Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Harold Swanton Part Three: Coyote Moon [5.4]

by Jack Seabrook

Driving cross-country from Washington, D.C., to California, Professor John Piltkin pulls into a Texas cow-town, having picked up a wounded coyote on the side of the road, thinking it was a dog. He talks the local vet into examining the beast. His kind heart makes him appealing to a young hitchhiker named Bertha, who begs a lift to the next town for herself, her brother Henry, and her father, Pops. Henry claims that Bertha is with child and Pops says that they all plan to look for work in California.

Soon enough, Piltkin's car gets a flat tire and, at first, his passengers appear to be helpful. When they reach the next "town," it turns out to be nothing more than a "lonely garage on the roadside." Piltkin lets Bertha lie down in the trailer hitched behind his car, while Henry fixes the tire and Pops buys sandwiches and coffee. Piltkin begins to suspect that his passengers are stealing things from him. Back on the road, the car gets another flat tire, and Piltkin discovers that Henry traded a good tire for an old one. Piltkin accuses Henry but quickly discovers that the trio will support each other against him. After failing to get any passing car to take the passengers off his hands, Piltkin agrees to take them as far as the next town. As the sun begins to set, Pops cooks up a story about Piltkin trying to take advantage of Bertha.

"Coyote Moon" was first published here
They reach an auto camp and separate; Piltkin discovers that the tramps have stolen everything of value from his car and trailer. Angered, he sees that the trio have walked along the road and resumed hitchhiking. At the garage, he sees a stranger inside, looking at a road map with the attendant. Piltkin gets in the man's car and drives along the road, blinding Bertha with the headlights and then opening the doors in darkness to let them in. He keeps quiet and stalls the car before getting out and walking back toward the garage.

Moments later, the car's owner and the garage man see the car down the road and are joined by other men, all of whom confront the trio of hitchhikers, accusing them of car theft. Piltkin watches from the shadows as Bertha, Pops, and Henry are arrested. He retrieves from their suitcases the items they stole and sets off again on his way, singing happily beneath the coyote moon.

"Coyote Moon," by Kenneth Perkins, is a delightful story that mixes suspense and humor, with a satisfying conclusion. The professor is presented as a fish out of water, "a softhearted young man with a gentle voice," driving through Texas in a car with Washington, D.C. license plates. When he brings a wounded coyote to a vet, he appears naive, yet he explains the animal's good points and wins his listeners' trust. A key passage illustrates his dual nature:

The professor was a visionary of course, but he was smart. He was half and half. And he looked it. One side of his face--the left on which the sun had beaten for days of touring--was burned red, and his left eye was canny with sun wrinkles, while the other was innocent and wide.

Macdonald Carey as John Piltkin
The innocent, wide side appeals to the hitchhikers, who see him as an easy target. Bertha claims that Henry is her brother and that Pops is her father, but this is likely a ruse created in order to make it acceptable for them to be traveling together. When Piltkin mentions that he has a wife and a baby, Pops announces that Bertha is "'going to have a baby too'"--the trio are skilled at adapting to their environment and coming up with ways to engender sympathy for themselves. At first, they seem cheerful and helpful, and the driver's innocent side can see them as people who "'want nothing but the chance to work for a living.'" Their actions soon reveal their true nature.

Bertha pretends to faint so she can lie down in the trailer, where she inspects and steals anything of value. Pops steals cigarettes from the dashboard compartment and pockets the change when Piltkin gives him money to buy sandwiches and coffee. The professor begins to suspect his passengers of "'thieving,'" but decides "he must make certain before accusing anybody." He mentally compares the trio to the coyote he saved and thinks that "coyotes have their good points."

Collin Wilcox as Julie
When Piltkin discovers that Henry sold his good tire in exchange for a worn one, he realizes that "these people were going to hold him up and steal his keys" and he suspects that Henry is not really Bertha's brother. Unable to find a passing car to take the trio off his hands, the driver resigns himself to take them to the next town. As they drive, Pops plays on the professor's respectability by concocting a story about how he made a pass at Bertha; this is intended to prevent Piltkin from reporting the thieves to the police. Once he reaches the auto camp, Piltkin decides to let well enough alone and go on his way without speaking to the authorities. However, when he discovers that they stole a silver-framed picture of his wife and baby, he becomes enraged and springs into action, setting up the trio for capture and allowing himself to recover his stolen goods. We are reminded of his dual nature once more: "Professor Piltkin looked at them with one eye like a chicken--the sunburned eye which was his smart one."

Edgar Buchanan as Pops
Published in the August 15, 1942 issue of Collier's magazine, "Coyote Moon" is a wartime story: the cover of this issue shows a soldier who appears to be stationed on an island in the Far East. Piltkin is also working for the war effort: he is driving from Washington, D.C., to California, "'inspecting aluminum plants. You see I'm a professor of metallurgy and Washington's sending me out,'" he explains, and we later learn that he is "on the War Production Board." Professor Piltkin must not be taken advantage of by desert grifters--he represents America's hope to win the war! He also represents the way Americans liked to see themselves: innocent and wide-eyed, willing to give the other fellow the benefit of the doubt, but canny and able to take quick and decisive action when wrongdoers need to be punished.

Wesley Lau as Harry
Kenneth Perkins (1890-1954), the author of "Coyote Moon," was born in India to missionary parents. He later attended college at the University of California at Berkeley and served in the U.S. Army in World War One. He wrote plays, novels, and short stories from the 1920s through the 1940s and some of his works were adapted for film, beginning in 1924, and television, starting in 1950. Most of what he wrote was in the Western genre. This is the only story of his to be adapted for the Hitchcock TV show.

Harold Swanton returned after an absence of three and a half years from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to adapt "Coyote Moon" for the small screen, and the main challenge seems to be how to make the final action to trap the trio believable.

The show opens with a shot of Julie (as Bertha has been renamed) putting on tennis shoes with a hole in one sole, then slipping on soiled white gloves, trying to make a good impression on her next target. The professor pulls up in a 1958 VW station wagon, showing that the story has been updated from 1942 and that the car and trailer have been replaced with a newer vehicle. (The VW logo has been removed from the hood but the letters remain faintly visible.) Piltkin climbs in the back of the wagon and hangs up the framed photo of his wife and baby, showing us that he is a family man and that the memento holds meaning for him. Julie says she is going to a town called Sentinel Mesa, where her brother Harry is working. They plan to drive together in his car to California to visit their sick mother. Julie tells Piltkin to stop the wagon so that they can pick up Pops, who is seen dozing under a shady tree on the side of the road.

Jack Lambert
John reveals that he is an associate professor heading to California to teach at the university; since the war is long over, there is no reason for him to be going west for war-related activities. The actors are terrific: Colin Wilcox as Julie and Edgar Buchanan as Pops make up facts as they go along and, when Pops tells John that Julie is pregnant, we can tell that this is news to her, but the con artists are used to working together and pick up on each other's cues.

After getting a flat tire and putting on a spare, they pull into Sentinel Mesa, but there is no sign of Harry. The counter woman says they must have the town mixed up with Sentinel Mountain, further down the road. Pops takes care of the tires instead of Harry, who has yet to appear. Back on the road, Piltkin quickly becomes fed up with his dishonest passengers and pulls into an abandoned garage, where he orders them out. After John tosses their bags on the ground, Pops appears with a younger man at his side, claiming that this is his son Harry. The young man is drinking straight from a bottle and threatens John, who is not as tall. The threat of sexual innuendo present in the story has been removed and replaced by the more physical threat posed by Harry.

Eve McVeagh
Next we see, Harry is driving the wagon, with Julie and Pops beside him in front and John relegated to the back. The wagon runs out of gas and they are forced to pull over, "'halfway between Sentinel Mountain and El Paso.'" A pickup drives by and Julie hails a ride; Harry and Pops join her, abandoning John in the middle of nowhere. John knows his vehicle, however, and pulls a knob to start fuel flowing. The wagon starts right up and he drives to Scorpion Springs, where he spies the trio of grifters inside a cafe. He telephones the police and then plays his trick, disguising himself by pulling a hat down over his eyes and by pulling up the collar of his jacket. He alters his voice and claims to have laryngitis.

The people from the garage are joined by the police, who have just arrived, and Julie, Pops, and Harry are arrested. John recovers the stolen items from Julie's suitcase and is on his way!

David Fresco (left)
and James Field (right)
The television adaptation of "Coyote Moon" is just as entertaining as the short story upon which it is based. This is in part due to the consistently-paced action created by director Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), who directed no less than 27 episodes of the Hitchcock TV series.

Starring as John Piltkin is Macdonald Carey (1913-1994). He was busy on stage and on radio and served in the Marines in World War Two. His screen career spanned the years from 1942 to 1992 and he was featured in Hitchcock's classic, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). He also appeared in "House Guest" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. His most long-running role was on the soap opera, Days of Our Lives, where he starred from 1965 to 1994!

Chuck Henderson
Edgar Buchanan (1903-1979) plays Pops, He went to dental school and was a practicing dentist until he was in his mid-thirties, when he decided to switch to acting. Buchanan was on screen from 1939 to 1974 and he was seen on The Twilight Zone and Thriller, though this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. He was featured on the TV series Petticoat Junction from 1963 to 1970.

Making the first of three appearances on the Hitchcock series is Collin Wilcox (1935-2009) as Julie. Her screen career lasted from 1953 to 2003 and her most famous role was in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). She had a memorable part in an episode of The Twilight Zone and she also was seen in two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "The Jar."

In smaller roles:
  • Wesley Lau (1921-1984) as Harry; a member of the Actors Studio, he was on screen from 1952 to 1981, mostly on TV. He was a regular on Perry Mason from 1962 to 1965, appeared in two episodes of The Twilight Zone, and was also in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "And the Desert Shall Blossom."
  • Jack Lambert (1920-2002) as the garage mechanic who scoffs when Piltkin shows up with a wounded coyote in a cardboard box; he started on Broadway and then went to Hollywood, where he was on screen from 1942 to 1970; he was on Thriller and appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Better Bargain."
  • Eve McVeagh (1919-1997) as the counter woman in Sentinel Mesa; she acted on Broadway and on radio and had a screen career from 1946 to 1987. She was on The Twilight Zone and Thriller and she appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Gloating Place."
  • James Field as the man who thinks the trio have stolen his car; he has but six credits on IMDb, including a role in the next episode penned by Harold Swanton, "Anniversary Gift."
  • David Fresco (1909-1997) as the gas station attendant who runs out with James Field's character after the supposedly stolen car; he was on screen from 1946 to 1997 and he was blacklisted in 1956. Despite that, he appeared in twelve episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Day of the Bullet," as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.
  • Chuck Henderson (1931-1981) as the cop who arrests the trio at the end; he had a brief career on screen from 1959 to 1966 and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, though he was on a couple of episodes of Batman.
Read "Coyote Moon" below, courtesy of Watch the TV version for free online here or buy the DVD here. Read the Genre Snaps take on this episode here.

"Coyote Moon." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 4, CBS, 18 Oct. 1959.
The FictionMags Index,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Perkins, Kenneth. "Coyote Moon." Collier's, 15 Aug. 1942, pp. 36, 63–65.
"Volkswagen Station Wagon in 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents.'",
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks:

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," starring Ronald Howard!

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