Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Harold Swanton Part One: Premonition [1.2]

by Jack Seabrook

Harold Swanton was born in 1915 and began his career as a playwright; he won what was likely a small cash award from ASCAP and went on to write many radio plays. He also wrote film scripts from the late 1940s to the late 1960s and many teleplays from the early 1950s until 1980. He won an Edgar Award in 1958 for Best Episode in a TV Series for his script for "Mechanical Manhunt" on The Alcoa Hour, and he wrote eleven teleplays for the Hitchcock series, including "Anniversary Gift." He died in 1997 in Los Angeles.

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John Forsythe as Kim Stanger
Swanton's first teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "Premonition," the second episode of the series to be broadcast. It was directed by Robert Stevens, who would go on to direct a total of 49 episodes over the next ten years. This episode stars John Forsythe, who was also starring in Hitchcock's new film, The Trouble with Harry. That film opened on September 30, 1955, nine days before "Premonition" aired on CBS on Sunday, October 9, 1955. Hitchcock had chosen "Revenge" as the series premiere in order to promote Vera Miles; one may assume that "Premonition" followed in order to promote John Forsythe.

Warren Stevens as Perry Stanger
Harold Swanton's background in radio is evident from the first scene, which features an airplane flying and landing accompanied by voice over narration. The speaker is Kim Stanger, who explains that a sudden hunch led him to return home. A taxi driver drops him off and appears to know him, calling him by name; Stanger looks contentedly around his hometown of Stangerford (presumably named after his family), having just returned home after a four-year absence. He thinks that nothing has changed but he will soon learn that this is not the case.

An older man named Doug Irwin approaches Kim, who says that he has been studying music at the Sorbonne in Paris for two years after spending the two years before that in Rome. Carrying only a toothbrush, he has returned home due to homesickness and a desire to see his father, asking Irwin if the man still hates him. Doug recommends going to his office and phoning his family first, but Kim insists on going straight home.

Cloris Leachman as Susan Stanger
The narration resumes as Kim explains that he felt a premonition in Paris, a sense of dread that led him home. He enters the large family mansion and observes an enormous portrait of his father hanging above the fireplace, then takes a rifle down from a rack on the wall and examines it. Later, he sits down to play piano. His sister-in-law Susan (Doug Irwin's daughter) enters and seems nervous and surprised to see him. Kim complains that his father wants him to choose between family and music and he comments that the rifle is rusty, a detail his father would never have overlooked. He begins to refer to his father as Greg at this point, suggesting an unusual level of familiarity.

George MacReady as Doug Irwin
Kim's brother Perry enters; he is also Susan's husband and he breaks the news to Kim that his father died of a heart attack on the tennis court four years ago on October 10th. Kim complains that no one told him and he is unhappy to learn that his father changed his will and left everything to Perry; Kim is angry that Perry has not only inherited the family fortune but also married Susan, who had been Kim's girlfriend. Refusing Susan's offer of dinner, Kim prefers to be left alone. The voice over narration resumes as he finds a hunting license dated October 11th, four years before, in his father's handwriting and realizes that Greg could not have died on October 10th, as Perry claimed.

Percy Helton as Gerald Eaton
Kim visits Doug, who is a lawyer, at his office and confronts him with the discrepancy in dates. Doug explains that Perry was confused and that Greg actually died on October 12th. Kim presses for details of the hunting trip and demands to know who killed his father. He visits the offices of Ravenswood Memorial Park and interrogates Gerald Eaton, the undertaker, demanding that he open the family crypt to let Kim examine the body. Kim attacks Eaton, who admits that they held services over an empty coffin and that there's no body in his father's grave!

Perry walks in just as Eaton reveals that he was asked to send flowers to an address in Sheridan Falls, Maine. Kim knows the place and Perry asks him to come home instead of going to Maine. We next see Kim interviewing the Sheridan Falls coroner, Isaiah Dobbs, who Kim also threatens. Dobbs claims that Greg got sick during the hunting trip and was flown home on his private plane; he tells Kim that Greg, Doug, and Greg's son went into the woods but only Doug and the son came out.

Harry Tyler as Isaiah Dobbs
Kim next walks 13 miles along a trail to Tamarack Lake, where Greg was killed. Voice over narration continues, as Kim explains his thoughts and actions, finally reaching his father's cabin by the lake. As he explores the interior, Susan rushes in to say that she has been waiting for Kim since noon; Doug's plane is by the lake and she wants her brother-in-law to come home. Kim insists on knowing the truth and she finally reveals that he was not in Paris but rather in a hospital in Arizona. He was never in Europe and in fact ran away from the hospital to return home. After Greg died, Perry, Susan, and Doug fixed things to make it look like a natural death. They bribed the undertaker and Doug, the lawyer, helped with the death certificate.

No one else knows the truth, but it's worse than he thinks: Kim is the one who killed his father, due to an accident with his loaded rifle following an argument. Kim fell apart after that and he takes the news stoically, remarking that he had a premonition.

"Premonition" is a short film noir with Kim Stanger in the role of a detective investigating the mystery of his own father's death. He does not know it at first, though, since he is drawn back to his hometown by a hunch and believes his father is still alive. At first, he seeks his father. His family members react oddly, as if hiding the truth, and when he learns that his father is dead, he quickly realizes that their stories don't add up. He then changes his quest, from seeking to reconcile with his father to seeking the truth about the man's death.

A deep focus shot
Like a tough detective in a noir film, Stanger bullies people and threatens them to get the answers he seeks. After learning fragments of the truth from the undertaker, he must travel to find a misplaced clue in the woods of Maine, where he learns more from the coroner. The truth is finally revealed near the scene of the crime by a woman involved in the cover-up: Kim's former girlfriend, now his sister-in-law. He discovers that the killer he seeks is himself.

"Premonition" is a story of privilege and what money and power can buy. The Stangers are a rich family with a private plane, a mansion, and a hunting lodge--the town they live in is named Stangerford, so their family may have lived there long enough to have founded it. They have the money and power to hide and alter the truth of the death of an influential man and none of them seems troubled by this fact. Instead, their main concern seems to be to keep it quiet and to protect the killer, since he's one of the family.

Looking out from inside the fireplace
And what of non-family members? The working professionals in Stangerford and Sheridan Falls are there to be bribed and physically attacked. Susan admits that they bribed the undertaker and Kim physically assaults him and the coroner until they tell him what they know. Seen today, "Premonition" is an indictment of the behavior of the rich. Was Greg's death an accident? Kim remarks that he and his father clashed over Kim's desire to follow a non-traditional career path in music. His premonition led him to seek a truth that probably would have been better if it had remained hidden, at least from the perspective of the Stangers and the Irwins. In the end, the tale of Kim Stanger is one of social justice ignored and the law trampled on by a wealthy, privileged family determined to retain its influence at any cost.

This episode features fine acting by a great cast and solid direction by Robert Stevens, including two particularly interesting shots: the first, a deep focus shot in Doug's office where Doug is in the foreground and Kim is in the distance; the second, a shot near the end where the camera is positioned inside a fireplace in the cabin, looking out at a brooding Kim. Swanton's teleplay moves rapidly from start to finish, though it emphasizes the aural over the visual with its extensive use of voice over narration.

Paul Brinegar as the
taxi driver
Robert Stevens (1920-1989) directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series, winning an Emmy for "The Glass Eye."

John Forsythe (1918-2010) stars as Kim Stanger. He served in the Army Air Corps in World War Two and attended the Actors Studio; his career onscreen stretched from 1943 to 2003. He starred in Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry (1955) and had a supporting role in Topaz (1969), but his most famous parts were on television, as the voice of Charlie in Charlie's Angels (1976-1981) and as the patriarch on Dynasty (1981-1989). He was in one other episode of the Hitchcock series: "I Saw the Whole Thing."

His sister-in-law Susan Irwin is played by Cloris Leachman (1926- ), who was Miss Chicago in the 1946 Miss America Pageant and who, like Forsythe, attended the Actors Studio. Her screen career began in 1947 and continues today; she has won eight prime time Emmy Awards and she won an Academy Award for The Last Picture Show (1971). She was seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "Where Beauty Lies," and she has appeared in numerous TV shows and films, including Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery. She was in Young Frankenstein (1974) and High Anxiety (1977), Mel Brooks's Hitchcock spoof, but she may be best-known for her role as Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and its spinoff, Phyllis (1975-1977).

Warren Stevens (1919-2012) plays Perry Stanger; he was in the Air Force in World War Two and is the third cast member to have attended the Actors Studio. His career onscreen lasted from 1948 to 2007 and he appeared on the Hitchcock show one other time, in "Never Again." He was also on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and The Outer Limits, as well as in the classic science fiction film, Forbidden Planet (1956).

In smaller roles:
  • George MacReady as Doug Irwin; he was on screen from 1942 to 1971, including a part in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). He was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Vicious Circle," and he was seen on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery.
  • Percy Helton (1984-1971) as Gerald Eaton, the funeral director; he was in vaudeville from age two and served in the Army in World War One. He damaged his voice permanently while yelling in a stage play and thus had a distinctively squeaky way of talking for much of his career. He was on screen from 1915 to 1978 and appeared in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Creeper"; he was also in the classic episode of Bus Stop, "I Kiss Your Shadow," as well as on The Twilight Zone and Batman.
  • Harry Tyler (1888-1961) as Isaiah Dobbs; Tyler had many small roles on screen from 1929 to 1961 and appeared in 11 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Dangerous People."
  • Paul Brinegar (1917-1995) as the taxi driver who drops Kim Stanger off at the beginning of the episode; after serving  in the Navy in World War II, he had a long career playing small parts on screen from 1946 to 1994. He is best known as Wishbone, the cook on the TV series Rawhide (1959-1965), and can be seen in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Night the World Ended."
Watch "Premonition" for free here or buy the DVD here.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
"Premonition." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 2, CBS, 9 Oct. 1955.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Premonition" on his podcast here.

Read The Pie Lady's hilarious take on "Premonition" here.

In two weeks: "Portrait of Jocelyn," starring Philip Abbott and Nancy Gates!

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