Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Roald Dahl Part Four: "Man From the South" [5.15]

by Jack Seabrook

"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 moves to a table and sits together; the man, too, is broke and has only $1.86 left. From the start, McQueen plays his character as cool and charming: he intrigues the woman with witty remarks and surreptitiously smells her hair from behind as he pushes her chair in like a gentleman. We know he is a gambler because he rolls sugar cubes like dice across the table. The woman joins willingly in the casual banter, telling him that she is from Moscow--"Moscow, Idaho, that is." He gives her a cigarette and lights it; at this point, the camera pulls back from a close-up of her face and a third character enters the frame. An older man, played by Peter Lorre, invites himself to join them at their table and orders more coffee. We will later learn that his name is Carlos but, for most of the episode, all of the characters remain nameless.

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
Up in Carlos's suite, the strange gambler tidies up some women's evening wear and the young woman asks if they belong to "Dracula's daughter . . . Have her come in off the drainpipe--she might catch cold!" The creators of "Man From the South" play with a couple of things in this brief exchange. First of all, the presence of the clothes suggests that a woman has spent the night in the room with Carlos and has only recently left, leaving him alone and at loose ends. Second, the comment about "Dracula's daughter" plays off the viewer's familiarity with Peter Lorre and his frequent association with horror movies in the 1930s and 1940s.

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 game begins as Carlos stands next to the desk, chopper in hand, waiting for the lighter to fail. The referee calls out each number and the young man lights the lighter. Peter Lorre is brilliant here, holding the chopper up in anticipation and letting it droop a little with a look of disappointment on his face each time the lighter flames on successfully. There is a great use of montage from director Norman Lloyd and editor Edward Williams in this scene, as the camera cuts back and forth in alternating close-ups and medium shots, from the hand lighting the lighter, to Carlos holding the chopper, to the sweaty faces of the participants and the observers.

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
The wife takes the chopper from Carlos's hand and asks why he would "do this thing again." He whines like a petulant child and sits dejectedly on the couch, telling her "I just wanted to make a little bet." She apologizes for her husband and says she knew she should not leave him alone. "He is a menace, of course," she remarks, and explains that in the islands, where they used to live, he took 47 fingers from different people and lost 11 cars. Lorre, once again, is brilliant, his face lighting up with a smile at the memory of the 47 fingers he won and then returning to a look of sadness at the recollection of the 11 cars he lost. According to his wife, they were forced to move "up here" (hence the show's title, "Man From the South") when he was threatened with being put away.

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"
"Man From the South" was based on a story that Roald Dahl had been telling to friends as early as 1944 (in his biography of the author, Jeremy Treglown refers to the woman with Carlos as a "minder," further confusing the issue of whether she was intended to be his wife in the TV adaptation). Dahl put the story on paper in May 1948 and submitted it to BBC Radio as "The Menace." It was published in the U.S. in the September 4, 1948 issue of Collier's as "Collector's Item," but BBC Radio's Third Programme listings show that the story was read on air by Robert Rietty under the original title "The Menace" on November 22, 1948, and again on November 25, 1948.

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.

Neile Adams
"Man From the South" was so well-remembered after its 1959 premiere on television that, when Alfred Hitchcock Presents was revived in 1985, this story was remade as one of the four episodes that comprised the two-hour TV movie pilot. The teleplay was by Steve DeJarnatt, who also directed the show, and he based it on Fay's 1958 teleplay. John Huston plays Carlos and Melanie Griffith plays the young woman. Her mother, Tippi Hedren, who had her own history with Hitchcock, plays a small role as a waitress, and Kim Novak, who starred in Vertigo, plays Carlos's wife.

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.

The best cast and crew, however, belong to the 1959 version. William Fay (1918-1968?), who wrote the teleplay, wrote 16 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Madame Mystery" and "Isabel." He was also a writer of short stories and he had been editor of the Popular Publications magazine line starting in 1935. He began writing for TV in 1954.

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!
The young man was played by Steve McQueen (1930-1980), one of the most popular movie stars of the 1960s and 1970s. Married to his co-star Neile Adams from 1956 to 1972, he began acting in 1952 and shot to fame as the star of the TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive, which premiered in September 1958, two months before "Man From the South" was filmed. He also appeared in "Human Interest Story" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He made no more TV appearances after Wanted: Dead or Alive ended in 1961 and his film career took off, continuing until his untimely death.

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."

Katherine Squire
Appearing as Carlos is Peter Lorre (1904-1964), who was born Laszlo Loewenstein in Austria-Hungary. He began acting on stage in Vienna, then moved to Germany where he became famous, starring in Fritz Lang's classic M in 1933 before fleeing the Nazis to France and then England. He was in Hitchcock's 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much as well as the director's Secret Agent (1936). He came to Hollywood and appeared in many classic films. He started doing TV work in 1952 and appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As his performance in "Man From the South" demonstrates, he was a great and underrated actor.

Tyler McVey
Carlos's wife (or minder?) is played by Katherine Squire (1903-1995), an actress who appeared in many TV shows starting in 1949. She was on the Hitchcock series five times, including Henry Slesar's "Pen Pal," and she was on episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

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 StoriesEd. Jeremy 
Treglown. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 181-91. Print.
"Genome Radio Times 1923-2009." BBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2015. <>.
"Genome Radio Times 1923-2009." BBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2015. <>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.
"Man From the South." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 13 Mar. 1960. Television.
Treglown, Jeremy. "Appendix." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 849-50. Print.
Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.


Peter Enfantino said...

This could very well be the best half hour of suspense ever filmed for television. Hype? Hardly. While "Where the Woodbine Twineth" remains my favorite Hitch ep of all time, this is a close second. I thought the 1985 remake was pretty good as well. Now, Jack, how long tip we get to see The Hitchcock Project: Davis Grubb? I'm getting impatient!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter! I'm sure I'll get to Davis Grubb eventually!

john kenrick said...

Excellent episode. I think that aside from the nail-biting suspense,--and the ominous (is there a better word for this?) presence of Peter Lorre--the episode also benefits from fine work from a young, cocky Steve McQueen. I have become a fan of Katherine Squire's acting of late, though her screen time isn't much. She was a wonderful actress, superb at playing put-upon, long suffering or just plain depressed characters.

As to Peter Lorre: just about anything to do with hands seemed to draw him to a role (or maybe casting directors to him), from Mad Love through The Best With Five Fingers. That he played a suspicious character who may or may not be a strangler in what's widely regarded as the first Film Noir, Stranger On The Third, is of no small significance, either. Mr. Lorre's innate playfulness is nicely on display in The Man From The South as well.

Jack Seabrook said...

Peter Lorre is wonderful in this episode. It's almost like he's a manic depressive who only gets excited when he can play his games. He sure made a lot of memorable movies as well. You're right about McQueen, too--both here and in "Human Interest Story." He was a magnetic presence on screen.