During the week David Kelsey lives in a little apartment in Froudsberg but at weekends he drives off to a large secluded house near Ballard to become ‘William Newmaster’, where he dreams of a life with his ex-girlfriend Annabel, now married to someone else. This is the premise of Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness (I reviewed it here last week), which shortly after its publication became the debut episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Dean Stockwell starred as Kelsey and Susan Oliver played Annabel in an adaptation scripted by the great Robert Bloch that substantially altered the book.
This review is offered as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for review links, click here and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.
“I understand, I always understood you, ever since we met, ever since we fell in love”
This TV version (there is also a French movie from 1977, Dites-lui que je l’aime [Tell Her I Love Her] starring Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Miou that I have yet to catch up with) compresses and shortens the narrative greatly and should be seen as a palimpsest of the novel. Much of the plot and character material has been removed entirely and the timeframe condensed massively. Arguably though this is no bad thing as Highsmith’s novel does in fact feel overlong, slowing down considerably on its way to its nihilistic finale as Kelsey succumbs to his obsessions with murderous results. It was originally screened on 1 November 1962 as the first episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the new incarnation for the Hitchcock anthology when, after seven years on the air, it expanded on its original half-hour format and moved back to CBS after being screened on NBC for two years. Despite the inevitable simplifications of the narrative to fit its 60-minute slot and the predictable prettification of the book’s highly disagreeable cast of characters, this reduction (starting with Highsmith’s Annabelle losing the last two letters of her name) is none the less quite an effective adaptation on its own highly unfaithful terms.
Having Psycho author Robert Bloch pen the script (one of several he did for the show) strikes me as a very good bit of casting as there is more than a touch of ‘Norman Bates’ about David – and this is certainly borne out by the heavily revised ending that fans will recognise as being fairly typical of Bloch’s blackly comic sensibility. Many of the changes in Bloch’s script though are simple expedients to reduce the size of the cast and the number of sets, pretty much boiling everything down to its bare essentials. Kelsey and Wes Carmichael are still co-workers at a chemical plant but are now roommates too, so cutting out all the subsidiary characters at Mrs McCartney’s rooming house from the novel where David stays. Wes is no longer married (and no longer a drunk), though still trying to get Effie (now re-named Linda) to go out with him, so maintaining the book’s two love ‘triangles’. Annabel’s husband Gerald is, like Wes, also a more reasonable and urbane chap here than in the novel. Other changes are cosmetic, like David now claiming to be visiting his invalid father at weekends rather than his mother (perhaps to avoid comparisons with Psycho), but he is still pestering Annabel and sending her expensive gifts that Gerald can’t hope to match. Linda is now also a co-worker at the plant, making it easier for her to discover that David is lying about visiting his father at weekends by peeking at his personnel file (or rather, getting a friend in HR to do it for her). When Gerald decides to warn off David and gets the ‘Newmaster’ address from Linda, who discovered it when she jealously followed David to his Ballard home one day, the culminating scene plays out very differently than in the book however. Originally Gerald’s death is an accident after a scuffle in the snow but here it is most definitely murder and Kelsey is under no illusions – he just thinks he is justified so he can get Annabel back.
Dean Stockwell, as in the recent Compulsion (1959), Sons and Lovers (1960) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), is once again cast as a tormented young man, though here not much effort is made to make him especially likeable or sympathetic. He does brings a waspish, even humorous quality to his playing, but is also clearly nuts from the get-go. Susan Oliver does her best in the title role as the object of David’s affection but beyond her kewpie doll good looks it is hard to truly understand his obsession with her given her reduced the role in this version, which of necessity brings a less subjective feel to the story. ‘Linda’ is played by Kathleen Nolan (who was just coming off a five-tear stint co-starring as Kate in rural sitcom The Real McCoys) and her character has been altered greatly – no longer almost as madly in love with David as he is with Annabel, here she more or less acts as the detective in the story, providing a standard identification figure for the audience. Having said that, it is still through her own capricious act of revenge that Gerald finds the Newmaster house and is so partly responsible for the death there – though this version only hints at this, which is understandable given its overall trajectory to in effect ‘de-angst’ the story beyond the Kelsey character.
But it has to be said that, apart from Stockwell’s Kelsey, as the characters have had all their hard edges ironed out, they don’t get to make much of an impression. On the other hand Bloch’s new finale, completely different from the book’s, actually creates a surprisingly ‘happy’ ending in which David gets to live his dream after all, though (and no, no spoilers here) this is achieved through a very nasty turn of events that, to my mind, improves on Highsmith’s book in terms of Annabel’s role in the story. For a very detailed (and very, very spoiler-heavy) analysis of the book and its TV adaptation and a breakdown of all the changes, visit Jack Seabrook’s fabulous bare.bones e-zine. And to watch the episode you need go no further than YouTube [update: no longer the case – see below], where it has been posted in a surprisingly good edition that appears to be completely intact. Indeed the quality is good enough to make it clear that director Paul Henreid’s closing backward tracking shot has been zoomed in on an optical printer to make it slightly less ghoulish and mask the something horrible on the right-hand side of the screen [this has now been taken down, so presumably was an illegal upload] … Overall well worth a look, though the book remains preferable in most ways.
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour / Annabel (1962)
Director: Paul Henreid
Producer: Joan Harrison
Screenplay: Robert Bloch
Cinematography: John L. Russell
Art Direction: Russell Kimball
Music: Lyn Murray
Cast: Dean Stockwell, Susan Oliver, Kathleen Nolan, Gary Cockrell, Hank Brandt, Bert Remsen