Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part Two: Last Request [3.8]

by Jack Seabrook

Joel Murcott's teleplay, "Last Request," was based on a short story of the same name by Helen Fislar Brooks that was published in the January 1957 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The story begins with Gerald Daniels sitting in his cell on death row, writing a letter to the editor of the Tribune-Star. Daniels claims that District Attorney Bernard Butler is a fool who won a murder conviction for a crime that Daniels did not commit. The convict claims that he was with the wife of Dr. Raymond when Rufus Clark was murdered, yet she will not support his alibi.

Daniels reminds the editor of a case from August 1953, where the D.A. concluded that Nancy Judson had killed her husband and then herself. Nancy was a pretty, young woman whose husband was often away on business. She went to a bar, met a man, and let him drive her home and come in for a nightcap. The man found a gun in her purse, a gun that Nancy's husband Harry had bought her to protect herself. When he came home unexpectedly and found his wife with a strange man, her husband attacked, and the man grabbed the gun and shot the jealous husband. Nancy's impending scream was silenced with a second, fatal gunshot. The man staged the scene to make it look like a murder/suicide and the district attorney accepted this explanation of the tragedy.

"Last Request" was 
first published here

Daniels then relates the truth about the murder of Arnold Gillen, for which Joseph Ackley was convicted and electrocuted. The real killer was a different man, to whom Gillen owed money, who killed Gillen with a hammer blow to the head. Daniels mocks D.A. Butler's prosecution of Ackley and mentions that Butler aspires to be governor. At the end of the letter, Daniels admits that it was he who murdered the Judsons and Gillen.

The letter finished, Daniels seals it in an envelope and gives it to the guard, asking that it be delivered as his last request. Having finally confessed his guilt in writing, Daniels is tortured by the memory of the people he killed and by the man who was put to death in error for one of the murders. Suddenly, the warden arrives with good news: Mrs. Raymond changed her mind and admitted that Daniels was with her at the time of the Clark murder, so he will not be executed. If only he had not written the letter confessing to three murders--the warden assures him that it was sent by messenger and is already in the editor's hands.

Harry Guardino as Gerald Daniels

"Last Request" is a rather brief story that depends on its clever twist ending, where Daniels's thirst for vengeance ends up providing proof of his guilt. He deserves to be punished for murder and, as the story ends, it appears that he is a bigger fool than the district attorney.

This was the first published story for Helen Fislar Brooks (1904-1992), who was born in Illinois and who died in North Carolina. Five of her stories appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine between 1957 and 1964, and she also has a couple of credits in Coronet in 1958-1959. "Last Request" was her only story to be adapted for television.

The TV version aired on CBS on Sunday, November 24, 1957, with a script by Joel Murcott. It was directed by Paul Henreid and starred Harry Guardino as Daniels. The show opens with the prisoner's pants leg being cut in preparation for execution. When a prison barber tries to shave his head, however, Daniels refuses, prompting the warden to tell him: "'You'd better let him do it, Daniels. There aren't going to be any women witnessing the execution.'" Daniels is portrayed as a ladies' man, something that was hinted at in the story but becomes the central aspect of his character in the TV show. While the short story begins with Daniels already writing the letter, the TV show adds new scenes to set up the situation.

Cara Williams as Mona Carstairs

Daniels's last request is for "'a typewriter and some paper,'" as well as a special messenger to deliver the letter he is about to write. A typewriter is brought into the cell and Daniels loads a sheet of paper and begins to type, narrating his letter in voice over. There is a dissolve to a scene from five years before, where a detective takes Daniels to see D.A. Butler at his office. Daniels is well-dressed and cocky and the D.A. reveals that he has been arrested five times on bunco charges but either the victims have been married woman who were afraid to press charges or he had other women provide his alibis. Butler tells Daniels that he is secretly a misogynist and predicts that a woman will be his downfall. Adding the character of Butler strengthens the TV show; he is mentioned in the short story but never seen.

Subsequent scenes alternate between shots of Daniels typing in his cell, his words heard in voice over, and flashbacks depicting his encounters with various women. He picks one up in a bar and another writes him a check. The camera angles used in the shots of Daniels typing in his cell recall classic film noir; one shot looks down at him from overhead, while others look up at him from below and are tilted.

Hugh Marlowe as Bernard Butler

In another flashback, a character named Mona Carstairs is introduced; she is not in the short story. Mona is a pretty, hardboiled woman whose ex-husband physically abuses her and who works at the bar where Daniels goes to meet women. She strikes up a conversation with him, telling him that she needs money to get away from her former spouse and making it clear that she recognizes Daniels as a wolf. Daniels picks up Nancy Judson, as he does in the story, but the dialogue between them is more extensive in the TV version. Mona observes Daniels leaving the bar with Nancy, something that will be important later in the show.

The murder of the Judsons at their home plays out in a similar way as it does in the short story, but in the TV show Daniels is more aggressive, grabbing Nancy and forcibly kissing her just as her husband enters the house. There is more noir camerawork in this scene as Harry enters the room under the high contrast light from a ceiling fixture, then steps into shadows before emerging to slap his wife and attack Daniels. As in the story, the narrator shoots the husband and wife and then covers up his crime; however, there is no secret about who the killer is in the TV show, whereas in the story, Daniels holds back this information until the end of his letter. Back in his cell, Daniels continues to type as he relates the events, and another new scene is inserted as D.A. Butler is seen at the home of the Jacobs family, telling reporters that he is satisfied with the explanation of murder and suicide.

Karin Booth as
Sheila Raymond

At this point, the TV show diverges from the short story. Daniels makes a big wager on a horse and loses, which causes him to be threatened by Clark, a bookie, who confronts the narrator in the same bar where Daniels met Nancy Judson. Mona Carstairs sees it all and asks Daniels about it, telling him that she needs $200 to get away from her ex-husband and get out of town. She remembers seeing him leave with Nancy Judson and blackmails him for the money she needs, suggesting that she will tell the police about his involvement if he does not pay. Daniels agrees to meet her the next night with the money and there is a dissolve to the following evening, when Daniels waits in the shadows of the alley behind the bar. Mona emerges from the back door and he kills her by hitting her over the head with a blunt object.

Joel Murcott replaces the murder of Arnold Gillen in the short story with Mona's murder in the TV show; in the story, Gillen owed money to Daniels but could not pay, so Daniels killed him. In the TV show, the situation is reversed and it is Daniels who owes money and cannot pay. Now the man who is wrongly convicted of murder is Mona's ex-husband, who is shown on the witness stand in a short courtroom scene, protesting his innocence as he is cross-examined by Butler.

Jennifer Lea as Nancy Judson

The last flashback portrays Daniels's evening with Sheila Raymond, who is mentioned in the short story but never seen. While they kiss on a sofa in her living room, the bookie, Clark, calls Daniels and tells him that he has one hour to come up with the $500 he owes. Daniels talks Sheila into giving him $1000 (a chiseler to the end) and she agrees but tells him that she never wants to see him again, giving her a good reason for later refusing to provide him with an alibi. Daniels is then seen on a dark street, approaching a car in which Clark sits. When Daniels opens the car door, Clark falls out, dead, and a passing cop sees Daniels and arrests him for the bookie's murder. In the short story, Daniels writes that he did not kill Rufus Clark, but there are no details of who Clark is or how he was killed. In the TV show, Joel Murcott builds a story around Clark's character and demonstrates why Daniels is telling the truth when he says he was wrongly convicted of this murder.

Mike Ross as
Frank Carstairs

Daniels finishes his letter and gives it to the guard. The anguish he feels over the murders he did commit in the short story has been removed from the TV show, where Daniels is an unrepentant killer. The warden and D.A. Butler visit together to break the news of his impending freedom; having Butler deliver the news is a good way to close the loop of the relationship between the two men--one is honest and admits his mistake, while the other is dishonest and only confesses because he thinks it will hurt someone he hates. The warden tells Daniels that his secretary is reading the letter for censorship and the TV show ends with Daniels yelling through the cell bars for his missive.

Joel Murcott's teleplay for "Last Request" succeeds in adding depth to the character of Daniels, adding new scenes and more women and having the district attorney participate more actively in the events. The predatory nature of the main character is well-displayed. In "Last Request," a short story with a clever twist becomes an examination of a pathological misogynist and murderer who gets his just desserts. The end result is the same, but the expanded version is more satisfying. The TV show features excellent direction by Paul Henreid, who is able to tell the story clearly in images despite a complex series of flashbacks and voice over narrative scenes. The shadowy camerawork makes for a good example of TV noir, and director of photography John L. Russell is likely responsible for much of the show's look.

Fred Kruger as
the warden

Director Paul Henreid (1908-1992) began his career as a film actor. His career as a director started in the early 1950s, and he directed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "A Little Sleep."

Harry Guardino (1925-1995) stars as Gerald Daniels. He served in the Navy in WWII and was on screen from 1951 to 1993. He also appeared on Broadway many times between 1953 and 1983. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, but he was in episodes of The Outer Limits and Night Gallery. Guardino starred in the TV series The Reporter (1964) and Monty Nash (1971) and played Hamilton Burger in The New Perry Mason (1973-1974). He was also in Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971).

Playing the unfortunate waitress Mona Carstairs is Cara Williams (1925- ), who was born Beatrice Kamiat in Brooklyn and who was married to John Drew Barrymore at the time this show was filmed. Her screen career lasted from 1941 to 1982 and she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for The Defiant Ones (1958). She starred in Pete and Gladys (1960-1962) and The Cara Williams Show (1964-1965). This was one of four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in which she appeared; one other was "The Cure."

Robert Carson
as Harry Judson

Hugh Marlowe (1911-1982) is believable as District Attorney Bernard Butler. Born Hugh Herbert Hipple, he started onstage in the 1930s and also appeared on radio. He played Ellery Queen on radio and television and appeared in movies beginning in 1936. He had a role in All About Eve (1950) and began appearing in TV shows that year. He was seen in six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "John Brown's Body." Later in life, he was a regular on the soap opera, Another World, from 1969 to 1982.

Robin Morse as Clark

In smaller roles:
  • Karin Booth (1916-2003) as Sheila Raymond, who gives Daniels an alibi a bit too late; born June Francis Hoffman, she was on screen from 1941 to 1964.
  • Jennifer Lea (1934- ) as Nancy Judson, who brings the wrong man home from a bar; she was on screen from 1956 to 1968.
  • Mike Ross (1911-1983) as Frank Carstairs, who is convicted of murdering his ex-wife despite asserting his innocence in court; he was on screen from 1948 to 1983 and appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Shopping for Death."
  • Fred Kruger (1913-1961) as the warden; he was on screen from 1947 to 1961 and appeared in two episodes of The Twilight Zone.
  • Robert Carson (1909-1979) as Harry Judson, who comes home too early from a business trip. Robert was the brother of actor Jack Carson and "Last Request" was the first of his eleven appearances on the Hitchcock show, including "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?"
  • Robin Morse (1915-1958) as Clark, the bookie; he was on screen from 1951 to 1958.
Director of photography John L. Russell (1905-1967), who gives the show a shadowy, noir feel, worked in film from 1948 to 1967 and on TV from 1952 to 1967. He was the director of photography for 75 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and 21 episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and he was behind the camera for 16 of the 19 episodes directed by Hitchcock. Russell also photographed ten episodes of Thriller and, when Hitchcock decided to use his TV crew to shoot Psycho (1960), he brought along John L. Russell to be his director of photography; this was the only film Russell photographed for the master of suspense.

Watch "Last Request" online here or order the DVD here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story! Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here or listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss it here.

Watch how the light changes on
Harry's face as he walks into the room.


Brooks, Helen Fislar. "Last Request." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan. 1957, pp. 124–128., 


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


Last Request, 

"Last Request." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 8, CBS, 24 Nov. 1957. 

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central, 

The Unz Review, 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Feb. 2021, 

In two weeks: "Flight to the East," starring Gary Merrill!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Mink" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "The Manacled" here!


Grant said...

I don't really know this one, but Harry Guardino was always great at playing very emotional characters (he's very good in the OUTER LIMITS episode you mention as a character with a real persecution complex).
Of course, this character sounds more "cold and calculating" than emotional. But again, I don't really know the episode.

Jack Seabrook said...

It's a very good one--you should give it a look!

Grant said...

I'll look for it.