in January 1962 and featured Thomas Mitchell as the lieutenant. This play was adapted for television by the team six years later under the same title, and Peter Falk finally took over the role. A TV series followed in 1971 and lasted, on and off, until 2003.

Another coincidence is that Gene Barry (1919-2009), who plays the killer in "Dear Uncle George," also plays the murderer in "Prescription: Murder." However, the characters and their stories are quite different.

Alicia Li as Bea
The scene is set in the first shot of "Dear Uncle George" as the camera lingers on a sign that reads, "New York Examiner Publishing Company." The camera then travels up to a high floor in a skyscraper, where John Chambers (Barry) listens as his secretary, Bea (Alicia Li), reads letters to him. As he dictates responses, he cuts out paper dolls, demonstrating the character's boredom with his job as "Uncle George," a newspaper advice columnist. His answers are facile and his mood jaded; he asks Bea if there are "Any more cries of pain for this human wailing wall?" The second letter Bea reads is from a busybody, who signs her name as "Good Samaritan" but who has been watching the woman in the apartment across the court from hers. This woman is having an affair and Good Samaritan asks Uncle George if she should tell the woman's husband.

John steadies Cupid
This letter will turn out to be much more than a standard missive to Uncle George, since Chambers will soon learn that the unfaithful spouse is his own. He telephones his wife Louise to say he will be working late at the office; unbeknownst to John, Louise is entertaining a male visitor, whose identity is hidden from the viewer. Back at the office, Bea remarks that Good Samaritan happens to live in the same apartment building as the Chambers. Later that night, John arrives home to an empty apartment. Louise shows up minutes later and rebuffs his attempt at a romantic advance, claiming to be tired. She has misplaced a comb and nearly knocks over a statue of Cupid on her makeup table, a statue that John keeps from falling. I think that this could be a James Bridges touch, drawing the viewer's attention to what will later become the murder weapon and also using it as a metaphor: like the statue of Cupid, the couple's marriage is shaky and the husband is trying to keep it from shattering.

Louise closes the drapes in the living room and complains that the old woman across the court has been spying on her neighbors. At the office, John had referred to Good Samaritan as a witch; now, Louise comments that she would not be surprised if the old woman turned up at the door with a poisoned apple. Both husband and wife use witch imagery to describe their neighbor and, like a witch in a fairy tale, the old woman's letter will lead to the destruction of their marriage and to Louise's death.

Patricia Donahue as Louise Chambers
George begins to put two and two together and suspects that the letter from Good Samaritan was referring to his own wife. Working late at the office another night, he telephones Louise to tell her he will be delayed. Bea comments that working late every night may cause her to lose her husband--as Uncle George, Chambers gives advice to his readers but plays havoc with the lives of those around him. Slipping out a side door of his office, Chambers goes home early and finds an open bottle of champagne and two glasses. Louise hears someone come in and emerges from the bedroom expectantly, dressed in a gold lame pantsuit, but is surprised and disappointed to see that the man who entered the apartment was her husband rather than her lover. John confronts her in the bedroom and she angrily confesses her affair. He picks up the heavy statue of Cupid and bashes her over the head with it, killing both her and their love. He wipes his prints off of the statute and closes the blinds, not wanting his act of violence to be witnessed by the Good Samaritan across the way; fortunately, her blinds are also closed.

Dabney Coleman as Tom Esterow
John is able to slip back into his office unseen. After summoning Bea as an unwary witness, he pretends to telephone Louise and acts like she is in trouble on the other end of the line. He must rush to her aid and asks Bea to call the police while he heads home, seemingly for the first time that evening. When he arrives at the apartment, the police are already there, and Lt. Wolfson tells John that Louise was murdered. John sees an unfamiliar coat on a chair and asks if anyone else was there when the police arrived, so Wolfson brings out Tom Esterow (Dabney Coleman), a former colleague of John's who discovered the body. Claiming that Louise asked him to paint her portrait, Esterow elicits a bemused comment from Wolfson, who asks: "You 're not one of those abstract painters, are you?"

Esterow admits that he picked up the Cupid statue when he found the body and so his fingerprints are on the murder weapon. A key to the apartment is found in his coat pocket and he is accused of murder and taken to the police station. Wolfson suspects that the murder was a crime of passion and asks Chambers if his wife had been involved with another man, but John denies it.

John Larkin as Simon Aldritch
After the funeral, John returns to the office but his publisher, Simon Aldritch (John Larkin) thinks that it is too soon and suggests that Chambers take a vacation. Before John can accompany Simon to his country home, he pays a visit to Esterow, who is in prison, accusing the man of murder and telling him that "I hope you're convicted." We next learn a bit more about Lt. Wolfson when he is visited by Sgt. Duncan, a younger policeman whom he is training. Wolfson is retiring in ten days and tells Duncan, "You'll learn after a while, no matter how instinctively you feel about the case, you're bound to the evidence."

Chambers has a big surprise in store for him when he visits Aldritch's country home: left alone in the steam room, he finds Louise's missing comb and realizes that Aldritch, and not Esterow, was her secret lover. Simon admits to the affair and John accuses him of murder. Chambers goes back to the jail and apologizes to Esterow, suggesting that the Good Samaritan who watched his apartment might be able to identify Aldritch as his wife's lover and, by extension, her killer. John next visits Wolfson and explains his plan and his suspicions. When the Lieutenant is not persuaded by Chambers's story, John takes matters into his own hands and locates his missing neighbor, the Good Samaritan, who has been visiting her sister upstate. Back in his office, John is fired by Simon for going to the police, but a telephone call from Lt. Wolfson results in both men heading for the police station.

Lou Jacobi as Lt. Wolfson
The last scene of "Dear Uncle George" is like Ellery Queen's gathering of the suspects, except this time the get-together is driven by the murderer himself, in a clever attempt to deflect suspicion onto his rival in love. Lt. Wolfson, Tom Esterow, John Chambers, and Simon Aldritch are together when Sgt. Duncan brings in a chatty old woman named Mrs. Weatherby, the Good Samaritan herself, who puts on her glasses and identifies John as her neighbor across the court. Gossipy as ever, she remarks that Louise's murder was predictable in light of her behavior. She identifies Simon as Louise's lover and, when he admits the affair but denies the murder, it seems like Chambers has succeeded and the story is over. But Mrs. Weatherby has a bit more to say on her way out of the office and director Joseph Newman presents a series of Sergio Leone-like tight close-ups of each character as Mrs. Weatherby mentions that she wrote a letter to Uncle George about the affair.

Earlier, Simon had told Lt. Wolfson that Chambers was Uncle George, asking the policeman to keep it quiet in order to avoid a scandal that could hurt the newspaper's circulation. Suddenly, as Mrs. Weatherby talks, everyone in the room realizes exactly what happened, that John had been alerted of his wife's infidelity and had murdered her. Mrs. Weatherby, the Good Samaritan, has the last word, addressed to John Chambers: "I'm sure that if you knew what was going on you'd have done something about it."

Charity Grace as Mrs. Weatherby
William Link, Richard Levinson and James Bridges wrote a great script in "Dear Uncle George," Joseph Newman does a creative job with the direction, and all of the cast members give excellent performances, resulting an a highly entertaining hour of television. Many small touches enhance the show's enjoyment while the plot is tight and takes unpredictable twists and turns.

Early in the show, we meet Bea, John's secretary, who is played by Asian-American actress Alicia Li. Surprisingly, for a 1963 television program, Bea is not a stereotypical Asian; instead, the character could be played by an actress of any heritage. Asian-American roles on TV were few and far between before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and those that were seen often portrayed Asians in traditional roles.

Chambers returns home in shadow
The show's lighting is also notable, especially in the two scenes where Chambers returns home to his apartment from work. He enters in shadow, suggesting that he is walking into an unfamiliar place, even though it is his home. The chemistry between John and Louise (Patricia Donahue) is impressive, and their banter, which quickly turns vicious, is that of a couple who have been together for a long time. Perhaps best of all is Lou Jacobi as Lt. Wolfson, who plays the part as if he finds everything about this murder investigation to be highly amusing. In a later scene, when he tells Sgt. Duncan that John Chambers and Uncle George are one and the same, Wolfson telephones his wife and hands the phone to Duncan, telling the sergeant to ask Mrs. Wolfson to tell him about Uncle George. Wolfson is a man who enjoys his job and, rather than provide the information himself, he plays with the idea of who is the audience for newspaper advice columns by having his wife explain things to the younger policeman. Best of all is a scene late in the show when Chambers goes to Wolfson with his suspicions. The lieutenant seems barely to be listening to Chambers; he offers the man a cup of tea and then stands absently swinging a teabag around in circles while his visitor talks.

Chambers and Esterow are doubled
As Chambers, Barry is utterly convincing. A frustrated novelist who has been working on his book for six years, he finds himself stripped of his dignity both at work, where he is an advice columnist so bored that he cuts out paper dolls, and at home, where his wife is cheating on him. When he bludgeons her with a statue of the god of love, he is asserting his manhood, and the rest of the show traces his attempts to shift the blame onto the men whom he thinks were his rivals. John is always hiding behind a mask: as Uncle George, as the grieving widower, and as the innocent man. When he first visits Esterow in prison, there is an impressive shot that shows John's face reflected in glass right next to Esterow's face--the men are doubled, former colleagues now integral parts of a murder investigation, one guilty and not suspected, the other innocent and under suspicion.

The only false note in the show--and it is a small one--occurs when Sam, presumably the superintendent of the apartment building where Chambers lives, has a scene with Chambers. Sam is portrayed as a stereotypical Irishman who can be bought with a drink of alcohol, a portrayal of an immigrant quite different than the enlightened portrayal of Bea by Alicia Li.

Even Mrs. Weatherby (Charity Grace) is fun to watch, as she must put her glasses on each time she has to look at someone to make an identification. The fact that her need to gossip leads her to make a comment that seals John's doom provides a perfect ending to the show, since it was her letter to Uncle George that led to the murder of Louise Chambers in the first place.

Unlike Lt. Columbo, who always seems to know who the murderer is and to hound them until they make a mistake, Lt. Wolfson does not seem to intuit the identity of the guilty party. Instead, as he says, he follows the evidence and likely is as surprised as anyone else to discover the truth.

Joseph Newman (1909-2006), who directed "Dear Uncle George," started out as an assistant director in the Golden Age of Hollywood, from 1933 to 1942, before becoming a director of short subjects (1938 to 1947) and finally of features, starting in 1942. His most memorable film is probably This Island Earth (1955), a science fiction classic. He worked in television from 1960 to 1965 and directed ten episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "The Second Wife"; "Dear Uncle George" was his first. Newman also directed four episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Gene Barry as Bat Masterson
Gene Barry is the star of the show, and he had a long career on screen as a leading man. Born Eugene Klass, he started out on stage in 1940 before appearing on TV and in the movies from 1950 to 2005. His most memorable film, The War of the Worlds (1955), came early in his career; he then had a recurring role on the TV series Our Miss Brooks (1955-1956) before starring in four series over fifteen years: Bat Masterson (1958-1961), Burke's Law (1963-1966 and 1994-1995), The Name of the Game (1968-1971) and The Adventurer (1972-1973). Barry appeared on the Hitchcock series three times and there is an informative website devoted to his career here.

Second billing goes to John Larkin (1912-1965), who was a busy actor on Old Time Radio from the 1930s to the 1950s, playing Perry Mason over the air. He began working in TV in 1954 and appeared in various shows for the next decade but never made much of a splash. He was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twice.

Patricia Donahue in "A Stop at Willoughby"
The unfaithful wife, Louise Chambers, is well played by Patricia Donahue (1925-2012), whose career on screen was mostly spent on TV from 1956 to 1984. Born Patricia Mahar, she was on the Hitchcock show twice and on Night Gallery twice, but her most memorable role was as the nasty wife on the classic Twilight Zone episode, "A Stop at Willoughby."

Dabney Coleman (1932- ) is convincing as the unjustly accused painter, Tom Esterow. Coleman has been a fixture on TV and in the movies since 1961 and appeared on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in "Dear Uncle George" and "Isabel." He was on The Outer Limits three times and later appeared on various TV series, including Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977) and in the film, 9 to 5 (1980).

Lt. Wolfson is played by Lou Jacobi (1913-2009), who was born Louis Jacobovitch in Toronto. He began acting on stage in 1924 and spent decades treading the boards before his first appearance on screen in 1953. He was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twice.

In smaller roles, Alicia Li and Charity Grace both shine. Li (1924-2008) was born in Philadelphia and had a brief career on screen between 1961 and 1965 with six TV credits and three movies. Unlike her role as Bea, some of her other roles included "Chinese girl" and "Third native girl." Grace (1884-1965) was on the Hitchcock show five times and had small but memorable roles in "Party Line" and "Final Vow."

Unfortunately, like the rest of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Dear Uncle George" has not been released on DVD and is currently unavailable for viewing online. Hopefully, Universal will rectify this soon, because this episode is well worth seeking out.

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for checking all of the Link and Levinson stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine through 1963 to confirm that none of them was the source for "Dear Uncle George"!

"Dear Uncle George." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 10 May 1963. Television.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

In two weeks: "Run for Doom," starring John Gavin and Diana Dors!


Grant said...

I've always known this one better than most other episodes, so I'm glad you got around to it.

One of the most entertaining things is how sincere Gene Barry is later on when he promises Dabney Coleman he's going to get him released. Of course he means it, but it's partly because he's all set to frame the REAL "other man."
(If you know him from so many of his later roles in comedies, it's entertaining to see Dabney Coleman as the VICTIM of someone else's schemes, because he's always been great at playing conniving characters himself.

Jack Seabrook said...

Barry is completely believable in this role and seems convinced of the rightness of his cause, even when he's the guilty party! Coleman is good, too, and it's always fun to see someone you know so well as they looked early in their career. As always, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!