Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Seven: Murder Case [9.19]

by Jack Seabrook

In addition to writing for television and film, James Bridges was a playwright, something that is reflected in his adaptation of "Murder Case" for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

The original short story by Max Marquis was published in the September 1955 issue of London Mystery Magazine, a British digest (similar to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine) that ran from 1949 to 1982. As the story opens, Kenneth Rollins is disguised in an overcoat, hat and thick glasses as he boards the Channel ferry, planning to murder his cousin Harold Stewart in order to acquire "his money, his wife and his identity." Rollins had met Stewart at a party eight months before at Stewart's home. Stewart's wife Clara was ten or fifteen years younger than her husband, who was about 40, and she is described as a "voluptuous, calculating blonde."

"Murder Case" was
published here
Rollins began to cultivate a relationship with Stewart and soon became his wife's lover. Kenneth bore a "startling resemblance to his cousin" and he and Clara began to plot Stewart's death. Every May, Harold takes the Channel ferry to France to prepare his villa for a holiday. Kenneth grows a mustache and plans to kill Harold during the ferry crossing and assume his identity. After the murder, he and Clara will live together in France for a while before moving back to London.

Kenneth and Clara meet one last time three days before Harold is to take the ferry and she remarks that she fears her husband is growing suspicious. On the ferry, Kenneth goes to Harold's cabin and strangles his cousin. After collecting Harold's personal effects, he pushes the body out of the porthole, controlling its descent into the Channel with a rope. He shaves off his mustache and rests till it's time to disembark. He follows a steward off the boat and arrives at customs with Harold's suitcases. When one of the cases is opened, the police are summoned and, inside the suitcase, Kenneth sees "the neatly severed head of Mrs. Clara Stewart."

Gena Rowlands as Diana (Clara)
The story is told partly in flashback, beginning as Kenneth walks up the gangplank onto the ferry, then going back to explain how he met Clara and planned Harold's murder. Returning to the present, the murder is carried out and the surprise ending puts everything that came before it in a different light. Marquis sprinkles subtle clues throughout the eight-page story: Clara worries about her husband's suspecting her infidelity and Kenneth notices that Harold brought four suitcases on board but only has two in his stateroom. One may infer that the two missing suitcases contained other pieces of Clara's dismembered body and that Harold tossed them out of the porthole, much as he himself would soon be jettisoned by Kenneth. It is likely the surprise ending that attracted the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to this story; however, that same ending presented two problems that James Bridges, in adapting it for television with William Link and Richard Levinson, had to solve.

First of all, it was unacceptable to show a severed head on television in 1964. Second, and perhaps more concerning, Bridges had just written another episode that ends with the discovery of a severed head in a container: "The Jar," which aired on February 14, 1964, between "The Cadaver" and "Murder Case" and which is discussed here, in our series on Ray Bradbury. As usual, Bridges takes the story in new directions and solves the problem of the severed head conclusion neatly.

Murray Matheson as Charles
The televised version aired on March 6, 1964, and the script is credited to Bridges, Link, and Levinson, in that order. John Brahm directed the episode, which stars John Cassavetes as Lee Griffin, the Americanized version of Kenneth Rollins, Gena Rowlands as Diana Justin, also an American, corresponding to the story's Clara Stewart, and Murray Matheson, playing the very British husband of Diana, Charles Rollins, who corresponds to the story's Harold Stewart. Unlike the original story, Lee Griffin does not resemble Charles Rollins; in fact, Lee tells Diana at one point that Charles is old enough to be her father. In reality, John Cassavetes was 34 years old when this episode aired, Gena Rowlands (his wife in real life) was 33, and Murray Matheson was 51, hardly old enough to be her father.

Abandoning the story's flashback structure, the TV version begins in a London theater, as actors audition for the role of an American prize fighter in a new play backed by the wealthy Rollins and starring his young wife. In a subtle in-joke, Diana tells the author of the play that his opinion is not valued, asking "what does a writer know?" about casting. Lee Griffin appears and auditions successfully, landing the part; he and Diana were lovers back in the U.S. before she ran off to England to wed the rich, older man. From the moment he comes on screen, Cassavetes is electrifying and Rowlands holds her own with him; together, they smolder in their scenes, their off screen romance carrying over into their parts.

John Cassavetes as Lee
As time goes on, Lee and Diana's relationship falls back into an old, familiar pattern; violence always seems just below the surface with Lee and Diana is drawn to him in an almost animalistic way. Soon, Lee begins to suggest a premature death for "Charlie, Charlie, gentleman Charlie," as Diana calls her husband, and Charles begins to notice their mutual attraction. Lee visits Diana at her country home and sabotages the brakes on Charles's car; Charles is injured but survives a crash that follows. Realizing that his marriage is in danger, Charles orders that the play be closed and plans a second honeymoon to try to rekindle his wife's affection, telling her that "I'd rather lose a fortune than lose my wife." She will fly to Paris and he will pick up a new car and transport it across the Channel by ferry, joining her in France.

Diana telephones Lee to tell him of Charles's plan; Lee promises to take care of Charles but provides no details. In a bar, Lee buys a fake passport in the name of Charles Rollins. Just before they are to leave, Charles gives Diana a large diamond ring, but the gift does not alter her feelings. Charles listens in to a phone call on an extension and hears Diana plotting with Lee to be together. His worst fears confirmed, Charles is crushed when Diana lies to his face.

Diana's corpse is revealed
The scene then shifts to the ferry as it sets out on its voyage to the Netherlands. Lee visits Charles in his cabin and shoots him dead when the ship's whistle blows. He throws Charles's body out of the porthole and assumes his identity, arriving at Dutch customs, where he is forced to open his suitcases with the suggestion that Charles may be smuggling diamonds. Surprisingly, for anyone who has read the story, there is nothing unusual in the suitcases. However, when Charles's car is inspected, Diana's dead body falls into the trunk from a compartment behind the back seat.

The repetition of "gentleman Charlie" throughout the episode makes the end, where it turns out that Charles murdered Diana, even more of a surprise, since such behavior does not seem consistent with the refined Englishman's behavior. Bridges, Levinson and Link expand the story greatly, adding the theatrical aspect and making the lovers American rather than British, their mutual attraction deepened by the shared experience of being foreigners in London. The episode involving the sabotaged brakes foreshadows Lee's later murder of Charles, and the final twist, which involves a body falling into a car's trunk in slow motion rather than the discovery of a severed head in a suitcase, is more suitable for television. The body is easily identified by the viewer as that of Diana by its blonde hair and by the large diamond ring on its finger, since her face is not shown.

"Murder Case" features solid direction by John Brahm (1893-1982), who keeps the action moving swiftly. The scene in the ferry stateroom features large, looming shadows and is rather eerie, and Brahm draws fine performances out of each of his leads.

As Lee Griffin, John Cassavetes (1929-1989) is outgoing, aggressive, and wholly believable as an actor on the make. He was an actor, writer and director whose career onscreen lasted from 1951 to 1985. He and Rowlands were married from 1954 until his death and he was on the Hitchcock show three times, including Robert Bloch's "Water's Edge." His best-known film role was in Rosemary's Baby (1968).

Richard Lupino and Ben Wright
as the writer and Tony Niles, the director
Gena Rowlands (1930- ) is equally good as Diana, giving a more subtle performance as a hardboiled gold-digger whose contempt for her husband is barely concealed by a mask of civility. She has been acting onscreen since 1954 and was on the Hitchcock show four times, including Richard Matheson's "Ride the Nightmare."

Born in Australia but playing an Englishman, Murray Matheson (1912-1985) is effective as the cuckolded husband, Charles Rollins. He was on TV and in movies from 1945 to 1983 and he was on the Hitchcock show four times, including "The Throwback," where he also competed with another man for the affections of his beloved. Matheson also appeared in many TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Night Gallery and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Several familiar faces are seen in smaller roles. Ben Wright (1915-1989) plays Tony Niles, the director of the play in which Lee and Diana star. Wright had a long career onscreen from 1936 to 1989, and was on the Hitchcock Hour three times, including Robert Bloch's "A Home Away from Home." His most well-remembered role was as Herr Zeller in The Sound of Music.

John Banner as the customs agent
John Banner (1910-1973) plays the Dutch customs agent who discovers Diana's body in the trunk of the car; Banner, of course, gained fame as Sergeant Schultz on Hogan''s Heroes (1965-1971).

Ida Lupino's cousin, Richard Lupino (1929-2005) plays the author of the play; was was onscreen from 1940 to 1983 and made four appearances on the Hitchcock show.

Richard Levinson (1934-1987) and William Link (1933- ) co-wrote a total of seven episodes of the Hitchcock show. The last episode that they worked on was "Dear Uncle George," which was also the only other episode where they collaborated with James Bridges.

Finally, Max Marquis (1925-?), who wrote the short story, was the pseudonym of Edward Frank Marquis, a former football referee in England who is credited with three short stories in the FictionMags Index. IMDb credits him with various teleplays and two screenplays between 1959 and 1982, including this single episode of the Hitchcock show and one episode of The Avengers. He also wrote several books, including nine novels, four of which feature a series character, Detective Harry Timberlake.

"Murder Case" is not yet available on DVD in the U.S. and cannot currently be viewed online.

"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Hayes, Alan, Richard McGinlay, and Alys Hayes. Two Against the Underworld--the Collected Unauthorised Guide to the Avengers Series 1. Lulu, 2017. Print.
IMDb. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.
Marquis, Max. "Murder Case." London Mystery Magazine Sept. 1955: 14-21. Print.
“Max Marquis.” Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001. Contemporary Authors Online. 17 Mar. 2017. Web.
"Murder Case." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 6 Mar. 1964. Television.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

In two weeks: "Beast in View," starring Joan Hackett and Kevin McCarthy!


Unknown said...

Based on a lifetime of reading up on how TV scripts are put together:

It's likely that James Bridges and Levinson & Link didn't really "collaborate" on their Hitchcock shows - at least not in the sense of being in the same room and breaking the story together.

My best guess would be that Bridges wrote the original TV play, but for whatever reason was taken off the assignment. The producers then hired Levinson & Link to do a rewrite, to get the episode into production.
The Writers Guild, which has authority over such things, might have been called in to arbitrate the credit for the show, based on matters such as how much of the script was the work of which writer; since the credit was more or less equal (Levinson & Link count as one for this purpose), it would seem that the rewrite changed enough of the original to merit an equal credit for the writers involved.

All of the above, as applied to this show, is pure speculation; my guess that Bridges was the first writer is based on his name coming first, which is how it's usually done (it could have been the other way around, we don't know for sure).

Jack Seabrook said...

That's interesting. I wondered about that. Working through these shows in order by writer gives me some insight into themes and techniques specific to a particular writer, and I have some ideas about what James Bridges might have been up to, but it's all guesswork at this point. His next show is "Beast in View," which presents some very interesting areas for speculation. Thanks very much for your comment!

Grant said...

Was this the only episode with a married couple in it? Of course, the two of them were in episodes on their own, but this was their only one together, and I can't think of any other husband and wife in the same one.

Jack Seabrook said...

I could not tell you. I've written about more than 125 of them so far and there are 350 or so in all, so chances are good that this was not the only time. I have a vague recollection that there was a married couple on a show not too long ago, but they were not the leads. My brain is getting too old to keep up with this stuff. If it comes to me, I'll add another comment.

Peter Enfantino said...

"Ride the Nightmare" comes quickly to mind.

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant, I found what I was trying to remember. Katherine Squire and George Mitchell, who both appeared in "The Star Juror," were married. How's that for an obscure bit of trivia?