Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Bryce Walton Part Two: Cell 227 [5.34]

by Jack Seabrook

Bryce Walton's short story, "An Eye for an Eye," asks whether Old Testament notions of law that call for the punishment to fit the crime apply to modern society, where the state is empowered to execute criminals convicted of murder. This weighty question is posed by Herbert Morrison, a 38 year old professor of English Literature who is on Death Row after having been convicted of killing a female student.

Morrison refuses to see his lawyer and will not listen to talk of a possible stay of execution. His attitude alienates the other prisoners, especially when it comes time for a convict named De Baca to be executed. While the other men encourage De Baca, suggesting that he might receive a stay, Morrison refuses to play along, telling De Baca that a stay is unlikely. De Baca is dragged away to his death and Morrison is proved right, yet the others on Death Row criticize his refusal to support a message of hope.

"An Eye for an Eye"
was first published here
As others are taken to their death, Morrison continues to resist playing the game of hoping for a stay; he thinks that he and the other convicts are merely society's scapegoats. He has a dream in which he is taken to the gas chamber but, when he wakes up, he still will not follow the rules. He resents a guard named Pops Lafferty most of all, since Morrison believes that Pops encourages the convicts to hope despite his knowledge that the hope is a false one. When a young priest named McCann comes to talk to him, Morrison quotes biblical verses about a sin offering of atonement. Pops comes to see Morrison and, for the first time, the convict agrees to see Berg, his lawyer, if only to say goodbye.

When Morrison meets with Berg, the prisoner is unmoved to hear that the lawyer has hired a private investigator to help find evidence to support a request for a stay of execution. With ten hours left before his death, Morrison's attitude remains unchanged. Pops prepares him for his final moments and McCann visits again; Morrison batters him with more verses from the Old Testament. McCann argues that Morrison quotes old law and explains that "an eye for an eye" was a way to set limits on punishment, not a mandatory prescription.

Brian Keith as Herbert Morrison
Morrison begins his last walk and suddenly shoves Pops into the elevator, joins him, and pushes the button to close the door and start the car moving down. He grabs Pops's gun and shoots him between the eyes, killing him instantly. The elevator doors open and Morrison is beaten by the other guards. Later, when he wakes up, the warden tells him that his lawyer found evidence to clear his name. However, he will be back in jail for murdering Pops.

Morrison is put on trial for murder a second time and Berg advances the defense that Morrison was justified in killing Pops as self-defense against the threat of state-sanctioned murder. The jury finds him not guilty and he returns to work at the university. Months later, he receives a call from someone who identifies himself as a friend of Pops and who tells Morrison that, one day, he will kill him. Morrison hangs up the phone and again thinks of Old Testament law, concluding that "fear will always be with those who destroy life."

Death Row
Walton's story is tilted against the death penalty. Morrison quotes from several Old Testament books and Father McCann tells him, "You quote very old, primitive laws, Herbert. The Lex Talionus." This is a Latin term that refers to the ancient laws where punishment resembles the crime in kind and degree; e.g., an eye for an eye. The other prisoners on Death Row sing hymns as one of their number is walked to his death, and one may assume that those are Christian hymns. So who is to be admired in "An Eye for an Eye"? Is it Morrison, who takes a stand against what he sees as an unjust system, becomes hated by his fellow men, offers no comfort to those who are about to die, and ends up committing murder? Or is it Pops Lafferty, who offers hope to the hopeless and brings their last meal, putting "a little shot in that coffee" to help numb the pain? Morrison hates Pops because he sees him as a symbol of a system he believes is unjust, yet I submit that Morrison, in the end, adheres to Old Testament law while Pops demonstrates New Testament principles of love and compassion.

James Best as Hennessey
At the end of the story, Morrison accepts his fate as being consistent with Old Testament law, demonstrating that he has not learned anything from his experience. He never shows an ounce of forgiveness or empathy and may be seen as an Old Testament figure, in service to an angry and vengeful God, while Pops represents a New Testament figure, following a God of love and compassion.

"An Eye for an Eye" was published in the December 1959 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and represents an unusually thoughtful examination of a difficult topic. When it was adapted for television under the title "Cell 227," much of the subtlety and philosophical examination was removed, the focus of the story was altered, and the conclusion was completely changed. The episode aired on CBS on Sunday, June 5, 1960, near the end of the fifth season, and the script was written by Bill Ballinger (1912-80). He wrote seven scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and is said to have written about 150 teleplays in a career that stretched from the earliest days of television, in 1949, to the mid-1970s. He was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1961 for his teleplay for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "The Day of the Bullet." Ballinger had begun in the 1940s working in advertising and radio, writing scripts and producing shows. He also wrote about thirty novels, many in the crime or suspense genre. A good website provides more details.

Sal Ponti as De Baca
Ballinger approached "Cell 227" in a more straightforward way than did Walton. In the first scene, we see De Baca sweating it out before his execution and then being walked to his death, as Morrison laconically refuses to give him hope. The priest visits Morrison and discusses the ritual of sacrifice. Morrison discusses Pops with Hennessey, who is in the cell next to his, and this is followed by an interaction with Pops where Morrison refuses to exercise in preparation for his execution.

Morison next meets with his lawyer, who refers to him as Socrates (a line that is also found in the story); the viewer will recall that Socrates, like Morrison, faced his death sentence stoically and refused to have an emotional reaction, much to the consternation of his followers (related by Plato in the Phaedo). Pops prepares Morrison for death, there is another visit by McCann, and here Morrison quotes Cain, as he does in the story. Morrison also calls Pops the Judas Goat that leads the sheep to slaughter. After Pops prepares Morrison for death, they walk down the final corridor as the other inmates look on. As he gets close to the gas chamber, Morrison suddenly turns, leaps on Pops, pushes him to the floor, and quickly chokes the life out of him.

James Westerfield as Pops
This is significantly different than what happens in Walton's story, where the murder of Pops occurs in an elevator and is carried out with a handgun. As a result, it does not seem credible, since Morrison chokes Pops onscreen for such a brief period that it is unclear whether he is dead. Yet in the final scene, the warden comes to Morrison's cell to tell him that he was bringing news of a stay when the murder occurred. The warden tells Morrison that he will soon find out what it's like in prison after he has killed a guard, and the episode ends.

Readers of the story will be surprised by the sudden ending, since the entire last section of Walton's tale has been deleted. There is no trial, no not guilty verdict, no return to life, no threat and no calm acceptance. The story has been altered to focus on Morrison's hatred for Pops, an emotion that leads to murder and a twist ending. The lack of the philosophical details makes the TV show more of a thriller than a meditation; it succeeds in this way but is less thought-provoking than the story that inspired it.

"Cell 227" is directed by Paul Henreid (1908-92), the actor turned director who directed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock series. The last episode that he directed that was discussed here was "Guest for Breakfast." Henreid has a limited amount of room in which to work on "Cell 227" and does a reasonable job of keeping the story moving, though there are no creative camera setups and the attack on Pops is too short to be credible.

Liam Sullivan as Father McCann
Brian Keith (1921-97) stars as Herbert Morrison. He began acting at age two and was in the U.S. Marines from 1942 to 1945. Post-war, he acted extensively on stage, on film and on television before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His career really took off on TV, starting in 1951, and he appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Test." He starred in eight TV series between 1966 and 1992, the most memorable being Family Affair (1966-71). A website is dedicated to him here.

Receiving second billing is James Best (1926-2015) as Hennessey, the inmate in the cell next to Morrison's. Born Jewel Jules Franklin Guy, Best was onscreen from 1950 to 2013  and is best remembered for his role on The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85). He was on the Hitchcock show four times, including a role in "The Jar," wrote an autobiography called Best in Hollywood, and there is a website about him here.

Frank Maxwell as Maury Berg
Pops Lafferty is played by James Westerfield (1913-1971), a busy character actor who was onscreen from 1940 to 1971. He was seen in another episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and he was also on Thriller and The Twilight Zone.

Frank Maxwell (1916-2004), with his distinctive streak of white hair, plays Berg, the lawyer. He was onscreen from 1951 to 2000 and appeared in many TV episodes, including roles on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. His six appearances on the Hitchcock show include "Special Delivery" and "The Hatbox." He was president of AFTRA from 1984 to 1989.

Father McCann is played by Liam Sullivan (1923-98), who was onscreen from 1950 to 1997. He appeared on The Twilight Zone  as well and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Robert Carson as the warden
Songwriter turned actor Sal Ponti (1935-88) plays De Baca, who is executed in the first scene; he was on TV from 1959 to 1978 and he appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Keep Me Company."

Finally, the warden is played by Robert Carson (1909-79), who played the judge in "Touché," the first episode to be adapted from a story by Bryce Walton.

"Cell 227" is available on DVD here but is not available for free viewing online. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for tracking down the story for me; The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion mistakenly lists the source as another story by Bryce Walton titled "Good-bye, Sweet World," which has nothing to do with "Cell 227."

"Bill S. Ballinger - A Fan/Collector Appreciation Site." Bill S. Ballinger - A Fan/Collector Appreciation Site. Web. 21 July 2016.
"Cell 227." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 5 June 1960. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 27 July 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb. Web. 21 July 2016.
Walton, Bryce. "An Eye for an Eye." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine December 1959: 2-16.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 21 July 2016.

In two weeks: "The Woman Who Wanted To Live," with Charles Bronson and Lola Albright!


SteveHL said...

As always, I think this is a fine, informative summation. However, I disagree with your opinion about Pops. It has been years since I saw this episode, but I remember Pops as more sanctimonious than saintly. That could just be my not remembering correctly. However, I do wonder if anyone who works as a Death Row prison guard can be "following a God of love and compassion." I suppose that such a person could be in that job specifically because he feels that he can bring some comfort to the prisoners but that seems unlikely to me. Maybe I am just being too cynical though.

Jack Seabrook said...

Your interpretation is valid. I was trying to make a contrast between the prisoner and the guard, since the prisoner is so focused on Old Testament law and the guard's actions seem to be more compassionate. I'm not sure what Walton's intent was, but if you take Pops's actions at face value they certainly seem more positive than Morrison's view of them would suggest. Morrison is an interesting character and his outlook is almost existential, though he talks mostly in Old Law terms. I think his point of view loses all credibility when he commits murder, which seems far worse than the presumed sanctimony of Pops. Thanks, as always, for reading and for your comment!

SteveHL said...

I agree that Morrison killing Pops is much worse than anything Pops might have done. It serves no purpose; Morrison has no chance of escaping. He kills Pop just because he doesn't like him. I haven't read the original story but I don't see how that could possibly have been regarded as self-defense.

I think the moral is that just as you should never eat in a restaurant called "Mom's", you should never kill a prison guard called Pops.

vanguard2003 said...

I recently re-watched this episode on MeTV broadcast of the original 30 minute episodes. While my wife is not a big fan of this episode given how talky it is, I appreciate its philosophical take. Particularly the comments about how the Professor feels it is still murder when the state commits it. How frequent was that in a mainstream drama to say that and not be branded a commie or anarchist? For a while it has a very strong anti-death penalty feel which is somewhat muted by the twist ending. I've not read the original story. The point is that the death row officer is as the Professor states, a Judas figure. I would go further to say with all the cases of unjust punishment on death row and its uneven application to poor, and often non-white people that the prison guard here is not too far off from a concentration camp/gulag guard. He knows what he's getting into. A vastly corrupt system that 'grinds people down.'

His comments on 'scapegoating' also remind me of the French Catholic commentator/philosopher, Rene Girard to an extent. Though his final action overturns this.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you about the often unjust application of the death penalty, but I don't think the prison guard here can be compared to one in a concentration camp or gulag--he's too jovial.

vanguard2003 said...

Thanks for your quick feedback. That's why I tried to hedge the comment. Pardon me. I just finished reading Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, so perhaps that is why I made that partial connection.

Maybe Pops did not risk his life at all or his job by giving them some whisky in their coffee but it was a similar trifling kindness to a person to be executed.
The emphasis on working ‘efficiently’ and ‘professionally’
also aims to reduce feelings of culpability, with
execution teams trained to focus not on ‘the meaning
of their activity, but on performing the sub-functions

In a way Pops is like this that he can justify himself by his perceived kindness. At any rate it is one of the more thought provoking episodes of the series and I enjoyed how you tied it into the original, expanded pulp story.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks. That's an interesting quote regarding prison guards. I think that if a person is in that job, it's good to show compassion whenever possible. It's a very tough job.

Unknown said...

I see the Pops character as not jovial and compassionate, but as a sick sadist, who seems to get some kind of perverse pleasure from taking the terrified men to the gas chamber. And this is why Morrison hates him, and decides to kill him. If you observe closely, you can see Pops smirking at Morrison as they take De Baca for "the walk", after making a remark to DeBaca about needing the last four minutes for the walk, in a taunting kind of voice. He later makes a remark that Morrison will break down at the last moment, "like they all do". When Morrison is being led down the passage to the chamber, you can see Pops watching from behind with this smug look on his face, like he's expecting Morrison to break down at any moment. And when they pause and open the door to the chamber, and Morrison is looking at the chair inside, you can see Pops make a smirking kind of smile. That's the moment at which Morrison suddenly turns and grabs Pops by the throat, and chokes him to death, I guess he crushes his windpipe.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment! This episode is certainly open to interpretation.