Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Twenty-Six: "Cop For a Day" [7.4]

by Jack Seabrook

The producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents reached back into Henry Slesar's catalogue for "Cop For a Day," which had been published in the January 1957 issue of Manhunt. More hardboiled than most of the Slesar stories that had been adapted for the series, this tale begins with Phil Pennick and Davy Wyatt holed up in a "one-room flat that had been their prison for two days." The duo had robbed and shot a bank messenger and got away with $18,000. Despite Davy's worries that he will be seen and arrested, Phil goes out for sandwiches. He buys a newspaper and learns that a woman who witnessed the shooting can identify the criminals. Back at the flat, Phil tells Davy that he has a plan to solve the problem created by Davy's "'jerky trigger finger.'"

Phil goes out again and visits his friend Marty Hirsch, who works in the garment district on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue. Borrowing a policeman's uniform, Phil puts it on in the bathroom at Angie's restaurant and then goes to the apartment house where the witness lives. He talks his way past the policemen guarding her residence, knocks on the door of Apartment 4-E, and tells the woman that he has a photo for her to identify. Once inside the apartment, Phil takes the woman into the bedroom and shoots her, then calmly walks out and takes a taxi back to the tenement where he and Davy are hiding out.

As he opens the door to the flat, Davy shoots him in the stomach and forehead, mistaking him for a real police officer.

"Cop For a Day" has a sudden twist ending that is presented so matter of factly that it falls flat. The most notable feature of Slesar's story is the underworld slang he uses. Women are "dames," the witness is "a honey blonde, with a figure out of 52nd Street," and Phil wonders if she is "cooling her high heels in a police station." Other than these entertaining turns of phrase, the story is not among Slesar's best. Fortunately, by 1961, when he adapted the story for television, Slesar's skill had grown and the teleplay is much stronger than its source. The episode premiered on NBC on Tuesday, October 31, 1961, a fitting day to present an episode that features a character putting on a costume!

Glenn Cannon as Davy
As he did in his adaptation of "The Man With Two Faces," Slesar opens the show by dramatizing the crime that was only discussed in retrospect in the story. Here, we see the robbery take place in an exciting and suspenseful scene. Director Paul Henreid and cameraman John L. Russell work together to make the scene come alive by using a moving camera that follows Phil and Davy as they trail and attack the bank messenger. The selection of stock musical phrases by Joseph E. Romero is also excellent and heightens the tension in the opening scene.

The show then picks up where the story began. There is a real contrast between laconic, experienced Phil, played by Walter Matthau, and jumpy, inexperienced Davy, played by Glenn Cannon. As Phil, Matthau looks like he has seen and done it all before. He has some nice bits of business, such as whistling Mozart while he waits in Marty's vestibule. When Phil is dressed as a cop and loitering across the street from the witness's apartment building, a woman comes up to him and asks for directions to the nearest post office. Matthau directs her to a location about ten blocks away, clearly making it up as he goes along and enjoying himself in his role as a crook impersonating a cop. His loose-limbed, confident stride and smug expression throughout the episode make his sudden death at the conclusion a shock.

Henreid's creative shot selections and camera movement also continue from the first scene to the last. In the deli, as Phil reads the paper, the camera zooms in on the word "Dies" in the headline about the bank messenger's fate--this trick shot recalls a similar one used by Hitchcock in "Back for Christmas." After the death is known, the scenes in the apartment turn darker and more shadowy. Even a simple shot-reverse shot sequence is spiced up by using angles looking up or down, depending on the character's placement in the frame. When Phil enters the woman's apartment building, Henreid places the camera at the top of a staircase so we can watch from above as Phil comes through the door and climbs the stairs. There is similar camera placement when Phil and Marty go into Marty's stock room: the camera is placed at the far end of the room and we look down past a row of coats to see the two men. Henreid's mobile camera, creative shot selection and camera placement make the episode move quickly.

Bernard Fein as Marty
The music is also worth noting, even though it is comprised of stock phrases from the library. When the camera zooms in on the newspaper headline, there is s two-note sting that is repeated to underline the significance of the onscreen word. This is followed by a jazzy, cymbal-based theme that underscores Phil's cool demeanor in the face of danger. The music is also suspenseful as Phil approaches the woman's building, and the murder scene is set to ominous drums.

In addition to the new opening scene, Slesar's teleplay makes several changes to the story. When Phil first comes back from his trip to the deli, there is an impressive scene where Davy waits in the basement apartment, listening to the unknown man come down the stairs. We hear Phil's footsteps on the stairs and outside the door and it is as if we can see him coming closer. This scene foreshadows the conclusion, where Davy shoots Phil as he comes through the door. It has been established that Davy is tense and quick on the trigger, and being left alone in the apartment makes him jumpy and ready for disaster every time the door opens. Slesar's teleplay also simplifies Phil's costume change. In the story, he takes the costume to a restaurant and changes in the bathroom. In the TV show, he picks out the policeman's uniform, which is displayed on a mannequin in Marty's stockroom. He then has Marty help him put it on, adding badges on his shirt and hat as a finishing touch.

Carol Grace
Last of all, the murder scene is streamlined. In the story, Phil tells the woman that he has a photograph for her to identify. In the show, he simply says that he needs to use her telephone and she lets him in. There is then some clever banter between the two of them. She is sarcastic and disrespectful to Phil, and he answers back in a straightforward way until he pulls his gun. The murder itself is fairly graphic, as he puts a pillow over her and shoots her through it while she begs for her life. He leaves her lifeless body on the bed, not quite as horribly displayed as that of Susan Oliver in "Annabel" (also directed by Henreid), but bad enough. The latter seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents show a willingness to display violent acts (recall the concluding murder in "Servant Problem") that had not been present in earlier years.

The show ends with a more extended scene than that in the story; Davy shoots Phil and then approaches the body, turning it over to reveal the face of his partner in crime. While Davy had muttered "You cop, you dirty cop" only moments before, when he sees what he has done he screams "No!" and the episode ends. This slight extension of the scene cures the suddenness with which the story ends and makes the conclusion more satisfying.

"Cop For a Day" is a fine example of how to take a run of the mill story and use a strong teleplay, good acting, creative direction and appropriate music to create a memorable half-hour of TV.

Paul Henreid (1908-1992) directed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Landlady." The last Slesar episode he directed prior to "Cop For a Day" was "The Last Escape," with Keenan Wynn.

The camera at the top of the stairs
Playing Phil Pennick is Walter Matthau (1920-2000). Born Walter Matthow in Manhattan, he was a child actor in Yiddish theater who served under Jimmy Stewart in the Air Force in WWII, earning six battle stars. He went on to star on Broadway, then on television, and finally in many films. He won two Tony awards and an Oscar. His TV career began in 1950 and his movie career followed in 1955. He appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents but he will always be remembered for his comedic film roles, especially The Odd Couple (1968) and The Bad News Bears (1976).

The camera at the far end of the stockroom
Glenn Cannon (1932-2013) played Davy. He also appeared on Broadway, on TV starting in 1956 and in movies starting in 1961. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series. He moved to Hawaii in the late 1960s and never left. He taught acting at the University of Hawaii for decades and made many appearances on TV shows based in the islands, including Hawaii Five-O and Magnum P.I.

The woman who is murdered by Phil was played by Carol Grace (1924-2003), who was married to Walter Matthau from 1959 to 2000. She had been married previously to playwright William Saroyan and there is speculation that she was the illegitimate daughter of British actor Leslie Howard. More information about her and her more famous husband may be found on the Matthau family website here.

Matthau and Robert Reiner
Bernard Fein (1926-1980) plays the small role of Marty Hirsch, from whom Phil gets the policeman's uniform. Fein was co-creator of the TV show Hogan's Heroes.

One of the policemen who haplessly guards the woman's apartment is played by an actor named Robert Reiner; he is not the Rob Reiner who co-starred on All in the Family.

"Cop For a Day" is not yet available on DVD and I have not been able to find a source to view it online.

"Cop For a Day." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 31 Oct. 1961. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.
The Matthau Company. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "Cop For a Day." A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon Book Division, 1962. 80-87. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.


john kenrick said...

Jack: I enjoyed this one hugely till Matthau went and got himself a policeman's uniform. The banter with the garment district guy was fun, and his character obviously had something on the guy, as in "you owe me", which isn't made explicit, and needn't be.

As soon as Matthau walks down the street my heart began to sink a little: no credibility. Cops have ways about them, of walking and talking, and there's no way a criminal like Matthau's could have picked up on this so quickly. If only this had been foreshadowed, just a line or two ("I've done some acting in my time, kid, I trod the boards in my youth") and something like: "I can impersonate all kinds of people,--it helps in my line of work". Anything would have helped.

That Matthau engages in light banter with a couple of young policeman does not convince. How can he know cop lingo so well? It's one small move and you're finished time, and yet he's cucumber cool. Same with his scenes with the woman. His killing her struck me as a way too risky for an ""old hand" who knows the ropes.

My head was spinning, in a manner of speaking, as in for the first half of the episode the guy's a seasoned criminal, has the juice: he's gonna make it. The kid is the loose cannon; and then it's Mathau who's acting dangerously. Is it catching? That he returned to his dive in uniform, without announcing himself in advance,--again, one line would have done it: "Kid, it's me, I'm dressed as a cop. Don't shoot"), but it wasn't there.

Matthau's soft shoe acting made the episode watchable.

Jack Seabrook said...

I thought he was terrific, but it was Henreid's direction that most impressed me.

john kenrick said...

I just watched Cop For A Day last night, and while it played well,--certainly regarding Paul Henreid's skill as a director (Don Taylor's another ex-leading-man-turned-director whose directorial work I've come to admire). Matthau's deadpan cool just doesn't work for me. Still, it played smoothly.