Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Hitchcock Project-Victor Wolfson Part Three: Malice Domestic [2.20]

by Jack Seabrook

Philip MacDonald's short story, "Malice Domestic," was first published in the October 1946 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The story begins as a writer named Carl Borden stops into a bar for a drink before meeting his wife Annette, who has been shopping. Among her purchases are The Rose-Grower's Handbook and a carton labeled "Killweed." They drive home and are met by G.B., a Giant Schnauser named after George Bernard Shaw. In the kitchen, Carl and Annette express feelings of unease regarding each other's recent behavior.

Carl spends the afternoon writing and, after dinner, takes the dog for a walk, but he begins to feel sick and is tended to by Parry, a neighbor. Dr. Wingate asks what Carl has been eating and takes him home. Ten days later, Carl has another attack of stomach cramps, convulsions, and vomiting. Dr. Wingate is summoned again and Carl feels better the next day, though the doctor insists on doing some tests before Carl has any more to eat. At the doctor's office, Carl learns that his sickness was caused by a large dose of arsenic. Angry at Dr. Wingate, Carl rejects any suggestion that Annette is responsible.

"Malice Domestic" was
first published here
At home, his wife serves him soup, which he reluctantly consumes. A week of good health follows, until Carl returns home one night after walking the dog to find Annette collapsed on the floor. He calls Dr. Wingate, who rushes over, but Carl's wife is dead. The doctor finds two coffee cups, one of which contains traces of arsenic, and concludes that Annette was overconfident, got distracted, and drank from the wrong cup. Wingate gives Carl a sedative and promises to keep the matter quiet. Three weeks later, Carl is heading to meet another woman in another city and remarks to his dog, "'I nearly took too much that second time!'"

The story is set in El Morro Beach, California, and Carl is said to be a writer "of some merit, mediocre sales, and--at least among the wordier critics--considerable reputation." His creativity with murder is outstanding and demonstrates a capacity for creating a fictional situation in real life. There is a suggestion of marital problems right at the start of the story, as Carl looks around "to see if his wife were in view" before ducking into a bar. Strangers see him and Annette as an ideal couple, but intimates are "vaguely unsure." This sense of unease creates doubt in the reader's mind about the couple's happiness.

Ralph Meeker as Carl Borden
The first hint of poison comes when Carl picks up Killweed that his wife had purchased; this is a distraction by the author, who tries to make the reader think Annette is the guilty party. Carl appears to be dissatisfied with his work, admitting to a friend that his book is "'tough sledding.'" Weeds poke through the gravel of Carl's driveway, symbolizing the problems in his marriage and justifying the purchase of weed killer. Even Carl's dog is unfriendly toward Annette but friendly toward Carl. Annette's dinners are said to be works of art, suggesting that the poisoning is not accidental, and Carl's first attack is attributed to nerves. Ten days pass between attacks and the fact that the second one is nearly fatal makes it seem unlikely to have been self-inflicted.

When Dr. Wingate suggests that Annette may have tried to poison her husband, Carl's anger and seeming devotion to his wife make him appear to be a loving husband, who refuses to think the worst of his spouse. Back at home, he reluctantly drinks the soup she offers him, suggesting that his love for her is greater than his fear of death. It is not surprising that Dr. Wingate blames Annette for her own demise, since Carl has plotted the story of her guilt so intricately in the preceding weeks. The surprise ending occurs in San Francisco, as Carl admits the truth to his dog--man's best friend and a companion certain not to repeat the secret.

Phyllis Thaxter as Annette Borden
"Malice Domestic" is a well-written short story that manipulates the reader from start to finish. The author, Philip MacDonald, was born in London around 1900 (sources vary on the date) and served in the British cavalry in WWI. He wrote mystery novels, including The List of Adrian Messenger (1960), short stories from 1930 to 1973, and screenplays from 1930 to 1954. He worked on adapting Rebecca from novel to screen for Hitchcock and wrote teleplays from 1955 to 1961, but he did not write any for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and this is his only story to be adapted for that show. One of his stories was later adapted for Thriller, a series for which he also wrote one teleplay. He died in 1980 and his papers are archived at the Online Archive of California.

Victor Wolfson adapted "Malice Domestic" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the show aired on CBS on Sunday, February 10, 1957. Wolfson's teleplay makes several important changes to the story and serves as the basis for a satisfying and successful episode. The first scene of the short story is replaced by a scene at a fancy-dress dinner party, where Carl and Annette say goodbye to Lorna, a pretty young woman who is moving to San Francisco and leaving her dog with the Bordens. In the next scene, the dog shows a preference for Carl, as it does in the short story, but now the dog is a new arrival in the house. Since the first scene of the story has been deleted, there is no reference to weed killer or to Annette's gardening hobby. Instead, Annette is portrayed as an artist who has a home studio in which she makes clay pots.

Vinton Hayworth as Dr. Wingate
In subsequent scenes, Carl's poisoning episodes do not happen while he is out walking the dog, but rather at home, when he and Annette are having dinner with Perry, who is now a guest instead of a neighbor. Perry invites Annette to lunch and they eat together at a restaurant, suggesting to the viewer that they might be having an affair, something that is not in the short story. Carl does not go to Dr. Wingate's office; the doctor makes house calls. At one point, Lorna is again brought up when Annette mentions that she spoke with her by phone and plans to visit her in San Francisco. This helps keep Lorna in the viewer's mind, though her character does not appear (at least, not by name) in the short story.

The first time arsenic is mentioned is when Dr. Wingate suggests that Annette poisoned Carl's food, as in the story. In the TV show, the arsenic comes from a different source; Carl compliments Annette on a vase that she has made, commenting on its translucent green color. Annette admits that she uses a copper glaze and, after she walks out of the room, Carl sees that the glaze contains arsenic. Annette's hobby still provides an excuse for using the poison, but in the TV version she is an artist rather than a gardener. Annette's collapse also happens differently in the TV version. In the story, Carl returns from walking the dog to find her dead on the floor. In the TV show, they are getting ready to go on a much-needed vacation. Carl takes bags and sports equipment out to the car and comes back inside the house to find Annette on the floor.

Ralph Clanton as Perry
The biggest change from story to show occurs in the final scene. In the story, Carl is talking to his dog as he drives to meet a woman in San Francisco. In the TV version, this conversation begins with a tight close up on Carl's face before the camera pulls back to show him sitting in the front seat of his car with the dog in the middle and Lorna in the passenger seat. This time, Carl announces that he almost took too much poison and Lorna hears him and understands what he means. Having introduced her in the show's first scene and reminded viewers of her midway through, her participation in the last scene puts a different cast on some of the events of the story and introduces a level of complicity to her character. In retrospect, one may assume that the dog responded to Carl because it already knew him from time he had spent with Lorna. In adapting MacDonald's story for the small screen, Victor Wolfson made improvements, compressing the time of certain events and creating a parallel structure that makes for a more satisfying twist ending.

"Malice Domestic" was one of three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by John Meredyth Lucas (1919-2002), a writer and director who worked mostly in television from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. He also directed episodes of Star Trek and Night Gallery. He grew up in the movie business and wrote a memoir called Eighty Years in Hollywood; his stepfather was film director Michael Curtiz.

Lili Kardell as Lorna
Ralph Meeker (1920-1988) stars as Carl; he was born Ralph Rathgeber and served in the Navy in WWII. He started on Broadway after the war in 1946 and was on screen for thirty years, from 1950 to 1980, appearing both in film and on TV. Key roles include Kiss Me Deadly and Paths of Glory (1957), as well as the TV movie, The Night Stalker (1972). He appeared on The Outer Limits and in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Revenge."

Phyllis Thaxter (1919-2012) co-stars as Annette. She was a fine actress who deserves more attention than she has received. Born in Maine, Thaxter started out on Broadway in 1939 and made her first film in 1944, with her first TV appearance coming in 1953. Among her nine appearances on the Hitchcock show are "The Five-Forty Eight," in which she also plays a mentally unstable woman, and "The Long Silence," where she lies in bed, unable to speak and in great danger. She also appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller and she played Ma Kent in Superman (1978). She continued to appear on TV until 1992.

In smaller roles:
  • Vinton Hayworth (1906-1970) as Dr. Wingate; he started on radio in the 1920s, moved into movies in the 1930s, and then began a long TV career in the 1940s. He was the president of AFTRA from 1951 to 1954 and the uncle of both Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers. He was a regular on I Dream of Jeannie from 1968 to 1970 and may be seen in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Night of the Execution."
  • Ralph Clanton (1914-2002) as Perry; his screen career lasted from 1949 to 1983 and included seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (including "Dip in the Pool") and three episodes of Thriller.
  • Lili Kardell (1936-1987) as Lorna; she was born in Stockholm and appeared on TV from 1956 to 1983. She was also in two films. She dated both James Dean and Troy Donahue.

Watch "Malice Domestic" online here or buy the DVD here.



Galactic Central, 

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


MacDonald, Philip. "Malice Domestic." Fifty Best Mysteries. Ed. Eleanor Sullivan. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1991. 73-87.

"Malice Domestic." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 20, CBS, 10 Feb. 1957. 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: Our series on Victor Wolfson concludes with a look at "The Ikon of Elijah," starring Oscar Homolka and Sam Jaffe!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss Alfred Hitchcock Presents here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "A Night with the Boys" here!


Grant said...

Between ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, it seems like Phyllis Thaxter had more starring roles than anyone else. At least, she must come very close.

Jack Seabrook said...

She is one of the most frequent among the stars, that's for sure. Fortunately, she always turned in a good performance, sometimes even a great one.

Michael Avolio said...

A nice, tight plot overall. But it occurs to me that there's no reason for Carl to make a big deal about drinking the orange juice (or the soup in the short story, going by this post's description) except for the benefit of the audience. He knows he's the poisoner in the family, and there's no one but his wife present in that moment, unlike the scene where the doctor warns him, so there's no one he needs to pretend for. Meeker sold that hesitation for me on my first viewing of the episode, but I suspect that bit wouldn't make sense watching the episode a second time. I'm surprised they changed the soup to orange juice in adapting the short story but didn't think to omit that scene altogether.

I'm just watching some of these episodes for the first time (there sure was a lot of arsenic in the series, haha) and reading these blog posts afterwards. Very insightful and interesting. I especially appreciate finding out more about Emily Neff, who wrote the short stories that were the basis for some incredible episodes. Remarkable how this series was regularly able to fit a whole story into about 22 minutes without even relying on recurring characters.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading and for your comment! I'm glad you found us.