Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Ten: The Hands of Mr. Ottermole [2.32]

by Jack Seabrook

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) is considered the first true Hitchcock film and tells the story of a murderer similar to Jack the Ripper. In a similar vein is the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole," which aired on CBS on Sunday, May 5, 1957. The script by Francis Cockrell was adapted from the short story of the same name first published in the February 1929 issue of a British fiction magazine called The Story-Teller.

In London's East End, a man named Whybrow and his wife are murdered, the first victims of London's Strangling Horrors. The murderer leaves no trace and seems to have no discernible motive. Soon, another murder occurs, and this time the victim is a child named Nellie Vrinoff. Her death is followed by that of a police constable. Eventually, a journalist reasons that, if no one but the police are ever in the vicinity of the crimes, then the murderer must be a policeman. The reporter tests out his theory on Sergeant Ottermole, who confirms that it is correct and makes the journalist his next victim.

"The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" is a classic story of a serial killer whose lack of motive makes him hard to catch. The horror of the situation is that the authority figure trusted to protect the public is also the guilty party. Ottermole's final confession is chilling, as he claims that his own members are seized with an inexplicable compulsion:

A sample issue of
The Story-Teller
"Couldn't it be that parts of our bodies aren't really us, and couldn't ideas come into those parts all of a sudden, like ideas come into--into"--he shot his arms out, showing the great white-gloved hands and hairy wrists; shot them out so swiftly to the journalist's throat that his eyes never saw them--"into my hands."

Two unusual names stand out in the story. The first is Whybrow, the initial murder victim, who is followed through the foggy streets of London and who, once he seems safe at home, opens his door to his killer. Perhaps Burke was rhyming "Whybrow" with "highbrow" in order to suggest that this will be no "highbrow" or scholarly tale, since the character with a similar name is killed in the first section of the story. The second name of interest is that of the killer, Ottermole. The name jumps out at the reader as unusual in the title but is then conspicuously absent until the final confrontation between reporter and sergeant, when the sergeant is identified by name for the first time: " 'Now, as man to man, tell me, Sergeant Ottermole, just why did you kill those inoffensive people?' " In addition to the clever way that Burke holds back this name until the climax, the name itself contains two animals: the otter, a creature that can exist just as easily in land or in water, and the mole, which has strong "arms" for digging and is comfortable living underground and in darkness. A mole is also a term for a spy, so Sergeant "Ottermole" embodies characteristics of both animals, able to be both policeman and killer, to live among normal men while pursuing an underground life as a murderer, and to operate with strong hands while seeing through the dense London fog that hides his actions.

After its initial magazine publication in early 1929, Burke's short story was collected in his 1931 book, The Pleasantries of Old Quong, which was published in the United States under the alternate title, A Tea-Shop in Limehouse. Burke recognized the story's quality and selected it as his entry for inclusion in a multi-author collection that same year called My Best Detective Story. The story was reprinted a decade later in the September 1942 issue of the British magazine Argosy, and began to appear in radio adaptations when it was broadcast on Molle Mystery Theatre near the end of World War II, on February 6, 1945. This broadcast is now lost, but a second adaptation for the same series was aired on June 21, 1946; this version survives and may be heard online here.

Theodore Bikel as Sergeant Ottermole
Comparing the existing versions of "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" to Burke's story is interesting and allows one to determine with some accuracy what Francis Cockrell contributed to the evolution of the story when he later adapted it for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Each of the four existing versions of the story (three on radio and one on television) preserves the essential structure of Burke's story while making certain changes. The 1946 radio version is set in London in 1890, near the end of Britain's Victorian era, and a narrator describes the events leading up to and including the Whybrow murder in a long opening sequence. Perhaps thinking that the murder of a child was too shocking for 1946 radio listeners, the second murder victim becomes an adult woman, while the third remains a policeman. In a major change to Burke's story, the character of the reporter becomes much more central and is introduced early in the proceedings. He appears after each murder and eventually becomes a suspect due to his proximity to each crime. In the final confrontation, the reporter has a gun and shoots Ottermole as the policeman strangles the reporter. Ironically, both men die, and the mayor later awards a posthumous medal to Sergeant Ottermole for killing the reporter, who is thought to have been the strangler! This version of the story was written by L.K. Hoffman.

Two and a half years later, "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" was again adapted for radio, this time for Suspense, where it was broadcast on December 2, 1948. The script was by Ken Crossen and the story is narrated by Sergeant Ottermole himself, played by Claude Rains, whose marvelous voice is used to great effect as he tells the story to the reporter, played by Vincent Price. This time, the murder of Whybrow is followed by the murder of the policeman, skipping the girl's murder altogether. Having Ottermole narrate the story makes it even more shocking when he is revealed as the killer and, as in the story and the 1946 radio version, the sergeant succeeds in killing the reporter. This time, however, the reporter had sent a letter to the newspaper identifying the killer and Sergeant Ottermole is later sentenced to death and hanged. The Suspense adaptation of Burke's story is widely available and may be heard here.

Rhys Williams as Summers, the reporter
The third and final radio adaptation of the story was aired on May 2, 1949, just five months later, on NBC's Radio City Playhouse. This time, the setting was moved from London to New York City, where the borough of Brooklyn is terrorized by the Greenpoint Strangler. This version is the only one to feature the murder of the little girl, as in the original short story, and once again the reporter has a gun and shoots Sergeant Ottermole, killing the strangler but surviving the encounter. Ironically, a $10,000 reward is posted for the killer of the sergeant, so the reporter cannot write the story and admit killing the murderer. Instead, he writes a false story and claims that Ottermole was the strangler's next victim. George Lefferts wrote the script for this version, which may be heard here.

In addition to being the subject of four radio adaptations in the years from 1945 to 1949, "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" was also the subject of some critical acclaim in the immediate post-war years. Ellery Queen included it in the 1946 collection, 101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories 1841-1941, and it was selected by Anthony Boucher for inclusion in the 1947 volume, Murder By Experts. In both books, it was referred to as one of the all-time great mystery stories.

Less than two months after the story was adapted for Radio City Playhouse, it made its TV debut on Suspense, in an adaptation credited to Frank Gabrielson and directed by Robert Stevens. This version was aired live on June 28, 1949, and has been lost. The story was aired live for a second time on Suspense on November 28, 1950; this version is also lost and the writer of the teleplay is unknown, so it is not clear if the 1949 script was re-used. This version starred Robert Emhardt, who would later appear on six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Summers and Ottermole in the London fog
The last adaptation of "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" was filmed for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and has become the definitive version due to its availability and the quality of the production. The teleplay is by Francis Cockrell and the show is directed by Robert Stevens, who also directed the two prior television adaptations for Suspense. The time and place are set by means of a title superimposed on the opening establishing shot; "London 1919," the title reads, and behind it is a foggy scene of the Thames with Big Ben in the background. There is a dissolve to an "Underground" sign and the mobile camera then follows Mr. Whybrow through the foggy East End streets.

Cockrell's first notable addition to the story is the killer's habit of whistling "Greensleeves" just before each murder; the old English tune is haunting and tips the viewer off to imminent danger. Whybrow's walk home and subsequent murder are depicted as in the story and in prior adaptations; director Stevens uses his camera to show the scene from the killer's point of view, as he follows Whybrow home and strangles him when the man opens his front door.

Cockrell introduces a new character in Whybrow's nephew, who is summoned to the house of the murdered couple and questioned. Sergeant Ottermole is in charge of the investigation; Theodore Bikel plays the character with a Scottish accent, marking him as the "other" even amidst his fellow policemen. In the scenes that follow, Cockrell's script follows the prior radio adaptations by bringing the reporter into the story as a character much earlier and having him pester Sergeant Ottermole about the lack of progress in the police investigation.

Stevens stages the second murder evocatively; Cockrell eschews the death of a child and instead has the killer strangle an old woman selling flowers. We know a murder is coming because we hear Ottermole whistling "Greensleeves" again and we see the use of the subjective camera that both provides the killer's point of view and masks his identity. As the flower lady is being strangled, the camera pans up and over to a store window beside her and the word "Palmistry" is written in large letters on the window. Inside the window display, a large model of a hand rotates, reminding the viewer of the hand motif that runs throughout the story.

Cockrell uses dialogue in the scenes that follow to delve into the killer's motive or lack thereof, as the reporter visits the police station and converses with Ottermole and a police constable. The constable suggests that the killer is a foreigner and, while he surely means a Chinaman--London's East End was filled with immigrants from the Far East at that time--the actual killer is a Scotsman, a foreigner who is able to blend in among the British. On another foggy night, the same constable discovers the dead body of a policeman and then the reporter, here named Summers, figures out the identity of the killer and makes the fateful decision to approach Sergeant Ottermole on a foggy night street.

The one constant with all of the adaptations of "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" is the writers' determination to tinker with the ending. In the version filmed for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Summers confronts Ottermole and the sergeant begins to strangle the reporter, but this time the constable grabs Ottermole from behind and subdues him before he can kill the reporter. Ottermole is handcuffed and led away and Summers is troubled by the sergeant's comments about ideas coming into his hands. The show ends here, with both Ottermole and the reporter surviving the final conflict and without any confusion about the killer's identity.

Torin Thatcher as Constable Johnson
Francis Cockrell's script for "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" differs from those used for radio adaptations in that it relies heavily on dialogue rather than narration to advance the story. He inserts the flower lady in early scenes so the viewer is familiar with her by the time she is killed, and he gives the killer the habit of whistling "Greensleeves" before each murder. Robert Stevens does an outstanding job of direction, creating a foggy London atmosphere that fits the mood of the story perfectly and using subjective camera work to hide the murderer's identity and force the viewer to identify with him by showing the first two killings from his point of view. In short, this episode is a classic example of what the Hitchcock show does best: creating suspense and entertaining the viewer, even when telling a familiar story.

Robert Stevens (1920-1989) worked mostly as a TV director from 1948 to 1987, directing 105 episodes of Suspense from 1949 to 1952 and 49 episodes of the Hitchcock show. He won an Emmy for "The Glass Eye."

Thomas Burke (1886-1945), who wrote the story, was born in London and wrote both novels and short stories, often set in the Limehouse District of London's East End. Three of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "John Brown's Body."

A.E. Gould-Porter as Whybrow
Sergeant Ottermole is played by Theodore Bikel (1924-2015), who was born in Austria and whose family fled to Palestine in 1938. He began acting on stage in his teens, moved to London in 1945, and finally settled in the U.S. in 1954. He was on screen from 1947 to 2003 and also had a busy career as a folk singer and musician. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, though he also played a memorable role on one episode of The Twilight Zone titled "Four O'Clock."

In the role of Summers, the reporter, is Rhys Williams (1897-1969), an actor who was born in Wales and who made his screen debut in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941). He was on screen until 1970 but this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

The police constable who prevents Ottermole from killing Summers is played by the familiar character actor Torin Thatcher (1905-1981), who was born in India to British parents and who was on screen from 1927 to 1976. In addition to three appearances on the Hitchcock show (including "Bed of Roses"), he was seen on Thriller and Night Gallery and played important parts in Great Expectations (1946) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).

Charles Davis
A second reporter is played by Charles Davis (1925-2009), who was born in Ireland and who worked mostly on TV from 1951 to 1987. He was seen on seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "I Killed the Count," where he plays the long-suffering junior to John Williams's inspector.

In small roles, A.E. Gould-Porter (1905-1987) plays the ill-fated Mr. Whybrow; he was in 10 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Glass Eye." His wife, who is heard but not seen, is played by Hilda Plowright (1890-1973), who was also in "Banquo's Chair" as the ghost.

"The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here.

Athanason, Arthur Nicholas. “Thomas Burke.” Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, Springer, 2015, pp. 227–230,
Burke, Thomas. “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole.” 65 Great Murder Mysteries, edited by Mary Danby, Octopus, 1983, pp. 91–105.
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Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
“The Hands of Mr. Ottermole.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 32, CBS, 5 May 1957.
“The Hands of Mr. Ottermole.” Molle Mystery Theatre, 21 June 1946.
“The Hands of Mr. Ottermole.” Radio City Playhouse, 2 May 1949.
“The Hands of Mr. Ottermole.” Suspense, 2 Dec. 1948.
IMDb,, 29 Dec. 2017,
Nyhagen, Dennis. “Molle' Mystery Theatre [Mystery Theatre] Radio Programs.” The Definitive Molle Mystery Theatre Radio Logs with Geoffrey Barnes, Bernard Lenrow, and Dan Seymour, 30 Dec. 2017,
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Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Dec. 2017,

In two weeks: "The West Warlock Time Capsule," starring Henry Jones!


Brian Durant said...

I've always enjoyed this one. The atypical setting is refreshing and Cockrell's dialogue is really effective. Robert Stevens is doing some cool stuff here. The foggy street scenes have an almost claustrophobic feeling and shooting the murders from the killer's point-of-view was a brilliant choice. Too bad he couldn't have directed a few more episodes of the Twilight Zone. I've never listened to the Crossen adaptation with Claude Rains and Vincent Price but I will certainly do so upon your recommendation. Great work.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks very much, Brian. I am really impressed with Stevens's work and suspect his training in live TV helped him do creative work in a short time.

Grant said...

I don't know this one well (I could swear I've NEVER seen it), but Theodore Bikel could make ANY role very interesting.

Jack Seabrook said...

He was a very good actor and a fine singer as well!