Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Stanley Ellin Part Four: The Day of the Bullet [5.20]

by Jack Seabrook

Stanley Ellin's short story, "The Day of the Bullet," was first published in the October 1959 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, the story begins with his assertion that the day in question was a turning point in the life of his best friend when they were boys together in Brooklyn in 1923. The narrator's family was moving to Manhattan the next day, so the day in question was fraught with emotion and the sense of an ending.

In the present, the narrator is eating breakfast with his wife when he sees a newspaper headline reporting the death of racket boss Ignace Kovacs, who was shot to death in his car, a bag of golf clubs on the seat next to him. The narrator tells his wife that Kovacs was his next door neighbor and best friend in 1923 when they lived in Bath Beach, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where the story's author was also born. In a flashback, he tells of Mr. Rose, who lived in a large house at the end of their block. Once, while playing around by Rose's fancy car, Rose caught Iggy by the arm and shook him, causing Iggy to threaten to tell his father, whom he idolized.

"The Day of the Bullet"
was first published here
One day, the boys went to the Dyker Heights golf course to fish for golf balls in the water hazard. They witnessed Rose beat up another man and dump him in the water. The narrator wanted to flee, but Iggy insisted on trying to help the victim, who chased the boys away. Iggy decided to tell the police, but they were strangely unmoved by his story. Mr. Rose and Iggy's father were brought in and Rose denied the incident. To Iggy's shock, his father seemed nervous and did not stick up for Iggy. Rose told Iggy to come to his house for odd jobs and gave the boy a five-dollar bill. Thirty-five years later, the narrator understands that that was the day when Iggy switched loyalties from his father to Mr. Rose and set out on a life of crime that would end decades later with his violent death.

The title of the story refers to the day in 1923 when the narrator says that the bullet was figuratively fired that would reach its target decades later. The narrator believes that each person has "one day of destiny" and the lives of the two boys went in different directions: the narrator is shown to be happily married, while his friend became a criminal. Ellin paints a vivid picture of 1923 Brooklyn as it seemed to a 12-year-old boy, where the most wealthy and powerful man in the neighborhood was a gangster made rich by bootlegging during Prohibition.

Barry Gordon as Iggy
Iggy, the narrator's best friend, was always "full of mischief" but worshipped his father, a trolley car conductor and Sunday afternoon baseball star. The narrator leaves Iggy behind, moving up in the world and across the river to Manhattan, while Iggy stays in the more working-class borough of Brooklyn. Ellin uses symbolism when he shows that the boys have to climb over landfill to reach the golf course, which smells bad; the beating they witness is a visual demonstration of the festering garbage buried underneath the green expanse of the course. Iggy, "small and skinny," identifies with the man who is beaten and it is not clear whether Iggy wants to help the man and report the incident to the police out of charitable instincts or from a desire for revenge. The narrator, who grows up to be a solid citizen, wants to leave and not get involved, but Iggy insists on checking on the wounded man and reporting the crime to the authorities.

Iggy is confronted by a series of surprises that make him re-evaluate his core beliefs:
  1. The beaten man does not appreciate the boys' concern and tells them to go away. 
  2. The police are not concerned about the crime, especially after they learn of Rose's involvement. 
  3. Mr. Rose arrives at the police station calm and in control of the situation. 
  4. Iggy's father is visibly nervous and does not support his son. 
Glenn Walken as Clete
After Rose offers to pay Iggy to do odd jobs and gives him money, it is not surprising that the boy turns on his father and transfers his loyalty to Rose. "The Day of the Bullet" is a story of the transition from childhood to adulthood. The boys are twelve years old, on the cusp of puberty and at an age where they begin to be responsible for their own moral choices. The narrator is lucky in that he is removed from the neighborhood and thus avoids having to choose between a good and an evil life. Iggy has seen how the world of men operates and does not have the internal strength or moral character to resist pursuing a life of crime, despite having tried to act honorably when confronted with a dilemma.

John Craven as Clete as an adult
"The Day of the Bullet" is a brilliant, elegiac story that was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Short Story of the Year but lost to Roald Dahl's "The Landlady." It was quickly bought and adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, airing on CBS on Valentine's Day, Sunday, February 14, 1960. The teleplay is by Bill S. Ballinger and is a Valentine to the viewers, a classic episode of the series.

Ballinger’s script for the TV show follows Ellin’s short story closely, with a few small changes and one big change. The film opens with establishing shots of New York City skyscrapers to set the scene, then we see a man walking down a city sidewalk and buying a newspaper at a newsstand. Gone is the story’s opening narration and gone is the scene at the breakfast table between the narrator and his wife; in fact, "The Day of the Bullet" is an unusual episode in that it features not a single female character. Why did Ballinger choose to alter the opening in this way? The reason will not become apparent until the end of the show.

Dennis Patrick as Mr. Rose
The newspaper’s headline reads, "Brooklyn Rackets Boss Shot to Death," and the voice over narration briefly tells us that the man on the street is remembering events of thirty-five years ago as the scene dissolves to 1925. Ballinger takes each scene from the story and turns narrative passages into dialogue, showing us the incident at Mr. Rose’s house with his car rather than describing it. The story's unnamed narrator is given the name of Cletus (Clete) Vine, and we see him and Iggy outside the shop window as Iggy admires the golf club on display inside. Iggy's love for his father is shown in a scene where the man, having come from a baseball game at the park and still in uniform, talks with the boys and tells Iggy that it’s important not to be scared after Iggy confirms that his father would protect him from a bully.

The musical cues in this episode are particularly good, with the strains of what sounds like "Someday My Prince Will Come" audible on the soundtrack during the two scenes between Iggy and his father. In the scene at the golf club, the story's references to landfill and malodorous smell are removed, but Ballinger lifts entire passages of dialogue directly from Ellin's tale, nearly word for word. There is a nice shot at the police station, looking up at the desk sergeant from the boys' point of view, and the show ends with a beautifully shot scene as the boys walk home down a dark, Brooklyn sidewalk, past a row of identical stoops; the setting recalls the settings of Fritz Lang’s great, mid-1940s films with Edward G. Robinson, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. The flashback ends with Iggy running off alone in tears, calling back to Clete, "You’ll see!" several times.

There is a dissolve back to the present and a close up of the newspaper with "Ignace (Iggy) Kovacs" highlighted above the headline. This is why Ballinger changed the opening scene: the revelation of the relationship between the dead racket boss and the boy in the flashback was uncertain till this moment, and there was some question throughout the flashback as to which of the boys grew up to be a racketeer. Voice over narration ties the events from thirty-five years ago to the murder the night before, and the show comes to an end.

"The Day of the Bullet" is another example of a great short story that translates beautifully to the small screen, where the script is brought to life by expert direction and great performances by the cast members, especially Barry Gordon as Iggy.

Biff Elliott as Iggy's father
The show was directed by Norman Lloyd (1914- ), the actor/director/ producer with the Hitchcock connection who directed twenty-two episodes of the television series. Though not credited on screen, it is Lloyd’s voice we hear giving the voice over narration at the beginning and end of this episode.

Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980) wrote the teleplay, which (like the short story on which it was based) was nominated for but did not win an Edgar Award. Ballinger began writing for radio in the 1930s and 1940s, then wrote for television from 1949 to 1975, penning seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as an episode of The Outer Limits and two episodes of The Night Stalker. He also wrote many crime novels from 1948 to 1975. There is an excellent website here devoted to the man and his work.

Giving a hyperkinetic performance as Iggy is Barry Gordon (1948- ), a child actor who also had success at a very young age as a singer. Gordon went on to a long career as both a character actor and a voice actor and he was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1988 to 1995. His screen career began in 1956 and continues today, and he was seen in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and one each of Thriller and The Night Stalker.

Harry Landers as Joe, the chauffeur
His best friend Clete is played by Glenn Walken (1945- ), whose TV career ran from 1952 to 1974 and whose last credit was a small role in Apocalypse Now. His brother is the actor, Christopher Walken.

Dennis Patrick (1918-2002) plays the menacing Mr. Rose; he was a busy TV actor who was on screen from 1949 to 1994 and who was seen in three episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Last Escape."

Iggy’s father, whose feet turn out to be made of clay, is played by Biff Elliott (1923-2012), who started out on TV in 1950 and whose first film credit was as Mike Hammer in I, the Jury (1953). Elliott appeared on screen through 1986 and was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents five times, including "A Crime for Mothers." He also appeared on Star Trek. There is a website about his career here.

In smaller roles:

Harry Landers (1921-2017) as Joe, the chauffeur who menaces the boys in Mr. Rose's driveway; he was also in "Breakdown" and was on screen from 1947 to 1991, usually playing bit parts.

Clegg Hoyt as the desk sergeant
John Craven (1916-1995) as the adult Clete, who is seen in the opening and closing scenes with the newspaper; he was in the original Broadway cast of Our Town and he was on screen from 1937 to 1970, appearing in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as Thriller and The Twilight Zone.

Clegg Hoyt (1910-1967) plays the desk sergeant at the police station; his brief career on screen spanned the years from 1955 to 1967 and he was on the Hitchcock show four times, as well as on Thriller and The Twilight Zone.

David Fresco (1909-1997) plays the man who gets beaten up on the golf course; he was on screen from 1946 to 1997 and may be seen in no less than 12 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Gloating Place."

David Fresco as the golf course victim
Sam Gilman (1915-1985) plays the cop who brings the boys to see the sergeant; his career is most interesting. He started out as a comic book artist for Marvel and Centaur from 1939 to 1942, drawing a text illustration for Marvel Comics #1. He then served in World War Two. On returning to civilian life, he became an actor and befriended Marlon Brando. He moved to Hollywood and got his first role in Brando’s film, The Men (1950). He went on to a career on screen that lasted until 1983 and he may be seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Insomnia." He was also on Thriller.

Sam Gilman
The beautiful photography in "The Day of the Bullet" is the work of Neal Beckner (1906-1972), who worked his way up in Hollywood as a member of film camera crews starting in 1930, eventually becoming a TV director of photography by 1956. He had this role for 26 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in seasons five through seven, and "The Day of the Bullet" was the first to air. He also was the cinematographer for a handful of films in the early 1960s.

Finally, the fine selection of musical cues (something that could be a distraction on the Hitchcock series, especially in early years) was the work of Frederick Herbert (1909-1966), who was the music supervisor for 59 episodes in seasons four through six.

"The Day of the Bullet" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online for free here. Read the Genre Snaps review here.

Sources:
"The Day of the Bullet." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 20, CBS, 14 Feb. 1960.
Ellin, Stanley. "The Day of the Bullet." The Specialty of the House, Mysterious Press, 1979.
The FictionMags Index. www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Grand Comics Database, www.comics.org/.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
"Neal Beckner." British Film Institute, www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2bc30e3d77.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central, philsp.com/.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 May 2018, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: Our series on Stanley Ellin concludes with "You Can’t Be a Little Girl All Your Life," starring Dick York!

8 comments:

Grant said...

I always associate Barry Gordon with comedies, or at least comedy-dramas (like A THOUSAND CLOWNS), so it's strange to see him in a completely dramatic story like this.

Dennis Patrick seems like just the right choice to play a traditional "Irish mobster" character.
Of course, nearly his most unforgettable role is in JOE with Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon.

Don said...

After you mentioned that was Norman Lloyd doing the narration, I went back and was able to recognize his voice. I'm a great admirer of his work on both sides of the camera, but that narration just seemed very dry to me. I am always amazed at the details and source material you dig up. Thanks for all your work.

Blakeney said...

As a 70's/80's kid I enjoyed Barry Gordon's unique voice as Donatello the Ninja Turtle (not to mention quite a few other animated voices he did). Your site does a wonderful job of showcasing other sides to performers you might not know about.

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant, you're eight about Dennis Patrick. He's perfect in the role. I've never seen Joe, but for some reason it rings a little bell way in the back of my mind and reminds me of a film catalog or journal from the '70s that used to have an ad for it.

Don, thanks for the kind compliment. I assumed it was John Craven doing the narration until I dug that up about Normal Lloyd. I, too, went back and listened carefully and it's definitely Lloyd. He really made an impression with this show and I wonder if his great work here was one reason he became such a part of the series after this.

Blakeney, thanks for your comment! I haven't seen the adult Barry Gordon in so long it's hard to remember him, but when I looked at his credits some of them came back to me.

Jon H said...

Great job on this review. I came here from Mitchell Hadley's link. There's another good review of this episode from GenreSnaps here:

http://genresnaps.com/alfred-hitchcock-presents-the-day-of-the-bullet-02-14-60/

I hope to catch this one next time it shows up on Me-TV, or if I can't wait I'll go to the link you provided above.

I was first familiar with Barry Gordon when he was in the sitcom FISH, long before I knew of his past as a child actor. I've also seen him as an adult on shows like THREE'S COMPANY and ARCHIE BUNKER'S PLACE. I've seen his THRILLER appearance, where he received mention at the start of the episode from Boris Karloff as "Master Barry Gordon". The only other front credit on THRILLER for a child actor that I can recall went to "Master Tommy Nolan". His child acting appearance that I recall most was as Beaver's friend Chopper, who had divorced parents, on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jon! I haven't heard anyone mention FISH in ages! Barney Miller was a good show.

john kenrick said...

Excellent episode, Jack, even as it's a downer. All the same, I thought that Barry Gordon was incredibly good as the boy, and because of him the episode was deeply emotional and made me think. There's a lot of story and a whole lot to ponder packed into its less than a full half-hour running time.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I agree completely.