Claire & Markheim

Ring a Ding Ding

     Another duo of Screen Directors Playhouse episodes have again impressed me, and both offered “twist” endings. Claire conveyed quite the familiar plot as it largely reflects the story Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier that hit the big screen in 1940 under Hitchcock’s direction. Both stories deal with a deceased wife and the new wife that has joined the household. Unlike Rebecca, however, Claire uses a cat by that name to intimidate the new woman of the house instead of a devoted housekeeper.

     Angela Lansbury plays the new woman whose husband was married to her school friend before drowning in the lake outside their home. As Vera, Lansbury conveys the agitation of a woman living in the home of the friend whom she was unable to save from her fate because of the inability to swim. Add to that a Siamese cat that clearly does not like her, and Vera has all the makings of the “new Mrs. DeWinter.” The surprise ending comes in the revelation of what actually happened during the drowning incident.

     I am a huge fan of Rebecca so Claire was particularly enjoyable for me. The great back and forth the viewer endures of “is there or isn’t there something wrong here” makes for great suspense. Lansbury does a great job of convincing the viewer she is the victim. George Montgomery plays the husband, and the episode was directed by Frank Tuttle.

     Next up is Markheim based on a Robert Louis Stephenson story that predated Jekyll and Hyde yet had traces of the good-vs-evil struggle in every man. Ray Milland continues to impress me with this short work in which he plays a man who kills for money.

     Markheim begs entrance to a pawn shop late Christmas day where the unpleasant owner is surprised to find his regular customer is not there to sell, but “to buy”. After chatting a while with the shop owner and asking him to suggest a gift for his fiance, Markheim finally plunges a knife into the businessman’s back. The ticking of the clocks becomes overpowering and fade into the pounding beat of a heart. Markheim snatches a key from the shop owner’s belt and begins his search for the store safe. Upstairs he find the key fits a dresser drawer that contains naught but a giant key rink holding a hundred keys. Markheim’s anxiety convinces him he hears feet climbing the stairs outside the room and eventually he is joined by someone, the devil to be precise.

     Rod Steiger plays the “mysterious stranger”, as he is billed, and knows all about Markheim’s crime and his past. The man addicted to playing the stock exchange has worked his way up to the crime of murder. His past dealings in the pawn shop have been to hock stolen items. The devil offers to reveal where the safe is hidden, but the duo is interrupted by the return of the shop owner’s maid. The stranger tells Markheim if he kills just this once more he can return to a life of good and can even make a death-bed repentance if he wants to. The surprise comes in what Markheim actually does at the film’s close.

     This great story was directed by Fred Zinneman. The shop is littered with antiques and an excessive number of ticking clocks that help to heighten the viewer’s experience with Markheim’s anxiety leading up to and after the murder. Milland gives a great performance as a desperate, nervous man making his first foray into killing another. Again he has me singing his praises.

     As I’ve mentioned before about Screen Directors Playhouse, these half-hour films do a tremendous job of cramming what feels like a full-length feature into the allotted time without making the story feel rushed or cut short. Truly a fabulous series.

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