Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Hitchcock Project-Jerry Sohl Part Three: A Secret Life [6.33] and wrapup

by Jack Seabrook

James Howgill thinks that his marriage to Marjorie has grown dull, so he tells her that he wants out. She calmly responds that she does not believe in divorce, but he insists that he is leaving both her and their house in London. After a brief holiday in Italy, James returns to London and settles in a small apartment. A few months pass and he consults Johnstone, his lawyer, about a divorce. Finding no legal basis for one, Johnstone suggests hiring a detective to watch Marjorie to see if she is having an affair.

Howgill hires a detective named Bates, whose men begin to watch Marjorie. Soon, they report that she has an active social life, much to her husband's surprise. As the days pass and the reports of her dates, dinners, and shows pile up, James begins to feel jealous. Finally, when Marjorie is seen with notorious international playboy Lucio Ambrosini, James has had enough and confronts his wife.

"Secret Life" was
first published here
When he asks her where she has been, she claims that she took a holiday and stayed with friends in Scotland. James is certain that she is lying but will not confront her because he does not want to reveal that he hired a detective. Once again, he finds her tantalizing and feels protective of her. For her part, Marjorie decides not to tell James that she rented the house to a film actress while she was away, concerned that he is too strait-laced to understand.

"Secret Life" by Nicholas Monsarrat is a delightful short story with a surprise ending that is impossible to predict. As the reports from the detectives grow wilder and wilder, the reader wonders what is going on; is Marjorie really leading this busy social life? Is she doing it to win back James? Or is it some sort of plot concocted by the lawyer to make James jealous and push him back into his wife's arms? If so, why? The solution, that the detectives were reporting on the activities of an entirely different woman, is perfect, as is the final scene where both James and Marjorie hide the truth from each other and return to their prior state of happiness.

Ronald Howard as James
The challenge in adapting "Secret Life" for the small screen lies in how to show the woman living a busy social life and dating various men without revealing that she is not Marjorie. On the page, this is no problem, but on the screen, it presents difficulties. Do you avoid showing her face and cast two actresses who resemble each other at a distance? Do you delete the initial scene featuring James and Marjorie, so when the viewer sees her with other men, they don't realize that it's not her? Or do you portray the whole thing through the reports of the detective, without showing the woman at all?

Unfortunately, Jerry Sohl's adaptation of the short story for Alfred Hitchcock Presents removes much of its charm, resulting in a rather dull and unsatisfying episode. Musical stings set a comedic tone right away and the first scene follows that of the story, with narrative replaced by dialogue. Ronald Howard's performance as James is awkward, as if he doesn't know what balance to strike between pathos and humor, and this makes his character's behavior seem unreal and inexplicable.

Mary Murphy as Estelle
There is a dissolve to the second scene, which opens with a title card announcing that the location is Acapulco, Mexico; the London setting of the story has been moved to Los Angeles, so when James takes a short vacation, it's to Mexico rather than Italy. In the story, a brief affair with a French girl is mentioned, but in the show, this relationship is expanded. James is shown dancing with Estelle, a younger woman, and they end up lying together on the sand. Her youth and vivacity contrast with staid, older Marjorie and also with James: Ronald Howard was 43, Patricia Donohue (Marjorie) was 36, and Mary Murphy (Estelle) was 30. Sohl's teleplay consolidates James's affairs, both in Italy and in London, into one continuing relationship with Estelle, who mentions his wife. This spurs James to see his lawyer on returning home.

The scene with the lawyer is similar to the one in the story, but in the next scene, Bates meets James at the art gallery James runs; the detective assures his new client that he is a private investigator, not a private eye, remarking that "'you mustn't confuse the genuine article with what passes for him on television.'" Arrangements are made and we next see Bates standing watch outside the Howgill house, wearing a knowing smile as he observes a fancy convertible parked in front after dark. Bates reports to Howgill in person at the gallery, rather than in writing, and at this point, the show veers away from the short story.

Revealing for 1961 TV!
We next see James at Estelle's apartment, where he seems to be a regular visitor. Though his girlfriend is younger than his wife and is wearing as revealing a top as an actress could wear on TV in 1961, James seems bored and distant, as he did in the first scene with Marjorie. Instead of having James gradually become jealous as he reads report after report, he demonstrates that he is losing interest in Estelle as he becomes jealous in regard to Marjorie. In the story, he is alone and thinks his wife is seeing other men; in the show, he is carrying on an affair of his own.

James claims to have a late appointment at the gallery and leaves Estelle at her apartment to head to his house, where he sees many parked cars and hears loud music coming from inside. Before he can enter, Bates calls out to him and tells him that the convertible belongs to "'Niles Brandon, the actor'"--the short story's European aspects have been Americanized. James returns to Estelle's apartment and is distracted; she confronts him about his lie that he was going to the gallery. There is a brief cut back to Bates, who smiles knowingly as he sees the lights go out in the Howgill house, checks his watch and leaves, and we return to Estelle's apartment, where she is angry and James is preoccupied. He receives a phone call from Bates and Estelle throws him out and ends their relationship, though when he leaves without complaint, she looks both surprised and disappointed.

Patricia Donohue as Marjorie
In the morning, James returns home. Marjorie says that she was visiting a friend in San Francisco (not Scotland) and he kisses her passionately. On a subsequent day, flowers are delivered to Marjorie with a loving note from James and she answers the door to admit Miss Perry, the film actress who had rented the house. Here, Sohl's teleplay makes a fatal error in changing the events of the short story. Miss Perry, who has a similar build and hairstyle to Marjorie, comes to pick up a cigarette lighter that she left behind. As the women chat, James emerges and meets the actress. Marjorie tells him that Miss Perry sublet the house for the whole time she was in San Francisco and there is a musical sting as the truth dawns on James. Miss Perry leaves and James confirms the truth with Marjorie, agreeing that it was lucky that she was able to sublet the house while she was away.

Arte Johnson as Bates
This change in the surprise ending removes the short story's charm. In the story, James believes that he has good reason to be jealous and possessive of the wife he suddenly finds desirable again, in part because he thinks that her personality is different from the one with which he had grown bored. Marjorie keeps the knowledge of the sublet to herself, not because she understands that it brought James back to her, but because she thinks that he would not approve. In this way, the married couple reunite and are happy once again. In the TV show, Marjorie has no concerns with telling James about the sublet and, when he discovers what was really going on at his house, he appears somewhat crestfallen but admits that it led to a reconciliation. The result is much less satisfying for the viewer.

"Secret Life" was published in the March 7, 1959 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Retitled "A Secret Life," it was adapted for television and broadcast on Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC on Tuesday, May 30, 1961, near the end of the show's sixth season. Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979), who wrote the short story, was an English author who served in WWII and who wrote novels beginning in 1934, including The Cruel Sea (1951) and The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956). He also wrote short stories from 1943 to 1974. His works were adapted for film and television, including two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Addison Richards as Johnson
Don Weis (1922-2000) directed the TV version. He started in movies in 1951 but from 1954 to 1990 worked mostly in episodic television. He directed The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) and episodes of The Twilight Zone, Batman, The Night Stalker, and many others. His five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents also included "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid." An interesting article about Weis's career was published here.

Starring as James Howgill is Ronald Howard (1918-1996), son of British actor Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind). Born in London, he was on screen from 1936 to 1975 and starred as Sherlock Holmes on a TV series that ran in the 1954-55 season. He was on Thriller three times and Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice; his other appearance was a superb performance in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Meri Welles as Miss Perry
Mary Murphy (1931-2011) receives second billing as Estelle. She was on screen from 1951 to 1975 and appeared in The Wild One (1953). She was in an episode of The Outer Limits and this was her only role on the Hitchcock show.

Playing Marjorie is Patricia Donohue (1925-2012), whose career on screen was mostly spent on TV from 1956 to 1984. Born Patricia Mahar, she was on the Hitchcock show twice ("Dear Uncle George" was her other appearance) and on Night Gallery twice, but her most memorable role was as the nasty wife on the classic Twilight Zone episode, "A Stop at Willoughby."

In smaller roles:
  • Arte Johnson (1929-2019) as Bates; he served in Korea and then had a long career on screen from 1954 to 2005. He was also on episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery and did voice work in cartoons, but he is most famous for his work on the TV series Laugh-In from 1967-1971, for which he won an Emmy in 1969.
  • Addison Richards (1902-1964) as Johnson, the lawyer; he had countless small roles in film and on TV from 1933 to 1964 and was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Meri Welles (1939-1973) as Miss Perry, the actress; she was on screen from 1959 to 1970  and had a role in Little Shop of Horrors (1960) as the blonde whom Seymour meets by a park bench, accidentally knocks out with a rock, and then feeds to his carnivorous plant. She was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Madame Mystery."
Florence MacMichael is also credited with appearing in this episode; The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion says she plays Mrs. Hackett, but I see no such character in the show. Perhaps she has a bit part as the Howgills' maid, Nancy?

Read "Secret Life" online here, watch "A Secret Life" online here, or order the DVD here.

"Secret Life" was adapted once more for television by Ray Russell and broadcast as "The Reconciliation" on Tales of the Unexpected on September 16, 1984. This time, the teleplay follows the short story much more closely and the show is more entertaining than the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version. The humorous elements are almost completely removed, there is no character like Estelle, and the actress does not appear at the end to tip James off as to what has happened. Better still, the setting is England, as it is in the story, and James's actions are believable. In the final scene, his wife receives a telephone call and learns that James had a detective watching her; we hear the voice on the other end of the line and realize that another woman had rented the house. As in the short story, the wife keeps her counsel and is happy to reconcile with her husband without him being any the wiser. The entire episode is well done and clearly was adapted from the short story, not the prior TV version. Watch the Tales of the Unexpected version here and judge for yourself!



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


Monsarrat, Nicholas. "Secret Life." The Saturday Evening Post, 7 Mar. 1959, pp. 22-23, 90, 92.

"A Secret Life." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 33, NBC, 30 May 1961.

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

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Jerry Sohl on Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Overview and Episode Guide

Jerry Sohl wrote four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that aired between November 1959 and May 1961, two in season five and two in season six. "Dead Weight" is a strong episode with a tight script, while "Not the Running Type" adopts a story by Henry Slesar and leans toward comedy. The clever twist may be why Norman Lloyd said this was one of the series' most popular episodes.

"The Doubtful Doctor" is also a comedic episode, where Sohl improves upon a very good short story by removing extraneous characters and focusing on the relationship between the two main characters. "A Secret Life" is a disappointment, in which Sohl added comedic elements to a more serious short story and made it less satisfying.

None of Sohl's four episodes are among the series' best, but "Dead Weight" and "The Doubtful Doctor" are worth watching.

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Episode title-"Dead Weight" [5.9]
Broadcast date-22 November 1959
Teleplay by-Jerry Sohl
Based on an unpublished story by Herb Golden
First print appearance-none
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"Not the Running Type" [5.19]
Broadcast date-7 February 1960
Teleplay by-Jerry Sohl
Based on "Not the Running Type" by Henry Slesar
First print appearance-Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 1959
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"The Doubtful Doctor" [6.2]
Broadcast date-4 October 1960
Teleplay by-Jerry Sohl
Based on "The Doubtful Doctor" by Louis Paul
First print appearance-The Saturday Evening Post, 2 April 1960
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Episode title-"A Secret Life" [6.33]
Broadcast date-31 May 1961
Teleplay by-Jerry Sohl
Based on "Secret Life" by Nicholas Monsarrat
First print appearance-The Saturday Evening Post, 7 March 1959
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-yes

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Better Bargain" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Flight to the East" here!

In two weeks: Our look at episodes written by Leigh Brackett begins with "Death of a Cop," starring Victor Jory!

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