Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Thirty-Two: "The Last Remains" [7.25]

by Jack Seabrook

In the pulps and digests of the mid-twentieth century, when a writer sold two stories that were published in the same issue, it was often the case that one of the stories was published under the author's preferred name and the second was published under a pseudonym in order to perpetuate the illusion that no single author was monopolizing the publication. This occurred in the November 1961 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, where "Thicker Than Water" by Henry Slesar appeared along with a story called "Dead Give-Away," by O.H. Leslie, one of Slesar's pen names. By the fall of 1961, the author's name appeared regularly in both the Hitchcock digest and on the Hitchcock television program!

Len Weinrib as Stanley (Bucky in the story)
"Dead Give-Away" tells the story of Amos Duff, an undertaker who is described as "a small, dapper man with sad eyes" who, with his assistant Bucky, must prepare for burial the corpse of Mr. Kessler, who died in an auto accident. The corpse, which is to be buried in an "Economy Service," displays an unexpected feature, according to Bucky: a puncture wound over the rib cage. After Bucky leaves, Duff examines the body and determines that it is a bullet wound. Bucky returns and Duff sends him out to find newspaper stories about the accident in which the man was killed.

Duff learns that Kessler had been riding home from a hunting trip with his partner, Marvin Foley, when the car had run off the road; Foley was thrown clear but Kessler was killed. The undertaker surmises that Foley shot Kessler with his hunting rifle and then staged the accident in order to dispose of his business associate.

Ed Gardner as Foley
Amos telephones Foley at his company, Kessler & Foley, Mfgrs. Playtime Equipment, then visits the man at his office. He tells Foley about the bullet wound and suggests that a more elaborate funeral is called for, one costing $1800 rather than $350. Foley gives Duff a check for $600, making a total deposit on the funeral of $750, including the check he had given to Duff the day before. After the funeral service is complete, however, Foley ignores Duff's bill, despite repeated telephone calls from the mortician. Finally, Duff reaches Foley, who explains that he has paid enough and intends to pay no more.

Duff visits the police and Lt. Morgan brings Foley down to the station. Foley angrily accuses Duff of being a liar and a thief, and Morgan explains that the police have found Foley's hunting rifle and bullets, with which Duff believes he murdered Kessler. Although Foley insists that there is no evidence of a crime, Duff explains that the body was cremated and displays the ashes in a porcelain urn, a container that not only contains the last remains of Mr. Kessler, but also the bullet that had been lodged in his chest.

Several months after "Dead Give-Away" was published it aired on NBC on Tuesday, March 27, 1962, under the new title, "The Last Remains." Slesar's teleplay is remarkably faithful to his short story, with some minor exceptions. The show opens with a wordless scene in which Amos Duff, played to perfection by John Fiedler, arrives at the mortuary and opens up for the day, meticulously straightening rows of chairs and dusting the organ's keyboard. A sign on the wall reads, "In Time of Sorrow, Let Us Be Your Friend," which is ironic in light of the way Duff first blackmails and later turns in Foley.

Duff's assistant Bucky, rechristened Stanley, is portrayed as a rather clueless man in his mid-twenties who frustrates his boss by wearing a loud shirt to work at the somber mortuary and by referring to the deceased as "stiffs." The scene where Amos goes in to check the puncture wound in Kessler's chest is nicely filmed in silhouette behind the opaque glass in a door; the shot prefigures Hitchcock's similar cameo in Family Plot by fifteen years.

Rather than sending his assistant out to bring back the story of Kessler's fatal car accident, Duff keeps his suspicions to himself and visits the public library, where he confirms the official cause of death with a look at a large volume of newspapers (the fact that the paper from at most a few days before is already collected in a book speaks to the efficiency of the librarian!).

When Duff visits Foley's office he meets Foley, a large, Brooklyn-accented man who looks uncomfortable in a suit and tie. The episode's director, Leonard J. Horn, emphasizes the contrast between the hulking Foley and the slight Duff with a camera setup that finds Foley sitting on the edge of his desk towering over the smaller man, the camera perched above Foley's shoulder and looking down to emphasize even further who in the scene appears to wield the power.

In a nice bit of implied menace, Foley sticks a gun in Duff's face, but when he pulls the trigger a small flame instead of a bullet emerges from the barrel--the gun is a cigarette lighter!

John Fiedler as Duff sees that it's just a lighter!
Duff is unexpectedly smooth, as he makes his blackmail pitch, and it quickly dawns on Foley that he is not going to be able to rid himself of the funeral director without parting with some money. As Foley, Ed Gardner is an odd choice to play the business executive; he seems too rough around the edges to be a successful toy manufacturer. In this scene, Slesar's teleplay seems to take a wrong turn when Foley asks Duff to cremate Kessler's body, something that Duff claims is part of the Class A Service. This makes a comment in a later scene confusing, when Foley tells Duff that "You buried the evidence yourself!"

The show's final scene is set at the Wilshire Police Station, according to a sign on the outside of the building, on Thursday, April 15--often a dark day for a businessman! Duff goes one step further than in the story, in which he simply shakes the urn to hear the tinkle of the bullet inside, and uses a long pair of tweezers to extract the bullet from the urn and show it to Foley.

"The Last Remains" is an entertaining adaptation of an average story by Henry Slesar. The star of the show, even though he gets second billing, is John Fiedler (1925-2005). Fiedler's TV career began in 1952 and movie roles followed in 1957, starting with 12 Angry Men. He was a fixture onscreen for decades, with memorable roles on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, The Odd Couple, and many others. He was the voice of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh cartoons and appeared three times on the Hitchcock show; see "Incident in a Small Jail," another Slesar-penned episode where his meek and mild exterior mask a deeper level of cunning.

Less successful is Ed Gardner (1901-1963), who plays Foley. Gardner made a career out of Duffy's Tavern on radio and TV, and his few other roles seem to be variations on his character of Duffy.  His other appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as "The Horse Player," was more successful.

Playing Duff's assistant Stanley was Leonard Weinrib (billed here as Len), who lived from 1935 to 2006 and who went on to a career as a voiceover artist, writing and starring as H.R. Pufnstuf in the Krofft TV series, as Scrappy Doo in Scooby Doo, and many others. He started on TV in 1959 and was seen on the Hitchcock show three times.

Leonard J. Horn (1926-1975) directed many TV shows in his brief career from 1959 to 1975, when he died young. Among his credits are three Hitchcock shows, including "A True Account," and three episodes of The Outer Limits, including "The Zanti Misfits."

"Dead Give-Away" is collected as "The Last Remains" in A Crime for Mothers and Others. The TV show is not yet available.

Sources:

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 01 July 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 01 July 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "The Last Remains." 1961. A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon, 1962. 119-26. Print.
"The Last Remains." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 27 Mar. 1962. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 July 2014.





2 comments:

Grant said...

Speaking of Hanna-Barbera, Len Weinrib was on nearly my favorite underrated show (in or out of Hanna-Barbera cartoons), WAIT TIL YOUR FATHER GETS HOME. He was the voice of the hippie son in the family (though unlike a whole lot of comical hippies, he wasn't very exaggerated, he was very believable).

Jack Seabrook said...

I remember a lot of shows but I don't remember that one. Thanks for reading! I'll have to look up that series.