Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-James P. Cavanagh Part Seven: Sylvia [3.16]

by Jack Seabrook

After "Father and Son," the next episode scripted by James P. Cavanagh was "Heart of Gold," the first adaptation of a Henry Slesar story to be broadcast on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Next came "Sylvia," Cavanagh's version of a short story by Ira Levin. Published in the April 1955 issue of Manhunt, "Sylvia" opens as Lewis Melton searches the room of his thirty-three-year-old daughter Sylvia for a letter. She recently divorced fortune-hunter Lyle Waterman, a man she had married the year before while her father vacationed on the Riviera. Now, as Melton is about to leave on his annual holiday, he has learned that she received a letter from her ex-husband. Melton finds the letter, in which Waterman writes that he plans to arrive soon after Melton leaves. With the letter, Melton discovers a gun.

From Manhunt
After replacing the gun and the letter, Melton telephones Waterman to warn him, but the former son-in-law hangs up before Melton can give him the news. Melton drives from his home in the Connecticut suburbs into New York City, where he visits the shabby hotel on West 53rd Street where Waterman resides. Both men go up to Waterman's room and Melton warns his former son-in-law of his suspicion that his daughter intends to kill her ex-husband when he arrives. Waterman does not want to believe it but, after Melton offers to cancel his vacation and talk to Sylvia, Waterman agrees to leave town and go to Texas for a price. Melton pays him off and drives home, seeing the servants off on a break of their own.

He finds his daughter in the garden, tells her he has canceled his trip, and counsels her that Waterman is not worth brooding over. In the garden, she shows him a large hole that she has dug, in which she has thrown his suitcases. Sylvia accuses her father of ruining her life, insists that Waterman still loves her and plans to come back, and finally shoots Melton in the chest, killing him.

"Sylvia" is one of only two short stories that I have been able to find by Ira Levin (1929-2007), who was born in New York City and who began writing for TV, radio, and the stage around 1950. A Kiss Before Dying (1953) won the Edgar for Best First Novel in 1954, but Levin is perhaps best remembered for Rosemary's Baby (1967), which was memorably filmed and released the following year. Levin also wrote The Stepford Wives (1972), The Boys from Brazil (1976), and the hit Broadway play, Deathtrap (1978), for which he won a second Edgar Award. "Sylvia" was his only story to be adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

"Sylvia" is almost Cheeveresque in its portrayal of wealthy people leading unhappy lives in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City. Lewis Melton has protected his daughter, Sylvia, all her life, and she, at age 33, has had but one lover, a man after her money. After the divorce, her ex-husband is easily convinced of Sylvia's ill intent and remains true to form, asking for money from her father and agreeing to make himself scarce. Lewis never suspects that his daughter might bear him any ill will and, after he is shot, "for the first time in his life he saw that her eyes, which had always seemed a dull and empty blue, could burst on occasion to a vivid, gemlike intensity."

John McIntire as John Leeds
The end of the story is a bit confusing. Melton arrives home and sees his suitcases lined up in the hallway, presumably left there for him by the servants in anticipation of his leaving on vacation. Sylvia is playing the piano. He goes upstairs to wash up and comes down to find that Sylvia has gone to her garden. He goes outside and she comes out of the garden to speak to him. He tells her he is not going on vacation and she leads him into the garden, where she has already dug a large, grave-sized hole and thrown his suitcases into it. She shoots him and the story ends. The only conclusion to be drawn from these events is that Sylvia was planning to murder her father and had no idea that he had gone to New York City to pay her ex-husband to go away. She accuses him of ruining her life and refers to thirty-three years of "'snooping, spying, arranging things behind my back.'" Though the reader might initially suspect, as did Lewis Melton, that she had planned to kill her ex-husband, the truth seems to be that she was planning to kill her father. It is ironic that she carries out this plan, thinking that her ex-husband is on his way to visit her that evening, when her father has already seen to it that her desire will once again be thwarted. Perhaps Sylvia is correct to be resentful, but her rash act of murder ensures that the rest of her days will not be any happier than those that preceded them.

James P. Cavanagh adapted Levin's short story for television and "Sylvia" was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, January 19, 1958. The televised version follows the general outline of the short story but is much different in the details. It opens with Sylvia sitting at her dressing table, inspecting her revolver, when her father walks in. (Cavanagh follows the Chekovian dictum that, if one shows a gun in the first act, it must go off in the second.) The father, renamed John Leeds, looks concerned, but Sylvia tells him that she is fine and has no plans to shoot herself. Sylvia has returned from Reno, where she got a divorce, and we learn that her father and mother are also divorced and that Sylvia's mother had sent her to live with her father.

Ann Todd as Sylvia
As Leeds is heading out the front door, the maid tells him that Sylvia gave her three weeks off, so she will not be there while he is away on vacation. Leeds then visits Dr. Jason, Sylvia's psychiatrist, and tells the doctor that he is worried that Sylvia may be suicidal. A flashback shows how Sylvia met her husband while on an ocean liner returning from a European vacation with her father. Leeds tells Dr. Jason that Sylvia married Peter Kent two months after meeting him. A second flashback shows Leeds and Kent in Leeds's office, where Leeds confronts his son-in-law with a check the younger man forged and, in exchange for Leeds not calling the authorities, Kent agrees to go away and not contest a divorce.

Back at home and in the present again, Sylvia lounges on her bed, talking by telephone to Kent and begging him to visit her that night after her father leaves on vacation. After she hangs up the phone, she opens her dresser drawer and looks at the gun. Leeds cancels his trip and Kent arrives at his office, where Leeds gives him $25,000 to go away for good. Leeds returns home and Sylvia brings in cut flowers from the garden, seeming very happy. Later, they are both dressed in formal attire and sit in the living room, sharing after-dinner drinks. Leeds tells his daughter that Kent is not coming and she admits that she considered killing Kent if he refused to come back to her. Leeds admits having paid Kent to go away and he tells Sylvia that she must return to her psychiatrist. She goes upstairs to bed.

Philip Reed as Peter Kent
Leeds telephones Dr. Jason to tell him the news and, in the middle of the phone call, suddenly remembers the gun in his daughter's room. He rushes upstairs and bursts into Sylvia's bedroom, only to find her calmly brushing her hair before the mirror. She recalls how he would sit and talk to her before she went to bed when she was a little girl. He asks her to give him the gun, and she takes it out of the dresser drawer and begins to complain that her father would never let her have anything of her own, not even a husband. She shoots him and then collapses in tears.

Cavanagh's script for "Sylvia" is strong and makes good use of storytelling techniques such as flashbacks and foreshadowing to create suspense and throw the viewer off the trail of what is really going on. Like Sylvia's father, we at first suspect that she may be suicidal and later think that she intends to kill her ex-husband. Only in the final scene does it become clear that she resents her father's smothering love, when she confronts and kills him. The biggest problem with the TV show is the casting. John McIntire is very good as John Leeds; McIntire is American and makeup is used to age the actor, who was 50 years old at the time of filming. Unfortunately, his daughter Sylvia is played by the English actress, Ann Todd, who was 48 years old, only two years younger than the actor playing her father! Todd tries to turn her English accent into a sort of Grace Kelly-like private school, American accent, but she is unable to hide her British speech patterns. In the scene where she lies back on her bed, talking on the telephone, she tries to pass herself off as girlish, but it just doesn't work. Even stranger is the casting of Philip Reed as her ex-husband; Reed was a year older than Todd and a year younger than McIntire, making him too old for the man's son-in-law but oddly age-appropriate for the too-old daughter.

Raymond Bailey as Dr. Jason
Despite the miscasting, the show is well-acted, though Todd is too pretty and refined to make it credible that she could not find a husband. She is also not convincing as a young woman who is so mentally unbalanced that suitors would be dissuaded from her money, poise, and beauty. The episode is competently directed by Herschel Daugherty, who does not use any memorable camera setups but who does tell the story from start to finish without creating confusion.

Hitchcock's closing remarks refer to the father as "Mr. Melton," the name he had in the short story, rather than as "Mr. Leeds," the name he has in the TV show. This suggests that James Allardyce, who wrote the opening and closing segments for each show, was given a copy of the short story, rather than the script, and that the segments were filmed before the teleplay was completed.

Ann Todd (1909-1993) was born Dorothy Anne Todd in England and was on screen from 1931 to 1992. Featured in the early science fiction film Things to Come (1936) and in Hitchcock's flop, The Paradine Case (1947), she was also seen on Thriller but appeared in no other episodes of the Hitchcock series. She wrote an autobiography called The Eighth Veil (1980).

Edit Angold as Bertha
John McIntire (1907-1991) was busy on stage and on the radio in the 1930s before beginning his film career in 1940. He had a role in Psycho (1960) and was a regular on three TV series: Naked City (1958-1959), Wagon Train (1960-1965), and The Virginian (1967-1970). He appeared on The Twilight Zone and on one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Hitch Hike." He continued to appear on TV and film until 1989.

Philip Reed (1908-1996) was born Milton LeRoy and, like John McIntire, he was on stage and radio in addition to having a long career on screen from 1933 to 1965. He appeared as Steve Wilson in a series of "Big Town" films in the late 1940s and he was seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Derelicts."

In smaller roles:
  • Raymond Bailey (1904-1980) makes one of his eleven appearances on the Hitchcock series here as Dr. Jason. He was also in Vertigo (1958) and three episodes of The Twilight Zone, but his career-defining role was as Mr. Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71).
  • Edit Angold (1895-1971) plays Bertha, the maid. She was born Edit Goldstandt in Berlin and had a career on the German stage and on film in Germany before coming to the US, where she was on screen from 1940-1967. This was one of four appearances on the Hitchcock series.
Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993) directed "Sylvia"; he directed numerous TV shows from 1952 to 1975, including 27 episodes of the Hitchcock show. He also directed 16 episodes of Thriller.

Ira Levin's short story, "Sylvia," has been reprinted in collections such as Deadly Doings (1989) and Angels of Darkness (1995). Watch the TV show here or buy the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps review of this episode here.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Levin, Ira. “Sylvia.” Manhunt, Apr. 1955, pp. 144–153.
“Sylvia.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 16, CBS, 19 Jan. 1958.
The FictionMags Index,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Mar. 2019,

In two weeks: "Arthur," starring Laurence Harvey and Hazel Court!

No comments: