Thursday, July 13, 2017

THRILLER Thursday: The Poisoner

The Poisoner

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 17.
Airdate: January 10, 1961.


Director: Herschel Daugherty
Writer: Robert Hardy Andrews
Cast: Murray Matheson, Sarah Marshall, Brenda Forbes, Jennifer Raine, Maurice Dallimore.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith, kicking ass.
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline.
Producer: William Frye.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Thomas Edward Griffith, the man who made this lovely picture the destroyed it, really lived. He was a writer, a painter and a critic. Now, in each of these arts he displayed talent, but his real genius lay elsewhere. We have the testimony of Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and other famous witnesses that Griffith was the master of the gentle art of murder. A dabbler in the occult and a connoisseur of the exotic, Griffith was far ahead of the medical men of his time in the lethal science of toxication. In simpler terms, Griffith was a poisoner. That’s the name of our play, The Poisoner. And among those threatened by sinister gentleman played by Mr. Murray Matheson, are his wife played by Miss Sarah Marshall, her mother played by Miss Brenda Forbes, her sister played by Miss Jennifer Raine, and his uncle played by Mr. Maurice Dallimore. Oh, by the way, if in the course of our story someone brings you a cup of tea or a spot of brandy... I suggest you let *them* take the first sip.”



Synopsis: A somewhat unusual *true crime* episode, also unusual because it’s an Early Victorian Era period piece which takes place on London’s foggy streets. I’m sure part of the allure of this story was that it’s a Jack The Ripper type tale about a fellow who was very well known at the time who killed just about everyone he was related to by blood or marriage... and got away with it!

Thomas Edward Griffith (the actual fellow was named Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, and more on him in the review section) (played by Murray Matheson giving an amazing performance), was a social climber. Not born into a wealthy family, both parents dead, he desired the prestige and admiration of a member of high society... so he decided to “fake it until you make it”. He lived in a luxurious house filled with pieces or art and antiques. He threw lavish parties so that he could be seen with members of society much higher up the food chain than he was. His clothes were tailored by one of the best. He drank the best brandy and dined at the finest restaurants. Even though, he was close to broke.

Although he’d inherited from his father, his Uncle George (Maurice Dallimore) was executor, and detested his lifestyle... so he was kept on a tight allowance. Uncle George thinks he should sell all of the crap in his house and get a job... but Thomas has never worked a day in his life and has no intention of starting now. He spends his days as a catty critic for a newspaper known for his clever insults, painting watercolors that are good enough for a gallery show or two, and writing witty little booklets on a variety of subjects of interest to the social set. Things a member of high society would do. The problem is, his lavish lifestyle means that he is going deeper and deeper into debt...



Enter the beautiful society woman Francis Abercrombie (Sarah Marshall) , hot and half his age. She is sophisticated, well dressed and travels in the same elite social circles. Thomas marries her before anyone else has a chance to ask... planning to live on her fortune and wait for his Uncle George to die so that he can get his hands on all of his inheritance instead of just his month allowance.

At the lavish post wedding party, his water color painting of his wife is on display over the fireplace. All of the society men think she’s hot, and are jealous of Thomas... which is everything he has ever wished for in life. To further this adoration, he introduces his beautiful wife to all of those members of high society he wants to impress... Then the door opens and these two yapping white trash women and their cat enter: his mother in law and sister in law! You see, his wife is flat broke as well; and like him, was a social climber hoping to marry into money. He ends the party before he is completely embarrassed by these uninvited guests...



Mrs. Abercrombie (Brenda Forbes) is a drunk old woman with a loud mouth and all sorts of complaints about almost everything. There’s a shot where she bends over, most unladylike, and you half expect to hear loud flatulence. Maybe that was planned but the censors said no. New sister in law Helen (Jennifer Raine) is confined to a wheelchair for some reason, and has nothing good to say about anything. If mother complains, sister is an Olympic contender... bitching about everything. And they, of course, have a cat. Oh, and Mrs. Abercrombie has sold her house and all of her belongings to move in with Francis’ new rich husband.

That night, Thomas opens an ornate cabinet exposing a selection of items, selects a “Borgia ring”, fills it with poison and puts it on his finger... then, acting like the perfect host, secretly pours some poison from the ring into a brandy decanter and offers it to his new mother in law... not realizing sister in law Helen is watching from her wheelchair upstairs. Thomas goes upstairs, into his wife’s bedroom, and tells her that everything will be alright. That’s when Mrs. Abercrombie drinks the brandy and drops dead... and Helen screams, and calls Thomas a murderer!



After the funeral, Francis and Helen return with... the family attorney. Mrs. Abercrombie’s death was ruled natural causes, even though Helen believes that Thomas poisoned her. But instead of Francis inheriting the money... it goes to invalid sister Helen. Thomas will never get his hands on a cent of it. Thomas storms out...

How could things get worse? When he returns, Francis tells him that his Uncle is here, waiting for him in the guest room upstairs... and some creditors have come and threatened to cut off his food and booze and some other things if he doesn’t pay his long overdue bills. Wonderful...

Thomas gets a lecture form his Uncle George about those creditors... and how he should sell everything and get a job and live within his means. Thomas would have liked to ask for more money, but he can’t for fear Uncle George will cut his allowance and *force* him to work. He shudders at the thought of working. Before Thomas can poison Uncle George’s brandy, the old man takes a sip and keels over! Snoopy Helen is watching this from the doorway and once again gets to scream “Murderer!”



But Uncle George is *not* dead... he’s just had a heart attack and must remain in bed resting for a few weeks. Hey, and uninvited house guest... more fun for Thomas! The doctor tells Thomas to make sure he takes a pill every so many hours and that it can be taken with a glass of brandy as a stimulant (medicine has changed over the years). Thomas is not going to be subjected to *weeks* of lectures by this old man, so he poisons the brandy decanter, and when Uncle George wakes up, tells him to take his pills with a glass of brandy as per doctor’s orders. Uncle George takes his medicine... and dies... and snoopy sister in law Helen was watching through the keyhole the entire time!

Thomas discovers her spying, and walks towards her menacingly... she backs up her wheelchair in fear... going over the edge and down the staircase (like Arbogast in PSYCHO), breaking her neck when she lands. Thomas quickly hides in the room with his dead uncle, as his wife Francis comes out of her room and sees her sister dead at the base of the stairs. When she screams, Thomas comes out of the room and asks what’s wrong... but Francis isn’t buying it, she *knows* that Thomas killer her sister. Then she spots dead Uncle George on the floor behind him. Thomas says Uncle George must have had another heart attack and died... but Francis points to the *dead cat* next to the spilled brandy and accuses Thomas of killing both of the dead humans plus the cat plus her mother.



When the police come, Thomas has a packed bag ready for jail. He explains to the policeman that it’s probably a waste of time to arrest him, since the only possible witness against him is his wife, and a wife can not testify against her husband. They take him anyway... charged with three murders.

Jail. One huge cell filled with a bunch of smelly criminals. A bucket to poop in.



Thomas is immaculately dressed, sitting at a table writing; when the officers come to take him to the court room for his arraignment hearing.

At the hearing, the Prosecutor makes his case for triple murder by poisoning. When he’s finished, Thomas asks the Judge if he may speak... and then tears apart the Prosecutor’s case. There are no witnesses, one of the victims died of a broken neck, another was ruled natural causes, the third had just had a serious heart attack and no trace of any known poison was found in his system by the medical examiner. The Prosecutor says there are poisons that are *not* known that there is no test for at this time. Thomas counters that until these poisons are discovered and there is some way to test for them, there is not a shred of evidence and to waste the court’s time any further...

And the Judge dismisses all charges.



The officer who arrested Thomas comes to the jail cell release him, saying that some day he will find the evidence that convicts him. Thomas explains that it is no longer possible for him to be convicted of those crimes... it would be double jeopardy. Before being released, Thomas writes out a check on his dead Uncle George’s account and gives it to the officer... to be split among his cellmates. Thomas says goodbye to each of the cellmates, and hopes each uses their share to follow their dreams.

When he returns home, Thomas tells his wife Francis that now only she stands between him and the inheritance from her mother and sister. He prepares two glasses of brandy and lets her see him putting poison from his ring into one of them. Then tells her she has a choice: drink up now, or continue their marriage with each’s money pooled into one happy household account. Francis runs upstairs to her room...



Thomas looks at the water color painting of Francis over the fireplace, takes the poker, and crosses it out (his marks replicating the “spider web” used in the bumpers of the show, leading me to believe at some point they planned on fading from the “spider web” to the defaced painting, then didn’t do it). Then takes the two glasses of brandy upstairs, kicks in his wife’s bedroom door, and again gives her the choice between drinking poison and living with him happily ever after.

Before she answers, someone banging on the front door. The police Officer has come to arrest him. Thomas explains that he *can not* be arrested for any of those three murders, even if he were to admit that he committed them: double jeopardy. So the Officer is wasting his time... please go away.

The Officer smiles and says he’s not being arrested for murder, but for forging his dead uncle’s signature on that check. Which the Officer witnessed, so it’s open and shut. Thomas will be shipped off to Australia to prison where he will spend the rest of his life doing hard labor...

He asks for one final drink before he’s taken away, grabs the poisoned glass of brandy and downs it... falling over dead.

Twist!



Review: Based on the true story of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, and fairly accurate. His mother died in childbirth, so he went to live with his grandfather who was the editor of The Monthly Review, and grew up in a literary household. Thanks to a family connection he went to a private school (where that family connection was headmaster) and learned how to live amongst the wealthy, even though he was not wealthy himself.

He was a social climber on the fringe of high society and did have an exhibition of his paintings at the Royal Academy and wrote art criticism for several magazines and newspapers... as well as booklets on a variety of subjects. And he did poison all of those people and got away with it. In fact, he even poisoned at least one other person! In reality when those creditors came after him he and his wife *moved in* with Uncle George... who died shortly afterwards. He fled to France at one point, was arrested for carrying strychnine in that trick ring of his and spent six years in prison, then we he returned to England he was instantly arrested to stand trial for forgery. Instead of taking a dose of his own poison, he was sent to the Tasmanian prison colony. He worked on the road gang, later as a prison hospital orderly, and eventually was allowed to paint portraits of many important people and their family members... and those portraits exist in museums and collections today. The history of the Tasmanian Colony can be seen n his paintings. He was the subject of Charles Dickens’ “Hunted Down” and Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel “Lucretia”, Oscar Wilde’s “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”, and pops up as a character in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client”. The most famous poisoner in history!



Murray Matheson is perfect in this episode. He’s one of those actors who was on almost every TV show as a guest star, and you probably recognize his face. He was the bookstore owner who helped BANACEK in every episode. Here he gives an amazing performance where he’s both vain & dismissive and sympathetic. Oddly, you identify with his character and *want* him to knock off these white trash relatives by marriage. Matheson seems to have fun treating everyone as his inferior, and the audience wishes they were that clever and witty and stylish. This performance is similar to some of those great Vincent Price performances in Corman’s Poe movies. It’s a brilliant performance, and it turns this episode into one of the better ones.

All of the other performances are great, especially Brenda Forbes and Jennifer Raine as the mother and sister in law from hell. As I said, when Forbes bends over unladylike you can almost hear her loudly passing gas... even though that is not on the sound track.

The period setting and production design makes the episode seem lavish. There are horse drawn carriages and spooky foggy nights and that elegant house... it seems more like a movie than a TV episode.

The score by Jerry Goldsmith (CHINATOWN) is amazing. The Pete Rugolo scores had all been variations on the THRILLER theme music, and when Goldsmith took over it took him until this one to really leave his mark. This is a great score (on the DVD it’s an isolated track, so it may end up on my iPod eventually), and really gives us a look at the great film composer that Goldsmith would become in just a few years.

This is a fun episode that would have been at home on HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, which is a good thing... because we’re about to go back to spy novel adaptations for a while. Just when it was getting good, we go back to the ho hum!

Bill

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