Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Bernard C. Schoenfeld Part Seven: Listen, Listen . . . . . ! [3.32]

by Jack Seabrook

R.E. Kendall was born in Chicago and was 39 years old when her first published short story, "Listen, Listen!" won a prize in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's second annual contest—another new author to win that year was Jack Finney, for his story "Widow's Walk." Kendall had been an editor at Good Housekeeping and, according to my research, she only published two more stories after this one: "The Phases of Arthur Beal," a long story published in two parts in the July and August 1949 issues of Good Housekeeping, and "Let's Pretend It's Spring," in the June 1952 issue of Redbook.

"Listen, Listen!" is a story that deserved to win an award. It begins as a small, meek man appears at the police station wanting to talk about the Jamieson stocking murder case and is sent to see Sergeant Oliver. The man says his name is Jasper F. Smith and that he is a bookkeeper; he suggests that the murder, the third in a series, could have been committed by someone copying the pattern of the first two in order to avoid detection. Oliver tells him that the case has been solved and sends him to see Lieutenant King at the East 51st Street station.

"Listen, Listen!" was first published here
The man calls himself Morgan when he sees Lieutenant King. They discuss the murders, which involve three young women, each one found naked and dead, strangled with a stocking and with a letter A drawn on her forehead in red lipstick. When the man suggests his theory, King tells him that he has been reading too many detective stories. The meek man walks to the Times Building on Broadway, where a clerk tells him that he can find reporters at a bar named Joe's on Eighth near Forty-Third. The man enters the bar and says that his name is Ralph Reid. He speaks to a reporter named Beekman, who mocks him.

The little fellow walks the city sidewalks in the rain until he comes to St. Patrick's, where he speaks to a priest. He admits that his real name is Herbert Johnson and tells the priest about the murders, adding that the third girl left home at seventeen and went on stage with a new name "'but hardly ever saw her family because they were always scolding.'" The priest tries to send Johnson back to Lieutenant King and finally tells him to go home to bed. Johnson leaves and thinks of returning home to his wife, who has lipstick and a stocking hidden in a drawer.

Edgar Stehli as Johnson
Kendall's story was first published in the June 1947 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the editor provides biographical information before the story and comments afterward, noting that the tale is beautifully written and subtle, with clues carefully planted along the way to misdirect the reader into a growing belief that Johnson murdered his own daughter. Only in the last sentence is his wife revealed as the real killer. The situation is horrible because the man is so afraid of his spouse that he changes his name each time he speaks to someone, only revealing his true identity when he talks to the priest. Johnson will not tell anyone what his wife has done—instead, he couches his knowledge in the guise of a theory, hoping to spur the authorities on to investigate the murder of his own daughter.

Edith Evanson as Mrs. Johnson
Such a terrible tale with such a sharp and surprising ending was a perfect choice for adaptation as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and writer Bernard C. Schoenfeld wrote the teleplay for the show that was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, May 11, 1958. Directed by Don Taylor, the short film is a brilliant translation of Kendall's tale from the printed page to the small screen. Schoenfeld's script follows the source story closely with some minor changes to comply with censorship requirements and two significant additions that deepen the story's effect on the viewer. The little man's visits to Sergeant Oliver and Lieutenant King occur as they do in the story, but the dead girls are described as having been found in pajamas and a bathrobe, not naked. The location of the tale is changed from New York City to an unnamed city and the man visits the offices of a newspaper named the Chronicle rather than the Times. The first significant addition comes in the scene where the man visits the bar. In the story, the man sees his own face in the mirror behind the bar and imagines he sees the face of a dead girl. In the TV show, there is a beautiful woman sitting at the bar and she joins in the little man's conversation with the reporter. She says her name is "Slats," a nickname perhaps referring to her long legs, and when the little man feels dizzy from drinking sherry he sits down at a table and observes the woman. There is a close-up of her putting on lipstick and then the camera travels down her body as she runs a hand over her stockinged leg. The man becomes rattled and this series of shots suggests that Slats reminds him of the murdered girls.

Jackie Loughery as Slats
After the little man leaves the bar, he sees a cop on the beat and hurries away, an action suggesting guilt. The scene with the priest then follows, though it is set in the rectory of an unspecified church rather than the nave of St. Patrick's, and the line, "'I am not a Catholic'" in the story is scrubbed to become "I'm not of your faith" for the TV show. When the priest suggests that he see Lieutenant King, Johnson laughs in horror. This sets the stage for the final scene, which replaces the last paragraph of the story with something even more terrible. After Johnson leaves the rectory, there is a dissolve and he is shown entering his home. His wife, who does not appear in the story, scolds him for being late for dinner and he says that he "'tried to tell them,'" to which she responds that he should not talk about it. He says that he "'even went to the police'" and she again says not to talk about it. His wife is calm and rather cheerful, treating her husband somewhat like a recalcitrant child. There is then a close-up of her washing her hands in the kitchen sink. She reaches for a dish towel to dry them but finds none, so she walks to a dresser, opens a drawer, and takes out a fresh towel. When she lifts the towel, it reveals a stocking and a tube of lipstick that had been hidden beneath it. Johnson remarks that he will never have the courage to try again and the episode ends on a close-up of his wife's smiling face as Johnson's voice says, "'They wouldn't believe that a mother could do such a thing.'"

Dayton Lummis as Sergeant Oliver
The effect of this interpretation of the story's ending is chilling. Seeing the murderess on screen amplifies the horror of Johnson's situation, and the close-up of her washing her hands, which seemed incongruous at the time, takes on a new meaning; perhaps it is intended to remind the viewer of the murderous Lady Macbeth, trying but failing to wash invisible blood from her hands. Yet Mrs. Johnson, who murdered her own daughter in a manner coldly calculated to avoid detection, appears to have no feelings of guilt; instead, she smiles to herself and seems unconcerned by her husband's efforts to redirect the authorities in their investigation to point her way.

Schoenfeld found a clever way to dramatize the story's last paragraph, which details Johnson's thoughts, and in doing so he shows the viewer the face of a mother who killed her own daughter and who terrorizes her husband so thoroughly that he cannot reveal her guilt. Don Taylor's direction is effective, moving gradually from the early scenes in the police stations, where light streams though the windows despite the old man's raincoat being soaking wet from rain, to the bar scene, where the new character of Slats represents the type of scarlet woman that Mrs. Johnson would not find worthy of letting live. There is a beautifully lit shot when Johnson arrives at the church, with light streaming through a tall window and illuminating what appears to be a courtyard, and the final scene is chilling in what it gradually reveals, with the last close-up of Mrs. Johnson showing the horror of the situation.

Adams Williams as Lieutenant King
Don Taylor (1920-1988) was in the Air Force in World War Two and was an actor, first in film and later on TV, from 1943 to 1969. He acted in one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Silent Witness." In 1956, Taylor started directing TV shows, and he continued directing, mostly for the small screen, until 1980. He directed seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents between 1957 and 1959, including "The Deadly," and he later directed two episodes of Night Gallery.

"Listen, Listen . . . . . !" (the five periods are added for the TV show's title) would not work nearly as well were it not for the terrific performance by Edgar Stehli (1884-1973) as Herbert Johnson. He is meek and fearful and his terror grows as the show goes on and one person after another dismisses him without listening, until he finally has to return home to the wife who murdered his little girl. Born in France, Stehli was a fixture on Broadway from 1916 to 1966. He acted on radio in the thirties and forties and was seen on screen from 1947 to 1970. He was in the original Broadway cast of Arsenic and Old Lace with Boris Karloff and only appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents once; he was also in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Rusty Lane as Father Rafferty
Everyone else in the show has a small role, as Johnson moves from person to person. The most powerful part is one of the shortest: Edith Evanson (1896-1980) as his wife. She appeared in films from 1940 to 1971 and on TV from 1953 to 1974. She was in Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Marnie (1964) as well as Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953), and she was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In a part quite different than that of Evanson is Jackie Loughery (1930- ) as Slats, the beautiful girl at the bar. Loughery won the title of Miss USA in 1952, the first year of that beauty pageant, and was awarded a movie contract. She was seen on TV from 1951 to 1969 and on film from 1953 to 1962. Married to Jack Webb from 1958 to 1964, this was her only role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Among the other players:
  • Dayton Lummis (1903-1988) as Sergeant Oliver; he was on screen from 1946 to 1975 and appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Crack of Doom." He was also on Thriller twice.
  • Adam Williams (1922-2006) as Lieutenant King; a Navy pilot in World War Two, he was on screen from 1951 to 1978. Like Edith Evanson, he was in The Big Heat; he also had a memorable role in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959). He was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller.
  • Rusty Lane (1899-1986) as Father Rafferty; he was on screen from 1945 to 1973 and appeared in nine episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "I Saw the Whole Thing."
Kendall's story was reprinted in The Queen's Awards (1947) and in a British collection called Murder Mixture (1963); consequently, it is hard to find today and certainly deserves reprinting. The TV version is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. Once again, thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story.

The FictionMags Index,
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central,

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.

Kendall, R.E. "Listen, Listen!" Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 1947, pp. 117–127.
"Listen, Listen . . . . . !" Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 32, CBS, 11 May 1958.

Wikipedia, 28 Oct. 2018,

In two weeks: The Jokester, starring Albert Salmi!


Don said...

This episode has bugged me for 3 years. I read your post, and rewatched the episode, and it makes a lot more sense to me now.

However, I still don’t get why the multiple names were used. Also, I don’t understand the man’s goal. Does he want the murder solved or not? He encourages the police to look for a different killer, but withholds that killer’s identity.

I must have had a bad day when I first watched it (wow, much of my post is just awful!), but the whole ending still seems off. At least now I know what they were going for. With AHP, I always assume the problem is mine. Thanks, as always, for your clear summary and all your hard work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Don! I think he used multiple names because he was trying to conceal his identity. He wanted the police to investigate his daughter's murder but he couldn't bring himself to turn in his own wife directly. I think that's part of what makes the situation so tragic.

john kenrick said...

Yes, Jack. The old man was trying to conceal his identity and simultaneously attempting to send out signals to others so that they, rather than he can take action of some kind.

I like the episode. Johnson's hints were difficult for even a second time viewer to decipher, even knowing the truth of what he was attempting to do.

If there's a moral in the story it's that when attempting to get to a significant truth that needs telling one should not allow one's vanity and conceits get in the way, as in so doing obfuscates the truth and confuses those people whom one needs most to convince: total strangers.

I think that this also episode points, whether intentionally or not I cannot say, to a central weakness in the Hitchcock series as a whole, which is that in being so much about crime and murder it was compelled to reduce each episode to melodrama, thus robbing its tales of true drama, and in particular of intimacy, which can only be hinted at.

This isn't always the case with Hitchcock's shows, but it is much of the time. In this episode the disconnect, between the "plot points", on the one hand, and its central character's emotional dilemma, is so vast as to make him appear beyond eccentric; maybe even a little mad. As the story unfolds one can see that old Johnson's method has nothing to do with madness; closer to caution; and he has his reasons, which we only learn at the end.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I wouldn't say "much of the time," but I'll admit there are times when the need to get to the finish line and have a twist can crowd out some opportunities for deeper emotions. I have not worked on as many of the hour long shows yet as I have the half hour ones, but I wonder if the longer running time allowed for more of what you're missing. I do know that once the hour shows got good (really, the second season), they got really good.

Andrew said...

I just started watching AHP and appreciate the blog and comments, thank you all. I don’t understand why the husband comes home and tells the wife what he had been doing. Seems very odd that she doesn’t really care when coupled with the fact that he didn’t just come out and tell the police or priest that she was the murderer.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Andrew! I think the husband couldn't bring himself to tell anyone about what his wife was up to. The best he could do was to hint at it and hope they figured it out without him having to come right out and say it. I think he felt a duty to her as his wife but was torn by her actions. At the end, he confessed to her because he knew he had gone as far as he could go.