Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-Arthur A. Ross Part Two: The Evil of Adelaide Winters [9.16]

by Jack Seabrook

Interest in spiritualism peaked during and after World War One, presumably in response to the mass casualties and widespread devastation affecting families in Europe and America. The horrors of the second World War surely led many grieving parents to seek comfort in the occult as well, and it is this opportunity to cash in on the misery of others that serves as the basis for "The Evil of Adelaide Winters," a story by Arthur A. Ross that he first wrote as a radio play and then later revised as a teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

The radio play was broadcast on Suspense on September 10, 1951, starring Agnes Moorehead as the title character, who also narrates the tale. As the show opens, she tells listeners that she has been paralyzed and unable to speak for six years due to a bullet in the base of her skull. Now that the bullet has been removed, she can tell her story, which goes back to the end of World War Two and which is told in flashback.

Adelaide asks her partner, Robert, to read to her from a newspaper the list of soldiers missing in action and she selects one named John Porter, whose family lives in a good neighborhood.  Robert telephones Porter's father, Edward, pretending to be calling from the War Department, and tells him that his son is dead. Porter then comes to Adelaide's office; he is a successful businessman who is desperate to establish contact with his late son. For seven days, Adelaide tries to contact John until she finally succeeds, and the dead soldier's disembodied voice speaks to his father, claiming that "'death is beautiful.'" Porter is grateful, and Adelaide remarks from the present that she was the only person to bring him comfort.

Kim Hunter as Adelaide Winters
Soon, Porter begins to insist that Adelaide devote all her time to him. He suggests that she and Robert move into his house and she agrees. They move into the large home that Porter had built for his son and Robert manages to intercept a letter from the real War Department warning Porter about phony mediums who contact the parents of war casualties. Though Robert cautions Adelaide that it is time to get out, she tells him that she plans to marry Porter. Robert tells her that he only stayed with her as long as he did out of love, but she is determined to get all that she can from the grieving father.

Adelaide gradually becomes the most important thing in Porter's life. Edward thinks that his son sounds happy and he envies John; he tells Adelaide that she, he, and his dead son are like a family and proposes marriage to her. Edward remarks that he senses that his son wants them to join him. Robert again warns Adelaide, telling her that Porter is dangerous and "'losing his reason,'" but Adelaide will not leave until she has married Porter.

Porter begins to spend every moment with Adelaide, always watching her, until she is afraid to sleep, yet she continues to refuse to admit that he is beyond her control. Porter insists that he cannot wait to join John and takes out a gun, telling Adelaide not to be afraid. She tells Porter that it was all a lie but he refuses to believe it; she calls for Robert but he is gone. Edward shoots her and then himself.

Looking back six years later, she asks the listeners, "'You judge whether I did harm.'"

Gene Lyons as Robert McBain
The answer seems clear: her deception caused Edward Porter to kill himself and to attempt to kill her. "The Evil of Adelaide Winters" is a gripping half-hour radio drama that tells the tragic story of a man so distraught by the loss of his son in wartime that he will believe anything, even the tricks of a fraudulent spiritualist.

Arthur A. Ross adapted his radio play for television and the show was broadcast on Friday, February 7, 1964, as part of the second season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The televised version is faithful to the radio play with some important changes.

To begin with, there is no framing device and the story is not told in retrospect by Adelaide Winters. While the radio play begins with her having just awoken from six years of silence, the TV show begins with a close-up of a Los Angeles newspaper dated June 6, 1944--D-Day! Without the knowledge that she was shot and that she eventually recovered, the viewer has no idea where the story will end. Time and place are established quickly by the image of the newspaper and the theme of the show is established almost as quickly in the first scene, which shows Adelaide with an older couple, attempting to make contact with their son's spirit.

The TV version of the story uses visual objects to help underline what is happening; Adelaide sets out on a table a bayonet, a helmet, and a gun, and she turns on a slide projector to show images of carnage in battle, explaining to the parents that she surrounds herself with "'the kind of things that surrounded your son's last living moments'" in order to make contact with the dead. She also plays a record with the sounds of battle.

John Larkin as Edward Porter
Adelaide comments on the skepticism of Mr. Thompson, the father of the missing soldier, but by the end of her audio-visual display he is a believer and asks when they can see her again. After this new opening scene, the story picks up where the radio play begins, after Adelaide's initial comments about having been unable to speak for six years. Her efforts to contact John Porter and her sales pitch to his grieving father are expanded and he, like Thompson, is skeptical at first, but soon Adelaide's acting skill and ability to read people convinces him that she is in earnest.

There is another seance, with the same objects of battle, photographs, and sounds; her repeated failures to contact John are all part of a calculated ruse to get more money from Edward and to convince him of her own legitimacy. Finally, she begs John to show that he loves his father and, at last, his voice is heard. Porter begins to show up early for appointments and to display affection for Adelaide. In the TV show, Robert's rooms are not in the Porter house but rather above the garage, while Adelaide moves into a suite of two rooms that Edward has had remodeled just for her. Robert sets up radio transmitters around the house and in the garden to aid in the illusion that John is speaking to his father from beyond the grave. Eventually, Adelaide is able to summon him without any visual or aural aids at all.

In one effective scene, we see Porter's memories of happy times with his son shown in a series of shots of sailboats on the water alternating with shots of his face superimposed over them. The show plods along, highlighted by Kim Hunter's performance as Adelaide, but there is some excitement in the final scenes, in which a snippet of Bernard Herman's five-note theme from "Beyond the Locked Door" is played to great effect in an episode otherwise nearly devoid of musical cues. When Edward menaces Adelaide, instead of calling for Robert, she rushes out of the house and up the stairs to his empty room above the garage. There is a nice shot with the gun in Edward's hand in the foreground, as he stands at the top of the stairs and we see her bustling around on the floor below.

An eerie, night scene follows as Adelaide runs from the house to the garage, wind whipping leaves about her as she races to her doom. The final confrontation occurs in Robert's shadowy room, as Porter shoots Adelaide and then himself. There is no closing narrative from Adelaide six years later; in the TV version, she is dead and will not return. One wonders whether a murder/suicide was seen as pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on TV in 1964.

Both the radio and TV versions of "The Evil of Adelaide Winters" are essentially three-character dramas, though the TV show does add the husband and wife characters of the Thompsons in the brief first scene. The TV show is directed in a pedestrian fashion and only comes to life briefly toward the end, and the decision to have Adelaide be killed rather than to have her survive to tell her story is a surprise.

Bartlett Robinson as Thompson
"The Evil of Adelaide Winters" is directed by Laslo Benedek (1905-1992), a Hungarian emigre to Hollywood who directed films from 1948 to 1977 and TV from 1953 to 1967. His most famous film was the Marlon Brando vehicle, The Wild One (1953), and he directed two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in addition to episodes of Thriller and The Outer Limits. He began his career as an editor and assistant director in the German cinema of the late 1920s and early 1930s before fleeing when the Nazis took power; once his U.S. film career had ended, he taught film studies at NYU and elsewhere.

Kim Hunter stars as Adelaide Winters (1922-2002). Her screen career spanned the years from 1943 to 2001 and she was blacklisted for a time in the 1950s. Her first film was Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim (1943) and she won an Academy Award for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). She also appeared in the Playhouse 90 version of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) and she had a memorable role in Planet of the Apes (1968) and two sequels. She appeared in just this one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and she was also seen on Night Gallery.

Sheila Bromley as Mrs. Thompson
Edward Porter is played by John Larkin (1912-1965), who played many parts on radio from the 1930s to the 1950s, including a stint as Perry Mason. He did most of his acting after that on TV from 1954 to 1965 and appeared in a few films in the mid-1960s. He was a regular on The Edge of Night (1956-61) and on a series called Saints and Sinners (1962-63). He also appeared in one other episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Dear Uncle George."

Gene Lyons (1921-1974) portrays Robert McBain, Adelaide's partner. A member of the Actors Studio, he appeared on Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s and then extensively on TV from 1950 to 1974, with only a handful of film roles during that period. Lyons was seen on The Twilight Zone and Star Trek and he was a regular on Ironside from 1967 to 1974. He was seen in three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "What Really Happened."

In small roles:
  • Sheila Bromley (1911-2003) as Mrs. Thompson; she was on screen from 1930 to 1975, very busy in films in the 1930s, and mostly on TV from the 1950s through the 1970s. She was on the Hitchcock show three times.
  • Bartlett Robinson (1912-1986) as Mr. Thompson; he was on stage and radio in the 1930s and 1940s, then appeared on TV and on film from 1949 to 1982. He appeared on classic TV shows including The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and The Outer Limits; he also appeared on the Hitchcock show 11 times, including "Bad Actor."
Listen to the radio version of "The Evil of Adelaide Winters" here. The TV version is not available online or on DVD.


Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Old Time Radio Downloads,
“The Evil of Adelaide Winters.” Suspense, CBS, 10 Sept. 1951.
“The Evil of Adelaide Winters.” The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 9, episode 16, CBS, 7 Feb. 1964.

In two weeks: "Anyone for Murder?" starring Barry Nelson and Patricia Breslin!


Grant said...

Even though it's taken from a radio show, this one also resembles an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS that I've seen 1-2 times called "Across The Threshold," especially the ending. One other difference is that that one is more of a dark comedy.

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't written about that one yet but look forward to dissecting it!