“An Unlocked Window”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep. 17 - Joseph M. Newman (1965)

Perhaps the finest, and my personal favorite, of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV productions was “An Unlocked Window” (1965), which was Episode 17 of the final year of Hitchcock’s anthology TV series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65).  It is certainly one of the most spine-tingling horror features that I have seen, and this effect is attributable to the show’s diabolical narrative structure.  It operates in the fashion of an unknown and invisible spider slowly encircling its increasingly helpless prey and moving in for the kill.  We know that the “spider” is out there, but we don’t know where it is or even what it is.  In this sense it is a true horror film.

Of course this being a Hitchcock presentation, we can expect that there will be a case of misidentification of an important character and that there will be some sort of twist at the end of the tale.  Those elements in this context are intrinsic to the film’s horrifying outcome.

Veteran director Joseph M. Newman, in the last year of his career, directed the show.  James Bridges’s script was based on a story by English author Ethel Lina White, whose well-known novel The Wheel Spins (1936) had earlier been the basis for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).  And the music is furnished by Bernard Herrmann. The show’s star is Dana Wynter, whose most memorable film role was in  the harrowing tale, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

The plot does have a “red herring”, which is oftentimes an artificial plot element intended to mislead the viewer and is not usually an element in great stories.  In this case, though, the red herring is something of a metaphor for one of the story’s themes, and its use is justifiable on this occasion.

The story begins starkly.  A pretty nurse is shown walking home one evening and being strangled to death by a psychopathic murderer.  This, we learn from the news report, is only the latest crime of a still at-large serial killer who preys specifically on nurses with “pretty necks”.   Then the scene shifts to an old mansion in the countryside where two nurses are attending to a young wealthy gentleman who is bedridden with some kind of lung disease that requires the use of an oxygen tent.  Also living in the mansion is a married couple who attend to the grounds, the cooking, and the housekeeping.       

Since the serial nurse killings have all been committed in a general area of the city that includes  the mansion, the nurses are justifiably worried and take precautions by making sure that all the mansion’s doors and windows are securely locked tight.  So the younger of the two nurses, Stella (played by Dana Wynter), goes down to the basement to check that the windows there are all locked.  But she is frightened by seeing a mouse and runs back upstairs, thereby forgetting to attend to the last cellar window.  Throughout the rest of the story, there will be occasional cuts to a shot of the open, unlocked window, reminding the viewer that there is a neglected hole in their defense that may come to have dire consequences

But since there are five people in the house, they should be reasonably safe.  In addition to Stella, there is the older nurse Betty Ames (T. C. Jones), the caretaker Sam Isles, the housemaid Maude Isles (Louise Latham), and the bedridden young owner Glendon Baker (who seems to be on the verge or recovering his health). The focalization, though, is on the pretty Stella, and she is the one we are worried about.

As the story unfolds, however, it seems as though there is a noose slowly tightening around Stella’s neck.  In this respect note that whenever we are faced with a fearful situation, we take for granted that we are not completely alone – there are ordinary resources, infrastructure, and people that we can count on to operate in their customary ways.  Step by step, though, the support structure around Stella begins to unravel.  This leads to a growing sense of isolation and enclosure.

Stella is a caring and sympathetic young woman, and her beauty and manner has even attracted the amorous attentions of the handsome and wealthy Mr. Baker.  He vows to marry Stella as soon as he regains his health.  But we know from the unlocked window that Stella can sometimes overlook things, and another instance of that apparently appears when senior nurse Betty discovers that they have an urgent need for a new oxygen tank for Mr. Baker.  Betty scolds Stella for having forgotten to order a new tank, and then Sam is dispatched to go out that evening to town and bring back a backup oxygen tank.

Later a thunderstorm develops outside, and this leads to an electrical fault that apparently blows all the fuses in the house.  Now they are without electricity and pitched in darkness.  The maid/cook Maude, who up to this point had appeared to be loud and opinionated, has been drinking whisky to calm her nerves.   But the alcohol and her heightening fears get the better of her, and she starts to rave like a maniac.  Betty recommends that they give her a sedative injection to put her to sleep.

Now it is just the two nurses and Mr. Baker.  Stella runs upstairs to check on Baker, but he is unconscious (or worse).  Their telephone line is cut, too, and there is immediate evidence that a strange man, presumably the killer, is approaching the house. 

The lethal noose is tightening, and we are set for the chilling climax.  What makes all this work is the dramatic pacing and atmospheric mise-en-scene – achieved by expert acting, cinematography, and editing – that contribute to the ever-increasing sense of enclosure.  We gradually sense that all of Stella’s escape routes are being cut off, one by one.  The killer, still unseen, is all the more terrifying, because he is only left to our imagination.

All in all, it constitutes one of the most frightening horror dramas ever.
★★★★

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