Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Thirty-One: "Burglar Proof" [7.21]

by Jack Seabrook

"Be My Valentine" is the unusual title of a story by Henry Slesar that was published in the January 1962 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Ad man Harrison Fell was on top of his game until he was taken off of the Holdwell Safe account. He pitches a new campaign to his boss, Mr. Bliss: hire Sammy "The Touch" Morrisey, "the hottest safecracker in the business," to prove that the company's new "burglar-proof safe," the 801, lives up to its promotion. Fell visits Sammy on the top floor of a rooming house and makes his pitch, but Sammy argues that "I'm out of that line of work altogether." Fell explains that Sammy will have three hours to crack the 801 in front of a crowd of onlookers. If he fails, he will be paid $1000. If he succeeds, he can keep the $50,000 that he will find in an envelope inside the safe.

Sammy reluctantly agrees and the big day arrives, with a crowd on hand. Fell displays the envelope holding $50,000 and has the guard place it in the safe. Sammy has till midnight to try to open it. He inspects the safe as the crowd holds its breath. He tries various tools to crack the safe but barely makes a dent--even nitroglycerin fails. As midnight approaches, he is still trying in vain. His final effort, using a sledgehammer, comes to naught. Midnight comes and the crowd cheers his efforts. Fell presents Sammy with his $1000 and he leaves. Next morning, Fell is surprised to arrive at the office to an angry telephone call from the ad manager of Holdwell Safe. When the safe's time lock clicked open that morning, they found an envelope inside filled with worthless green paper. Fell realizes that Sammy's new line of work is that of a pickpocket.

The title, "Be My Valentine," refers to Jimmy Valentine, a fictional safecracker in the O. Henry story, "A Retrieved Reformation," which became famous after it was published in the April 1903 issue of Cosmopolitan. Like O. Henry's character, Sammy Morrisey responds to Harrison Fell's call to "Be My Valentine" and open a safe. Slesar's story is a comedy, set (as are so many of his stories) in New York City and concerning the world of advertising, with which Slesar was intimately familiar. Although it has an ironic twist at the end, the buildup is more important than the surprise.

Robert Webber as Fell
Slesar sets up a stark contrast between Fell, the ad man, and Sammy the safecracker. Fell is described as "a large, broad-chested man with shoulders by Brooks Brothers, hair by Brylcreem, skin by Man Tan, and soul by Cadillac." Sammy, on the other hand, is "small and scrawny, devoid of menace, cunning and even character." When Fell visits Sammy, Slesar writes that "He pulled his Jaguar between a meat truck and a vintage Chevy, growled at the mop-haired urchins who eyed its hubcaps and took the worn stairs as nonchalantly as if they had been the steps of the University Club." Later, when Fell speaks to the crowd gathered to watch Sammy try to crack the 801, he sets it up like a prize fight, comparing the safe, at 2370 lbs., with Sammy, at 112 lbs.

"Be My Valentine" recalls Slesar's earlier story, "The Last Escape," in which Joe Ferlini draws a crowd to see him attempt a daring water escape. Both stories include a buildup to an event that fails for an unexpected reason in front of a large group of people.

Paul Hartman as Sammy
In adapting his own short story for television, Slesar changed the title to the less-subtle "Burglar Proof," and the result was broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, February 27, 1962, directed by John Newland and starring Robert Webber as Fell and Paul Hartman as Sammy. The episode begins in Mr. Bliss's office and, with some notable exceptions, follows the print story closely. Bliss and Fell are fast-talking, animated, aggressive advertising men, the 1962 version of today's TV Mad Men. In both story and show, Fell shows how modern he is by repeatedly referring to the space program--he wants to get his new idea "off the launching pad" and he says that the new safe (what a great name for a safe company--Hold Well!) is being put "into orbit."

The first change in the teleplay occurs when Fell visits Sammy. Sammy has a grown daughter, Dorothy, and her presence leads to some nice bits where Sammy tries to keep her from hearing Fell mention his criminal past. The show moves overtly into comedy in the scene where Sammy tries to crack the safe. Sammy tells a reporter a funny story and much of the scene is played without dialogue but with music that is supposed to highlight its humor. The second important addition comes when the guard takes the envelope full of money and is about to walk over to the safe to place it inside. Sammy bumps into him, tripping and righting himself. Watching this scene and knowing the end of the story, it is clear that this is the moment when Sammy switches envelopes.

Whit Bissell as Mr. Bliss
The last big change is the show's final scene. After Bliss and Fell learn that the envelope inside the safe contained blank paper, which is dramatized by an angry visit to their office by the ad manager from Holdwell Safe, rather than by a telephone call, as in the story, there is a new scene in which the ironic twist at the end of the short story is expanded and made more obvious. We see Sammy and his daughter Dorothy in their apartment as Sammy teaches her how to be a pickpocket. He even does the envelope switch on her, adding that he will show her that trick next week!

Why does Sammy steal the money? When Fell proposes the contest to him, he chuckles and assures Fell that no safe is truly burglar proof. By stealing the money, Sammy almost certainly ensures that he will be caught and possibly sent back to prison. Was he not sure that he could crack the safe and so wanted to make certain that he got the money? Was the entire failed attempt to crack the safe an act, a show for Fell and the reporters? Perhaps it does not pay to think too hard about a TV show and short story from over fifty years ago!

"Be My Valentine" is an entertaining story that moves smoothly from start to finish, but "Burglar Proof" falls flat, as do so many attempts at comedy on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Robert Webber's performance as Harrison Fell is corny and he seems like he is trying too hard to be the fast-talking ad man. Paul Hartman is winning as Sammy, doing his best with weak material. John Newland's direction is nothing special, with no remarkable camera work or setups to try to enliven the script. To be fair, it is hard to generate excitement as Sammy spends three hours trying to crack the safe. But I think that Alan Crosland, Jr., or Paul Henreid could have done a better job at staging this story. Not for one moment do we think that Sammy will have a chance at opening the safe, and that is a fatal flaw; Hartman is so nice and mild-mannered that it is hard to accept him as a career criminal.

John Newland (1917-2000) got his start in vaudeville and was an actor before he become a director. He is best known for hosting and directing the TV series One Step Beyond (1959-1961) and its sequel, The Next Step Beyond (1978). Newland directed other classic episodes of favorite TV series, including "I Kiss Your Shadow" on Bus Stop and "Pigeons From Hell" on Thriller. "Burglar Proof" was one of four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he directed, including "Bad Actor."

Whit Bissell, Philip Ober and Robert Webber
Paul Hartman (1904-1973) started in vaudeville as a dancer and had a successful career on Broadway, in movies, and on TV. He appeared on Thriller and The Twilight Zone and his five appearances on the Hitchcock series also included "Not the Running Type" (where he played a role similar to the one he played in "Burglar Proof") and "The Magic Shop."

Robert Webber (1924-1989) was a marine in the Pacific Theater in WWII whose movie and TV career began in 1950. He appeared in Twelve Angry Men (1957), in episodes of Thriller and The Outer Limits, and in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Fredric Brown's "A True Account."

Philip Ober (1902-1982) played Wilton Stark, the ad manager at Holdwell Safe. Ober was a real ad exec who switched careers and became an actor, starting his movie career in 1934. He appeared in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959), episodes of Thriller and The Twilight Zone, and two episodes of the Hitchcock series. He was married to I Love Lucy's Ethel (Vivian Vance) from 1941-1959.

Josie Lloyd as Dorothy
Mr. Bliss, Fell's boss, was played by Whit Bissell (1909-1996), who was in movies from 1940 and on TV from 1950. Among his many films are Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957). He was a regular on The Time Tunnel (1966-67), appeared on The Outer Limits, and made two appearances on the Hitchcock series.

Finally, Josie Lloyd (1940- ) played Dorothy. She had a brief career on TV from 1960-67 and was on the Hitchcock series six times, including "Coming Home."

"Burglar Proof" is not yet available on DVD, nor may it be viewed for free online. YouTube has removed almost all of the episodes that had been uploaded by users due to copyright infringement complaints.

"Burglar Proof." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 27 Feb. 1962. Television.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 22 June 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "Burglar Proof." 1962. A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon, 1962. 150-60. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 22 June 2014.


Peter Enfantino said...

Since the video is available nowhere, perhaps the author could record himself dramatizing the play? Go that extra yard, Professor Seabrook!

Jack Seabrook said...

I think we're all better off waiting for Universal to release season 7!

john kenrick said...

I enjoyed Burglar Proof, Jack, but it's no favorite of mine (nor, likely, anyone else's). The cast is game, yet it's Paul Hartman's wonderfully old school performance that really sells it. This is the kind of actor who, if he plays a criminal, his likability so dominates the screen that one can't help but want him to get away with whatever crime he commits.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. Like most of the "comedy" episodes, it falls flat for me for the most part.