Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Forty-Six: "The Second Verdict" [9.30]

by Jack Seabrook

"Second Verdict," by Henry Slesar, was first published in the February 1964 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and confronts an ethical issue: what is an honest attorney to do when his client privately confesses to murder shortly after having been found not guilty by a jury?

This is the question faced by Ned Murray who, as the story opens, nervously awaits the jury's verdict in the murder trial of his client, Lew Rydell. A not guilty verdict leads to celebration and Rydell accompanies Murray back to his office to discuss payment of his legal fee. Murray is shocked when Rydell privately confesses to murder. The jealous type, he killed a grocery delivery boy for making a pass at his wife Melanie, "one of those lynx-eyed blondes who couldn't ask for the time of day without making it sound like an invitation."

Murray is furious that a guilty man has escaped justice. He is unable to enjoy an office party thrown in his honor, despite the efforts of his fiance Karen, daughter of the firm's senior partner. Ned's friend Tony Eigo shows up--he is a former client who Ned got off on a murder rap. Eigo senses that Ned is troubled, and Ned has difficulty sleeping until he decides to pay a visit to Melanie Rydell. He tells her that Lew is guilty of murder and worries that her flirtatious ways could drive him into another jealous rage.

Rydell visits Ostrim, the senior partner of Ned's firm, who blasts Ned for his behavior. Rydell denies making a confession and threatens to sue the firm for slander. Ned goes home and starts drinking, but is interrupted by a visit from Karen, who begs him to drop the matter. She leaves and Ned keeps drinking, but he is interrupted again by Tony. After Ned tells him everything, Tony says that he will take care of things. Ned tells Tony not to kill Lew, but Tony assures him that he knows his business and owes Ned his life.

Martin Landau as Ned Murray
Ned pays a visit to the judge, Lincoln Arthur, to ask for advice. He explains the situation and the judge reveals that he would have spared Lew's life because the man is criminally insane. Ned heads for Rydell's brownstone but arrives to see police cars and an ambulance outside. He sees orderlies bring out a body on a stretcher; it is that of Tony Eigo, killed by Rydell. Ned goes up to see his client, determined to prove that he is insane.

"Second Verdict" is another courtroom drama by Henry Slesar, this time dealing with an ethical question, rather than a legal one. One plot point is vague: did Tony Eigo intend to give his life to repay his debt to Ned? We read that Rydell "caught Tony hanging around the building, watching the place." We are told that "when Tony came into the hallway, Rydell came downstairs and shot him dead. Fired five bullets into him, screaming like a banshee." Eigo is a career criminal, but the murder charge for which Ned defended him was one he did not commit. Did Eigo plan to be killed by Rydell, thus ensuring that Rydell would face justice? Though the story leaves the question unanswered, the televised version provides clarity.

Frank Gorshin as Lew Rydell
"Second Verdict" was adapted for television by Henry Slesar and Alfred Hayes and broadcast on CBS on Friday, May 29, 1964. Retitled "The Second Verdict," it stars Martin Landau as Ned Murray and Frank Gorshin as Lew Rydell. Both give outstanding performances that help transform a good short story into a terrific hour of TV.

The show begins with a sign of the times: a black actor plays the bailiff, a role that could be played by anyone but, in 1964, was given to a black man. We are quickly introduced to Melanie, portrayed as a cheap floozy by Sharon Farrell; Ned, a very serious and earnest Martin Landau; and Lew, a hyperactive Frank Gorshin. In the taxi after the verdict, Lew warns Melanie not to start talking to the "hackie" (driver) while she awaits her husband's return. From the start, Lew demonstrates an unreasonable concern about his wife's fidelity, based on his assessment that she is irresistible to men.

As Lew, Gorshin laughs repeatedly and inappropriately when he confesses to Ned; one wonders if this performance was seen by those responsible for casting him as the Riddler in Batman, which premiered a year and a half later--the characters of Lew Rydell and the Riddler share more than a few quirks. Lew is psychotic and dangerous, with an undercurrent of violence that seems ready to explode to the surface at any moment.

Sharon Farrell as Melanie Rydell
Martin Landau plays Ned as a man of conscience, genuinely troubled by the part he has played in subverting justice. Years ago, he sent back a car that Tony Hardeman (Eigo in the story) tried to give him. In a change from the story, it was Hardeman's 15 year old brother rather than Hardeman himself who was acquitted with Ned's legal assistance. Tony still feels a strong bond with Ned, however, and wants to do him a favor. Another minor change in the televised version is that there is no office party following the verdict, and Hardeman approaches Ned in the building lobby instead of at the party.

Sharon Farrell plays Melanie as a dumb blonde; when Ned visits her at her apartment, she welcomes him in a slip and open housecoat: she is made to stay home all day by her overbearing husband. She is a simple woman who understands and seems to accept her role as her husband's plaything.

The real beauty of the show is Nancy Kovack as Karen, Ned's girlfriend. She and Martin Landau display real chemistry and her sexuality jumps off the screen, in contrast to Melanie, who seems more pathetic than seductive.

An interesting contrast develops in this show between Lew Rydell, the unpredictable, psychotic killer, and Tony Hardeman, the calm, charming professional killer. We are drawn to Hardeman and like him because he supports Ned and because of his matter of fact approach to life. We dislike and fear Rydell, even though he and Hardeman are not terribly far apart: one kills out of compulsion; for the other; it's strictly business.

Nancy Kovack as Karen Osterman
Though the TV show follows the story closely for most of its length, two new scenes are added near the end. After Tony visits Ned and suggests that he will kill Lew, a scene is added where Ned returns to his office and talks with "H.E.," the senior partner and father of Karen, Ned's girlfriend. In a change of opinion, Osterman (Ostrim in the story) tells Ned that he can go to the District Attorney with his story. Ned surprises his boss by telling him that he has changed his mind, much to Osterman's delight.

The second new scene follows, and it is important. Ned telephones the Rydell home but hangs up when Melanie answers. We never know why Ned made the call--was he going to tell Rydell that he had changed his mind?--but the result of this call sets up everything that follows, including the show's climax. Lew questions Melanie about the phone call and, despite her protestations that she is innocent, Lew suspects that the call was a signal from a lover. He imagines a scenario in which a man is waiting outside, and Frank Gorshin is frightening in the way he allows his character's paranoia to escalate. It seems like he can't decide whether his fears are justified, so he goes to the window and looks outside, only to see Tony sitting in his car looking up at him. This is all Lew needs to snap, believing he has caught Melanie in a lie.

Lew starts to become violent, pulling Melanie back into the middle of the room and threatening to break her neck, "just like I broke that kid's." With this comment, he reveals his guilt to his wife, who had defended him when Ned told her the truth in an earlier scene. Mad with jealousy, he raises his hand to strike her, and the scene cuts to the home of Judge Arthur, who is about to have his talk with Ned. The scene cuts back to the Rydell apartment, where Lew drags Melanie to the window and forces her to wave to Tony and invite him up. Tony gets out of the car, and the scene cuts back to Ned's meeting with the judge. From this point on, the show follows the story closely, with minor enhancements.

Harold J. Stone as H.E. Osterman
By adding these two scenes, screenwriters Slesar and Hayes make Osterman seem more ethical and Rydell more insane. The key scene is the one in the Rydell apartment, which shows Lew spiraling out of control and sets up the concluding murder of Tony much better than in the story. First-time director Lewis Teague does a brilliant job of cross-cutting in the show's final minutes, as Ned tries to hail a cab outside the judge's home while we see Tony in the hallway outside Rydell's apartment. Here, the question that is posed by the story, about whether Tony gave his life willingly, is answered--Tony takes a gun out of his pocket, checks it, and gets ready to enter Rydell's apartment. It seems clear that Tony plans to kill Rydell rather than sacrifice himself. Moments later, we hear gunshots and see Melanie open the widow and scream for help. When Ned arrives at the street outside, we see orderlies bring a body out on a stretcher and Ned pulls back the sheet to reveal Tony's face. The anguished look on Ned's face tells the whole story: in trying to adhere to ethical behavior, he set in motion a chain of events that led to the death of a loyal friend.

"The Second Verdict" is a TV show that aired 50 years ago, directed by someone who had not directed before, featuring stock music, and based on a short story from a mystery digest. Yet the combination of elements yields an exciting, suspenseful hour that deals with serious issues without becoming overbearing. The cast is excellent, but the real stars of the show are its lead actors, Martin Landau and Frank Gorshin, whose performances are quite memorable.

John Marley as Tony Hardeman
Martin Landau (1928- ) has done excellent work in TV since 1953 and in movies since 1959. He was a villain in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959) and made memorable appearances in two episodes each of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. He starred as Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible from 1966 to 1969 and then on Space: 1999 from 1975 to 1977. He won an Oscar playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) and remains active today. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Frank Gorshin (1933-2005) began his career in show business as a teenage impressionist, soon moving on to a busy schedule playing nightclubs. He started on TV and in the movies in 1956 and kept acting until his death almost 50 years later. He appeared on an episode of Star Trek but his most famous role was as the Riddler on Batman (1966-1967). He made two appearances on the Hitchcock series; the first, "Decoy" (1956), was one of his earliest acting credits.

Sharon Farrell (1940- ) makes her second of three appearances on the Hitchcock series. The first was Slesar's "The Matched Pearl," the third would be Robert Bloch's "Final Performance." She maintains a website here that provides career details.

Playing Tony Hardeman is John Marley (1907-1984), who started in movies in the early 1940s and on TV later that same decade. He appeared on Thriller, The Outer LimitsThe Twilight Zone and Kolchak: The Night Stalker; he was also in The Godfather (1972). He appeared on the Hitchcock series three times.

Richard Hale as Judge Lincoln Arthur
Gorgeous Nancy Kovack (1935- ) plays Karen, Ned's girlfriend. She was on TV from 1958 to 1976 and in movies from 1960 to 1969. She was on Batman twice, Star Trek once, and in the film, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series. She is married to conductor Zubin Mehta. Websites featuring photos and information about Kovack may be found here and here; she won eight beauty titles by age 20 and dated William Shatner in the late 1960s.

Her father, H.E. Osterman, is played by familiar character actor Harold J. Stone (1913-2005), who was born Harold Hochstein and whose long career began on Broadway in 1939. He moved into film work in 1946 and TV in 1949. Appearing five times on the Hitchcock series, including "The Night the World Ended," he was also in Jack Finney's House of Numbers (1957), an episode of The Twilight Zone, and two Roger Corman films: X-The Man With The X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967).

Melanie relaxes at home
Richard Hale (1892-1981), who plays the judge, started out in show business as a singer and focused on acting later in life. He was in movies from 1942 to 1977 and on TV from 1952 to 1978. He appeared on the Hitchcock series twice, on Thriller twice, on Star Trek, Night Gallery, and in Fritz Lang's Moonfleet (1955).

Alfred Hayes (1911-1985) co-wrote the teleplay with Henry Slesar. He started out by writing fiction and poetry in the 1930s, then after WWII, he remained in Italy and scripted neo-realist films, including Paisan (1946). Returning to Hollywood, he wrote screenplays for Fritz Lang's Clash By Night (1952) and Human Desire (1954). He wrote teleplays from 1961 to 1981 and wrote seven episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including the adaptation of Robert Bloch's "Water's Edge."

Is that Tom Reese on the right?
Lewis Teague (1938- ) directed this episode, which was his only episode of the Hitchcock series and his very first credit. Despite his quality work on "The Second Verdict," he did not go on to direct any particularly distinguished films; his 30 or so credits include Cujo (1983).

Finally, in a small, uncredited role as the cab driver at the end who takes Ned from the judge's home to Rydell's apartment building, I think I spotted Tom Reese, who would later play Sergeant Velie on Ellery Queen.

"The Second Verdict" is not yet available on DVD but may be viewed online for free here.

Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.
"The Second Verdict." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 29 May 1964. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "Second Verdict." 1964. Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories. Ed. Francis M. Nevins and Martin Harry. Greenberg. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989. 235-59. Print.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.

*MeTV is now showing The Alfred Hitchcock Hour every Monday through Saturday night at 3 a.m. Eastern Time.

*Antenna TV has stopped showing Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

*In two weeks: "Isabel" with Bradford Dillman and Barbara Barrie (the last Slesar episode)!


Grant said...

I've always been attached to this one.

It took me till just now to think of it, but the Tony character in relation to Ned is a lot like the Joe Montegna character in Stephen King's THINNER. He's a character with "that" kind of background, but who's also so grateful to his lawyer that he tries keep on trying to repay him, so when someone makes trouble for his lawyer, that's a real red flag for him.

Speaking of Harold J. Stone and Hitchcock episodes, he was very good in THE BLACK CURTAIN, the one with Richard Basehart as an amnesiac. He and the actor George Mitchell played a cab driver and a storekeeper trying to help Basehart in the early scenes.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! I've never seen Thinner but I saw The Black Curtain a long time ago and look forward to reviewing it. I have 2 more Slesar posts ("Isabel" and an overview) and then it's on to Roald Dahl.