Saturday, December 25, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's Favorite Crime: The Case of Dr. Crippen

A Christmas treat courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock directed episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Back for Christmas, followed by a little background on Hitchcock's favorite crime. Enjoy!

That Alfred Hitchcock possessed one of the most complete collections of literature relating to true crime is a well-known fact. Frequently elements from the most notorious criminal cases found their way into Hitchcock’s films. The case of Jack-the-Ripper was the inspiration for The Lodger; the Siege of Sidney Street made its way into The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); the trial of William Palmer influenced Suspicion; the manner in which Patrick Mahon disposed of his victim’s remains became part of Rear Window; the crimes of Ed Gein inspired Psycho. Perhaps the case which Hitchcock referred to most often for inspiration was the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen.

The facts of the case are simple enough: Dr. Crippen poisoned his wife, Cora, by giving her a lethal dose of hyoscin. He then cut up the corpse, burned and buried the remains in the basement of his home, and went about concealing his crime by writing several letters to his wife’s friends explaining that she had gone to America. During the next few months, Dr. Crippen pawned several pieces of his wife’s jewelry, and was frequently seen in the company of his mistress, Ethel Le Neve. When the police became suspicious, Crippen left his home, prompting a thorough search of the house, where human remains were discovered beneath the bricks of the coal cellar. Within days, Crippen and Le Neve, boarded the S.S. Montrose for America, disguised as father and son, but were quickly found out by the ship’s captain who sent a wireless message back to England, indicating that the fugitives were passengers on his ship. Detectives boarded another ship which intercepted the Montrose, and the pair were arrested at sea. After a trial which lasted five days, Crippen was found guilty and sentenced to death, and executed one month later.

Filson Young, who edited the volume The Trial of H. H. Crippen for the series Notable British Trials, noted that the case was extraordinary not so much from a legal point of view, but that its fascination came from its central figures. There are several theories as to why Crippen murdered his wife. The official theory of the prosecution was that Crippen murdered his wife so that he could be with Ethel Le Neve. Another theory had it that Dr. Crippen could not satisfy his wife’s sexual appetite, and sought to depress her sexual drive by giving her a dose of hydrobromide of hyoscin (which at the time was used to treat extreme cases of sexual addiction). Crippen administered 5 grains of hyoscin to his wife in a cup of coffee, and to his horror, she died. Fearing no one would accept his explanation, he cut up, burned, and disposed of his wife’s remains and went about explaining her disappearance as he did.

Young dismisses these theories however in light of the facts of the case. Young’s theory is that on several occasions Cora Crippen had threatened to leave her husband if he did not give up his association with Ethel Le Neve, and that she would take all her money (and jewelry) with her. It was this threat that sealed Cora Crippen’s fate.

Aspects of the case recur in Hitchcock’s work on both the big and small screen. The example cited most often by Hitchcock was in Rear Window, where the plot was constructed so that the chief piece of evidence incriminating the murderer, Lars Thorwald, was the jewelry left behind by his late wife, particularly her wedding ring. The incriminating jewelry idea was used again by Hitchcock in Vertigo, as Judy Barton adorns the necklace that had once belonged to Carlotta Valdes which was inherited by the real Madeline Elster.

Hitchcock was not the only artist who saw the dramatic possibilities of the Crippen case. Francis Isles (pseudonym of Anthony Berkely Cox) based his 1931 novel Malice Aforethought on the Crippen case. Hitchcock had filmed Isles’s Before the Fact as Suspicion in 1941 for RKO, and later directed a radio production of Malice Aforethought in 1945. Hitchcock wanted to make a film out of Malice Aforethought, and even announced it as a possibility for his own production company Transatlantic Pictures in 1953. Alec Guinness was the director’s choice for the role of the murderous Dr. Bickleigh, but as the actor was unavailable and Hitchcock moved from Warner Brothers to Paramount later that year, the project was never seriously developed.

Another aspect of the case influenced Frederick Knott’s play Dial M for Murder. In his statement to the police, Dr. Crippen explained that for a period of eight months he went to America on business, and his wife remained in England. During her husband’s absence, Cora Crippen had begun singing at smoking concerts, and was receiving attention from an American music hall artist named Bruce Miller. Crippen stated, “I never saw the man Bruce Miller, but he used to call when I was out, and used to take her out in the evenings ... I did not think anything of Bruce Miller’s visiting my wife at the time ... I have seen letters from Bruce to her, which ended ‘with love and kisses to Brown Eyes.’” At trial, Bruce Miller denied that he and Mrs. Crippen had ever been lovers, and stated that his letters were not ‘love letters’, but ‘affectionate letters.’ In Dial M for Murder, it is a love letter from Mark Halliday (Max in the play) to Margot Wendice which brings about Tony Wendice’s murderous intentions.

The closest Hitchcock came to making a film directly influenced by the Crippen case was an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called Back for Christmas. In this episode, Herbert Carpenter, played by Hitchcock favorite John Williams (The Paradine Case, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief), kills his wife Hermione on the eve of their prolonged trip to America. Herbert buries his wife in the basement of their house, where he had been digging a hole for the installation of a wine cellar. He then goes to California alone, and is enjoying life as a bachelor. Early on, Hermione insisted to her friends (over her husband’s objections) that they’d be “back for Christmas.” To cover his tracks, Herbert writes letters to Hermione’s friends, just as Dr. Crippen did, indicating they have decided not to return to England. But Herbert’s undoing comes when he receives a bill from an excavation company engaged by his wife to complete the wine cellar during their absence, insisting that the work be completed before Christmas. It seems Hermione was right, after all.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Talkback with the New York cast of The 39 Steps

I had a great time this week hosting a Talkback with the cast of The 39 Steps at the New World Stages in New York. If you haven't seen the show yet, hurry and catch it. This production closes January 16, 2011.
Steven DeRosa moderating Talkback with the New York cast of THE 39 STEPS (John Behlmann, Kate MacCluggage, Cameron Folmar, and unseen to the right, Jamie Jackson).

The video quality is more than a bit lackluster (mostly poor audio but there are captions), but gives you an idea of what I spoke about with the cast—John Behlmann (Richard Hannay), Kate MacCluggage (Annabella/Pamela/Margaret), Jamie Jackson (Man #1), and Cameron Folmar (Man #2). We covered everything from Hitchcock's working methods with his writers, to the MacGuffin, to his typical means of adapting source material such as John Buchan's novel The Thirty-nine Steps, how the idea for transforming the film into a broad stage comedy for four actors came about, the actors' process of "finding their clown" within the various roles they play in the show, and much more.
"I'd say they do REAR WINDOW next, but the producers of DISTURBIA would probably sue."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Robert Burks's early work on TCM

Robert Burks and Alfred Hitchcock on location for The Trouble with Harry, October 1954.

If there is a single blessing to come out of Hitchcock’s association with Warner Bros., it’s the gifted cinematographer, Robert Burks. Yesterday The New Yorker online mentioned Burks's early work in the opening of a documentary short Jammin' the Blues, which airs on TCM Monday, December 6 at 9AM.

When Hitchcock started in silent pictures, he was deeply influenced by German expressionism with the work of directors like Murnau, Lang, and Pabst. Their films had a lot of dark, elongated shadows, and odd angles, and this left a great impression on Hitchcock.  

Now Robert Burks began his career at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, when Hal Wallis was in charge of production. Wallis stressed that his cinematographers give him what he called “sketchy lighting,”—lots of shadows and high contrast. Wallis felt the films coming from other studios were overlit and lacked realism.  

Burks apprenticed under James Wong Howe, shooting montages and special effects for pictures like King's Row, Marked Woman, and In This Our Life. And this readied him for the long and fruitful association with Hitchcock. Beginning with Strangers on a Train, Burks would go on to shoot all of Hitchcock’s films through Marnie with the exception of Psycho.

It's great to see someone calling attention to Burks's early work.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock and the One Note Man

Alfred Hitchcock describes how the idea of Albert Hall sequence in the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was derived from a Punch magazine cartoon by H.M. Bateman called "The One Note Man."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's Perfect Trifecta of Music as Plot Device

Discussion of Alfred Hitchcock's use of music as a plot device, particularly in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, where each of the musical selections serves as commentary in addition to serving the plot. For more in depth analysis of the lyrics to the Storm Cloud Cantata, the Portents Hymn, and Whatever Will Be, see the forthcoming new edition of WRITING WITH HITCHCOCK.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

In celebration of Thanksgiving, I thought I'd leave you with a radio play co-scripted by screenwriter John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much). It's an episode of The Adventures of Sam Spade called The Terrified Turkey Caper

Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Four Leaf Clover in Hitchcock's Rope

Much has been said about Alfred Hitchcock’s selection of Francis Poulenc’s “Perpetual Movement No. 1,” which is played on the piano by Phillip in Rope. Looking at the other music in Rope which plays over the radio, there is a performance by The Three Suns of “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” the 1927 song written by Mort Dixon with music by Harry M. Woods. Assuming it was not just by happenstance, the character descriptions in the screenplay may actually reveal why Hitchcock selected the tune. 

Excluding Rupert (and David, of course), let’s consider the other party guests—Mrs. Atwater, Mr. Kentley, Janet, and Kenneth—and how their character traits fit the symbolic representation of the leaves of a four leaf clover…Faith, Hope, Love, and Luck.

Faith—Mrs. Atwater, we are told by her description, puts her faith in many things, and this year it happens to be astrology. She reads palms and works out horoscopes, and although she has no idea what she is talking about, her predictions may turn out to be spot on.

Hope—Mr. Kentley has great pride in his son and is said to have a “general trust in people” to the point that it has marred his perceptivity. Nonetheless, his hope for the essential good in humanity lends more credibility to his moral compass than to any of the morally questionable theories put forth by Brandon or Rupert.

Love—Janet is described as coming from a family that once had money, and so now she “belongs neither to the class she is actually in nor the class she wants to be in.” Although Brandon more than once insinuates that Janet has traded up to David for his money, we do get the impression this is not the case, she’s in love.

Luck—Kenneth is described as attractive with a background that has included tutors, prep school and Princeton, but that he is “not overly bright.” One might say he’s gotten by on his looks, charm, and a bit of luck. At one point, Brandon tells Kenneth his fortunes regarding Janet may have changed. “I have the oddest feeling, anyway, that your chances with the lady are much better than you think.”

Thanks to Joel Gunz for pointing out the detail I overlooked when I first published this post. The "I" in the song would have to be Rupert, who looks over Brandon and Phillip, catching the details that he's overlooked before.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Revisiting Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man

In mid-1955 while in production on the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much for Paramount Pictures, Alfred Hitchcock began planning a film that would be a dramatic departure from the up-beat Technicolor productions he made since leaving Warner Brothers two years earlier. Although Hitchcock had fulfilled his obligation under the terms of his original four-picture contract with Warner Bros., in February 1952 he agreed to produce and direct an additional film for the studio at no additional salary. (It is often stated that Hitchcock was to receive no salary for the additional film, but it should be noted that he was to share in the film’s profits.) 

Hitchcock left Warners after completing Dial M for Murder, yet it wasn’t long before the studio reminded Hitchcock of his informal promise of an additional, or fifth picture. The studio managed to do this just a few months before the original contract would expire. Knowing that Hitchcock was about to embark on a large scale production for Paramount, Warner Bros. requested an extension of the original agreement so that they could still get their “free” Hitchcock picture, and so on April 13, 1955, Hitchcock entered into an agreement to produce and direct The Wrong Man for Warner Bros.

Briefly, the story was based on the actual events surrounding the wrongful arrest of Christopher Emmanuel (Manny) Balestrero, a musician in New York’s Stork Club. Subsequent to his arrest for armed robbery and during the course of preparing his defense for trial, Manny’s wife, Rose, suffers a mental breakdown and is placed in a sanitarium. Later, Manny is cleared when his “double” is apprehended, but the damage to Rose’s psyche has already been done. 

This was a departure from the recent upbeat enertainments that Hitchcock had turned out in his collaboration with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. Hayes told Hitchcock as much, which added to the growing friction between writer and director. Another reason Hayes expressed reluctance to write the project was that the story had recently been done on television as "The Idendified Man" for Robert Montgomery Presents

Robert Ellenstein, who would later play Licht in North by Northwest, played the role of Manny in the TV production "The Identified Man" aka "A Case of Identity" in 1954.

The real Manny Balestrero reenacts the walk to his front door for Life.
Hitchcock's depiction of Manny's walk to his front door with Henry Fonda as Balestrero.
Of course, Hitchcock did not merely want to redo what had already been done on television, and despite his promoting the film as a factual case, his intention was not to make a docu-drama. Hitchcock's focus would be on the mental breakdown of Rose Balestrero. With the exception of North by Northwest (which was actually initiated with Hayes), Hitchcock's post-Hayes films—The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie—would each focus on the psychological trauma a character endures. In the case of The Wrong Man, although Manny is ultimately cleared of the crimes for whch he is accused, the real nightmare of Rose's remained.
Manny (Robert Ellenstein) tells Rose (Florence Anglin) that he has been cleared of the robberies.

In Hitchcock's depiction of the same sequence, the focus is on Rose (Vera Miles).
Not wanting to end the film on the bleak note of Manny leaving Rose in the institution, the final shot of The Wrong Man shows the Balestreros and their two boys strolling beneath the palm trees of sunny Florida, with the an epilogue stating, “Two years later, Rose walked out of the sanitarium — completely cured. Today she lives happily in Florida with Manny and the two boys ..and what happened seems like a nightmare to them — but it did happen...”

It has long been contended that Warner Bros. insisted on tacking on the final shot of the Balestrero family along with a "happy" epilogue over Hitchcock's "loud objections." Fortunately, the interesting circumstances under which the script of The Wrong Man was written resulted in a trail of correspondence between the director and his writers, playwright Maxwell Anderson and Hitchcock’s longtime friend and occasional collaborator Angus MacPhail, which reveals that the director had both the final shot, and the reassuring epilogue in mind even before the screenplay was completed. 

MacPhail and Hitchcock worked in New York, researching factual details, interviewing persons like Judge Groat, (Rose's doctor) Dr. Banay, (Manny's attorney) O'Connor and (Prosecuting Attorney) Mr. Crisoda, and laying out the story and the visuals more or less in treatment form. As they completed each section of the story, they sent pages to Maxwell Anderson, at his home in Connecticut. Anderson then set about adding the dialogue, which MacPhail would edit and incorporate into the final script as approved by the director.
Correspondence between Hitchcock, MacPhail and Anderson reveals that Hitchcock fully intended both the final shot of the Balestrero family in Florida, as well as the epilogue. As early as March 20, 1956, while the script was in preparation, Hitchcock indicated in a letter to Anderson, "if you would have a 'go' at the words that are to be printed on the screen at the end, I would be very grateful. Not only does this give us a note of relief, but more than that, they [the audience] have been seeing a factual case and I think this is very important." 

Although Hitchcock had asked Anderson, it was MacPhail who had the first "go" at the epilogue, which he turned in on April 4, 1956. MacPhail’s epilogue went as follows: "Two years after these events Rose Balestrero walked out of the sanitarium completely cured. Today she lives happily in Florida with the two boys. Now they can hardly believe that this nightmare experience was reality. But it did happen to Manny Balestrero, and but for the grace of God, it might happen to you." 

MacPhail sent his "temporary" epilogue to Anderson, who replied in a letter dated April 5, "I think it's essentially good, but I don't personally think the deity intrudes in these matters, so I just left him out." Anderson simply cut MacPhail's "and but for the grace of God". In a letter to Anderson dated April 10, MacPhail indicated, "[Hitchcock] would like the Epilogue to end up on a note of warm reassurance and not on a chilling reminder," adding, "I accept your reproof about the deity." 

Anderson replied on April 11, "As for the Epilogue, it seems to me Hitch's objection should simply be remedied by excising the two final sentences. We don't need them ... The warm reassurance is there in the Florida sky and in the family group." And regarding the reference to God, Anderson wrote, "I didn't mean to reprove anybody about the deity, but my father was a Baptist minister and I'm allergic." 

As far as Hitchcock was concerned though, the reference to the Almighty might well have been left in, for as he expressed to a reporter from the Los Angeles Examiner, "The [film's] suspense is due to the thought that will strike everyone, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.'"