Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Alfred Hayes Part One: A Piece of the Action [8.1]

by Jack Seabrook

Alfred Hayes (1911-1985) was born in London, but his family moved to the U.S. when he was only three years old. He grew up to become a writer, both as a newspaper reporter in the 1930s and as an author of novels, poems, short stories, and scripts for film and television. After serving in the Second World War, he wrote novels from 1946 to 1973, film scripts from 1946 to 1976, and TV scripts from 1961 to 1981. Among his screenplays were those for two Fritz Lang dramas, Clash by Night (1952) and Human Desire (1954). He also wrote seven teleplays for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

* * * * *

The paperback tie-in
"A Piece of the Action" was the first teleplay by Alfred Hayes to be broadcast on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and it was also the first episode of the hour-long series, premiering on CBS on Thursday, September 20, 1962. The teleplay was based on the screenplay for a 1930 film titled Street of Chance which, in turn, was partly based on the real-life gambler and criminal, Arnold Rothstein.

Rothstein (1882-1928) was a lifelong gambler, a bootlegger, a drug dealer, and the head of a large criminal organization in Manhattan in the 1920s who was killed after he refused to pay a large debt that he incurred in a rigged poker game. He would not identify his killer on his deathbed. Fifteen months after he died, the film Street of Chance was released, and contemporary critics like Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times noted the resemblance of the main character, Natural Davis, to Rothstein.

The film is a Depression-era delight, running a crisp 75 minutes and featuring a winning performance by William Powell as Davis. The story takes place on Broadway, the street of the title, in and around the Flatiron District. Davis, a successful gambler, hears of a big dice game coming up that night from a bootlegger named Dorgan who is visiting from Detroit. A one-armed newsboy named Tony spreads the  word about the game. Natural Davis is really bond broker John B. Marsden, whose ne'er-do-well little brother, Babe, lives in San Francisco and has just married a woman named Judith. Marsden has spent a considerable amount of money trying to keep Babe away from gambling, even though Marsden himself has made his fortune playing dice and cards.

Gig Young as Duke Marsden

Not all is well in Marsden's life, however: his wife Alma has him served with separation papers. His kind heart is revealed when he shows pity on a woman who claims to be the distraught wife of a gambler named Mastick who lost a large sum of money to Natural, but Davis hedges his bet by marking some of the bills. After Marsden appeals to his own wife to reconcile, he attends the big dice game that night with Dorgan, and Mastick shows up with the marked money Davis refunded to his wife. Natural wins back some of the money and throws Mastick out; after the unlucky gambler sits in a bar boasting about how he put one over on Natural, two goons follow him. Despite apologizing to Natural and giving him back the rest of his money, Mastick is shot and killed by gangsters not long after. Natural is questioned about the killing but the case is dropped.

Martha Hyer as Alice Marsden

Marsden's brother Babe arrives in New York City by train with his new wife and immediately heads out to find a game of chance in order to raise money to buy into a partnership. Meanwhile, Marsden appeals to his wife to save his own marriage, agreeing to give up gambling and promising to quit that night if she will leave town with him the next morning. Unfortunately, Babe insists on joining a big game that night, unaware that his brother John is the big-time gambler known as Natural Davis. After making Babe promise to give up gambling and leave town once he loses all of his money, Marsden arranges with Dorgan to clean Babe out at the card table and leave him flat broke. Marsden quietly visits Babe's wife and gives her $10,000 he took back from her husband in order to make sure they leave Manhattan no worse off than they were before.

Gene Evans as Ed Krutcher

Unexpectedly, Babe is a big winner at the card table that night, which makes Dorgan think he has been set up. He summons Natural to join the game, and Natural has to come, breaking his promise to his wife and revealing his secret to his brother. Dorgan suspects a double-cross by the brothers and Natural plays the game, eventually throwing it by letting himself get caught cheating. Dorgan insists that Natural will pay the same price Mastick did for his dishonesty at the card table. Babe and his wife leave town by train and we see that his gambling problem is cured. Marsden, however, is not so fortunate. His wife learns that he is in danger and frantically searches for him, but he is fatally shot and refuses to identify his killer as he dies in the back of an ambulance.

The Rothstein connection is clear from Natural Davis's status as a big-time gambler, his refusal to pay off what he lost in the big game, and his refusal to identify his killer before he dies. The writing credits at the start of the film state that the story and dialogue are by Oliver H.P. Garrett (1894-1952) and that the scenario is by Howard Estabrook. Garrett fought in the First World War and was a newspaperman who wrote stories for magazines before going to Hollywood in 1927 to become a screenwriter. He wrote film scripts from 1928 to 1951. A paperback tie-in to Street of Chance was published in 1930, but it is unclear if Garrett wrote the book version.

Robert Redford as Chuck Marsden

Street of Chance was remade in 1937 as Her Husband's Lies, then again as "A Piece of the Action" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962. The 1942 film titled Street of Chance is not a remake of the 1930 film, but instead the screen version of Cornell Woolrich's novel, The Black Curtain, which itself was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and aired two months after "A Piece of the Action."

Running 45 minutes, the Hitchcock version by Alfred Hayes is a successful updating of the 1930 film. Hayes updates the setting to 1962 and moves the events from the Depression-era streets of New York to sunny California. Featuring a jazzy score by Lynn Murray, the show opens in the middle of the card game where Allie Saxon (Mastick in the movie) is caught dealing from the bottom of the deck and punished for it. By putting this scene first, Hayes keeps the viewer off guard: who are these people and why are they doing these things? Duke, as Natural Davis has been renamed, is driven home by his chauffeur, a man in a neck brace who replaces the one-armed newsboy of the film.

Nick Dennis as Danny

The following scene provides exposition found in the early scenes of the film; we learn that Marsden is an investment counselor whose wife is packing for Reno, according to a note in the newspaper's society column. Marsden's generosity to his younger brother is also shown, though the character of Judith, Babe's wife in the movie, has been eliminated entirely in the TV version. Marsden then goes home and charms his wife by the pool. They are rich and the sunny, outdoor setting contrasts with the urban setting and hotel rooms of the 1930 film. As before, Duke promises to quit gambling and go away with his wife, this time to Hawaii, but when he meets Ed Krutcher (Dorgan in the film), he agrees to play a final game of craps the next day.

Raymond Bailey as Allie Saxon

We learn of Saxon's death and right away Duke's brother, renamed Chuck, shows up looking to join a big game. Duke is surprised to find his brother waiting for him at home, and the young man signals his own reckless nature when he walks, fully-clothed, out to the end of the swimming pool's diving board and bounces up and down above the water. One small psychological note has been added to the 1962 teleplay that is not found in the 1930 film: Duke mentions his father, a gambler who died when he and his brother were still boys. Duke had a shoeshine box at age ten and Chuck never really knew his father. This bit of added background suggests that the brothers' addiction to gambling is inherited and that their different personalities are in some way related to the loss of their father when they were young.

Duke promises to go away with his wife that Friday and asks Krutcher to clean out his brother in a game of cards. As in the film, Chuck unexpectedly begins to win big and Duke is summoned to the card game by Ed, who threatens to harm Chuck. Duke arrives and Chuck realizes the truth about his older brother. The game continues and is the centerpiece of the episode; here, unlike in the film, Duke wins and cleans out Chuck, who leaves in disgust. Only then is it revealed that Duke was cheating, when one of the other card players discovers that he was using a marked deck. At the end, Duke returns home to his wife and dies with his head in her lap.

Roger DeKoven as Nate

"A Piece of the Action" is an excellent adaptation of Street of Chance, removing one important character, updating and relocating the story, and rearranging some of the events in order to maximize suspense. The show is directed by Bernard Girard (1918-1997), born Bernard Goldstein, who wrote for film and television from 1948 to 1965 and who directed for both from 1951 to 1974, though the majority of his directing jobs were for TV. He directed 12 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Matched Pearl."

Starring as Duke Marsden is Gig Young (1913-1978), who plays the main character as more laid back than does William Powell in the film version. Born Byron Barr, Young was on screen from 1940 to 1978 and on Broadway in the 1950s and 1960s. He appeared on the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Walking Distance," and he was a regular on the TV series, The Rogues, in 1964-65. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969). After struggling with alcoholism for many years, Young was found dead in 1978, having murdered his fifth wife and then committed suicide.

Kreg Martin as Smiley

The ravishing Martha Hyer (1924-2014) plays his wife, Alice, and her figure is on display in a couple of revealing outfits. Hyer was on screen from 1946 to 1974, wrote an autobiography, and authored the screenplay for the 1975 John Wayne film, Rooster Cogburn, after she had retired from acting. She appeared in one other episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "Crimson Witness."

Gene Evans (1922-1998) is appropriately tough and unpolished as Ed Krutcher, the violent and dangerous gambler. He played many similar roles in a screen career that spanned the years from 1947 to 1989 and he also appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "The Kerry Blue."

Dee J. Thompson as Kelly

In one of his early roles, Robert Redford (1936- ) plays Chuck. On screen since 1960, Redford is one of the biggest stars of his generation, appearing in such hits as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973), and All the President's Men (1976). He is also a director, and he won a Best Director Oscar for the film Ordinary People (1980). Redford founded the Sundance Film Festival and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2002. In his early years on screen, he appeared on The Twilight Zone and in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Right Kind of Medicine."

In smaller roles:

  • Nick Dennis (1904-1980) as Danny, the chauffeur in a neck brace; born in Greece, he had a screen career that lasted from 1947 to 1978. He had small roles in such classic films as East of Eden (1955) and Spartacus (1960).
  • Raymond Bailey (1904-1980) as Allie Saxon, the gambler who cheats and is killed; he had a busy career on screen from 1939 to 1975 and is best-remembered as banker Milburn Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies from 1962 to 1971. He was on no less than eleven episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Where Beauty Lies."
  • Roger De Koven (1907-1988) as Nate, the gambler who discovers that Duke was using a marked deck; he was on screen from 1943 to 1986 and also appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "You Can't Be a Little Girl All Your Life." He was a regular on the TV soap opera, Days of Our Lives, from 1968 to 1986.
  • Kreg Martin as the gambler with the glasses; he had a brief screen career from 1962 to 1963 but managed to appear on The Twilight Zone and in seven episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Maria."
  • Dee J. Thompson as Kelly, Marsden's secretary; she was on screen from 1949 to 1967, mostly on TV, and she appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Test."
"A Piece of the Action" is not available on U.S. DVD but may be viewed for free online here.


Cromwell, John, director. Street of Chance. 1930. 

The FictionMags Index, 

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001. 

Hall, Mordaunt. "THE SCREEN; A Rothstein Shadow. She Loves Him Not, She Loves Him. A Prince on the Hop. Other Photoplays." The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Feb. 1930, 


"A Piece of the Action." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 8, episode 1, CBS, 20 Sept. 1962. 


In two weeks: "Bonfire," starring Peter Falk!


john kenrick said...

Great episode, Jack, and a fine review. A Piece Of The Action got it just right. The more times I see it in reruns the more I like it. Interesting that the only truly unlikable and disagreeable character is played by Gene Evans, who plays him more like a "working" gangster than a true gambler, but then maybe he was supposed to be just that.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. You should watch the old movie version if you get the chance. I ordered it online on a DVD. I think William Powell does an even better job than Gig Young. But then, I love William Powell.

john kenrick said...

Thanks so much Jack. I just caught this in my Google/Gmail account,didn't find it on your blog. My browsing is divided between Internet Explorer (yeah, go figure), Firefox, my main browser, and Google Chrome, the newest and best, though I find Firefox has the best format for me.

That the Piece Of The Action story surprised me, as it was so contemporary and (virtually) non-ethnic. That I "discovered" your response is almost serendipity. My goal this early Sunday A.M. was to get all my Google mail and postings connected, so I needed to link one password to all my browsers. Yes, I'm a tad eccentric in these matters.

Best Wishes & Stay Safe, and here's to a prayer for Joe Biden & Company, wishing them the best in these (as they used to say) parlous times,


Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. A wonderful day yesterday for all of us.

john kenrick said...

Indeed, Jack. BTW, another first rate Hitch hour tonight, Night Caller, featuring a selfish, pathologically narcissistic Felicia Farr (excellent, in an extremely unsympathetic performance); a creepy turn from Bruce Dern, as a guy "on a mission" of sorts, to save a young boy, undone by demons he can only half-control; and solid work the always reliable David White. My only complaint is that the story plays outs as melodrama, with a too pat ending, plus a didactic undercurrent that detracts from its credibility. I wish they'd gone for a more subtle, understated realism. Still, it's extremely well made and nicely acted.

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't worked on that one yet but it sounds good!