Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part Seven: Ambition [6.38]

by Jack Seabrook

"Ambition" is the driving force behind the actions of assistant district attorney Rudolf Cox, who visits a shabby brownstone where a nervous man named Lou Heintz is staying. Heintz is afraid of a criminal named "Big Mac" Lackey and shows Cox a gold cigarette lighter that Mac left behind after searching Heintz's rooms while Lou was out buying liquor. Heintz fears that he'll be killed by Big Mac or his partner, Ernie Stillinger, before he can testify against them in court, so Cox assures Heintz that he'll station men to watch his building and keep him safe.

Cox leaves Heintz's room and drives a short distance before Big Mac unexpectedly appears and climbs into the car beside him. Big Mac tells Cox that he knows there is no solid evidence against him; he realizes that Rudy is ambitious and has his eye on a career in politics. Big Mac announces that he plans to get married and give up his life of crime. The two men grew up together and Mac saved Rudy's life during the war; Rudy gave Mac the gold cigarette lighter to thank him. Their lives then went in opposite directions--Mac toward crime and Rudy toward law enforcement. Rudy knows that putting Mac in jail would help his own career and Mac's plan to give up on crime could make that difficult.

"Ambition" was first published here.

The next morning, Lt. Walker approaches Cox at home to say that Heintz was murdered the night before. Mac's lighter was found in Heintz's room and the fatal bullet came from his gun. Ernie Stillinger has an alibi and Mac claims he was riding in Cox's car at the time of the murder. Cox weighs his loyalty to the man who saved his life against his political career and claims not to have seen Mac in six months, destroying the man's alibi and ensuring his conviction.

"Ambition" is a clever story about the ease with which a man is disloyal to an old friend in order to further his own career. It was published in the August 1960 issue of Keyhole Mystery Magazine and its author, Charles Boeckman (1920-2015), was one of the few writers who came of age during the pulp era and survived long enough to see a revival of interest in his work. He wrote short stories beginning in 1945 and had his stories published in the pulps and the digests that followed. He also wrote novels under his own name and pseudonyms; his topics included crime fiction, westerns, and erotica. Boeckman was also an accomplished jazz musician. His autobiography was published in 2015 and his papers are archived at the University of Oregon.

Joel Murcott adapted "Ambition" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the episode aired on NBC on Tuesday, July 4, 1961, as the final show of the sixth season. The show was directed by Paul Henreid and stars Leslie Nielsen as Cox. Murcott had to expand the story to fill the TV show's running time, but the additions are not entirely successful.

Leslie Nielsen as Rudy Cox
The short story begins with Cox putting away his gardening tools and driving to see Heintz. He only learns that Heintz's location has been discovered when Heintz shows him Big Mac's lighter. In the TV show, the exposition is done in the first scene by showing Cox working in his garden when his assistant, Cliff Woodman, arrives and tells him that everybody knows that they have Lou Heinz, who has been involved with Mac Davis and Ernie Stillinger, two "'top racketeers.'" Cox is angry that his first break as district attorney has been ruined and Woodman says that the mayor is waiting to talk to him. In the TV version, Cox is already the D.A., while in the story he is still the assistant D.A., hoping to move up the ladder.

The second scene finds Mac arriving at the building where Heinz is staying and entering the man's apartment to find an agitated Stillinger searching the room. Stillinger pulls a gun and smashes an empty liquor bottle against a wall. He wants to kill Heinz to prevent him from testifying, but Mac calms him down, telling him that the D.A. owes him a favor and promising to fix the problem tonight. As they talk, Mac hands Ernie his lighter so Ernie can light a cigarette; the men are distracted by a car pulling away outside and we never see what happens to the lighter. This scene contrasts the calm Mac with the angry Ernie and shows how the lighter ends up left behind for Heinz to find.

Harold J. Stone as Mac Davis
Scene three takes place in the mayor's office as Cox and Woodman explain to the mayor how Heinz's location has been discovered. The mayor is skeptical about the value of Heinz as a witness, since he was locked up in the jail for drunkenness and kept no paper records of his accounting work for Davis. The mayor reveals that Cox and Davis are old friends, but Cox denies having seen Davis since he became D.A. The mayor needles him for a lack of major crimes uncovered on Rudy's watch and suggests that Cox is protecting his old friend from prosecution. Chiding Rudy for his lack of ambition, the mayor suggests that if Rudy can secure a conviction of Mac Davis, he could go a long way toward ensuring that he will be elected the next mayor and, eventually, governor. "'If you don't get an indictment and a conviction this time,'" says the mayor, "'you're through.'"

The fourth scene picks up where the short story left off, with Rudy visiting Heinz in his rooms. Heinz is a sweaty, nervous drunk, who immediately shows Rudy the cigarette lighter left behind by Davis--it is engraved, "To M.D. with gratitude 1944." In the short story, we learn from Rudy's thoughts that it was he who gave the lighter to Mac for saving his life during the war. In the TV show, the viewer is left to ponder what the inscription means until a later scene where it is explained. Woodman drives Cox to Heinz's location and drives away with him after Cox visits the witness in his room; thus, the incident in the short story where Big Mac gets in Cox's car after Cox leaves Heintz's room cannot happen, because Cox is with Woodman.

Ann Robinson as Helen Cox
Instead, as Woodman drives away with Cox, we see Ernie Stillinger sitting in a car outside Heinz's building, smoking a cigarette and looking menacingly up at Heinz's window. From this brief shot we can assume that it is Stillinger who later murders Heinz.

Woodman drops Cox off at home after dark where he is met by his beautiful wife, Helen, who is dressed for a dance that her husband had forgotten. She tells him that he works too hard and he remarks that the mayor said he lacks ambition, a comment that clearly rankles him. Rudy begs off and Helen goes to the dance alone. Adding the character of Rudy's wife sets up a comparison between him and Mac, who shows up at Rudy's front door just before ten o'clock, according to a clock on the kitchen wall. We don't know it yet, but the brief shot of the clock to establish the time will be important in the final scene. Rudy first tries to keep Mac from entering, then pulls a gun from a drawer and points it at Mac until the criminal shows that he is not armed.

Bernard Kates as Lou Heinz
Mac is charming and relaxed, while Rudy is nervous and jumpy at the unexpected visit from his old friend. In the kitchen, Rudy reluctantly gives Mac a cup of coffee and refuses to drop his investigation. This scene replaces the one in the short story where Rudy and Mac talk in Rudy's car. Now, Rudy tells Mac that he knows Mac was in Heinz's room because he left his lighter behind. The lighter was given in thanks for Mac saving Rudy's life, "'that night in Germany when you dragged me across that field.'" Mac understands that a big conviction could help Rudy succeed in politics, but the aging criminal says he is "'fixed for life'" and wants to get married. In short, Mac wants what Rudy has-- a safe, happy life with a beautiful wife. Mac tells Rudy that he is giving up on crime and he is confident that Rudy will convict someone else and succeed in his career. Mac wants Rudy to leave him alone, "'for old time's sake.'"

Mac asks Rudy to get him the lighter and Rudy wishes him luck. As Mac leaves, it looks like the two men have reached an understanding, but the show's final scene demonstrates that this is not the case. The next morning, the sun is shining and Rudy is again working in his garden, with his wife Helen near him, watering the lawn. A police lieutenant arrives and the dialogue between him and Cox plays out almost verbatim when compared to the final page of the short story.

Harry Landers as Ernie Stillinger
The TV version of "Ambition" adds new scenes and new characters to flesh out the short story, but the key events do not change. The strongest scenes are those that mirror scenes in the source: the dialogue between Rudy and Mac in the car/kitchen and the final scene, when the truth of Rudy's ambition is made plain. The show's best performance comes from Harold J. Stone as Mac; he is convincing as a man who can be big and menacing but no longer has to prove his strength.

"Ambition" is directed by Paul Henreid (1908-1992), who 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."

Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010) plays Rudy Cox, the district attorney. 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 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 in "Ambition" is completely serious.

Charles Arnt as the mayor
Mac Davis is played by Harold J. Stone (1913-2005), a familiar character actor who started on TV in 1949 and in film in 1956. He had a part in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) and another in House of Numbers (1957), based on the novel by Jack Finney. He was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Night the World Ended," based on a story by Fredric Brown, as well as an episode of The Twilight Zone and two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including Henry Slesar's "The Second Verdict." Stone also appeared in two Roger Corman films in the 1960s: X--The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967). He appeared in many TV episodes well into the 1980s.

In supporting roles:
  • Ann Robinson (1929- ) as Rudy's wife, Helen; born in Hollywood, she was on screen from 1949 to 2020 and her most famous role was in War of the Worlds (1953).
  • Bernard Kates (1922-2010) as Lou Heinz; a bomber pilot in WWII, Kates was on screen from 1949 to 1999, including an appearance on The Outer Limits. He was in "I Kiss Your Shadow" on Bus Stop and he appeared in two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Right Kind of Medicine."
  • Harry Landers (1921-2017) as Ernie Stillinger; born Harry Sorokin, he served in the Merchant Marine in WWII and was on screen from 1947 to 1991. He had a bit part in Rear Window (1954), appeared on Star Trek, and was a semi-regular on Ben Casey (1961-1966). This was one of his three appearances in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Day of the Bullet."
  • Charles Arnt (1906-1990) as George, the mayor; he had small roles in many films between 1933 and 1962 and this episode was one of last parts.
  • Charles Carlson (1906-1990) as Cliff Woodman, Rudy's assistant; he worked on TV from 1961 to 1967 and was seen on The Twilight Zone and in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Where Beauty Lies."
Charles Carlson as Cliff Woodman
  • Howard McLeod as the police lieutenant in the last scene; his brief TV career lasted only from 1960 to 1962 but he managed to play policemen in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents during that time, including "Burglar Proof."
Howard McLeod as the lieutenant
  • Syl Lamont (1912-1982) as a hood at the beginning of the second scene who tells Mac where to find Stillinger and Heinz; he was on screen from 1950 to 1975 and appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "A Tangled Web."
Syl Lamont as the hood

"Ambition" may be viewed online here.

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story!


"Ambition" Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 38, NBC, 4 July 1961. 

Boeckman, Charles. "Ambition." Keyhole Mystery Magazine, Aug. 1960, pp. 27-32. 

Bold Venture Press,

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred HITCHCOCK Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central, 
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: "What Frightened You, Fred?" starring R.G. Armstrong and Ed Asner!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Creeper" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Sybilla" here!


Grant said...

I don't know what else I know Bernard Kates from, but he's very good in his OUTER LIMITS episode, "Nightmare" (playing two different roles).

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't seen that one in years but I remember the Ebonite vividly.