As part of the Alfred Hithcock Blog-a-thon, I thought I would post a story I wrote about a year ago when I had a lot of spare time on my hands. Though you may wonder at first what on earth this peculiar tale could possibly have to do with the late great Alfred Hitchcock, I am confident that by the end of it you will understand. Enjoy.
I want to set the record straight about my friend Harry Durant.
The American press has labeled him as “rich and strange” because he was known not only for being incredibly wealthy, which is an easy virtue to acquire, but for frequently behaving in the most bizarre and inconsistent manner. He would, for example, have no difficulty standing atop a tall skyscraper or a mountain cliff, but would avoid ever getting on a stepladder because of what he called his “extreme vertigo.” He also had no problem addressing a television camera knowing that literally hundreds of millions of people were watching him, but was completely incapable of making a speech in front of more than 10 people due to his “severe case of stage fright.”
Harry was perhaps best known for occasionally losing all self-control over the most seemingly random, insignificant things, his most notorious episode being his last one. Some have kindly said that he was merely eccentric. Others have called him flat-out, certifiably insane. However, I know the real truth. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Harry Durant was neither of these things.
In the summer of ’44 my wife, Marnie, and I had accompanied Harry on a trip to the Caribbean. For several weeks we stayed at the Jamaica Inn. Apparently Harry had been a lodger there before and called it “a fine establishment.” One evening the three of us were up in my room (Number 17) having a wonderful time talking, laughing, drinking champagne and listening to some of Strauss’ waltzes from Vienna on the radio. He started explaining to us the rules of something called the skin game, which apparently he learned how to play during his travels in Europe, when I happened to look over my shoulder and notice a couple of birds (a juno and a paycock) landing on the outside balcony. Harry also caught sight of the birds and suddenly went completely berserk. In a frenzy he ran toward the window screaming (which frightened both of them off), grabbed the curtains and ripped them to shreds. He stopped and stood there for several seconds holding the torn curtain in his hands and breathing heavily.
My wife and I just sat there completely spellbound by this outburst. I started to think Harry might just be joking around, but I soon realized he was deadly serious because at that moment there was a knock at the door. Harry ran to the door and opened it. Standing on the other side was a sweet, handsome young couple from an adjoining room. They introduced themselves as John and Jane Smith and asked us to please keep it down as they were on their honeymoon. Harry took one look at Mr. Smith and yelled, “I knew it! I knew you were here!” The Smiths just stood there looking totally confused while Harry continued. “Don’t pretend you don’t remember me! We met several years back as strangers on a train while traveling North by Northwest through Allied territory! You were posing as a foreign correspondent, but I later learned that you were really a saboteur! You blew up the Manxman Express. Killed hundreds of innocent people! I barely survived. Well, this time you won’t get away so easily!”
What occurred next was a sequence of events that I shall never forget. In fact, I can recall every single detail as if it were all happening in front of me again right now. The lady vanishes (probably running out to get some help) and Mr. Smith tries to convince Harry that he’s got the wrong man! “No, No. You’re mistaken. I’m only a farmer! Really!” he pleads, but Harry won’t listen.
“You can’t fool me! I know it’s you! I’d recognize your face anywhere! You stole the Paradine Case documents and tried to blackmail the U.S government into surrendering!” I told Harry to relax, but Harry just wasn’t having it. He turned to me and said “He’s part of the ring of German conspirators dedicated to destroying America and all it stands for. We must stop him! Call the police!” Then with a horrifying giggle, Harry pulled out a gun (which I didn’t even know he had on him), pointed it at Mr. Smith and said, “In fact, Dial ‘M’ for “murder.”
“What?” I shouted. “Harry, are you out of your mind?” At this point, Mr. Smith suddenly turned and ran away down the hall. Harry took off in hot pursuit.
“Harry, come back here!” I called out. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To catch a thief and a murderer!” he shouted back. At that moment, the farmer’s wife returned with hotel security, saw the predicament that her poor husband was in and joined in on the chase. So, Mr. Smith, Harry, Mrs. Smith and the security men all ran down the 39 steps leading from the second story to the hotel lobby, out the front door, across the lawn and toward the boat docks. I decided to stay in the room. Looking out the rear window, I could see Mr. Smith in the distance jump into a lifeboat, untie the rope and start to row away. Harry dove into the water to swim after him. He almost caught up to the boat when, to my shock and horror, he was suddenly attacked and eaten by a shark. That was the end of my friend Harry.
Several weeks later, I attended Harry’s funeral back in his hometown of Boise, Idaho. I stood next to his sister Rebecca and watched as her brother’s body was lowered into their family plot. After the ceremony, I tried to console her. I spoke of how he was a good man, I told her how sorry I was and that I wished I could have done something to prevent this terrible tragedy. She said nothing. She just stared silently at the grave for a long, long time. Finally, I decided to leave her alone to mourn. As I turned to go, she spoke.
“Did you happen to see the morning edition today?” she asked stopping me in my tracks.
“I confess that I have not,” I responded somewhat bewildered. She held up a copy of their local newspaper (The Daily Capricorn). On the front page, right under “Capricorn,” was a story about a Nazi criminal, code-named Topaz, and his female assistant that were picked up on suspicion of sabotage and murder. Apparently, they traveled the world posing as man and wife and using trained birds to carry secret messages back to their co-conspirators. Lo and behold, right below the headline there was a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Smith being taken away in handcuffs. “I don’t believe it,” I said, “Harry was right. They were enemy spies! But they seemed so young and innocent!”
I was dumbfounded, speechless, but most of all, I was ashamed. How could I possibly have ever doubted my friend Harry Durant? He was not a madman. He was a hero. He was a secret agent working undercover protecting our country… and I didn’t believe him.
His sister took the paper out of my hands, folded it, placed it under her arm and turned to leave. She stopped, looked back at me one last time and said quietly, “You see, the trouble with Harry was not that he was psycho. He was simply a man who knew too much.”
I paused. “The original or the remake?”
She smiled. “Both.”