Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part Five: Man with a Problem [4.7]

by Jack Seabrook

Standing on a narrow ledge 26 stories above a city street, a man who says his name is Carl Adams fields questions from hotel staff members who pop their heads out of the nearest window. He yells an elevator operator to go away and an assistant manager to leave him alone. He dismisses a clergyman. Finally, a policeman asks if he has a family and he denies it, recalling that he had refused to accede the day before to his wife's request for a divorce. Karen later committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills and she left her husband a note telling him that her lover, Steve, had deceived her and could not run away with her.

"Man with a Problem"
was first published here

This morning, Carl checked into a hotel, asked for a room near the top, and climbed out onto the ledge. He dismisses a doctor and again tells the clergyman that he is wasting his time. The policeman reappears and tells Adams that the people below want him to jump. Adams seems to agree to come in, then gets dizzy and asks the policeman for help. The policeman climbs out onto the ledge and edges toward Adams. Once he has taken the man's hand, Carl reveals that his real name is not Adams, calls the policeman Steve, and breaks the news that Karen was his wife and Steve's spurned lover. The policeman feels himself falling, his hand tightly gripped in Adams's hand.

"Man with a Problem," by Donald Honig, was first published in the July 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, where it is credited to Donald Martin because Honig also had another story earlier in the same issue. A very short tale with a clever setup and a devastating ending, the story was collected in the 1959 volume, Alfred Hitchcock: My Favorites in Suspense, this time under the Donald Honig byline.

Donald Honig (1931- ) wrote about 200 stories and articles for various magazines, though most of his crime stories were published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. He also wrote novels and in the mid-1970s he changed the focus of his writing and began to write extensively about the game of baseball. IMDb lists five TV episodes based on his stories, two of which were filmed for the original run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the other was the delightful "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore"). He has a website here with more information.

Gary Merrill as Carl Adams
Joel Murcott adapted "Man with a Problem" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and it was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, November 16, 1958. A classic half hour, this episode features a strong script, superb acting, and effective direction, making it one of the most memorable half-hours of the series.

The show opens with a brief scene at street level, as a woman exits the front door of the hotel and a doorman blows his whistle to summon a taxi cab. Suddenly, a pair of eyeglasses fall from above and hit the woman before landing on the pavement and breaking. She looks up and screams. This simple scene sets the stage for the drama that follows.

There is a cut to Carl standing on the ledge high overhead and the first dialogue is his voice, heard in voiceover. Meanwhile, inside, the hotel manager gets a bellboy to open the door to Carl's room and they enter, along with the doorman who was seen in the first scene. The bellboy tells the manager that he only brought Carl up ten minutes ago; the manager barks orders and then speaks to Carl, first ordering him to come in, just as he orders the bellhop around, then appealing to him by asking about his wife. Carl replies that he has no wife and threatens to jump.

Mark Richman as Steve Barrett
There is more voiceover as Carl recalls last night and we see in flashback a scene where his beautiful wife tells him that she is in love with a man named Steve and wants a divorce. Carl refuses, calling it a "'crazy infatuation,'" but she insists, though she admits that her lover is married. Back in the present, a police car arrives and a policeman pushes his way through the crowd gathered at street level before appearing in the hotel room, where the manager identifies the man on the ledge as C.J. Adams from Trenton, New Jersey. The manager whines about Adams choosing his hotel and the suitcase is opened to reveal only a Manhattan telephone book.

Carl's clothes and suitcase are wholly devoid of identification, so the policeman suspects that he is using an assumed name. He speaks to Adams calmly and climbs halfway out onto the ledge right by the window, offering Carl a cigarette. There is a bit of foreshadowing here as Adams refuses to take the cigarette for fear that the policeman will grab him; the policeman says that he does not want to go down with Carl, adding that "'I never learned to fly.'" A fire truck and an ambulance arrive with sirens blaring; Adams grows agitated and insists that the policeman tell the trucks to leave. Teenage boys in the crowd that has gathered at street level begin to chant, "'jump, jump, jump.'" Director Robert Stevens deftly switches between shots out on the ledge, shots inside the hotel room, and shots at street level to maintain the tension and to give the viewer a great sense of place. Surprisingly, the rear projection shots of buildings in the distance behind Carl clearly depict North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, rather than New York; the Allerton Hotel sign is clearly visible.

Elizabeth Montgomery as Karen

The policeman tells the hotel manager to call Bellevue (a New York hospital known for its treatment of the mentally ill) for a psychiatrist and the police lieutenant who has arrived on the scene calls the policeman "'Barrett'"; the script carefully avoids disclosure of his first name until the shattering final scene. The manager tells the policemen that the Trenton police cannot find any record of a Carl Adams, further underlining the suspicion that the man on the ledge is using a fake name. While the police lieutenant tries an aggressive approach to get Carl off of the ledge, taxi drivers below discuss the man who may or may not jump.

More voiceover by Adams leads to another flashback to the night before, when he arrived home to find his wife departing, her suitcase packed. He slaps her face but she leaves to meet Steve, whose wife has also refused to grant him a divorce. Back in the present, the police discuss ways to rescue Carl. The third and final flashback follows, showing Carl arriving home late the night before to find his wife dead, having overdosed on pills. She left a note telling him that Steve told her their relationship was hopeless.

Ken Lynch as the lieutenant

Throughout "Man with a Problem," director Robert Stevens does a great job of convincing the viewer that Adams really is standing on a ledge seventeen stories above the street, the wind blowing his hair, hearing muffled sounds from the street far below. The taxi drivers argue again and end up making a wager on what Carl will do, but they have no way of knowing what is about to happen. A psychiatrist arrives and speaks to the police lieutenant in the hotel room; we learn that Carl has been out on the ledge for an astonishing four hours! Policeman Barrett climbs out of the window and makes another appeal to Carl, who holds his head to show that he feels dizzy. In a significant change from the short story, a noose is lowered in front of Carl; he grabs at it and nearly falls to his death but he can't reach it. Barrett heroically climbs out onto the ledge, grabs the rope, and secures it around Carl, who suddenly becomes alert. Carl explains why he chose this particular hotel on this particular policeman's beat, revealing his identity as Karen's husband and telling Steve that Karen killed herself when he refused to go away with her. Unlike the story, where both men fall, holding hands, in the TV version, Carl pushes Steve to his death and the camera fades out on Carl, safe on the ledge.

Will anyone know that Carl lured Steve out onto the ledge and pushed him to his death as revenge for causing Karen's death, or will Carl be saved and the policeman's death thought an accident? Of course, Hitchcock says the right thing in his closing comments to placate the censors and the sponsors, but the viewer is left wondering whether Carl will get away with it.

Bartlett Robinson as the hotel manager

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

The man who calls himself Carl Adams 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" is one of seven episodes of the Hitchcock TV show in which he is featured.

Mark Richman (1927-2021) plays Steve Barrett. Born Peter Mark Richman, he appeared on countless television shows and in movies from 1953 to 2016. He starred in the series Cain’s Hundred (1961-1962), was on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and had starring roles on Dynasty and Santa Barbara. There is a website devoted to him here.

Karen is played by Elizabeth Montgomery (1933-1995), the daughter of actor Robert Montgomery and a star in her own right. She was on TV from 1951 until her death and in a few films between 1955 and 1965. She was on this single episode of the Hitchcock series and she also appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller, but her most famous role was as the star of Bewitched (1964-1972). She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Looking at the ages of the three leads suggests another way of explaining the tragic love triangle at the center of the story: Gary Merrill (Carl) was 18 years older than Elizabeth Montgomery (Karen), while Mark Richman (Steve) was only six years older than the actress. The age difference is not present in the short story but is clear to any viewer of the TV show.

In smaller roles:

  • Ken Lynch (1910-1990) as the police lieutenant; he played many police officers on film from 1947 to 1974 and on TV from 1949 to 1983. In addition to a long career on Old Time Radio from 1940 well into the 1950s, he starred on TV in The Lieutenant (1950-1954) and had a small part in North by Northwest (1959). He was also on The Twilight Zone, three episodes of Thriller, and The Night Stalker.
  • Bartlett Robinson (1912-1986) as the hotel manager; he was on screen from 1949 to 1982 and was in no less than 11 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Hero."
  • Sid Melton (1917-2011) as a taxi driver; born Sidney Meltzer, he had a long career in film and on TV from 1941 to 1999, playing numerous small parts. He was a semi-regular on the TV shows Make Room for Daddy (1959-1964) and Green Acres (1965-1969).
Sid Melton
  • Guy Rennie (1910-1979) as the other taxi driver; a nightclub singer and comedian, he was on screen from 1935 to 1974 and had a small role in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Guy Rennie
  • Victor Tayback (1930-1990) as the photographer; trained at the Actors Studio, he was on screen from 1958 to 1990 and is best-known for his role on the TV show Alice (1976-1985). He was also on Star Trek.
Victor Tayback

Read the GenreSnaps review of this episode here. Buy the DVD here or watch the episode online here.

Mark Hamill
"Man with a Problem" was adapted for the remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as "Man on the Edge," airing on February 7, 1987. A version of this episode that has been re-edited by Mark Hamill may be viewed here. This version suffers from many of the same flaws that can be seen in other 1980s' remakes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes: the characters are more obnoxious, the direction is mediocre, and the acting is poor. The onscreen story credit goes to Donald Honig but Joel Murcott's teleplay for the 1958 TV version should also be credited, since much of the remake is based on the TV version rather than the print version. The scenes out on the ledge remain effective and the rear projection technology is more convincing, but the flashbacks to the main character's marital problems are painful to watch.

Sources:
"Donald Honig." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Contemporary Authors Online. Web. 11 June 2016.

The FICTIONMAGS Index, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm. 

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred HITCHCOCK Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Honig, Donald. "Man with a Problem." Alfred Hitchcock Presents My Favorites in Suspense. New York: Random House, 1959. 27-32.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
"Man with a Problem." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 7, CBS, 16 Nov. 1958. 
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central, philsp.com/. 
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: "A Personal Matter," starring Wayne Morris and Joe Maross!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Decoy" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Sybilla" here!

7 comments:

Mike Doran said...

I Hate To Be A Nitpicker:

Peter Mark RICHMAN.
(As in "If I were a ...")

Also, I would call attention to Hitch's wraparound, which in my view may be the single funniest spot that James Allardice ever wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Ever since I first saw this (in its CBS first-run, when I was a kid), "Man With A Problem" struck me as the prototypical - indeed, the archetypical - Hitchcock TV show, with all the serious and comic elements on view (OK, I wasn't using words like those when I was eight years old, but you get the idea ...).

In Loving Memory of "Mr. Webster" (****-****).

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I fixed it on the post. At least I was consistent and spelled it the wrong way each time! Who is Mr. Webster?

Mike Doran said...

Go back and watch the whole show again - starting with Hitch's intro.
"Mr. Webster" is front and center with Hitch.
All is explained therein.

Jon said...

Peter Mark Richman was known by that full name (adding Peter) by the 1970s. I first saw him in the KROFFT SUPERSHOW segment "ElectraWoman & DynaGir1" as "The Pharaoh" and then soon after played Chrissy Snow's minister dad on THREE'S COMPANY. According to Wiki, he was born "Marvin Jack Richman".

Gary Merrill was married to Bette Davis for about 10 years after they appeared together in "All About Eve".

Jack Seabrook said...

Mike, I will take a look!

Jon, thanks for those details! "Chrissy Snow's minister dad." Now that's a detail I haven't thought about in decades!

Grant said...

Like Phyllis Thaxter, Gary Merrill can automatically make you feel at ease watching a Hitchcock episode.

Jack Seabrook said...

I've come to appreciate him much more as an actor since I've been doing these articles.