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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 thedescription 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.
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.com. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.