Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Hitchcock Project: Henry Slesar Part One-"Heart of Gold" [3.4]

by Jack Seabrook

Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was one of the most prolific contributors to the Hitchcock TV series. His first story to be aired, "Heart of Gold," was broadcast near the start of season three of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, on October 27, 1957, and was adapted by James P. Cavanagh from Slesar's short story "M Is For the Many," which had been published in the March 1957 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

"M Is For the Many" begins as Jackie Smith, twenty years old but seeming older, rings the bell for the Collins apartment at a brownstone. He is invited up by Ralph Collins, brother of Allie, whom Jackie met in prison. Ralph knows that Jackie has just been paroled after three years spent in jail for being the driver of the getaway car in an armed robbery. Jackie meets Ma Collins, "a short, stout woman with curly white hair," who welcomes him, admitting that Allie had written to her from prison about him. Jackie is looking for a place to live and is surprised when Ma offers to let him stay in Allie's room.

Mildred Dunnock as Ma Collins
With Ralph's help, Jackie finds a job and soon settles in at the Collins home, where Ma treats him like a son. When he gets a raise, he offers to pay rent, but Ma refuses to accept it, telling him that he's giving her "something more precious than money." One day, Jackie arrives home early from work and overhears Mrs. Collins defending him to a nosy neighbor. Realizing that his presence is a burden on the kindly old woman, he packs his bags and leaves a note of thanks. Ma catches him before he leaves and begs him not to go. Ralph angrily tells Jackie that it's time to start talking "about the money you got stashed away."

Jackie denies knowledge of the location of the stolen loot and Ralph begins to beat him. In the struggle that follows, Jackie accidentally kills Ralph after having threatened to kill the old woman. Jackie later tells his parole officer that he's looking forward to seeing his friends in jail--"one in particular."

"M Is For the Many" is a tough little crime story with a twist, though it's left vague whether Ma's kindness to Jackie was sincere. When Ralph is killed and she weeps, "my boy, my boy," Jackie wonders who she meant: Ralph or Jackie. The story's title is from the old song, "Mother," the first line of which is "M is for the many things she gave me." Ma Collins appears to be a saintly maternal figure, but the behavior of her sons makes the reader question her motives.

Nehemiah Persoff as Ralph Collins
James P. Cavanagh adapted the story for television as "Heart of Gold" and made significant changes. Darryl Hickman plays Jackie, Mildred Dunnock plays Ma, and Nehemiah Persoff plays Ralph. The acting by all three is outstanding, as is the work by director Robert Stevens and director of photography Lionel Lindon.

The show begins in shadow, as Jackie searches for the Collins buzzer in a dark foyer. He ascends the staircase amidst noir camera setups and lighting, as the banister casts ominous shadows on the wall. Ma wears a cheap bathrobe and the kitchen of her apartment is sparse and run down; everything in it looks old, cheap, or second-hand. There is no air conditioning in the building and Jackie and Ralph's faces are bathed in sweat, even after darkness has fallen outside.

The shadowy stairs serve as Jackie's
introduction to the Collins home.
Yet to Jackie, the Collins apartment is appealing because it represents home. In Slesar's story, Jackie is a one-dimensional character. In "Heart of Gold," his character is more subtle. When Ma mentions that she has "a little nest egg," we see Jackie's face light up, suggesting that he is considering robbing the old woman. Later, in a scene added for TV, Jackie is working at a garage and is left alone there after hours. He examines the cash box and looks like he is thinking of pocketing some of the money when his parole office, played by Edward Binns, suddenly appears. Jackie is sullen and resents being monitored. The character of the parole officer is new to the teleplay. He suggests that Jackie knows where the money is hidden and tells the young man that the insurance company has been asking about it.

There is then a nicely filmed sequence in the garage at night, as the camera slowly tracks toward Jackie, who sits alone in the office, talking on the phone. We think this is just an evocative shot until the point of view changes and we see that the moving camera represented the viewpoint of two thugs who confront Jackie about the hidden cash. After one of the thugs hits Jackie, we get another nicely lit shot on the staircase, as Jackie crawls up the stairs, bathed in shadows. Even as Ma tends to his wounds, he lies to her and we see his eyes shift to one side; he hides the fact that people are looking for the hidden money, suggesting that he actually does know where it is.

Ralph's foot on the chair shows who is in control
In a very subtle bit of set decoration, a plaque on Ma's kitchen wall appears to feature the poem, "Mother," from which the title of Slesar's story was taken. The TV show is well-paced, with scenes often fading to black. The final scene is powerful, as Ralph confronts Jackie in his darkened bedroom. Persoff plays Ralph as someone whose explosive temper always lurks just below the surface. The scene between Ralph and Jackie gets increasingly violent, highlighted by a bit of business where Jackie sits in a rocking chair and Ralph puts his foot on the armrest, rocking it to and fro before kicking it over with Jackie still in it.

The show's conclusion is much more effective than that of the story. Jackie grabs a kitchen knife to defend himself against Ralph and ends up stabbing the bully. Ma comes home and happens upon the scene; she looks at Jackie in horror, yet he still insists on addressing her as Ma, pleading: "I'll take his place!" Ma is stricken and blurts out the truth to the young man: "All we wanted was the money! That's why I was nice to you!" This straightforward ending is more satisfying than the story's vague conclusion, mainly because the show had built up Ma as a saintly woman and Jackie as a shifty young man. To see the tables turned is a real surprise. The show alternates between shadowy noir lighting and drab scenes of poverty in the Collins apartment; Stevens and Lindon's work serves to increase the setting's darkness and despair. "Heart of Gold" is unusual among the episodes we've studied so far in that the script, direction, and acting deepen and improve upon the short story on which it is based.

Cheryl Callaway as the little girl
who finds Jackie crawling up the stairs
Darryl Hickman (1931- ), who plays Jackie, was a child star, appearing in movies beginning in 1938 and on TV beginning in 1950. He was in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Tingler (1959) and he appeared on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis from 1959-1960 with his brother Dwayne, the star of the show. "Heart of Gold" was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series. He now teaches acting and has a website.

Mildred Dunnock (1901-1991), who plays Ma, was a veteran of stage, movies and TV. She was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times and on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour once. She also appeared in the episode, "None Are So Blind."

Nehemiah Persoff (1919- ), who plays Ralph, was also a veteran of movies and TV, appearing in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) and Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959). His only other appearance on the Hitchcock series was in "The Cure." He also has a website.

Edward Binns as the parole officer
Edward Binns (1916-1990), who plays the parole officer, is a very familiar character actor. An Actor's Studio alumnus, he appeared in Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), and Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959). While this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV series, he also was seen on The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

Appearing very briefly as the thug who beats up Jackie is Len Lesser (1922-2011), whose face is quite familiar because of his recurring role on Seinfeld as Uncle Leo.

James P. Cavanagh (1922-1971), who adapted "M Is For the Many" for TV, wrote fifteen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "None Are So Blind" and "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?"

Len Lesser as the thug
Robert Stevens (1920-1989) directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series and was one of the people most responsible for the show's look. He won an Emmy for his work on "The Glass Eye."

Lionel Lindon (1905-1971), the director of photography, was known as the fastest cinematographer in Hollywood. He worked on 42 episodes of the Hitchcock series and won an Academy Award for Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

"Heart of Gold" is available on DVD and can be viewed online.

In two weeks: "Night of the Execution."

Sources:

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
"Heart of Gold." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 27 Oct. 1957. Television.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.
Slesar, Henry. "M Is For the Many." Clean Crimes and Neat Murders. New York: Avon, 1960. 92-102. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.


2 comments:

Harvey Chartrand said...

Congratulations on your Henry Slesar series, which is getting off to a good start.
Len Lesser also appeared briefly as a rioting prisoner in BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962) and as a doomed small-time gangster in Curtis Harrington's RUBY (1977). Another SEINFELD semi-regular, Barney Martin, who played Seinfeld's father Morty, appeared in an episode of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR: BLOOD BARGAIN (1963). Martin also had a bit part as a juror in Hitchcock's THE WRONG MAN (1956).

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Harvey! I always look forward to your comments.