Williams then appeared in a third episode of the first season of the series. This one was titled "Whodunit" and first aired on CBS on Sunday, March 25, 1956. It was adapted from a short story called "Heaven Can Wait" by C. B. Gilford that first appeared in the August 1953 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The story won an award in the magazine's 1952 contest and was collected in the book, The Queen's Awards, Eighth Series, which was published in 1953. I previously discussed C.B. Gilford's career here, and the editor of EQMM writes, in an introduction to the story, that this was the third time that Gilford had submitted the story for publication--it had been revised and rewritten in response to comments and suggestions from the editor.
|Alan Napier as Wilfred|
Arlington finds himself back on Earth, waking up at noon on his last day. His secretary, Mr. Talbert, hand-delivers a letter from his publisher, who expresses concern with the declining quality of his recent novels. Talbert suggests that he can write future Slade Saunders books better than Arlington could, at which point Arlington fires the man and Talbert threatens him, thus becoming Arlington's first suspect.
|Amanda Blake as Carol|
The fifth and final suspect is the gardener, Henry, a former criminal who is worried that Arlington will report him to the police once he gives up his career as a mystery novelist. Arlington sets up dinner with all five of the suspects and invites them to attend a farewell party in his study that night at ten o'clock. Throughout the story, Arlington receives occasional telephone calls from Michael the archangel, who checks on his progress and offers advice.
|Waiting for midnight|
Just before midnight, Armbruster goes to the door and says that all he has to do to prevent anyone from witnessing the murder is to turn off the lights--and he does! Arlington is murdered as before and finds himself back in Heaven, no wiser than he was as to the identity of his killer. Michael helps him deduce that his wife was the guilty party and Armbruster her accomplice. The archangel then invites Arlington to "come in and meet the boys . . . Edgar and Sir Arthur and G.K.C.," noting that "all mystery writers go to Heaven."
|"Heaven Can Wait" was|
first published here
The producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents bought the rights to the story and it was adapted for television by the husband and wife writing team of Francis and Marian Cockrell, who retitled it "Whodunit." Francis Cockrell wrote 18 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I discussed his career here; Marian Cockrell wrote 11 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I discussed her career here. Francis Cockrell also directed this episode, one of two episodes of the series he would direct.
The TV version of the story retains the overall plot and structure of the short story while changing various details. The direction is particularly good and, combined with an excellent cast, the video version improves upon the source. The show begins as we hear heavenly choirs of angels singing as a woman in a diaphanous gown walks through two enormous doors toward a large, marble-top desk. Behind the desk sits Wilfred, Arlington's recording angel. (Perhaps the Cockrells did not think it would be suitable for television audiences to use the name of a real archangel from the Bible!) The woman introduces Arlington, who floats into the room on a small cloud, a miniature harp in one hand, a look of mild discomfort on his face. The room is bordered by pillars and beyond them float clouds, showing us that this is a stylized version of Heaven.
Arlington sports little, cardboard wings on his back and complains about the uncomfortable cloud and his own lack of skill in playing the harp. He also flexes his shoulders to try out his new wings. Cockrell really plays up this opening scene and its artifice is quite amusing. Arlington boasts that he'll have the crime solved long before midnight and agrees to relive his last day up to five minutes before the murder.
|Philip Coolidge as Talbot|
The scene in the story where Arlington confronts his wife and her lover is cut and the show moves right on to the conversation with Arlington's nephew, now named Vincent, rather than Andrew. He sees his wife kissing Benson (not Armbruster) outside and confronts her alone when she comes in the house. He writes down a list of suspects and their motives, though the character of Henry has been deleted, leaving only four potential killers rather than five.
Instead of having dinner with the suspects and inviting them to a party in his study, Arlington decides to wait and see who returns to the house that night, thinking that whoever comes back will have to be the killer. As midnight nears, Talbot returns, followed soon by Carol and Benson. Frustrated by the failure of his plan, Arlington calls Vincent down from his bedroom and the five of them go into his study, where he tells them about his impending murder. Unlike the story, he does not make explicit reference to the mystery trope of the gathering of the suspects, but the result is the same. Williams is especially good here, accusing each person in turn, filled with his own sense of self-importance. He never pulls a gun, as he does in the story; instead, Arlington is consumed with fussiness and frustration.
|Making a list of suspects and their motives|
"Whodunit" is an excellent adaptation that improves on its source by cutting some characters and scenes and reorganizing others. Humor is added to good effect and the direction and acting are outstanding. John Williams was 52 years old when he played this role, just as the character is in the short story. His wife, 28 years old in the story, is played here by 26 year old Amanda Blake (1929-1989), who was born Beverly Neill. Her onscreen career lasted from 1950 to 1989 and mostly consisted of an almost twenty-year run as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show.
|Jerry Paris as Benson|
Talbot, the secretary, is played by the familiar Philip Coolidge (1908-1967), who was onscreen from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. He was in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959) and appeared in seven episodes of the Hitchcock TV series, including "De Mortuis."
Finally, Ruta Lee (1935- ) plays the angel at the beginning of the show who introduces Arlington to Wilfred. Born Ruta Kilmonis in Quebec, she had a 60-year career onscreen, including two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an episode of The Twilight Zone. She maintains her own website here.
"Whodunit" is available on DVD here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story.
In two weeks: "The Rose Garden," starring John Williams and Patricia Collinge!