Friday, March 04, 2016

Spoiling the Perfect Murder

Most television series run Christmas–oriented episodes at, you know, Christmas time.

But Alfred Hitchcock never did things the way other people did them.

Actually, the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that aired on this night in 1956, "Back for Christmas," really had very little to do with Christmas at all. It mostly just mentioned the holiday in the title.

See, the story centered on this middle–aged couple about to embark on a trip to America. The length of this trip was unclear, but they insisted they would be back in time for Christmas — hence, the mention of the holiday in the title. The apparent purpose of the trip was for the husband, John Williams, a metallurgist, to work on a temporary assignment on the West Coast.

On the day of their planned departure, Williams (who appeared in three Hitchcock movies and half a dozen other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) killed his wife and buried her in the basement, where he had ostensibly been digging a wine cellar. In typical Hitchcock fashion, viewers didn't see the blow that killed Williams' wife. They only saw him raise a club and bring it down where the audience knew her head to be.

Williams had directed her to take a close look at the hole he had been digging, and she fell right into it after the blow. The audience knew because there was an audible thud a few seconds after the club came down.

The audience also knew that, earlier in the episode, Williams had assessed his wife's height and compared it to the rectangular hole he had been digging. The camera allowed the viewers to see what Williams was seeing, and the audience knew that was no wine cellar. He had been digging her grave.

The next thing the audience knew, Williams' ship was arriving in America. He and his wife had told their friends they didn't like to fly and were crossing the Atlantic by ship. They were taking their car with them so they could drive across the continent — and, I presume, to have their own transportation in America.

That neatly covered most of the loose ends.

The viewers watched Williams arrive in New York, then drive across the country to California, where he was set up in a ritzy hotel. He wrote forged letters from his wife to the friends back home, at first reassuring them that, yes, they would be back by Christmas, then gradually allowing doubt to creep into their minds. By the time the couple didn't return for Christmas, it would hardly be a surprise.

The surprise was on Williams. His wife — who could be bossy in the preparations for their departure — had secretly arranged for excavators to turn the basement into a wine cellar while they were gone.

Williams got an advance bill for the excavators' services, addressed to his wife, and he knew what that meant. In the course of their work, they would find the body.

Well, she had insisted that the excavators have the work done before Christmas. Apparently, that was to have been her Christmas gift to him. Instead, he was going to be getting a much different gift — presumably well before Christmas. It was only a matter of time before some detectives would be knocking on his door.

The story supposedly was based on a real murder in the United Kingdom. As I understand it, the perpetrator in real life was a doctor who dismembered his wife after killing her.

That was too messy for Hitchcock. I do recall he made one movie in which a man killed and dismembered his wife, but it was all supposition until late in the movie. As a matter of fact, I believe that movie was based on the same case.

That's the way Hitchcock liked it. He's been gone more than 30 years; I think he would have been very uncomfortable with the horror movies that have been at the theaters since he's been gone. They're mostly too gory, too graphic for his taste.

Hitchcock preferred more style than that, more sophistication. He almost always presented murders in such a way that there was at least a touch of ambiguity. You might be 99% certain that someone killed someone else, as Jimmy Stewart was in "Rear Window," but it was always hard to get around that last 1%. I guess it was Hitchcock's way of reminding us that suspicion of guilt is not the same thing as proof of guilt.

Not a bad thing of which to be reminded, is it?