April 10, 2015

Getting it all wrong

LE TRAITRE: DÉGRADATION D’ALFRED DREYFUS, UNKNOWN, 1895
The Thirty-First of February
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
January 4, 1963
Directed by Alf Kjellin
Teleplay by Richard Matheson (writing as Logan Swanson)
Based on the novel by Julian Symons

You probably know that over the years I've railed against the glorification of the all-powerful law enforcement department as seen in contemporary police procedurals.  In series after series, from CSI to NCIS to SVU to Castle, we see our heroes
(if you can call them that) stampeding all over the rights of individuals, probably violating several amendments in the Bill of Rights, not to mention engaging in interrogations that are often psychologically and verbally abusive, and display law enforcement officials that are either 1) supremely arrogant, 2) woefully under-informed (look at how many times they interrogate the wrong person, who clears himself by giving the cops information that even a cursory investigation should have already turned up), or 3) a combination of the above.  And when they do finally zero in on the guilty party, they do so through means that the Founding Fathers likely would have blanched at - not the technology, which none of them save Franklin would have anticipated, but the disdain with which the rights of the individual (who, recall, is innocent until proven guilty) are treated.  Despite all this, we rarely see any negative consequences arise from this kind of conduct, at least on network television.  This is presumably in order to keep the viewers on the side of law and order; after all, it's hard to root for someone week after week if all they do is continue to make mistakes.*

*For years I advocated the addition of a semi-regular to a show like Law & Order, a Perry Mason-type defense attorney whose past appearances would have conditioned us to understand that the person about to go on trial was innocent, and that the guilty party was still at large.  It would have been interesting to see the effect it had on the viewing audience, watching police and prosecutors follow through on the arrest and trial of someone we at home already knew was innocent.  

I've referred to this in the past as the "police state wet dream," in large part because I believe it conditions viewers to accept this abuse of power as necessary in these times of crime and terrorism, with the reassurance that of course we only use these tactics on guilty people, so the innocent have nothing to fear.  As a former talk-show host in Minnesota used to say, that's B as in B, S as in S.  And so that's why I'm always intrigued by a show that comes up with a different way of looking at things, a twist that pretty much turns the modern procedural on its ear.

Such is the case with the episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour entitled "The Thirty-First of February," which I caught on MeTV a while ago.  It's a tense hour of television, in which the viewer's perception of the truth changes several times, with the result that the ending comes as a true surprise - or at least it did to me.

A brief synopsis: Andrew Anderson (David Wayne) plays a man whose shrewish wife unexpectedly turns up dead at the foot of the basement stairs.  Based on his behavior and the looks he gave her, we're led to believe that he is responsible for it.  However, Wayne insists that his wife must have stumbled, and a burned-out lightbulb plus a book of matches next to the body would seem to confirm that she tripped in the darkness and fell to her death.  The coroner's inquest rules the death to be accidental, and that would seem to be that.  This leads us to our putative hero, the dogged Sergeant Cress (William Conrad, who is, after all, the larger-than-life Matt Dillon on radio's Gunsmoke), who remains convinced of Wayne's guilt and determines to fight a psychological battle against him in order to trap him into admitting his guilt.

Among all the clues that inform the detective, there's one thing that stands out - that box of matches laying next to her body.   He reviews the facts: she went to the basement steps assuming the light was working; she flipped on the switch, no light, she stumbles on the stairs and falls to her death.  But if that was the case, then why the matches?  After all, she wouldn’t have taken them if she thought the light was on, would she?  And if she knew the light was off, and she didn't change the bulb, then why wasn’t there evidence of a burned-out match?   Anderson suggests the matches must have been there for several days, but Cress counters that the cleaning woman had been there the day before, and would have picked up the matches if they’d been there.  No, it's clear to Cress that Anderson planted the matches to make it look like it was an accident, when in fact it's a clear-cut case of murder.

So far, so good.  Conrad's character lacks the charm of, say, Lieutenant Columbo, but we know how a show like this works, and as the story progresses we see more and more little details that point the finger to Wayne.  In the face of this, he continues to profess his innocence - yes, it's true (as he admits to the women whom he loves) that he never loved his wife, but that doesn't mean he killed her.  But there are things - letters that purport to be from his dead wife, accusing him of the crime; notes that suggest she was having an affair with one of his co-workers; evidence that another co-worker is spying on him; anonymous letters to the police; someone ransacking his home; a desk calendar with the date "February 31" on it.

Anderson begins to crack.  He becomes so frustrated trying to explain things to his new girlfriend that he tries to strangle her.  He exhibits increasingly erratic behavior at work, making wild accusations about his co-workers (including Bob Crane, who makes a very nice, if brief, appearance).  Eventually it becomes too much for Anderson to handle and he suffers a mental collapse.  We next see him in a hospital, hopelessly insane, convinced that his wife is trying to come back from the dead and blame her of his death.

It turns out that the letters, the search of the house, the stalking employee, the calendar, the various clues suggesting an affair – all of them had been planted by Cress in an attempt to shake Anderson until he cracked and confessed.  His breakdown, Cress feels, is validation that Anderson's guilt finally drove him over the brink.

And then - we meet Cress’ colleague, who we learn had been planted in the office by Cress as the stalker.  He strongly disapproves of Cress and his methods, and personally believes that Anderson was innocent, and that Cress’ investigative tactics are responsible for driving Anderson mad.  Why, for example, didn't Cress acknowledge that Anderson had previously suffered a nervous breakdown during the war?  Considering his medical history, it’s no surprise that Cress’ psychological games would eventually break him.

Cress remains unconvinced.  He knows Anderson is guilty, knows that he killed his wife.  He points again to the matches as evidence that Anderson planned the whole thing.  And then the denouement: Cress goes to light his pipe, finds that he’s misplaced his matches.  Where could they have gone?  His colleague points to a box lying at his feet.  There they are, he says.  Cress is momentarily confused, then realizes there was a hole in his pocket – that must be how the box got there.  And it is then that the knowledge hits him with full force:  a hole in Anderson’s pocket, the matches falling out when he went to investigate his wife’s fall – Anderson was innocent.  Thanks to his investigation – to his tricks, his bullying tactics, his total belief in Anderson’s guilt, he has succeeded only in driving an innocent man insane.  It is, indeed, something that he will have to live with for the rest of his life.

As you might imagine I've left out some details, but the gist remains the same.  Although the viewer is used to waiting for the twist in a Hitchcock story, this one proves to be a real stunner, and serves as a savage rebuke to the police.  I'm actually kind of surprised this one got on the air.  There's nothing to suggest that Cress is a corrupt or crooked cop, just a man utterly convinced that he's right, and totally determined to bring a killer to justice by whatever means necessary.  And he turns out to be wrong.

Granted, the kind of thing I'm talking about is easier to do on an anthology series, where the abusive official isn't one of the lovable quirkbots we'll be rooting for again next week, but then it might not be that bad of an idea to introduce the concept of humility (another of St. Thomas Aquinas' cardinal virtues) to them, as a way of helping develop their character.  If we're going to have serialized television with continuing storylines, might as well introduce some constructive values to them, right?

The thing is, considering the tactics used by authorities in today's procedurals, the single-mindedness with which they pursue their quary, and the way they so often use evidence to back up their own theories, one has to think that without any moral principles to go on but a conviction in their own rightness, this kind of thing is bound to happen.  And it's that knowledge - the acknowledgement of the oftentimes fragile, blurry line between guilt and innocence - that should temper the actions of cops, force them to reason things out, prevent them from acting in the heat of the moment.  One of the reasons I prefer British police shows is that they seem, at least the ones I watch, to be a bit more thoughtful about things: confident without being arrogant, dogged but not bullying, firm without shouting all the time.

The point of this, I guess, is one I've made before.  We're like the frogs in the boiling water, conditioned to accept less and less freedom while putting more and more trust - and power - in the hands of the state: we know it will only be used against the guilty.  I don't buy that, and I think there are a lot of people who think the same way.  That kind of absolute power surely corrupts absolutely; it probably already has.  But that's the story the procedurals are selling us, and they're sticking to it.  It's time to give them the reply: no deal.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo. 100% agreed, and my thoughts on this classic episode mirror yours.

    With Conrad cast as the corrupt cop, and the methods he uses, this episode reminded me just a bit of Orson Welles' evidence-planting detective in TOUCH OF EVIL.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!