US / 49 minutes / color / Shamley, Alfred Hitchcock Productions, NBC Dir: Alfred Hitchcock Pr: Joan Harrison Scr: Charlotte Armstrong Story: Incident at a Corner (1957) by Charlotte Armstrong Cine: John L. Russell Cast: Vera Miles, George Peppard, Paul Hartman, Bob Sweeney, Leora Dana, Warren Berlinger, Philip Ober, Jerry Paris, Alice Backes, Charity Grace, Leslie Barrett, Alexander Lockwood, Jack Albertson, Eve McVeagh, Tyler McVey, Joe Flynn, Barbara Beaird, Mary Alan Hokanson, Wendell Holmes, Hollis Irving, Florence MacMichael.
Based on a Charlotte Armstrong novella, this minor piece of Hitchcockiana was aired as #27 (of 33 episodes) in the NBC TV series Startime (1959–60), one of the first TV shows to air in color. About half the episodes were variety presentations, the other half narrative pieces, usually dramas like this one. Hitchcock got involved because Lew Wasserman, then head of MCA, which had struck a package deal to supply star actors for the series, was also Hitch’s agent. It’s worth noting that Hitch wisely brought with him Joan Harrison as part of the enterprise.
We’re first shown three different versions of an altercation at a street corner next to a school. Mary Tawley (Dana), obnoxious wife of important local stuffed shirt Malcolm Tawley (Ober), owner of the Security First Bank, remonstrates with the elderly crossing guard whose STOP sign she drove past, James “Jim” Medwick (Hartman).
In the third view we discover the scene was observed by two newcomers to the neighborhood, Harry (Albertson) and Georgia Crane (McVeagh). Georgia recognizes Jim and is terrified he’ll tell the neighborhood about her wild youth as Georgia Clooney (sic!) when they both lived in Kansas City. Rather than promptly abandon the house they’ve just moved into, the pair concoct a plan to get Jim out of the picture . . .
So we know from the outset the authorship of the poison-pen note that appears in Mary Tawley’s car:
Medwick is a vicious old man. Better get him away from the kids, especially the little girls.
The next Jim knows, he’s learning from the local police chief, Taylor (McVey), that he’s been fired from his position as crossing guard because the school takes the view that it cannot afford the slightest risk to the kids.
Jim’s granddaughter Jane (Miles) is a schoolteacher who gives private math lessons to the Tawleys’ slow-witted teenaged son Ron (Berlinger). His sudden withdrawal from her tutelage is the Medwicks’ first inkling that something is wrong.
Although Jim’s son Jeffrey (Sweeney) and Jeffrey’s wife Pauline (Backes) are eager not to rock the boat, Jane and her fiancé Pat Lawrence (Peppard) are made of sterner stuff and determine to clear the old man’s name no matter how much shit gets stirred up.
Their investigation is presented superficially as one to find out who penned the travesty, but almost immediately it becomes obvious to us that what’s really happening is the stripping away of the masks of hypocrisy from the true villains of the piece, those who spread the poisonous calumny without a thought as to whether it was true, happy enough to take the easy option of destroying a man’s life in the guise of moral rectitude.
We have Dr. Sidney Sinden (Flynn) and his wife Mabel (MacMichael), who are militant in their belief that Jim’s name should be besmirched even though they know nothing about the case. School Principal Rigsby (Lockwood) assures Jane and Pat that Jim will never be reinstated in his job, even if they prove him innocent. Rigsby is enthusiastically supported by Mrs. Parker (Hokanson) of the PTA. Weak-willed math teacher Beatty (Barrett), who actually witnessed the altercation on the street corner, in effect damns Jim with faint defense. Pat’s lawyer, W.E. Grimes (Paris), is all affability while telling him he washes his hands of the whole business. Even young Ron Tawley, who earlier clearly had an adolescent crush on Jane, turns against the Medwicks.
Alongside these facilitators, the actual perpetrators of the crime, Harry and Georgia, seem almost innocents, and Jim himself has little difficulty in forgiving them.
Charlotte Armstrong scripted (I gather very faithfully) this adaptation of her own novella, so we have to be careful when tossing around comments about “typical Hitchcock touches”; they may just as well be Armstrong’s. Yet a couple of moments stuck in my mind as being quintessentially Hitchcockian. Late on in the movie, during a Medwick family confab/argument, we suddenly switch to a high-angle vantage, and maintain it for the next couple of minutes, as if Hitch were telling us to distance ourselves from the situation only if we dare: it could happen to us; or we could be the facilitators.
The other example happens earlier. It’s Jim’s birthday when Chief Taylor pulls him outside the house to tell him of his dismissal and the reason for it. As Jim goes back in we hear the guests strike up a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You!” All we see is Jim’s back and his slumping shoulders as the song slowly peters away into embarrassed silence. It’s left up to us to imagine his face.