Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-Arthur A. Ross Part Six: Thanatos Palace Hotel [10.15]

by Jack Seabrook

French author Andre Maurois (1885-1967) was born Emile Salomon Wilhelm Herzog. He joined the French Army during WWI and published his first book in 1918. He went on to write many books and stories under the pseudonym Andre Maurois and he was elected to the Academie francaise in 1938 before serving in the French Army once again during WWII. He legally changed his name to Andre Maurois in 1947, choosing to be known officially by the name under which he had become famous.

One of the places his writing was published was the Parisian literary newspaper Candide, which was published on a weekly basis between 1924 and 1944. A story by Maurois entitled "Thanatos Palace Hotel" was published on the paper's front page in the issue dated December 16, 1937. It appears that the story was first published in English in the February 1952 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as "Suicide Hotel"; the editor's note in the digest credits Ernest Rubin of Arlington, Virginia, with bringing the story to their attention and "supplying the original text."

As the story begins, Jean Monnier, a young, French stockbroker working in New York City, is upset to learn that a stock in which he invested heavily has sustained significant losses. His troubles mount when he goes home and his wife leaves him. He receives a letter from the Thanatos Palace Hotel in New Mexico, whose director, Henry Boerstecher, writes that they offer to satisfy their customer's desire to commit suicide at a reasonable rate and without pain or difficulty. He even promises to "eliminate all moral responsibility" for those "who would be troubled by legitimate religious scruples" by using an "ingenious method." The service costs but $300.

"Thanatos Palace Hotel"
was first published here
Monnier takes the long train trip to Deeming, New Mexico, on the border with Mexico, and checks into the hotel. He fills out some forms and meets Boerstecher, the manager, who explains that the hotel's location in the lawless borderlands prevents any problem with the authorities. Monnier mentions that he was "'brought up in the church'" and Boerstecher assures him that there will be "'no question of suicide...'"

That evening, at dinner, Monnier is seated next to Clara Kirby-Shaw, a pretty young woman who shares the sad tale that brought her to the same hotel. She encourages him to look on the bright side and, the next morning, he thinks: "How great to be alive!" They spend a happy day together and, by its end, they are "locked in each other's arms." That evening, Monnier tells Boerstecher that he has changed his mind about wanting to die and plans to leave the next day with Clara.

Boerstecher agrees to refund part of the $300 fee and, as soon as Monnier leaves his office, orders his subordinate to "'supply the gas'" to Monnier's room later that night. Clara arrives and accepts compliments on a "'job well done,'" along with $20. She leaves the office and Boerstecher "crossed a name from his ledger."

In Greek mythology, Thanatos was the personification of death so, in the short story by Maurois, the Thanatos Palace Hotel is a place of lies and murder, masquerading as a place that fulfills the desires of those in despair. Another French writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote that Hell is other people, and in "Thanatos Palace Hotel" one can find ample evidence to support that premise. Boerstecher, the hotel manager, plays God, replacing the god that Monnier claims to believe in with a more vengeful god, one who plays with the guest's emotions before having him killed.

Clara Kirby-Shaw may be cruelest of all, though, since she pretends to fall in love with a despairing man for a fee and she seems to do this repeatedly as part of her job. It seems clear that the loss of a woman (his wife) was what drove Monnier to thoughts of suicide, and it is the promise of new love with Clara that restores his sense of hope. This illusion of love turns out to be worth only twenty dollars in the end. The story's conclusion is bleak; Monnier is happy because he believes in a falsehood and will now be killed at his peak moment of happiness. Boerstecher does not seem to think he is committing an evil act, however, and believes that the murder of Monnier is simply a matter of providing a service that was bought and paid for. Monnier's religious misgivings require special handling by the hotel manager, who takes steps to ensure that his client will not die thinking that he is committing suicide.

Angie Dickinson as Ariane Shaw
In his book on Andre Maurois, Jack Kolbert calls "Thanatos Palace Hotel" "one of his most powerful works ... a ludicrous tale situated in a strangely convincing setting ..."  Arthur A. Ross adapted the short story for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the episode was broadcast on NBC on Monday, February 1, 1965. To anyone familiar with the short story, the TV show contains many surprises.

It begins as the camera pans up the side of a tall city building; a sign on the ground level appears to say "Securities," which is consistent with the story's beginning in a New York City office dealing in stocks. A man stands on a ledge high above the street with a crowd observing from below; we see one well-dressed man in particular looking up attentively. The distraught man on the ledge jumps and is saved by a safety net held by firemen. The well-dressed man looks on as the jumper is taken away in an ambulance. The entire sequence is staged without dialogue and establishes the main character as suicidal, suggesting financial ruin as the cause and introducing the mysterious observer. This replaces the first scene of the short story, where Monnier learns of his misfortune while at the office. There is no indication that he has a wife, so the loss of love is not presented as a motivating factor for his attempt at suicide.

In the next scene, we learn that the jumper's name is Robert Manners, and he sits alone in his suburban home, looking out the window plaintively. The well-dressed man from the crowd lets himself into Manners's house and identifies himself as J. Smith of the Thanatos Palace Hotel. He makes the sales pitch for the hotel in person and this scene replaces the letter from the hotel manager that is featured in the story. Manners is unreceptive and doubts Smith's sincerity; the price for the hotel's service has risen since the story was written in the 1930s and now stands at $1000. Bartlett Robinson plays Smith and is wonderfully smooth as he makes his pitch; Steven Hill as Manners underplays his role here and throughout the episode, seeming mired in depression.

Steven Hill as Robert Manners
We next see Manners arrive at the hotel by car as three men dressed in black ride alongside the vehicle on horseback. Their black cowboy outfits and the suspenseful music on the soundtrack suggest that they are menacing figures, but no comparable characters appear in the short story. The hotel itself is nondescript and resembles a motel in the American Southwest. Manners immediately sees a beautiful woman sitting outside, paining a picture; romantic music plays on the soundtrack and there is a sense that she will be his love interest.

Borchter introduces himself as the hotel's general manager and he, like the riders, is dressed in Western wear. The detailed scene-setting in the short story is replaced by visual clues to the hotel's location, though no specific town or state is ever mentioned. Also gone is the story's discussion of Monnier's religious scruples; here, Manners is reassured by Borchter that he will be killed in his sleep and that he will be able to sleep once he is relaxed.

The scene shifts to Manners and the beautiful woman, Ariane Shaw, at dinner together in the hotel. The music is romantic and there is a white tablecloth and candles, so it is immediately apparent that the two are being set up to become romantically involved with each other. Manners asks Shaw whose chair he has taken and they discuss the process followed at the hotel. She has been there six months and admits that she is among several guests who have extended their stay by working in exchange for room and board. This is a major change from the short story, since Manners realizes immediately that Shaw is an employee and that he is not her first boyfriend at the hotel. The surprise ending of the story is no longer possible, forcing Arthur A. Ross to take the events in a much different direction.

Barry Atwater as Borchter
Manners argues that Shaw must not want to die because she has been at the hotel for six months. After he departs, Shaw tells Borchter that Manners will "'be ready in three days at the most'" and asks him, "'Have I ever failed you before?'" She appears to be scared of the manager, who is presented as a menacing figure.

Later, Manners and Shaw walk away from the hotel together but are prevented from going too far by the black-garbed riders, who demand a pass to allow the couple to walk in the hills that surround the compound. Physical escape is prevented and Manners tells Shaw that they are prisoners. Manners probes Shaw, asking if she is "'the one they've sent to kill me,'" but she denies it, insisting that she has played that role before but he is different. She tells Manners that "'You could be my will to live.'" In the TV show, as opposed to the short story, Manners and the viewer know that Shaw is a hotel employee whose job is to be a companion to men awaiting death; the mystery in the TV version comes from the question of whether she will help Shaw escape or ensure his demise.

Borchter meets with Shaw and says he cannot wait too long for Manners to die. Shaw denies a personal attachment to the new guest and says that she needs another day. Borchter insists that he has never forced anyone to do anything. Shaw mentions that Manners likes horseback riding and Borchter writes her a pass to explore the nearby hills, noting that Manners's room is reserved for another guest the day after tomorrow.

Manners and Shaw use their pass and ride on horseback into the hills. Borchter sends the riders out after them. Meanwhile, Shaw and Manners dismount and she makes a speech about how she has bought more time for herself by agreeing to be a companion to many men. She tells Manners that he is the first man to bring her happiness. They ride off again, not knowing that the riders are in pursuit. The episode drags a bit here, as suspenseful music is used to try to enliven what appear to be filler shots of people riding around on horseback. Ostensibly, Manners plans to escape, but this never seems likely, since he and Shaw are outnumbered and stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Bartlett Robinson as J. Smith
Shaw tells Manners that no one can escape because, if they did, they would publicize what happens at the Thanatos Palace Hotel and threaten its survival. She says that Borchter may try to kill him that night with lethal gas piped through the vents in his bedroom. The scene then shifts to Manners being examined by a doctor for pain in his rib area from when he wheeled his horse. The doctor puts wide strips of tape over his ribs and prescribes a sedative. That night, Manners is alone in his room and uses the tape to cover the air vents in the baseboard. He pretends to swallow the sedative when a nurse brings it to him.

Next morning, a maid strips the sheets from the bed and Borchter enters and removes the tape from the vents. He tells Manners that he did not need to cover them: "'If you'd let me know you were so unresolved, I would never have given the instructions,'" says the hotel manager. Unlike Boerstecher, the manager's counterpart in the short story, whose actions are always consistent, Borchter in the TV version is duplicitous: he presents one face to the guests while working behind the scenes to ensure turnover.

Manners approaches Shaw with a new escape plan, asking her to gather the other guests who have been there a long time so they can all pretend to go on a picnic and then overpower the guards. After Shaw speaks to some of the other guests, there is a cut to a group of hotel residents heading off on horseback with Borchter's approval. The group reaches a clearing and they all dismount. Manners is shocked to learn that no one else wants to escape the Thanatos Palace Hotel: Shaw claims that she could not tell anyone the real reason he wanted them to come along. Manners confronts the group and the other guests are angry at him. They still want to die and are outraged that he would presume otherwise. He appeals to Shaw to escape with him, when suddenly a noose is thrown around his neck and he is hoisted up over a tree limb by a guard on horseback. Borchter rides up and tells Shaw that this is what Manners really wanted. We see the lower legs and feet of the hanged man as the rest of the people depart on horseback; at the start of the episode, our first view of Manners was also of his lower legs, as he stood on the building ledge about to jump.

The end of Robert Manners!
In adapting the short story for the small screen, Arthur A. Ross expands it greatly while still keeping the basic framework intact. The story seems too slight to justify the hour length, however, and some scenes feel like filler, while the decision to remove the short story's surprise ending and replace it with the question of whether Shaw is sincere when she tells Manners that she sees him differently than the others is less effective than the unexpected betrayal at the end of the original story. The number of scenes involving horses suggests that the TV version was crafted to capitalize on the popularity of Westerns at the time, but it seems somewhat forced in the context of this story.

"Thanatos Palace Hotel" was directed by Laslo Benedek (1905-1992), the Hungarian-born director who also directed "The Evil of Adelaide Winters," which also featured a teleplay by Arthur A. Ross. Benedek started his film career in Germany in the late 1920s but fled when the Nazis took over in the early 1930s and eventually made his way to Hollywood. He worked his way up through the ranks and was a director from 1944 to 1977, moving into TV in 1953. His films included Death of a Salesman (1951) and The Wild One (1953), and he directed episodes of Thriller and The Outer Limits. Later in life, he taught in college film programs.

Starring as Ariane Shaw is Angie Dickinson (1931- ), whose fame meant that she received top billing over the main character. Born Angeline Brown, she acted in film and on TV from 1954 to 2009 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This is one of two Alfred Hitchcock Hours in which she appeared. She was featured in Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959) and she starred in the TV series Police Woman from 1974 to 1978.

Steven Hill (1922-2016) plays Robert Manners. Born Solomon Krakovsky (or Berg), he was trained at the Actors Studio and was on screen from 1949 to 2000. He was in two other episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Enough Rope for Two," and starred in the first season of Mission: Impossible (1966-1967). He is best-remembered today for his starring role on the TV series Law and Order from 1990 to 2000. In "Thanatos Palace Hotel," Hill underplays his role and never shows a change in personality, unlike the character in the short story who goes from depressed to happy. Presumably, Hill's character is trying to conceal his real emotions from Borchter, but the decision to play his scenes in a monotone, staring off into space, removes any passion the character might have had. He never seems like a man who has decided to cherish life enough to attempt escape.

Is this Henry Willis, famous stuntman?
More successful is Barry Atwater (1918-1978), here credited as G.B. Atwater, who plays Borchter as a menacing figure. Born Garrett Atwater, he was on screen from 1954 to 1978 and appeared in all of the major science fiction and fantasy shows, including The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and Night Gallery. He was seen on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twice. His most memorable role is that of the vampire in the TV movie, The Night Stalker (1972).

Bartlett Robinson (1912-1986) is memorable in his brief appearance as Mr. J. Smith. He was on radio from the 1930s and was one of the voices of Perry Mason; he started acting on TV in 1949 and on film in 1956. He did a large amount of TV work until 1982 and was seen on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. He made 11 appearances on the Hitchcock show, including "Bad Actor."

The rest of the cast is made up of bit players who do not make much of an impression in the episode. Most notable is Henry Willis (1921-1994), billed as First Cowboy, who was a busy stuntman in Hollywood for decades, mostly in Westerns. I suspect he does much of the riding in this episode and he probably doubles for Steven Hill in the first scene, when Manners falls from the tall office building and lands in the fireman's net.

Though The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was the first to dramatize "Thanatos Palace Hotel," it was far from the last. An Internet search reveals the following other adaptations:
  • a 1969 West German version called "Palace Hotel," running 70 minutes
  • a 1973 French TV movie running 60 minutes
  • another French TV version that aired November 14, 1979, on Cinema 16
  • a 1985 Mexican version called "Thanatos" that ran 17 minutes
  • a 2006 version from the former Soviet republic of Georgia that ran 37 minutes
  • either one or two Australian versions that are listed as "in production"; one may run 16 minutes and one may be called Last Chance Hotel
Quite a long life for a short story from a French weekly newspaper in 1937!

Read the original French version here or read an English translation here, and watch the Hitchcock version online here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a scan of the editor's note from EQMM!

The FictionMags Index,
Kolbert, Jack. The Worlds of André Maurois. Susquehanna University Press, 1985.
Maurois, Andre. “Thanatos Palace Hotel.” Great Short Tales of Mystery and Terror, Reader's Digest Association, 1982, pp. 346–359.
Maurois, Andre. “Thanatos-Palace Hotel.” Candide, 16 Dec. 1937.
Queen, Ellery. “Editor's Note (Suicide Hotel).” Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Feb. 1952.
“Thanatos Palace Hotel.” The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 10, episode 15, NBC, 1 Feb. 1965.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: Our series on Arthur A. Ross comes to an end with "Wally the Beard," starring Larry Blyden!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma's latest Hitchcock podcast as he reviews the first-season episode, "The Cheney Vase" here!


Todd Mason said...

Jack--is there a translator credit on the story as published in EQMM?

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't think there's anything more than what I quoted, but I'll ask Peter to double check.

Jack Seabrook said...

Peter confirmed that the EQMM story does not credit a translator, so we can assume Ernest Rubin did it. The Reader's Digest book credits Adrienne Foulke as traslator. The EQMM translation looks to be more word for word, judging by a quick glance at the story's opening.

Jac said...

Kurt Vonnegut wrote of "Ethical Suicide Parlors", as far as I can gather first published in 1968, well after this episode and it's original short story. Seems obvious they were both an influence, if not outright crib notes for Vonnegut.

Jac said...

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jac. That's an interesting observation. It looks like Vonnegut wrote his story in 1967, so it's entirely possible he either read the story or saw the show and it stuck in his head. Vonnegut is one of my all-time favorite writers.