Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Fourteen: The Impromptu Murder [3.38]

by Jack Seabrook

Hume Cronyn as Henry Daw
An impromptu act is defined as one that is done without being planned, organized, or rehearsed. One might think that "The Impromptu Murder" would likely be marked by error, but that's not necessarily what happens in the Roy Vickers short story of the same title that was adapted by Francis Cockrell for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the story, 42-year-old British solicitor Henry Daw has a comfortable practice in the English town of Swallowsbath. After a client named Agnes Wilkinson unfairly questions his integrity, he feels justified in using her money to make his own investments, but when World War One breaks out he loses both his money and hers. When she comes to visit to discuss her finances, he invites her to stay at the home he shares with his spinster sister, Margery. Miss Wilkinson surprises Henry by stating that she needs her money to invest in her brother's factory, which is being converted to war production. Henry takes Agnes for a walk and decides to murder her and save himself from going to prison for theft. He prepares a spot where he will bury her and lay a slab of slate over her grave. That night, he violently suffocates her as she sits in her room writing letters.

"The Impromptu Murder"
was reprinted here
He buries her body and covers the grave with the slab. Next morning, he dresses in her clothes and a veil, taking a pre-dawn carriage to the train station and leaving a note saying that she had decided to return to London and that he was going to accompany her part of the way. Boarding the train, he changes back into his own clothes and returns home later that afternoon to find his sister acting out of sorts. In the days that follow, Agnes's disappearance is reported and a search begins. Henry's explanation to a detective about accompanying Agnes on the train is found credible and he avoids suspicion.

For seven months, all is quiet, but come the next Whitsunday (late spring), a heavy rain leads to flooding and a woman's dead body is found. The police superintendent comments to Henry, who is by this time the mayor of Swallowsbath, that the woman's neck was broken and that she has been dead since around the time when Agnes disappeared. Asked to identify the body, Henry closes his eyes and denies that it's Agnes. Superintendent Tarrant, of Scotland Yard's Department of Dead Ends, asks Agnes's brother George to travel to the small town and view the body. Tarrant also visits the town and calls on Henry, asking if his sister Margery would view the body and provide her opinion. Henry refuses to allow it.

Valerie Cossart as Margery Daw
Fearing that suspicion will fall on his sister, Henry confesses to Agnes's murder. Just then, Tarrant receives a telephone call reporting that the corpse is definitely not that of Agnes. He then asks Henry what he did with the body and, after Henry explains, Agnes's corpse is recovered. The other corpse is never identified.

"The Impromptu Murder" is very much a tale of the British countryside in the early part of the twentieth century, where even a violent murder can seem genteel. The story was originally published under the title, "The Three-Foot Grave," referring to the depth that Henry digs, and it first saw print in the November 1934 issue of Pearson's Magazine. The original title seems more appropriate than "The Impromptu Murder," under which title it was reprinted in the October 1950 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, because the murder is not impromptu at all: Henry makes his plans and digs a grave before committing the violent deed. The shallowness of the grave is key to Henry's worry that the heavy rain and floods have caused the body of his victim to become uncovered, even though he put a slab of slate over it.

"The Impromptu Murder" was one of three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from short stories by Roy Vickers (1889-1965), an English author who was born William Vickers and who is best remembered for his series of tales dealing with the Department of Dead Ends. Though some of the stories have been reprinted in a series of editions going back to 1947, this particular short story does not seem to have been reprinted since 1950. Vickers also wrote the stories upon which "The Crocodile Case" and "Miss Paisley's Cat" were based.

Robert Douglas as Charles
Francis Cockrell's script for "The Impromptu Murder" opens with two quick shots with superimposed titles to establish the place, the time, the main character, and his occupation. The first is a long shot of an English country town and the title, "Swallowsbath, England, 1916," then there is a dissolve to a heavy, wooden door with a plaque reading, "Henry Daw, Solicitor." Henry arrives at work and is greeted by Hobson, his clerk, a character not found in the short story. Henry opens a letter from Miss Wilkinson, who writes that she is stopping by for a chat in a week; he remarks that he has not had a word from her in years. In the TV version, there is no mention (at least in the early scenes) of Henry using his client's money improperly.

In the next scene, Henry pours drinks while Miss Wilkinson and Margery chat in the Daw living room. Henry seems apprehensive but, since we don't know that he has lost his client's money, there is no explanation for his behavior. He does not walk Miss Wilkinson to town, as he does in the story, and the next time we see Henry, he is digging a grave. Without the background of his financial impropriety, this makes no sense and we are left to fill in the details on our own. That night, he sneaks into her room and kills her in a scene well-staged by the episode's director, Paul Henreid: we see Henry approach the woman but we witness the murder as it is reflected on the wall in shadows. Henry carries the corpse out of the house but we see that his sister is awake in her bed and that she hears him head down the stairs.

Henry sneaks out before dawn dressed as Agnes
After a break, Henry is shown putting the slab in place over the grave. In the next scene, he leaves home before dawn, dressed as his victim, rides a carriage to the train station, boards the train, changes his clothes, and makes sure that he is seen by a client while on the train. Back at home, he finds his sister out of sorts, but again the reason for a character's behavior is unclear; if Margery suspects that something is amiss, why does she not say anything to her brother? In the scene that follows, a dapper policeman named Charles questions Henry, who lies and says that he cannot do anything with Miss Wilkinson's money because she did not give him definite instructions. We must assume that Charles is a policeman because he questions Henry; there is no explanation of who he is and we assume he is local because he rides a bicycle and Henry knows him by his first name.

Francis Cockrell cleverly takes the various policeman in the short story and merges them all into the single character of Charles. The next thing we know, it's pouring outside, and we must assume that some time has passed since the murder. Margery makes an odd comment to Henry that "no one can have everything just as he would like it" and, the next day, Henry--now the mayor of Swallowsbath--dedicates a small stone monument to the village's war dead. His speech is interrupted when a body floats down the river; he watches with horror as it is fished out.

Charles, the policeman, asks Henry to identify the body and Henry closes his eyes and denies that it is Agnes. Charles then visits Henry at home and asks for Margery to get involved, but Henry confesses and says that the motive was to hide the use of his client's money. This line is the first time in the episode that the viewer gets an idea of the reason for the murder. Charles then gets the telephone call, Henry reveals the location of the body, Charles tells him that it's not Agnes, and the show ends on a close up of Henry's face as he realizes that he has confessed to murder for no reason.

Doris Lloyd as Agnes
"The Impromptu Murder" has some flaws in the script that leave out important facts and character motivations, yet it works surprisingly well as a half-hour crime drama. Paul Henreid (1908-1992), the director, is largely responsible for the fast pace of the show and its moody atmosphere, especially in the murder scene. Born in Austria, Henreid's onscreen career began in Germany in 1933 and continued for decades after he emigrated to the United States. His most famous role was in Casablanca (1942), of course, but he was also an accomplished director who worked mostly in TV and who directed no less than 29 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Guest for Breakfast" and "Annabel."

Another reason the show works is the performance by Hume Cronyn (1911-2003) as Henry Daw. Cronyn, who was Canadian, not British, is completely believable as the solicitor who robs and murders his client and then succeeds in covering up his crimes until mistakenly blurting out a confession. Cronyn's acting career began on Broadway in 1934 and he was on screen from 1943 until 2004. He had important roles in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Lifeboat (1949) and was also one of the writers credited on Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). Cronyn appeared twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and among his other memorable film roles were The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), in which he also plays a lawyer, and Cocoon (1985), a late-career hit. His wife, Jessica Tandy (1942-1994), was also a great actor who appeared on the Hitchcock TV show.

David Frankham as Hobson
Charles, the policeman, is played by Robert Douglas (1909-1999), who was born in England as Robert Finlayson and whose career started on stage in 1927. His appearances on screen stretched from 1931 to 1978 and he also directed, almost exclusively for TV, from 1960 to 1982, including four episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. One of them, "Behind the Locked Door," is among the best.

Margery Daw is a name from an old English nursery rhyme, "See Saw Margery Daw," and in the short story Henry affectionately calls his sister by the nickname, "See Saw." In the TV show, there is no such familiarity, and the role of Margery is played rather stiffly by Valerie Cossart (1907-1994) who, in fairness, is not given much to do. She was a Broadway actress of the 1930s and 1940s who worked mostly on TV from 1946 to 1980 and who appeared in the film version of Rod Serling's tale of the business world, Patterns, in 1956. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Supporting players include:

*Doris Lloyd (1896-1968) as Agnes Wilkinson; she started out in Vaudeville in 1916 and appeared in over 150 films from 1920 to 1967. Her nine roles in the Hitchcock TV series included parts in "Dip in the Pool" and "Isabel."

Molly Glessing as the maid
*David Frankham (1926- ) as Hobson, Henry's clerk; he worked for the BBC from 1948 to 1955 before coming the the U.S. and becoming an actor. He was on screen from 1956 until 2010 and wrote an autobiography, Which One Was David?

*Molly Glessing (1891-1971) as the maid; she often played maids in a career onscreen from 1951 to 1964 and she was seen in seven episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby."

"The Impromptu Murder" may be viewed online here or is available on DVD here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story!


The FictionMags Index,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
“The Impromptu Murder.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 38, CBS, 22 June 1958.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. “Galactic Central.” Galactic Central,
“Valerie Cossart, 87, Actress of the 30's.” New York Times, 12 Jan. 1995,
Vickers, Roy. “The Impromptu Murder.” Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Oct. 1950, pp. 22–32.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,
In two weeks: Relative Value, starring Denholm Elliott and Torin Thatcher!


Grant said...

That ending sounds a little like the ending of the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR episode "Change Of Address." Because in that story one killing brings another one out in the open.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! I haven't seen that one recently.