Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-Arthur A. Ross Part Five: Triumph [10.9]

by Jack Seabrook

"Triumph" is based on a short story called "Murder in Szechwan," written by Robert Branson and first published in the October 9, 1948 issue of Collier's. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who explains that he traveled to the northern Szechwan town of Hsingping to see a geologist named Hank Tyler, who was prospecting for oil. As he arrives, the narrator sees a man sitting by a grave at the edge of the river; the man is Reverend Sprague, a young Christian missionary, who tells the narrator that his wife died of cholera nearly a year ago. Sprague adds that he wishes that Mrs. Fitzgibbons, the wife of another missionary, were dead and in Hell.

Later, Hank Tyler explains what happened between the Spragues and the Fitzgibbonses. Sprague's wife was young and beautiful, but she died in the cholera epidemic that broke out about six months after she and her husband arrived in Hsingping in 1946. Sprague was away when she died and by the time he got back, she had been buried and the Fitzgibbonses had left.

Tyler tells the narrator that everyone suspects Mrs. Fitzgibbons of having murdered Mrs. Sprague with a hatchet. Reverend and Mrs. Fitzgibbons never returned, leaving Sprague alone to mourn his dead wife. Fitzgibbons had been "'a big jovial Englishman of about fifty,'" according to Tyler, and his wife was "'waspish in both size and disposition.'" She had a phobia about filth and always masked her face in veils that hung from a bonnet whenever she left the mission compound. "'Her only traces of plumage,'" said Tyler, "'were her hair, which was a vivid carroty red, and a string of blue glass beads...'"

Soon after the Spragues arrived, Mrs. Fitzgibbons grew jealous and the wives began to feud. None of the servants saw Mrs. Sprague the day she died, and everyone thinks that Mrs. Fitzgibbons murdered Mrs. Sprague and covered up her crime by claiming that the woman had died of cholera. The corpse was nailed into a coffin and rapidly buried before anyone saw it. The Fitzgibbonses took off right away and never returned. A servant later found a roll of bloodstained bedclothes and a hatchet, but no one told Reverend Sprague.

"Murder in Szechwan" was first published here
A year later, the narrator receives a letter from Hank Tyler, who writes that Reverend Sprague contracted pneumonia in a flood and died. The river also flooded the cemetery, where Mrs. Sprague's coffin was unearthed and the lid battered off. Inside, they found "'some red hair and a string of blue beads...'"

"Murder in Szechwan" is a compact tale with a shocking ending. The key to the author's deception is the bonnet and veils worn by Mrs. Fitzgibbons; they hide her face and allow Mrs. Sprague to impersonate her and escape after murdering her. Reverend Sprague dies without learning the truth: his wife is alive and ran off with Reverend Fitzgibbons, and it was Mrs. Fitzgibbons's body in the grave by which he sat and mourned. The story of two couples is told by an oil prospector to an unnamed narrator, who then relates it to the reader, who is thus three levels removed from the actual events.

In the front of that issue of Collier's, there is a brief biography of the story's author:

"Robert Branson, a fiction newcomer to Collier's with the exciting Murder in Szechwan (sneeze, then yawn) . . . is 25, single, a Battle Creek Michigander. After graduating from Williams College, Branson served 27 months in India and China as a U.S.A.A.F. cryptographer. He was a staff sergeant. After the war, he inspected Latin America, paying special attention to bullfights for travel articles. Running out of money in Barranquilla, Branson worked his way for a time as fireman on a Standard Oil tanker, then returned to his Alma Mater as an English instructor. Last winter he decided to give the Orient a replay and went out to Manila for the United Press. Now he's back in Hyderabad as Bureau Manager."

Despite all of this information, I have been unable to find anything else out about Robert Branson. His short story was reprinted several times over the years, retitled either "The Red-Headed Murderess" or "A String of Blue Beads," but Branson does not seem to have published any more fiction and his fate is unknown.

Ed Begley as Brother Fitzgbbons
"Murder in Szechwan" was adapted by Arthur A. Ross for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and broadcast on NBC on Monday, December 14, 1964. The show itself is a triumph, with a lyrical script, great acting, fine photography, and an original musical score by Lyn Murray that has echoes of the Far East.

In adapting the story for television, Ross does a superb job of turning narrative into dialogue and action, removing the characters of the narrator and Hank Tyler and focusing instead on the events as they occur rather than having characters relate them after they happened.

As the show opens, Brother Thomas Fitzgibbons and his wife Mary wait by the side of the river for the boat to arrive that will bring Brother John Sprague and his wife Lucy. Mary wears a hat and a veil that completely covers her face. After the Spragues arrive and are taken to the medical clinic run by Thomas and Mary, we learn that Mary despises insects, which explains the veil. From the start, Mary casts jealous looks at Lucy; Mary is jumpy and agitated while Lucy is calm and confident. The first sign of Lucy's dissatisfaction comes in an exchange with Mary:

Mary (referring to John): "'He must be a good man. A very good human being.'"
Lucy: "'Perhaps too good.'"

That night, Thomas trims his mustache in front of a mirror and Mary criticizes his vanity. From her bed, she tells him "'I have loved you,'" and he stops what he is doing, taking this as an invitation, yet when he pulls back the mosquito netting from her bed she stops him, saying "'I don't know if I still do.'" His libido was inflamed by Lucy's arrival but his approach to his own wife is blocked. Mary tells Thomas that she suspects that the missionary society sent the Spragues to test their fitness to continue running the medical mission. He lets it slip that Lucy told him she does not like it there and Mary pounces, trying to cover up her jealousy by saying that she wants to protect him and his reputation. Mary tells Thomas that he is a fraud who would not hold up to scrutiny; instead of welcoming him into her bed, she emasculates him.

Jeanette Nolan as Mary
In the scene that follows, Lucy swims in the river like a carefree nymph. Thomas looks out a window and sees her, yelling at her to get out of the "'dangerous'" water and then ogling her in her bathing suit. Later, the two couples share dinner and Mary discusses the dangers that lurk in the area. They discuss local customs and fears but John is steadfast in his insistence that people are the same everywhere and share "'an overwhelming, abiding goodness.'" Mary comments that "'My husband and I have never had an argument,'" to which Lucy replies, "'Neither have we.'" The subtext is important here: one senses that Mary's comment is a lie, intended to jab Thomas and present a false front to the Spragues, while Lucy's is true yet subtly conveys disappointment in a lack of passion in her marriage to John.

John asks if he can accompany Mary to go marketing; Lucy offers to stay behind and Thomas is delighted. They begin to see native patients and she demonstrates her competence as a nurse while he is gruff and bossy. Mary rushes back into the mission just before she leaves with John and angrily tells Thomas that Lucy will see that he cannot handle patients without Mary at his side. Once again, Mary insists to her husband that the missionary society lied to them by concealing the fact that Lucy trained as a nurse. Mary continues to try to manipulate Thomas, framing her jealousy of Lucy as an attempt to protect their position and standing as medical missionaries.

Another day dawns and Mary announces that cholera has reached the northern villages. She tells Thomas that he can take supplies to those villages and she will stay behind. Lucy tells Thomas that he is too tired to go and Thomas suggests asking John to go in his place. John instantly agrees, glad to be of service and eager to help the sick villagers. Lucy confronts him as he is about to leave in the jeep, asking him if he would stay if she asked him to. He questions why she tests him and she replies, "'I want you to do whatever you want to do,'" yet she seems to want him to stay. He misses the implication and drives off. From behind her veil, Mary again confronts Lucy and Thomas intervenes.

Tom Simcox as Brother Sprague
That night, Lucy sits alone and ventures outside as Thomas and Mary sit in their bedroom, reading. There is a shout from outside and natives bring in a man whose leg has been mangled by a jungle cat. Mary bars Lucy from the treatment room and takes over the situation, telling Thomas that he is not qualified. He gazes out the window and sees Lucy walking alone. Mary brusquely orders Thomas to prepare instruments and wash the patient's wound; she is the doctor now and he is her assistant. After they are finished with the patient, Thomas says that they should ask the missionary society to send someone to take over. Mary tells him that the society sent the Spragues for that purpose and that the clinic, the only thing they have created together, is something she will not let go.

Thomas finishes cleaning up and walks outside, where he finds Lucy sitting in a boat on the river. She laments that her "'husband sees only the good in humankind--only the good.'" Lucy invites Thomas to take her for a rowboat ride and he complies; they ride and talk in the moonlight. She calls her husband "'a wonderful man'" whom she likes, respects, and honors: he is selfless toward her and she admits that "'I could never be equal to such a love.'" Thomas tells her that "'we enslave each other with our dispassionate loves, more than our passionate ones.'" Lucy seduces Thomas with her words and her looks and by the end of the ride he is telling her that, if he were her husband, he would praise her beauty and treat her as a woman. The implication is that Lucy is a creature of the world who is unhappy at being treated as a goddess by her husband.

This scene in particular is a highlight of "Triumph," with great writing, acting, camerawork, and music all working together to create a haunting mood.

Thomas returns home and tries to slip inside quietly, only to find Mary awake, watching, and angry. There is another great scene between husband and wife here, in which Mary is jealous and Thomas calm, understanding her at last: "'You hate her because she's young,'" he tells her. This is the last straw for Mary: later that night she awakens from sleep and checks to see if Thomas is sleeping. She takes a scalpel from her drawer where she had hidden it beneath a comb (hiding an instrument of violence beneath a tool of vanity). Thomas opens his eyes when she leaves the room, showing that he was awake the whole time. Mary creeps to Lucy's room and enters; there is a scream and Thomas bursts in. We see a figure fall on the bed and Thomas drops to his knees in prayer.

Maggie Pierce as Lucy
In the next scene, it is daytime and we see ashes and what remains of a fire outside. John returns from tending to the sick villagers in the north and Ramna, an Indian servant, tells him that Lucy died of cholera the previous day. John is suddenly overcome with emotion, rushing around and finding his wife's bed empty and the Fitzgibbonses gone. Ramna tells him that they left after Thomas buried Lucy's body in an unknown spot in the jungle. He explains that Lucy suddenly took ill and died and that the ashes smoldering on the ground outside the mission are all that remains of her bedding. Jarwahl, another servant, questions Ramna and quickly realizes that Lucy did not die of cholera.

Inside, John stares at his wife's photograph, distraught. He comes back outside and presses Ramna for details until it comes out that something other than death from cholera happened. John forces Ramna to take him deep into the jungle to find Lucy's grave. They locate it and John sends the servants away, using his bare hands to clear away the mound of dirt that covers the coffin. He pries the lid open and looks inside, covering his face in horror at what he sees, something not revealed to the viewer.

John takes Ramna in the jeep and drives to the airport, where he learns that no one has left in several days. He drives to the river landing to wait for Brother Fitzgibbons and Mary, who are coming by boat, since John was away with the jeep when they fled. John takes out his revolver and loads it with bullets, telling Ramna that "'Vengeance is a kind of justice ... biblical law ... triumph of good over evil.'" A boat approaches, carrying Thomas and a veiled woman. John calls out to Thomas and shoots the man as he stands up in the boat. Thomas and the woman fall out of the boat and John shoots the woman as well as she flounders in the water. He wades out to her body, turns it over, and we see that it is Lucy rather than Mary; John touches her face gently, having known the truth since he opened the coffin, and lets her fall back into the water as the show comes to an end. One recalls Thomas's warning to Lucy earlier in the episode that the water was a place of danger, a cautionary statement that proves true in a way he never expected: the danger came from supposedly civilized man, not from the jungle.

Than Wyenn as Ramna
"Triumph" is a hauntingly beautiful hour of television whose title can be interpreted a number of ways. John Sprague mentions the triumph of good over evil as he discusses the nature of vengeance, reflecting an Old Testament view of justice that replaces the more forgiving view he displayed prior to his wife's betrayal. Each of the main characters may be said to have a triumph of one sort or another: Thomas triumphs by exchanging his old, bitter wife for the young, beautiful Lucy; Mary triumphs over her husband in their relationship at the missionary medical clinic; Lucy triumphs over her own disappointment in her marriage by running off with Thomas. Yet, by the end, none of them has triumphed and all their lives are in shambles.

The location, so carefully depicted in the short story as Hsingping in Szechwan, is unclear in the TV show. The two servants, Ramna and Jarwahl, are Indian, suggesting that the story takes place in an Indian jungle. The patients who come to the clinic appear vaguely Asian, though more Filipino than Chinese. Lyn Murray's score strikes decidedly Chinese notes. Fortunately, the vagueness of the setting does not distract from the power of the story.

Branson's short story uses colors in an important way, telling us that Mrs. Fitzgibbons has red hair and wears blue beads and then using those two colorful items to identify her as the corpse in the coffin. In a black and white TV show, this storytelling trick is unavailable, so Arthur Ross has to use other methods to keep the truth from the viewer until the very end, when the camera focuses on Lucy's beautiful face and we realize what has happened.

Ross's script dramatizes the events of the short story and greatly expands upon them, using the characters to explore the psychology of two married couples. Thomas lusts after the newly arrived young woman, while his wife berates him for his incompetence and vainly tries to hold on to their place in the world. John is so good and unselfish that he is blind to his wife's unhappiness, while she realizes that he is a better person than she and targets the older man in her plan to escape a situation she finds unbearable.

Tony Scott as Jarwahl
Harvey Hart (1928-1989), the show's director, tells the story clearly and creates a mood that is at once romantic and stifling, the heat and humidity of the jungle hanging over the characters, trapping them in their unhappy situations. A Canadian by birth, Hart worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Company from 1952 to 1963 before moving to the U.S. and working in Hollywood. He directed, mostly for TV, from 1949 to 1989 and this was one of five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour where he was behind the camera. Another was the classic episode, "Death Scene."

Starring as Brother Thomas Fitzgibbons is Ed Begley (1901-1970), who was on Broadway starting in his teens before working in radio, film, and television. He was on screen from 1946 to 1970 and appeared in classic films such as Patterns (1956) and Twelve Angry Men (1957). In 1963, he won an Academy Award for his role in the film version of the Tennessee Williams play, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). "Triumph" was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Able to go toe to toe with Begley is Jeanette Nolan (1911-1998) as his wife, Mary. She started out on stage and was a busy radio actress in the 1930s and 1940s. She appeared in films from 1948 to 1998 and on TV from 1953 to 1990. Among her many film roles were parts in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) and Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), as one of the actresses voicing Mrs. Bates; she was also on classic TV shows such as Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery. This was one of her five appearances on the Hitchcock show, including "Coming Home," and in "Triumph" her magnificent voice is used effectively, especially in the scenes where she berates her husband or speaks from behind her veil.

Gorgeous Maggie Pierce (1931-2010) embodies the part of Lucy Sprague, a woman who was called "luscious" in the short story. She had a short career on TV and film from 1959 to 1967, appearing in three episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Faith of Aaron Menefee." She was a regular on the TV series, My Mother, the Car (1966-1967), and appears to have given up her career in 1967 to marry the wealthy Jerome Minskoff who, among other things, had a Broadway theater named after his family.

Tom Simcox (1937- ) plays Brother John Sprague, going from saintly in the first half of the show to distraught in the second. His work was mostly on television from 1962 to 1991 and he also appeared in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode, "Night Fever," as a handsome criminal who manipulates a lonely nurse.

In smaller roles:
  • Than Wyenn (1919-2015) as Ramna; he often played Indians in a screen career that lasted from 1949 to 1985 and included three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as appearances on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Night Gallery.
  • Tony Scott (1922-2004) as Jarwahl; he had a handful of credits from 1961 to 1987 and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.
Read "Murder in Szechwan" online here. Unfortunately, "Triumph" is not currently available on U.S. DVD or online, but when it runs on television I recommend trying to catch it.

Branson, Robert. “Murder in Szechwan.” Collier's, 9 Oct. 1948, pp. 29, 40.
The FictionMags Index,
Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen - The Private Lives and Times of Some of the Most Glamorous Actresses and Starlets of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties., www.glamourgirlsofthesilverscreen. com.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Shane, Ted. “The Week's Work.” Collier's, 9 Oct. 1948, p. 10.
“Triumph.” The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 10, episode 9, NBC, 14 Dec. 1964.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: Thanatos Palace Hotel, starring Angie Dickinson!


Bedhead said...

Robert Branson never published any more fiction because he died fairly young. He landed as a congressional correspondent in Washington DC and died of heart failure at the age of only 44. He is buried in a large family plot in Battle Creek, Michigan, close to his mother (who died when Branson was a small child) and his father, stepmother, and sister.

Bedhead said...

By the way, these blog entries are both edifying and well-written! Enjoying them all very much!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks very much for the information on Robert Branson and for your kind comments! Thanks for reading! If you have any other information about the author, please share it.

Bedhead said...

Oddly enough, this very episode is airing tonight. I think Robert Branson wants to be remembered! I did find an obituary in the 1965 Lansing State Journal (Branson was a celebrated political journalist when he passed away, so his death would have been covered in the Michigan capital city's news), but I can't read it without a subscription to

Ned said...

I watched it last night. Excellent explanation. I was not sure what happened until I read this article. Thank you

Jack Seabrook said...

Thank you both!