"Banquo's Chair" is the last episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to star John Williams, and it is an outstanding half hour of television. The title refers to an incident in Shakespeare's 1606 play Macbeth. In Act three, scene three, Macbeth orders the murder of his friend Banquo. In scene four, at dinner, Macbeth learns that the murder has been carried out. The ghost of Banquo enters and sits in Macbeth's chair at the dinner table, but no one other than Macbeth can see the specter. Macbeth denies involvement in the crime and the ghost leaves, but it returns just as Macbeth drinks a toast to his absent friend, whom the others do not yet know is dead. Macbeth gets upset, begging the ghost to "Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves shall never tremble" (3.4.101-02) and the ghost exits. Macbeth has had his friend murdered to further his own ambition and a ghost, either a real one or one in his tortured mind, returns to haunt him.
A similar situation occurs in "Banquo's Chair," which was first published in July 1930 as Banquo's Chair: A Play in One Act by Rupert Croft-Cooke. The action of the play, which is only 15 pages long, takes place in "a large but rather decayed house on Sydenham Hill," which is located in southeast London and which features many large homes from the 1800s. Retired police chief Sir William Brent is setting the scene in order to conduct an experiment, aided by Lane, a butler. Robert Stone arrives in the company of Harold Gandy, a well-known novelist, and Brent reminds them of the Sydenham Murder, in which an old woman named Miss Ferguson was killed a year before and no arrest was made. The police were sure that the culprit was her nephew, John Bedford, but they could not prove it, so they allowed Brent to wait for the anniversary of the crime, in which the old woman was strangled in her chair while having dinner in the very room where the men now stand.
|Bedford breaks down and confesses|
Banquo's Chair is a clever and atmospheric short play where a character is driven to admit his own guilt by what appear to be the machinations of a crafty police inspector. Only after the guilty party is gone do the other participants in the evening's events discover that their silent visitor may have been a ghost after all.
|John Williams as Brent|
The author was born in 1903 in England and his first book, a collection of poems, was published in 1922. In a fifty-year career as a writer, he wrote over 100 books, including mystery novels as Leo Bruce. Eight of them featured Sergeant Beef, while another 23 featured Carolus Deene. Croft-Cooke was jailed for six months in 1953 and 1954 under England's laws that criminalized homosexuality; his case was among those that led to a change in the law. He died in 1979 and there is a website about him here. He did not write for film or television; only a handful of his works were adapted for those media and this is the only time one of his stories was adapted for the Hitchcock series.
|Reginald Gardiner as Major Cooke-Finch|
Suspense expanded the story to one hour and it was presented on radio for a third time, this time starring James Mason. The broadcast aired on March 9, 1950, and may be heard here. The final radio appearance of "Banquo's Chair" came on February 6, 1957, on a series called Sleep No More, where Nelson Olmsted reads the short story aloud, with musical accompaniment. (Listen to the reading here.)
Finally, Alfred Hitchcock Presents adapted "Banquo's Chair" for television and the show was filmed on March 25 and 26, 1959, and broadcast on CBS on Sunday, May 3, 1959, with a teleplay by Francis Cockrell and direction by Hitchcock himself, who was then doing the final editing work on North By Northwest. The show is a triumph, one of the best of the series. The credits say that it is based on a story by Rupert Croft-Cooke, so it is safe to assume that Cockrell had the story and not the play at his desk when he sat down to write.
|The opening shot|
The scene dissolves to the interior of the house, which is decorated in the Victorian or Georgian style. Inspector Brent arrives to visit Major Cooke-Finch, who lives in the house. Unlike the story, where Brent himself rented the house, in the TV version Cooke-Finch is the resident. John Williams plays Brent in an uncharacteristically brusque manner, unlike his other performances in the series but in keeping with the description of the character in Croft-Cooke's story. Brent drops hints of what is to occur that night and, on three occasions, a surprising word from Brent is followed by a close-up of another character who comments on it. The first time, when Brent utters the word "ghost," the camera focuses on the Major, who exclaims: "Odd, I thought he said ghost!" The Major acts as a stand-in for the viewer, saying aloud what the viewer is thinking.
|Max Adrian as Stone|
Once again, Brent utters a key word and the camera moves in for a close up on another character's reaction: this time the inspector says "murder" and Stone's face is seen in close up. The murder occurred two years ago, twice as far removed from the gathering as in the story, and in Cockrell's teleplay Major Cooke-Finch admits that he could afford to "take" the house because the murder lowered its value. Here, it is the Blackheath Murder rather than the Sydenham Murder. Cockrell adds another nice touch: in addition to Miss Ferguson, her little Pekinese dog was also killed. The dog may have known the murderer, since no bark of warning was heard; this recalls the famous incident in Conan Doyle's 1892 Sherlock Holmes story, "Silver Blaze," where a dog did not bark because he knew the murderer.
The third and final time Brent's words elicit a reaction shown in close up occurs when he announces: "I intend to produce Miss Ferguson's ghost" and the camera moves in on the Major once again as he remarks, "He did say ghost!" These tricks help set a somewhat light tone in the first act of "Banquo's Chair" that contrasts with the growing suspense in the second act. Perhaps no one but John Williams could deliver this line as effectively: "We can't bring her on with the soup; that would be pushing it. I'll bring her on with the pheasant," he says, referring to the ghost. One more Shakespearean reference is made, as Stone comments that May Thorpe, the actress hired to play the ghost, had been featured in his version of Hamlet as the queen; of course, her husband also appears in that play as a ghost. Brent admits that he told Bedford that he had new evidence that he wanted to discuss and this is how he lured him to the scene of the crime on its second anniversary; this is a change from the story, where the chance to meet a famous writer was enough to attract the killer. Act one ends with Bedford's arrival, as he enters the dining room and approaches the camera.
|The shot that opens Act Two|
|Thomas Dillon making the dog bark|
|Kenneth Haigh as Bedford|
The music, the table talk, and the visions of the ghostly old woman continue; Stone goes on to mention an actress playing Ophelia--who dies in Hamlet--and her belief in astrology; in a way, Stone is laying it all out for Bedford, but the young man is too wrapped up in what he is seeing to pay attention to the clues provided by the actor at the table. Referring to acting, Stone comments that "the rewards are many," but this could also refer to the inheritance Bedford received for murdering the old woman. Bedford snaps out of it for a moment and asks Stone about the audience that keeps "you coming back for one curtain call after another," just as the ghost of Miss Ferguson keeps re-emerging to take center stage in Bedford's line of sight.
The close ups of Bedford's face get tighter and tighter; he is an audience of one, unable to fathom why no one else in the room can see the play being acted out before him and afraid that it is happening only in his mind. As in Hitchcock's Spellbound, a Theremin is used to good effect here, adding an aura of unreality to the proceedings. When Bedford finally loses control, the close up is so tight that the frame cannot contain his entire face. He leaps from his chair, yelling at the ghost and, in his threat to kill her again, he utters the confession that seals his doom. The music suddenly stops and Bedford realizes that he has been tricked. He is arrested and taken away, out into the rainy night and his bleak future which, in 1903, surely means hanging.
|George Pelling as the butler|
"Banquo's Chair" is a bit shorter than the usual episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (only 18 minutes from start to finish), yet it is a brilliant show where the writing, direction, acting and music all work together to make a short film that has a great setup and payoff with a classic twist ending.
Francis Cockrell (1906-1987) wrote for movies from 1932 to 1956 and for TV from 1950 to 1973. He wrote 18 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; "I Killed the Count" was the last one examined here and "Banquo's Chair" was his last teleplay for this series to be aired.
The murderer, John Bedford, is played by Kenneth Haigh (1931- ), who was onscreen from 1954 to 2004. He was on the Hitchcock show twice and also appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller.
Reginald Gardiner (1903-1980) plays Major Cooke-Finch; his first film role was an uncredited part in Hitchcock's 1927 silent suspense classic, The Lodger. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show; he was also seen in Chaplin's The Great Dictator and he was on screen until 1968.
Shakespearean actor Robert Stone is played by Max Adrian, who was on screen from 1934 to 1971. He only appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents once and was later seen in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965).
Thomas Dillon (1895-1962) plays the sergeant who gets the dog to bark; in a 23-year career, he played bit parts in many classic films. Hilda Plowright (1890-1973) plays the ghost; in addition to her small role in The Fatal Witness she was on screen from 1938 to 1965. Finally, George Pelling plays the butler; he had small parts in no less than eight episodes of the Hitchcock series.
The music supervisor on "Banquo's Chair" was Frederick Herbert (1909-1966), who was a music mixer in films from 1937 on and who worked in episode TV from 1958 to 1960. His work on this episode is particularly striking.
Watch "Banquo's Chair" on Hulu here or order the DVD here.
John Williams on Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Overview and Episode Guide
John Williams was featured in ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, all during the first four seasons of the series. In season one, he appeared in "The Long Shot," with Peter Lawford, where he plays a con man with a special interest in facts about London. In "Back for Christmas," he plays a husband who murders his wife. In "Whodunit," he plays a mystery writer who is murdered and then sent back to Earth to try to identify his killer.
Williams appeared in six episodes of season two, his busiest year. In "Wet Saturday," he plays an outsider who happens upon a murder that is being covered up by a wealthy family. In "The Rose Garden," he plays a book publisher who discovers that a murder mystery novel is not as fictional as it seems. "I Killed the Count," the only multi-part episode of the entire series, finds him playing a Scotland Yard inspector with too many people confessing to murder. In "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater," he plays an unhappy husband with a rich fantasy life.
He did not appear in any episodes in season three, but in season four he made his last appearance, as a retired Scotland Yard inspector in "Banquo's Chair." While the casual viewer might remember Williams as having played one police inspector after another, following his successful role in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), the truth is that his roles on the Hitchcock series were diverse and demonstrated his acting range. These ten half hours are uniformly entertaining and often mix humor with crime to good effect. Williams continued as a busy actor for another two decades, but his appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents remain among his most memorable.
|"The Long Shot"|
|"Back for Christmas"|
|"The Rose Garden"|
|"I Killed the Count"|
|"The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater"|