Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Stirling Silliphant Part Four: The Perfect Crime [3.3]

by Jack Seabrook

The sixth episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to air with a teleplay by Stirling Silliphant was "The Perfect Crime." Directed by Hitchcock himself, who had not made a feature film since The Wrong Man (1956) but who was about to start filming Vertigo, this episode was rehearsed and filmed from July 17, 1957, through July 19, 1957, and broadcast on CBS on Sunday, October 20, 1957. The teleplay was based on a short story of the same name by Ben Ray Redman that was first published in the August 1928 issue of Harper's.

The story begins as Dr. Harrison Trevor, "the world's greatest detective," chats with his old acquaintance, defense lawyer Gregory Hare, about the concept of the perfect crime. Hare brings up the case of Harrington, who was recently executed for murder. Trevor imagines committing the perfect crime himself, forgetting every detail, and then solving it. He reasons that the perfect crime would have to be murder, carefully premeditated and "'performed in absolutely cold blood.'" It would work best if the motive were known to no one but the murderer, who could focus on getting rid of the body.

"The Perfect Crime" was
first published here
Hare once again brings up the Harrington case, which Trevor solved, and listens carefully as the detective explains his solution in detail. The attorney reveals that Trevor "'helped to execute the wrong man'" and explains that Harrington's lover, Alice West, murdered her husband and Harrington went to his death to protect her. Hare explains how Trevor erred in his deduction, but Trevor insists that his "'reputation does not permit of mistakes.'" Hare promises to tell no one but Trevor comes up behind him and knocks him out with a chloroform pad over his mouth and nose. Trevor murders Hare and disposes of the body so that he is never suspected and Hare is thought to have disappeared mysteriously.

Redman's story builds Trevor up as a colossal egotist who compares detection to art criticism and who has no friends, only acquaintances. He lives alone, a wealthy bachelor in a large house in midtown Manhattan, and his only thought when confronted with the fact that he was instrumental in the execution of an innocent man is to conceal the truth to protect his reputation. He imagines the perfect crime and then carries it out, though his insistence that it must be planned in advance and done in cold blood turns out not to be the case, since his murder of Hare must be considered a crime of passion.

Vincent Price as Courtney
"The Perfect Crime" was quickly recognized as a classic. It was reprinted in a ten-volume set of The World's Best 100 Detective Stories in 1929, in 101 Years' Entertainment; The Great Detective Stories, 1841-1941, edited by Ellery Queen, in 1946, and again in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in July 1951. When Stirling Silliphant adapted it for television, however, he decided to make a significant change to the story's conclusion, much as he had done with his adaptation of "A Bottle of Wine."

The TV version opens with a closeup of a trophy cabinet that displays various items and labels with names and dates. The earliest is from 1901 and the most recent is from 1912; we see Charles Courtney (as Trevor has been renamed) placing a small gun on the trophy shelf with the label, "Harrington 1912." This establishes the date of the events as 1912, though the short story on which it was based seems to take place around the time of its publication in 1928. Hitchcock sets his camera low, looking up at the characters, as John Gregory (Hare's new name) arrives unannounced shortly after 11 PM. Unlike the story, where the two men were acquainted, Courtney and Gregory do not know each other, although they know of each other.

James Gregory as Gregory
At first, the camera looks up at Courtney and down at Gregory, suggesting that Courtney is the dominant man in the relationship. When Courtney sits, the camera looks up at both men, who now converse on an equal level. In the trophy case is an empty space with a blank label; Courtney tells Gregory the space is reserved for a souvenir of the perfect crime. The scene is beautifully lit, with shadows playing around the characters as they chat.

As Courtney explains how he solved the Harrington case, there is a dissolve to a flashback, and Hitchcock has Courtney narrate the events as we watch them play out on screen in silent movie fashion; we see a housekeeper find a body and then Courtney examining the scene of the crime. Back in the present, Courtney continues to explain to Gregory how he solved the case. The camera follows Courtney as he paces around the room, occasionally cutting back to Gregory, who remains seated in a chair. Act one ends with Gregory telling Courtney that he helped send the wrong man to the electric chair; Courtney rises up from his own chair and his face fills the screen as it fades to black.

Mark Dana and Marianne Stewart
as Harrington and Alice West
Act two begins with Gregory explaining what really happened; now he stands up and the two men are once again on equal footing. There is a dissolve to a second flashback, this time narrated by Gregory and again played like a silent film, with his narration matching the words he and Alice West pantomime saying on screen. As the story returns to the present, Gregory provides Courtney with the proof of his argument, insults his host, and there is a third flashback. Once again a silent film with narration, this time we see Alice West shoot her husband and Harrington cover up the evidence of her crime.

Back in the present again, Hitchcock uses a two-shot to show Gregory as he completes his explanation and Courtney glares at him. As Gregory moves closer to Courtney, the camera moves in until the two men fill the screen. There is a closeup of Gregory;s face and, suddenly, Courtney's arm closes around his neck and chokes him as the screen fades to black.

Behind the scenes hijinks
There is a fade-in on Courtney being photographed in front of his trophy case. He has been gone almost two years and he shows two reporters and the photographer an adjoining room where he does ceramics. We see through the doorway into the room, which is dominated by a large oven, and Courtney is called back to the trophy case by a reporter who asks about a vase that now fills the formerly empty space reserved for a souvenir of the perfect crime. Courtney calls the vase an experiment and says he "'used a rather special kind of clay.'" There are three quick cuts showing three different angles of the vase and the episode ends with the implication that Courtney killed Gregory and used his corpse to make the piece of pottery.

The ending seems bizarre and tacked on, coming without warning and not fitting the rest of the show. Why Silliphant felt the need to add this conclusion to a well-known and well-respected short story is unknown; perhaps by season three of Alfred Hitchcock Presents there was thought to be a need for a surprising twist ending; in this case, it seems unnecessary, though Hitchcock's decision to increase the shock of Courtney's implication with three quick cuts is interesting.

Ben Ray Redman (1896-1961) was a journalist who also wrote short stories, novels, poetry, and comedy, as well as translating French classics. He worked on the production staff at Universal Pictures for a time and had two mystery novels published under the pseudonym, Jeremy Lord. Though he wrote short stories for over 30 years, from 1920 to 1955, "The Perfect Crime" was the only one adapted for TV or film, and the version on Alfred Hitchcock Presents was its only appearance on screen. Redman committed suicide in 1961 after growing despondent over world affairs.

Starring as Charles Courtney, the great detective, is Vincent Price (1911-1993), who surely needs no introduction. He started on stage in 1934 and began appearing in film in 1938. His many great films included Laura (1944), House of Wax (1953), a series of films directed by Roger Corman in the 1960s, two Dr. Phibes films in the 1970s, and Edward Scissorhands (1990). He began to appear on TV in 1951 after many great roles on Old Time Radio in the 1930s and 1940s, and his television roles included parts on Batman (as Egghead), Night Gallery, and Michael Jackson's video for "Thriller." "The Perfect Crime" was his sole appearance on the Hitchcock show. Price later recalled that Hitchcock's only direction to his actors was to go "'faster'" and he commented that Hitchcock appeared to be asleep in his chair during the filming.

James Gregory (1911-2002) co-stars as John Gregory, the defense attorney. He started on Broadway in 1939 and served in the Navy during WWII. He appeared in films from 1948 to 1979, including Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), and was very busy on television from 1950 to 1986, including roles on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Star Trek, Night Gallery, The Night Stalker, and Barney Miller, where he was a semi-regular from 1975 to 1982. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "The Cream of the Jest."

The rest of the actors in this episode all have very small parts:
  • Gavin Gordon (1901-1983) as Ernest West, who is murdered by his wife in a silent flashback; he was on screen from 1929 to 1968 and appeared in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). He was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Crack of Doom."
Gavin Gordon
  • Marianne Stewart (1922-1992) as Alice West, the murderer; she was onscreen from 1940 to 1965 and this was her only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Mark Dana (1920-2015) as Harrington, whom we see covering up Alice West's footprints after the murder; he was on screen from 1953 to 1993 and he was also seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in "The Big Switch."
  • Charles Webster (1906-1983) as the older reporter at the end; he was on screen from 1949 to 1966 and this was his only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • John Zaremba (1908-1986) as the photographer at the end; a reporter-turned-actor, he was on screen from 1944 to 1986. He was a regular on I Led Three Lives (1955-1956) and appeared on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Batman. This was the first of his 11 appearances on the Hitchcock show; he was also in "The Kind Waitress."
John Zaremba
  • Nick Nicholson (1918-1993) as the younger reporter at the end; he was on TV from 1957 to 1965 and this was his only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He played Corny Cob and Clarabelle the Clown on The Howdy Doody Show and later created The Newlywed Game.
Nick Nicholson
  • Therese Lyon (1887-1975) as the housekeeper who discovers West's body; she was on screen from 1945 to 1962 and appeared on The Twilight Zone. This was her only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Therese Lyon

Read "The Perfect Crime" for free online here. Order the DVD here or watch it for free online here. Read the Genre Snaps review of this episode here.

"Biographical Notes." The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 810.
The FictionMags Index,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: a Life in Darkness and Light. Regan Books, 2003.
"The Perfect Crime (1957): Alfred Hitchcock Presents... Vincent Price!" The Sound of Vincent Price, 20 Oct. 2017,
"The Perfect Crime." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 3, CBS, 20 Oct. 1957.
Redman, Ben Ray. "The Perfect Crime." The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, Houghton Mifflin, 2000, pp. 162–177.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

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