Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Stanley Ellin Part Two: The Blessington Method [5.8]

by Jack Seabrook

Stanley Ellin's Edgar-winning short story, "The Blessington Method," is a vastly entertaining look at a problem that confronted middle-aged people in 1956, when the story was first published, and that still confronts us today. The story begins as Mr. Treadwell, a prosperous New York businessman, receives a visitor named Bunce, who represents the Society for Gerontology. Bunce knows a great deal about Treadwell and confronts him with knowledge of a problem: Treadwell's 72-year-old father-in-law, who has moved in with the Treadwells and who is likely to live another 20 years. Bunce explains that the one and only solution to Treadwell's problem is the Blessington Method, which involves killing the aged in a way that looks accidental, thus freeing the family of a burden. Treadwell dismisses Bunce in anger but, in the days that follow, finds himself thinking about the Blessington Method and growing ever more aggravated at the presence of his aging relative.

Henry Jones as Treadwell
He visits Bunce at the modern, busy offices of the Society for Gerontology, where Bunce convinces him to sign a pledge to pay a sum of $2000 in a month in exchange for the elimination of his father-in-law. The aged parent is found drowned off a Long Island pier three weeks later and the death is ruled accidental. Soon, Treadwell visits Bunce and gives him a check. However, Treadwell is troubled by the thought that one day he will be the unwanted elderly relative, destined to be murdered at the behest of younger members of his family. Bunce tells Treadwell to think of his loving daughter and how unlikely she would be to harm him. " 'Hold on to that thought, Mr. Treadwell, cherish it and keep it close at all times. It will be a solace and comfort to the very end.' "

Ellin's story is a model of irony and deservedly won the Edgar for Best Short Story of 1956. Published in the June 1956 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, it proposes murdering the unwanted elderly but couches it in terms that make it seem palatable. Bunce, described as "stout, well-dressed, and imposing," is a master salesman. His target, Treadwell, is described as "a small, likeable man," and he falls prey to a carefully thought out sales pitch. The Blessington Method, founded by J.G. Blessington (the use of initials gives him a brisk, businesslike sound), is presented as a multi-step process, like any number of self-help schemes popular then and now:

Step one: admit there is a problem
Step two: realize that no logical or practical solution exists
Step three: understand that the existence, not the presence, of the aged subject is what creates the problem

Dick York as Bunce
Though Bunce never comes right out and says it, one suspects that step four is the realization that murder for hire is the only solution. Like any good salesman, Bunce has done his research--he knows all about Treadwell's financial status and family life and he has cultivated a relationship with Treadwell's father-in-law by providing a listening ear when the old man spends time in public places. Bunce presents the situation as one with a natural, even an honorable solution, arguing that the aged are neither producers nor consumers, "only barriers to our continued progress." In post-war America, progress was important and anything that stood in the way of success and forward movement was to be shunned. As Bunce explains, the elderly are like worn out parts in the world organism that need to be replaced to maintain societal efficiency. Turning murder for hire into a societal good demonstrates the brilliance of Bunce's sales pitch; he tells Treadwell that by "signing a pledge to our Society a man is truly performing the most noble act of his life." Only then does the appeal for money come, and even that is softened by flattery when Bunce tells Treadwell that his research into the man's financial standing shows that he can afford the $2000 fee.

Elizabeth Patterson as Treadwell's mother-in-law
The story's clever twist finds Treadwell coming to the realization that he someday could be the object of a murder for hire. One again, Bunce, the silver-tongued salesman, comes to the rescue with a combination of sophistry and flattery, comforting and convincing Treadwell that the daughter who loves him could never take the step that he himself has just taken. By convincing Treadwell that he is unique and special, Bunce does his final bit of sleight of hand by distracting Treadwell from recalling that the threat to his future self is likely to come from his son-in-law, not his daughter. The reader sees the irony in Bunce's words but Treadwell, at the end of the story, appears blissfully unaware.

"The Blessington Method" is so smoothly written that one is tempted to gloss over the shocking nature of its premise. Apparently, the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were not so blind when they decided to adapt the story for television in 1959. The author of the teleplay, Halsted Welles, has kept the central premise, characters, and events of the short story intact while making significant changes that probably were enacted in order to make it more palatable to a wide audience watching the show on network television. The show aired on CBS on Sunday, November 15, 1959, less than two weeks before the Thanksgiving holiday, when families would gather to share a meal with their aging parents and in-laws. It is set 21 years in the future, in 1980, when office doors swing open by themselves and a father says grace at dinner time by intoning, "Our father, who art in space."

Paul E. Burns as the doomed fisherman
The teleplay by Welles opens with a scene not in the short story. We see a young man (whom we will later learn is J.J. Bunce--initials added for TV) in a business suit sitting on a pier. He is joined by an elderly fisherman (he says he's 93 years old), who takes Think-Eze pills to improve his memory and who remarks, "it's a great life if you don't weaken!" The young man encourages the old man to lean over the edge of the pier to see a large fish, then gives the old man a gentle push that causes him to fall into the water, where we assume he drowns. This opening scene is treated as light comedy. Dick York, playing Bunce, looks nonthreatening yet commits cold-blooded murder; the tone helps distract us from the fact that we have just watched a defenseless person being murdered.

Penny Edwards as the receptionist
The next scene begins with a shot of a futuristic clock that has both time and date (July 13, 1980) and the odd reference to Think-Eze pills in the prior scene begins to make sense. By setting "The Blessington Method" 21 years in the future, Welles makes the events seem foreign and thus more acceptable; the audience is given distance from the America where these things take place and is not forced to think about how closely the characters and their problems parallel our own. Bunce arrives in the reception area of a modern office, where the beautiful blond receptionist refuses to speak. Since talking spreads germs, she presses buttons and a speaker on her desk utters prerecorded sentences directed at Bunce. A spherical camera lowers itself from above and Bunce must speak into it; he begins to lose his temper and is allowed to proceed to Treadwell's office.

The TV version briefly picks up where the short story began, as Bunce enters Treadwell's sparsely-furnished modern office and makes his sales pitch. He is a representative of the Society for Experimental Gerology (a made up word to replace the real term, gerontology, used in the short story) and when he tells Treadwell all of the things he knows about the man's life, among them is the fact that his "mother-in-law's face lifting [is] not yet paid for." Welles switches the gender of Treadwell's aged in-law and follows the long comedic tradition of poking fun at a man's mother-in-law. To further make the show seem like a blend of comedy and science fiction (a very successful one, at that), the mother-in-law is said to be 82, and Treadwell says that actuarial tables show that she is likely to live another 32 years! Once Bunce gets to the list of murder methods that look like accidents, he mentions "tumble off a pier," and we realize that what we saw in the show's first scene was an example of Bunce at work, killing the elderly relative of a client. In the TV version, the sales pitch is shortened and Treadwell realizes what's going on quickly.

Vaughn Meadows as Treadwell's son
Stanley Ellin's story uses narrative to tell the reader about Treadwell's subsequent frustration with his aged in-law, but Halsted Welles takes the opportunity to dramatize this in the scenes that follow, and the result is hilarious. At the Treadwell house, the family is gathered around the dinner table when they are interrupted by banging on the ceiling--Mother wants Treadwell to come upstairs and fix her TV set, "or I'll miss the roller derby." After dinner, the Treadwells spend a pleasant evening together as the teenage siblings do their homework at the dining room table and Treadwell examines a graph of population growth according to increased age. He is temperamental and yells at the kids, demanding quiet, but as soon as he goes upstairs the silence is shattered by his mother-in-law, who plays a loud Sousa march on her record player. Treadwell visits her in her room and she hurls insults at him, telling him that his stomach makes him "look like a rumpled pillow" and causing his frustration to grow.

Bunce appears godlike after he kills the mother-in-law
To keep scene changes and sets at a minimum, Welles has Bunce make a return visit to Treadwell's office, rather than having Treadwell visit the offices of Bunce's society. Treadwell agrees to have his mother-in-law killed and, in an ironic twist, Bunce chooses to commit the murder on Sunday morning, while Treadwell's family is in church. On Sunday morning, Treadwell has taken his mother-in-law to the park and returns home to announce that he is not going to church. Instead, he will go fishing. The show's first scene is recalled in the scene that follows, where we see Bunce wheeling Treadwell's mother-in-law out onto a pier (she has a broken leg and is in a wheelchair); he talks to her in a soothing voice about the natural order of things and the importance of death, then he pushes her--wheelchair and all--into the water. There is a shot with the camera looking up at Bunce, godlike, as he looks down at the water, where the woman is surely drowning.

The final scene of the show finds Treadwell out in his fishing boat, Bunce sitting on a nearby pier. Bunce tells Treadwell that the deed is done, and this time the camera looks up at Bunce with the sun behind him. The effect is somehow sinister, as Bunce speaks of the future and the idea of his destiny occurs to Treadwell. Bunce finishes his speech, stands up, dons his hat, and walks off with confidence, leaving Treadwell sitting alone in his boat, looking apprehensive as he ponders the rest of his life and how it is likely to end.

Irene Windust as Treadwell's wife
"The Blessington Method" is a great short story that was adapted into an equally great half hour of television, one which stands as one of the rare forays into science fiction for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The reason for the future setting, however, was surely to make the premise of Stanley Ellin's short story acceptable to viewers in 1959 by making all of the small details surrounding the central conceit seem foreign and thus suggesting that no such thing could happen in 1959 America. Much of the credit for the success of the TV adaptation must go to Halsted Welles (1906-1990), the writer of the teleplay, who worked in live theater in the 1930s and who wrote a handful of screenplays, including the classic western, 3:10 to Yuma (1957). He wrote many episodes for Suspense, in the early days of television, and he wrote a total of six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Among the many other TV shows he wrote for was Night Gallery.

Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), one of the Hitchcock TV series's most prolific directors, was behind the camera for this episode, and he moves the story along at a rapid pace, successfully lending a humorous tone to the proceedings without sacrificing the core conflicts of the story. Born in Indiana, Daugherty started out as an actor, playing bit parts in films from 1949 to 1951, but achieved success as a director, almost exclusively for TV, from 1952 to 1975. He directed no less than 27 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Cure," and he later directed a couple of episodes of Star Trek, among many other shows.

Top billing goes to Henry Jones (1912-1999), the laconic actor who was born in New Jersey and whose long screen career spanned the years from 1943 to 1995. He was in six episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The West Warlock Time Capsule," and also appeared on such shows as Thriller, Night Gallery, and The Night Stalker, in addition to playing a role in Hitchcock's 1958 classic, Vertigo. Jones is perfect as Treadwell, able to demonstrate growing frustration with his mother-in-law and comfortable making the questionable moral leaps required to accept the Blessington Method.

Nancy Kilgas as Treadwell's daughter
Playing the difficult role of Bunce is Dick York (1928-1992). York must be charming and sinister, a master salesman who can make murder for hire seem like the only honorable choice. Like director Daugherty, York was born in Indiana; his screen career lasted from 1953 to 1984. Plagued by terrible back pain caused by an injury sustained on the set of a film, he nevertheless appeared in seven episodes of the Hitchcock show, as well as being on The Twilight Zone and Thriller. York's most famous role, however, was as Darrin Stevens on Bewitched, the popular situation comedy where he co-starred with Elizabeth Montgomery from 1964 to 1969, when he quit the show due to his back problems.

Among the supporting cast:
  • Elizabeth Patterson (1874-1966) as Treadwell's mother-in-law; born in Tennessee and on screen from 1926 to 1961, this was one of her two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She also had a recurring role on I Love Lucy.
  • Irene Windust (1921-1999) as Treadwell's wife; she had a brief career on screen from 1958 to 1963 but managed to turn up on four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents during that time.
  • Paul E. Burns (1881-1967) as the old fisherman who is killed in the first scene; he played bit parts in film and on TV from 1930 to 1967 and was seen in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and one episode of The Twilight Zone.
  • Vaughn Meadows (1944- ) as Treadwell's son; he was in only eight TV episodes from 1956 to 1962 and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.
  • Nancy Kilgas (1930- ) as Treadwell's daughter; her brief career from 1954 to 1959 included just one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; she also made an uncredited appearance as a dancer in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966).
  • Penny Edwards (1928-1998) as the receptionist at Treadwell's office; she was on screen from 1947 to 1961 and appeared twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
"The Blessington Method" has been collected in two of Stanley Ellin's short story collections and has been reprinted in other volumes. Watch the TV version online for free here or get the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps review here. Both the story and the TV show are worth seeking out.

“The Blessington Method.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 8, CBS, 15 Nov. 1959.
Ellin, Stanley. “The Blessington Method.” The Specialty of the House, Mysterious Press, 1979.
The FictionMags Index,
Galactic Central,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Apr. 2018,

In two weeks: Specialty of the House, starring Robert Morley!


Grant said...

It's one of those little show business "ironies" that a Dick York character murders someone else's mother-in-law, considering all the trouble he had with his own mother-in-law on Bewitched.

Jack Seabrook said...

Good point, Grant! I did not think of that. I was never a big fan of Bewitched.

Brian Durant said...

Doesn't Dick York play a murderer in another episode of AHP or am I imagining this? I remember seeing him in something where he played a thug-like character and being surprised at how convincing he was. I actually just saw this one for the first time a few months ago. I enjoyed it a lot. I thought the futuristic setting gave it a cool atmosphere even if it was done just to make it unrelated to a 1960's audience. The weird sets are a refreshing change for the show. Welles's dialogue is pretty great here especially in the family scenes. His kids are awful. Nice work as always, sir.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Brian! This is an underrated episode. York was in 6 episodes but this is the first one I've written about. Another is coming up soon!