Alfred Hitchcock Presents – The Crystal Trench (10/04/59)

In September 1907, a train rolls across one of those impossibly huge bridges in the Alps.  I’m not sure we could build one of those now.  It’s like those gigantic statues and titular towers in Lord of the Rings; how did those simpletons build such colossal structures?  There is probably a 50 page LOTR answer replete with Elvish songs, so I retract the question.

Mark Cavendish [1] is arriving in Switzerland today to climb the Schwarzhorn, which I hear is very popular in German porn.  He sees the other members of his climbing party arguing on the veranda about whether they can see some dumbkopfs atop the mountain at 4:00 PM.  That would very dangerous as the weather is unpredictable, visibility decreases, and the pro shop charges you another full day for carabiners and crampons.

That night, the concierge — possibly the hotel manager, but concierge is so much more fun to say . . .  Concierge!  Concierge! — informs Cavendish there has been an accident on the mountain.  Mr. Ranks led a pair of young men up the mountain, taking a route that was beyond their skills.  Only Ranks and George Liston made it back. The other young man, Michael Ballister, died before reaching the summit.  Ranks and Liston were too fatigued to haul him down.  The manager thinks since Cavendish is from England like Ballister, he should be the one to tell Mrs. Ballister to cancel that couples massage.

They find the lovely Stella Ballister sitting alone in the ballroom as others dance around her.  Apparently, they feel this is the perfect place to let her know her husband of six months is dead.  Before Cavendish can give her the news, she asks him to dance.  She is not flirting; she loves her husband, but just feels like having a little fun with a fellow Brit.  They get in a few steps before he takes her aside and says, “Mrs. Ballister, your husband is dead. His body is up on the Schwarzhorn.”  Amuse-bouche?

Stella insists that he retrieve her husband’s body off the mountain. Cavendish and his pals brave a Frosty Blizzard and a blinding Blast of McFlurries to find Ballister. Despite the heavy snow, they are wearing lederhosen (also fun to say  . . . Lederhosen!  Lederhosen!) [3] and hats that don’t cover their ears.  They find Cavendish draped frozen along the side of a cliff.  As they are hauling him up, they lose their grip and he comically slides down the mountain like Stallone rode that dude in Cliffhanger,[4] until he disappears into both a crevise and a crevasse.

Cavendish returns and again must give Stella tragic news — maybe during pool aerobics this time. She asks him to go with her to see Ranks and Liston in the hospital where they are recovering from frostbite.  Stella thinks Michael was too strong to just die of expo-sure. She wants to get “the truth” out of the two men.  At the hospital, Ranks is wheeled in.  He gives Stella his condolences.  Ranks admits they left with too little food and that the boys were too inexperienced for the route he took.  Even in a wheelchair, he’s a stand-up guy.  However, he insists that he and Liston stayed with Ballister until he died.

Stella doesn’t buy his story and shouts, “You left him up there to die!  I know it!”  The nurse wheels Ranks back out and Stella gets her groove back.  She tells Cavendish that she will keep her husband alive through her memories.  She — not me, she — says it will be easy because being packed in ice, he will never change.

Back in London, Cavendish and Stella begin attending dinner and concerts together.  One day, she invites him to tea and he shows up with a ring.  She refuses his proposal.  To explain why, she takes him with her to see a professor.  He describes — in very authentic sounding jargon, BTW — how glaciers move and transform over time.  He blows his credibility when he absurdly predicts the glacier will poop Ballister out in 40 years on July 21, 1947, around tea time.  Stella plans to wait all that time to be with her beloved, perfectly preserved Michael.  In a stunning Hollywood reversal, the wife would be 40 years older than the husband.  Madness, I tells ya!

Forty years later, Cavendish and Stella return to the glacier. [5] Some men picking at the ice, not realizing it will never get better, reveal Ballister’s frozen face, unchanged after 40 years in the glacier — I guess . . . we never saw him before.  Cavendish retrieves a locket from around Ballister’s neck.  Stella doesn’t seem thrilled.  When Cavendish opens the locket, the picture inside is another woman.  He tries to protect Stella, but she knows her husband had no such locket with her picture.  She takes the locket and tosses it back on the ice.

There is a lot to like here . . . I seem to use that phrase a lot in a passive-aggressive way.  I enjoyed the location.  This ain’t a James Bond movie — you’re working with a 1950s TV budget, meaning stock footage, papier-mâché rocks and snow made of deadly asbestos shavings.  But they were all cut together great.  In particular, the shot of Ballister sailing down the mountain sticks with me.  That is too specific to be stock footage, and didn’t strike me as a model. It was just a great drawn-out Hitchcockian “uh-oh” moment like Norman Bates trying to sink Marion’s car.  If that shot cost half the budget, it was worth it.

Although I respect the twist, it rings hollow.  While I enjoy seeing other people waste their lives — the Dead-Heads always made me feel like my life actually had direction — the premise is just too flimsy.  OK, Stella’s handsome young husband died tragically.  I can imagine her going into seclusion.  I can imagine her heart-broken.  I can imagine her never remarrying.  I can imagine her expressing her grief by having a steamy affair with the proper young woman who just arrived on the train to be a dance instructor at the local academy, who wears jodhpurs even though she doesn’t have a horse, and never had time for men and their boorish ways.  However, I can’t understand her waiting 40 years for her dead husband’s body to reappear.  To what end?  And Cavendish, dude!

Still, 30 minutes well-spent.

Other Stuff:

  • AHP Deathwatch:  Only one survivor, but his character had no name.  However, the professor (Patrick McNee) had a good run, dying at 95 in 2015.
  • [1] James Donald, Senior British Officer at Stalag III.
  • [2] Werner Klemperer, Senior German Officer at Stalag XIII.
  • [3] Or maybe they were knickers.  They were pants that did not break at the shoe, but ended with socks from the calf down.  Just seems a strange choice for freezing weather.
  • [4] I didn’t find a clip, but everyone should watch Cliffhanger (again).  It’s just great fun.
  • [5] I think it was meant to be a stunning reveal when the actors turn to the camera and are made up to be older.  However, we already knew it was 40 years later.  I do admire the restraint of the make-up, though.  Rather than the hideous job done on Guy Pearce in Prometheus (or anyone ever in any series of Star Trek), for example, just some gray hair and an ashen complexion are perfectly adequate.
  • This is the end of Hulu’s AHP line-up.

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