Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-William Fay Part Two: The 2,000,000 Defense [4.5]

 by Jack Seabrook

When representing a client, where should a lawyer draw the line? Is it ethical to lie in order to secure an acquittal? These are the questions addressed in Harold Q. Masur's short story, "The $2,000,000 Defense," which served as the basis for William Fay's teleplay of the same name.

The story, which was first published in the May 1958 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, begins with things not looking good for Lloyd Ashley, on trial for murder and facing the death penalty. His attorney, Mark Robison, has no real defense and sits watching as the prosecutor questions ballistics expert James Keller. Unexpectedly, Robison concedes that Ashley's gun fired the fatal bullet. Ashley had asked Robison to recommend a private detective to follow his wife, Eve, and when Lloyd caught her with Tom Ward, death was the result. Ashley swore that the gun had gone off accidentally when he dropped it on a desk, even though the safety catch was on. Keller, at the trial, insists that this cannot happen.

Court adjourns for the day and Ashley, distraught, offers half of his fortune--about $2,000,000--to Robison to come up with some sort of courtroom trick to secure an acquittal. Robison agrees and, on the way back to his office, he buys a gun of the same model that was used in the killing. Alone in his office, he shoots himself in the arm. A doctor is summoned and the physician is required to report the gunshot wound to the police.

Barry Sullivan as Mark Robison

In court the next day, Robison cross-examines Keller, who admits never having done a test to see if the gun would discharge when dropped on a hard surface with the safety catch engaged. The defense lawyer insists on a test where the expert drops the loaded gun on the judge's bench but Keller, after hesitating, refuses to take the risk. The jury deliberates for less than an hour before returning a verdict of not guilty. Back at the lawyer's office, Ashley writes Robison a check for $2,000,000 before revealing that the private detective reported that the defense lawyer had been Eve Ashley's lover. Ashley picks up the gun and: "Of the two shots that rang out, Mark Robison heard only the first."

Masur's story ends with a subtle message that Ashley killed his lawyer and then turned the gun on himself. Guilt and innocence are relative concepts in this tale--it seems clear that Ashley murdered the man he thought was his wife's lover, yet his wealth allows him to buy an acquittal. Robison, too, is not above cheating in order to win: he shoots himself in the arm to suggest that the impossible is possible, then uses psychological manipulation in the courtroom to win the case. Had Keller, the ballistics expert, trusted his own knowledge, he would have dropped the gun and proved the defense theory untenable. Yet Robison understands that his manipulation of the man's emotions ensures that he won't endanger the life of the judge, and so a guilty man goes free. In the end, it is all for naught, as Ashley kills Robison and then commits suicide. As it was written long ago, the wages of sin is death.

Leslie Nielsen as Lloyd Ashley

When the story was collected in the volume, Hitchcock in Prime Time, Harold Q. Masur wrote a short post-script, noting that "since the adaptation and dialogue closely followed the original, I was inclined to applaud an industry that often in the past had disappointed. I lament only the lack of a video recorder at that time to immortalize my favorite yarn."

"The $2,000,000 Defense" aired on CBS on Sunday, November 2, 1958, and a close comparison of the TV show with the short story demonstrates that there were a few more changes made than Masur remembered. After an establishing shot of the outside of the Criminal Courts Building, the camera tracks up the side of the edifice and there is a dissolve to a close-up of the prosecutor's face as he cross-examines the defendant, Lloyd Ashley. In the short story, Ashley does not testify, and it is unlikely that the defendant in a murder case would take the stand. In adapting the short story for the small screen, William Fay chose this method to establish the background of the case, using dialogue between lawyer and witness to replace narrative.

Wendell Holmes as Herrick

Also changed from the short story is the makeup of the jury; Masur makes a point of telling the reader that Robison purposely left twelve men on the jury, thinking that they would be more sympathetic to his client's crime of passion than would women, but in the TV version the jury is a mix of genders. After Ashley leaves the stand, Keller, the ballistics expert, follows. Having already told the viewer what happened to lead up to the trial, Fay dispenses with the story's flashback sequence in which Ashley hires the private eye, choosing instead to proceed straight through Keller's direct testimony.

When Robison meets with Ashley at the end of the day, Fay introduces some clever new dialogue to the scene, after Ashley offers Robison $2,000,000: "'We're not saints, Mark, nor are we living in a society of saints. I sometimes wonder if that apple that got stuck in Adam's throat wasn't a rolled-up fifty dollar bill.'" The teleplay reminds us that temptation goes way back: Ashley is comparing himself to Satan. We don't know it yet, but he already knows that Mark is Eve's lover when he tempts the attorney with cash to compromise his ethics, an act that will provide Lloyd with the freedom to murder Mark.

Lori March as Eve Ashley

We don't see Mark buy the gun, as we do in the story, but we do see him test it by slamming it down on his desk, to no effect. A close-up shows his thumb releasing the safety catch before he shoots himself in the arm, and Mark lies to the doctor and says that the gun went off when he slammed it on the desk. This is conveyed in the story without being said directly. Mark then asks the doctor if he believes that the safety catch was on when the gun went off, and the doctor replies that "'I'm not a jury, Mr. Robison,'" suggesting that he does not believe the attorney's statement.

Mark's cross-examination of Keller features quite a bit of the lawyer favoring his wounded arm and calling attention to his sling and thus to his injury. The subsequent verdict is not shown; instead, there is a dissolve from Keller looking at the gun to Lloyd and Mark celebrating in Mark's office. In the story, Lloyd tells Mark that "'I've been planning on this for two days. Finding your gun merely accelerated the timetable.'" In the TV show, Lloyd appears to discover the gun in Mark's desk drawer and make the sudden decision to use it, first hiding it behind his back and then shooting Mark. The show ends on a shot of Mark, dying of the gunshot wound, and omits Lloyd's subsequent suicide, presumably an act that would not be allowed by the censors. In his epilogue, Hitchcock states that Lloyd was tried for Mark's murder and convicted, confirming that his end was different than it was in Masur's story.

Herbert Anderson as Keller

William Fay's adaptation of "The $2,000,000 Defense" follows the short story's plot closely but reorders events to present them in a straightforward, chronological fashion, adding dialogue in key spots and removing the unacceptable conclusion. The result is another outstanding half-hour of television.

This episode was the first to air that was directed by Norman Lloyd (1914- ), who had joined the TV series the year before as associate producer. Born Norman Perlmutter, Lloyd began performing on stage as a child and was active in theater in New York City in the 1930s. He was a charter member of the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles and began acting on radio in the late 1930s and on film in 1939. He appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and Spellbound (1945) and he acted on television from 1956 to 2010, including appearances in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also appeared on Night Gallery and was a regular on the series, St. Elsewhere (1982-88). As associate producer or producer, he worked on both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour from 1957 to 1965, and as director, he helmed many TV episodes from 1951 to 1984, including 19 installments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and three of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Edwin Jerome as Judge Cobb
Starring as attorney Mark Robison is Barry Sullivan (1912-1994), who was born Patrick Barry Sullivan and who appeared on radio starting in the 1930s and on Broadway from 1936 to 1956. He was in films from 1936 to 1987 and on TV from 1953 to 1981. Sullivan was a regular on several TV series: The Man Called X (1956-57), Harbormaster (1957-58), The Tall Man (1960-62), and The Road West (1966-67). He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for movies and the other for TV). Sullivan appeared on Night Gallery twice and was also in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Herbert C. Lytton as the doctor
Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010) plays Lloyd Ashley, on trial for murder. Nielsen was born in Canada and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force before moving to New York City and joining the Actors Studio. He appeared on TV from 1950 to 2007 and in films from 1956 to 2011, and he, too, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Among his many films are Forbidden Planet (1956), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Airplane! (1980), Creepshow (1982), and The Naked Gun (1988). He was a regular on the TV series The New Breed (1961-62) and Police Squad! (1982) and he was seen on Thriller, Night Gallery, two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and "The Magic Shop" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Nielsen's mid-career switch to deadpan comedy began with Airplane! but his role on "The $2,000,000 Defense" is completely serious.

Playing Herrick, the prosecuting attorney, is Wendell Holmes (1914-1962), who started out in radio in the 1930s and who had a screen career that was mostly on television from 1955 to 1962. He appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Twelve Hour Caper," which premiered 11 days after his death.

In smaller roles:

  • Lori March (1923-2013) as Eve Ashley; she was best known for daytime soap operas such as As the World Turns (1963-65) and The Secret Storm (1966-74).

  • Herbert Anderson (1917-1994) as Keller, the ballistics expert; he was on screen from 1940 to 1975, appearing in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and two episodes of Batman, but he is best remembered for his role as Henry Mitchell, father of Dennis the Menace on the series that ran from 1959 to 1963.
  • Edwin Jerome (1885-1959) as Judge Cobb; born Edwin Jerome Rath, he was on screen from 1929 to 1959 and he was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Little White Frock." His wife Helene was the victim in a celebrated murder case in 1958.
  • Herbert C. Lytton (1897-1981) as the doctor who tends to Mark's gunshot wound; born Herbert Lytton Cress, he was on screen from 1937 to 1966 and had a small role in "Revenge" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Harold Q. Masur (1909-2005), who wrote the short story, was a practicing lawyer who began to write mystery short stories for the pulps in 1938 and whose first novel, Bury Me Deep, was published in 1947. He continued writing novels until 1981 and short stories until 1989, and in 1973 he was elected president of the Mystery Writers of America. Masur edited some Alfred Hitchcock short story collections but, other than "The $2,000,000 Defense," none of his works were adapted for the screen except for Bury Me Deep, which was done on US TV in 1959 and in Japan as a film in 1963.

"The $2,000,000 Defense" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.


"The $2,000,000 Defense." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 5, CBS, 2 Nov. 1958. 

The FictionMags Index, 

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


Masur, Harold Q. "The $2,000,000 Defense." Hitchcock in Prime Time, Avon, 1985, pp. 163–179. 

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central, 

A Visit with HAROLD Q. MASUR, by Gary Lovisi, 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: "Safety for the Witness," starring Art Carney!


Grant said...

It's always tricky watching one of Leslie Nielsen's completely serious roles, but that's part of the entertainment.
A good one is one of his two COLUMBO episodes, "Lady In Waiting." He makes a very good straight man for Peter Falk.

Jack Seabrook said...

I can't watch him in a serious role without thinking of Airplane or Naked Gun.

Grant said...