Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Three: Breakdown [1.7]

by Jack Seabrook

"Breakdown" was the seventh episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to air, but it was the first to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock; it was filmed from September 7th to 10th, 1955, a week before Hitchcock shot "Revenge."

"Breakdown" was based on a short story of the same name that first appeared in the June 7, 1947 issue of Collier's. The story's author, Louis Pollock (1904-1964), was born in Liverpool and his family came to the United States during World War One, when Louis was 12. He became a reporter in Chicago and later moved to the West Coast, where he worked in public relations for Universal before becoming the director of advertising and publicity for United Artists. He left that job to become a screenwriter, though IMDb only shows three movies associated with him--two based on his stories and one where his work is uncredited. He also wrote for radio in the 1940s and began writing for television in 1949. He has few credits listed other than "Breakdown"; he could not sell scripts (other than "Breakdown") from 1954 to 1959 and he wondered why. In 1959 he found out that a store owner named Louis Pollack had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and, due to a clerical error, the writer Louis Pollock had been blacklisted. His name was cleared in 1959 but he was never able to get his career going again and he died five years later. "Breakdown" was his only work for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

"Breakdown" first appeared here
Pollock's story begins as businessman William Callow, who is on vacation in Miami Beach, receives a telephone call from a long-time employee who has just been fired. The man breaks down in tears and Callow is disgusted by the show of emotion. The next day, driving through rural Georgia on the way back to New York, Callow is in a terrible accident that leaves four men dead and him paralyzed. Able to see and hear but unable to speak or move, he is stripped of his clothes by two escaped convicts and left for dead. That night, looters dismantle his car. He recovers the ability to move one finger and tries to attract attention by tapping it, but when the sheriff and his men arrive, no one knows he is alive and he is loaded onto a truck and taken to the morgue along with the dead men. Spending a night in the morgue, he begins to lose hope, but a sudden welling up of emotion causes him to shed tears. The coroner notices that he is crying and he is saved.

"Breakdown" is well-plotted and suspenseful, featuring a moral about a businessman who learns to value the display of emotion after undergoing a harrowing experience. The title may refer to the breakdown of the employee near the start of the story, the breakdown of Callow's car in the accident, the breakdown of societal norms that occurs in his presence when he is thought dead, or his own breakdown at the end that leads to his salvation. The adjective "callow," which is used as the character's last name, means to be inexperienced and immature; Callow the businessman is shown to be both of those in his cold reaction to his employee's tears.

"Breakdown" was collected (along with "Revenge") in a Dell paperback published in 1949 called Suspense Stories, supposedly selected by Alfred Hitchcock (Dell #367). The story was adapted for radio as an episode of The Prudential Family Hour of Stars and broadcast on May 15, 1949, starring Joseph Cotten. This radio show appears to be lost. "Breakdown" was then adapted for television as an episode of the series Suspense and broadcast on October 24, 1950, with a teleplay by Francis Cockrell and Louis Pollock and directed by Robert Stevens. This version also seems to be lost. It starred Don Briggs, not Joseph Cotten, who was still a movie star and whose first TV appearance would not come until 1954. If the 1950 version is found, it will be interesting to compare the teleplay to that used for the 1955 version, since both are credited to Pollock and Cockrell. It is possible that Hitchcock reused the teleplay that was written for the 1950 TV version, since the blacklist of Pollock was in force in 1955.

What Hitchcock is reading
in the introduction
"Breakdown" next appeared twice in comic books in uncredited adaptations: first as "The Corpse in the Crematorium" in Crime SuspenStories #2 (December 1950-January 1951) and then, a year later, as "Grave Business!" in Haunt of Fear (November-December 1951). After this flurry of appearances, all was quiet for four years until it was broadcast on Alfred Hitchcock Presents on CBS on Sunday, November 13, 1955. According to McCarty and Kelleher, Hitchcock had heard the radio play with Joseph Cotten, liked the story, and hired Cotten to reprise his role for television.

During Hitchcock's introduction to the show, he is holding a paperback and says that the short story upon which the show is based appeared in the collection he holds. However, a close look at the book's cover shows that it is not Suspense Stories; instead, it is a mock-up of a paperback with the title Wolf Woman Strikes and a picture that would be used occasionally on Alfred Hitchcock Presents when a character is reading a paperback. (See "Nightmare in 4-D," [where the book is titled Night of Horror] and "Insomnia." [where it is called The Bashful Killer]).

Forrest Stanley as Hubka
The show opens with a shot of the sort that is familiar to any Hitchcock fan: an overhead shot of the beach, with hotels lining the sand, as the camera travels along the coast and upbeat music plays. This sets the scene and the next shot brings the location from the general to the specific, as we see Callow and Ed Johnson on lounge chairs. In the short story, Callow is described as being about forty years old and having a "well-nourished breadth"; Joseph Cotten, who plays the role, was fifty years old at the time and had tall, slim build. What is presented through narrative and description in the story becomes dialogue in the show, as the shots cut back and forth from Callow to Hubka, who is back in the New York office on the other end of the telephone, aging, sweaty, and desperate in contrast with the smooth, calm Callow. Oddly, we do not see Hubka crying, though Callow refers to his tears after he hangs up the phone.

Raymond Bailey as Ed Johnson
After a short conversation with Ed Johnson, there is a cut to another establishing shot and we see a highway and a sign showing the road is U.S. 1, which travels from Florida to Maine and which Callow would naturally use to drive back to New York. There is a cut to a shot of Callow driving; the camera is positioned behind the steering wheel so that Callow's face and the large wheel take up the entire frame. Shots of Callow driving alternate with shots from his point of view through the windshield. From this moment on, Callow only speaks in voice over and shots throughout the rest of the show continue to go back and forth from his point of view to his immobile form.

Once Callow is paralyzed in the accident, the show becomes a tour de force of direction, editing, and narration. Hitchcock uses a variety of camera placements to show Callow pinned behind the wheel, unmoving, as his voice describes his thoughts on the soundtrack. The contrast between his physical immobility and his active thoughts is displayed by Joseph Cotten's emotional voice performance. Hitchcock also alternates stills with shots where Callow is immobile but the world around him is seen to move; tree branches sway behind him and soon people come to see him. The order of events in the story is altered slightly, as three men come to steal his car's tires and his luggage before two convicts arrive and pry the steering wheel away from his throat so that they can steal his clothes.

"Breakdown" is, in a sense, an illustrated radio show, at least in the parts where Callow is immobile and his narration conveys his thoughts. The sheriff and his crew arrive and it is incredibly frustrating as a viewer to know that the character is alive but to be powerless to tell anyone on screen. In the show's last scene, Hitchcock again establishes the location with a neon sign that reads, "City Morgue," and more shots from Callow's point of view are intercut with shots of him not moving. A sheet is placed over him and he is left alone in the morgue for the night; the camera looks up, as if through his eyes, as the sheet is drawn over it. Point of view is not limited to the visual, however; in one sequence, voices get louder and softer to show that they are approaching and retreating from Callow's form. Finally, he cries and the coroner sees the tears, which are displayed in two ways: both as they run down Callow's face and as they run down the lens of the camera in a shot from Callow's point of view.

James Edwards
"Breakdown" is an experimental show even when seen today, more than 60 years after it was filmed. Ulrich Rudel called it "one of the most audacious formal experiments of Hitchcock's entire career." Donald Spoto wrote that "Breakdown" "summarized the motifs of sudden punishment and the terror of enclosure, immobility, and madness." Steve Mamber pointed out that the "central situation remarkably anticipates North By Northwest . . . In both, an unfeeling, overly assured businessman is plunged into chaos by the flimsiest of coincidence, and finds new capacities for feeling as he struggles to stay alive in a freshly hostile world." Comparing Joseph Cotten's character in "Breakdown" to Cary Grant's character in North By Northwest is perhaps unfair to the Grant character, who seems more clueless than unfeeling.

Hitchcock and his editor, Edward Williams, use various methods to get around the immobility of the show's central character and to propel the story forward toward its conclusion. Hitchcock must have planned every shot in advance, since there are a good variety of angles and distances that keep the shots of Callow's paralyzed form from becoming repetitive or monotonous. Williams won an Emmy in 1956 for this episode in the category of Best Editing of a Television film and it was well-deserved.

Elzie Emanuel
Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) was born in Virginia and was on screen from 1937 to 1981. Among his many great films in the 1940s were two directed by Hitchcock: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Under Capricorn (1949). He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "Together."

Playing his friend Ed Johnson is Raymond Bailey (1904-1980), who started out on film in 1939 and moved into TV work in 1952. He was in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater" and "Backward, Turn Backward."

Making the most of a small role as the unfortunate Mr. Hubka is Forrest Stanley (1885-1969); he was in many films from 1915 to 1932 and then had a short stint on TV from 1955 to 1958.

James Edwards (1918-1970) is one of two black actors to have small roles in "Breakdown"; he plays one of the two convicts who steal Callow's clothes. Edwards was on screen from the late forties to the late seventies and was also in one other Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "The Big Switch."

Aaron Spelling
The other black actor in "Breakdown" is Elzie Emanuel (1931-2004), who was on screen from 1944 to 1957. He plays one of the three men who steal Callow's tires and luggage.

One of the other men who loots the car is played by none other than Aaron Spelling (1923-2006), who was still in the early part of his career, trying to succeed as an actor. When acting did not work out, he turned to writing in 1957 and then to producing in 1959. Eventually, he became one of the most powerful and successful TV producers in Hollywood, in charge of many long-running TV series such as Charlie's Angels, Beverly Hills, 90210, and Charmed. At the time of "Breakdown," he was married to Carolyn Jones, who would later star on The Addams Family.

"Breakdown" was filmed one more time, for the 1980s version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; it was broadcast on December 1, 1985.

Read Louis Pollock's original story here and here. Watch the 1955 TV version online here or buy the DVD here.

"Breakdown." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 13 Nov. 1955. Television.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 14 September 2017.
"Louis Pollock Papers, 1939-1964." Online Archive of California. Web. 17 September 2017.
Mamber, Steve. "The Television Films of Alfred Hitchcock." Cinema (1971): 2-7. Web. 17 September 2017.
McCarty, John, and Brian Kelleher. Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Illustrated Guide to the Ten-year Television Career of the Master of Suspense. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. Print.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: ReganBooks, 2003. Print.
Miller, Douglas T., and Marion Nowak. The Fifties: The Way We Really Were. Doubleday, 1977. 316. Web.
Pollock, Louis. "Breakdown." Collier's (1947): 14-15, 46, 48+. Web.
"The Prudential Family Hour of Stars." Web. 17 September 2017.
Rudel, Ulrich. "Cinema En Miniature: The Telefilms of Alfred Hitchcock." The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. 97-108. Print.
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: the Dark Side of Genius. London: Collins, 1983. 373.
"Television Academy." Television Academy. Web. 17 September 2017.
Thrasher, Al. "Writer Cleared After Years of Red List Mix-Up." The Daily Mirror. Web. 17 September 2017.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 September 2017.

In two weeks: "The Case of Mr. Pelham" with Tom Ewell!


Unknown said...

Any thoughts on the 1985 version? As I recall the ending was very different in that one.

Unknown said...

The fatal mistake with the 1985 Hitchcock was simple:
They updated the stories - or so they thought.
In the '55 "Breakdown", Joseph Cotten's character was dislikable, to be sure - but he wasn't evil. An audience back then would see a story about learning a lesson from a frightening situation.
In the '85 show, they made John Heard's character a drug dealer. Thus, the audience wants to see a bad guy get it in the neck, so to speak.
Most, if not all, of the '85 updates make the same mistake; the new producers thought they were in the scare business, so they lost the human element that made the original stories memorable.
That's why the old shows hold up so well today.
My opinion, of course - your mileage may differ.

Jack Seabrook said...

If I saw the remake in 1985 I don't remember it. I looked for it online a couple of weeks ago but couldn't find it.

Grant said...

Your comment about society appearing to "break down" right after Callow's accident makes me think just a little of the movie "Lady In A Cage," where the whole word seems to go crazy the moment Olivia De Havilland gets stuck in that elevator. (I've heard that movie called "unpleasant," and maybe it is, but it's hard not to watch.)

Jack Seabrook said...

Another movie to add to my list! Thanks, Grant!

Bobby j. said...

Jack, excellent site and great work.

Here's a link to the 1949 radio version of the story.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thank you for locating that!

Joel Gunz said...

I really appreciate your insightful and well-researched takes on this overlooked aspect of Hitchcock's artistry. His TV episodes are miniataure masterpieces!

-Joel Gunz

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Joel! I agree that Hitchcock's TV work is underappreciated.