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Thursday, May 3, 2012
Robert Bloch on TV Part Fourteen-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "Water's Edge"
by Jack Seabrook
The short story “Water’s Edge” finds author Robert Bloch at the height of his powers. Told in the third person, it concerns Rusty Connors, recently released from prison, who travels to a town called Hainesville to find Helen Krauss, a waitress and the widow of Rusty’s former cellmate Mike. While in prison together, Mike told Rusty about his beautiful blonde wife; the reality, as Rusty discovers to his disappointment and disgust, is that she is fat, with mousy brown hair and thick glasses.
Rusty has a message for Helen from Mike, so they meet in a park on the edge of town after her work day ends. The police believe that Mike killed his friend Pete Taylor during a payroll robbery two years before; Pete’s body was never found, Mike went to jail for the robbery and never told Rusty where he hid the money. Helen left Norton's Center, where she and Mike had lived, and moved to Hainesville, where she took a job in a “lousy hash house.” No one was ever able to find the $100,000 that Mike hid before he was caught.
Rusty sweet talks Helen and sleeps with her, though it sickens him. He recalls letting Mike get sick in jail in order to pressure him to reveal the location of the money. Rusty got out and went straight to find Helen, since Mike had described her as “the kind of dame you read about in the porno paperbacks.” Mike told Rusty just one thing—that the money was still with Pete, or with his corpse. Rusty and Helen go over the day of the robbery trying to elicit clues to the whereabouts of the money. She recalls that he had mud on his shoes and that he said "something about rats.”
Together they figure out that the money must be hidden near the lake where Pete and Mike used to go fishing. Rusty begins thinking he’ll have to eliminate Helen and “rub her out.” They drive to the lake the next evening and Rusty breaks into the boathouse; inside he sees “the glow of a hundred little red cigarette butts winking up at him, like eyes.” The boathouse is teeming with rats, and Rusty has a phobia about the rodents.
Ann Sothern as Helen
Rusty discovers that Mike had hurriedly tacked up a false ceiling below the roof line. He hears rats scurrying above him but makes an opening in the ceiling, climbs up and finds a black metal box with the money. “Beyond it lay the thing”: Pete’s skeleton, picked clean by hungry rats. Rusty climbs back down with the box and Helen clobbers him with a crowbar, beating him to the punch. He wakes up bound and gagged only to learn that Helen had put on weight, let her hair go brown, and worn unnecessary glasses as part of a disguise to keep a low profile.
She tells him that she had been two-timing Mike with Pete and that Mike had gone to town to kill Pete for that reason. He happened upon the robbery by mistake. Now, she plans to lose weight, bleach her hair and enjoy the money. As she turns to go, Rusty kicks her and knocks her down; he kicks her in the stomach and she falls against the door of the boathouse; he keeps kicking until she is dead. But Rusty cannot free the ropes that bind him, nor can he budge her obese form that blocks the exit door. The story ends in a chilling way: “But he didn’t get out. After a little while, the rats came back.”
“Water’s Edge” is one of Robert Bloch’s best tales of terror and suspense. The care with which it is crafted is evident in the repeated references to rats and in the way images recall each other at key moments. Early in the story, Rusty thinks about the “rat race” and the red end of his cigarette is compared to a winking eye. Later, we learn that Mike had said something about rats the day he was caught; soon after, we learn that Rusty hates rats. When Rusty and Helen arrive at the boathouse, Rusty looks inside and sees the red eyes of many rats glowing like cigarette butts. Finally, the rats overrun the boathouse, fill the space above the ceiling, and eventually feast on the bodies of Helen and Rusty, two humans who could probably be described as ratlike themselves.
Robert Bloch must have been busy with another project, because when the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour assigned the story to be adapted for television, they gave the job to Alfred Hayes, who did an outstanding job. The televised version of “Water’s Edge” follows the story very closely, even using dialogue lifted straight off the page. Hayes expanded it somewhat by adding a few scenes and he also made some key changes that were likely demanded by the censor.
The program opens in prison, dramatizing events that were related in flashback in the story. We see Mike and Rusty in their cell as Mike tells Rusty about the beautiful Helen. We then see Rusty visit Mike in the prison infirmary, and Mike looks terrible—bathed in sweat and with a nasogastric tube in his nose, he is clearly on the verge of death. The show then picks up where the story begins, with Rusty arriving in Hainesville by bus and making his way to The Bright Spot where Helen works. He buys a copy of a girlie magazine called Romp and asks the newsagent if anyone who looks like the girl on the cover works around there!
John Cassavetes gives an electric performance as Rusty, all nervous, jumpy sinew and jittery motion. Ann Sothern is equally adept as Helen, her face betraying almost no glimmer of intelligence and her body emphasizing its bovine curves and heft. Even her clothes are drab—she wears a Republican cloth coat and a plain head scarf to ward off the cold when she and Rusty go to the lake.
John Cassavetes as Rusty
“Water’s Edge” is a fairly explicit television show for its time. After Rusty and Helen meet, we see a rumpled, unmade bed in what must be Helen’s apartment, making it clear that they have just slept together, and Helen wears a house dress and lounges on the couch with her leg draped over Rusty’s lap. She says to him, “You like talkin’ . . . now?” suggesting that he had not wanted to talk a few minutes before when they were in bed together. Rusty grabs her violently by the throat and then kisses her neck, showing the fine line that he walks between violence and tenderness; he always seems on the verge of exploding, but the show’s denouement demonstrates that (as is so often the case in noir) the female of the species is deadlier than the male.
Rayford Barnes as Mike
The show is enhanced by a score by Bernard Herrmann, whose music is not intrusive but seems to emerge at all of the right moments. The last segment of the episode must have given the censors fits, because rats keep appearing on the screen and on the soundtrack. They rummage around in boxes in the boathouse, they scurry across the floor, their squeaks and squeals fill the silence. This creates a prolonged scene of tension and horror that only escalate when Rusty looks above the ceiling and we see rats climbing on Pete Taylor’s skeleton, an image that appears to be shown in slow motion for maximum horrific effect. The squealing of the rats is almost unbearable at this point and the scene is memorable, even though the short story made it seem as if the crawlspace was teeming with rats and the televised version only shows about half a dozen. Still, the rats running around the area where John Cassavetes's unprotected head sticks up is one that must have horrified audiences in 1964.
The conclusion of the show deviates from that of the story in a couple of ways. First, Rusty is hogtied but not gagged, allowing him to taunt Helen by insulting her appearance and appealing to her vanity. In this way, he gets her to come close to him and gag him; he then kicks her and she falls, accidentally impaling herself on the same boat hook that Rusty had used to open a hole in the ceiling. Clearly, a televised production could not show Rusty kicking her to death, so the boat hook was used instead to show an accidental demise. Money spills out of her pocket, Rats begin to explore her foot, and rodents begin to drop from the hole in the ceiling to the floor below, where Rusty looks on in horror as the screen fades to black.
From one of Robert Bloch’s great horror tales, a great cast and crew fashioned one of the great hours of television horror. Alfred Hayes, the writer, lived from 1911 to 1985 and was a poet, novelist and screenwriter. In addition to writing seven episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, his credits included adapting an Emile Zola novel into Fritz Lang’s 1954 film Human Desire and adapting a Clifford Odets play into Lang’s 1952 film, Clash By Night. It seems safe to say that adapting fiction for the screen was a particular talent of Mr. Hayes.
“Water’s Edge” was directed by Bernard Girard (1918-1997), who directed four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, eight episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and an episode of The Twilight Zone. While “Water’s Edge” may be free of any tricks or touches that call particular attention to the man behind the camera, Girard succeeds in creating a high level of suspense and in putting a strong teleplay on the screen in a most competent way.
Starring as Rusty is John Cassavetes (1929-1989), a great actor whose many roles include The Dirty Dozen (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Fury (1978); he was also one of the pioneers of the American independent cinema.
Ann Sothern (1909-2001) played Helen and her career in films began all the way back in 1927. She appeared in Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953) and starred in two TV series: Private Secretary (1953-1957) and The Ann Sothern Show (1958-1961), as well as being the voice of the title character in My Mother, The Car (1965-1966). Ironically, she is said to have been a beautiful, thin actress who developed a weight problem after contracting hepatitis, giving the role of Helen added resonance.
Bernard Hermann’s score for this episode has been collected on a CD called The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Volume One, which is available here.
“Water’s Edge” was broadcast on October 19, 1964, near the start of the third and last season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The show had moved back to NBC after two years on CBS, and for the final season it moved to Mondays at 10 PM Eastern Time. The story was originally published in the first issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (September 1956) and has been reprinted many times, in such collections as Terror in the Night and Other Stories (1958) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV (1957).
Bloch related an amusing anecdote about this story, reporting that it was first rejected by the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as unsuitable, then collected in the Hitchcock collection of stories he could not do on TV, and finally adapted several years later for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour!
A very nice print of “Water’s Edge” may be viewed here.
Bloch, Robert. "Water's Edge." Bitter Ends: The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, Volume Two. New York, NY: First Carol, 1990. 1-14. Print.