by Kathy Waller
The summer I was six, my cousin of the same age was visiting our spinster great-aunt and bachelor uncle who lived up the street. Uncle called one evening. Cousin was being a major pain. It was a weeknight, and the only amusement our miniscule town afforded, a roller skating rink, was open only on weekends. Great-aunt and uncle weren’t accustomed to dealing with children of the painful variety, so he did what he often did when desperate. He appealed to my mother: You’ve got to do something.
A veteran of dealing with a juvenile pain, she proposed the perfect solution. They loaded both of us into the car and took us fifteen miles to the drive-in movie.
A synopsis of the novel from which the movie was adapted appears on Wikipedia:
A prosperous shipbuilder hires a former detective who suffers from vertigo to tail his wife Madeleine who is acting strangely. The detective falls in love with the shipbuilder’s wife but is unable to stop her committing suicide by jumping from a tower. Haunted by her death, he sees a woman who bears a strong resemblance to the dead woman, however, his attempts to get closer to this doppelgänger ultimately result in tragedy.
In these enlightened times, many, if not most, parents would be horrified at anyone’s allowing a first-grader to see such a nightmare-inducing movie. I, however, spent every afternoon glued to the Afternoon Movie. I guess my mother assumed that if I could handle Don Ameche trying to get rid of his wife, Claudette Colbert, by drugging her hot chocolate and then piping in repeated suggestions that she jump off her bedroom balcony, Hitchcock wouldn’t upset me.
And I’ve always been grateful to her, because that night at the drive-in, I fell in love. I watched Hitchcock’s television programs and all the movies I could manage. They were wonderful, and if they starred Cary Grant–Francine Paino wrote about one of those, North by Northwest, last week–that was icing on the cake.
Now Netflix, Prime, Roku, and other streaming services have allowed me to watch many of them again.
But this post isn’t a celebration of Hitchcock. It’s about two stories adapted for his television show. Watching them as an adult, I saw something I hadn’t seen years (and years) ago. I enjoyed both, but one had something extra.
The first is “The Second Wife,” in which a mail-order bride comes to believe that her husband plans to kill her. At the outset, he seems insensitive, unconcerned about her needs; when she says the laundry room in the basement is uncomfortably cold, he complains about the cost of installing a heater. She also hears stories: he took his first wife to visit her people at Christmas and she died and was buried there–or that’s what he claims.
Gossip fuels the second wife’s fears, and when the husband announces plans to take her home for Christmas, she acquires a gun. Before they leave, however, he insists she go down to the basement. She takes the gun and descends the stairs. He’ll follow in a moment.
The viewer feels her fear: The husband will kill the second wife, as he killed the first.
But there’s a literary catch. In a letter, Anton Chekhov stated one of his principles for writing fiction: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
The wife has a gun. And this is Hitchcock; he keeps his promises.
The wife shoots and kills her husband, then realizes he’d only wanted to show her her Christmas present–the heating system he’d had installed in the laundry room.
A tragic ending, but satisfying in its irony.
The second story, “Night of the Owl,” however, has something extra, something unexpected.
A couple have reared an adopted daughter, now a teenager, a bright student, a well-adjusted, happy girl. But the parents have carefully guarded a secret: the girl’s father murdered her mother, then killed himself in prison. When a prison chaplain and his accomplice appear and blackmail the couple, then come back for more, the father considers his options: murder the blackmailer, or tell his daughter about her past. Both are unthinkable. Then one of the blackmailers is murdered. Evidence points to the father.
How can the plot be resolved? Did the father commit murder? He escapes being charged but can’t escape telling his daughter about her birth parents.
In “The Second Wife,” the resolution is either/or, and the viewer can almost certainly predict which it will be.
But the ending of “The Night of the Owl” isn’t predictable. Will the girl become hysterical? Fall into depression? Reject her adoptive parents? Run away? Harm herself?
Told the truth about the murder/suicide in her background, she expresses empathy. How unhappy her parents must have been, she says–what sad lives they must have lived.
I didn’t see that coming. A Hitchcock program with a happy ending. And an exceptional character.
Critics (professional and amateur) point to problems with both programs. Fair enough. I didn’t watch for flaws. In fact, I didn’t watch for anything but the pleasure of seeing programs I’d first watched as a child. I just happened to see something more.
And to quote Osgood Fielding III, “Nobody’s perfect.”
“Night of the Owl” is available on Youtube.
Robert Bloch wrote the teleplay of “The Second Wife” based on a story by Richard Deming. It aired on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on October 4, 1962.
Richard Fielder wrote the teleplay of “The Night of the Owl” based on a novel by Paul Winterton. It aired on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on April 26, 1965.
Research turned up this biographical item: “An ardent opponent of the Nazi regime, in 1939 Brown testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of a bill that would allow 20,000 German-Jewish refugee children into the United States. He would later adopt two German-Jewish refugee girls himself, naming them Mary Katherine Ann (born 1930) and Kathryn Francis (born 1934).”
Images are taken from Wikipedia. Both are in the public domain.
Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.