Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Eight: Beast in View [9.21]

by Jack Seabrook

Adapting a novel to create a one hour television show poses significant challenges. Often, it seems like great novels make bad TV shows while lesser novels make good TV shows. Of the 16 teleplays James Bridges wrote for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, five were based on novels. The best example of a successful translation from book to screen is "A Tangled Web," where Bridges successfully conveys the themes and plot of the novel without sacrificing dramatic intensity. "Run for Doom" also works well and is based on a short crime novel. The other three--"The Star Juror," "Death and the Joyful Woman," and "Beast in View"--are all less satisfying; maybe that is why the final seven episodes that Bridges wrote are all based on short stories. Perhaps it is easier to expand a short story to fill an hour-length TV show than it is to pare down a novel to fit the same format.

Margaret Millar's Beast in View is a brilliant tale of suspense with a shocking conclusion. As the book opens, Helen Clarvoe, a wealthy young woman who lives alone in a Hollywood hotel, receives a troubling phone call from a woman who identifies herself as Evelyn Merrick. Feeling threatened, Helen writes to Paul Blackshear, her late father's financial adviser, to ask for help. Blackshear is a widower nearing retirement who agrees to help Helen by locating Evelyn. He interviews Lydia Hudson, who owns a modeling school, and learns that Evelyn had come there looking for work. Following her trail, he interviews photographer Jack Terola, who also had a visit from Evelyn.

Meanwhile, Evelyn telephones Bertha Moore, wife of another photographer, and suggests that her husband is being unfaithful to her with his models. Helen's mother, Verna, invites Helen to have lunch the next day to celebrate the birthday of her brother, Doug, an unhappy man of 25 who lives with his mother. When Blackshear visits Verna to tell her about the threats, she explains that Evelyn Merrick was Helen's close friend in high school and that Evelyn married Doug. Their marriage broke up on the honeymoon when Doug revealed that he was gay, a fact that his mother has trouble accepting, even when Evelyn telephones to tell her explicit details of Doug's relationship with Terola.

Joan Hackett as Helen Clarvoe
As Evelyn spreads more discord with her telephone calls, Helen suddenly remembers who she is and recalls her as vivacious and popular, in contrast to Helen, who was socially awkward. Still looking for Evelyn, Blackshear visits her mother, who tells him that her daughter was upset after her marriage dissolved. On his birthday, Verna confronts Doug about his relationship with Terola and Doug admits that he is the man's wife. He attempts suicide and is killed when he faints and hits his head on the bathroom sink. Blackshear tells Helen that her brother is dead and she reluctantly agrees to visit her mother.

Blackshear goes back to Terola's studio and finds that the photographer has been murdered. He goes to see Verna and tells her the news; Evelyn's mother arrives and tells Verna that Evelyn is innocent. However, Evelyn recalls the events leading up to Terola's murder and soon telephones Verna to say that her daughter Helen is not coming. Blackshear visits Claire Laurence, a friend of Evelyn's; he fears that Evelyn has harmed Helen and that she suffers from a multiple personality disorder. When Evelyn arrives and he interviews her, she denies having had any recent contact with Helen.

Helen wakes up, having had too much to drink, and finds herself in a bordello. Insisting that she does not belong there, she takes a taxi back to her hotel, where the desk clerk tells her that Blackshear and the police are looking for her. She receives a note from Evelyn, who is waiting in the lobby. Evelyn approaches Helen and confronts her about Terola's murder. Helen takes the elevator up to her floor and insists that the operator call her Evelyn. Suddenly, it becomes clear that Helen is insane and has been impersonating Evelyn. She locks herself in her room and telephones Verna, pretending to be Evelyn and stating that she has locked Helen in her hotel room. Blackshear and the real Evelyn arrive and talk to Helen through the door.

Kevin McCarthy as Paul Blackshear
Helen, as Evelyn, admits having killed Terola and insists that she is pretty, 21-year-old Evelyn and not old, miserable Helen. Tortured by voices in her head, she stabs herself in the throat with a paper knife and dies.

The revelation in the last chapter of Beast in View that Helen is insane and has been impersonating Evelyn is a compete surprise, one that makes the reader go back over the book to see if there were clues there all along. Not only is the novel fairly clued, but it contains several themes that make it more thought-provoking than the average story of suspense.

First of all, Helen's last name is "Clarvoe," which resembles "clear view," something that few people in the story seem to have. Early in the novel, Evelyn says that she has a crystal ball in which her old friends pop up; Helen looks in a mirror that is like a crystal ball and her own face pops up in it. The crystal ball image is used again later, when Douglas tells his mother that "you need a new crystal ball." After leaving the bordello, Helen sees Evelyn leaning against a plate glass window, which functions like a mirror, reflecting Evelyn back to Helen when Helen is the one looking. In the final scene, Helen looks in the mirror and sees Blackshear approaching, "slowly and cautiously, a hunter with a beast in view." The crystal ball and the mirror do not allow the characters to see clearly what is going on and Helen's final act of self-destruction is a reaction to what she sees but fails to understand. Other problems with clarity of sight show up in a dream that Helen has, where she sees Evelyn coming to steal her money, and in shadows, such as the shadows in which Helen thinks she sees Evelyn standing after Helen leaves the bordello.

Hearing is another sense that is unreliable. The telephone is an important device in the novel, one that creates distance between speaker and listener. Helen distorts her voice when she speaks as Evelyn over the phone, leading everyone who talks to her to reach an incorrect conclusion about her identity. Even her own mother does not recognize her voice--the first time she calls, it is muffled and disguised, but the second time it seems that Verna has accepted the fantasy that the woman on the other end of the line is not her daughter but rather an insane woman.

Kathleen Nolan as Dorothy Johnson (Evelyn Merrick)
A central theme of Beast in View involves twins and doubling. In an early exchange between Helen and Paul, he asks her: "What are you afraid of, the thief or the woman?" She replies: "I think they're the same person." The reader does not know it yet, but Helen is confessing obliquely that she and the villainous Evelyn are one and the same. The characters in Millar's novel sometimes have two sides: the one that others project onto them and the one that is real. Helen recalls a Halloween party that she and Evelyn attended when they were young, and they "dressed alike," reinforcing the notion that they are twins. Helen is the "beast in view" in the sense of being the animal pursued by a hunter; she is also the "beast" that does the pursuing. The twinning is complete when she tells the elevator operator to call her Evelyn.

Madness runs throughout the book. In the initial phone call, Evelyn tells Helen that she is mad. Later, Verna remarks that Helen "must be out of her mind." Paul's investigation leads him to believe that Evelyn is insane and has a multiple personality disorder, but in the end it turns out that the only person who is crazy is Helen. Where does her madness come from? One possible explanation is sexual confusion. Helen is described as shy, insecure and frightened. Her father preferred Evelyn to his own daughter and, as a young woman, Helen latched onto Evelyn as a role model. She then grew up confused and isolated; Helen is prim and proper when she is being herself, but a wanton risk taker when acting out as Evelyn.

Helen's breakdown as reflected in the mirror
One cannot ignore the gay themes that run through Beast in View. Helen's brother Doug is gay, something he tried to suppress by marrying Evelyn but quickly realized he could not do. Jack Terola is gay and is having a sexual relationship with Doug, who describes himself as Terola's "wife." Helen is described as having "her dark brown hair clipped short like a man's" and as having "one of those Italian boy haircuts gone to seed." When Helen (as Evelyn) kills Terola, is she killing Doug's husband to eliminate a rival for Doug's affections? After all, she sees herself as Evelyn, who became Doug's wife. The novel suggests that Doug is so tortured over his sexuality that he tries to kill himself; his homosexuality caused the end of his marriage to Evelyn, which seems to have driven her mad. Yet this is just a diversion: Doug fails to kill himself as intended (though he does die) and Evelyn recovers. It is only poor, confused Helen who has a psychotic break and resorts to murder, first killing Terola and then herself.

One more theme in the novel worth examining is the way parents can damage their children. Helen's father unfavorably compared his daughter to her pretty friend. Helen's mother is self-absorbed and obsessed with her son, ignoring both the truth of his sexuality and the truth of her daughter's insanity. Helen explicitly blames her parents for at least part of her condition, telling her mother in a flashback that "you made me a liar." In fact, the Clarvoes are responsible for making their daughter something far worse.

George Furth as Jack Terola
Margaret Millar (1915-1994), who wrote Beast in View, was born in Ontario and was married to Kenneth Millar who, as Ross Macdonald, wrote some of the best private eye novels of the twentieth century. Millar was a fine novelist in her own right, author of many novels from 1941 to 1986 (Beast in View was published in 1955) and winner of two Edgar Awards--one, in 1956, for Beast in View, and the other, in 1983, naming her a Grand Master. She was also president of the Mystery Writers of America from 1957 to 1958. Only a handful of TV shows were adapted from her work: Beast in View was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and then again for the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1980s; Rose's Last Summer was adapted for Thriller.

A cerebral novel where much of the action turns out to have been committed by an unexpected character presents some obvious problems for adaptation to the screen. So much of the action of the novel occurs in Helen's mind that it must have been difficult to figure out how to convey those events on TV. The novel is narrated in the third person, but the narrator is unreliable, manipulating and misdirecting the reader. Even more difficult were those aspects of the novel that, due to censorship, could never be shown on TV in 1964: the gay characters and themes, Douglas's suicide attempt, and the graphic murder of Jack Terola, who is stabbed in the throat with barber shears while he lies in bed. Bridges faced a difficult task to clean up the novel for TV and compress its plot to fit a one hour time slot, all while maintaining suspense and clarifying the story for the viewer.

The first thing Bridges did was to remove the gay themes entirely, which is ironic in light of the fact that both James Bridges and George Furth, the actor playing Terola, were gay. The entire character of Doug Clarvoe is deleted from the TV show, except for brief mentions of him by other characters. Paul Blackshear is transformed from a sad, middle-aged widower into a cheerful young lawyer with a family. Entire scenes from the novel are cut, such as the interview at the modeling school and the events surrounding Bertha Moore; Evelyn's threatening behavior outside Bertha's door is transformed into a scene where Dorothy (as Evelyn is called in the TV show) lurks outside Helen's hotel room door.

Brenda Forbes as Verna Clarvoe
Also missing are scenes involving Evelyn's mother and her friends. Bridges decided to bring Evelyn into the story much earlier and, instead of having her behave normally as she does in the novel, she becomes a woman whose behavior is suspicious enough to make it seem like Helen's claims about her could be true. When first seen, she is suffering from a hangover and confesses that she likes to take out her wedding dress and put it on every once in a while. Most important is her strong southern accent. In an early scene, Helen imitates Dorothy's voice for Paul, demonstrating the contrast between her own voice, deeper and more cultured, and Dorothy's voice, higher and with a strong, Dixie twang. This allows the viewer to identify that voice as Dorothy's every time Helen makes a telephone call. Bridges also has Helen's mother prefer to listen to her calls on a speaker phone, allowing her, Paul and the viewer to hear what is presumed to be Evelyn's easily identifiable voice.

The bordello scene is cut and, toward the end of the show, the real Dorothy approaches and even chases Helen, something that makes it seem like Helen's fears are grounded in reality. In the novel, these scenes are described in a way that makes it seem like Evelyn is really after Helen, but in retrospect they are happening only in Helen's mind. In the show, Bridges is forced to show Evelyn actually pursuing Helen, and it makes the final revelation less satisfying. Most jarring of all are the final scenes, where Paul and a police detective stand in the hallway outside Helen's room. They talk through the door to both her and Dorothy (or so they think) until Dorothy suddenly emerges from the stairwell and they realize that Helen is alone inside the apartment.

The spider web is in Helen's mind
A couple of paragraphs near the end of the novel describe Helen looking in the mirror and seeing the faces of various people in her life "revolving like a ferris wheel" and screaming at her. Bridges and the show's director, Joseph Newman, use this to stage an odd set piece near the end of the show, where special effects are used to display flashbacks in the mirror that give a quick explanation of Helen's damaging past and her more recent crimes. Today, the special effects look primitive and the pop psychology of the scene undermines the serious concerns of the story. A portion of the scene may be viewed online here.

The murder of Jack Terola is played out in shadows and, instead of having Helen/Evelyn stab him in the throat at the end of a conversation, she shoots him in his darkroom, allowing the identity of the killer to remain hidden. The gun reappears in the final scene, as Helen shoots at Blackshear through her hotel room door and then shoots her own reflection in the mirror.

Last of all, since suicide was frowned upon by the censors, Helen does not kill herself at the end of the TV show. Instead, Paul puts his arms around her as she begs for help and the show ends, though still left to be resolved is her punishment for murder and her continuing insanity.

As a novel, Beast in View is a triumph, complex and thought-provoking. As a TV show, it is a failure. The script is weak and the performances by the three leads do not serve to elevate it above the status of a lesser entry in the series.

Helen takes aim at the mirror
Joseph Newman (1909-2006), the director, worked in movies starting in 1938 and in TV from 1960 to 1965. He directed four episodes of The Twilight Zone and ten of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; the last one reviewed in this series was the much more successful entry, "Dear Uncle George."

Playing the complex role of Helen Clarvoe is Joan Hackett (1934-1983), who also appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents  in "Servant Problem." Her career onscreen lasted from 1958 to 1982, when she died of cancer at age 49. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion quotes both producer Norman Lloyd and co-star Kevin McCarthy as saying that Hackett was a "problem" on the set, insisting on performing her scenes alone, with the room cleared and flats set up to prevent anyone from walking in unexpectedly.

Best known for his role in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Kevin McCarthy turns in a wooden performance as Paul Blackshear. He was a busy screen actor for over 60 years, appearing on screen from 1944 to 2012; a website devoted to him is here.

Kathleen Nolan (1933- ) plays Dorothy Johnson. Born Jocelyn Scrum in St. Louis, Nolan was usually presented much more attractively than she is here. She has been acting onscreen since 1953 and is still working. In addition to her two appearances on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (the other was "Annabel"), she made a memorable appearance on Kolchak: The Night Stalker ("The Vampire") and was a regular on the series, The Real McCoys, from 1957 to 1962.

The images spin like a Ferris wheel
In smaller roles, Brenda Forbes (1909-1996) plays Verna Clarvoe, Helen's mother, and George Furth (1932-2008) plays Jack Terola, the doomed photographer. Forbes was on screen from 1935 to 1995 and also appeared on Thriller. Furth had a nearly 40-year career onscreen and appeared in one other episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; he played many TV roles and was seen on such favorite shows as Batman, Night Gallery, and The Odd Couple. In addition to his acting, he also wrote plays and musicals and won a Tony for Company (1970), for which he wrote the book.

"Beast in View" was remade for the new Alfred Hitchcock Presents and aired on January 19, 1986. Unfortunately, neither version is available on U.S. DVD or for viewing online. The title of the novel is taken from a 1944 poem by Muriel Rukeyser that includes the line, "I hunted and became the followed"--very appropriate for the unfortunate Helen Clarvoe.

"Beast in View." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 20 Mar. 1964. Television.
Edgars Database. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
Millar, Margaret. Beast in View. 1955. Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s. Ed. Sarah Weinman. New York, NY: Library of America, 2015. 381-528. Print.
Weinman, Sarah. "Biographical Notes." Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s. New York, NY: Library of America, 2015. 704-05. Print.
Weinman, Sarah. "Notes." Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s. New York, NY: Library of America, 2015. 709-10. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

In two weeks: The Gentleman Caller, starring Roddy McDowall and Ruth McDevitt!


Grant said...

No one could play a comical nervous character better than George Furth. I've only seen the episode once or twice, but I'm pretty sure he even gives Terola a funny side, enough of one that it surprised me when he became one of the victims.

In the AHH episode NOTHING EVER HAPPENS IN LINVALE, he plays an ALL-OUT funny character, a nervous sheriff's deputy. Which sounds like it might have "Don Knotts as Barney Fife rip-off" written all over it, but (because he was such an expert at that kind of role) he managed to make the character very original.

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant, thanks for reading and especially for your comment. When I think of George Furth, it's always on The Odd Couple where he's too shy to ask his girlfriend to marry him. he was very funny. Before I wrote this post, I did not know he was also a writer.

Grant said...

I can't help liking the "psychedelic" sequence toward the end (in the last photo above), but that makes this one episode I wish were in color. At least because of that sequence, I mean.

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant, color might have added something to it that sure wasn't there in B & W!

Grant said...

It seems like Joan Hackett made a partial career out of playing neurotic characters, so when you find out who the scary character REALLY is, it makes sense. (I'm not saying I actually guessed it the first time, but it still makes sense.)

Jack Seabrook said...

I didn't think much of her in either of her Hitchcock shows. Norman Lloyd, who never says anything bad about anyone, was critical of her, which I find telling.

john kenrick said...

I agree re Joan Hackett. She was a downer. There's something alienating about her. Remember her in The Last Of Sheila? Lois Nettleton should have got many of the parts than went to Miss Hackett.