Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-Bill S. Ballinger Part One: Dry Run [5.7]

by Jack Seabrook

Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980) began his writing career penning ad copy and radio plays in the 1940s before breaking into television, where he wrote teleplays from 1949 to 1975. A handful of films were based on some of the 30 novels he wrote between 1948 and 1975. In addition to episodes of The Outer Limits and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, he wrote seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The FictionMags Index lists only eight short stories by Ballinger, who concentrated mostly on writing novels and teleplays. None of the scripts he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents were based on his own work. In the late 1970s, he taught writing at California State University. There is a very good website devoted to his work here.
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The first episode written by Ballinger was "Dry Run," based on a short story of the same title by Norman Struber that was published in the April 1956 issue of Manhunt.

A young hood with the nickname Pretty walks through a run-down neighborhood near midnight and reaches a dingy brownstone, where he climbs to the second floor. Small in stature, Pretty is an aspiring gunman sent by Vito, a gangster, to "pull a clean job" and pass a "dry run before being put on the regular payroll." Proud at being asked to earn Vito's trust, Pretty knocks on an apartment door and is admitted by Moran, who points a gun at his visitor.

Pretty delivers $1500 in an envelope to Moran as payment for a murder and Moran offers his young guest a drink. The older gunsel begins to talk to Pretty about how Vito has got him "'snowed like all the rest of them'" and suggests that Pretty kill Vito, offering to pay for the job and to make Pretty his right-hand man after Vito is dead and Moran takes over his outfit.

Dick Shelton's illustration from Manhunt
Nervously, Pretty insists on being paid $1500 for the job and agrees to kill Vito. The young man is heading for the apartment door when Moran pulls out his gun and tells Pretty that he failed the test. Pretty pulls out his own gun and tries to shoot Moran but the weapon has no bullets; he begs for his life as Moran pulls the trigger.

"Dry Run" is a two-character story in which the background to the events is established through narrative as Pretty approaches Moran's apartment. The story then plays out in dialogue between the novice and the experienced killer. Set in a city, the Irish killer (Moran) seeks to replace the Sicilian mobster (Vito), whom he refers to with such ethnic slurs as "'little wop'" and "'greasy Sicilian.'" The nickname Pretty is ironic, since the young man is described as having a "'bony acne-scarred face'" and the nickname leads Moran to remark that Vito has a "'sense of humor.'"

Robert Vaughn as Art
Norman Struber, the author of "Dry Run," has 44 mystery short stories listed in the FictionMags Index, all published between 1955 and 1962. A genealogy website suggests that he may have lived from 1924 to 1988 and been a resident of Huntington, New York.

The April 1956 issue of Manhunt is a good one, including "Line of Duty," the condensed version of Fredric Brown's novel, The Lenient Beast, as well as short stories by J.W. Aaron, Richard Deming ("The Better Bargain," also adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Gil Brewer, and Bryce Walton.

The televised version aired on CBS on Sunday, November 8, 1959. The show opens in a large office, where three men look closely at piranhas in an enormous fish tank as ominous music plays on the soundtrack. Barbarosa, the boss, laughs and says that he likes piranhas because they're dependable. Prentiss, a middle-aged accountant, is confident enough to say that he's afraid of them. Art, a young sycophant, agrees with the boss. A large wall of windows looks out on distant mountains as Barbarosa gives a speech about teamwork and loyalty. He makes it clear that dependability is the quality he values most. Art tries to appear confident but his nervousness is betrayed by his habit of fidgeting with his cigarette lighter. Barbarosa gives Art an assignment to deliver money to Moran at the Old Valley Winery, upstate, and he also takes Art's gun and gives him another one that has "'never been used.'" "'Give him the money first if you have to, but make sure you get him,'" Barbarosa instructs Art.

Walter Matthau as Moran
The relationships between the characters are outlined quickly in the first scene of Ballinger's teleplay, which takes the short story's narrative passage where Pretty recalls prior events and dramatizes it with dialogue, serving to present the story in a straight, chronological fashion. The first scene ends as it began, with a closeup of the piranhas, which are meant to represent the vicious criminals in the story.

There is a fade out followed by a fade in where we see that it is now later that night, as Art drives into the Old Valley Winery. He parks and enters by walking through the Aging Vault Entrance. Inside, it is dark and shadowy, the stone steps and walls giving the impression of an old castle where Moran has fortified himself. Art goes in deeper until Moran flips on an overhead light and we see that he is pointing a gun at his young visitor.

While the story takes place entirely at night and in a run-down neighborhood of a city, the TV version opens in a spacious office lighted from outside by bright sunlight, then transitions to a night scene, though the winery is much different than the apartment building where Moran lives in the short story. Still, the setting is dark and Art must pass through many shadows; director John Brahm shoots the scenes either in near-darkness or in high-contrast noir style.

David White as Barbarosa
As so often happens on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an unattractive character in a story is played by an attractive actor. Here, Robert Vaughn plays Art, and the nickname Pretty has been removed, as have any references to his unpleasant facial characteristics. Inflation has hit the mob, and the $1500 payment has risen to $10,000. There is no attempt to convey Art's inner thoughts, as Norman Struber does in his short story; instead, Robert Vaughn must attempt to convey what Art is thinking by means of facial expressions and gestures. Dialogue replaces interior monologue.

In the first scene, Barbarosa is less obviously ethnically Italian than the Vito of the short story and, when Moran is speaking to Art, the ethnic slurs are absent from the teleplay. The scene between Moran and Art follows the story very closely and the tension between the two men is well-portrayed. Walter Matthau is especially good as Moran; in a nice bit of business, he pulls his pants pocket inside-out to show Art that he has offered him all his money to kill Barbarosa.

Once Art reaches Moran's lair, the story plays out as it does on the page and ends the same way. John Brahm's direction is taut and he uses many closeups to ratchet up the suspense. "Dry Run" is an excellent adaptation of a very good short story, with nary a false note in its twenty-five minutes.

Born Hans Brahm in Germany, John Brahm (1893-1982) was an actor-turned-director who left his home country when the Nazis came to power and made his way to the United States, where he directed films from 1936 to 1967 and TV shows from 1952 to 1967. Among his films were The Lodger (1944), the remake of Hitchcock's silent film of the same name, and Hangover Square (1945). He directed ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Touche," five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, twelve episodes of Thriller, another twelve of The Twilight Zone, two of The Outer Limits, and eight of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which starred Robert Vaughn.

Walter Matthau (1920-2000) receives top billing as Moran. Born Walter Matthow, he served in the Air Force in WWII and had a long screen career from 1950 to 2000. He won two Tony Awards and one Academy Award, and his many films included The Odd Couple (1968) and Grumpy Old Men (1993). He appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Cop for a Day."

Nervous young Art is portrayed by Robert Vaughn (1932-2016), whose screen career spanned the years from 1955 to 2016. He won an Emmy and was in many TV shows and films, including The Magnificent Seven (1960), an episode of Thriller, the TV series The Protectors (1972-1974), and his most famous role, as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

David White (1916-1990) plays Barbarosa. He was a Marine in WWII and appeared on Broadway starting in 1949. He was on screen from 1949 to 1989 and appeared in many television shows. He was in four episodes of the Hitchcock series and two of The Twilight Zone, but he is best remembered for his supporting role as Larry Tate on Bewitched (1964-1972).

Tyler McVey
Finally, Tyler McVey (1912-2003) has a small part as Prentiss in the show's first scene. His long career began in the 1930s on the radio and he was on screen from 1950 to 1986. He can be seen in eight episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Human Interest Story," and he was the president of AFTRA from 1965 to 1967.

"Dry Run" was one of the 26 episodes selected for the PBS series, The Best of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran in 1981-1982.

This episode is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. The Internet Archive currently has links to watch every episode of all ten seasons!

If anyone knows where the winery scenes were filmed, please comment! They look like a real California winery and not a studio set.

“Dry Run.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 7, CBS, 8 Nov. 1959.
The FictionMags Index,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Struber, Norman. “Dry Run.” Manhunt, Apr. 1956, pp. 112–119.

In two weeks: "Road Hog," starring Raymond Massey!

Listen to the Good Evening podcast discussion of the episode, "None Are So Blind," here!


Grant said...

It's funny that David White has "sycophants" in this story, because with Larry Tate he played a very big one himself (always fawning over those clients).

john kenrick said...

Excellent episode. Walter Matthau and Robert Vaughn were well cast in their roles even as, if one knows them for their typecasting, neither is 100% right for his character. Matthau's too smart and insightful for his "hood" (if that's what he is); while Robert Vaughn is way too Joe College to play a hit man. Yet Matthau rises to the occasion and shines as a man who comes across as the equal of the more cruel and down to earth Barbarosa. His acting is near to bravura, especially as he's portraying a man whose background remains largely unknown throughout the run of the episode. Bravo! Vaughn disappoints slightly, as he cannot overcome his appearance of a dandy. One wonders (or I did anyway) whether this "kid" is up to the job he's been given. At least the show itself answers this question. Even so, it's very suspenseful, and I especially like that it doesn't "telegraph" the ending.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! David White plays such a different role here than the one he would play on Bewitched!

And thanks, John! I agree with you--Matthau is superb and Vaughn is good but not as good. That pretty much descries many of the things I've seen them both in. I was surprised to see Vaughn had such a long career; I always think of him as the Man From U.N.C.L.E.!

faith2266 said...

can anyone quote me Hitchcock's intro? i love the episode and i've always loved the opener with his talk about jazz and private detectives

Jack Seabrook said...

I can't quote the intro but if you follow the link to the online video you can watch it for free.