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.