Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Ten: "Crack of Doom" [2.9]

by Jack Seabrook

"Crack of Doom" is based on a short story by Don Marquis called "The Crack of Doom" that was first published in the September 6, 1930 issue of Collier's and later reprinted in the February 1956 issue of Playboy, which is probably where Joan Harrison saw it and decided to buy the television rights.



Marquis (1878-1937) was a popular newspaper columnist in the 1920s who also wrote short stories. Best known for his series of stories featuring Archy and Mehitabel, a cockroach and a cat, there are over two dozen books that collect his work. A couple of movies were made based on a play he wrote and he spent a brief spell in Hollywood in the early 1930s writing dialogue for films; only four TV shows have been made based on his writings. Read more about Marquis at this excellent website.

"The Crack of Doom" begins in the card room at a men's club when several men tire of bridge and decide to play poker. Tom Ackley asks his old friend Mason Bridges to join them, but Bridges surprises him with a strenuous refusal. A week later, Ackley asks Bridges why and Bridges tells the story of the time he stopped being an honest man and, for a few hours, became a crook.

Ten years before, Bridges had been a partner in a firm in a suburb of New York City where, among other things, money was kept in a safe to help local merchants make change after banking hours were over. The partners in the firm felt free to borrow from the safe and leave I.O.U.s. Bridges, a poker fiend in college who now played twice a week in a small game among friends, was unhappy that Sam Clinker, a local politician with a large bank account, had begun to "bull the game," bluffing frequently and making large bets. Bridges did not like Clinker, thinking that the man had turned a friendly game of cards into a high stakes proposition, and was determined to get the best of him.

From the original publication

One night, Bridges realized that losses over the course of his last two games had left him in debt to the firm over $4000. He and his wife Jessie had $9000 in the bank, so he knew that he could pay back the money, but he wanted to win the money back by beating Sam, who had left $10,000 in the firm's safe that day. Borrowing $2000 of Sam's money from the safe, Bridges joined the game and, before he knew it, he had written a check for $2500 and was down a total of $8500. Thankful for the $9000 he had in the bank, he went home and woke Jessie to tell her, but she broke down and told him that she had lost money at bridge and then lost the rest of the $9000 trying to recoup her losses by playing the stock market.


Bridges reassured her and did not tell her about his own problem, but he suddenly realized that, without the $9000 safety net, he was now a crook who would probably lose his standing in the community and go to jail. He went to the office, took a bottle of scotch from the safe, and began to drink; deciding on a plan, he took another $5000 of Sam's money from the safe before returning to the game.

Hope, despair and alcohol drove Bridges to play Clinker's game and to bet big himself: as the night wore on, he won, lost, and won again, his vision blurred, his insides burning. The last hours passed in a haze, but he never forgot the last hand of poker he would ever play. Clinker had three tens and a king showing while Bridges had three queens and a king showing. The pot got bigger and bigger; Bridges raised $4000 and Clinker countered by raising $10,500; Bridges wrote a worthless check for $20,000 and threw it on the pile of money and checks, goading Clinker into calling him. Suddenly, Bridges looked at his hole card and saw that it was a jack--in his drunken, emotional state he had thought it was a queen.

"I waited for the shattering blast of the last trump," he told Ackley, but it never came. Clinker decided to fold rather than to put more money in the pot, and Bridges had won. He knew that he would not have had the nerve to bluff had he known the real card in his hand and decided that he would never again put himself at the mercy of a playing card. Bridges tells Ackley that that night was the reason he will never again play cards for money.

Robert Horton as the older Mason bridges
"The Crack of Doom" is available to read for free online here. It's title is a reference to biblical signs of the end of time and the waking of the dead on the Day of Judgment. In the story, Bridges mentions "the last trump;" this, combined with the story's title, shows the importance he placed on what he thought would be a turning point in his life.

Don Marquis writes a suspenseful tale that contains an interesting ethical question: when is a man a thief? Bridges takes money from his office safe and leaves an I.O.U. As his borrowing mounts, he believes himself to be an honest man because he knows he can repay the money from his savings. Yet when his wife reveals that the savings are gone, he realizes that he cannot repay the debt and is now a thief. Later that night, he wins back all of the money and can repay the debt, so he is no longer a thief. The question is an interesting one that could be debated at length but, happily for Bridges, Clinker does not call his bluff.

Robert Middleton as Sam Clinker
Robert C. Dennis adapted the story for television and it was broadcast on Sunday, November 25, 1956, as his first contribution to season two of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Directed by James Neilson, the show is a success that remains faithful to the story while enhancing it in ways that take advantage of the medium of television.

Though the story by Don Marquis begins in a men's club, Dennis moves the setting to a train racing through the night. Inside a bar car on the train, Bridges tells his story to Ackley. As Bridges, Robert Horton is made up to look like he is in his mid-40s to early 50s, with graying hair at the temples and a small mustache, and his colleagues appear to be of similar age. The story of the poker game is presented in flashbacks, with Horton looking much younger. Using a train setting for the frame sequence puts the men together in a confined space with time to kill; the darkness outside, lit occasionally by passing lights, and the sound of the moving train add a great deal of atmosphere and urgency to the tale.

This shot recalls 1940s private eye films
Dennis sets up the conflict between Bridges and Clinker by adding a scene in Bridges' office on the afternoon before the big card game. Clinker brings money to put in the safe and the two men are shown to be already at odds. That night, the card game is played at a large, octagonal table and Neilson mixes medium shots, close ups and overhead shots of the table.

Horton is wonderful as Bridges; handsome and heroic, he contrasts well with Robert Middleton as Clinker, who is overweight, more than a decade older than Horton, and menacing. Voice over narration by Bridges is used sparingly to convey his thoughts as he borrows more money from the office safe. By switching from the card game to scenes with Bridges alone to scenes in the present, Dennis keeps the story moving. High-contrast lighting is used in the late night office scene, as Bridges takes the last of Clinker's money from the safe. The voice over narration gives this portion of the episode a feeling like a 1940s detective film.

Dayton Lummis as Tom Ackley
Regarding the story's climax, it is important to remember that these shows were filmed to be aired once or twice and not to be studied carefully. The first view of the hold card is blurry and we can't tell what it is. There is a second insert of the card where it is clearly a Queen, though Bridges keeps his fingers over the "Q"s in the corners. In the final shot, the card is clearly a Jack. To someone watching the show without knowing the ending, the shot of the Queen card will pass by unnoticed.

Gail Kobe as Jessie Bridges
Dennis ends the show with a humorous incident after Mason leaves the club car. Ackley is asked if he would like to make a little bet to see who will pay for drinks and he refuses, having learned his lesson from Bridges' story.

"Crack of Doom" is a very entertaining adaptation of a classic story of suspense, where the writer, the director, and the actors all work together to bring to life the words on the page.

Director James Neilson was at the helm for twelve episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last reviewed here was "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby."

Robert Horton (1924- ) was onscreen from the mid-1940s until the late 1980s and is still alive at age 91. He also had a career on the Broadway stage. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents seven times and starred in the series Wagon Train from 1957 to 1962. He maintains a website here.

Horton as the younger Bridges
Playing Sam Clinker is Robert Middleton (1911-1977), who was born Samuel Messer and who was a constant presence on episodic TV from the early 1950s until the late 1970s. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times and Thriller twice.

In small roles are Gail Kobe (1932-2013), as Jessie Bridges, and Dayton Lummis (1903-1988) as Tom Ackley. Kobe was also seen in the hour-long episode, "The Black Curtain," and Lummis was in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956).

"Crack of Doom" is available on DVD here or may be watched for free online here.

Sources:

"Crack of Doom." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 25 Nov. 1956.
"Don Marquis: Tall Tales and Light Verse." donmarquis.com. 15 Nov. 2015.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. 15 Nov. 2015.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb. IMDb.com. 15 Nov. 2015.
Marquis, Don. "The Crack of Doom." Collier's: 6 Sept. 1930, 7-9, 40, 43. UNZ.org. 13 Nov. 2015.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 15 Nov. 2015.

In two weeks: "John Brown's Body," starring Leora Dana, Russell Collins and Hugh Marlowe!

The game

6 comments:

SteveHL said...

Another great post. You seem to be able to come up with an amazing amount of information about each episode. The only thing I knew about Don Marquis was that he wrote the Archy and Mehitabel stories. The website you included is, as you said, excellent. I have only read part of it but I do intend to go back.

As a not very relevant aside, one of Middleton's performances that I particularly like is in the film A Big Hand for the Little Lady, in which he takes part in another high-stakes poker game.

Once again, thank you for this terrific series. I have started working backward now and am reading some of the Robert Bloch material.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Steve! When I finish this series at some point in the future I plan to collect all of the entries into a book so that there will be detailed analysis of the Hitchcock shows available for anyone who is interested. In the meantime, It's fun to work on. Thanks for reading!

Todd Mason said...

archy and mehitabel (arch couldn't hit "shift") were the stars of a series of poems, rather than stories, left on don marquis's typewriter...lovely stuff. I've been meaning to read his short fiction...

SteveHL said...

I had read a comment about Marquis by James Thurber, saying, "The case of a swell guy like Don Marquis is enough to depress anyone...There must be some kind of strange law about disasters piling up on cerain people." And what was Thurber talking about?

Marquis had a brother die at 20. Both of Marquis's children died young, his son at age 5, his daughter at 13. He was married twice; both wives pre-deceased him. He had a series of strokes that lift him with difficulty walking or speaking. He died of another stroke at 59.

Born to write comedy, I guess.

Jack Seabrook said...

Todd, thanks for the comment. I vaguely recall archy and mehitabel from my school days but haven't thought about them in years. Also, thanks for listing bare bones in your collection of links! I always find other interesting things to read there.

Jack Seabrook said...

Steve, it sounds like Marquis did not live a very happy life. Too bad.