Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Bernard C. Schoenfeld Part Five: Vicious Circle [2.29]

by Jack Seabrook

Dick York as Manny
Manny Cole discovers that "Murder Comes Easy" in Evan Hunter’s story of the same name that was first published in the March 1953 issue of Real, a men’s adventure magazine. Manny picks the lock on the front door of a man named Gallagher and enters the man’s home, waking him up by turning on the radio in his living room. Holding a gun on Gallagher, Cole tells the man that Mr. Williams is unhappy with him and then shoots him in cold blood, once above the kidneys and twice in the face. A beautiful young woman emerges from the bedroom and tries to save herself by removing her bathrobe and standing naked before the gunman, but her effort fails and he shoots her in the face.

Cole returns home to his wife, Betty, but storms out when she demands that he stop killing people. Manny encounters an addict named Turk who directs him to Julie’s, where a card game is in progress; Julie and Cole get into a fight that ends with Manny knocking his opponent out.

"Murder Comes Easy"
was first published here
Manny is summoned to see Mr. Williams, who tells Cole that Betty came to see him and gave him a week to solve the problem of her husband before she would go to the police. Cole gets nowhere trying to talk to Betty, so he gets high with Turk and, six days later, shoots his own wife twice in the forehead. After that, Cole is a big man in the organization and notices Georgie Davis, an up and comer. Cole goes home alone, calls Turk and asks him to send a girl over, and waits for the day when he will fall victim to the next young punk on his way up.

"Murder Comes Easy" is a tough, violent, sexy story without a twist ending, which makes it an unusual choice to adapt for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Cole brutally murders Gallagher and his unnamed lover; later in the story he brutally murders his own wife. Turk is a heroin addict and Cole uses drugs as well. When the producers of the Hitchcock show assigned this story to Bernard C. Schoenfeld to write the teleplay, he must have been shaking his head in wonder. He solved the problem in an interesting way and wrote a script that removes the rougher aspects of Hunter’s story, adds the requisite surprise ending, and introduces a subtle theme that appears clearer when viewed from a vantage point six decades later than it probably looked when the show first aired on CBS on Sunday, April 14, 1957.

Kathleen Maguire as Betty
Retitled "Vicious Circle," a title change that had been made when the short story was reprinted in the September 1953 issue of Verdict, the TV show opens on a moment that occurs before the beginning of the story, as we see Gallagher alone in his home and very nervous. He drinks, smokes, sweats, and jumps when the phone rings. He is waiting for a girl to arrive (the girl in the bedroom in the story is nowhere in evidence) and Manny slips in when Gallagher goes into his bedroom for a moment. Manny wears a black leather jacket and gloves and points a gun at Gallagher; before long he pumps three bullets into the unfortunate man without changing his own expression.

This is followed by a quick scene where we see Betty buy a newspaper with the headline, "South Side Mobster Slain"; the scene between her and Manny comes next, though they are not husband and wife, as they are in Hunter’s short story. Making them lovers instead of a married couple presumably lessens the horror when Manny is asked to kill her. Manny insists that his life of crime is the only way they can live a good life, suggesting that Schoenfeld wanted to try to give the young killer some sort of justification for his crimes.

George Macready as Mr. Williams
When Manny leaves the apartment he encounters Turk, whose harmonica music is heard through the window at the end of the prior scene, a siren song drawing Manny out into the street. Of course, we don’t witness Turk actually doing drugs, but he does seem stoned and complains that Manny replaced him in the hierarchy.

Instead of going to Julie’s card game, Manny next goes to visit Mr. Williams, whose role in the TV show is larger and different than it is in the story. Williams is a man in late middle age who wears sunglasses inside and treats his eyes with medicine that is first poured into a small cup and then applied directly to his eyes. He tells Manny to take care of Betty but when Manny talks to Betty she doesn’t listen to him. Manny returns to see Mr. Williams, who tells Manny that Betty has gone to the police; in the story, she only made that threat. Williams instructs Manny to kill his girlfriend and, in the next scene, he almost does but stops himself. Instead, after encountering Manny in a dark alley and escaping with her life, Betty rushes off screen and is run over by a car and killed. Schoenfeld thus avoids having Manny kill his girlfriend, though the question of whether she died in an accident or whether she intentionally walked in front of a speeding car is left unanswered: a bystander says: "Holy smokes! She walked right into that car!" Manny again shows no emotion, observing the corpse of his lover lying on the ground before he walks away from the crowd.

Kathleen Hughes as Ann
Once again, we see Manny with Williams, after Betty’s funeral. Williams assumes that Manny caused Betty’s death and praises the young man’s cleverness; in a telling change in their relationship, Manny now calls Williams by his first name, Vincent. They toast the future and the next scene shows what that future looks like. Manny is now a big shot, with a pretty woman named Ann ready to accompany him home from a party. Manny notices Georgie, who is dressed in a black leather jacket, just as Manny had been at the start of the show. Williams tells Manny that he is not happy that his latest crime did not go well and Manny goes home alone, where he behaves in a way similar to Gallagher in the first scene; he drinks, smokes, and sweats as he calls the party and asks Ann to come over.

In the final scene, Ann visits Manny but fails to seduce him; she notices that he still has a photograph of Betty hidden on the inside of his closet door and he sends her home. There is a knock at the door and Manny opens it, thinking it is Ann; instead, it is Georgie, holding a gun and telling Manny: "Mr. Williams sent me." The show ends on the implication that Manny has followed the pattern established by Gallagher: a young gunsel who succeeds for a time before he fails and is replaced by the next young punk with a rod.

Russell Johnson as Turk
Schoenfeld took Hunter’s short story and did a significant rewrite, changing the structure but retaining the main plot points. Sex and violence are greatly decreased and drug use is barely suggested. Manny and Betty are not married and Mr. Williams is a much more important character. Manny never kills a woman: the murder of Gallagher’s lover is eliminated and Manny finds himself unable to shoot Betty. The oddest thing about this episode is the subtle gay theme involving Mr. Williams and the series of young men who cycle in and out of his favor. I don’t think we can assume that the black leather jackets worn by Manny at the start and Georgie at the end are meant to evoke the gay community; rather, in 1957, they signaled juvenile delinquency. Perhaps Williams’s eye problems are meant to suggest some sort of flaw in his character. Certainly, the older criminal boss seems to spend all of his time with a series of younger men, tossing them aside when they no longer please him and replacing them with similar models. This theme is nowhere in Hunter’s short story but it seems rather obvious in the TV show, especially when Williams carefully puts a flower in Manny’s lapel. It seems clear that Williams has no interest in the many nubile women at the party he and Manny attend.

Paul Lambert as Gallagher
Whatever Schoenfeld’s intent, "Vicious Circle" is more interesting to discuss than it is to watch, and the young punks all seem a bit too old for their roles. Dick York (1928-1992) is effective as Manny, even though he was 28 years old when the show was filmed. York had started out in radio as a teen and acted on Broadway before taking roles on film starting in 1945 and on TV starting in 1953. He was on the Hitchcock show seven times in all, including "You Can’t Be a Little Girl All Your Life," and also made memorable appearances on The Twilight Zone and Thriller. His best known role was as Darrin Stephens on Bewitched, from 1964 to 1969.

George Brenlin as Georgie
As Betty, Kathleen Maguire (1925-1989) is even older, at 31, and seems a bit long in the tooth for the role of Manny’s young girlfriend. Like Dick York, she moved from Broadway roles into TV parts starting in 1949 and, despite appearing in a handful of films, she mostly worked on television for the next three decades or so. She was seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "Guilty Witness."

Familiar as a heavy, George Macready (1899-1973) had been on stage since 1926 and began working in film in 1942, adding TV roles in 1951. He had a noticeable part in Gilda (1946) and was on the Hitchcock show four times; he also made appearances on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery.

Kathleen Hughes (1928- ) plays Ann, following her role in Schoenfeld's "The Better Bargain" several months earlier. Born Elizabeth von Gerkan, she had a key role in It Came from Outer Space (1953) and has continued to appear on screen to this year.

In smaller roles are three actors who only appeared this one time on the Hitchcock show:
  • Russell Johnson (1924-2014) as Turk; he was an Air Force flyer in WWII who was shot down and later awarded a Purple Heart; he had a long career on screen from 1950 to 2011 and made memorable appearances on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits but is always thought of as the professor on Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967).
  • Paul Lambert (1922-1997) as Gallagher; his screen career lasted from 1956 to 1995 but this was his only time on the Hitchcock show. He was also seen in episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
  • George Brenlin (1927-1986) as Georgie; he had an undistinguished screen career from 1954 to 1985.
"Murder Comes Easy" was
reprinted here as "Vicious Circle"
Evan Hunter (1926-2005), who wrote the short story upon which "Vicious Circle" is based, was born Salvatore Lombino but changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. He also began using the pen name Ed McBain in 1956. Hunter was working as an editor at the Scott Meredith agency in 1951 when he sold his first short story. His 1954 novel, The Blackboard Jungle, was made into a hit film in 1955, and he began writing the long series of novels about the 87th Precinct under the McBain name the following year. He wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s film, The Birds (1963), and was named a Grand Master by the MWA in 1986. "Vicious Circle" was one of three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in which he was involved; learn more at this website. Hunter also briefly mentions "Vicious Circle" in his 1997 memoir, Me and Hitch.

This episode is directed by Paul Henreid (1908-1992), the great actor-turned-director who helmed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock TV series; "Vicious Circle" appears to be the first TV show that he directed to be broadcast; he would do much better in the years that followed.

"Vicious Circle" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps review of this episode here. Hunter’s short story was included in his collection, Jungle Kids (1956); the title is clearly a tie-in capitalizing on the success of The Blackboard Jungle film, since the characters in this short story are hardly kids.

The FictionMags Index,
Galactic Central,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Hunter, Evan. “Vicious Circle.” Verdict, Sept. 1953, pp. 134–144.
“Vicious Circle.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 29, CBS, 14 Apr. 1957.
Wikipedia, 26 June 2018,

In two weeks: The Percentage, starring Alex Nicol and Nita Talbot!


john kenrick said...

I've never read the story, Jack but I know the episode, and it's a good one. It's got subtext to spare, like the the one with Scott Marlowe and Murray Matheson, with in this case Macready in the Matheson role, (more or less), with the sexuality of the major characters not in the least ambiguous. although the young men strike me,--the actors, I mean--as straight. Dick York could be a fine actor when well cast, though in this case he doesn't seem quite right. Maybe it's his over-familiarity as a player.

Jack Seabrook said...

I thought of that other episode as well when I was researching this one. I think this one is quite good. Thanks for reading and especially for taking the time to comment!

Anonymous said...

Excellent Review!

Jack Seabrook said...