Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Thirty-Nine: "Final Vow" [8.6]

by Jack Seabrook

What happens when an innocent young woman who has lived a sheltered life suddenly comes face to face with evil in the form of a violent criminal? This is the problem that Henry Slesar addressed in "Final Vow," which aired on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on CBS on Thursday, October 25, 1962.

"Final Vow" is a tale that involves a young nun and her search for guidance. The show opens during a quiet meal at a convent, as Sister Pamela drops a pitcher of milk and it shatters on the floor. The broken vessel foreshadows her own innocence, which will soon be smashed to pieces when she attempts to join the world outside. Unlike the milk, however, her own purity will be maintained. After the accident with the pitcher, much older Sister Jem consoles Sister Pamela, who has been considering leaving the Order. At the request of the Reverend Mother, Sister Pamela visits Sister Lydia in the infirmary. Sister Lydia recalls having been a novice once herself, with doubts similar to those Sister Pamela is now feeling. She tells Sister Pamela of a young student she had named William Michael Downey who grew up to become a criminal. Sister Lydia kept writing to him for thirty years and now he finally has responded with a letter asking her to pay him a visit. She is too ill to make the trip so she asks Sister Pamela to go in her place, to "see what faith and prayer will do."

Carol Lynley as Sister Pamela
Sister Pamela and Sister Jem travel together by train to the home of Mr. Downey, who lives in a penthouse apartment overlooking the city. Sister Jem sits down in a chair on the balcony and immediately dozes off, leaving Sister Pamela alone to speak with her host. He wears an expensive suit but has a rough, confrontational manner and Sister Pamela upbraids him for his remarks about prayer and its success or failure, telling him that "prayers aren't business deals." Yet his questions touch a nerve and he guesses correctly that she has been using the convent as a place to hide from the world. He gives her a small statue of St. Francis to take back to Sister Lydia and comments that it is five centuries old, by the great Italian Renaissance artist Donatello, and that it came from the Medici Palace. Sister Pamela awakens Sister Jem and they decide to take the next train back to the convent right away. "I hope this'll make it up to her," Downey quips, referring to Sister Lydia and his thirty-year silence.

Jimmy offers to help
At the train station, a young man appears out of the crowd and offers to help the sisters by carrying two of their three suitcases, one of which is the small suitcase that holds the priceless statue. He quickly disappears into the crowd ahead of them and they are distraught at the loss of the gift. They go to the police station, where Sister Pamela recognizes the thief in a lineup: he is James Bresson, who says he works at the Gramercy Appliance Co. and who claims to have been with his girlfriend at the time of the theft. Sister Pamela is not sure that he is the man and Sister Jem's kindness persuades her not to identify him if she is uncertain. Sister Pamela returns to the convent and tells the Reverend Mother that she wants to leave the order. She believes that she has hidden herself away from the world for selfish reasons and that the loss of the statue was a sign that she cannot be trusted.

Carmen Phillips as Bess
Pamela applies for a job at the Gramercy Appliance Co in the typing pool and soon runs into Bresson, who works in the shipping department. One day, as she eats lunch alone on the loading dock, Bresson approaches her and invites her to a party that Friday night. She accepts and, at the party, Bresson's girlfriend Bess is jealous of the attention that he pays to the pretty new girl. Pamela refuses to leave the party with him and instead stays behind to comfort Bess. When Bess leaves the room for a minute, Pamela sees a pawn ticket in an open drawer and notes the name and address of the Wormer Pawn Shop, where Bess says Jimmy often conducts business.

Don Hanmer as Wormer
The next day, Pamela visits the pawn shop, looking for a small religious statue. Wormer shows her the stolen statue of St. Francis and asks $20 for it; he grabs and empties her purse, looking for evidence that she's a cop. Jimmy bursts in, having been called by Wormer, who was suspicious of Pamela's behavior. Jimmy manhandles the young woman and suddenly realizes that she is the nun from whom he stole the suitcase. She says that she left the order over a month ago and he deduces that she tracked him down so that she could recover what must be a valuable statue. Though Wormer tells Jimmy that it is "bad luck--robbing a nun," Jimmy puts Pamela in the back room and tells Wormer to call Mike the Broker to find out the real worth of the object.

Don Hanmer and R.G. Armstrong, as Mike the Broker
When Mike arrives, Pamela is shocked to see that Mike is none other than Mr. Downey, the wealthy criminal who gave her the statue. He catches her eye and tells her to "shut up," then he convinces Jimmy and Wormer that the object is a piece of worthless junk and that they should let her go. Mike gives Pamela the statue and ushers her out, then he hands Wormer $20 and tells him and Jimmy not to bother him about such trifles in the future. Pamela rushes out into the street, clutching the statue, and Downey picks her up and drives her back to the convent. He apologizes for what he said to her in his apartment and tells her that he now knows that she is not hiding from anything. He leaves and she heads into the convent with the statue, presumably to resume her life as a nun, having experienced a taste of the outside world and having convinced herself of the certainty of her convictions.

Charity Grace as Sister Jem, waking up to see St. Francis
"Final Vow" is packed with themes involving religion and faith. The central question that it asks is whether Sister Pamela belongs inside or outside the walls of the convent. When she is sent by Sister Lydia on a mission to meet with a criminal, it is a test. The elderly and infirm Sister Lydia sends her in the company of the equally elderly Sister Jem, but Sister Jem falls asleep in an almost magical fashion on arriving at Downey's home, leaving Sister Pamela to face the criminal on her own. Downey's conversation with her recalls that of the Devil tempting Jesus, as he plants the seed of doubt in her mind that she is using the convent as a convenient hideout.

R.G. Armstrong as Downey
One may question whether accepting a gift from a criminal is even appropriate: is the statue of St. Francis truly a priceless art treasure, as Downey tells Sister Pamela, or is it a worthless piece of junk, as he tells Jimmy and Wormer? How did Downey come to possess such an item, if it is real? Did he gain it by dishonest means and, if so, should the convent accept it? None of these questions are answered in the story, but they are certainly worth considering. Downey's speech to Jimmy and Wormer is instructive, as he convinces them that religious people can revere something that has no value in the world of commerce, just because it has been blessed. Is he giving us a clue to the truth about the statue or is he telling them what they need to hear in order to save Pamela? In the end, it really does not matter, since the statue and the events surrounding it serve a higher purpose--that of showing Pamela the path she must follow in life, one of service and contemplation inside the convent walls.

Jimmy inspects Pamela's hand for rings
Sister Pamela learns from her experiences, some of which involve either observing or being the victim of various instances of violence that the men in this story commit on its women. From her first experiences outside the convent, Pamela gets a lesson in how men treat women. During the interview for a job in the typing pool, the man questioning her cautions her not to get married, suggesting that it would be bad for her job and for the company. When she first meets Jimmy on her lunch break, he grabs her lunch bag and inspects it, then he grabs her wrist and checks her hand for rings. He verbally abuses her, mocking her prim and proper attitude, and finally, when she agrees to come to the party, he puts his hand on her shoulder in a suggestive way. At the party, Jimmy and Bess, his girlfriend, come to blows and he ends up shoving her into a chair. Finally, and most dangerously, Jimmy assaults Pamela at the pawnshop, even after he recognizes her as the nun from whom he stole. He yells at her and physically attacks her, threatening to kill her if she tells the police about him. Clearly, Pamela's experiences outside the convent with men would not encourage her to embrace the secular life.

Pamela arrives at the pawn shop
Duality is also a theme in "Final Vow," as Pamela goes from nun to typist, from chaste bride of Jesus to reluctant party girl. Downey also shows two sides--he is the career criminal who seeks forgiveness through a gift to the convent, yet he is also the tough crook who is able to take a dangerous situation in hand and convince the unstable Jimmy to leave Pamela alone. Even in the final scenes in the pawnshop, Downey plays a dual role; he puts on a tough face for the men while subtly communicating with Pamela that he is there to help her. Slesar's teleplay does a competent job of portraying the difference between the world inside the convent and the world outside.

Our first look at Wormer
In a sense, "Final Vow" may be read as Pamela's descent into Hell. After she renounces her vows, she joins the workforce in a low-level job and is almost immediately assaulted by the words and physical actions of Jimmy. She then goes to a party, where she sees him attack his girlfriend. Further down she goes, into the shadowy pawnshop, whose owner is first seen as a monstrous figure with a seemingly deformed eye. The eye turns out to be a magnifier that he wears on his head, a symbolic appendage that allows him to examine things more closely but which does not prevent him from being fooled. Last of all, Pamela bursts out of the pawn shop and into the bright and sunny street, as if she is returning to the world of light from the world of darkness.

It is no coincidence that the statue Downey gives to the convent is a representation of St. Francis. St. Francis was a medieval man who lived a secular life until a vision led him to turn his back on worldly things and found orders devoted to poverty and faith. Sister Pamela spends her time in the world as well and eventually decides to follow the example of the man whose little statue sets the story in motion.

Although the title card for "Final Vow" reads: "Teleplay by Henry Slesar from his own story," the story must have stayed in a drawer for years. The next time this tale would surface was on August 15, 1974, when it was broadcast as an episode of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater under the title "The Final Vow." Perhaps Slesar or his producers had short memories, since E.G. Marshall, the host of the show, says that it was "written especially for the mystery theater by Henry Slesar." This is obviously untrue, because the radio play follows the 12-year-old teleplay closely.

Slesar's story would surface again in March 1976, when it was published as "Hiding Out" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. This was the first time that the story was published in print and it is an unusually long story for Slesar, running 34 pages in its reprint in the collection, Death on Television. The story follows the televised version closely and has no significant changes. The title was changed back to "Final Vow" when it was reprinted in book form.

"Final Vow" was directed by Norman Lloyd (1914- ), who acted in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and directed 19 half-hour episodes and three hour-long episodes. Lloyd's direction here is solid, with a nice overhead shot in the train station when the sisters realize their treasure is gone and a jarring introduction to Wormer when Pamela first wanders into the pawnshop.

Carol Lynley in street clothes
Carol Lynley (1942- ) stars as Sister Pamela. Born Carole Ann Jones, she took the stage name of Carolyn Lee early in her career and changed it to the homophone Carol Lynley when she found out that someone else was already using Carolyn Lee. Lynley's TV and movie career began in the mid to late '50s and she appeared in one Hitchcock half-hour in addition to "Final Vow." Her most memorable roles for me both came in 1972, when she appeared in The Night Stalker TV movie and The Poseidon Adventure. Lynley's onscreen presence was always unusual, and "Final Vow" is no exception. Her beauty was unquestionable, however, and she posed nude for Playboy in 1965.

Portraying Jimmy Bresson is Clu Gulager (1928- ). This episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is notable because its director and co-stars are still alive at the time of this writing! Gulager was born William Martin Gulager and started his TV career in 1956, branching out into movies in 1964. He appeared three times on the Hitchcock series, including "Pen Pal." His performance in "Final Vow" is mannered and strange; he mumbles his lines in several scenes and seems to be trying to engage in method acting. Gulager maintains a website here.

The pawnbroker, Wormer, is played by Don Hanmer (1919-2003), who appeared in four episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Faith of Aaron Menefee," where he plays injured gangster Vern Byers.

Isobel Elsom as the Reverend Mother
Carmen Phillips (1937-2002) plays Bess, Jimmy's girlfriend. She had a brief career from 1958 to 1969 but managed to pop up in five episodes of the Hitchcock series.

The small role of the Reverend Mother is played by Isobel Elsom (1893-1981), who started in silent film way back in 1915 and appeared in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux and Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, both in 1947. She also was seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Back for Christmas," where she played the shrewish wife of John Williams.

Kindly Sister Jem is played by Charity Grace (1884-1965), an actress aptly named for portraying a nun! She was in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Party Line."

John Zaremba interviewing Pamela
John Zaremba (1908-1986), who was the prosecutor in "I Saw the Whole Thing," returns as the man who interviews Pamela for a job at Gramercy Appliance Co. This was one of his eleven roles on the series.

Finally, R.G. Armstrong (1917-2012) is seen as William Michael Downey, the criminal and former pupil of Sister Lydia. Armstrong was on four Hitchcock shows and had a long career, spanning the years from 1954-2001. He was in many westerns. Online sources report that he grew up in a family of fundamentalists and that his mother wanted him to be a pastor, but he became an actor instead and his onscreen roles sometimes played off the tension between his upbringing and his profession. His character in "Final Vow" faces a similar question between his youth in a religious setting and his criminal career.

Finally, the musical score for "Final Vow" is worth a mention. It was composed by Lynn Murray (1909-1989), who was born Lionel Breeze and who composed music for film and TV from the '40s to the '80s, including the scores for Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955) and The Twilight Zone episode, "A Passage for Trumpet." He scored 35 episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

"Final Vow" may be viewed online for free here. The radio adaptation may be heard online for free here.

Sources:
"Final Vow." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 25 Oct. 1962. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 04 Oct. 2014. <http://philsp.com/>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 04 Oct. 2014. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Slesar, Henry. "Final Vow." Ed. Francis M. Nevins and Martin Harry. Greenberg. Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989. 146-79. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 04 Oct. 2014. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

  • Antenna TV is airing back to back episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents nightly and will host a 28-hour marathon this "Hitch-O-Ween"! Check out the daily schedule here.
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  • Coming in two weeks: "House Guest," starring Macdonald Carey and Robert Sterling!

4 comments:

Peter Enfantino said...

Oh Jack... Jack... Jack...

If not the worst episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, it's darn near close. Everything about "Final Vow" is contrived. At what point did Sister Linley dream up her plan to get the Francis back? Before or after she kicked the habit? Why would a stellar con man such as Clu bother ripping off nuns? What fortune could they possibly be carrying in a clarinet case? How about that swinging party at Bess' place? Were those her parents that left last?

Ok, forget the lack of plot or common sense. How about that acting? Carol Lynley must have at least two expressions but she doesn't show the other one the entire episode (well, I'll give her credit for showing some sort of a kind of fear when confronted with the broken milk pitcher). She's the female Keanu Reeves.

With all his twitching and shaking, Clu didn't remind me of an actor using the Method, he resembled an actor using Meth. Though I realize it's highly unlikely, it seems as though Clu was channeling the horror host, Zacherley.

The only saving grace to this mess was veteran R. G. Armstrong, who stole pert near every scene in every western TV show he appeared in and ostensibly was the only real actor on set.

Jack Seabrook said...

So, I guess you didn't like this episode?

Grant said...

I mentioned it elsewhere, but Clu Gulager is great as a vicious character in the very underrated late ' 70s mini-series ONCE AN EAGLE. His character in that story makes "Jimmy" seem almost nice by comparison!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading, Grant. I don't think Final Vow was Clu's finest hour!