Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part Three: Flight to the East [3.25]

by Jack Seabrook

"Flight to the East" is based on a story called "Night Flight" by Bevil Charles. The story was published in the August 1957 issue of The Creasey Mystery Magazine, a British digest, and it has never been reprinted.

The author, Bevil Charles, is himself a mystery. The FictionMags Index lists one other story under his name ("The Brief Return," in the December 1956 issue of Combat, "Britain's Top Action Magazine"). It is possible that Charles had other stories published in publications that have yet to be indexed. Morgan Wallace suggested that Charles may have been a British journalist, and the genealogy website Geni lists a journalist named Bevil Charles Bertram Richard Nance-Kivell (1930-1963) who died in London. I queried whether Mr. Nance-Kivell is the author of "Night Flight" and learned that his family does not know. He lived in Southern Rhodesia before moving to London in his early twenties and he worked as a journalist until his death at age 33.

"Night Flight" begins as three men sit side by side on a plane during the title flight: they are Pilbean, a nervous man who sits by the window; China, a journalist in the middle seat, and a "heavily built foreigner" in the aisle seat who is asleep with an overcoat thrown over him crookedly. Pilbean offers China a cigarette and the duo smoke quietly until Pilbean introduces himself and remarks that he lives in Nairobi and is traveling to London on business. China listens with little interest to his neighbor's tale of having left his wife after nearly murdering her by poisoning her tea before deciding against it.

Gary Merrill as Ted Franklin
China lights another cigarette and tells the story of Abdullah Ismail, known in the papers as Abdul the Damned, who was hanged years ago after a celebrated trial. China explains that he was a reporter for the London Evening Mail who stumbled on Abdul's case while in Kenya. The case involved "'Diamonds, dope, guns, blackmail and finally murder.'" China attended the trial and noticed an "old man in black" who was also in daily attendance. After Abdul was hanged, China went on to South Africa and Australia before returning to Cairo for a few days before he had planned to leave for London the prior Thursday. In a backstreet bar, China saw the mysterious old man who had attended the trial. China bought the man a drink and they tried to converse in French. China mentioned Abdul Ismail and described him with the word "hashshash," which is Arabic for either "'Hashish-eater,'" according to the man in the aisle seat, or for "'assassin,'" according to China.

Suddenly, the old man hit China with something "that felt like a chink of granite" and a knife flew by China's ear and "stuck in the woodwork just in front of his face." China and the old man fought and ended up in the street outside the bar; China kicked a gun out of the old man's hand, pulled the knife from the wood, and killed the old man in self-defense by throwing the knife, which lodged in the old man's back just as he turned to pick up his fallen gun. China explains that the old man was a cocaine addict who had been a famous scholar until he was consumed with sorrow after the death of his son, Abdul the Damned. China escaped and got on the next plane out of Cairo.

Patricia Cutts as Barbara Denham
Pilbean asks China why he is flying back to Cairo so soon after his escape and China pulls up his arm to reveal that he is handcuffed to the man who is sleeping beside him.

A well-told tale of a misunderstanding that leads to violence and death, "Night Flight" shows the tragic result of an accidental mistake in translation: the Arabic words for "hashish-eater" and "assassin" are closely related. China used a word to describe the late Abdul the Damned that caused an extreme reaction in the man who turned out to be Abdul's father, a man whose life had fallen apart after the death of his son. China tells the tale to portray himself as an innocent man, yet he admits that he threw the knife that lodged in the back of the old man and killed him. Is China telling the truth? If he acted in self-defense, why did the knife lodge in the old man's back? Joel Murcott must have asked himself these questions when he adapted the short story for Alfred Hitchcock Presents as "Flight to the East," since the TV version retains the skeleton of the story but makes major changes.

The show opens with a title card that reads, "Nairobi, 1958," superimposed over a plane that has just landed. Inside, Ted Franklin (as China has been renamed) and the policeman next to him sit with the window seat empty. The policeman asks Ted, "'Shall we get off?'" but Ted declines. More people board the plane, including an attractive blonde named Barbara Denham, who takes the window seat next to Franklin; the male Pilbean in the story is replaced with the female Barbara Denham in the show. The plane takes off and Ted asks Barbara for a cigarette. She gives him one and he remarks, "'That's luck--my own brand!'" The viewer does not realize that this exchange of cigarettes and Ted's identification of the brand is the episode's "Chekov's gun"--the cigarette and its brand will be important at the show's climax.

Konstantin Shayne as Abdul
Barbara tells Ted that she is a governess who worked as a nurse's aide during the war and Ted replies that he was a war correspondent. Barbara recognizes his name and tells him that she read his articles, including those about the trial of Sasha the Terrible (as the story's Abdul the Damned has been renamed). Ted claims that Sasha was a puppet who was taken advantage of due to his race and social standing. Franklin recalls the trial and there is a flashback to Sir Robert Walton, the Crown prosecutor, standing in the courtroom, declaring that Sasha robbed corpses on the battlefield in North Africa to sell weapons to a tribe that engaged in "'rebellion, bloodshed, and mass murder'" and he was said to have been paid in stolen diamonds.

Scenes alternate between those of Ted telling the story to Barbara on the plane and flashbacks showing the events surrounding Sasha's trial. Evidence piles up against Sasha and Abdul, the old man, is shown sitting in the courtroom every day, watching the trial. One day, Abdul approaches Franklin to identify himself as Sasha's father and to claim that Sasha is innocent. (In the short story, China did not learn the old man's identity until years later.) The old man requests that Franklin speak to his son outside the presence of the prosecutor and the conversation between Franklin, Sasha, and Abdul in a witness interview room is depicted.

Anthony George as Sasha
Franklin tells Barbara that Sasha claimed to be innocent of supplying weapons to the Mau Mau and explains that a powerful man named Arthur Smith hired Sasha to make a single delivery. Sasha told Ted that Smith paid all of the witnesses to lie in court to keep his name out of the trial and allegedly tried to bribe Franklin into silence by leaving a diamond in his hotel room and promising more. Franklin claims that he refused the bribe and instead began to write articles about Arthur Smith, making Sasha a symbol of "'injustice and persecution.'" This led to Franklin being fired from his job and deported from Kenya. Sasha was found guilty and hanged and Franklin spent the next few years searching for Arthur Smith.

Barbara listens to his story and remarks that Franklin's description of Arthur Smith could fit the man sitting on the aisle next to him. They share more cigarettes and his story continues. Franklin claims that his search for Smith led to Cairo, where he entered an antique store by chance and came face to face with the proprietor, who was none other than Abdul, Sasha's father. Franklin claims that the old man accused him of causing Sasha's death when he stopped writing articles about Arthur Smith. Abdul picks up a knife and throws it at Franklin but misses. He picks up a gun, but Franklin grabs an antique vase and throws it at Abdul, knocking him down. The old man picks up the gun again and Franklin grabs the knife and throws it, killing Abdul. Ted is seen running out of the shop by a patron who is just coming in the door. Franklin claims that he left Cairo and flew to Johannesburg, where he met the man in the next seat; Ted lifts his arm to reveal that he is handcuffed to the man, who is identified as Inspector Khafir of the Cairo police.

Mel Welles as Inspector Khafir
The short story ends here, but the TV show takes the story in a new direction. As Ted gets a fourth cigarette from Barbara, she reveals that she is not who she claimed to be at the start of the flight. She is a governess for the Crown prosecutor and she tells Ted the version of events that her employer believes to be true, a version that is in sharp contrast to that which Ted has just related to her. She says that when Ted had his private interview with Sasha and his father, Ted told Sasha that he knew he was guilty but offered to write a series of articles about a fictitious man named Arthur Smith in order to turn public opinion in Sasha's favor. He demanded one diamond in advance and half of Sasha's diamond fortune later.

Barbara claims that, after Sasha was hanged, Ted spent years searching for Abdul in order to collect the diamonds he had expected to receive from Sasha. The flashback to the scene in the antique store plays out differently in Barbara's telling. This time, Ted confronts the old man and demands the diamonds. The knife and gun that were used in the fight belonged to Ted and it was Abdul, not Ted, who acted in self defense when he threw the knife. A fifth pair of cigarettes are shared (perhaps a record for the most cigarettes smoked in the least time) and Ted tells Barbara he will prove his innocence. He explains that the knife and gun that were found in Abdul's shop were German war weapons of the type that Sasha was hanged for selling. Ted claims that this will show that they belonged to Abdul, who got them from his son.

Harvey Stephens as the
European bureau manager
But Barbara has one more damning bit of evidence to share. She explains that the knife and the gun were traced to a particular Nazi general who was killed at El Alamein. She was a nurse's aide during the war and she fell in love with a dying lieutenant after that famous battle. He had captured the Nazi general's gun and knife and traded them to an American war correspondent for two cartons of cigarettes--cigarettes that were Ted Franklin's brand. He then gave the cigarettes to Barbara as the only gift he had to give. The show ends with the understanding that Barbara will testify at Ted's trial and give evidence that will prove that the knife and gun were his and that he murdered Abdul rather than acted in self-defense.

The unusual number of cigarettes smoked by Barbara and Ted thus turns out to have a purpose in that it keeps the viewer's attention on those very cigarettes, which turn out to be the key to establishing Ted's guilt in the murder of Abdul. 

In adapting "Night Flight" for television as "Flight to the East," Joel Murcott expands on incidents and themes only hinted at in the story. He begins by changing the identity of Pilbean, who tells his own story briefly at the outset before becoming a listener to China's story. In the TV show, Barbara Denham takes the role of listener throughout the show until she takes over the role of storyteller. Unlike Pilbean, whose dull tale of his marital woes pales in comparison to China's story, Barbara's story corrects the falsehoods told by Ted Franklin and she unexpectedly has an important role in his future.

Ralph Clanton as Sir Robert Walton
As in "Bang! You're Dead," the screenwriter of this episode uses current events in Africa as a backdrop to the tale. Here, Sasha is on trial for his acts involving the Mau Mau rebellion. The overall effect is to portray Sasha as an opportunist who profits off of the misery of the people of the war-torn continent. Murcott's decision to take the story further and make the final surprise one that involves a Nazi general and his weapons is interesting, although the revelations in the show's last minutes can be hard to follow and we benefit today from the ability to rewind the video and watch carefully to understand what happens. A comparison of the two versions of the scene in Abdul's store reveals that, when Ted is telling the story, Abdul produces the knife and gun, but when Barbara is telling the story, they are produced by Ted. Barbara's final confession about the exchange of weapons for cigarettes appears to seal Ted's fate.

The episode is the first of the series to be directed by Arthur Hiller (1923-2016). Born in Canada, Hiller had a long career as a director, from 1954 to 2006, starting out in TV and ending up in film. He was president of the Director's Guild of America from 1989 to 1993 and directed 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Forty Detectives Later." He also directed three episodes of Thriller and the classic comedy, The In-Laws (1979).

Ted Franklin is played by Gary Merrill (1915-1990), who was on film from 1943 to 1977 and on TV from 1953 to 1980, appearing in Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends and the classic, All About Eve, both in 1950. He was on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and "Flight to the East" was one of seven episodes of the Hitchcock TV show in which he is featured.

Patricia Cutts (1926-1974) plays Barbara Denham. She was a British actress who appeared on screen from 1946 to 1974, including a bit part in North By Northwest (1959) and a role in The Tingler (1959). She appeared in one other episode of the Hitchcock series, "Body in the Barn." Her death was ruled a suicide.

Abdul, Sasha's father, is played by Konstantin Shayne (1888-1974). Born in Russia as Konstantia Veniaminovich Olkenitski, he fought for Russia in WWI and emigrated to the U.S. in 1928. He began appearing in films in 1938 and on TV in 1952, and his career on screen lasted until 1965. His films included The Stranger (1946) and Vertigo (1958). He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and two episodes of The Outer Limits.

Anthony George (1921-2005) plays Sasha. He was born Ottavio George and he was in films from 1950 to 1957 and on TV from 1951 to 1988. He was a semi-regular on Dark Shadows in 1967 and on One Life to Live from 1978 to 1984 and he also appeared in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

In smaller roles:
  • Mel Welles (1924-2005) as Inspector Khafir, who spends most of the episode sleeping next to Ted Franklin; Welles was in film from 1953 to 2002 and on TV from 1954 to 1996, and his best-known role was as Mushnik in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).
  • Harvey Stephens (1901-1986) as the European bureau manager who fires Ted Franklin; he was on screen from 1931 to 1965, had a bit part in North By Northwest, and appeared in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Alibi Me."
  • Ralph Clanton (1914-2002) as Sir Robert Walton, the Crown prosecutor; he was on screen from 1949 to 1983 and he was seen in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Dip in the Pool." He was also on Thriller three times.
"Flight to the East" premiered on CBS on Sunday, March 23, 1958. It is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. Thanks to Morgan Wallace for providing a copy of this rare short story!

"Bevil Charles Bertram RICHARD NANCE-KIVELL." geni_family_tree, 10 Sept. 2021,
"Bevil Charles Bertram RICHARD NANCE-KIVELL." geni_family_tree, 10 Sept. 2021,

Charles, Bevil. "Night Flight." The Creasey Mystery Magazine, Aug. 1957, pp. 75–82. 
"Flight to the East." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 25, CBS, 23 Mar. 1958. 
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred HITCHCOCK Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001. 
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central, 
Wallace, Morgan. Bevil Charles-NIGHT FLIGHT, 25 Aug. 2021. 
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: "Death Sentence," starring James Best and Katharine Bard!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Mink" here!

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


john kenrick said...

Thanks for reviewing Flight To The East, Jack, far from my favorite Hitch half-hour I none the less find it compelling viewing and watch it whenever I know it's going to be broadcast. Maybe because the storytelling is so convoluted, what with the flashbacks and all, it holds my attention.

Also, the lovely Patricia Cutts, keeps me eyes on the screen; and I've always liked Gary Merrill and enjoy his acting. There's something appealing about his hyper-virile acting style that always makes me want to see him win. (Alas, Merrill played few truly heroic parts in films and on television), yet he's always been a star to me, with a star's presence. His reporter in this show seems headed for trouble by the time it draws to a close, a predicament this actor seems to have got into quite often in his screen career. Still, this is not so much a good tale as a tale well told.

It makes little sense, has no "message" (i.e. meaning) to speak of, yet for what it is, or aspires to be, it's well made. The presentation shows some sophistication[ and the dialogue is, if not brilliant, well handled, while the mood of intrigue lend it an air of an Eric Ambler story. It does lack Ambler's trademark spit and polish professionalism in presentation, but then it's mot s perfect world. They tried.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. It's an interesting episode. I've gotten used to Merrill after seeing him in so many episodes of AHP/AHH. He seems like a caveman at first but he's a very good actor. I had to watch the show a few times to figure out what happened! I wondered if the confusion was partly due to it being Hiller's first episode for the series. He had directed plenty of other shows by then, though.

Grant said...

He's very good in the AHH episode "The Paragon" with Joan Fontaine.
It's a spoiler, but he plays a murderer who's guilt-ridden over the murder BEFORE he commits it, and you really believe him in the part.

Anonymous said...

I Enjoyed This Episode And The Review!

Jack Seabrook said...