Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Eleven: "Insomnia" [5.30]

by Jack Seabrook

Guilt and fear cause a mild-mannered man to explode into fatal violence in Henry Slesar's "Insomnia," a teleplay that he adapted from his own short story called "Sleep Is for the Innocent." The story, which had been published in the February 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, features Charles Cavender, a chronic insomniac, who takes his doctor's advice and sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Tedaldi. Cavender explains that his wife Linda died in a fire at their home and he still has nightmares about it. In a bit of foreshadowing, Cavender thinks that there is "no point in mentioning that his smoking in bed might have caused it."

Cavender escaped the fire without trying to save his wife and claims that he does not blame himself for her death. However, Linda's brother, Jack Fletcher, does hold Cavender responsible. Jack was in a VA hospital for nine years, since Korea, and sent Charles "'a real psychotic letter.'" He is now back in the city and has telephoned Charles to threaten him. Dr. Tedaldi helps Cavender realize that his insomnia began when he learned that Fletcher had been released from the hospital.

Cavender spends another sleepless night in his hotel room, an ordeal that is relieved only by a three a.m. trip to an all-night drugstore to replenish his supply of cigarettes. At work the next morning, he is criticized for an error in his work; he blames it on lack of sleep. The next day, he telephones Fletcher to suggest that they meet and talk, yet Fletcher tells him to "'Flake off.'" After another sleepless night, he visits Fletcher in person and discovers that his tormentor is a paraplegic in a wheelchair. Cavender feels relief, thinking that "he had lain awake, staring into the darkness, because of half a man."

They argue and Fletcher pulls a gun from a drawer. Cavender grabs his arm and they struggle; with the gun pointed at Fletcher's head, Cavender forces him to pull the trigger: "the feeling was one of power and satisfaction" for Cavender. Fletcher is killed, as "a terrible, bloody thing happened to the young face"--suggesting a Spillane influence on Slesar's crime writing.

Dennis Weaver
The story has a surprise ending that has been telegraphed: Cavender returns home after seeing a movie and falls asleep in bed with a cigarette burning. The cigarette starts a fire in his apartment and he is killed; a policeman on the scene after the conflagration remarks with unwitting irony that he "'must have been a real heavy sleeper.'"

"Sleep Is for the Innocent" is a tightly written crime story that, like so many of Slesar's short stories, was perfect for adaptation into a half-hour television program. The success of Slesar's teleplay for "Forty Detectives Later" appears to have led to a second assignment from producer Joan Harrison, since Slesar also wrote the script for "Insomnia," which was broadcast on Sunday, May 8, 1960, on CBS, only a few months after the cover date of the magazine in which it had first appeared.

James Millhollin
The teleplay follows the story closely, with a few minor changes and one major one. Alfred Hitchcock Presents had been sponsored since the beginning by Bristol-Myers and, for season five, Revlon had signed on as an additional sponsor. I can find no evidence that either company ever manufactured or sold cigarettes, but the lack of cigarettes in the TV show, in light of the product's central role in the story on which the show is based, is striking. In the story, Cavender smokes all the time, piling up butts in his ashtray at night as he struggles to sleep. There is a suggestion that the fire that killed his wife was due to his smoking in bed, and the blaze that kills him at the end of the tale is due to the same cause.

Perhaps CBS was wary of airing a program that suggested that cigarette smoking was dangerous; it may be that other shows were sponsored by cigarette makers and the network was wary of upsetting them, even though they did not sponsor this show. In any case, there is not a lit cigarette to be seen in "Insomnia." We do see an ashtray on Cavendar's bedside table, and in the first scene he explores an empty pack of cigarettes, but he never lights up or smokes in bed on camera. Instead, Slesar's script has Cavender light a portable heater in his room early in the show, and the heater looks dangerous because flames roar out of it. When Cavender visits the office of Dr. Tedaldi (actor Dennis Weaver seems to pronounce the doctor's name as "Tubaldi"), the receptionist remarks on the recent cold weather, reinforcing the need for the portable heater that Cavender is seen lighting before bed. Near the end of the episode, he lights the heater again and goes to bed; it is clear that the heater is responsible for the conflagration that kills him. The germ of this idea likely came from Slesar's own story, in which Cavender mentions having had a portable heater in the house that burned down and killed his wife.
John Ragin

The sequence of events is rearranged slightly in the teleplay: in the story, Fletcher had called to threaten Cavender in the past; in the show, the threatening phone call occurs after Cavender's visit to the doctor, heightening the tension. The urgency of solving Cavender's insomnia is also greater in the TV show, as we see him get fired by his boss for making a mistake; in the story, he was merely warned. Dennis Weaver, as Cavender, gives a convincing performance as a man exhausted by lack of sleep and by worry. Even better is John Ragin, as Fletcher; he demonstrates real anger and bitterness in his short appearance, telling Cavender: "'I'm gonna be your bad dream from now on.'"

The confrontation between Cavender and Fletcher is staged with more action than is found in the source story; Cavender flings a desk lamp at Fletcher and then rushes at him; they grapple for the gun but the viewer is spared the sight of Fletcher's young face being reduced to "a terrible, bloody thing." Back home, Cavender takes his wife's framed photograph, which had lain face down on his dresser, and sets it upright again, suggesting that, with Fletcher dead, he can finally move on with his life.

Al Hodge
"Insomnia" is the second in a row of Slesar's teleplays in which he adapts his own stories and, like the previous effort, it is a satisfying half hour of television. It is directed by master of shadows John Brahm (1893-1982), whose last directorial work on a Slesar story was in "A Night With the Boys."

Dennis Weaver (1924-2006) plays Cavender with the same folksy drawl he used so successfully in his long career as a TV star. Weaver shot to fame as Deputy Chester Goode on Gunsmoke, a role he played from 1955 to 1964. He won an Emmy for the role on May 6, 1959, almost exactly a year before this episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was broadcast. Though he never again appeared on the Hitchcock series, he was a fixture on TV for decades; highlights of his long career include Spielberg's Duel (1971) and his lead role in the detective series McCloud (1970-1977). A website devoted to Weaver may be found here.

Cavender reads a fake crime paperback
titled The Bashful Killer
As Dr. Tedaldi, James Millhollin (1915-1993) displays the arch sensibility he would use repeatedly in a career that lasted from the 1950s to the 1970s. His is a very familiar face to viewers of classic TV; while he appeared just this once on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he may be seen in three episodes each of The Twilight Zone and The Odd Couple, as well as having played a part in the notorious Lost in Space episode, "The Great Vegetable Rebellion."

The part of Jack Fletcher represents the first credit for John Ragin (1929- ), who made many appearances on TV up to the early 1990s. Al Hodge (1912-1979) plays Fletcher's boss; he took over the role of Captain Video in 1950 and played it on various TV series until 1957. He believed he was thereafter typecast as Captain Video and ended up dying broke and forgotten.

"Insomnia" is available on DVD here or can be viewed for free online here.

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2013.
"Insomnia." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 8 May 1960. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "Sleep Is for the Innocent." 1960. Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. New York: Avon, 1960. 144-52. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2013.


Harvey Chartrand said...

This is another winner from the typewriter of Henry Slesar. John S. Ragin went on to play one of Quincy's croneys in the long-running TV series QUINCY, M.E. (1976-83) starring Jack Klugman. Ragin is still among the living (age 84).

Jack Seabrook said...

Speaking of those still among the living, I had the following from Joyce Meadows, who co-starred in "A Night With the Boys":

it was very strange that we never saw A. Hitchcock as he always did his takes on another
- I really enjoyed the "off beat" characters we got to play. It gave a good work out in acting, which
I loved.
I did several episodes and I am trying to go back and relive that show. Hmmmmmm? I seem to remember
having to be very committed to the "moment," knowing the end as a Actor but making sure the character
didn't know it. That's what made the endings of these shows so surprising to the audience, if you would keep the
character unaware of what happens at the end.

john kenrick said...

I found Insomnia a huge disappointment, Jack was expecting, as it progressed, some sort of twist typical if the Hitch half-hour show, such as Cavender really being Jack Fletcher, but no such luck. Your comment on CBS strikes me as spot on re cigarettes and smoking in general, which was all over the tube right till the advertising of cigs was banned. I wondered about the role smoking might have played in the story but that part went nowhere, alas. Dennis Weaver was fine in the lead, even better as a man with another kind of sleep problem in the classic Twilight Zone episode Shadow Play.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. Weaver was a very interesting actor to watch, though I never watched McCloud.