Thursday, July 12, 2012

Shatner Meets Hitchcock Part One: Alfred Hitchcock Presents "The Glass Eye"

by Jack Seabrook

Early in his career as a television actor, William Shatner had a co-starring role in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “The Glass Eye,” which was the first episode of the series’ third season. Broadcast on Sunday, October 6, 1957, at 9:30 PM over the CBS network, “The Glass Eye” was adapted by Stirling Silliphant from a short story of the same name by John Keir Cross. The story was first published in Cross’s collection, The Other Passenger: Eighteen Strange Stories (1944).

This little tale of horror is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator who relates the story of a woman named Julia: “gaunt,” with a long nose and an “uncanny genius for saying the wrong thing”—a spinster at age 42. She lives in a “little flat in West Kensington”—a section of London—and on her mantelpiece is a glass eye on a bed of black velvet. Five years ago, she lived in a small room in a house between West Kensington and Fulham (another part of London); her room had “yellow wallpaper” and her life was lonely and desolate.

Jessica Tandy
Cross’s brief mention of yellow wallpaper recalls the well-known 1892 story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman titled "The Yellow Wallpaper," in which a woman confined to a room by her husband descends into psychosis. Julia, in “The Glass Eye,” never married, but is trapped in her loveless and lonely life as much as any Victorian woman. She begins to see a way out of her misery one day when she takes her sister’s crippled son to the Old Palace Music Hall in Fulham and sees “Max Collodi, The German Ventriloquist, with his amazing Dummy ‘George.’” Julia is captivated by the handsome Max; his act with the grotesque dummy is of little interest to her, but “all the empty years, the acres of desolation, had been leading up to this glorious climax.” She dreams of marrying him and goes to see his act every night for a week.


Max and George
The next week, Julia follows Max from music hall to music hall: “the foolish infatuation of an ageing woman of great ugliness for a Music Hall performer” causes her to quit her job and follow him as he tours England. She begins corresponding with him and sends a blurred snapshot of herself taken fourteen years earlier. He finally agrees to meet her at the Temperance Hotel in Blackpool—it is odd that a music hall performer would stay in a hotel where alcohol was banned, but perhaps this was because he wanted to be apart from other performers due to his secret.

Julia excitedly prepares for and attends the meeting, where Collodi sits facing her “behind a large mahogany table,” his dummy George “lolling grotesquely on a chair to his left. Overcome by the desire to touch her idol, Julia approaches him and touches his cheek, causing him to fall over sideways from his chair. The dummy, George, screams and stands up on his chair, “his hideous painted face twisted with rage and fear and sorrow.” Julia laughs, screams, and kicks the figure on the floor; a glass eye pops out and rolls toward her. She picks it up and runs from the room, having learned the secret of Max and George—the “dummy” controlled the larger figure “by means of small pneumatic bulb controls.”

William Shatner and Rosemary Harris
As the story ends, the narrator tells us that the “terrible relic” (the glass eye) now sits on her mantelpiece. A year ago, he heard of a small traveling circus in Scotland with a clown named Maximilian, “a sad-faced, large-headed dwarf,” with a beautiful voice, who wears a “black patch over one of his eyes” when not performing.

“The Glass Eye” is a clever tale that asks the question, who is the gentleman and who, the dummy? Julia is described as ugly and she is an aging and lonely spinster. Max, the small man who pretends to be a dummy in order to survive, is intelligent, with a beautiful voice and enough talent to fool the public night after night. Yet when Julia discovers that the object of her affection is a fake, she is unable to see beyond the shallow appearance and into the heart of the man who possesses all of the qualities she truly desires. Why does Max wear an eye patch later on when traveling with the circus in Scotland? Perhaps it is in memory of the chance at love that he lost, when he almost took the bold step of revealing his true self to a woman and was jeered at in return.

George is revealed
To adapt the story for television, screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and director Robert Stevens had several challenges, the most significant of which was in convincing the audience that the figure supposed to be the ventriloquist was not obviously a dummy. This was done by having Tom Conway, who portrays Max, sit very still in his ventriloquist’s chair onstage, with one arm on his thigh and the other hidden behind George, the dummy. Watching the film carefully, one sees that he never moves any part of his body other than his lips and occasionally his head, supporting the notion that he is being controlled by the dummy. The scenes with Max and George are brilliantly conceived; Stevens uses a combination of long shots and medium shots to show the act without giving anything away. The key scene is at the end, in the hotel room, and again the man and dummy are posed together. It is only when the man falls to the floor and Julia crouches next to him that we see that it is clearly a dummy and not Tom Conway the actor.


The expressionistic camera angle shows Julia's inner turmoil.
Other changes made in the transition from story to small screen included strengthening the framing story, in which a man named Jim and a woman named Dorothy clean out Julia’s apartment after her death. Jim shows the woman (his wife?) the glass eye, and later he shows her theatrical programs and posters to illustrate the story he tells. William Shatner gives a great performance as Jim, holding the entire story together with his sensitive acting in the frame and with his narration that accompanies the flashbacks. Much of the narration is taken straight from the story, with phrases and remarks lifted intact.


Jessica Tandy, as Julia, also gives an outstanding performance, dramatizing what Jim’s narration describes. She often acts silently as his voice provides the details; as usual with this series, she is much more attractive than her character as described in the story, but she convincingly portrays a spinster who lives a life of loneliness. The most memorable shot in the episode is of George standing on the table in the hotel room, stamping his feet in anger and shame and yelling at Julia to get out. He then removes his grotesque dummy mask to reveal a small, aging man, with a look of sadness on his face that parallels that of Julia. In an incident absent from the story, he hops off the table and searches for the missing eye on the floor, as the camera fades from a close-up of the dummy’s head back to the framing narrative.

Hitch has a glass eye of his own!
The final shot of the film shows Max in the traveling circus, driving a horse-drawn cart. His head turns toward the camera and we see a black patch over his left eye. The effect is a good one when experienced as a simple twist ending, but without the narrator’s comments that are found in the story it leaves the viewer wondering why the small man wears the eye patch when it was the dummy that lost its eye.


Other pieces of the story left out in the TV version include literary devices such as a four-stanza poem written about Julia and a legend about a philosopher and a beggar; these serve to broaden the tale into one telling a universal truth, while the TV show is more narrowly focused on the story.

1st US edition
John Keir Cross, who wrote the original story, was a Scottish writer who lived from 1911-1967. In addition to the collection of stories where “The Glass Eye” was found, he wrote a science fiction novel called The Angry Planet. He is said to have been an insurance clerk, a hobo, and a traveling busker and ventriloquist, which (if true) gives added resonance to the story. He also wrote for BBC Radio.

Stirling Silliphant (1918-1996), who adapted the story for TV, was a prolific writer of television shows and movies. His credits include co-creating the series Route 66, creating the blind lawyer series Longstreet, and writing or co-writing films such as 5 Against the House (1955--from the Jack Finney novel), Village of the Damned (1960), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and In the Heat of the Night (1967), for which he won an Oscar.

“The Glass Eye” was directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989), who directed 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as two episodes of The Twilight Zone. Previous episodes helmed by Stevens that I have analyzed include The Dangerous People and The Greatest Monster of Them All. On April 15, 1958, he was awarded the Emmy for Best Direction for a Television Series for "The Glass Eye"; this was the only Emmy won by a single episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents/Hour series in its ten-year run.

Jessica Tandy (1909-1994), who plays Julia, had a long career on stage and screen, appearing three times on Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). She won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

Tom Conway (1904-1967), who portrays Max, was the older brother of George Sanders and shared his mellifluous speaking voice. Born in Russia to English parents, the family moved back to England when the 1917 revolution broke out. Conway had a long and wonderful career in film, playing The Falcon in ten films and appearing in three classic Val Lewton chillers: Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). He can be seen in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Rosemary Harris (1927- ) has the small role of Jim’s companion in the framing sequence; she also went on to a long career on stage and screen, including three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She appeared in three Spider-Man films as Peter Parker’s Aunt May.

Billy Barty
Patricia Hitchcock     (1928- ), Alfred’s daughter, has a small role as a hat clerk who sells a hat to Julia. Ms. Hitchcock appeared in ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including “The Cuckoo Clock.”

Billy Barty (1924-2000) stood three feet, nine inches tall and had a long career as an actor, from 1927 until his death in 2000. He formed The Little People of America, Inc., and also appeared in  “The Jar,” one of the best episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as an episode of Thriller. A website is devoted to Mr. Barty.

Paul Playdon, who portrays the boy who Julia takes to the music hall, was a child actor who grew up to write for TV; he penned the teleplay for the Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode, The Werewolf.”

Finally, William Shatner (1931- ) is Our Greatest Living Actor. Born in Montreal, Canada, he has starred in such series as Star Trek, T.J. Hooker, and Boston Legal. A true renaissance man, he has won Emmys for his TV work, written numerous books, and sung on record albums. His movie and TV performances are legendary and he is still performing regularly at age 81. He has an extensive website. I also recommend a visit to this website, which uses “The Glass Eye” as the basis for a study of Shatner’s use of a toupee.

“The Glass Eye” is available on DVD and can also been seen online.

Sources:

Cross, John Keir. "The Glass Eye." Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow. Ed. Ray Bradbury. New

York: Bantam, 1967. 84-99. Print.

"David Drake." Welcome -. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2012. <http://david-drake.com/>.


"EBay." Electronics, Cars, Fashion, Collectibles, Coupons and More Online Shopping. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2012. <http://www.ebay.com/>.

"Fantastic Fiction." Fantastic Fiction. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2012. <http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/>.

"The Glass Eye." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 1957 Oct. 6. Television.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

"A Home for Your Books." LibraryThing. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2012. <http://www.librarything.com/>.

IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 8 July 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.

"Internet Speculative Fiction DataBase." Internet Speculative Fiction DataBase. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2012. <http://www.isfdb.org/>.

"Share Book Recommendations With Your Friends, Join Book Clubs, Answer Trivia." Goodreads. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2012. <http://www.goodreads.com/>.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 July 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.


















6 comments:

Matthew Bradley said...

All this and a Finney tie-in! Nice work as you begin the post-Bloch era...although I'm sure you'll take some razzing for that "Greatest Living Actor" stuff, even in (presumed) jest.

Peter Enfantino said...

Another fabulous entry by the internet's greatest living writer (with all apologies to Matthew Bradley). I just happened to have watched this recently when my girlfriend and I popped on a dozen or so episodes. I enjoyed the hell out of it despite the presence of the world's worst actor! Shatner doesn't really have the time to take over the piece so maybe this is why he didn't bother me so much. This is a supremely creepy show.

The Shatner episodes make me yearn for an alternate reality where Adam West (the other "greatest living actor") starred in a few AHPs.

Walker Martin said...

Thank you for this episode with the world's "greatest living actor". They should soon be releasing me from the local insane asylum as soon as I stop screaming "The Shat!, The Shat!"

Otherwise, this was a very spooky episode. A book could probably be written about dummies who control their masters, etc.

Probably one of the best episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

Jack Seabrook said...

Did anyone check out the toupee website? Brilliant!

john kenrick said...

From my first and all subsequent viewings of this engrossing and frightening episode it was my impression that the little man with the patch on his eye,--the real Max Collodi--had removed his own eye in (in a blind rage perhaps) when he realizes that the woman would not accept him for who he was once she got a good look at him.

To make matters worse for the little man, he understood all to well why the woman who was so smitten with him (or rather his dummy) was feeling, as he was likely a kindred spirit, lonely and unloved. I'm guessing there's a touch of the 1927 Browning-Chaney, Sr. silent picture The Unknown, which also was set in a show business milieu (a circus) and a man who, for very different reasons, had himself mutilated for his love of a woman.

It was a totally different sort of story in the earlier film, much weirder than The Glass Eye, but the themes of unrequited love and the lengths to which some people will go to have their love "requited" (sic?) are similar.


John

Jack Seabrook said...

That's an interesting perspective. I agree that there is a Browning/Chaney feel to parts of this episode. Thanks for reading!