Thursday, May 17, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Fifteen-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Final Performance


by Jack Seabrook
Rudolph the Great's final performance
Robert Bloch’s clever story “The Final Performance” was first published in the September 1960 issue of Shock. Told in first-person narration by Jim Chatham, an aspiring writer on his way to Hollywood, it begins ominously: “The neon intestines had been twisted to form the word Eat.” The restaurant Jim enters is about as appealing as the description of its sign; it is dirty, and two flies enter with him. One lands on the bald head of Rudolph, the proprietor, suggesting death and decay; the other heads for some food on the counter, implying it is in similar shape.
Jim’s car broke down near Bakersfield, California, and he needs a place to spend the night while his car is being repaired. He has been directed to Rudolph’s restaurant, behind which is an old motel that has gone out of business. Rudolph starts chatting with Jim and reveals that he used to be in vaudeville; he agrees to let Jim stay in one of the motel’s cabins. Jim meets Rosie, who lives with Rudolph and works for him in the restaurant. She is described as “a tall girl, blonde and amply proportioned.”
Jim follows Rosie to the cabin, where she makes up his bed and asks him to take her with him to Hollywood. She embraces him but must leave when she is summoned by Rudolph. Jim has dinner in the restaurant, and when the last customer beside him leaves, Rudolph announces, “This concludes the evening’s performance . . . Thanks for the use of the hall,” demonstrating his obsession with his vaudeville glory days. In Rudolph’s parlor off the side of the restaurant Jim sees photos of old vaudevillians lining the walls; Rudolph drinks and reminisces, passing out before he can show Jim his old press books.
Later, Rosie comes to Jim’s cabin and tells him that her parents were show people who abandoned her when she was ten years old. Rudolph raised her and even took her to Los Angeles to attempt a comeback. When that failed, he brought her back to the desert and began drinking, keeping her essentially a prisoner. Rosie and Jim hatch a plan to escape once Jim’s car is fixed, but Rosie warns Jim that Rudolph is “crazy jealous.” The next day, Jim walks to the garage and drives back to the restaurant, where Rudolph greets him. Flies buzz around once again, hinting at more death and decay.
Roger Perry as Cliff
Jim sees Rosie’s suitcase open on the floor and Rudolph sits, his arm around the girl in a seemingly protective and possessive manner. She tells Jim that she can’t go with him and that she belongs to Rudolph. She curses Jim and he leaves; he later recalls a big knife he saw on the floor and calls the police. Returning to the scene with the police, Jim finds Rudolph dead from a self-inflicted stab wound. They also find Rosie dead, having been strangled hours before. She has a huge gash in her back and Rudolph’s right hand is bloody; Jim examines the old man’s press books and figures out what happened.
As the story ends, he remarks that Rudolph the Great “was just one of the best damned ventriloquists in the business.” The unspoken conclusion is that Rudolph had murdered Rosie and then used her corpse as a dummy in an attempt to fool Jim and drive him away.
“The Final Performance” is classic Bloch—mixing elements of vaudeville, Hollywood, sex, death, decay, horror, gore, and a twist ending to concoct a delightfully gruesome vignette. Sadly, the adaptation for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was not as successful as the source.
Retitled “Final Performance,” the program begins with a scene that finds the writer—renamed Cliff Allen—picking up Rosie on the highway and being pulled over by the sheriff in a classic tourist trap. His car is towed back to town and he is dropped off at Rudolph’s restaurant. The story then follows the general outline of the source, with several important changes. Notably, Rudolph is shown to have versatility, but he insists that his specialty act is what made him great. We first see him spinning a bowl on top of a long stick; later, he and Rosie perform a terribly corny comedy routine on a stage he has fashioned in his barn. The various acts and talents of Rudolph are meant to divert attention from his real skill, which will only become evident in the final scene.
Franchot Tone as Rudolph
The sex in the story is eliminated from the TV show, but the uneasy relationship between the aging Rudolph and the seventeen year old Rosie is very clear—in one scene, Rudolph helps zip up Rosie’s dress and then runs his hands over nearly every inch of it, ostensibly to check the fit but clearly veering dangerously close to inappropriate contact. The viewer is as disgusted as Rosie by Rudolph’s behavior, which is made even worse when he announces that he plans to marry Rosie when she turns eighteen the following week!
He makes Rosie wear his late wife’s wedding dress, which she continues to wear in the show’s final scenes. While much of the program suffers from unimaginative staging and long stretches of dialogue, the final scenes are outstanding and could induce nightmares. As Cliff gets ready to leave the motel, he happens upon Rosie, sitting nearly catatonic in his room. He approaches her and she comes to life, moving and speaking and making it clear that she is not dead. In the final scene, her pose is similar, and it is not until the end that we discover to our horror that she is in fact a corpse.
Director John Brahm really outdoes himself in the final scene, making up for some of the plodding pace of the show that precedes it. Cliff follows Rudolph into the barn, and a mix of close-ups, two-shots and long shots succeeds in presenting the conversation between Rudolph, Rosie and Cliff without ever letting us see her lips move. The scene (and the show) ends with Cliff leaving, convinced that Rosie is alive and that she has decided to stay with Rudolph. The camera travels behind Rudolph and Rosie, where the viewer sees Rudolph’s hand under her bridal veil, manipulating her neck. We see a knife sticking out of her back and the trunk on which they sit, which for the first time reveals Rudolph’s true specialty. There is a brief moment where we see Rudolph speaking in Rosie’s voice—just enough to make it clear that he was throwing his voice and manipulating her corpse. It’s not as gory as the story, where he cut a hole in her back and inserted his hand, but it is eerily effective just the same. The show compounds the suspense and horror by having it end this way, rather than with Rudolph being found dead and the police coming to the scene.
The teleplay is credited to Clyde Ware (1936-2010), whose credits were mostly in episodic television, but Lee Kalcheim, who has written plays, TV, films, and books, is credited in The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion with having written the original script; Kalcheim later complained that Ware’s contributions were minimal even though Ware received sole credit onscreen for the teleplay. This episode and one other of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour represented Kalcheim’s first TV work; his website may be seen here.
Sharon Farrell as Rosie
John Brahm (1893-1982) directed the show; his prior Bloch episode was “The Cuckoo Clock.” Hollywood veteran Franchot Tone (1905-1968) steals the show as Rudolph; he was a founding member of the Group Theatre in the early 1930s, a movie star beginning in that same decade who was married to Joan Crawford from 1935-1939, on TV starting in the ‘50s, on stage from the ‘20s to the ‘60s, and in the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Silence.” Tone looked older than he really was (he was not even 60 when “Final Performance” was filmed) but his health declined and he died only three years later.
Sharon Farrell, on the other hand, was several years older than her character, having been born in 1940 (she was 24 and Rosie only 17). She had a career in TV and movies from 1959 to 1999, appeared in two other half-hour episodes of the Hitchcock series, and has her own website.
Roger Perry (Cliff) was born in 1933 and appeared on TV beginning in 1958; he had a role in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Kelly Thordsen (1917-1978) played the sheriff and William Challee (1904-1989) played the mechanic; Challee’s many credits include playing the bartender on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “Human Interest Story.”
“The Final Performance” has been reprinted often, and was included in the Bloch collections Blood Runs Cold (1961), Such Stuff as Screams Are Made Of (1979), and The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, Volume Three: Last Rites (1991). Author and Bloch expert David J. Schow adapted it for the stage; his dramatic version is collected in Crypt Orchids (2004).
The television version is currently unavailable on DVD other than on bootlegs and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is no longer available for viewing online, though I hope this situation will not last long. I spoke to a representative at Hulu and was told that they hope to return the series to their list of available content. My copy of the show is of poor quality, which explains the washed out appearance of the screen grabs accompanying this article.
Sources:
Bloch, Robert. "The Final Performance." Such Stuff as Screams Are Made of. New York: Ballantine, 1979. 200-13. Print.
"Final Performance." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC, 18 Jan. 1965. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://philsp.com/>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.











11 comments:

Todd Mason said...

The Encore Suspense channel will be offering this one to subscribers on 23 May at 10:50pm ET, and repeating the next morning at 7:15am. (Part of the Encore package that is the corporate sibling of Starz.)

Possibly Bloch's best suspense story at shorter length (just "Final Performance," btw, no article). SHOCK as a magazine should've done better than it did...less jokey covers might've helped. I look forward to seeing this adaptation...the comics adaptation for IDW's anthology comic DOOMED a few years back, was well-put-together but like most of DOOMED not quite up to the excellent source-fiction.

Todd Mason said...

Hm. I see it is listed in some indices, from the SUCH STUFF appearance, as "The Final Performance"...wonder if that was Bloch's preferred title, or not. Don't have copies of the SELECTED STORIES (v. 3) or STUFF at hand to compare.

Harvey Chartrand said...

I remember FINAL PERFORMANCE’s shock ending, but the entire episode has a morbid, doom-laden quality that made me feel quite uneasy. Even the hopelessly old-fashioned vaudeville act in the barn, with the audience of mouth-breathing locals and the fat sheriff’s beer belly rippling with laughter, was creepy. Franchot Tone was a great actor: the man was decrepit, probably dying from lung cancer, but he exuded a strange sort of menace and one just knew that Sharon Farrell would never get out of that rustic motel alive. FINAL PERFORMANCE is one of the best of the hour-long HITCHCOCK shows. Veiled references to PSYCHO abound in this masterpiece of horror that could have been directed by Hitchcock himself.

Whatever happened to Roger Perry?

Todd Mason said...

Cool. The source story is also noirish as hell, as that first sentence suggests.

Jack Seabrook said...

Todd--thanks for your comments. I see that on the cover of Shock it is listed without the definite article. I was working from the reprint in Such Stuff, where (as you note) it has the article added. I have seen instances of magazines where the title varies from cover to table of contents to first story page, so without opening up Shock I can't be sure. But you make a good point about "The" possibly being Bloch's preference, since he did write an afterword to Such Stuff and presumably had a hand in putting it together.

I leave such things to the bibliographers. The one time I can think of where it really mattered was in the translation of the Italian film title Ladri di bicyclette--first translated as The Bicycle Thief (incorrectly) and later revised to Bicycle Thieves, the change from singular to plural and removal of the definite article is quite significant.

Harvey--I agree that the episode has a quality of doom, mainly due to Franchot Tone's performance. I don't get Encore but I suspect that a good print would be interesting. The final scene is pretty great, even in a washed out print. Watch the audience in the barn--it consists of the sheriff and Cliff, with no mouth-breathing locals. That sounds more like The Jar!IMDB says that Roger Perry was in a movie called Wreckage in 2010 playing a sheriff, so he's still working.

Peter Enfantino said...

I naturally assumed it was Jack padding his article since he's paid by the word. Don't think I'm not on to you, Seabrook! You owe us a word.

Matthew Bradley said...

My copy of LAST RITES consistently has the initial article in the title, which is why I made the same observation regarding the change in my Bloch-on-TV overview in Benjamin Szumskyj's THE MAN WHO COLLECTED PSYCHOS.

Harvey Chartrand said...

The title FINAL PERFORMANCE is better, more ominous-sounding. Imagine if Robert Bloch had titled his masterwork THE PSYCHO. Or if his other classic Hitchcock Hour episode were titled THE WATER'S EDGE. I rest my case.

john kenrick said...

Fine episode, but the ending was a bit gimmicky, if necessary, shocking as it was. Roger Perry and Sharon Farrell were quite good as the young 'uns, but it was Franchot Tone's bravura, near jubilant performance as the ex-vaudevillean that really sells the episode. This may be the best I've ever seen him,--so out of his usual character, nearly always urbane--and seeming to love every moment of shedding his upper class Ivy League shell, like Mr. Hyde emerging from the persona of Dr. Jekyll, crying out "at last!".

Jack Seabrook said...

What did you think of him in "The Long Silence" on the Twilight Zone? I recall thinking he was very good there, too.

john kenrick said...

Yes, Tone was fine in The Long Silence, however playing a clubman type was well within his range. Familiar territory, in other words. When I first saw the episode I didn't know Franchot Tone's look or style, and he seemed awfully beat up looking to be playing a Social Registry type,--O, the irony!--yet he was a product of that class. Still, even now, just looking at the guy, how aged and life-weary he looks, he really doesn't seem right for the part at that (admittedly superficial) level. By that time, John Hoyt or George Macready would have been better casting. Tone's actual performance was fine.