“Silent Witness”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 5 - Paul Henreid (1957)

“Silent Witness",  an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 3 (1957), is a study of guilt and self-recrimination.  The entire half-hour is entirely focalized on a man who agonizes over his sins and fears the awful consequences that are sure to come.  Based on a story by Jeanne  Barry and scripted by Robert Dennis, the episode was directed by Paul Henreid.  Henreid directed a number of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, but he is probably most remembered for playing the role of Ingrid Bergman’s husband in Casablanca (1942).

The two young leads in the cast, Don Taylor and Delores Hart, were at turning points in their careers.  Taylor, a well-known actor, would soon turn to directing and would go on to direct a number of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes.  Hart was only 19 at the time and just starting out, but her promising career as a movie star was soon cut short when she retired from acting to become a Roman Catholic nun at the age of 24. 

The story begins showing college professor Donald Mason (played by Don Taylor) trying to conceal the romantic affair he has been having with his student Claudia (Delores Hart).  In fact Mason wants to end their affair before a scandal breaks out that would end his marriage and cost him his job.

But Claudia refuses to listen to any idea of a breakup and, knowing that Mason’s wife will be going to her gym class that evening, insists that they meet for a tryst “as usual” that very night. She arranges to babysit for Mason’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Davidson, and calls up Mason to come on over.  When Mason shows up, he again insists that they should terminate their relationship; but Claudia refuses and threatens to ruin him if he doesn’t divorce his wife and marry her.  In a momentary and impulsive rage, Mason strangles her and then departs.

With the focalization exclusively on Mason, we only see things from his increasingly fearful and claustrophobic perspective. An investigating policeman amiably visits Mason in connection with the murder and asks him if he knows anything.  He says the police don’t have much to go on and that the only witness was the 14-month-old baby that was in its cradle in the same room at the time of the murder.  He tells Mason that perhaps when the baby begins talking (it only babbles now), it may be able to relate to others what it saw.  Mason scowls in alarm to hear this.

The idea of the baby being able to articulate what it saw is, to me, totally implausible.  But that idea does take hold of Mason’s angst-ridden mind and becomes an obsession.  As the weeks pass he occasionally snoops around his neighbor’s baby and is alarmed to observe that whenever the baby sees him it begins bawling loudly.  Eventually, the baby begins saying its first words, but at this point they are only “da-da”.  Mason is horrified.  Is it all just a matter of time before the silent witness reveals his crime?

The viewer might begin to wonder if Mason is going to do something to silence the baby.  But this is not what happens. Mason is not diabolical; he is basically an ordinary person with human weaknesses, and we can partially empathize with him. If Mason were shown to be a monster, we would lose our empathetic viewpoint in this story.  What happened was that in a moment of weakness, he did something horrible and now fears the consequences.  Anyway, you can guess how it all ends.

The strength, such as it is, of this episode is the heightened sense of anxiety that is conveyed by Don Taylor’s silent, worried expressions and the associated camera work that emphasizes his alarm.  To some extent we could say that the entire episode is just a one-note reverie in guilt and self-induced terror.

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