Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-William Fay Part Three: Safety for the Witness [4.8]

 by Jack Seabrook

"Safety for the Witness," which premiered on CBS on Sunday, November 23, 1958, was the third episode in a month of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to air with a teleplay by William Fay, and it was based on the short story of the same name by John De Meyer that had been published in the March 1955 issue of The Saint Detective Magazine and then collected in Best Detective Stories of the Year, 1956.

The story concerns Cyril Jones, a fearful man who works as a custom gunsmith, unconcerned with the ethics or actions of some of his customers. On his way home one evening, he has the misfortune to witness the gangland slaying of Henry Custer, who had identified a killer. The murderers are Big Sam Foley and Tony Frachetti, and when Big Sam sees that Jones observed their violent act, he turns his gun on Cyril. The gunsmith awakens in a hospital bed, badgered by policemen who want him to identify Custer's killer. He pretends to have lost the power of speech, and his doctors and nurses go along with his scheme until he finally tells the police, "'I don't know.'" Jones reasons that the police can't protect him if he identifies the killers, so he begins to ponder how he can guarantee his own safety. He decides that the only solution is to kill Big Sam and Tony Frachetti.

"Safety for the Witness"
was first published here

One night, Cyril leaves the hospital and returns to his shop, where he prepares a rifle with a telescopic sight. In the morning, he rents a room in a hotel overlooking a restaurant frequented by mobsters and, as soon as his targets appear, he shoots them dead. The next day, consumed by guilt, Cyril visits the police station, where he confesses to the murders. The police are dubious, partly because Cyril did such a good job of covering his tracks. When the police chief reports Cyril's story to the district attorney, the D.A. points out that no jury would convict the gunsmith for protecting himself by murdering two "'vicious killers.'" The police would be embarrassed by their inability to protect witnesses as well. In the end, Cyril is set free and decides to find the kind nurse who cared for him in the hospital.

A light tone marks this story, where crime runs rampant in the city streets and four people are shot, three fatally. The city is never identified, but it is referred to as a "sprawling, roaring place" and a subway and waterfront are mentioned, so it could be New York, Boston, Chicago, or Philadelphia. The time period is also vague, though the atom bomb is noted as something that makes Cyril shudder, so the events must take place between 1945 and 1955.

Art Carney as Cyril Jones

The story's author, John De Meyer (1909-1966), was born in Massachusetts and wrote novels and short stories from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s. He also worked for the Milton Bradley Company. His novels included Bailey's Daughters (1935) and A Sentimental Yankee (1941); the FictionMags Index lists 17 short stories by De Meyer that were published between 1953 and 1959, 14 of them in The Saturday Evening Post. "Safety for the Witness" was his only story to be published in a crime digest, a fact pointed out by the editor of The Saint Detective Magazine in the introduction to this tale: "John De Meyer's stories usually appear only in the highest paying magazines in the land, and they are usually concerned with matters a little tamer than murder."

Robert Bray as Lt. Flannery

William Fay's adaptation of De Meyer's short story focuses on dramatizing the events and, to its detriment, leaves out much of the narrative that makes the story succeed. The very first shot sets the time period as being decades before that of the story; a title card reading, "A Big City, 1927" is superimposed over stock footage of four men in hats and coats loading guns on an outdoor staircase. The scene then dissolves to show a well-dressed woman in Jones's gun shop, examining a rifle with a telescopic sight. She chats about her last safari, when her husband mistook a herd of zebras for a striped awning, and she asks Jones to ship the gun to her in California. On the way out of the shop, the toe of her shoe gets caught in the teeth of a bearskin rug, setting the stage for an attempt at broad comedy.

James Westerfield as
Commissioner Cummings

Art Carney, as Jones, was well-known to TV audiences in 1958 as a comic actor, so it's not surprising to see the show take this approach to telling the story. Lieutenant Flannery enters the shop and questions Jones about a hoodlum named Dan Foley, establishing that the gunsmith's customers include both rich wives and mobsters. Flannery mentions the need to protect a witness to a gangland killing and Jones suggests that the police do not have a good track record when it comes to protecting witnesses.

Flannery leaves and Jones opens a newspaper while eating lunch in his shop. He sees a photograph of Henry Grimes, the witness in question, a smiling man in a straw hat. There is a dissolve to a shot of the same man walking along a city sidewalk at night, with Jones following not far behind. Two mobsters shoot the witness to death right in front of Cyril, who greets them by name as Mr. Foley and Mr. Felix. Foley apologizes and they shoot Jones before jumping in a black car that speeds away. A shot of the two victims lying on the sidewalk dissolves to one of Lt. Flannery and Police Commissioner Cummings slowly entering Jones's hospital room. He has been there for 20 days and does not respond to Flannery's inquiry about who killed the witness.

Mary Scott as Nurse Copeland

Nurse Copeland enters and aggressively stands up to the policemen in defense of Jones's right to rest undisturbed; after the men leave, the nurse tells him that she heard him talking in his sleep about Foley and Felix. She asks what he plans to do and we see him pondering that question. Cyril checks out of the hospital in the middle of the night; after he leaves, the nurse at the front desk remarks, "'I bet you eight to five he doesn't live till Tuesday.'"

The best sequence in the episode follows, as Jones walks back along the street where he was shot, alone now in the dark, and thinks he hears voices calling his name, followed by a gunshot. He rushes into his shop, where the phone rings but the caller hangs up when Jones answers. He prepares the rifle and checks into the hotel, where he looks out of the window and across the street to a luncheonette, in front of which Foley and Felix stand, making small talk. Cyril shoots both men and they collapse onto the sidewalk.

Karl Davis as Dan Foley

Jones then appears at the police station, where he confesses to double murder. When the desk sergeant realizes that he is the man who refused to identify the killers of Henry Grimes, Cyril is sent to be interrogated by the police commissioner, who is resistant to believing his story. Lt. Flannery joins them and suggests that Jones is honest but delusional, pointing out that the gunsmith can't prove what he says because there are no witnesses. Jones is locked up and the commissioner visits the D.A., who insists that no jury would convict Cyril and the police department would be embarrassed when its inability to protect witnesses was highlighted.

Jones, calmly reading a book in his prison cell, is released by Lt. Flannery, who has to throw the man out of prison to get him to leave. The show ends with a shot of Cyril looking into the jail from the outside, locked out of the place where he thinks he should be.

George Greico as the district attorney

"Safety for the Witness" doesn't work as a comedy, despite a host of talented people attempting to translate it from the page to the small screen. Humorous music cues throughout the show defeat any attempt at setting a mood of suspense, and the show's pacing is problematic. Whereas the short story works because of the narrative style that lets the reader in on Jones's thoughts and because of skillful character description, these techniques are not utilized in the TV show and, stripped of its depth, the plot is not strong enough to be compelling.

This episode is directed by Norman Lloyd (1914- ), who had joined the TV series the year before as associate producer. Born Norman Perlmutter, Lloyd began performing on stage as a child and was active in theater in New York City in the 1930s. He was a charter member of the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles and began acting on radio in the late 1930s and on film in 1939. He appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and Spellbound (1945) and he acted on television from 1956 to 2010, including appearances in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also appeared on Night Gallery and was a regular on the series, St. Elsewhere (1982-88). As associate producer or producer, he worked on both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour from 1957 to 1965, and as director, he helmed many TV episodes from 1951 to 1984, including 19 installments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and three of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

James Flavin as the desk sergeant

Art Carney (1918-2003) stars as Cyril Jones. Carney began his show business career as a comic singer on the radio in the 1930s. He then served in the Army in WWII and was wounded at Normandy. Back in the States, he was a regular on TV on The Morey Amsterdam Show (1948-50) and began working with Jackie Gleason in 1950. He would go on to fame as Ed Norton, neighbor to Gleason's Ralph Kramden, in a long-running series of TV shows and skits about The Honeymooners that included the oft-rerun 39 episodes that aired in the 1955-56 season. Carney won six Emmy Awards in his career. He also appeared on Broadway, including originating the role of Felix Unger in The Odd Couple, and on film, where he won an Oscar for his starring role in Harry and Tonto (1974). He was also seen on The Twilight Zone and Batman. Carney acted on screen until 1993 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Doris Lloyd

Playing Lieutenant Flannery is Robert Bray (1917-1983), who was a Marine in WWII and who followed his service with a screen career that lasted from 1946 to 1968. He played Mike Hammer in My Gun is Quick (1957), was a regular on Stagecoach West (1960-61), appeared on The Twilight Zone, and was seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Not the Running Type." He is best-known for his role as a regular on Lassie from 1964-68.

Police Commissioner Cummings is played by James Westerfield (1913-1971), a busy character actor who was onscreen from 1940 to 1973. He was seen in another episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Cell 227") and he was also on Thriller and The Twilight Zone.

Playing the role of Nurse Copeland is Mary Scott (1921-2009). Born in Los Angeles, she appeared in movies beginning in 1942 and on TV beginning in 1951. She is best remembered today for her roles in eight episodes of the Hitchcock TV show, including "The Diplomatic Corpse." In the late 1940s, she was on Broadway in a production of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra when she met the English actor Cedric Hardwicke; she got pregnant and he divorced his wife. Hardwicke and Scott wed in 1950, when he was 57 years old and she was only 29. She later wrote an autobiography called Nobody Ever Accused Me of Being a 'Lady' and there is an interesting obituary here.

Dorothea Lord

Dan Foley, one of the men who shoots Cyril and is shot in return, is portrayed by Karl Davis (1908-1977), a pro wrestler and actor who sometimes went by the nickname, "Killer." He participated in wrestling matches from at least 1925 to 1957 and eventually parlayed his size and acting skill into a career in film and on TV from 1949 to 1961. Among his roles were that of a strongman in Mighty Joe Young (1949) and that of a wrestler in Rod Serling's TV play, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1956); "Safety for the Witness" was the only time he appeared on the Hitchcock TV show.

George Greico (1915-1982) plays the district attorney; this was his first credit and he had a short career on TV until 1965.

James Flavin (1905-1976) plays the desk sergeant at the police station. He had character parts in nearly 400 movies and 100 TV episodes from 1932 to 1976 and was in four episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Touche." He also played a sailor in King Kong (1933).

David Fresco

The rich woman in the first scene buying the rifle is played by Doris Lloyd (1891-1968), an English actress who was on screen from 1920 to 1967. She appeared in Phantom Lady (1944), four episodes of Thriller, and nine episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Dip in the Pool."

Dorothea Lord (1920-2000) has a brief scene as the nurse at the front desk who doesn't think Cyril Jones will survive long outside the hospital; her TV career lasted only four years, from 1958 to 1962, but during that time she was in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "A True Account."

Finally, David Fresco (1909-1997) plays the hotel desk clerk. A familiar face, he was on screen from 1946 to 1997 and appeared on The Twilight Zone, Batman, and twelve episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Day of the Bullet."

Order the DVD of "Safety for the Witness" here or watch it for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story!


De Meyer, John. “Safety for the Witness.” The Saint Detective Magazine, Mar. 1955, pp. 72–89.

The FictionMags Index,

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001. 


“John De Meyer Correspondence.”, 

Saalbach, Axel. - The World's Largest Wrestling Database, 

“Safety for the Witness.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 8, CBS, 23 Nov. 1958. 

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central, 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: The Last Dark Step, starring Robert Horton and Fay Spain!

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