The twenty-first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be based on a story by Henry Slesar was "Incident in a Small Jail." Broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, March 21, 1961, it was directed by Norman Lloyd, it starred John Fiedler and Richard Jaeckel, and it was based on "The Man in the Next Cell," which had been published in the February 1961 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
"The Man in the Next Cell" begins as Leon Gorwald, a Philadelphia businessman, is pulled over by a state trooper after speeding through a small town. When he tries to bribe the policeman, Gorwald is arrested and taken to the town jail, a two-cell affair, where he is told that it may be a while before he gets a hearing before Judge Webster, since it is Sunday.
The door bursts open and the sheriff announces that the man who murdered Susie Fremont with a knife has been caught. Wearing a mechanic's overalls, the killer is brought to jail, where he is locked in the cell next to that of Gorwald. Gorwald begs the sheriff to let him have a hearing, but to no avail. Soon, a deputy arrives to announce that a lynch mob is forming. The sheriff lets the mechanic out of his cell, intending to move him to a safer place, but the prisoner knocks the sheriff unconscious. Taking the sheriff's gun, the mechanic forces Gorwald to exchange clothes with him and switch cells. The mechanic flees right before the mob arrives.
Gorwald is dragged out, presumably to be lynched. Later, awakening to the sheriff's voice, Gorwald learns that he was saved by the timely return of the same trooper who had arrested him in the first place. He is released and, next morning, he drives out of town, picking up a young, female hitchhiker on the way, "glad now that he had left the knife in the glove compartment." The reader realizes that Gorwald was the man who had murdered Susie Fremont, and he nearly had been lynched for a crime he actually committed.
"The Man in the Next Cell" was adapted for television by Henry Slesar from his own story and retitled "Incident in a Small Jail." The main change from story to screen occurs at the beginning of the episode, as Gorwald drives into town and pulls into a gas station. He leaves his car to be filled with gas and walks across the street to get a drink. As he walks, the light changes, and he nearly is run over by a police car. The policeman accuses him of jaywalking and the story is essentially the same after that.
|Myron Healey as Carlie, the state trooper|
One curious aspect of both story and TV show is the character of the mechanic, who is never given a name. He is arrested trying to hitch a ride near the scene of the girl's murder and he behaves like a criminal from the first time he appears, not trying to argue his innocence and seeming angry and violent. Even worse, when the sheriff opens his cell door to protect him from the approaching lynch mob, he attacks the sheriff, takes his gun, and carries out a plan that is almost certain to result in the death of a man he has every reason to think is innocent. Finally, he flees, having taken no action that would suggest he is an innocent man. Perhaps he has a criminal past and fears that he will be wrongfully convicted of Susie's murder; in any case, his violent, criminal behavior is in stark contrast with that of meek Leon Gorwald, making the revelation that Gorwald is a killer all the more shocking.
|Joan Dupuis as Gorwald's next victim|
The sheriff is played by Crahan Denton (1914-1966), who also appeared three times on the Hitchcock show.
Director Norman Lloyd (1914- ) had three roles on the Hitchcock series: associate producer, occasional actor, and director of 22 episodes. The last episode directed by Norman Lloyd discussed on this blog was "The Life Work of Juan Diaz"; "Incident in a Small Jail" was the only time he would direct a story by Henry Slesar.
"Incident in a Small Jail" was well-remembered by viewers and it was remade in 1985 as the first episode of the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The color version stars Ned Beatty as Gorwald and is notable mainly for its utter lack of suspense. Like so many TV shows in the 1980s, it increases the amount of violence at the expense of any subtlety. A good example of what is wrong with this episode is that Beatty is dragged out by the lynch mob and is in the process of being hanged when a police helicopter flies to the rescue.
"Incident in a Small Jail" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online for free here. The remake may also be viewed online here.
In Two Weeks: "A Woman's Help," by Henry Slesar.