"The Horseplayer," directed by Alfred Hitchcock from a teleplay by Henry Slesar, is based on Slesar's short story, "Long Shot." Neither the television show nor the story deals with the usual subjects seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, such as murder or other violent crimes, but both are lighthearted tales on the surface that mask or satirize more serious issues.
In "Long Shot," we meet Father Amion, a priest whose parish "wasn't rich enough to own its own mouse." One Sunday, he is surprised to find a ten-dollar bill in the collection plate. Morton, the church sexton, points out that the donor was a man in a "pink-checked suit," who was new to the congregation. After receiving more large donations, Fr. Amion speaks to the man, whose name is Sheridan and who explains that his success in betting on horse races has improved ever since he saw and heeded the sign outside the church that said to "TRY PRAYER."
Fr. Amion tries to explain to Sheridan that he misunderstood the message, but the gambler does not appreciate the nuances of the priest's argument. The next week, a $35 donation follows a winning bet on a horse called Red Devil. The irony that the church is benefiting from actions that may be considered inappropriate is not lost on Fr. Amion, who turns down Sheridan's offer to place a bet on his behalf. Soon, Sheridan pulls up in an expensive new car, bought with the proceeds of his winning bets. He tries to share a tip with Fr. Amion about a long shot running in an upcoming race, but the priest again refuses, though his resolve is shaken when he attends a meeting at which the church's desperate financial situation is made clear.
|Claude Rains as Father Amion|
Like the popular musical Guys and Dolls, "Long Shot" finds humor in the unlikely intersection of the worlds of racetrack gambling and religion. Slesar's tale was published in the November 1960 issue of Fantastic. At about the same time, Alfred Hitchcock had a production meeting to discuss filming this story as one of the two episodes he would direct for the sixth season of his television show. The episode was produced from January 4 through 6, 1961, and aired on March 14, 1961, retitled "The Horseplayer."
|Percy Helton as Morton shows Father|
Amion the latest big donation
The episode's casting is perfect. Claude Rains lends an air of dignity to the role of Fr. Amion and Percy Helton, who always resembles a human rodent with his high, raspy voice, plays the sexton. Ed Gardner plays Sheridan, using his expertise at playing a rough, uneducated character with a heavy New York accent to fine advantage--the contrast between his demeanor and speech and those of Rains in their scenes together is marvelous.
|Ed Gardner as Sheridan|
Sheridan then asks Amion if he wants to place a bet himself. Amion at first refuses, then when Sheridan drives up in an expensive car and the reality of the church's poverty hits him, Amion essentially embezzles church funds and falls from grace, asking Sheridan to place an enormous bet on a long shot. Amion has succumbed to the Devil's temptation after all. The visit to the bishop represents an attempt to confess and be forgiven; as penance, Amion must pray that the horse does not win.
|Kenneth MacKenna as Bishop Cannon|
Slesar's teleplay softens Amion's crime by making it clear that he is not using church funds to place his own bet--instead, he goes to the bank and withdraws his personal savings. When he visits the bishop, the bishop gives a small smile when he hears Amion's anguished confession, but he is more concerned when he hears the size of the bet, suggesting that, in this world, the church leader measures a sin's magnitude by its financial risk.
|Sheridan stands alone in the|
back of the church
Claude Rains (1889-1967), who plays Father Amion, was one of the great stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. Born in London, he served in World War One and started his acting career onstage in London before moving to Broadway and eventually getting into film. The list of great films in which he appeared is long and includes The Invisible Man (1933), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Wolf Man (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). He appeared in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "And So Died Riabouchinska" and "The Cream of the Jest."
Ed Gardner (1901-1963) plays Sheridan and appears to have used the same persona that made him famous as creator and star of the radio show, Duffy's Tavern, where he played Archie the bartender. He made a movie of Duffy's Tavern in 1945, starred in a TV series of the same name in 1954, and did little else of note, save writing a couple of scripts for The Cisco Kid in the mid-'50s and appearing on two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
|Morton tells Amion that|
Sheridan has returned
Percy Helton (1984-1971), whose appearance and voice are memorable, was seen in countless films and TV episodes from the silent days until his death. He began his career in vaudeville and I always associate him with the younger actor John Fiedler, who had a similar appearance and sound. Helton was on the Hitchcock show seven times, always in supporting roles.
Finally, Kenneth MacKenna (1899-1962) plays the bishop. Born Leo Mielziner Jr., he directed films in the early 1930s and acted in films from the '20s to the '60s. He was on TV for a couple of years around 1960 and only appeared on the Hitchcock series this one time.
Most episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adapted from previously published short stories. Sometimes, the story is better than the TV show; sometimes it is the other way around. And sometimes, as with "The Horseplayer," a good story is adapted into an even better episode of the series. The combination of Slesar, Hitchcock and Rains produced a winner!
"The Horseplayer" is available on DVD here and may be viewed online here.