Thursday, March 17, 2011
Fredric Brown on TV Part 2: Alfred Hitchcock Presents "The Night the World Ended"
by Jack Seabrook
“The Night the World Ended” was first published in the January 1945 issue of Dime Mystery. The story is set among the newspapermen and drunks that Fredric Brown so often wrote about, most memorably in novels like The Screaming Mimi and Night of the Jabberwock.
The tale begins in Nick's bar, where a newspaperman named Halloran is known for his cruel pranks. He works the copy desk at night on the city paper, and he cooks up a trick to play on Johnny Gin, who is described as “just another punchy stew-bum.” Halloran has a fake newspaper made up and he pretends to buy it from the local paperboy. The headline on the front page reads, “World Will End at 1:45 Tonight!”
Fredric Brown's fondness for mixing science fiction and detective tales surfaces briefly here, as an impending collision with the planet Mars is given as the reason for the impending cataclysm. Johnny sees the headline and, in his drunken, fog-enshrouded mind, he believes it to be true.
Johnny's initial thoughts are entirely practical and positive at first; he thinks that “the end of the world came only once. A guy ought to do something . . .” He wants to take a bottle of quality booze, borrow Nick the bartender's gun, go outside, and shoot a celebratory shot into the air. When Nick steps out of the bar for a minute, Johnny fulfills his wishes, taking the gun and some expensive cognac. Brown deepens his character by having him recall drinking it before while on leave in France (presumably in World War One).
Nick picks the wrong time to walk back into his own bar, sees Johnny with the bottle and gun, loses his temper, and gets shot by the confused alcoholic. “Blind panic hit Johnny Gin,” who races outside and away from the bar.
“You fool, Johnny Gin, what does it matter that you've killed a man when he was going to die within an hour anyway?” Johnny follows this up by shooting a policeman who confronts him, then jumps off of a bridge into shallow water to hide from the law. The cold water shocks him back to his senses and he realizes he's been duped.
The story ends as Johnny shoots and kills Halloran outside the newspaper building at 1:45 a.m.—“The end of the world for Halloran, and just when he'd predicted it.”
“The Night the World Ended” was reprinted in Mostly Murder, Brown's 1953 collection of short mystery fiction. The producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which would air an adaptation of another story in that collection (“The Dangerous People”) less than two months later, also liked this story, and it was broadcast on CBS on April 28, 1957.
The teleplay was written by Bernard C. Schoenfeld, who wrote 16 episodes of the series in all, an episode of The Twilight Zone, the 1944 noir classic Phantom Lady (based on the Cornell Woolrich novel), and the Oscar-nominated 1950 film, Caged. Unlike “The Dangerous People,” which is a very faithful adaptation of the short story, “The Night the World Ended” takes a very different path on TV than it does on the printed page.
The program begins in a similar vein to the story, as Halloran plays his prank on Johnny, though this time the world will end at 11:45 p.m., in three hours.
As Johnny leaves the bar, eager to make the most of his final hours, Halloran quips: “His world ended years ago.” Justus Addiss, the show's director, repeatedly shows clocks or has chimes on the soundtrack to demonstrate the passage of time for the doomed Johnny. At 9 p.m., Johnny goes to a liquor store, from which he steals two bottles of expensive liquor. He drinks alone in a park but accidentally smashes the bottles when he trips and falls over a group of dogs being walked by a dotty old woman.
The woman, Felicia Green, is a lonely spinster who invites Johnny back to her home to have a cup of tea. We learn a bit more about Johnny's past as he talks to Felicia and tells her that his wife and baby died 30 years before. She cleans the spilled booze off of his sport jacket and we see that it's now past 10:30. Johnny comes on too strong and she calls for help, driving him away.
In the second act, Johnny meets three boys in an alley and takes them to a sporting goods store. He breaks in and they play with the balls, bikes, and guns. This scene—and much of the show—is more sad than suspenseful. Johnny, not caring about consequences, loads a gun and shoots a security guard who arrives to stop the boys' fun.
Johnny wanders the streets and happens upon a newsstand, where he sees the real edition of that evening's newspaper. Knowing he's been tricked, he goes back to the bar and shoots Halloran. “Every joke's gotta have a payoff,” says Johnny, and the clock reads 11:45.
Russell Collins, born in 1897 and 59 years old at the time the program was broadcast, is very good as Johnny. He appeared in numerous TV shows and had a role in Spencer Tracy's Bad Day at Black Rock. As Johnny, he is wonderfully dissolute, sporting a few-day growth of white stubble on his face and staggering around in his rumpled coat and hat.
Harold J. Stone plays Halloran and, although he does not have much screen time, he embodies the character of the cruel prankster. Stone is instantly recognizable from his decades of TV work; he also appeared in Roger Corman's X-The Man With the X-Ray Eyes.
The most bizarre performance comes from Edith Barrett as Felicia—she was only 50 years old at the time but comes across as a very odd and flighty spinster. Surprisingly, she had an amazing year in 1943, when she appeared in Jane Eyre, The Song of Bernadette, The Ghost Ship and I Walked With a Zombie!
Finally, I must mention the 13 year old Harry Shearer, who is the eldest of the three boys who Johnny meets in an alley.
Shearer looks the part of the poor, dirty-faced city boy whose affinity for guns leads Johnny to make a deadly mistake.
“The Night the World Ended” is not as good a TV episode as “The Dangerous People,” but Russell Collins's performance as the drunken Johnny is worth seeing.
Brown, Fredric. “The Night the World Ended.” Dime Mystery (1945). Rpt. in Carnival of Crime: The Best Mystery Stories of Fredric Brown. Eds. Francis M. Nevins, Jr., and Martin H. Greenberg. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1985. 101-10.
Galactic Central. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. http://www.philsp.com/.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 14 Mar. 2011. http://www.imdb.com/.
“The Night the World Ended.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 28 Apr. 1957. Collected in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season Two. Universal Classic Television, 2006. DVD.