Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Poisoner: Season 1 Episode 17

Originally aired: 1/10/61
Starring Murray Matheson, Sarah Marshall, Brenda Forbes
Written by Robert Hardy Andrews
Directed by Herschel Daugherty

Broke and desperate, socialite Thomas Edward Griffith (Matheson) marries Frances Abercrombie (Marshall), thinking she's loaded. Trouble is, Frances is after a rich husband and is not above white lies to get herself one. Shortly after the marriage, Frances' mother (Forbes) and wheelchair-bound sister (Jennifer Raine) come to stay at the couple's house. The whole situation raises Thomas' blood pressure, but fortunately he's got a hobby that will come in handy as he plans to rid himself of his in-laws.

JS: Let me start off by saying that once again, Jerry Goldsmith elevates the episode with a fantastic score. Of course as a Vic Mizzy fan, I'm a sucker for the harpsichord. Now is probably a good time to point out that several episodes, including this one, feature isolated music and effects tracks—a great bonus for those of us who are soundtrack enthusiasts.

PE: Well, that's a wonderful bonus for those like you, Johnny, who are obsessed by film music. What about those of us (I like to think of us as, well, normal, for lack of a better word) who appreciate scores but don't necessarily want to twirl around the kitchen in our underoos humming along with the isolated "Theme From Rose's Last Summer?" How about a picture-in-picture workable crossword puzzle? That would give me something to do while I try to keep my eyes on the screen (or open, for that matter).

JS: There's a great visual bit in the pre-credit sequence that quite masterfully mirrors the crazy lines from the Thriller title card. David Schow was the first I know to point that out, and it seems too close to be a mere coincidence.

PE: Good catch there, David! I will admit that, like many of the "gothic" episodes of Thriller, we do get a nice moody, noirish opening.

JS: While I was initially concerned that we were in store for a mundane period piece, Murray Matheson does a great job as the snooty socialite, giving a pitch-perfect performance that I enjoyed more and more as the episode went on.

PE: If anything, once Frances' hillbilly family shows up at Thomas' swanky dinner party, guzzling booze and, ostensibly, passing gas, Thomas becomes a sympathetic character. Any viewer in their right mind would run down Mom and Sis (and then back over them as well) with the family carriage. I loved Griffith's little chamber of horrors (a secret door with different rings and poisons) and thought that the producers of 1966's TV Batman missed the boat not signing Murray Matheson up as one of Bats' villains: how about The Poisoner?

JS: I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that mouthy, wheelchair-bound invalid sister-in-laws and staircases don't mix. Frankly, the inevitable doesn't come soon enough to Helen Abercrombie (Jennifer Raine, in a grating performance). And right out of Psycho, we get an equally unconvincing tumble-down-the-stairs shot.

PE: But at least we get the satisfaction of seeing this whiner meet her maker. Do you think that, back in the early 60s, this type of down-the-stairs shot worked for audiences?

JS: In a humorous scene sure to upset animal activists everywhere, Griffiths cavalierly swats his wife's cat off the stairway handrail as he passes by. (And then inadvertently poisons the varmint! -PE)



  1. From the vaults of trivia: Murray Matheson, uncredited, was the voice of the dead title character in the gory horror-comedy ARNOLD (1973).

  2. As Alan Warren points out in his Thriller book (THIS IS A THRILLER, McFarland 1996), "The Poisoner" was the first episode "to use a real-life figure as a protagonist (...) Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, art and literary critic (and occasional murderer)." I spot-check this factoid in the commentary for "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper."

  3. I agree with you about this episode. Murray Matheson was excellent and I enjoyed his witty quips while poisoning his in-laws. Wish I could get some of that undetectible poison that he used.

  4. Matheson's great as usual, Goldsmith's second score for the series is powerful (something of a dry run for "Grim Reaper"), the period flavor is effective, and the fact that this THRILLER is based on a real-life "famous" killer adds a curious and welcome new twist. On the down side: this is the story of a creep who poisons creepy in-laws and a creepy doctor friend, and who is ultimately nabbed by a creepy law enforcer. Even the guy's sexy young wife is a creep. The most sympathetic character in the entire story is a cat, and it gets killed to fulfill a key plot point. Putting things in perspective, "The Poisoner" happens to be the episode that followed "The Cheaters" and "The Hungry Glass," seminal shows that re-defined THRILLER and brought in a new, horror-craving audience. I can tell you from personal 8 year-old experience that this episode temporarily derailed the excitement for us kids, who knew the difference between a real horror tale and an icy, boring character study of a gentleman murderer. Boris may have used the word "occult" to describe the protagonist's preoccupations, but by tale's end we all knew that was a desperate and rather misleading attempt to imbue a supernatural horror flavoring where none existed. The fact that the next few episodes of THRILLER were mysteries as well only widened the divide; sure enough, we fans would have to "discover" this remarkable horror series all over again, around the time of "Well of Doom." More about that as we go along...

  5. When William Frye produced a "Thriller" crime drama, it was bound to contain the hallmarks of his great horror episodes. Though not terribly exciting, I still find "The Poisoner" a dramatic feast, largely due to the dark, oppressive visual style, the series debut of one of "Thriller's" unsung heroes--director Herschel Daugherty, Goldsmith's ingenious score AND-- Murray Matheson's standout performance.

    Matheson was one of those amazingly solid and impeccable performers---who could dominate and carry this very talky script almost by himself--and yet never receive any significant recognition for his work. Re-check his tour-de-force portrayal of the surreal, caustic clown in TZ's "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" (YES--it's the SAME GUY!!), and you realize that the man should have been at the top of his profession, in terms of recognition and acclaim.

    As Gary Gerani observes, Goldsmith's score is a precursor to his phenomenal "Grim Reaper" score, and also shares a noticeable similarity to his "Back There" score for TZ (in which case his music almost saved that dismal episode). It's amazing to discover how TV composers like J.G. were forced to crank out their music in an impossibly short time; but geniuses like this guy seemed to thrive on the restraints. Here Goldsmith produced a score that combines period English folk-flavored idiom (featuring that dark-toned harpsichord) with a diabolical sense of dread....including a very unusual and effective sort of reverb effect applied to the strings, which creates an alluring, ghostly sound. Incredible work produced under almost impossible conditions, capturing and greatly enhancing the mood of this show; the final shot of foggy front door with black funeral wreath and J.G.'s chilling music is a knock-out.

    But what's with the men's phony sideburns?? DAMN, I wish these TV make-up guys could have done a more convincing job of this. Whether it's westerns, gothic period dramas....whatever....this flaw in TV production never fails to undermine the suspension of disbelief for me. If they just could have done a better job of MATCHING up the color and texture of the fake hair with the real hair.....
    (Matheson, David Frankham, the Uncle, etc etc).

    Oh well--it's a relatively minor thing. Matheson's performance and the sheer stylistic visual/musical power of this one keep it at the top of "Thriller's crime output.


  6. From the December 9, 1960 draft of “The Poisoner” —

    Author’s Research Notes
    “A Study in Sanguine” by Robert Hardy Andrews

    The actual Thomas Griffiths Wainewright was born in 1794. He served as an officer in one of Her Majesty’s regiments, but asked to be discharged because military duty bored him. He contributed to various literary magazines and painted pictures that were exhibited at the Royal Academy. He befriended Coleridge, arranged publication of THE ANCIENT MARINER, and was so kind to Charles Lamb that later, Lamb saved him from a London mob “to pay my honest debts.” In 1830, tremendous scandal broke. Wainewright, accused of murder by poison (strychnine, then a comparatively new drug in general knowledge), fled to France. No indictments were brought against him in England, but the French jailed him for six months on charges of possessing poison. He returned to London in 1837, and faced his accusers. There is legend that he financed his defense with money won at cards from a traveling English lord whom he then poisoned. But in fact, nothing could be proved against Wainewright beyond a reasonable doubt. Cleared of murder accusations, he was arrested on charges of forging, thirteen years before, a stock-transfer which actually earned him nothing. British law, baffled by his defense against capital charges, was now invoked on a technicality to send Wainewright to the Australian penal camps. There he died a slow death (actually in 1852).

    Wainewright’s true story is supposed to have suggested to Charles Dickens — who interviewed him in prison — the novel HUNTED DOWN; and to Bulwer-Lytton (LAST DAYS OF POMPEII), who also knew him, the novel LUCRETIA. Oscar Wilde published PEN, PENCIL AND POISON, a factual biography of Wainewright, in 1889. A more detailed and accurate resume is given in TWELVE BAD MEN, published by T. Seccombe in 1894. Wilde’s THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1891) was reviewed at the time as “Wilde’s projection of Wainewright into a fictionalized Lucifer.”

    (Throughout the teleplay, the character written by Andrews as “Thomas Edward Wainewright” was changed to “Thomas Edward Griffith” — DJS)

  7. I enjoyed this episode, the first Gothic/period Thriller to be aired. The music is great, but who wants to sit there and listen to the isolated music track while running the whole episode again? I don't see the benefit of these isolated music tracks.

  8. You raise a good point, Jack, and speaking as a soundtrack enthusiast, I can honestly say - going back to LaserDiscs with isolated scores - I've never sat down and listened to one all the way through.

    In today's world, it's possible (if a bit cumbersome) to rip those so you have the audio files digitally. But short of that, I'm not apt to listen to them on the TV as I would an audio commentary track.

    I anticipate that more hardcore music fans (help me out Larry R.), probably do take the time to appreciate those tracks in any way shape of form they're made available.

    Considering we're not foregoing additional content at their expense, I certainly have no problem with their inclusion.

  9. I bought the Thriller DVD box set and I am going through it episode by episode. I first saw a few shows when i was eight and I remember being absolutely freaked out. I was pleasantly surprised seeing Murray Matheson's performance. He was a great family friend and was an amazingly talented actor (his final role was in the Twilight Zone film which was appropriate). He would have appreciated all of the kind words which were said in this blog. I had looked at his filmography and The Poisoner was not mentioned. Wonderful to find it at last!

  10. Just found your site and love it! I believe Jennifer Raine was Alan Napier's step-daughter, and her death in 2003 left Whit Bissell a widower. She was also the mother of Brian Forster, the replacement Chris Partridge on "The Partridge Family". Whew - that exhausted me trying to keep all that straight!

    Good episode.


  11. Most period pieces are on the dry side and a good cast can either keep the viewer engaged or jump start the sawing logs process. The Poisoner belongs in the former camp. A simple, but good plot. A great lead performance, and a very creative soundtrack.

    Add me to the list of Murray Matheson fans. Murray carried this episode and brought the sophisticated sociopathy of Thomas Edward Griffith to life. The other characters were adequate window dressing.

    Money or no money I would've married Sarah Marshall! Now, if she brought mom and sis to live with us, I'd also have to think of a creative was to dispose of them. Poison would not be my choice. Maybe a one way ticket to Australia...

    I give The Poisoner two and a half doses of Karloff...

  12. This was the first Thriller episode I've watched this go-round that literally flew by. I loved the atmosphere, the score, the almost ostentatiously literary script and particularly Matheson's performance. I know the mother-in-law and sister were rather over-the-top, but must confess that I laughed out loud each time Jennifer Raine opened her mouth, particularly when she screamed. If I were to quibble about anything it would be a complaint from my more modern perspective about the squeaky clean depiction of the wife. I'd love to see this retold with the wife just as evil as her husband. After all, she, too, was hunting for a rich spouse, and how convenient that he got rid of those obnoxious relatives for her and even left her with a little money. It could all end with her smirking a bit as she sinks into the arms of the young lawyer.

    This is the third Thriller episode with a strong gay subtext (after "The Twisted Image" and "The Watcher"). Matheson's performance, the script and the costuming all place Griffith between the dandies of the 18th century and the aesthetes of the late 19th century (of whom Oscar Wilde was a member). He dressed 20 years out of fashion for the setting, giving his clothes a more flamboyant look, and even makes his wife dress for the wedding in Empire fashion. The cabinet filled with curios from which he gets his Borgia ring would have been called a closet in the 18th century, and yes, it's the source of the term "closet" today to refer to gay men who aren't open about their sexuality. In a sense, the arrival of his wretched in-laws makes him come out of the closet as a poisoner.

    Great episode.

  13. I have to disagree with the characterization of the family as "hillbilly"---cockney would be more accurate. At least as far as the mother is concerned.

  14. Not bad! The Great Brit locale. Also the Brit locale in the later episode about the Druids. Certainly Hitchcockian in tone. Not to meander, but loved Hitch's episode about "murder by leg of lamb." Spoiler, the inspector was treated to a meal of the evidence cooked by the missus which he ate with great relish, no pun intended!

    1. Anybody still out there and alive and well and viewing these on ME TV?

    2. I just finished watching it on METV. Should have gone to bed after doing laundry, but saw this episode was on & decided to watch. One of Thriller's BEST episodes (heck, maybe the absolute BEST.)

      PS - Matheson HAD to carry the episode, everyone else either had brief scenes or were too busy dying.

    3. Observation above as quoted

      "This is the third Thriller episode with a strong gay subtext (after "The Twisted Image" and "The Watcher").

      Agree. The British gothic genre vs the American Yankee treatment except Pigeons from Hell and all that rot and decay a la the decadent slave holding South with a bit of voodoo thrown in.

      Goldsmith's contribution, outstanding. This kind of musical accompaniment for today's TV is impossible.

    4. ME TV in San Antonio finally pulled the plug on Thriller reruns. This was the last episode shown on July 31.

      R.I.P Thriller

    5. THRILLER is back on Me-TV now, 2 episodes back-to-back Monday mornings 2-4 AM. This episode was rerun this past Monday morning.
      Brian Forster's father, Peter Forster, appeared on a later THRILLER episode with his then-wife (and Brian's mom), as her character's husband in the Season 2 episode, 'The Closed Cabinet". He died in 1982, long before his ex-wife.