Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-William Link and Richard Levinson Part Three: Captive Audience [8.5]

by Jack Seabrook

William Link and Richard Levinson adapted two of their own short stories during the final season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the TV shows that resulted were not very different from the stories on which they were based. For their first teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, however, they were assigned the task of adapting a novel by another author, and their teleplay is so different from its source that the onscreen credit might better have read "inspired by the novel" rather than "based on the novel." "Captive Audience" was the fifth hour-long episode to air, on October 18, 1962, and the novel that inspired it was called Murder off the Record in the U.S., where it was published in 1957, though its original U.K. title had been Marion; it was published in England in either 1957 or 1958.

The novel's author was John Bingham (1908-1988), who led a fascinating life. He became a baron by succession in 1960, but prior to that he fought in the Second World War and was a spy in MI5 for decades. He was admired by his younger colleague John LeCarre, who admitted that Bingham was one of two men on whom he based his character, George Smiley. Bingham encouraged LeCarre to begin writing and Bingham himself wrote 17 novels and one non-fiction book between 1952 and 1982. Murder off the Record was his fifth novel and the version done for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was one of seven times his books were adapted for the screen: five times on television (including two for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) and twice on film. His biography is titled, The Man Who Was George Smiley (2013).

First U.S. edition

Murder off the Record is narrated by David Shepton, a reporter, who begins by explaining that his own life intersected with that of a man named Ronald Parker, a/k/a Leslie Braithwaite, who strangled a woman named Edith Grant. The story is set in London, England, and begins on a September evening, when Braithwaite kills Grant around the same time that Shepton visits a colleague named Ann Picton. The narrator relates that he met his wife, Marion, at Ann's after the end of the Second World War. Ann had remained single after receiving a letter telling her that Braithwaite, her lover, had died after the war. She shows David a snapshot of Leslie.

Just as David returns home to Marion, he is called out to cover the story of Edith Grant, who was strangled at her home in Ann's building. She is the second strangulation victim in the district in two weeks. David meets Detective Inspector Fosser of Scotland Yard. At Ann's apartment, he pockets the photo of Braithwaite that she had torn in half. Back home with Marion, David recalls his boyhood friends, including Basil Roper, a grocer's son, and suspects that Braithwaite had a connection with Barkston Bay, where David spent school holidays. He also recalls the night Marion had accepted his marriage proposal after they visited a ruined garden that he had loved as a child. Later that evening, David and Marion encountered Basil Roper and his date, Sheila Todd; the foursome had drinks and went for a moonlight drive that ended with a terrible accident and the death of a policeman. David claimed to have been driving and Marion said she did not recall the accident.

David was put on trial and recalls that the courtroom was where he had seen Braithwaite before, watching the testimony. Braithwaite had entered the bar earlier that evening with Roper and thus was not dead, despite what Ann had been told. David wonders why Braithwaite had seen to it that Ann was told he was dead. David spent six months in prison and wed Marion after his release; he eventually learned that she was serially unfaithful. Like Braithwaite, Marion was a liar, and the two had a connection: David recognizes Marion's handwriting in the letter to Ann reporting Braithwaite's alleged death.

1960 Dell paperback edition;
cover by Robert Maguire

He confronts Marion with the truth of her infidelity and visits Roper, accusing him of being Marion's lover. David finds the engagement ring he gave Marion sitting on Roper's table; the resentful grocer's son mocks David's ignorance of his wife's infidelity and reveals that she only pretended to have lost her memory after the car accident. Basil reveals that he once gave a job to Ronald Parker, another of Marion's ex-lovers; David does not yet realize that Parker and Braithwaite are the same man. When David goes home, he finds that Marion has gone and left only a note. That night, David is attacked in his home by an intruder. They fight and the man escapes; David later realized that the intruder was Braithwaite.

The next morning, two policemen question David, who lies about the time he got home in order to avoid embarrassment over Marion's departure. A day later, D.I. Fosser and Sgt. Briggs arrive and pick apart David's story, revealing that Roper was found strangled at his flat. Suddenly, David is a suspect in the murders of Basil Roper and Edith Grant. Eventually, he finds a letter from Ann, who has been summoned to Cowton by Braithwaite's parents, who claim they want to clear the air about their son. David realizes that the letter was written by Braithwaite, who is luring Ann to her death. After some more questioning at Scotland Yard, David pieces together the relationships between Ann, Marion, Basil, and Braithwaite and suspects that Braithwaite is a serial strangler whose mania is getting worse.

David steals a car and drives to Cowton, where he finds Ann and convinces her to stay in her hotel room with the door locked. Later that night, David discovers Braithwaite lurking outside the hotel. Another fight ensues and, though Braithwaite escapes, the police catch him the next day. David's name is cleared and Braithwaite is tried and hanged for murder. David divorces Marion and marries Ann, finally letting go of his anger toward his unfaithful wife when he takes Ann to the walled garden, which has been restored to its former beauty.

Murder off the Record is an outstanding short novel, filled with suspense and a complicated plot told in one long flashback that includes a series of additional flashbacks. One wonders if the narrator is reliable, since he reveals the guilty party in chapter one, but eventually the truth emerges and the narrator survives, the killer is punished, and the faithless wife is left to continue living on her own terms. There are several murders but none is witnessed or described in detail. The police are misguided at first, but the narrator, a newspaper reporter, succeeds in putting them on the right track. The serial strangler, a key character, barely speaks, though he is central to the action. The setting is mostly in mid-century London, with a frantic drive to the country near the end of the novel, and the locations help set the mood of the story. Marion's mania for men is compared with Braithwaite's mania for killing; neither is explained and both are accepted as fact.

James Mason as Warren Barrow

Link and Levinson were faced with challenges in adapting this novel to fill a one-hour television time slot. Should they update it from the late 1940s and mid-1950s to the early 1960s? Should they move the setting from England to the U.S.? How should they handle the narrative structure and the use of flashbacks, not to mention the first person narration? Should they present events in chronological order? Most important, what characters and events can be cut while still preserving the central themes?

The teleplay for "Captive Audience" is a surprise to anyone who has read Murder off the Record. The writers invent a new framing device and change virtually everything about the novel, while preserving certain events and making significant changes to the main characters. The show begins with an establishing shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, which shows that the story's setting has been moved from London to San Francisco. The camera then moves inside a high rise building to the offices of Medallion Press, a publishing company. In the office, publisher Victor Hartman listens to a reel to reel tape that contains a story narrated by mystery writer Warren Barrow.

Angie Dickinson as Janet West

Link and Levinson choose to use the reel to reel tape to mirror the novel's first person narration, allowing Barrow to relate the story to his publisher and, by extension, to the viewer. Victor has been publishing Barrow's mystery novels for three years and works closely with him; perhaps Link and Levinson were giving a sly nod to the book's author, John Bingham, whose British publisher was Victor Gollancz. On the tape, Barrow says that he is planning to kill someone, and it becomes evident that Link and Levinson have merged aspects of the novel's characters of David Shepton and Leslie Braithwaite into a single person. A writer named Tom Keller arrives, having been summoned by Hartman, and he listens to the tape with the publisher. Barrow calls Victor a "'captive audience'" (hence the show's title) and admits that Warren Barrow is not his real name. He says that Victor will never know if the story he tells is true or not and begins to narrate a compressed version of the flashback from the book where David proposed to Marion.

Arnold Moss as Victor Hartman

There is a dissolve and the events being narrated are shown on screen, no longer told as a story but instead depicted as they occurred. Barrow married a woman named Helen and honeymooned in the south of France, where they met a couple named Ivar and Janet West. Barrow and Janet go to a casino to gamble while Ivar and Helen have drinks; Janet makes a risky bet and loses all her money; this is a quick way to telegraph the careless side of her personality. Barrow takes her for a drive and is attracted to her but resists temptation. He returns to his hotel room and, when his wife returns, he is jealous and insists they leave right away. While driving at night, they reconcile and kiss, which causes a horrible accident in which Helen is killed. The first act of the TV show ends here, with the car accident in the book transformed into one where the narrator's wife is killed.

Back in the publisher's office, Victor and Tom listen to the tape as Barrow explains that he woke up in a hospital and refused recommended brain surgery. This will later serve to explain his bizarre behavior. Victor then plays a second tape from Barrow, who explains that, after the accident, he took a new name and began leading a new life as a writer of mystery novels. At a club, he met Janet once again. She accompanied him back to his house and an affair began. Eventually, she started to complain about her husband and asked Warren how he would kill Ivar if he were planning a mystery novel. Barrow played along and they planned Ivar's murder and how to dispose of his body. Soon it becomes clear that Barrow's harmless fantasy was Janet's dangerous reality; she took the first steps to carry out the plan and played on Warren's guilt over Helen's death to overcome his resistance to killing Ivar.

Ed Nelson as Tom Keller

At this point in the TV show, the teleplay has diverged completely from Bingham's novel. Barrow has echoes of both David and Leslie, mixed with the author, John Bingham, while Janet has aspects of Marion and Leslie as well. The third act begins back in Victor's office, where he and Tom discuss the story they've heard on the tapes and Tom suggests that Barrow is unbalanced because the auto accident damaged his brain. Victor comments that Tom (like Bingham) writes psychological thrillers and that is why the publisher asked him to listen to the tapes. They argue about whether the story Barrow tells is fact or fiction and realize that Barrow has told them that the names he is using are not real.

Just then, a third tape arrives by messenger and the two men anxiously listen to it. Barrow explains that Janet left his home in order to establish an alibi for herself. Ivar arrived and confronted Barrow, just as in the novel David went to visit Basil and confronted him about Marion. In the TV version, Barrow pulls a gun and tries to shoot Ivar, but the safety catch jams and he cuts his hand. Ivar (like Basil) tells Barrow that he is not Janet's first lover and Barrow loses his temper, yet he finds himself unable to go through with killing Ivar. Barrow goes for a long drive and returns home to find two detectives waiting for him; the scene is similar to the one in the novel where the detectives question David after he returns from seeing Basil. Barrow realizes that Janet wanted the police to find him there with Ivar's body and arrest him.

Roland Winters as Ivar West

Back at Victor's office, he and Tom hear Barrow on the tape say that he will kill Janet. Tom says that they must find Janet and warn her; this parallels David's efforts in the book to find Ann and warn her about Braithwaite's intention to kill her. Unexpectedly, Barrow arrives at the office, finally bringing the two strands of the story together. In the final act, Barrow insists that the story on the tapes is a work of fiction, but Tom goads him and Warren slips and refers to Janet by her real surname of Waverly. Tom notices a cut on Barrow's finger and is sure that the story about trying to shoot Ivar was true. By extension, Barrow's claim on the tapes that he plans to kill Janet must also be true. After Barrow leaves, Victor and Tom find Janet's telephone number in the phone book and try to call her but get no answer. Tom heads for her house while Victor takes the tapes to the police.

Janet arrives home and is surprised to find Barrow inside, waiting for her. The phone rings and she speaks to Victor, who is calling from the police station. This scene recalls the one in the novel when David first tries to call Ann and then rushes to her side. Victor has a policeman speak to Janet and tell her to lock her door, but Barrow hangs up the phone. From this point on, the TV show takes its most unexpected turn away from the novel. Barrow starts a game of chess with Janet and comes up behind her with a gun. Tom pulls up outside and rushes in, but Barrow shoots and kills Janet before Tom arrives. Tom finds Janet dead and speaks to Barrow, who seems to have lost touch with reality. Tom flatters his fellow author and praises his book, taking the gun from his hand. In the show's final scene, Barrow sits at the police station, narrating the last part of his story into a tape recorder and concluding by repeating the sentence: "'That's always the problem, finding the right ending,'" three times.

Sarah Shane as Helen Barrow

In adapting Murder off the Record into "Captive Audience," Link and Levinson took characters from the novel and mixed up their actions and motivations. They identified key scenes from the book and used variations on them to build their own story. They used the device of the author narrating his story into a tape recorder to present the story in a series of flashbacks and changed the happy ending to a more downbeat one. Most surprisingly, they took the serial killer from the novel and eliminated him entirely! The result is not so much an adaptation as a reimagining.

The show is directed by Alf Kjellin (1920-1988), who uses various dissolves to move from scene to scene and to flash backward and forward in time. I counted at least eight dissolves, along with two left to right wipes, a bottom to top dissolve, a wipe where the picture flips from top to bottom, and what I can only describe as a spiral dissolve. The overall feeling of all of the dissolves and wipes recalls a film from the classic Hollywood period. Kjellin was born in Sweden and started out in the movies in 1937 as an actor. He began acting on TV in 1952 and continued until 1979. He started directing films in 1955 and worked as a director on American television from 1961 to 1985, concurrent with his work as an actor. As an actor, he appeared in the 1966 film adaptation of Jack Finney's Assault on a Queen and in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. As a director, he was at the helm for one episode of the half-hour Hitchcock series ("Coming Home") and eleven episodes of the hour series.

Bart Burns as Lt. Summersby
Starring in "Captive Audience" as Warren Barrow is James Mason (1909-1984), one of the greatest twentieth-century film actors. Born in England, he made his stage debut in 1931 and was on screen from 1935 to 1984. He became a star in the 1940s and moved to Hollywood in 1949; he was featured in films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), A Star is Born (1954), North by Northwest (1959), Lolita (1962), and Heaven Can Wait (1978). He wrote an autobiography called Before I Forget (1981). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

Co-starring as Janet West is Angie Dickinson (1931- ). 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 starred in the TV series Police Woman from 1974 to 1978.

Geraldine Wall
as Mrs. Hurley

Playing Victor Hartman is Arnold Moss (1910-1989). Moss was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was mostly a stage actor, specializing in Shakespeare. His well-trained voice made him a good fit for radio shows; he appeared in movies and on TV as well, including twice on the Hitchcock series and once on Star Trek.

Ed Nelson (1928-2014) plays Tom Keller; on screen from 1952 to 2003, he started out as a stuntman in various Roger Corman films in the late 1950s and is best known for his role on Peyton Place from 1964 to 1969. He was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twice and also appeared in episodes of Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery.

Born Roland Winternitz, Roland Winters (1904-1989) plays Ivar West. He starred as Charlie Chan in six films (1947-1949) and was on screen from 1941 to 1982. This was his only role on the Hitchcock TV series.

In smaller roles:
  • Sarah Shane (1928- ) as Helen Barrow, who is killed in the car accident; born Elaine Hollingsworth, she was on screen from 1948 to 1964 and appeared in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Bart Burns (1918-2007) as Lt. Summersby, whom Victor puts on the phone to warn Janet near the end; born George Joseph Burns, his father was a New York City police inspector. Burns served in WWII as a Marine and fought at Iwo Jima; he was on screen from 1953 to 1988 and also appeared in "The Night the World Ended" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He played Pat Chambers on TV's Mike Hammer (1958-1959).
  • Geraldine Wall (1907-1970) plays Mrs. Hurley, who is sitting at the table at the club with Janet. She was on Broadway from age 15 and on screen from 1943 to 1970.
  • Renee Godfrey (1919-1964) as Miss Sherman, Victor's secretary; born Renee Vera Haal, she was on screen from 1940 to 1964.
Renee Godfrey
  • Don Matheson as Pierson, the police detective who questions Barrow after he spares Ivar West. Matheson fought in Korea and served in the Detroit Police Department before becoming an actor; this episode is his first credit in a career that lasted until 1999. His biggest role was as co-star of the series, Land of the Giants (1968-1970).
Don Matheson
  • Cosmo Sardo (1909-1989) as the croupier at the casino in the south of France; he had bit parts in countless films and TV shows from 1939 to 1982, usually uncredited. He also owned a barber shop in Los Angeles. He was seen briefly in "Dip in the Pool" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Cosmo Sardo
  • Barbara Dane (1927- ) as the folk singer who performs in the club when Barrow reunites with Janet; born Barbara Jean Spillman, she appeared in two TV shows in 1962 but is mainly known as a folk, blues, and jazz singer.
Barbara Dane

For fans of obscure props, the book Night of Horror that appears every so often on the Hitchcock TV show, either under that title or another one (but with the same cover picture), may be glimpsed briefly among the books in Barrow's office.

Night of Horror

"Captive Audience" is not available on U.S. DVD but may be viewed here on Peacock.


Bingham, John. Murder off the Record. Roslyn, NY: The Detective Book Club, 1958 [?].

"Captive Audience." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 8, episode 5, CBS, 18 October 1962.

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


Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: Our coverage of Richard Levinson and William Link continues with "Day of Reckoning," starring Barry Sullivan and Claude Akins!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Hidden Thing" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "What Frightened You, Fred?" here!


Grant said...

I know that Alfred Hitchcock's show are full of veteran actors, and up and coming ones, but I always wonder which actors were the biggest during the actual time they were on the show. I'm guessing that James Mason had to be just about the biggest.

Jack Seabrook said...

I think you're right. Bette Davis was another big catch for the show a few years before Mason.