I just watched a thriller on TCM called Count the Hours, a 1953 RKO “B” whose opening scene bears a striking resemblance to In Cold Blood, the famous story of a real-life case in which an isolated farmer and his housekeeper were murdered for the money he had stashed on the farm — even though Count the Hours was made a full six years before the murders detailed in In Cold Blood took place. The major differences between Count the Hours and the opening of In Cold Blood is that the farmer has no children — just a woman who’s working as a live-in housekeeper who’s killed along with him — and he really does have a cash stash. Produced by Benedict Bogeaus, directed by Don Siegel, and photographed in nine days by the great cinematographer John Alton — who must have been miffed to be back in the “B” salt mines just two years after winning the Academy Award for shooting the spectacular ballet sequence at the end of An American in Paris (he had to share the award with Alfred Gilks, who shot the rest of An American in Paris, but the big, visually stunning scene everybody remembers was Alton’s work)— Count the Hours emerges as a nice little vest-pocket thriller largely in the Hitchcock mold, though with the difference that the innocent man wrongly accused of the murders is in custody almost from the get-go and, as in the Cornell Woolrich stories Phantom Lady and Black Angel, it’s an outsider working on his behalf who ultimately proves his innocence. The central character of Count the Hours is attorney Doug Madison (Macdonald Carey), who’s appointed by the court to defend hired man George Braden (John Craven) in his trial for murdering his former employer, farmer Fred Morgan (Richard Kipling — presumably no relation), and his housekeeper Susan Watson (Kay Riehl).
The case against Braden seems to be open and shut, especially since he confessed to the crime after a grueling 16-hour interrogation in order to get the police to let his wife Ellen (Teresa Wright, top-billed and appearing here a decade after working for the real Hitchcock in Shadow of a Doubt, one of the Master’s finest films) go. When he’s first questioned by police George denies he owns a gun; later he decides to come clean about having one — and it’s a .32, the same caliber as the one the murders were committed with — but in one of the dumbest moves imaginable (though the script by Doane R. Hoag and Karen DeWolf makes us understanding that she’s only trying to help), Ellen throws the gun in the nearby lake. It’s eventually recovered — after Ellen is the victim of an attempted rape by the diver hired by Madison to find it — but by the time it’s found the inside of the barrel has rusted so badly it’s no longer possible for ballistics tests to prove it either was or wasn’t the murder weapon. George is convicted and sentenced to death, and it’s clear that the people in the small town where all this is happening would just as soon lynch him and not bother with a trial at all (one imdb.com reviewer compared the story to To Kill a Mockingbird and Madison to Atticus Finch, but since all the dramatis personae are white it doesn’t have the complicating racial politics of Mockingbird), but one of the townspeople most incensed at George for killing the well-loved Morgan lets slip that there’s another suspect, Max Verne (Jack Elam, looking oddly like Abraham Lincoln and even speaking in the high, scratchy voice Lincoln was supposed to have had — a Lincoln film with Elam is an interesting cinematic might-have-been), who had the job of Morgan’s hired hand before George did and threatened Morgan when he fired him in a dispute over money. Madison is instantly convinced that Verne broke into Morgan’s farmhouse to steal the money and killed Morgan when the old man surprised him with a gun of his own, and eventually Verne is arrested by the sheriff of a neighboring county and makes a confession to the crime. (So we now have two people who’ve essentially been browbeaten by law enforcement into confessing to the same crime; given the current controversies about police interrogations leading to false confessions, this part of Count the Hours seems modern now.)
But Madison’s attempt to get George freed runs into a trap set by the district attorney, Jim Gillespie (Edgar Barrier): Gillespie produces Dr. Ronald Seabright (Norman Rice), who runs the local mental hospital and has had Verne as a patient. He assures the court that Verne is non-violent but would confess to anything if he got excited enough, and Madison — who’s also lost his law practice and his well-to-do fiancée, Paula Mitchener (Dolores Moran, the other “new girl” introduced in the 1945 film To Have and Have Not but who didn’t have the illustrious career Lauren Bacall did; maybe if she’d been the one who married the male lead … ), who’s got tired of waiting for him and enduring all the town gossip that the only reason he’s pushing George’s case so hard is he’s got the hots for Ellen — is about to give up on the day before George’s scheduled execution (which the governor has already refused to delay) when he sees Max Verne having an argument and grabbing his girlfriend, teenage bombshell Gracie Sager (Adele Mara), who’s essentially doing the Carroll Baker schtick three years before Baker’s first lead role in Baby Doll. Eventually, as Madison and Ellen are in a bar together just before he’s going to leave town, he hears the piece of information he needs: the bartender says he heard Max Verne yelling about the murders at 6 a.m. the day they happened — even though the bodies weren’t discovered until 7:30. Ultimately there’s a shoot-out, Verne is taken alive and the cops find Morgan’s wallet on him (they know it’s Morgan’s because his name was helpfully embossed on it); George is freed in the nick of time and Madison and Paula get back together as the film ends.
Count the Hours was shot in only nine days, but it eventually acquired a cult reputation even though, when he saw it again in the late 1960’s, Siegel didn’t think it was that great — “the nine days showed,” he laconically told interviewer Stuart M. Kaminsky. It’s a problematic film in several ways, notably the relentless overacting of Jack Craven and the almost as relentless overacting of Teresa Wright (yet another actor whom Hitchcock got to calm down!), but what makes it is Siegel’s taut direction, MacDonald Carey’s laconicism as the crusading attorney (one could make a case that the character is a precursor of Atticus Finch, but one could also make a case that Carey played him better than Gregory Peck did, without the sometimes insufferable self-righteousness Peck showed in Mockingbird that marred an otherwise fine performance) and, above all, the magnificent cinematography of John Alton. Siegel recalled to Kaminsky that when Alton signed on to make the film, he asked producer Bogeaus how much he had budgeted for rigging, the system of overhead pipes, brackets, ropes and cables that suspends lights over a film set. Bogeaus told him $4,000. “Give me $2,000 above my salary and I won’t use any rigging,” Alton said. He did it by using almost no overhead lighting at all, contributing to the film’s rich visual atmosphere.