Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Hitchcock Project-Helen Nielsen Part One: Letter of Credit [5.36]

by Jack Seabrook

Born in Illinois, Helen Nielsen (1918-2002) was a draftsperson who contributed to the designs of aircraft in World War Two. She was also a prolific and successful author; 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. Nielsen 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." After William Fay adapted "Your Witness" from Nielsen's short story in 1959, she wrote four teleplays herself, two of which were adaptations of her own short stories. She wrote scripts for a few other TV shows, the last airing in 1963.

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Helen Nielsen

Nielsen's first teleplay was "Letter of Credit," which aired on CBS on Sunday, June 19, 1960. She adapted the show from her own short story titled "Henry Lowden Alias Henry Taylor"; the story appeared in the July 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which was most likely on the newsstands at the time this episode aired.

The story opens as prison guard Henry Lowden arrives by train in Kirkland, thinking about Arnold Mathias, a prisoner he shot in the back and killed during an attempted escape. Lowden is troubled by the knowledge that Mathias was innocent and he carries a .38 under his coat as he disembarks. He confirms with the station master that no other strangers have arrived in town in the last two days and he gives the man a tip, asking to be telephoned at the Grand Hotel if a stranger should appear.

"Letter of Credit" was
first published here.

Using the name Henry Taylor and claiming to be a historian from Chicago, Lowden checks into the hotel and walks to the Farmer's and Merchant's Bank, where he asks to see the president, William Spengler. After witnessing elderly Josiah Wingate, the wheelchair-bound former president, complain about his successor, Lowden is shown into Spengler's office. The visitor hands the bank president a letter of credit, claiming that he wants to transfer some funds to the bank while he's in town researching a book on unsolved crimes.

Lowden confirms that Arnold Mathias was a trusted employee at the bank two years before who had been hired despite having a juvenile record. He was accused of stealing $200,000 from the bank, convicted, and sent to prison; while an inmate, Mathias went over every word of the trial transcript and drew maps of the bank. Lowden tells Spengler that he is familiar with all of the details of the case and mentions that the money was never recovered. Spengler invites Lowden to his home for dinner, where they can go over the records and maps. When the president walks out of the office, Lowden looks in his desk drawer and finds a newspaper article about Mathias's death. The name of the cellmate who also escaped, but was not caught, was Thomas Henry; Lowden is using the alias, Henry Taylor.

Bob Sweeney as William Spengler
That evening, at Spengler's house, Lowden speculates about what happened to the money, noting that Spengler, Mathias, and one other man were in the vault when the robbery occurred. He reviews the testimony carefully and concludes that Spengler must have stolen the cash when he was left alone in the vault for several minutes, transferring $200,000 to his own box and planning to pass it off as an inheritance. Spengler accuses Lowden of being Thomas Henry, the escaped convict, revealing that he checked on Henry Taylor and learned that the letter of credit was a fake. The bank president threatens to call the police and Lowden pulls out his .38, causing Spengler to admit his guilt and offer to make a deal. Lowden calls the police and tells Spengler his real identity; he knew that he could get a confession if he beat Thomas Henry to Kirkland.

Robert Bray as Henry Lowden
"Henry Lowden Alias Henry Taylor" is an excellent short story with a complex plot and a great twist ending; the reader is uncertain right up to the final moments as to whether Lowden is hero or villain. Joan Harrison hired Helen Nielsen to adapt the story for TV and it was her first attempt at writing a teleplay. The TV version is not as successful as the short story, despite using some tried and true methods to translate the narrative to the small screen.

The show opens with the train arriving in Kirkland. Lowden gets off, asks if any strangers have arrived, and gives the station agent $20 to call him at the hotel if anyone comes. The details that were provided through narration in the short story are omitted, so the viewer does not know Lowden's real name, his history with Mathias, or the fact that he carries a gun. There is a dissolve to a shot of him approaching the bank; suspenseful music and Lowden's looking around create a question of who he is and why he's there, issues that were less important in the short story because of the facts disclosed by the narrator. Lowden checks his gun and the viewer wonders if he is in Kirkland to rob the bank.

Ronald Nicholas as
Arnold Mathias
The opening scenes of "Letter of Credit" succeed in creating tension with some interesting camera work and appropriate music. The events that follow hew closely to those in the short story, but once Lowden enters Spengler's office, the pace slows down. Nielsen's script includes two long flashback sequences. The first occurs as Spengler tells Lowden about Mathias; the scene dissolves to a series of shots that illustrate the past events as related by the bank president. Between the narration and the shots, the inference is that Mathias was guilty of robbery; having Mathias appear in these sequences makes him a more identifiable character than he is in the short story, where he is never seen. This first flashback sequence is told from Spengler's point of view and he portrays himself in the most favorable light.

Theodore Newton
as Sam Kern
The first act ends with Lowden examining a newspaper from Spengler's desk after the bank president has left the office; a musical sting suggests that Lowden is actually the convict who escaped with Mathias and avoided being killed. Act two continues in Spengler's office; the two men do not go to Spengler's house, as they do in the short story. The show drags at this point, as Lowden goes over the trial testimony and Spengler asks questions. There is a brief interruption when Spengler's secretary brings him a report that is later revealed to show that the letter of credit is a fake. A shot from Lowden's point of view showing the bank vault creates some suspense in regard to his ultimate goal, but the scenes in Spengler's office don't suggest that he is there to commit a crime.

The second flashback sequence occurs in act two, as Lowden explains his theory of what happened. Most of the shots are the same as in the first flashback sequence, though some are new and some go on longer. The point of this sequence is to demonstrate how events can be viewed differently when looked at from another perspective; Lowden's narration eventually implicates Spengler as the guilty party rather than Mathias. After the flashback sequence ends, Lowden pounds on Spengler's desk and accuses the bank president of robbery. There are some fireworks between the men and there is a strong inference that Lowden is really Thomas Henry, the escaped convict.

Jacqueline Holt as Miss Foster
The last lines of the show reveal the truth and the conclusion is the first time the viewer learns that Lowden is the prison guard who shot Mathias and that Mathias was innocent. These details are revealed at the start of the short story, and the decision to hold them until the end of the TV show weakens the entire effort.

The actors and the director of "Letter of Credit" try to create interest and suspense with different shots, flashback sequences, and enthusiastic performances but, in the end, the episode is too talky and most of it occurs in a single room, making it somewhat dull to watch. The changes to the short story make the TV show less effective and the twist ending is less successful.

Joseph Hamilton as the station master
"Letter of Credit" is directed by Paul Henreid (1908-1992), who began his career as a film actor. His work as a director started in the early 1950s and he directed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "A Little Sleep."

Bob Sweeney (1918-1992) stars as William Spengler. Sweeney was a radio announcer and comedian in the 1940s who appeared on TV, mostly in comedies, from 1953 to 1991. He was in a handful of films and he also was a prolific TV director and producer, directing 80 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and producing 96 episodes of Hawaii Five-O. This was the only episode of the Hitchcock TV show in which he appeared; he was also seen in Hitchcock's film, Marnie (1964).

Cyril Delevanti as Josiah Wingate
Co-starring as Henry Lowden is Robert Bray (1917-1983), who was a Marine in WWII and who followed his service with a screen career that lasted from 1946 to 1968. He played Mike Hammer in My Gun is Quick (1957), was a regular on Stagecoach West (1960-61), appeared on The Twilight Zone, and was seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Not the Running Type." He is best-known for his role as a regular on Lassie from 1964-68.

In smaller roles:
  • Ronald Nicholas as Arnold Mathias; he had a brief career on TV from 1959 to 1965 and also appeared in "Incident in a Small Jail" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Theodore Newton (1904-1963) as Sam Kern, Spengler's assistant; he was on Broadway from 1928 to 1951, on film from 1933 to 1963, and on TV from 1949 to 1963. He was in seven episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "O Youth and Beauty!" and "What Really Happened."
  • Jacqueline Holt (1929- ) as Miss Foster, the secretary; she had a brief career on TV from 1955 to 1960 and this was the only episode of the Hitchcock show in which she appeared.
  • Joseph Hamilton (1899-1965) as the station master; he started in vaudeville as a teenager and then appeared in local theater for decades before embarking on a career on the big and small screens that lasted from 1954 to 1965. He appeared in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Five-Forty Eight."
  • Cyril Delevanti (1889-1975) as Josiah Wingate, the former bank president; he was born in London and appeared on the stage there before emigrating to America in 1921. He continued to appear on stage and had a long career on film and TV, playing mostly bit parts. He was seen on the Hitchcock show three times, including "The Derelicts," and he was also seen on The Twilight Zone five times, Thriller, and Night Gallery.
Stark House recently published Turning the Tables: The Short Stories of Helen Nielsen, a volume that includes the short story that was the source for "Letter of Credit."

Read "Henry Lowden Alias Henry Taylor" online here, watch "Letter of Credit here, or buy the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.



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


"Letter of Credit." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 36, CBS, 19 June 1960.

Nielsen, Helen. "Henry Lowden Alias Henry Taylor." Rolling Gravestones, edited by Alfred Hitchcock, Dell, New York, 1971, pp. 74–92.

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Conversation over a Corpse" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "The West Warlock Time Capsule" here!

In two weeks: "The Baby-Blue Expression," starring Sarah Marshall!


john kenrick said...

Thanks for the review of Letter Of Credit, Jack, which I enjoyed, and have watched at least three times, maybe more, on AHP. The story is tough to follow, and the actors all play effectively, especially Robert Bray, whose presence I always find charismatic. His height and aggressive manner suggest that he's ahead of the curve; however, as so often the case with him, as a shady sort, his good looks notwithstanding. He pretty much owns this episode, in which he comes across as the sharpest tool in the shed. Bob Sweeney and Theodore Newton seem too weak to be a match for him, but maybe that's the point. The only downside for me is that it consists of, mostly of back story and exposition, making much of it guesswork for the first time viewer. That aside, it's well made.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! I thought it dragged a little and looked like a money-saving episode. The changes from the story make it less effective.

john kenrick said...

True about the money saving, Jack, but sometimes it can work in an episode's favor, notably in some entries Claude Rains appeared in (and his salary couldn't have been cheap). The Peter Lorre-Steve McQueen Man From The South was cheaply done, or the backgrounds were. Also excellent, The Creeper, with a bravura wild-eyed turn from Harry Townes was a B budget A level Hitch entry. Also, the Roald Dahl adaptation, Poison, very well made, with top quality players, looked like it was filmed on leftover sets from a Jungle Jim episode. I don't associate high budgets with quality drama on the Hitchcock shows, especially the half-hours.

Jack Seabrook said...

I agree with you. In regard to this episode, the lack of a star, the repeating shots in the flashbacks, and the decision to set most of the show in the one office all seemed like budget decisions and I thought Henreid was doing his best to inject some visual interest with some of his shot choices.