Thursday, February 9, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Harlan Ellison: Memo From Purgatory [10.10]

by Jack Seabrook

Long before he was a famous science fiction writer, Harlan Ellison moved to New York City in 1954 and decided to go undercover and join a street gang so that he could learn about it from the inside and write about it with insight. He used his experiences in various short stories and novels and, in 1961, published Memos From Purgatory, a non-fiction account of his time as Phil "Cheech" Beldone, a member of the Barons. Ellison later explained that the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour bought the rights to his book in 1962, before Ellison had ever written a teleplay and before the first episode of the hour-long Hitchcock show had aired.

Ellison wrote the teleplay in January 1962 but it sat on a shelf for over two years until it was filmed as "Memo From Purgatory" and aired on NBC on Monday, December 21, 1964, well into the show's third and final season. In a 1969 introduction to a reprint edition of his book, the author wrote that the TV show "was hardly consistent with the truth of what really happened," even though Ellison himself wrote the teleplay and must have thought well enough of it not to use one of the pseudonyms he put on TV shows he disdained.

First edition
Ellison's original script is included in Brain Movies, volume one, but the purpose of this essay is to compare the book with what ended up on the small screen.

Memos From Purgatory is a book in two parts: the first half details Ellison's time with the street gang in 1954, while the second half tells of 24 hours he spent in a New York City jail in 1960. As the story begins, Beldone (Ellison's alias) gets a job driving a Coke truck on the docks and begins to hang out at a candy store/malt shop run by Ben Adelstein. After watching the shop, he enters with a tough attitude and confronts kids who have their backs to the counter and their feet against the opposite wall in order to create a barricade. He shows his mettle and they let him pass; after insulting one of their girls, he buys a round of Cokes and begins to chat with the gang members. A week later, Cheech is asked to join the Barons.

The president is named Pooch and his vice president is Fish; that night, Cheech is taken to a tenement basement for initiation; he is put in front of a bright light and knocked around the room before he swears allegiance. Stripped to the waist, he is made to run a gauntlet between boys in the gang as they try to whip him with the sharpened buckles of their belts. He next has to pick a girl to sleep with and chooses Filene; the two retire to a private basement room and consummate their union.

James Caan as Jay Shaw/Phil Beldone
The final step in Cheech's initiation is to take part in a rumble. There is tension with gang members named Candle and Fat Barky and, when Flo accuses Cheech of attacking her at the malt shop, Candle attacks him and Pooch announces that their differences will be settled in a stand, or a duel. That Saturday, the gang gathers at the waterfront to watch a brutal knife fight between Cheech and Candle; each has one arm tied behind his back and they hold opposite corners of a handkerchief in their teeth to maintain proximity. Cheech manages to survive and knocks Candle down but spares his adversary.

In the weeks that follow, rumors of a rumble spread between the Barons and a rival gang called the Puerto Rican Flyers. Weapons are procured and a brutal battle in Prospect Park ensues. Cheech barely survives the rumble and returns to his room, where he gathers up his possessions and leaves for good.

The first half of Memos From Purgatory is an exciting, true-life story where the author engages in a lot of moralizing. The second part of the book, where he spends a day in jail six years after his time in the gang, does not hold up as well and is far less interesting to read.

When Ellison adapted the book for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, he focused on the first section, where he joins the gang. Unfortunately, the plot was nowhere near enough to fill an hour of TV time, so he expanded the story in ways that were not as successful. The show starts out promisingly, with the opening credits playing over a jazzy score by Lalo Schifrin and the writing credit reading "Teleplay by Harlan Ellison, Based Upon His Autobiographical Work: 'Memos From Purgatory.'" Ellison is played by a young James Caan in one of his earliest screen roles; the show opens with establishing shots of the New York City skyline and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Lynn Loring as Filene
Voiceover narration tells the viewer that the author saved up money and quit college (Ellison was expelled) to come to New York City to "'find out if the streets of Manhattan really were paved with gold.'" The character is renamed Jay Shaw (Ellison's middle name was Jay) and director Joseph Pevney uses what looks like a brief, handheld camera shot of Shaw walking down the sidewalk as his narration explains that he wanted to write a novel about juvenile delinquency based on "'a new view, a truthful view--from the inside.'" Shaw walks straight into the camera and, as his narration reveals that he went undercover as Phil Beldone, the screen goes black for a moment and then the shot continues with Shaw walking away from the camera, his back turned; he has changed clothes from jacket and tie to T-shirt and his hair is now slicked back into a ducktail. The smile on his face has been replaced with a scowl that he will wear for most of the rest of the show.

We see Shaw exit the front door of his new home as he explains in voiceover that it's located in a tough neighborhood called Red Hook. The camera pulls back to watch from across the street and then there's a tracking shot as Shaw walks along the sidewalk, still narrating. He stops in front of a store that's located below street level; the sign painted on the window reads, "Candies, Malt Shop." The opening sequence of "Memo From Purgatory" is effective in setting the stage for what follows, as Shaw enters "'the turf.'"

He walks down the stairs and into the malt shop and we hear rock and roll playing on a jukebox inside. The Barons and their debs are sitting at the soda counter and there is a room in back where teenagers are dancing. Ominously, a Baron pulls down a shade on the front door and the scene at first plays out as it does in the book, with Phil having to walk past the Barons as they block his way with their legs. Pevney uses a mix of closeups, medium shots, and tracking shots to underline the tension inherent in the situation. Unlike the book, however, Ellison sets up a conflict between Phil and Candle right away; Candle does not move his legs to let Phil pass and Phil disrespects him by asking to speak with Tiger. From the start, Candle displays a psychotic smile and attitude. In addition, the Barons' lack of respect for the older generation is shown when the proprietor of the shop tries to defend Phil and Fish, sitting next to Candle, immediately grabs him and silences him.

Walter Koenig as Tiger
To add to the tension, Phil insults Candle, leading to a brief action sequence where Phil grabs Fish and holds a knife to his throat. Candle pops open his own switchblade and it looks like a knife fight is in the offing, but Tiger appears and defuses the situation, demonstrating that he is the gang's leader. We get our first look at Filene here and she is by far the prettiest of the Baron debs. Candle threatens Phil, who replies, "'take it up with my agent,'" a remark that seems tough but also slyly refers to his aspiration to be a writer. Tiger and Phil sit together in a booth in the back room and talk and Tiger is clearly amused by Phil and impressed by his bravery. Walter Koenig is excellent as Tiger, in a much more magnetic performance than the one given by Caan, who seems tentative.

There is a cut to the Barons' basement headquarters a few days later; we see another brief sequence where the gang members and their girls dance to rock and roll music. Phil is led in, blindfolded, for the initiation, and the sequence where he runs the gauntlet between rows of Barons swinging belts is remarkably similar to that in the book and surprisingly brutal for a 1964 TV show. There is a brief cut to Filene, who watches with a look of horror on her face; the shots of her to this point help set up her role in the rest of the episode.

The second part of the initiation in the book involves Phil having sex with Filene, which (of course) had to be changed for TV. Instead of coming together in a dingy room in the basement next to the room where Phil runs the gauntlet, Filene appears at the door of Phil's room, telling him that Tiger sent her to be his deb, if he wants her. She admits that she volunteered for the role and Phil suggests that they "'just tell 'em what they want to hear,'" implying that they forego sex and agree to lie to the gang members and debs about what they have done. They smoke cigarettes together, as if they have just finished having sex, and Filene explains that the third part of the initiation is participation in a rumble. She tells Phil that he's "'different from the others'" and warns him to be careful.

Tony Musante as Candle
The first part of "Memo From Purgatory" is excellent, following the events of the book closely and setting up interesting characters and conflicts. Unfortunately, there's not much more of the TV show that comes from the book, and what follows is less successful. Phil is shown with typed pages of his notes as he explains in voiceover that he was told to get ready to rumble. The book's knife fight/duel between Phil and Candle is replaced with a scene where the gang members rob and attack a lone man on a park bench at night; when Candle threatens to beat the man with a tire iron, Phil intervenes and the man runs away. Tiger arrives and takes Phil's side over Candle, replacing Candle with Phil as the gang's war counselor. Once again, Tiger demonstrates why he's the gang's leader, calming the situation with authority and clearly impressed with Phil's "'smarts.'"

The TV show then goes off in an entirely different direction than the story. There is no rumble and Phil does not gather his possessions and leave. Instead, Candle and Slats (another gang member who smiles slightly less psychotically) break into Phil's room when he's not there. Their intention is to attack him but, when they discover he's gone, they trash the place and find Phil's notes hidden in a folder behind the desk. Slats reads them out loud and we learn that the rumble occurred the night before, meaning that the last big action sequence in the book has been deleted from the TV show. Instead, the discovery of Phil's notes gives Candle leverage against him, as the crazy gang member discovers that Phil is recording the gang's crimes.

Zalman King as Fish
Later that night, Phil and Filene return to his room after a date, laughing together like two kids in love, only to find that his room has been wrecked and his notes are gone. Phil confesses the truth to Filene: "'I'm a writer--at least I want to be one. I came here to write a book about gangs like the Barons.'" She does not react well to the news and accuses Phil of betraying her trust. Two Barons appear at Phil's door and the show breaks for commercial, with the story having gone in a different direction than the book, one that is completely fictional.

In Act Three, Phil is seated in the Barons' headquarters as Tiger reads aloud from his notes. Phil insists that he just wanted to write the truth, but the gang members don't accept his explanation. The tension and excitement of the show's early scenes are absent from this section, where Tiger initially seems inclined to give Phil a break until he is confronted with unflattering passages from Phil's notes about him. For the first time in the show, Candle succeeds in manipulating Tiger, and now Shaw is clearly in trouble. Yet the suspense created in the show's early scenes is missing from this section, which also suffers from lack of music.

Simon Scott as the public defender
Tiger hands Phil an empty gun and tells him that he'll be out front in a rumble with the rival gang, the Flyers. Regular cuts to shots of Filene looking horrified suggest that she is not as angry at Phil as her initial reaction to his confession suggested.

After a long, dull portion of the show set in the Barons' clubhouse, where the characters do little but talk, the action moves back outside and once again there is evocative music on the soundtrack as the gang members emerge and spread out on the shadowy city street at night. The two gangs approach each other in the dark as jazzy, percussive notes play on the soundtrack. Once again, Pevney creates tension and excitement with various shots, until Phil leaps behind the cab of a passing truck and then heads down into a cobbler's shop to escape the impending violence.

He pretends that he means to rob the shop owner, then drops his gun, allowing the man to pick it up and hold him at gunpoint. Candle bursts in, holding a rifle, but the shop owner fires at him and the Barons scatter. The cobbler calls the police and ignores Phil's protestations that he is innocent. Suddenly, the events of the TV show begin to recall the second section of Ellison's book, where the author is wrongly arrested and taken to jail. We see Phil in court, with a busy, distracted lawyer assigned to defend him. Shaw spends time in a cell but is quickly let out; surprisingly, his bail was posted by none other than Filene.

Mark Slade as Slats
Another tracking shot follows Phil walking down a dark city sidewalk at night, with more of Schifrin's percussive score on the soundtrack. The author removes his jacket and throws it off to the side, symbolically discarding his identity as a member of the Barons. He hears Filene call to him from an alley and he goes to her, but she is being used as bait and Candle grabs Shaw and holds him while Tiger threatens him with a knife.

A quick cut shows a woman observe the events in the street from an upstairs window; she runs from the window and we assume she is calling the police. Suddenly this show, which aired in December 1964, has a timely feel, since Kitty Genovese had been murdered in New York City in March of that year and her killer was tried in June. "Memo From Purgatory" was likely filmed a few months after the trial, and the brief shot of the woman in the window suggests that viewers would have made the connection between the Genovese case, where news reports initially said witnesses ignored the murder, and the events of the TV show.

Johnny Silver as Ben
Shaw apologizes to Filene and, as Tiger is about to rush at him, she intervenes and is herself fatally stabbed. Tiger and Candle run for it but are stopped by police cars that appear on the scene. The final shot shows Shaw holding Filene, who is either dead or dying.

"Memo From Purgatory" is a strong effort from a writer new to television. Ellison takes the events of his book and uses them to create the show's most effective sequences, but the need to avoid extreme violence and expand the narrative result in the loss of one of the book's most effective scenes, the knife fight between Beldone and Candle, and the addition of the long sequence in the Barons' clubhouse is too talky. Filene's character becomes more prominent in the TV show, though her death at the end is an unnecessary cliche. The direction by Joseph Pevney is strong in the opening and closing sequences, though the middle section is dull. Finally, while James Caan is rather wooden in the lead role, the rest of the gang members give exciting performances.

On Jay Shaw's desk is a first edition
 hardcover of Shield for Murder, a 1951
 crime novel by William P. McGivern.

James Caan (1940-2022) was born in the Bronx, so the setting of this show must have been somewhat familiar to him. After some brief work on stage, he began acting on TV in 1961 and was in movies by 1963. His most famous role was in The Godfather (1972), but he also made a lasting impression in Rollerball (1975) and Misery (1990), where he again plays an author. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Lynn Loring (1944- ) plays Filene. Born in Manhattan, she started out as a child actress in 1951, appearing on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow for a decade.  She worked as an actress, mainly on TV, into the mid-1970s before becoming a producer. Loring was president of MGM/UA Television from 1984 to 1989 and later ran her own production company in Los Angeles. She appeared in one other episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Behind the Locked Door."

The gauntlet
Less than three years before he would join the cast of Star Trek as Chekov and convince viewers that he was Russian, Walter Koenig (1936- ) is utterly convincing as Tiger, the leader of the Barons. He started on screen in 1962 but has spent the last 55+ years (on and off) reprising his Star Trek character. He was also a semi-regular on Babylon 5 (1994-1998); this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Tony Musante (1936-2013) is superb as the frighteningly crazy gang member Candle. He began acting on TV in 1963 and "Memo From Purgatory" was one of his earliest roles. In 1970 he starred in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, an Italian adaptation of Fredric Brown's novel, The Screaming Mimi. Musante had the lead role in the TV series Toma (1973-1974) but quit after one season and was replaced by Robert Blake; the show was renamed Baretta and made Blake a star. Musante continued acting on TV and in film until his death in 2013.

In smaller roles:
  • Zalman King (1942-2012) as Fish; this is his first acting credit. He continued acting, mostly on TV, until the early 1980s, but is best known for his work as a director and producer starting in the late 1980s on films like Two Moon Junction (1988) and Wild Orchid (1989).
  • Simon Scott (1920-1991) as the public defender who speaks to Shaw in court; he was on screen from 1952 to 1985, appeared in three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (including "The Dividing Wall") and one episode of The Twilight Zone, and was a regular on the TV series, Trapper John, M.D. (1979-1985).
  • Mark Slade (1939- ) as Slats, who breaks into Shaw's room with Candle; Slade began acting onscreen in 1961 and continued until 1985. Today he's an artist and writer with a website here.
  • Johnny Silver (1918-2003) as Ben, proprietor of the malt shop; he started on TV in 1950 but his long career really took off that same year when he appeared as Benny Southstreet in the original Broadway cast of Guys and Dolls. Silver played the same role in the 1955 film of the musical and appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Derelicts."
"Memo From Purgatory" is directed by Joseph Pevney (1911-2008), who started out as an actor in vaudeville in the 1920s and had a short career as a film actor from 1946 to 1950. He then became a director and was more successful, directing films from 1950 to 1966, including Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). His career as a TV director spanned the years from 1959 to 1985 and included 14 episodes of Star Trek and five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of which was "Starring the Defense."

The jazzy score is composed by Lalo Schifrin (1932- ), who was born in Argentina. He moved to Los Angeles in 1963; this episode is one of his earliest credits and the only episode of the Hitchcock TV show that he scored. His most famous work is the theme for Mission: Impossible.

Watch "Memo From Purgatory" here.


Ellison, Harlan. Memos From Purgatory. Pyramid, 1975. 

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

"Harlan Hits Hollywood." The Classic TV History Blog, 30 June 2018, 


"Memo From Purgatory." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, season 10, episode 10, NBC, 21 Dec. 1964.

"Memos from Purgatory (1961) by Harlan Ellison." Tipping My Fedora, 

"Walter Koenig." Television Academy Interviews,

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Rose Garden" here!

In two weeks: Things get very weird indeed as we "Consider Her Ways" with author John Wyndham!


Grant said...

I've only seen it about twice, but the scene where they read Beldone's notes has at least one big moment. It's kind of pop psychology, but the notes mention Tiger's height (?) and how he feels the need to have more than one of the debs hanging around him, and Beldone draws some big conclusion from that. The look on Walter Koenig's face when he hears that is one thing that really stays with me.

Jack Seabrook said...

It's not his height, it's that he's "profoundly, almost desperately afraid of the opposite sex." Make of that what you will. Koenig is terrific.

Ted White said...

I knew Harlan well -- the first edition of MEMOS was dedicated to me. So I'm here to tell you that the entire first half of the book is pure fiction. None of it ever happened. The second half has some truth in it -- Harlan's arrest and brief incarceration (which hit him quite hard). I drove his mother in his car through a rare NYC hurricane to his very brief court appearance (where bail was set). When he got back to his apartment (on the same block as mine), I suggested he write up his experience for THE VILLAGE VOICE, for which he was then an occasional columnist. He did, and "Harlan Ellison: Buried in the Tombs" ran across the top of that paper's front page. Publisher William Hamling saw it, commissioned the book, and created the imprint, Regency Books, to publish it.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your comment! Why did Ellison maintain the fiction that it was a true story for so long?

Anonymous said...

He was sharing an apartment with Robert Silverberg (and maybe also Randy Garrett) and working in a Times Square bookstore during the time he claimed involvement in the Red Hook gang. Silverberg says he didn't have the time for gang involvement, but probably took the subway there once or twice to check out the neighborhood. Harlan put together a "kit" consisting of a small revolver, brass knuckles, and a switchblade, which he subsequently used in his "talks" about running with a gang. Someone who didn't like him told the cops he was dealing heroin (absurd!), the cops found his "kit" and arrested him for that. That was in 1960. In 1955 he sold a story to LOWDOWN which was published as by "Cheech Beldone." He did not run into anyone he knew while incarcerated. After he wrote MEMOS he called me up (from Evanston) to read me the dedication and to apologize for the fiction in the book. His incarceration alone did not add up to enough wordage. Why did he cling to the story for so long? Probably because he felt committed to it.

Jack Seabrook said...

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!

Peter Enfantino said...

Ted -

We'd be interested in your story behind Memos From Purgatory if you'd be interested in putting it down on "paper" for bare Bones magazine. If it's something that interests you (or perhaps a different subject), please e-mail me at Have you written extensively about your editorial tenures?
Peter Enfantino