Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ray Bradbury on TV Part One: Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Shopping for Death"


by Jack Seabrook

In the ten years that Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour were on the air, seven episodes either were based on stories by Ray Bradbury or featured teleplays by Bradbury based on stories by other authors. The first of these was “Shopping for Death,” broadcast during the half-hour show’s first season on January 29, 1956, and based on Bradbury’s story of the same name that had first appeared in the Canadian magazine, MacLean’s, on June 1, 1954.
As the story begins, Mr. Shaw and Mr. Foxe, retired insurance salesmen, stand outside a tenement in the summer heat, waiting for a woman to emerge. When she comes out they follow her to the butcher shop and observe her behavior, which is coarse and angry. They note the butcher’s hand clutching a silver meat ax as the woman berates him. They follow her as she does her errands; they have been watching her for some time and theorize that her behavior makes her a likely murder victim.
Visiting her tenement they learn that her name is Mrs. Shrike. Her husband is a “big hulking brute” of a longshoreman. Shaw and Foxe argue about putting their theory into practice: Shaw thinks that people cannot be helped unless they want to be helped, while Foxe insists that a word to Mrs. Shrike could prevent a catastrophe. They are engaged in a sociological debate about whether outcome can be altered by risk assessment and risk management; as retired insurance men, this is exactly the sort of activity they spent their careers engaged in behind their desks, but now that they have time on their hands they can try to put it into practice in a novel way.
Robert Harris and John Qualen as Foxe and Shaw
Foxe and Shaw’s statistics have shown that more murders are committed when the temperature is 92 degrees than at any other temperature. (An early title for the story was “Fahrenheit 92”!) They climb to the third floor of the tenement, knock on Mrs. Shrike’s door, and enter. Inside, they find Mrs. Shrike, a “feverish dragon confronting them in a fire-clouded room.” Foxe tries to explain to the woman that her behavior is putting her in danger, but his words fall on deaf ears. Angry at having been watched she orders them out, telling them: “Who do you think you are? God?” She is a primitive being, who speaks “with fire and alcohol and smoke,” immune to the men’s intellectual arguments.
Her yelling overcomes Foxe. “He was in a blazing yellow jungle” and, as the temperature hits 92, he raises his cane to strike her. She slips and falls, “gibbering, clawing the floor.” Shocked by the result of their attempt to turn theory into practice, they withdraw as she continues to spew her venom. Foxe and Shaw are like anthropologists who have come face to face with a member of a primitive tribe and who are wholly unprepared for the experience. Outside the building, they see Mrs. Shrike's husband enter, “a creature with the ribs of a mastodon and the head of an unshorn lion.” Like his wife, Mr. Shrike is seen as little better than an animal by the men of the professional class. As the story ends, Foxe and Shaw wait outside as the temperature hovers at 92 degrees.
“Shopping for Death” is a beautifully written story, mixing crime and theory and demonstrating a good understanding of human nature that makes for high quality short fiction. When Ray Bradbury adapted his story for television, he did not change the plot or alter the theme, but he did make additions to the story that deepen its meaning. The show opens with a montage of accidents—a car crash, a fall from a tall building, and a fire—and we see Foxe and Shaw at each event, with Foxe jotting down notes. They next emerge from a cloud of smoke to approach Mrs. Shrike’s tenement as children play around an open fire hydrant; the scene evokes a New York City street that seems like it is older than a mere 57 years ago.
Jo Van Fleet as Mrs. Shrike
Increased dialogue helps flesh out the characters. Shaw complains (actor John Qualen has the perfect squeaky voice for his whining) while Foxe cajoles (in actor Robert Harris’s hectoring Brooklyn/Jewish accent). Both men’s faces are bathed in sweat, their hats and suits wilting in the punishing heat. They soon observe Mrs. Shrike who, as played by Jo Van Fleet, is a fright: hair a mess, dress falling apart, she yells at or shoves everyone she meets. Director Robert Stevens uses some unique camera angles to increase interest in the show and avoid routine camerawork. The first unusual camera placement occurs as the principals enter the butcher shop; the camera is set at a high level looking down at the action through the rotating blades of a ceiling fan. The second unique camera angle occurs soon after, as the camera is placed at a low level looking out through the butcher’s glass case as Mrs. Shrike peers in at the meat.
Back at the tenement, we see Mr. Shrike leaving in anger, a shot that foreshadows his later return. Mr. Foxe helpfully defines “shrike” as “the butcher bird,” a clarification not present in the story and one which helps explain the meaning behind the uncommon surname. The third and final camera angle of interest occurs in the scene inside Mrs. Shrike’s apartment; director Stevens positions the camera low again with Mrs. Shrike sitting like a queen in the foreground and her visitors sitting in the distance as if they are appealing to her. The men seem old and frail; Foxe slips while trying to get out of Mrs. Shrike’s bathtub after a demonstration of risk. Ironically, they are concerned about her welfare but she seems much stronger than they. Foxe begs Mrs. Shrike to let him open a window in the stifling flat but she refuses, unwilling to allow any new idea to enter or change her mind.
Foxe and Shaw disappear back into the smoke.
In this scene, Mrs. Shrike fans herself with a Donald Duck comic book (Huey, Dewey and Louie, Donald’s nephews, are clearly visible on the page), which is a coded reference in 1955 showing that she is of low intelligence. In the wake of the 1954 U.S. Senate hearings on comic books, they were generally considered to be read by morons and to contribute to degeneracy.
The key change from story to teleplay occurs at the end of this scene and is successful both due to the sensitive script and to the powerful performance by Jo Van Fleet. Instead of yelling at Foxe and Shaw like an inhuman creature, Mrs. Shrike becomes humanized—the tirade turns into an explanation of why their well-intentioned suggestions ignore the reality of her situation. She cannot open the window because doing so would let in the flies and the smell. She cannot turn off the radio because doing so would let in the sounds from outside. She cannot afford to fix anything in her apartment. In a heartbreaking conclusion, she tells Foxe that she will fix it all and clean everything up if he can promise to make her 20 years younger and to make her husband thinner and less angry. Her anger nearly turns to tears and we begin to see her hard-edged personality as a mask for her misery.
Mrs. Shrike throws garbage on Mr. Foxe’s suit and he raises his cane to strike her but she never falls to the floor. Foxe and Shaw rush out of her apartment and Foxe realizes that he is exhausted and ashamed of his own behavior: “I treated her as a kind of specimen when I should have seen her as a lost soul.” Mr. Shrike staggers by, appearing drunk, and the show ends as a police car pulls up and Foxe makes a note in his little book before he and Shaw disappear back into the smoke from which they had emerged. What is the significance of the smoke or steam? I think it suggests that they are like gods (as Mrs. Shrike accused them of thinking themselves)—Greek or Roman gods who observe the actions of humans and occasionally try to intervene.
First edition
Ray Bradbury, who wrote both the story and the teleplay, is one of the most beloved writers of popular fiction in America in the twentieth century. He lived from 1920 to 2012, began writing for TV in 1951, and began writing for the movies in 1953. A very good website is devoted to his work. In a 1972 interview, Bradbury mentioned this episode but had little to say about it.
Robert Stevens (1920-1989) directed “Shopping for Death” with his usual skill. He directed 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and five of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; episodes already reviewed include “The Glass Eye,” for which he won an Emmy.
Jo Van Fleet (1914-1996) gives a powerful performance as Mrs. Shrike. She appeared in two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an episode of Thriller; she was on TV from 1949 and in movies from 1955, winning an Oscar for her role as the mother of James Dean’s character in East of Eden (1955).
Mr. Foxe is played by Robert H. Harris (1911-1981); born Robert Hurwitz, he did extensive work on television, including appearances in nine episodes of the Hitchcock series (such as “The Dangerous People” and  The Greatest Monster of Them All”).
Michael Ansara
Mr. Shaw is played by John Qualen (1899-1987). He was born Johan Kvalen and he was in many classic films, such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Casablanca (1942), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). A member of director John Ford’s stock company, his movie career began in 1931 and he appeared in three episodes of the Hitchcock series.
Visible in small roles are Mike Ross (1911-1993), as Mr. Shrike, and Michael Ansara (1922- ), as the butcher. Ross was a busy character actor who appeared in four Hitchcock episodes, including “The Night the World Ended.” Ansara did extensive TV work, appearing in three Hitchcock episodes as well as “Soldier” on The Outer Limits and “Day of the Dove” on Star Trek.
Mike Ross
“Shopping for Death” was reprinted under the title “Touched With Fire” in Bradbury’s popular anthology, The October Country, and later collected in the Stories of Ray Bradbury. The dramatization on Alfred Hitchcock Presents is available on DVD and can also be viewed online. The story was adapted a second time for television as part of The Ray Bradbury Theater. Bradbury again wrote the teleplay and it is available on DVD but not online.

Sources:

Aggelis, Steven Louis. "Conversations with Ray Bradbury" (2003). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper. <http://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/etd/1>.

Bradbury, Ray. "Touched With Fire." 1955. The October Country. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011. 135-51. Print.

Eller, Jonathan R., and William F. Touponce. Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2004. Print.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 07 Aug. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.

"Shopping for Death." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 29 Jan. 1956. Television.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 07 Aug. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

6 comments:

Phil said...

An excellent article on Bradbury's first, and modest, Hitchcock episode. I suppose the best remembered Bradbury Hitchcock was "The Jar" (Alfred Hitchcock Hour), but that wasn't scripted by Bradbury himself.

There's a persistent myth that Bradbury cannot be adapted well for film or TV, and a second persistent myth that Bradbury was no good as a screenwriter because he couldn't write believable dialogue. These Hitchcocks disprove both myths:

The secret to adapting Bradbury is to choose an APPROPRIATE Bradbury, something that relies on drama and character rather than concept or visual metaphor.

Bradbury's screen dialogue is perfectly good. Those who say his dialogue is unbelievable (Rod Serling made this claim, and so have many others) have based the judgment not on Bradbury's screen dialogue but on the dialogues in his prose fiction.

Thanks, Jack, for an informative article. I look forward to seeing some more of these. I've been trying to do something similar on my own Bradbury-themed website, but ran out of steam as far as reviews are concerned a couple of years back.

- Phil Nichols

Matthew Bradley said...

Jack, I realize I'm not exactly stingy with my superlatives, but this really is outstanding. I don't remember this one from the research I did for my interview with Ray, although as I read your vivid description of the story and the show, it does sound somewhat familiar. Your eye for detail and effective touches in the filmed version is impressive, as is your sensitivity to the differences between the two versions. This series promises to be worthy of our late, great national treasure.

Jack Seabrook said...

Phil: Thanks for your comment. As you'll see if you poke around this blog, I'm reviewing the Hitchcock shows by theme and have so far done Fredric Brown, Robert Bloch and William Shatner. At one every two weeks, I should finish around, say, 2022!

Matthew: Thanks for your kind remarks as well. I enjoyed this episode but really can't wait to get to "The Jar"!

Trevor H. said...

I enjoy the Youtube full presentations; this was my show tonight. The frazzled lady at the core of the story is excellently portrayed, the spine of the whole production. There is a real sense of heat and sweat, grime and frustrated tension in that apartment, enhanced by the grainy monochrome of the era. The old boys are benign, but their mission is futile. Perhaps the moral is that we all write our own life script. And nobody listens to "good advice" when it goes against that script. Well, with advice, demand exceeds supply! Unlike later Hitchcocks, this is not about a clever plot twist - the story arc's strength is its very predictability and sadly inevitable denouement.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading, Trevor--your comments are on target.

sarah lee said...

I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.


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