The Movie Waffler Hitchcock in Reverse - <i>The Crystal Trench</i> (1959) | The Movie Waffler

Hitchcock in Reverse - The Crystal Trench (1959)

A mountaineer falls for the widow of a fellow climber.

Starring: James Donald, Patricia Owens, Werner Klemperer, Patrick MacNee

While staying at an Alpine ski resort, English mountain climber Mark (Donald) learns that a fellow Englishman, a young climber, has perished on a nearby mountain, his body awaiting retrieval. Mark breaks the news to the dead man's pretty young widow, Stella (Owens), before setting off to recover the corpse. The attempt to fetch the body is botched, the corpse falling from the mountain deep into a crevasse below, making it irrecoverable. Mark returns to London with Stella and the two maintain a close friendship, but Mark wants more and proposes marriage. Still in love with her husband, Stella refuses, claiming she can't move on without seeing the dead man one more time.
The 155th episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Crystal Trench was first broadcast on October 4th 1959, part of the series' fifth season. The source was a short story by the English author AEW Mason, who is most well known for penning The Four Feathers and a series of mystery novels featuring the French detective Inspector Hanaud. Adapting Mason's story for the screen was the prolific screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who would go on to script Village of the Damned a year later and the disaster epics The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, along with the under-rated and under-seen cop drama The New Centurions, in the seventies.
Many of the AHP episodes Hitch chose to direct himself seem to have been chosen solely to accommodate breaks in his cinematic work schedule. With The Crystal Trench, however, it's all too easy to see why this episode might carry some appeal for the director. Hitch loved tales of obsession, and this story presents us with not one, but two obsessed protagonists. Mark longs for a woman he knows he can't have - and if Hollywood lore is to be believed, this is certainly something Hitch would have sympathised with - while the object of his unrequited affection, Stella, is in love with a corpse, much like the protagonist of the previous year's big screen Hitchcock offering, Vertigo.
We're reminded of that movie in the scene in which Mark breaks the tragic news of her husband's death to Stella. The young woman walks out to a balcony and halts, the camera tracking into a close-up of the back of her head, her hair arranged just like that of Carlotta, the woman in the portrait that Kim Novak's character seems spellbound by.
Hitch does something interesting with the positioning of his camera during the episode's many conversational close-ups. While Mark's close-ups consist of the traditional TV straight-on but slightly to the side framing, Stella is framed mostly in profile and often the camera lingers at the back of her head. With her face rarely wholly visible, this helps visually convey her distant attitude towards Mark's advances.
With a performance from Donald that brilliantly balances stoicism and melancholia, The Crystal Trench is a superior piece of half-hour TV programming, and its cynical twist is reminiscent of Guy de Maupassant at his bitterest.

Eric Hillis