Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Twenty: "The Horseplayer" [6.22]

by Jack Seabrook

"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
The next time he sees Sheridan, Fr. Amion gives the man $500 of church funds to bet on the long shot and immediately regrets his rash act. Fr. Amion visits Bishop Cannon to confess what he has done and, after the bishop counsels him that he must pray for the horse not to win, Fr. Amion spends the night in prayer. The next day, a dejected Sheridan visits the church; to Fr. Amion's surprise, Sheridan hands him $2100. The horse did not win, but Sheridan played it safe and bet Fr. Amion's money on the horse to place, which it did. His own bet, to win, was a loser and now he is broke again. As he leaves the church he puts his last two dollars in the poor box.

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
In the very first scene, it is clear that this story fit perfectly into Hitchcock's fascination with the Catholic church. As mass concludes, we see the church roof leaking profusely, heavy drops of rain falling on the parishioners. After mass, a contractor explains to Fr. Amion that roof repairs will cost $1500. Whereas the story focused more generally on the poverty of the church, the TV show is focused on the need for roof repairs. In a subsequent scene, Fr. Amion recites part of the mass in Latin and Hitchcock positions his camera to focus on Sheridan's hand placing a large donation into the collection basket; Morton, the sexton, even holds it up with delight to show Fr. Amion, who is still on the altar!

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
And who is "The Horseplayer" of the episode's title? Is it Sheridan, the obvious choice, or is it Amion, who finally places a bet and wins more than he expected? Beneath the lighthearted mood of this show lie themes of sin, gambling and pragmatism--the world of the church vs. the world of the flesh. Is Sheridan a stand in for the Devil? Is Amion a Christ figure? One way to view this episode is as a satiric replaying of Satan's temptation of Christ. In the story, Amion is first intrigued by the rough-hewn man who leaves large donations in the basket. He then approaches him and learns that those donations come from an unsavory source. He does not condone the man's betting but he does not refuse the money.

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 ingenious conclusion satisfies everyone: Amion's prayers are answered in that the horse does not win, yet Amion himself--and the church, by extension--is rewarded with a financial windfall because Sheridan did not do what he was asked to do. Inadvertently, the Devil helped God prevail, and Sheridan slinks out of the church, putting his last two dollars in the poor box. The amount is significant: two dollars is the standard amount of a racetrack bet and Sheridan makes his final wager on the church to win.

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
Sheridan/Satan misuses prayer for personal gain. Right before Amion "falls" and gives him the money to place a bet, Sheridan remarks that he plans to head to a warmer climate: "I'm buyin' me a place down in Florida. Got a wonderful location--right between the Catholic church and Hiohela." In other words, between God and Mammon--exactly where Amion stands at that moment of crisis. Amion knows that he is committing a sin when he gives the money to Sheridan, since he slips it into his hand quickly and then looks around nervously to see if he has been observed. The final scene shows Sheridan's desolation at having been outfoxed--he is seen in a long shot, alone at the back of the church. Does his final donation to the poor box stand as a tacit admission of defeat? Surely Fr. Amion's concluding look Heavenward is meant to suggest that he is looking to God, but the last shot of the episode makes it clear that his concerns remain secular, as the camera lingers on the leaking roof.

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.

Sources:
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
"The Horseplayer." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 14 Mar. 1961. Television.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Regan, 2003. Print.
Slesar, Henry. "Father Amion's Long Shot." A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon Book Division, 1962. 50-61. Print.
Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. Print.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

12 comments:

Mike Doran said...

I dunno about "symbolism" or "meaning" or like that there.
Irony, maybe ... most Hitchcock were more about that than anything else.
Henry Slesar said as much himself in some article he wrote somewhere: I think the exact words were "At Hitchcock, they like surprise, but they'll buy irony."

About Ed Gardner:
He was making something of a comeback in showbiz, after having lived outside the US for a number of years (a tax beef with the IRS involving his equity in Duffy's Tavern).
Gardner hadn't been seen or heard in anything after the short-lived Duffy's TV show; when he turned up in a commercial for a cleaning product (Handy Andy, if memory serves), my parents were surprised - they thought he'd died.
Gardner's Hitchcock appearances came not long after; his early death (62 - a year younger than I am now) prevented many more guest shots, perhaps even a series comeback (it happens, even now - consider the late career of Norman Lloyd).
The simple fact that Hitchcock asked him back a year later (another Slesar story, as I recall) proves this.

Back to Slesar for a bit:
I was surprised not long ago to read that Henry Slesar had a Jewish background, since he seemed to do many stories on AHP and elsewhere with a Catholic setting.
In this episode, the details of the Mass were right on the nose - but that was more likely from Hitch himself, wasn't it?
Claude Rains would have fit in nicely with any of the priests at Our Lady of Loretto that I saw every day (what they might have thought about his six marriages in another story,of course ...).
But that brings up another question:
Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock features than any other actor - and he was Catholic.
So why didn't Carroll get the nod for The Horseplayer?
Something to think about ...

Jack Seabrook said...

My first draft had more about the Mass but I deleted it because I thought no one would be interested. I'm 50 and converted to RC in the mid-'80s so I only know about pre-Vatican 2 Mass from what people tell me. I thought it was cool to see Claude Rains with the hat and with his back turned, reciting the Mass in Latin. That's a good point about Leo G. Carroll. He had just done North By Northwest with Hitch and was a couple of years from starring in Going My Way on TV. But how can you not love Claude Rains?

Walker Martin said...

I watch alot of film noir and as a result Percy Helton has become a favorite actor. He appeared in so many movies often with just a line or two. However at least once he was almost a co-star.

WICKED WOMAN stars bombshell Beverly Michaels and Percy has a large role as the sleazy, dirty little old man who likes her. Using some type of blackmail he convinces her to let him slobber all over her. A great scene until the boyfriend walks in and starts to beat Beverly for letting Percy kiss/lick/slobber.

Percy runs around the room like a rat begging and trying to get away, whining in that great squeaky voice. I read an article which quoted Percy as saying he had a poster of the movie hanging over his bed.

Grant said...

One uncredited role of Percy Helton's is the drunk Santa Claus at the start of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. You never see him out of the Santa costume, but there's no mistaking his voice.

Mike Doran said...

A few points:

It's not that I don't love Claude Rains as a priest; I was just wondering about Carroll's total absence from the Hitchcock show, especially in light of the fact that by the '60s, Leo G.'s career was almost entirely on TV.

By the way, you mentioned the little hat that Rains was wearing on the altar.
You know what that hat is called?
It's a beretta.
Honest.

Ed Gardner's "persona":
I've read that it was way more than that.
Gardner was an ad executive whose agency was putting together the Duffy's Tavern package for radio.
They were looking for a name actor with a Runyonesque delivery, and Ed Gardner (whose real name was Eddie Poggenburg) talked that way all the time. Eventually someone suggested that Gardner do the part of "Archie the manager" himself, since he was funnier than any of the pro actors they'd read. Thus, a career was born.
And as you can see in The Horseplayer, Ed Gardner never broke that character.
Even in real life he always said me for my (as in "me brudder").
This tradition is carried on, after a fashion, by Garry Marshall;Albert Brooks didn't need to tell him to say "Santy Claus".

Last:
Circa 1966, Percy Helton appeared on Merv Griffin's talk show (the New York one with Arthur Treacher), his only appearance on this kind of show (that I know of).
Merv's first question was about how many movies Helton had been in.
Percy replied something like "About 150 movies, and I don't know how many TV." (Approximate quote; been years since I saw this.)
When asked about his start on stage, Percy mentioned that his first appearance had been in 1897 or thereabouts (not saying that it had been as a child), which led my father to exclaim "Jesus! He's older than I thought he was!"
I hope I'm right on the quotes; frankly, this is one Griffin show that I'd love to see again, just for Percy Helton.

Jack Seabrook said...

Walker, I will be on the lookout for WICKED WOMAN! It sounds right up my (dark) alley!

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant--now I have something to watch for next Christmas!

Jack Seabrook said...

Mike, you're right. It's weird that Leo was NEVER on AHP/AHH. It's not like he wasn't on TV plenty in the 50s--I used to watch Topper reruns in the mid-70s on a UHF channel and that ran from 53-55!

I had no idea what that little hat was called. Now I know that a beretta is more than just a gun or a Robert Blake role! My wife and I visited the Vatican last April and saw plenty of vestments!

Have you tried YouTube for that Percy Helton clip? You never know.

Walker Martin said...

Jack--I just checked google, WICKED WOMAN, which has never been released on dvd or tape, is available on You Tube and also some sellers have it on bootleg dvds. My copy came from Pressplayhouse and is 9 out of 10 in quality.

I've been recommending it to friends for several years and everyone is impressed. It's a film noir without the darkness, the murder, and almost without the crime.

Beverly Michaels doesn't just walk, or strut. She doesn't wiggle or shimmer. She slinks! When Percy Helton, who is a tailor, first sees her walk by his shop, he can't believe his eyes and immediately is smitten with her slinky persona.

A great, unknown film noir.

Jack Seabrook said...

I watched the preview yesterday and will watch the movie soon! Thanks for the recommendation!

Jack Seabrook said...

Walker, I watched Wicked Woman and really liked it. It had a very David Goodis-like feel to it. I was surprised to hear two music cues that were used a lot on Alfred Hitchcock Presents! I bet not many people watch that movie to see Percy Helton...

Walker Martin said...

It's a shame that Beverly Michaels was only in a handful of movies. She could really play bad girls or femme fatale parts. Percy Helton could really play dirty old man parts.

What a great combination!