Thursday, March 01, 2018

THRILLER Thursday: Letter To A Lover


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

Season: 2, Episode: 8.
Airdate: Nov. 13, 1961

Director: Herschel Daugherty.
Writer: Donald S. Sanford based on a play by Sheridan Gibney..
Cast: Ann Todd, Murray Matheson, Felix Deebank.
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “It is said that sins only speak, but murder shreiks out. And yet the victim’s employee has stripped the scene of clues. Well, she’s obviously covered up for someone, you say. But for whom? The late doctor, or perhaps one of the surviving members of our cast? Look closely and see if you can pick the killer. Is it Sylvia Lawrence played by Ann Todd? Or her loving husband Andrew played by Murray Matheson? It might even be Donald Carvers, Sylvia’s old beau played by Felix Deebank. Or Nurse Webber portrayed by Avis Scott. Now which one of them made the fatal inciusion with the good doctor’s own scalpel? That my friends is the question we are about to explore. But just one word of caution - keep your eyes and ears alert, for as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, I promise you a solution full of surprises! We’ve dallied long enough, let’s get to the heart of the matter!” (And he shoves the scalpel into the heart of a cut-away dummy with organs on display.)

Synopsis: Sylvia Lawrence (Anne Todd) is leaving her doctor’s office, sees a man in the hallway and hides. When the coast is clear she leaves the building, walking out to the street and into the subway (this is London) where Andrew (Murray Matheson) is sitting in his car watching. When she’s gone, Andrew enters the building... and then a taxi pulls up in front of the building and Nurse Webber (Avis Scott) steps out - she has a terrible scar on her face - and pays off the driver. Webber enters the doctor’s office and Andrew hides behind a file cabinet... sneaking out once she’s far enough inside (though she does catch a glimpse of him), then Nurse Webber spots the dead Doctor Evans on the sofa, stabbed with his own scalpel! Then she spots a note on the doctor’s desk... and a handkerchief clue. She cleans up the crime scene, removing some evidence, then calls the police. The opening minutes are like a French farce!

Sylvia arrives at Donald Carver’s (Felix Deebank) flat, says “Donald, I had to!” and promptly faints. He brings smelling salts and she wakes to tell him she wasn’t feeling well so she stopped by (because if you feel ill, best place to go is your ex-boyfriend’s place). Donald wants to know if she has split with her husband. She answers no, he isn’t happy about that but before he can even pour himself a drink she’s split!

She takes a taxi home, where luggage is in the entry hall. Andrew steps out - kind of a reveal that he’s her husband - and tells her that they have a long drive ahead of them, doesn’t she remember? For whatever illness she was seeing the doctor, one of the symptoms is memory loss. Andrew tells her that they’ve been planning this trip to the country house to get away from it all. She doesn’t remember.

The foggy country house. There’s a moment of schlock shock where the guard dog barks at her. The country house is old and dark and spooky and all of the furnishings are shrouded in cloths. When Sylvia isn’t looking he yanks the telephone cord from the wall.

Over a week later, and the shrouds are off the furniture... and Sylvia wants to drive into the village. She hasn’t left the house. Andrew says some other day, it’s raining. The Mail Man comes, and Sylvia quickly jots a letter and seals it in an envelope, and gives it to him and says if her husband asks not to tell him... it’s a surprise. Andrew asks the Mail Man if his wife gave him anything, and the Mail Man refuses to answer - but if she had, once anything is given to a Mail Man it’s in the hands of the government. The Mail Man has a note for Andrew... to meet Nurse Webber at the local pub.

Nurse Webber recognized Andrew as the man from the crime scene and wants some money for retrieving the note from the dead doctor’s desk - record of Sylvia’s appointment at the time of the doctor’s murder. She still has all of the other evidence including Sylvia’s monogrammed handkerchief - and she needs a regular monthly payment. Andrew says he can give her a job as a maid at the country house.

Later, Donald arrives at the country house after getting her letter. Sylvia tells him that she’s a prisoner here, then the not-quite-as-spooky-as-Mrs Danvers-from-REBECCA Nurse Webber interrupts them. Sylvia tells her, “There’ll be a guest for dinner.” Donald and Sylvia have a soap opera conversation, part of which has to do with Andrew having a heart condition. Then Andrew comes downstairs and they have one of those soap opera awkward conversations between two men in love with the same woman. When Sylvia leaves to dress for dinner (not that she was in a bathrobe previously - these people put on formal wear in the country house to *eat*), Andrew asks Donald what was in the letter Sylvia sent him. But that’s when Nurse Webber enters to say that someone let the dog out, and Andrew has to go chase it down... in his tuxedo.

This gives Donald time to search Andrew’s study for a gun while simultaneously calling London to find out about Andrew’s heart doctor... who has changed his name to... Evans! The same doctor that Sylvia had! The same doctor who was murdered! That’s when Andrew shows up and tells Donald that Sylvia murdered Doctor Evans, and he has brought her here to protect her. Sylvia was having an affair with Doctor Evans...

Later, Sylvia tells Andrew that Dr. Evans was dead when she got there - even though she seemed to have had a drink with him as Nurse Webber found a martini glass with Sylvia’s lipstick on it. Andrew says he hired Dr. Evans to meet Sylvia at a party and begin an affair with her (?) in order to diagnose Sylvia (who refused to see a doctor for her condition, whatever it might be). Sylvia accuses Andrew of being crazy.

When Andrew goes into town for supplies, Donald breaks into the house - he wants to know if Sylvia was cheating on both her husband and Donald with Dr. Evans? But Andrew hasn’t gone into town, he somehow knew Donald would show up and calls the police to say that he shot a prowler and then points his gun at Donald. He wants the letter that Sylvia sent... for reasons that don’t make much sense. But he does admit to killing Dr. Evans because he was afraid Evans might tell Sylvia what was wrong with him (Andrew). Donald hands over the letter, which ends up saying nothing incriminating about Andrew, and then tells Sylvia that he’s breaking it off with her because she refuses to leave Andrew, and things get soapier than a year of Days Of Our Lives...

And then the Police show up... about the prowler. Then leave.

Then Andrew kills himself. And Donald leaves so that he has an alibi, and in the morning Sylvia is supposed to get Nurse Webber to open the study door to discover the corpse... except the next morning when Nurse Webber opens the door there is no sign of Andrew or the gun or any blood or brain matter. And his car is gone.

Sylvia goes to London to see Donald - but he isn’t home... but there’s a Detective (Jack Greening) at his house. They were tipped off that she and Donald were going to leave the country. Huh?

The Detective drivers her back to the Country House... where all of the furniture is shrouded again. The Detective wants to know what’s going on... and that’s when Nurse Webber comes in and accuses Sylvia of murdering Doctor Evans, who was Webber’s... Husband! And she accuses Sylvia of murdering Andrew. They found Andrew’s body in his car in the river, they’re pulling it out now.

The Detective leaves, and then Andrew sneaks in with a gun - he’s done this whole scheme to make it look as if Sylvia killed him. Andrew is crazy - paranoid and delusional. Sylvia wants to stall him until the Detective returns, so Andrew pours two drinks and puts poison in one. They drink, the Detective returns to arrest Sylvia, sees Andrew and just accepts that he’s alive, and then Donald enters out of nowhere with a doctor’s note from Andrew’s previous psychiatrist which says he’s crazy and capable of murder. And then the Detective arrests the murderer of Dr. Evans... Nurse Webber! Then Andrew drops dead - he poisoned himself. It’s like freakin’ Hamlet!

Review: It’s almost as if there was a saboteur in the production company or something. Every time they seem to get a series of good episodes in a row going, someone screws it up with an episode like this... usually based on a novel or in this case a stage play. These episodes are usually not horror or thriller, but some sort of mystery or drama. Hey, I love mysteries! But the episodes of this show that really work are the horror and suspense tales, that’s what makes it unique in the world of anthology shows.

I think one of the problems with adapting a novel or stage play is that they are longform type stories and you really need to identify the core story and jettison all of the subplots. Here we have a stage play that may have been three acts and over two hours on stage, but they try to cram all of it into the 45-50 minutes of an hour long TV show. So some of it seems like a soap opera - too many plot threads and plot twists in too little time. And these subplots all eat away at the main plot and rob the story of suspense and character and make the twists seem silly.

You know what else goes missing when you have this many subplots and this much plot crammed into a single episode? What the hell is the letter from the lover? There is a letter in this story, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story. She invites Donald to the country house... but that’s not a big enough deal to name the story after the letter. I suspect the letter was a bigger deal in the stage play, and just got lost in the translation to 45-50 minutes.

The episodes that seem to work best on this show are longish short stories (Novelettes) which seem to adapt to very close to 45-50 minutes (minus head and tail credits and Karloff’s introduction). The Woolrich stories they have done fit the running time perfectly without padding or cutting, same with the Bloch stories. Those are the ones I’ve read before and after seeing the episodes. Why can I figure this out, but the producers keep trying to cram a full novel’s worth of story into 45 minutes? Seems like sabotage to me!

We’re probably going to do another rerun next week, because I’ll be watching the Oscars this weekend!

- Bill

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