Murder and Suspense: Hitchcock's Established Reputation

[Martin Grams Jr is a research-consultant, based in Pennsylvania, whose fields include movies, TV, and radio. He is the author of 'Suspense: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills' , a fascinating history of a show that ran on TV and radio for two decades. We're grateful to Mr Grams for permission to print the following article, based on material in his book.]

Article by Martin Grams, Jr

ALFRED HITCHCOCK ONCE WROTE, 'terror is often accompanied by suspense in the unfolding of a thrilling narrative - or, to put it another way, a story which gives the reader a feeling of terror necessarily contains a certain measure of suspense.' Known throughout the years as 'the master of suspense', Hitchcock kept viewers on the edge of their chairs with tales of mystery, murder, and mayhem. One of the most popular suspense shows to be broadcast over network airwaves claimed a similar privilege. Suspense was on the air for more than twenty years, and was considered quite an ambitious series at the time, inviting Hollywood and Broadway stars to perform some of the most daring character portrayals ever brought to life from a typewriter. Stars such as Frank Sinatra, Claude Rains, Clifton Webb, Mike Wallace, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dinah Shore, Jack Benny, Ezio Pinza, and many others appeared on the show at least once during their career, and so it was no surprise that Hitchcock got into the act as well. In fact, Hitchcock managed to play one of the most important roles of the series. He helped bring the show to air.

In July of 1940, CBS needed a summer replacement for The Lux Radio Theatre which was scheduled to go off the air for the season. In view of the fact that radio programs were broadcast live at the time, there arose a dire need for a small, short-run show to take the series' time-slot until its return in the fall. During those small tenures, it was pretty common for radio stations to present episodes of experimental new series for a trial run, in hopes that the listening audience would write to the studios and show the series' popularity by asking for a prime-time version. Most summer series never came back but every once in a while, one of them would strike attention from the listeners and the rest as they say ... is network history. During this particular summer, CBS came up with a better idea than a new program. On July 15, 1940, Forecast premiered in Lux's place as a pilot presentation show. Each week for a total of eight weeks, the network presented two half-hour episodes of varied entertainment. The first episode could be a comedy, and the next a western. The week after would present a horror tale and afterwards, a musical game show. Hollywood stars were hired to help support each proposed program, and after every production announcer Thomas Freebairn would ask the listeners to write in and give their opinion.

On the second presentation of July 22, 1940, Forecast offered a mystery/horror show titled Suspense. With the co-operation of his producer Walter Wanger, Alfred Hitchcock received the honor of directing his first radio show for the American public. The condition agreed upon for Hitchcock's appearance was that CBS make a pitch to the listening audience about his and Wanger's latest film, Foreign Correspondent. To add some flavour to the deal, Wanger threw in Edmund Gwenn and Herbert Marshall as part of the package. All three men (including Hitch) would be seen in the upcoming film, which was due for a theatrical release the next month. Both Marshall and Hitchcock decided on the same story to bring to the airwaves, which happened to be a favorite of both of them: Marie Belloc Lowndes's 'The Lodger'. Hitchcock had filmed this story for Gainsborough in 1926, and since then it had remained as one of his favorites.

Herbert Marshall portrayed the mysterious lodger, and co-starring with him were Edmund Gwenn and character actress Lurene Tuttle as the rooming-house keepers who start to suspect that their new boarder might be the notorious Jack-the-Ripper. [Gwenn was actually repeating the role taken in the 1926 film by his brother, Arthur Chesney. And Tuttle would work again with Hitchcock exactly 20 years later, playing Mrs Al Chambers in Psycho.] Character actor Joseph Kearns also had a small part in the drama, and Wilbur Hatch, head musician for CBS Radio at the time, composed and conducted the music specially for the program. Adapting the script to radio was not a great technical challenge for Hitchcock, and he cleverly decided to hold back the ending of the story from the listening audience in order to keep them in suspense themselves. This way, if the audience's curiosity got the better of them, they would write in to the network to find out whether the mysterious lodger was in fact Jack-the-Ripper. For the next few weeks, hundreds of letters came in from faithful listeners asking how the story ended. Actually a few wrote threats claiming that it was 'indecent' and 'immoral' to present such a production without giving the solution.

Although letters and phone calls poured in concerning the Suspense program, Forecast broadcast a comedy staring Ed Gardner the week after. Titled Duffy’s Tavern, it exposed listeners to a situation comedy where the humor and wisecracks took place in a flea-infested bar where only 'the elite meet to eat'. Duffy’s Tavern became an instant success with a response so large that it made Suspense look like an amateur production. This was probably why a few months later, Duffy’s was scheduled for a prime-time, late-night show. Suspense, on the other hand, was tossed onto the shelves not to be heard of again for almost two years, until another summer series was needed. Again Suspense resurfaced but this time as a fourteen-week summer replacement for Random Harvest which went off the air permanently in June of 1942. This trial run was what made CBS executives notice the possibility of a nightly prime-time series with the same format. Unknown at the time, this still-experimental anthology series would later run for more than twenty years before being pulled off the air.

Alfred Hitchcock never again got into the act of working on or for Suspense, but his work on the side helped shape the series. His fourth American film, RKO's Suspicion (1942), starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, was based on the novel 'Before the Fact' by Francis Iles. When Suspense made the transition to television in March of 1949, producer and director Robert Stevens decided to present the same story as the second episode, starring Ernest Truex and hi real-life wife Sylvia Field. [Note: Suspense on television and radio overlapped for a few years. On radio it ran from 1942 to 1962, on television it ran from 1949 to 1954.] This teleplay was repeated again in November, with Charlton Heston and Meg Mundy in the lead roles. The televised version was more of a copy of the movie than the novel. Despite this compliment, though, Hitchcock in general seems to have preferred the radio series, almost turning into a fan by tuning in to the program whenever he got the chance. On the one day of the week that Suspense aired, Hitch always made sure that the day's shooting of his latest film would be completed a few hours before broadcast in order to be home in time to listen to the latest installment of chills and thrills. During the early 1950s, staff writer John Michael Hayes co-wrote a few episodes with other staff writers, and it was love at first sight as regards Hitchcock and Hayes. Hitchcock called on the young writer and offered him a job scripting his next movie. Hayes accepted the offer and together, the two men collaborated in bringing to the screen such classics as Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble With Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

In 1945, Hitchcock decided that he, too, should have his own mystery show. Working with a few sound technicians and radio hands, he had an audition show recorded on a transcription disc and presented it to the ABC. The show was titled Once Upon a Midnight [from Poe's 'The Raven']. Much like Suspense, each episode would feature a different tale of mystery and horror, personally supervised by Hitchcock himself. Hitch would also host, narrate, and direct each production. Felix Mills was hired as the chief musician, and at Hitchcock's insistence, the music was used more for emphasizing verbal and physical actions than for forming musical bridges between scenes. The story brought to life was Francis Iles's story 'Malice Aforethought'. Hume Cronyn, a friend of Hitchcock's, took the lead role as the murderous doctor, with a supporting cast of unknowns. Cronyn had appeared in Hitchcock's last two films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Lifeboat (1944), and in helping to boost Cronyn's career, Hitchcock gave him what other work was available. Hoping to raise the ABC's curiosity, Hitchcock again ended the program with a quick cut, then announcing that the conclusion would be given the week after. But to his sorrow, the ABC did not buy the idea after listening to the demo, and the project was more-or-less scrapped. Nonetheless, some time afterwards - the internal evidence suggests 1946 or 1947 - a radio production of The Alfred Hitchcock Show apparently did go to air, and it was indeed an adaptation of 'Malice Aforethought', though with a new cast and a different script.

On the original demo recording, Hitchcock explained that 'murderers are serious people. You know, one thing that has always fascinated me about criminals, is that when you walk down the street, any passerby might be a murderer. They don't all wear black mustaches. I imagine most murderers behave just like ordinary people, until suddenly one day they turn and stab you in the back.' Joseph Cotten recalled a time during the filming of Shadow of a Doubt when he could not do any scenes because he didn't know how a murderer might look and behave. Hitchcock took Cotten out on the streets and gave him the same explanation as he did to the listeners in Once Upon a Midnight. Perhaps this also helps explain why Hitchcock often claimed that Shadow of a Doubt was his favourite film.

Suspense also brought to the radio waves stories which Hitchcock had either used previously or would turn to later. "The Thirty-Nine Steps" (3/3/52) featured Herbert Marshall as Richard Hannay, the fleeing suspect whom Robert Donat portrayed in the 1935 film. In "Rope" (7/8/42), Richard Widmark starred as Rupert Cadell, a role Jimmy Stewart would play in 1948. And it was the television episode called "Fifty Beautiful Girls" (7/1/52) that brought Grace Kelly to Hitchcock's attention. Kelly would then star in his next three films, the first being Dial M for Murder (1954).

Because Suspense featured a star performer each week, and because most performers were under contract with major studios, it became a weekly ritual to announce at the end of each drama which film the guest was soon to be appearing in. Of the 1,206 episodes, three featured a pitch for a Hitchcock film. The first was the episode "Murder Strikes Three Times", with guest star Marlene Dietrich, broadcast on February 16, 1950. Hans Conreid co-starred. The announcer was Harlow Wilcox, who made a pitch for Warner Bros' latest film Stage Fright. Another pitch for a Hitchcock film occurred on the musical episode "The Death of Barbara Allen" (10/20/52), starring Anne Baxter and William Conrad. Harlow Wilcox made a pitch for Warners' I Confess. The third such pitch took place on the episode called "Want Ad" (1/25/54), starring Robert Cummings. The Warner 3-D film Dial M for Murder was announced as an upcoming cinema attraction.

Hitchcock featured stories from Suspense in his anthology books which began appearing in the late 1950s. David Devine's 'Flood on the Goodwins', Gibbon Perceval's 'Second Class Passenger', Evelyn Waugh's 'The Man Who Liked Dickens', and Ray Bradbury's 'The Whole Town’s Sleeping' were but a few to be included. One of the later anthologies featured the short novel 'Sorry, Wrong Number', by Lucille Fletcher and Allan Ullman, which was originally published by Random House in 1948 during a virtual SWN craze (climaxing with the release of the film version, starring Barbara Stanwyk). It became probably one of the most famous and successful episodes to ever be performed on Suspense, and understandably Hitchcock wanted to distribute the suspenseful story to his readers.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents was Hitchcock’s second and only successful anthology series to grace the airwaves. It premiered just a year after Suspense went off television. Hosting, supervising, and occasionally directing each episode, Hitchcock managed to lure and capture the faithful Suspense listeners from their radios. Even though Hitch used many of the same previously-published stories that Suspense had already featured, such as Thomas Burke's 'The Hands of Mr Ottermole' and John Collier's 'Wet Saturday', a few stories originally written for the Suspense program were adapted for Hitchcock's television series. Harold Swanton wrote "The Long Shot" (broadcast on 1/31/46), and years later, on November 27, 1955, his teleplay of the same radio story was used on Hitchcock's television program. "The Long Wait" (11/24/49) was retitled "Salvage" when it was adapted for AHP (11/6/55). "Alibi Me" was originally written by Therd Jefre, and Walter Brown Newman adapted the story for radio's Suspense program of 1/4/51. When this story made the transition to AHP in November of 1956, Bernard C. Schoenfeld adapted the teleplay not from Jefre's story, but from Newman's radio adaptation.

Arthur Ross wrote an original Suspense radio play titled "The Evil of Adelaide Winters" (9/10/51) which he later adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour of February 7, 1964. Kim Hunter starred in the lead role, originally played on Suspense by Agnes Moorhead. On October 4, 1955, Suspense presented "Good-bye, Miss Lizzie Borden", adapted for the series by Lillian de la Torre, from her original one-act play. Just three months later, the same story was performed on AHP (1/22/56), but under the title "The Older Sister".

Hitchcock's daughter Patricia also got into the Suspense act by co-starring with Thomas Mitchell in the TV episode "A Time of Innocence" (12/2/52), and in a small supporting role in the radio adaptation of Wilkie Collins's "The Moonstone" (11/16/53). "The Moonstone" was broadcast as a two-part story but Patricia did not appear in the second half. Robert Stevens, the first producer and director of television's Suspense, directed a handful of episodes for AHP. Writers Morton Fine and David Friedkin, who wrote numerous episodes for Suspense on radio, later wrote scripts for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and David Friedkin also became producer of the Hitchcock Hour for a short time.

After all these years, both the Suspense and Hitchcock series have left us vivid memories of murder and surprise. But if you think about it, you'll see that had Hitchcock not agreed to present the 1940 radio version of 'The Lodger', Suspense may not have premiered at all. And had Suspense not gone to air, the Hitchcock television show may not have become what it is remembered for. Certainly both series helped each other in more than one way. Fundamentally, if it were not for Hitchcock and his fascination with the macabre, probably neither show would have existed, nor achieved its high reputation. Which leaves us with the unanswered question of what other shows could have possibly been influenced by 'the master of suspense'?

©1997, by Martin Grams, Jr

The above article represents unpublished material from 'Suspense: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills' by Martin Grams, Jr. Over 400 pages long, the book costs $29.95 plus a small shipping and handling charge. Call (717) 456 6208, or fax (717) 456 5692.

Other sources:

'Tune in Yesterday' by John Dunning

Various recordings, as indicated

Interview with John Michael Hayes in 'Scarlet Street', issue 21

'The MacGuffin' #21.

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