Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Charlotte Armstrong Part One-Across the Threshold [5.22]

by Jack Seabrook

Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) was born in Michigan and began writing plays in 1939 before switching to novels in 1942. She wrote 29 novels in her career and was known as a master of suspense; she was awarded an Edgar in 1957 for A Dram of Poison. She also wrote short stories, beginning in 1948, and a handful of teleplays from 1955 to 1960, including three for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Startime episode, "Incident on a Corner," which was the only TV show directed by Alfred Hitchcock to be filmed in color. Three episodes of Thriller were based on her novels, and her papers are held at Boston University's Gottleib Center. There is a website devoted to her here. See here for a discussion of "The Five-Forty Eight," which she adapted from a John Cheever story.

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Charlotte Armstrong
Armstrong's first teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Across the Threshold," is a delightful, compact twenty-two-minute film with just three actors that manages to combine crime and humor in a way that is both satisfying and surprising. Hubert Wintor may be a grown man, but he still lives with his mother, Sophy, whose attention and kindness he finds stifling. He is not very different from the caged bird she keeps in the living room; neither is able to escape Mother's limitations. She still thinks of her late husband Arthur as "'just across the threshold, waiting'" even though he has been dead for six years. Mother tells Hubert that she worries about the dead man being lonely and her son is stopped in his tracks when she remarks that it would be simple to go to him--she kept the medicine from his last illness, which is poisonous in large doses.

Hubert tells Mother about a new medium he's heard of and she asks him to help her try again to contact Arthur. Mother calls Hubert a "'dear, thoughtful boy,'" but the viewer sees another side of him from his bored posture and his silent mimicry of Mother's oft-repeated sayings.

Patricia Collinge as Sophy Wintor
The scene dissolves to a woman's legs, reclining in bed, and a sting from a horn on the soundtrack announces that this woman is not someone of whom Mother would approve. There is a knock at the door and Irma jumps up to admit Hubert; after they embrace, he disappoints her by telling her that he has to get back to Mother soon, while she complains that she waited in an agent's office for three hours and is flat broke. He suggests a solution to both of their problems: Irma can pretend to be a medium and help Mother get in touch with Arthur.

The scene fades out as Hubert and Irma kiss; it fades back in on a closeup of Irma, now dressed as a medium and at Mother's home, preparing for the seance. "Miss Collett" is garbed in black and speaks in a vaguely Eastern European accent, explaining that she will channel a princess from Ancient Egypt. "'She married her brother,'" says the fake medium; "'they all did, you know.'" Lines like this amuse the viewer but are close enough to what a real medium might say that they fool Mother.

The seance proceeds without a hitch, as Irma displays her acting skill, Mother is convinced of her veracity, and Hubert sits on the arm of Mother's chair, right behind her, smirking and silently mouthing the lines he has fed to Irma. Mother begs Irma to return for another seance and the actress agrees. After a brief scene between Hubert and Mother, the fake medium returns for a second visit, during which Irma says that she sees Arthur "'standing at the end of a long, dark passage,'" waiting to receive Sophy. Mother asks if he's happy and he replies, through the medium, that he's lonely and misses her. As Irma speaks these words in Arthur's voice, Hubert mouths them silently, demonstrating once again that he has taught the actress her lines.

George Grizzard as Hubert
Miss Collett leaves and Mother tells Hubert that she now understands that she must use the medicine to join her late husband the next evening. "'Tomorrow evening, then, Arthur'" she says, looking up to Heaven. The next day, Mother has prepared carefully for her suicide, paying all of her bills and even dusting the piano. There is more gentle humor here, as Mother continues to put off the inevitable by making sure to have "'everything just so,'" sending Hubert out to mail the bills and reassuring him that he need not worry.

Hubert stops at Irma's to tell her that Mother is about to commit suicide and Irma questions the morality of what they've done; Hubert has no qualms and tells her that she's in it just as much as he is and can't interfere without implicating herself in an act of criminal fraud. He grabs Irma roughly and tells her to "'sit and wait and be patient.'" He leaves, promising wealth and a honeymoon trip to Europe.

Back at home, Mother brings Hubert his robe and a drink, explaining that she wants them to act as if they're just having one of their usual, comfortable evenings together. She has a glass of poisoned wine by her chair and finally sits down, but just as she is about to take a drink, she sees a basket of loose yarn and insists on tidying it up. There is a cut to Irma, who picks up the telephone and calls the police, then the scene cuts back to Hubert and Mother, who reassures her son that she has left a note and prepared her will. Hubert also has a drink and proposes a toast to "'Daddy'"; he drains his glass but Mother hesitates and watches Hubert closely, as he begs her not to delay. Suddenly, Hubert clutches his throat, at which point Mother tells him that "'I've only been waiting to see you safely over the threshold.'" Poisoning Hubert was just one more task that Mother had to check off of her mental list, not wanting to leave her son alone when she joined her late husband in the hereafter!

Barbara Baxley as Irma
Hubert clutches his throat and looks at her in horror, unable to speak, as she tells him: "'Now you'll be with Mummy and Daddy for always.'" He passes out and a siren is heard outside, as the police approach the house in response to Irma's call. Mother tells Arthur that she has attended to everything and, just as she is about to drink her fatal glass of wine, the police ring the doorbell, and her suicide is again delayed as she gets up to answer the door. The screen fades to black as she approaches the door.

Arthur Hiller directs "Across the Threshold" so that it moves briskly from start to finish, and the performances by the three actors are excellent. As Sophy, Patricia Collinge is sweet and suffocating; her calm decision to murder her son in order to prevent him from being separated from her is an example of motherly love that borders on insanity. She will surely be arrested and convicted of murder, which will only delay her reunion with her late husband.

George Grizzard, as Hubert, is calculating, duplicitous, and cruel; he comes up with a way to drive his mother to commit suicide and enlists the aid of his girlfriend, threatening her when she begins to have moral concerns. As Irma, Barbara Baxley is both sexy and innocent; in her first scene, she seems willing to move in with Mother in order to marry Hubert, and when she has given his plan some thought, she goes against his wishes and calls the police. "Across the Threshold" plays like a comedy but is in the end a tragedy; mother murders son before he can engineer her suicide!

"The Dark Passage" was
first published here
The credits for "Across the Threshold" say that the teleplay is by Charlotte Armstrong, based on a short story by L.B. Gordon. According to The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, the source story is "The Queen," which appeared in the April 1958 issue of John Creasey Mystery Magazine, a British digest that is hard to find these days in the U.S. I received a scan of the story from the British Library in London and, when I read "The Queen," it was clear that it was not the story by L.B. Gordon upon which Armstrong based her teleplay. "The Queen" is a short horror story involving a detective who visits a mysterious woman he suspects of murder; he ends up on the verge of being consumed by her collection of spiders!

A review of other stories by L.B. Gordon listed in the FictionMags Index suggested that the correct story might be "The Dark Passage," which was published in the July 1959 issue of John Creasey's Mystery Magazine. Additional research suggested that, in the Clifford Whitworth Library at the University of Salford, there is a teleplay by Charlotte Armstrong titled "The Dark Passage," based on a story by L.B. Gordon; however, when I contacted that library, they had no knowledge of the teleplay. Perhaps Joan Harrison decided to change the title of the episode prior to its airing to avoid confusion with the 1947 Humphrey Bogart film, Dark Passage.

I was able to secure a scan of "The Dark Passage" from the British Library and, to my delight, the story is the source for "Across the Threshold." To my surprise, Charlotte Armstrong not only made small changes to the story's details, she made a big change to its ending!

As the story opens, Hubert's thoughts are on the 20,000 pounds he expects to inherit from his mother, a monetary figure never mentioned in the TV show. He works in an office, unlike his TV counterpart, who has recently lost his job. Hubert suggests hiring "'Miss Irma Collett'" to hold a seance and thinks she would not charge "'more than twenty-five guineas a sitting'"; in the TV show, payment is never mentioned. Hubert asks Mother if she "'wouldn't wish to leave me even to join father,'" planting the seed of an idea in her mind that will later result in his death.

Irma is a very different character in the story, lacking the TV version's soft side and moral concerns. She insists on being paid thirty guineas a session and expresses no desire to move in with Hubert and his mother. In fact, she never mentions being an actress or being broke, as she does in the TV show. The first session unfolds as it does on TV, but Irma slows things down in the second and ends up having five seances in all so that she can collect additional fees.

On the final night, Mother and Hubert have dinner together and she confirms with her son that he should never be afraid to meet death; he does not realize that she means to kill him. "'You are the real sufferer--the only sufferer,'" she tells him, adding "'Poor boy.'" At the end, unlike the TV show, Mother and Hubert both drink their drinks. Hubert becomes sleepy from the drug and hears Mother saying that she will be with him. Unlike the TV version, where Irma has an attack of conscience and calls the police, in the short story Irma is not seen again after the fifth seance. Yet Mother tells her dying son that she has left all of her money to Irma, "'to be used for Psychical research.'" She then tells Hubert that she will follow him soon "'over the threshold'" and the story ends with her admitting that she poisoned him. However, unlike the TV show, she has drunk the poison as well and will die; there is no hesitation on her part and no doorbell being rung by the police.

"The Dark Passage" thus ends, in part, as does "Across the Threshold," with the surprise of mother poisoning son, but in Gordon's story she commits suicide as well. Charlotte Armstrong's decision to change the end of the episode so that Mother survives is an extra twist that adds irony to the conclusion; it is fitting that the woman who is so insistent on making sure everything is taken care of lives while her son dies. The author's choice to humanize Irma is also welcome since it serves to deepen her character and make her more sympathetic.

L.B. Gordon, who wrote "The Dark Passage," wrote short stories that were published in British magazines between 1957 and 1965. 

"Across the Threshold" is directed by Arthur Hiller (1923-2016). Born in Canada, he 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 "Disappearing Trick." He also directed three episodes of Thriller and the classic comedy, The In-Laws (1979).

Patricia Collinge (1892-1974) stars as Sophia Wintor. She was born in Dublin, Ireland, and began her career on stage in 1904, coming to the United States with her mother in 1907. Collinge appeared on Broadway from 1908 to 1952 and played roles on screen from 1941 to 1967. Her films included Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and she was seen on the Hitchcock TV show six times, including "The Landlady."

Her son Hubert is played by George Grizzard (1928-2007), who was on screen from 1955 to 2006, working more on television than on film. He had a Broadway career that spanned the same years and he was in the original cast of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Grizzard was seen in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Fog Closing In," as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller and the famous Bus Stop episode, "I Kiss Your Shadow."

Barbara Baxley (1923-1990) plays Irma. She was an Actor's Studio graduate who started out on stage and had a long career on screen from 1950 to 1990. She was on The Twilight Zone and can be seen in six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Ray Bradbury's "Design for Loving" (with Norman Lloyd), John Collier's "Anniversary Gift" and Henry Slesar's "The Case of M.J.H."

Watch "Across the Threshold" online here or buy the DVD here.


"Across the Threshold." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 22, CBS, 28 Feb. 1960.


Galactic Central,

Gordon, L.B. "The Dark Passage." John Creasey's Mystery Magazine, July 1959, 85-95.

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



Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Nightmare in 4-D" here!

In two weeks: Our series on Charlotte Armstrong concludes with a look at "Sybilla," starring Barbara Bel Geddes!


HassoBenSoba said...

Jack, HI, hope your are well. 1.) The photo of Irma is Barbara Baxley (not BelGeddes). 2.) I'm trying to get in touch with Peter E; sent him an e-mail a couple of weeks ago, but haven't heard back. Can you assist? Larry Rapchak

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Larry. I fixed the Bel Geddes errors and told Peter you're trying to reach him.

Grant said...

This story had to have inspired the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR episode called "The Evil of Adelaide Winter." Or at least the end of it.

Jack Seabrook said...

They both have fake mediums, but "The Evil of Adelaide Winters" was based on a 1951 radio play!