Norman Lloyd called John Williams "Hitchcock's favorite actor," referring to "the underplaying, the subtle humor, the indirect approach that he had." Who was John Williams and what was his contribution to Alfred Hitchcock Presents?
Born in England in 1903, Williams began performing on stage in 1916 in his native country and made his debut on Broadway in 1924. By 1930, he had begun to appear in movies, and he added TV to his repertoire in 1951. Among his many film roles were three movies directed by Hitchcock: The Paradine Case (1947), Dial M For Murder (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). He then appeared in ten episodes of the half-hour Hitchcock TV series, starting in the fall of 1955, and he later made appearances on many other shows, including The Twilight Zone, Thriller and Night Gallery. One of his most visible roles, especially for those of us who grew up watching TV in the 1960s and 1970s, was as the host of the long-running TV commercial for 120 Music Masterpieces, record albums that collected classical music works.
The first of John Williams's appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents came on November 27, 1955, in "The Long Shot," which was adapted by Harold Swanton from his radio play of the same name. Swanton was born in 1915 and began his career as a playwright; he won what was likely a small cash award from ASCAP early in his career and he went on to write many radio plays. He also wrote film scripts from the late 1940s to the late 1960s and he wrote many teleplays from the early 1950s until the mid-1980s. He won an Edgar Award in 1958 for Best Episode in a TV Series for his script for "Mechanical Manhunt" on The Alcoa Hour, and he wrote eleven teleplays for the Hitchcock series, including "Anniversary Gift."
|John Williams and Peter Lawford|
Raymond needed an excuse to leave town before his gambling debts caught up with him, so he took the job, but as he and Walker Hendricks drove West, Raymond found that all Hendricks wanted to talk about was London. In Chicago, Raymond ran into an old gambling chum who offered him a hot tip on a horse that required $500 to buy in. Raymond went through Hendricks's bag, looking for money, and discovered papers that showed that the man was set to inherit $100,000 from a late uncle. Hendricks was not known by sight and thus had to bring documents to San Francisco to prove his identity and collect the money. Raymond began to hatch a plan to take the man's place and collect the inheritance himself.
|Peter Lawford as Charlie Raymond|
He then spent three days alone in a Nevada hotel room, watching in vain for news of the murder in the papers. He flipped a coin and went through with his plan, but was met by the police at the lawyer's office. They tell him that they were holding him for the murder of Walker Hendricks, but it turns out that the man who Raymond killed was not Hendricks at all, but rather another Englishman who had murdered the real Hendricks and then taken his place, intending to collect the inheritance and using Raymond to brush up on his knowledge of London in order to make his impersonation of the dead man more convincing!
"The Long Shot" is a classic radio tale of suspense with a clever plot and a surprise ending that is impossible to anticipate. The play was performed again on radio on June 8, 1952, starring David Niven, on a series called Hollywood Star Playhouse; this version seems to be lost or unavailable.
Swanton's third version of "The Long Shot" was the ninth episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He adapted his own radio play for television and, like "Place of Shadows," another early episode that Robert C. Dennis adapted from his own published short story, the onscreen credit does not mention the source. The TV version stars Peter Lawford as Raymond and John Williams as the fake Hendricks, and the episode was directed by Robert Stevenson.
While Swanton's teleplay follows most of the radio play closely, there are some significant changes. First of all, the show does not begin with Raymond being questioned by the police for murder. Instead, it opens with him sitting in a bar in New York City, where he listens to a horse race on the radio and hears his horse lose. He avoids a phone call from a bookie named Dutch, to whom he owes $4200, and when he picks up his glass of beer, which had been sitting on a newspaper, he sees that the moisture on the bottom of the glass has left a ring around the want ad placed by Hendricks--this is a great way to use the visual medium to highlight the suggestion that the meeting of the two men was determined by fate.
Peter Lawford is perfect as the young gambler who tries to be a con man, but John Williams is even better as the old Englishman who is so good a con artist that Raymond (and the viewer) never suspects him. Charming, urbane and funny, Williams is the epitome of a Londoner abroad. The rest of the story is told in scenes featuring dialogue alternating with scenes where Raymond narrates in voice over. We see Raymond adopt a limp when he visits Aunt Margaret, and the visual adds something to the performance that was not possible on radio.
The biggest change is a surprising one. When Raymond pulls over at night in the Nevada desert, instead of clubbing Hendricks with a wrench, he suggests that they sleep outside on the ground until the sun comes up and they can figure out where they are. We see Hendricks sleeping on the ground with a blanket, and Raymond creeps up, gets in the car, starts it, and backs over the sleeping man--Hendricks lets out a dreadful cry and we know that the seemingly harmless English gentleman has been killed. There is then an establishing shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, telling us that Raymond has continued on to San Francisco, and we see him in a hotel room, making the fateful decision to go to the lawyer's office.
|Robert Warwick as Kelson|
"The Long Shot" is a classic, early episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that works for several reasons. Of course, the plot is quite good, and Swanton and director Robert Stevenson take full advantage of the visual medium to open up the story and to enhance it by doing things that could not have been done on radio. The surprise ending works so well in large part because of the performance by John Williams, who is so much the opposite of a con man and a murderer that no one would ever suspect him of being an impostor. In the end, the neophyte con artist is taken in by the veteran con man and has to confess to murder to avoid being suspected of a murder he did not commit.
Robert Stevenson (1905-1986), who directed "The Long Shot," was a talented filmmaker who made movies from 1932 to 1976 and TV shows from 1952 to 1982. He directed seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one examined here was the excellent first season episode, "The Derelicts."
Born in London, as his character Charlie Raymond claims to have been, Peter Lawford (1923-1984) was in movies from 1931 to 1984 and on TV from 1953 to 1982. He was very well known in the 1950s and 1960s, in part due to his connection with Frank Sinatra and his membership in Sinatra's Rat Pack, and also due to his marriage to President Kennedy's sister from 1954 to 1966. In addition to "The Long Shot," he appeared in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
|Gertrude Hoffman as Aunt Margaret|
Kelson, the lawyer, is played by Robert Warwick (1878-1964), who appeared on Broadway beginning in 1903 and on screen from 1914. A WWI veteran, he was in many movies and TV shows, but this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.
|Peter Lawford and Virginia Christine|
In two weeks: "Whodunit," starring John Williams and Amanda Blake!