Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Twenty-One: "The Equalizer" [3.19]

by Jack Seabrook

After a close study of the first twenty-one episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with teleplays by Robert C. Dennis, I have determined that a particular strength of his was his ability to take a short story and tighten its structure, adding or consolidating scenes as needed to reinforce key themes and strengthening the plot. A good example of this is "The Equalizer."

The story upon which this episode is based is also titled "The Equalizer," written by C.B. Gilford and published under the pen name Roy Carroll (a house pseudonym used by other authors as well) in the October 1957 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Gilford has another short story in the same issue, which is surely why this one was published under a pseudonym.

"The Equalizer" was first published here
In bed on a Saturday night after a party, Eldon Marsh accuses his wife Louise of having paid too much attention to Wayne Major, a salesman who works with Eldon at the Kay Corporation. Though Louise denies liking Major, Eldon is concerned. On Monday morning, Major visits Eldon at the office and asks about Louise. Eldon is a small man, an accountant and the assistant treasurer at the company, while Wayne is a big, graceful bachelor. Eldon accuses Wayne of finding Louise attractive and Wayne taunts Eldon about his lack of trust in his colleague. Wayne calls Eldon "the damnedest fool I've ever met" and Eldon warns Wayne not to speak to Louise again.

On Thursday afternoon, Wayne does not show up for an office meeting and Eldon feels sick, certain that the man is with Louise. Eldon telephones home but gets no answer. He leaves work early and visits a bar, then goes home at the usual time; Louise claims to have been at home all day.

On Saturday night, Eldon and Louise attend the weekly party at the country club. Eldon watches from the bar as Louise slips outside and Wayne follows soon after. When Major returns, Eldon throws a drink in his face and challenges him to a fight. Major refuses and Eldon is fired. An attempt at a punch ends in Eldon being knocked out. At home, Louise chastises her husband and admits to an affair with Wayne; she is upset that Eldon has ruined things between her and her lover and she walks out.

Martin Balsam as Eldon
Two weeks later, Eldon returns to the country club and confronts Wayne. He insists on a fight, saying that a duel with weapons is the only way to even the odds. Eldon is ejected from the club but later badgers Wayne until he agrees to a duel, with the weapon and place left to Major to choose. One night, Eldon goes to a hotel roof, where Wayne suddenly shoots from a hiding place. Two bullets hit Eldon: "he knew he was dying, and he wanted to die. He'd lost his job. He'd lost Louise. So dying was easy. But Major had so much yet to lose . . ." As Eldon is dying, he hears the police arrive. Major tells them that he fired in self defense but the police angrily reply that Eldon "wasn't even carrying a gun."

In the opening paragraphs of the story, Gilford traces "the principle of the equalizer" through history, from the stone-tipped spear in the primeval jungle to the atomic bomb in WWII. The real equalizer of the story, however, turns out not to be a gun but rather Eldon's cunning, which allows him to exact revenge on his more physically powerful adversary.

Charles Bernard Gilford (1920-2010) was born in Kansas City, MO, and had early success as an author when his novelette "The Liquid Man" was published as the cover story in the September 1941 issue of Fantastic Adventures (read the story here). After this auspicious beginning, Gilford's name disappears from the lists of story credits until 1953; he was graduated from college in 1942 and served in the Air Force from 1942 to 1945. He began work as a college teacher in 1947 and would continue teaching speech, English, drama, theatre, and creative writing for the rest of his career. He married and had four children.

Norma Crane as Louise
After earning an M.A. in 1947 and a Ph.D. in 1952, he became a prolific writer of short stories, with one source claiming that he wrote over 200 of them; publication dates for the short stories seem to have been concentrated in the years between 1953 and 1961. In addition to his own name, C.B. Gilford used pseudonyms such as Donald Campbell, Elizabeth Gregory and Douglass Farr. He also wrote at least 11 short plays between 1957 and 1969, and at least four novels between 1961 and 1969. A handful of his works were adapted for television, including four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and one of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. His short stories often have been anthologized, though I have not been able to find a reprint source for "The Equalizer." He told Contemporary Authors that play writing was his first love and that, while he enjoyed writing short stories and novels, "they seem to be harder work, more words have to be gotten on paper. I have no great messages to communicate; just believe in a well-plotted story."

As much as Gilford may have focused on plot, Robert C. Dennis knew how to improve on his sources. His teleplay for "The Equalizer" is directed by James Neilson and features Martin Balsam as Eldon and Leif Erickson as Wayne; the episode was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, February 9, 1958.

Leif Erickson as Wayne
The first two scenes of the show are new to the story, serving to set the background for what follows and to portray events that were only mentioned in Gilford's work. Scene one takes place in the country club locker room, as Eldon boasts to a colleague of having beaten the boss, Harvey Sloan, at golf. Eldon credits his golf club, which he calls "the old equalizer"--Dennis introduces the term early in the show and shows the first of the tools that will allow a weaker man to beat a stronger one.

Scene two takes place upstairs at the country club, where we see Wayne dancing with Louise as Eldon chats with Sloan at a table. Sloan mentions that he will be playing golf with Wayne soon and Eldon assures him that Sloan will win because Wayne is a salesman, inferring that salesmen let the customer win. "You never play a customer's game, do you, Eldon," replies Sloan, foreshadowing later events. After the music stops and the dance is done, Louise flirts openly with Wayne and visibly is disappointed when he turns his attention to another attractive woman.

Scene three picks up where the short story begins, with Eldon and Louise in their bedroom after the party. Scene four takes place in the office, as Wayne visits Eldon, just as in the story, but scene five replaces the Thursday office meeting with another scene in the country club's locker room, where Wayne has failed to show up for tee time with Sloan. Eldon overhears his colleagues speculating that Wayne is with another man's wife and, as in the story, Eldon calls home.

Eldon on the roof in the last scene
Scene six is in the bar, but instead of Eldon killing time there and then going home, Louise joins her husband for a drink and claims that she was home all day. She says it is Saturday, and later that evening, Eldon remains at the bar, drunk, as Louise slips out the door. Dennis has taken scenes from the story and consolidated them, moving all of the events to the country club by making the bar a room next to the dining room. In the bar, Wayne plays bridge with Sloan and his colleagues and gets up to follow Louise out the door. Later, Wayne returns and Eldon confronts him in a scene that follows the story closely.

In the next scene, Louise leaves Eldon as they talk at home. A new scene is then added, where Eldon is at the office packing up personal items from his desk. Sloan comes in and Eldon comments that Wayne's actions affected Louise and "just made her cheap;" this is the reason Eldon believes he has to fight Wayne. Sloan tells him to stay, keep his job and forget about Wayne and Louise, but Eldon refuses and says that he has to settle with the larger man.

Wayne's gun hand appears
The scene that follows takes place once again in the bar and follows the story closely. Eldon then telephones Wayne; Dennis moves this scene to the locker room rather than having Wayne be at a party, as in the story. The teleplay the adds another aspect to this scene, as Wayne walks out to a patio and Eldon confronts him, calling him either a coward if he will not fight or a bully if he fights and beats up Eldon. "I haven't felt anything since Louise left me," says Eldon, who adds that, while Wayne is afraid to die, Eldon does not "care, so I have nothing to be afraid of. That's the equalizer."

For the second time, Dennis uses the show's title in the dialogue; first, it was the golf club; now, it is the lack of fear of dying. Wayne chooses guns for the upcoming duel and tells Eldon to meet him on the roof of the Kay Corporation building, not a hotel rooftop as in the story.

Wayne on the roof
The final scene is a little bit of noir film making by director Neilson, who uses shadows and light to demonstrate that Eldon, like so many a hero in a noir work, is doomed by the forces that surround him in the unfeeling city. Eldon emerges from a doorway onto the building's rooftop, where we see that it is night and that there are tall buildings all around, their windows alight. A roof vent in the foreground tells us right away where we are and a neon light from somewhere off screen blinks on and off, putting Eldon in light and shadow alternatively. He turns his back and leans against the waist-high wall, looking out over the city.

From the shadows, a hand emerges holding a gun. Wayne steps out of the shadows and Eldon turns, sees him, and is shot twice. Later, Wayne brings the police to the roof. Wayne's claim of self defense is belied by Eldon's lack of a gun, and in the final shot we see Eldon lying dead on the rooftop, blood on his shirt from the fatal bullet wound in his chest.

"The Equalizer" improves on its source story because Robert C. Dennis tightens up the structure, limits the number of scene changes, and compresses the time span of events. There is increased focus on "the equalizer"of the title; it is the golf club, the lack of fear, the gun, and--finally--Eldon's cunning plan and understanding of his opponent's cowardice. The final scene, especially, benefits from good direction, lighting and staging, and there are strong performances by everyone in the cast. In the end, Eldon Marsh is more concerned with honor than with material success; he defends his wife's honor and his own by sacrificing his life on a lonely rooftop.

Dudley Manlove as Harris
Director James Neilson (1909-1979) directed quite a few television shows from 1953 to 1973, as well as a number of movies in the 1960s. He directed twelve episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one reviewed in this series was "Mail Order Prophet," for which Robert C. Dennis also wrote the teleplay.

Top billing in the cast goes to Leif Erickson (1911-1986) as Wayne Phillips (Wayne Major in the story). Born William Anderson, he began his career as a singer and trombone player before trying vaudeville and ending up in Hollywood. His movie career began in 1933. He first appeared on TV in 1949 but remained busier in movies until 1957, when he began to take regular roles on TV. In addition to "The Equalizer," he was seen on two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He was on Night Gallery twice and his TV career ended in 1984.

The last shot, with Eldon
Martin Balsam (1919-1996) plays Eldon. Born in the Bronx, Balsam's early stage career was interrupted by a stint in the Air Force during WWII. He then joined the Actors Studio in 1948 and began appearing on TV in 1949. His big break came when he played Juror #1 in the film Twelve Angry Men (1957); this led Hitchcock to cast him as Arbogast in Psycho (1960), where he makes the memorable backward fall down the stairs of the Bates house before he is murdered by Norman in drag. "The Equalizer" is one of his two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also appeared on The Twilight Zone and many other TV shows. By the early 1970s, he was appearing mostly in movies. He later was a regular on Archie Bunker's Place, the sequel to All in the Family, and continued to make regular appearances on TV and in the movies until his death. He won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for A Thousand Clowns (1966).

Eldon's unfaithful wife is played by Norma Crane (1928-1973), who was born Norma Zuckerman in New York City. Also in the Actors Studio, her screen career began with a TV appearance in 1951. She was seen in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also appeared on Thriller, as well as many other TV shows. Her most visible role was as Golde in the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof. She died of cancer at age 44.

Robert Riordan as Sloan
The unusually-named actor Dudley Manlove (1914-1996) plays Harris, one of Eldon's co-workers; Manlove started as a child actor in vaudeville and became a radio announcer after a serious car accident. His part in this show is small but his obituary is rather interesting; read it here.

Eldon's sympathetic boss, Harvey Sloan, is played by Robert Riordan (1911-1968), whose movie career began in 1947 and who started showing up on TV in 1957. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

"The Equalizer" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read a humorous review of the episode here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a scan of the original story.

"C(harles) B(ernard) Gilford." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2002. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
"The Equalizer." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 9 Feb. 1958. Television.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
Gilford, C. B. "The Equalizer." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine Oct. 1957: 19-24. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

In two weeks: "Guest for Breakfast," starring Joan Tetzel (who?)!


SteveHL said...

I remember Erickson best in two movies in which he had co-starring roles, Tea and Sympathy and Ride a Crooked Mile. If you've never heard of the second one, it has stuck in my mind for years as starring two people who almost never starred, Erickson and Akim Tamiroff.

I think Balsam was one of the best character actors in film. I can't recall ever having heard of Manlove but, as you said, the obituary was fascinating.

As always, an informative and enjoyable post!

Grant said...

I almost always have a fondness for "tear-jerkers," even ones that DON'T get any of the respect that Tea and Sympathy gets, so I also liked Erickson as Deborah Kerr's husband, the third member in the love triangle.
Since AHP and AHH didn't go in for fantasy stories that often, it's funny that Erickson's two episodes were both fantasies. One is that show's version of The Monkey's Paw (which doesn't get much respect, even though I like it), and the other is that thoroughly bizarre one, "Consider Her Ways."

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Steve! Did you watch the clip of Manlove's speech from Plan 9? Classic!

And thanks, Grant! I can't wait to work on "Consider Her Ways." I haven't seen it since about 1989 when USA ran the hours every night, but I recall it was way out there.

Todd Mason said...

C. B. Gilford has been a nearly lifelong favorite of mine...he dropped perhaps more horror fiction than any of the other HSD-era regulars into AHMM...and unfortunately came to a sad end, I gather...after the death of his wife, he found himself writing one story after another about grieving widowers, which editors, perhaps not foolishly, were not taking...

Jack Seabrook said...

His was a very interesting career to research. If it's true that he placed "The Liquid Man" and then nothing else for over 10 years, one has to ask why? Yes, the war, marriage, work, etc., but why did he have such early success and then not show up again for so long? Thanks for reading, Todd, and thanks for the link on your post.

Todd Mason said...

Well, FANTASTIC ADVENTURES wasn't the most demanding of markets, and Gilford apparently wanted it published under a different byline. And 1941 was a good year for disruption of a 21yo American man's life, to be sure. He more than made up for it for a good 20+ year run after...though really a pity he couldn't meet market demand at all after about 1975...the year he turned 55. Damn.

Todd Mason said...

And, no, thank you, Jack.

john kenrick said...

Thanks for all the background info on The Equalizer, Jack. I watched it last night, had seen it before, and while it drew me in, the larger issues,--big/bully man vs. little/decent man--struck me as far more interesting and worthy of treatment than the one dimensional story that the episode told. Both Leif Erickson and Martin Balsam were perfectly cast. They were almost too good, as each brought a depth to his character that belonged more to the actor than the script (if that makes any sense).

The story fell apart for me with Balsam's growing paranoia, his reversion to a code of honor redolent of the antebellum South that came seemingly from out of nowhere, and which drove his character to his tragic demise. In the New Orleans of 1856, maybe, but not the American big city of a hundred years later. The notion that either of these two worldly, modern men would even consider a duel as a way of settling their issues was too far fetched.

Also, the resolution, such as it can be called, felt rushed: Balsam was just there, on top of that building. Even as I had forgotten the details of the ending the fact that Balsam wasn't armed occurred to me before the Big Reveal. His just standing there was too obviously a set-up. If he was going to actually duel with the big guy he'd be checking his weapon. Then came Erickson, who shot too quickly. His panic shooting of Balsam was simply too quick for credibility, as, again, this not being the Old South or wild west he really ought to have paused for a while longer.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. This was not the only Slesar episode to feature a duel!