Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Hitchcock Project-Irving Elman, Part Two-The Door Without a Key [7.15]

by Jack Seabrook
Claude Rains as Eldridge

The last teleplay that Irving Elman wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "The Door Without a Key," which aired on NBC on Tuesday, January 16, 1962. The show was adapted from a short story of the same name by Norman Daniels that appeared in the March 1961 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The story begins in the police station of Farmingham, an Eastern manufacturing town, where Captain Shaw mans the front desk on a Saturday night. A well-dressed man of about 65 years enters and announces that he cannot recall his own identity. He is given a seat, from which he observes the ebb and flow of events at the busy police station until an eight-year-old boy, who gives his name as Mickey Holland, walks in and sits beside the old man.

"The Door Without a Key"
was first published here
Mickey tells Captain Shaw that he has been living with his widowed father, who travels by car from town to town and who mistakenly drove off and left the boy behind. The old man begins to recall memories of his own childhood on a farm, conversing with Mickey while Shaw listens in and keeps up with the busy station. One of the men who enters lies about a parking violation, which leads Mickey to admit that he was lying about his own situation. The boy explains that his father took up with a new woman and dropped Mickey off at a "'home for kids.'" Mickey walked around for a while and ended up at the police station.

As Captain Shaw's shift nears its end, he considers his options regarding the little boy and the old man, who wistfully recalls a few details about his late wife. A few minutes before the end of his shift, Shaw decides to act; he tells the old man that he'll have to be locked up and he tells Mickey that he'll be sent to the home for kids. Suddenly, the old man takes charge, announcing that he is powerful Leonard Eldridge, friend to people in high places. He recalls that he grew tired of his busy, stressful life and had to get away. Shaw suggests that Eldridge take Mickey with him, check into a hotel, and have his staff come for them in the morning--the details can be ironed out later.

John Larch as Sergeant Shaw
When Lt. Brady relieves Capt. Shaw just after midnight, Shaw heads home, happy to have helped solve the problems of two people and sad to lose their company.

"The Door Without a Key" is a charming story about two lost people who find comfort and companionship together in an unlikely environment, aided by a gruff police captain whose years of experience and big heart help him solve problems in ways that aren't always by the book. The title has two meanings: the first is explained when Captain Shaw tells a story about the dedication of the new police station years before, when Shaw was a patrolman and Chief Rawlson was in charge. After the station house was built, the mayor presented the chief with a key to the front door, but the chief tossed the key in the middle of the road, saying that "'one thing a police station can do without was a key to the front door. It would never be locked.'" The second meaning is more subtle: the "door without a key" represents the old man's mind, which sudden amnesia has closed and which he can't find a way to open.

Billy Mumy as Mickey
The TV version of "The Door Without a Key" follows the plot of the short story in most important ways, but Irving Elman makes minor changes, deletions, and additions that make it work well on the small screen and take budgetary limitations into account. The first shot establishes the location by focusing on the outside of the station house at night, but unlike the short story, there is no narration to provide details of Captain Shaw's thoughts, so the story's explanation of his family and home life are omitted. Shaw has been demoted a couple of ranks to sergeant in the TV show; the first scene includes a second policeman, a lieutenant who is never given a name, getting ready to go home, and the inference is that he manned the desk during the shift before Shaw arrived.

Connie Gilchrist as Maggie
The lieutenant interacts with Eldridge when the old man first enters, immediately diagnosing amnesia and prescribing a trip to the city hospital. Shaw calls the hospital but the line is busy and so Eldridge must wait; none of this occurs in the story. The lieutenant's departure is interrupted by Mickey's arrival and, again, this other policeman, not Shaw, has the initial conversation with the little boy. The lieutenant tells Shaw to send Mickey to Juvenile Hall, so Shaw calls the facility and asks them to send someone to pick up the boy and drop the old man off at the hospital. Shaw lets them sit at a table next to his desk.

Budgetary restrictions come into play in the TV show since, up to this point, there are no other people coming in or going out of the police station. A new character is added to replace the crowds in the short story; she is Maggie, a drunken, middle-aged woman who joins Mickey and the old man at the table. The captain demonstrates his kindness when he agrees with her request to call her sister to come and pick her up rather than having a police car drop her off at home.

David Fresco
Another bit of business is added to the TV show when we see the policeman who brought Maggie in drop a few coins in an upside-down, old-fashioned policeman's helmet that sits on the front desk. Maggie gets weepy and Mickey backs away from her; she spends the rest of the show with her head down, asleep on the table. The next part of the show follows the story closely, even lifting lines of dialogue almost word for word from the story as the old man tells Mickey an anecdote from his own boyhood.

A delivery man arrives with food and drink for the visitors and the upside-down helmet is explained after Shaw tells the man to "'take the money out of Callahan.'" Shaw reveals that the helmet belonged to a policeman named Callahan, who is now dead; he would "'always pass it around for some worthy cause'" and they still use it to "'carry on the good work.'" This anecdote takes the place of the one in the story about the former chief throwing the key to the front door in the street; it's a good story but it robs the viewer of the explanation of the episode's title.

Sam Gilman
The next scene is as close as the episode gets to showing a busy police station on a Saturday night. Three motorcycles pull up in the alley behind the station, followed by a police car, and the three motorcyclists--two young men and one young woman--enter, followed by a policeman. They had been at a motorcycle rally in nearby Mayfield and are perhaps the least threatening trio of motorcycle riders ever presented on TV. They chat with Mickey and the old man and drink coffee, passing time until Shaw confirms by telephone that they are not wanted for any mischief and they leave.

The lack of a window into Shaw's thoughts makes his transition from kindly to tough near the end more unexpected than it is in the story, but Eldridge's memory returns right away and Shaw smiles, demonstrating that his seemingly harsh threats to send the old man and the little boy to the hospital and the Juvenile Home were really done in a last-ditch effort to get the old man's memory to return. The show ends with Mickey and Eldridge leaving together, followed by a scene that replaces the one in the story and wraps things up with a smile. In the story, Shaw is replaced by another policeman and heads for home, while in the show, a man named Harris from Juvenile Hall walks in the back door of the police station and Shaw tells him that he's too late, remarking, "'Better luck next time--those two got away" and smiling as the screen goes dark.

Andy Romano
"The Door Without a Key" is an enjoyable TV show that successfully adapts a charming short story to the small screen. It benefits from excellent acting across the board, with the three leads giving strong performances that are supported by a cast of mostly familiar faces. The viewer today smiles at the ending; allowing an old man who just recovered from amnesia to march off with a young boy whose father just dropped him off and drove away is not something that would be allowed today, and it may be looking at the past with rose-colored glasses to think that it was anything but fantasy in 1962.

The short story was written by Norman Daniels, which was the most familiar pen name of a writer named Norman Danberg (1905-1995), who wrote hundreds of stories for the pulps and the digests from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. He also wrote many novels, as well as scripts for the radio and a few teleplays. Two of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the other was "Conversation Over a Corpse."  His papers are archived at the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University. In 1981, Daniels was quoted as saying that "I also have a number of TV shows to my credit—Hitchcock, G.E. Theatre, etc. This was, and is, the worst form of writing in history."

Jimmy Hawkins, Susan Hart, Jeff Parker
Directing "The Door Without a Key" is Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), a prolific TV director from 1952 to 1975 who also directed a couple of movies. He directed 27 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in all, including "The Blessington Method," and he directed 16 episodes of Thriller.

Claude Rains (1889-1967) was 72 years old when this show aired and he gives a wonderful performance as Eldridge, though his British accent is never explained. He seems distinguished, polished, civilized, and utterly believable as the character. Born in London, Rains was the son of a stage actor. He emigrated to America in 1913 but went back to Europe to fight for England in WWI. After the war ended, he acted on the London stage before returning to the United States, where he began working on Broadway in 1926. A film career followed, from 1933 to 1965, and his many great films included The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). He was in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Horse Player." He won a Tony in 1951 for Darkness at Noon and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Robert Carson
Sergeant Shaw is played by John Larch (1914-2005) in his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show. He served in the Army in WWII and starred in a radio show called Captain Starr of Space (1953-1954). His screen career lasted from 1954 to 1990 and included a role in Dirty Harry (1971) and a stint as a regular on the TV show, Arrest and Trial (1963-1964). Larch is probably best known for his three appearances on The Twilight Zone, including "It's a Good Life," where he played the father of co-star Billy Mumy.

Billy Mumy (1954- ), who was only seven years old when this episode aired, is outstanding as Mickey. He also appeared in "Bang! You're Dead" earlier in the last season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. On and off screen since 1957, Mumy appeared in three episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "House Guest," as well as three episodes of The Twilight Zone. He is still acting as of this writing and a website devoted to him is here.

In smaller roles:
  • Connie Gilchrist (1895-1985) as Maggie; a busy character actress on screen from 1940 to 1969, she was in three episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "A Home Away from Home."
  • David Fresco (1909-1997) as Dave, who delivers food to the station; he was on screen from 1946 to 1997 and he was blacklisted in 1956. Despite that, he appeared in twelve episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Day of the Bullet," as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.
  • Sam Gilman (1915-1985) as the cop who brings in the motorcyclists; his career is interesting. He started out as a comic book artist for Marvel and Centaur from 1939 to 1942, drawing a text illustration for Marvel Comics #1. He then served in World War Two. On returning to civilian life, he became an actor and befriended Marlon Brando. He moved to Hollywood and got his first role in Brando’s film, The Men (1950). He went on to a career on screen that lasted until 1983 and he may be seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Insomnia." He was also on Thriller.
  • Andy Romano (1936-2022) as Perry, the patrolman who brings in Maggie; he was on screen from 1961 to 2003, including an appearance on Batman and parts in eight episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Black Curtain."
  • Jimmy Hawkins (1941- ) as the lead motorcyclist; although this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, he was on screen from 1944 to 1974 and a regular on two TV series: The Ruggles (1949-1952) and Ichabod and Me (1961-1962). His final credit was in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker in 1974. His most famous part was as Tommy, one of George Bailey's sons in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
  • Jeff Parker (1934-1984) as the other male motorcyclist; he was mostly on TV from 1961 to 1969 and also appeared with Billy Mumy in "Bang! You're Dead."
  • Susan Hart (1941- ) as Marti, the female motorcyclist; born Dorothy Neidhart, she was on screen from 1962 to 1971 and she was married to AIP executive James Nicholson from 1964 to 1972. This was her only role on the Hitchcock show.
  • Robert Carson (1909-1979) as the lieutenant; he was the brother of actor Jack Carson and he appeared on the Hitchcock show eleven times, including "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?" His career as a character actor lasted from 1939 to 1974.
Watch "The Door Without a Key" online here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story, which does not seem to have been reprinted.

*   *   *

Irving Elman wrote the teleplays for three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "On the Nose," "Murder Me Twice," and "The Door Without a Key." Of the three, "Murder Me Twice" varies the most from its source, taking the story in a new direction and changing the ending. Elman's episodes are not among the most well remembered of the series, but they demonstrate competence and a good ability to translate the stories from the page to the small screen.


Daniels, Norman. "The Door Without a Key." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March 1961, pp. 151-162.

"The Door Without a Key." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 7, episode 15, NBC, 16 January 1962.


Galactic Central,

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


"PCL MS 001 Norman Daniels Collection." Omeka RSS, Accessed 11 Feb. 2024.


Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "One for the Road" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "The Door Without a Key" here!

In two weeks: Our series on Calvin Clements begins with a look at "Beta Delta Gamma," starring Burt Brinckerhoff!


Grant said...

I don't know this one well, but John Larch and Billy Mumy aren't the only coincidence here. It's funny that this story has non-threatening bikers and also the actor Andy Romano, since he plays a member of the comical biker gang in the Beach Movies. And of course Susan Hart is in several of those.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks! My knowledge of biker movies is severely limited.