"Man From the South," first broadcast on CBS on Sunday March 13, 1960, is about as close to perfection as the half-hour episodes on the Hitchcock show ever got. Along with "The Jar," it is one of the best viewing experiences the series has to offer.
The story begins with an establishing shot of the Las Vegas strip as it looked in November 1958, when the program was filmed. The scene then shifts inside to a casino hotel bar, where an attractive young woman, played by Neile Adams, orders a brandy. Down to her last few coins, she appears dejected until a handsome young man, played by Adams's then-husband Steve McQueen, introduces himself. It is early morning, around 8 o'clock, and the fact that she is drinking so early suggests a long and unsuccessful night of gambling.
|Carlos interrupts the couple's banter|
The young couple are visibly annoyed at having their flirtation interrupted, but Carlos is nonplussed, "accidentally" breaking his cigarette and asking the young man to light another. The young man claims that his lighter never fails to light, which leads Carlos to propose a bet on that very topic. A middle-aged man in a hat and string tie steps up and makes the trio a quartet and, though the young man suggests betting a quarter that the lighter will successfully flame on thrice in a row, Carlos has a more risky proposition in mind. Inviting everyone up to his rooms, he proposes a more sinister bet: if the young man can light his lighter ten times in a row he will win a Cadillac convertible that is parked outside. If the lighter fails to light a single time, however, Carlos will chop off the little finger on the young man's left hand. The young woman is sensible and stands to leave, but the young man considers the bet before saying no. Carlos goads him into accepting the bet, however, and the third man agrees to act as referee.
|Steve McQueen and his lighter|
The young man remains focused on his cigarette lighter, playing with it and flicking it on and off, thinking about what he has agreed to do. Carlos asks a bellboy to procure nails, a hammer, a length of cord and a chopping knife. These items are used to tie the young man's left hand to the hotel room desk, his fingers clenched in a fist except for the little finger, which sticks out enticingly. The referee paces the room, standing in for the viewer, watching the events unfold and tossing back drinks to help calm his nerves. The young woman drinks as well, afraid for the young man she met only a short while before.
|The game is on!|
The tension mounts with each successful flame, yet Carlos looks strangely bored, like a gambler who cannot control his urge to keep playing but who no longer enjoys the game. After the seventh light, a woman's voice suddenly breaks the tension in the room by uttering for the first time in the entire episode a character's name: "Carlos!" By keeping the characters anonymous up to this point, writer William Fay (who adapted Roald Dahl's story for television) has allowed the events to progress as if in a dream, where archetypes act out a bizarre scene. With the arrival of Carlos's wife, we suddenly see the characters as real people and learn about a tragic past that two of them share.
|Carlos smiles at the memory of 47 fingers|
Carlos's wife speaks the moral of the story: "How foolish and reckless young people can be, just trying to prove they are brave." This gets to the heart of the matter: why did the young man accept the bet? In his initial banter with the young woman, he expressed confidence at his own ability to win money at the casino that night. He had just met her when Carlos proposed the bet. The only time the young man gives a reason for agreeing to participate, he simply says : "I like convertibles," an ironic comment in light of Steve McQueen's later propensity for racing motorcycles and automobiles. One suspects that Carlos's wife possesses the wisdom of her years and sees the real reason behind the young man's behavior--it was a reckless decision calculated to impress the young woman.
Carlos's wife goes on to explain that her husband had nothing left with which to bet. The car is hers and he knows it. As she talks, we see the young man attempt to light another cigarette for the young woman--and the lighter fails to light. She looks at him in horror, realizing what this means, but he continues to display an air of calm acceptance of events. This brief shot tells the viewer that a horrible scene would likely have ensued had not Carlos's wife appeared just when she did. The referee tells her that he "just came along for the ride"; like the viewer, he could have stopped watching but was willing to let the horror unfold just for the thrill of seeing it happen. Carlos's wife says that she won everything from him and the show ends on a shot that is shocking and brutal in its implications as she reaches for the car keys with her gloved left hand, a hand that has only a thumb and little finger.
"Man From the South" is perfection in script, direction and acting, but leaves two questions unanswered. One: whose negligee does Carlos tidy up when the group first arrives in his suite? Did he have a female guest overnight? His wife states that she flew to Los Angeles and just returned, so she was not there. Was Carlos a naughty boy in regard to more than his bizarre bet? Then again, is the woman who arrives at the end really his wife? This is never expressly stated, just assumed. Two: if Carlos likes to take the little finger of those he bets against, why is the woman missing her middle three fingers and not her little finger? I suspect that the contrast of having just a thumb and little finger was too great for the filmmakers to resist.
|"Man From the South" was first |
published in this issue of Colliers
as "Collector's Item"
The story was first dramatized for radio as part of a series called Radio City Playhouse. Though no recording exists, the October 16, 1949 half-hour episode of this series was called "Duet," and featured a dramatization of Ray Bradbury's story "The Lake" followed by another of Dahl's story, "Collector's Item," adapted by June Thomson.
Dahl's short story was retitled "Man From the South" and collected in his second book of short stories, Someone Like You, which was published in late 1953. The story shares the same basic plot as the TV adaptation, but there are differences. It takes place in Jamaica, not Las Vegas, and the characters are not all gamblers at a casino. In fact, the narrator of the story is the man who ends up refereeing the bet. The young man is an American sailor and the young woman is an English girl whom he meets in a pool. Other than that the story is the same. In adapting it for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, William Fay used the Las Vegas setting to establish the characters as a group of gamblers of varying ages and levels of success. The short story is clever and well plotted but the way it is brought to life in the TV adaptation makes all the difference in turning a memorable story into a classic half hour.
The story was also adapted as the first episode of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected in 1979, this time with Jose Ferrer as Carlos and Michael Ontkean (Sheriff Harry Truman on Twin Peaks) as the young man. Kevin Goldstein-Jackson adapted the story for this show and it was filmed in Jamaica, returning the setting to that of the original story.
Norman Lloyd (1914- ) directed the show. His connection with Hitchcock is well-known, starting in 1942 with his famous role in Saboteur and continuing through his close association with the Hitchcock TV series, for which he was an actor, director and producer. He directed 22 episodes of the series over ten years, including "The Jar," so he was responsible for perhaps the best half-hour and the best hour. The last episode he directed prior to "Man From the South" was "Special Delivery." He is now 100 years old and still active.
|Ready to chop!|
Neile Adams (1932- ) was born Ruby Neilam Salvador Adams in the Philippines to a Spanish/German mother and a Spanish/Asian father. She made movie and TV appearances from the 1950s to the early 1990s and was on three episodes of the Hitchcock series, including Henry Slesar's "One Grave Too Many."
The referee of the bet is played by Tyler McVey (1912-2003), a busy character actor who was on TV and in movies from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s. He appeared on the Hitchcock show eight times and was in "Human Interest Story" with Steve McQueen.
Read the original magazine publication of "Collector's Item" here. The 1959 version of the TV show is available on DVD here. The 1979 version may be viewed for free online here; the 1985 version is here.
Dahl, Roald. "Man From the South." 1948. Roald Dahl Collected Stories. Ed. Jeremy
Treglown. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 181-91. Print.