Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-William Fay Part Seven: Your Witness [4.31]

by Jack Seabrook

Justice is at the heart of "Your Witness," a short story by Helen Nielsen that was published in the December 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and then adapted by William Fay for an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode that aired on CBS on Sunday, May 17, 1959.

As she sits in a courtroom watching her husband, criminal defense lawyer Arnold Shawn, destroy a witness on cross-examination, Naomi Shawn thinks back a few hours, recalling her husband admitting to an affair with another woman. Shawn is defending 19-year-old Kenneth Jerome, whose car had struck and killed a housewife named Agnes Thompson when he ran a red light at an intersection. Naomi's mind jumps back and forth between the events in the courtroom and her husband's cruel words only hours before.

"Your Witness" was
first published here

The witness on the stand is named Henry Babcock, a good citizen who happened to be sitting on a bench waiting for a bus when the accident occurred. Shawn picks apart the witness, twisting his words and creating a sense of confusion. Naomi recalls how her husband had learned of Babcock's identity and had him investigated, looking for a way to discredit him. In the courtroom, Shawn attacks Babcock's personal life and workplace, insinuating that he cannot be trusted. Shawn is brilliant and ruthless. Naomi watches him work and thinks that the secret to his success is his ability to make the innocent look guilty, much as he tried to do with her when confronted with his own infidelity.

Naomi recalls her own argument with her husband as he moves in for the kill with Babcock. The final flourish comes when the lawyer grabs the witness's glasses from his face and reveals that he recently had eye surgery and is color blind. The jury quickly returns a verdict of not guilty. Naomi confronts Arnold with his character assassination of the witness and his desire to be rid of her, but he brushes her off. Outside the courthouse, he asks her to give him a ride. She gets into her car and runs him down in the parking lot. As she sobs to a police officer that she pressed the wrong pedal by mistake, the only eyewitness, Henry Babcock, admits that he cannot dispute her story, since he has been determined to be an unreliable witness.

Brian Keith as Arnold Shawn

"Your Witness" is a well-plotted story in which the end is foreshadowed in the very first paragraph, as Nielsen writes that "Naomi Shawn settled on murder because it was a word that felt strangely at home in her mind." The murder being discussed is the figurative destruction of the witness, Henry Babcock, but the author plants the seed in the reader's mind right away for the real murder that Naomi commits at the story's end. The tale is told from her perspective, in the third person, as she sits in the courtroom watching events unfold while recalling her husband's callous words.

In this story, appearance is important: Shawn is "more handsome at fifty than he'd been at twenty-five," Jerome "looked more like an honor Bible student than a cold-blooded hit and run killer," and Babcock is "a rather slight man" who "wore thick lensed glasses that magnified his eyes owlishly." Only Naomi is not described, because she is the one doing the observing. The story's title has more than one meaning, as well: it is a phrase typically spoken by a lawyer to opposing counsel in a courtroom, but it also refers to the fact that Babcock is a witness to both accidents. The word witness can even be used to describe the testimony spoken by a person.

Leora Dana as Naomi Shawn

In adapting Nielsen's story for the small screen, William Fay rearranges some events and adds others, opening up the story and making it fit the TV format perfectly. It is a good example of a very good short story that translates well into a powerful short film.

The TV show opens with an establishing shot of the outside of the courthouse, followed by a dissolve to an interior shot of Naomi walking down a hall, looking for the courtroom where her husband is trying a case. A court officer knows her by name, demonstrating that she is a familiar face on the premises. There is a cut to the inside of the courtroom, where Jerome as testifying on direct examination as Naomi enters and takes a seat. Jerome appears remorseful and explains his version of the accident. In the story, this occurs in Shawn's law office; Fay moves it to the courtroom to minimize the number of locations used.

Naomi begins to narrate in voiceover and there is a flashback to a month ago, in her living room at home, when she confronted Arnold about his affair. He brushes it off casually and, in this scene, he is gentle and seems reasonable. She gives in to his kiss and they are interrupted by Carmody, a private investigator looking into Babcock's background. In the short story, Shawn's secretary Fran is in charge of the investigation; for the TV show, Fay creates a new character and makes him responsible for digging up dirt on Babcock. The conversation between lawyer and private eye serves to establish Babcock as a model citizen whom Shawn plans to attack in court.

William Hansen as Henry Babcock

Back in the courtroom, Babcock finally takes the stand; his testimony is already in progress when the short story begins. As Shawn begins to impugn his character, there is another flashback to Naomi and Arnold at home, as she calls him a liar and accuses him of visiting the woman he promised to give up. His gentle approach in the prior flashback is gone; he angrily throws cruel words at his wife, using his verbal skills to demean her in much the same way that he demeans Babcock in the courtroom. The rest of the courtroom scene follows the story closely, as Babcock's time on the witness stand ends in embarrassment.

After the trial ends, Naomi follows Arnold into the judge's chambers and tells him that she is filing for divorce. Arnold refuses and tells his wife that a divorce would be awkward professionally and personally; he suggests that she start seeing another man and tells her, "'You could still be an attractive woman if you tried.'" Outside, Naomi bumps into Babcock on the sidewalk as he exits a phone booth. He picks a coin up from the sidewalk, inspects it, and remarks that its date is "'1947--in God we trust.'" This brief incident is added by Fay to demonstrate that Babcock's eyesight is excellent, despite what Shawn made the jury believe.

Brian Hutton as Kenneth Jerome

Babcock laments that he won't get his old job back as a math teacher after the events in court that day. Naomi walks to her car and gets in, watching her husband as he stands in the parking lot, looking at a newspaper. She starts the car, guns the motor, and runs him down. The show ends with a closeup of Babcock as he makes the statement about his own unreliability.

In addition to its excellent teleplay, "Your Witness" features confident direction by Norman Lloyd, who keeps the story moving quickly and the suspense building until the ending that is both unexpected and fitting. The lead performances are outstanding, especially those of Brian Keith, who is utterly unlikeable as Arnold, and William Hansen, whose portrayal of Babcock is in stark contrast to that of Keith's as Arnold.

Gordon Wynn
as Mr. Jerome
In addition to being an author, Helen Nielsen (1918-2002), who wrote the short story upon which the TV show was based, contributed to the designs of aircraft in World War Two. The first of her 18 mystery novels was The Kind Man, published in 1951, and she had about 50 stories published in the digests between 1954 and 1991. She also wrote teleplays and had some of her works adapted for the screen, mostly on television, from 1959 to 1982. Five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents featured her work as well as a single episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Death Scene."

Norman Lloyd (1914- ) was born Norman Perlmutter and was active in the theater in the 1930s. He had a long career as a film and television actor, from 1939 to 2015, and he appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and Spellbound (1945). He also directed for television from 1951 to 1984. He acted in five episodes of the Hitchcock series and directed 22, including "Man from the South."

Starring as the reprehensible Arnold Shawn is Brian Keith (1921-1997), who was a very popular actor in TV and on film. Born in New Jersey, he made his film debut in 1924 at age three. He was a Marine air gunner in World War II and then went into acting as an adult after the war. He started on TV in 1952 and eventually would star in no less than 11 TV series and miniseries, the most famous being Family Affair (1966-71). He also appeared in the prison-break film 5 Against the House (1955), based on a novel by Jack Finney. He appeared on the Hitchcock series five times (including "Cell 227") and committed suicide in 1997.

Leora Dana (1923-1983) plays Naomi Shawn. Her career on stage and screen lasted from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s. She won a Tony Award in 1973, appeared three times on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "John Brown's Body," and was in the 1957 film, 3:10 to Yuma.

The unfortunate witness, Henry Babcock, is portrayed by William Hansen (1911-1975), who seems like John Qualen with an edge (both were of Norwegian heritage). Hanson was on Broadway from 1939 to 1963, was a founding member of the Actors Studio and appeared on screen from 1945 to 1975. He was on Night Gallery and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

In supporting roles:
  • John Harmon
    Kenneth Jerome, the young man on trial for hitting the housewife with his car, is played by Brian Hutton (1935-2014). He trained with the Actors Studio and played small roles, mostly on TV, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. His career took a turn when his friend Douglas Heyes (known to fans of Thriller and The Twilight Zone as an inventive writer/director) helped him get started as a director on TV; he eventually directed feature films such as Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), both starring Clint Eastwood. He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Big Kick."
  • Gordon Wynn (1914-1966) plays Jerome's father, who has a few lines in the middle of the trial after his son finishes testifying. Wynn played small parts on film and TV from 1942 to 1964 and was in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Together."
  • Everett Glass
  • John Harmon (1905-1985) plays Al Carmody, the private investigator who visits Arnold Shawn at home. On screen from 1935 to 1983, he was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the other was "Help Wanted") and also appeared on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and The Odd Couple.
  • Everett Glass (1891-1966) plays the judge. He was on stage from 1916 and his screen career lasted from 1948 to 1962. He was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Place of Shadows," and he was seen on The Twilight Zone and in the film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
  • Wayne Heffley (1927-2008) gets in a few objections as the prosecutor. He was on screen from 1952 to 2006 and appeared twice on The Twilight Zone. This was his only role on the Hitchcock show. He played a part in the remake of King Kong (1976) and had a long-running role on the daytime soap opera, Days of Our Lives, from 1988 to 2006.
  • Wayne Heffley
G. Stanley Jones is credited as a character named Dan Irwin; there is a brief shot of a clerk in the judge's chambers whom Arnold calls "'Dan,'" but the character is only seen for a moment and has no lines.  William D. Kruse has an uncredited role as a policeman; he may be the blonde one who speaks to Naomi at the end of the show.

"Your Witness" was remade for East German television as "Der Unfallzeuge," which is roughly translated as "The Witness to the Accident"; it aired on November 23, 1971.

The Alfred Hitchcock Presents version is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story!


The FictionMags Index,

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



Nielsen, Helen. "Your Witness." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Dec. 1958, pp. 2-13. 

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

"Your Witness." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 31, CBS, 17 May, 1959.

In two weeks: No Pain, starring Brian Keith and Joanna Moore!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Gentleman from America" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "The Landlady" here!


Grant said...

That line where Arnold suggests that Naomi see other men to make up for him seeing other women surprises me just a little. It isn't incredibly controversial (a lot of married couples have an "understanding" like that), but I wonder if they had any trouble with censors over it.

Jack Seabrook said...

Good question. Brian Keith delivers it with such force, doesn't he? I've watched three of his performances in the last couple of weeks ("No Pain" and "Fear in a Desert City" on The Fugitive) and I'm very impressed with his work.