Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Talmage Powell Part One-The Kiss-Off [6.21]

by Jack Seabrook

Talmage Powell (1920-2000) wrote hundreds of short stories and a handful of novels from the early 1940s to the early 1980s, including some novels under the Ellery Queen byline. Several of his stories and one of his novels have been adapted for television, including two for Alfred Hitchcock Presents; he adapted one himself and wrote another teleplay based on a story by a different author. Read a discussion of "No Pain" here.
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Powell's first teleplay was "The Kiss-Off," which aired on Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC on Tuesday, March 7, 1961. The teleplay was based on the story of the same name by John P. Foran that was published first in the November 1951 issue of Male. As the story begins, a man enters the state tax office, pulls out a gun, and holds up the cashier, who is careful to make a mental note of the criminal's appearance. Before he leaves, the holdup man surreptitiously takes a slip of paper from his pocket, crumples it up, and drops it on the floor. Using rope and a hook, the thief escapes out of a window and makes his way down to the street, where he hails a taxi.

Talmage Powell
The crook gives the driver a five dollar bill and says he just committed a robbery; he switches cabs and rides to the Plaza Hotel, where he enters and goes up to room 814. He is initially welcomed by a woman named Florrie, who calls him Ernie but then doesn't seem to recognize him. He goes into her bathroom and changes clothes before removing items that changed his facial appearance. Back in the bedroom, he asks Florrie why she sent him small gifts during his six years in prison and she tells him that she felt sorry for him while he was in jail because he made mistakes as a young man. He suggests that they get married and go to Pensacola, Florida; he tells her to go without him and he'll join her in a week.

In his own room, he is visited by Detective Cooper, who searches the room and then takes Ernie to see the district attorney. The D.A. asks Ernie if he held up the tax office, which Ernie denies, but he admits that he has no alibi. Cooper brings in the taxi driver, who is uncertain if Ernie is the man he drove. Cooper next brings in a woman who saw Ernie from a window as he escaped; she makes a positive identification, but Ernie reminds the D.A. that he spent six years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Finally, the cashier is brought in and is uncertain if Ernie is the robber.

"The Kiss-Off" was
first published here.
The D.A. reminds Ernie that he had said he'd get even with Cooper and the D.A. and that, after he got out of prison, he told Cooper where he was living. It turns out that Cooper had arrested him six years ago and the D.A. convicted him of robbing a gas station, but recently, a man named Luke Hagen confessed to the crime and Ernie was set free. The D.A. remarks that Ernie stole about $15,000 from the tax office and Ernie replies that he would have earned that amount at work during the six years he was in prison. He asks the D.A. what the jury will think of three uncertain witnesses identifying him in comparison to the four witnesses who were positive he was guilty six years ago. He asks if he's free to go and the D.A. snaps the pencil he's been holding, frustrated that Ernie will get away with robbing the tax office.

"The Kiss-Off" is a clever story about revenge, where an innocent man spends years in jail and is set free, only to commit a crime that nets him his lost wages. He then succeeds in embarrassing the detective and D.A. who put him in prison. The story was chosen by editor David Cooke for his collection of the Best Detective Stories of the Year-1952 and Cooke wrote in his introduction that "The Kiss-Off is the type of story that most editors would not buy, and that most writers would not write realizing the marketing difficulties." Presumably, Cooke was referring to the story's climax, where Ernie gets away with robbery. The slang term "kiss-off" means a dismissal, and Ernie delivers a kiss-off to Cooper and the D.A. at the end of the story.

Jack Palance as Tom Walker
Perhaps the story's inclusion in that collection was how it came to the attention of TV producers, since it was adapted for the TV series, Suspense, where it aired on March 3, 1953, with a teleplay by Richard Lortz. The Suspense version follows the story closely with some important changes. Jack Palance plays Tom Walker, as Ernie Walters has been renamed, and when he robs the tax office
 there are two employees behind the counter, a man and a woman. He wears a white wig, eyebrows, mustache, and a fake nose; he only steals $15,000 although the clerk says that he could have taken more money. Instead of escaping through a window by means of a rope, he goes outside the building, checks his pocket watch, and blends into a large crowd attending a parade. As Tom walks down the sidewalk, he is accosted by a man who claims to be confused and lost; this man will be important at the end of the show.

The scenes and dialogue stay close to those of the story for the most part, until the final scene, when Tom leaves the D.A.'s office. Detective Cooper calls him back in from the hall to say that a pickpocket has been arrested and Tom's pocket watch was among the items he stole. It turns out that he's the man who accosted Tom on the sidewalk claiming to be lost. The watch has Tom's name on it and the pickpocket identifies Tom as the man he saw, but there's a twist: the pickpocket is blind and identifies Tom by touch, which means he's not fooled by the change in his appearance. This conclusion prevents Tom from getting away with his crime and satisfies the TV censors.

Rip Torn as Ernie Walters
Foran's short story was again collected by David Cooke in his 1960 volume, Best of the Best Detective Stories, and perhaps this is where the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents saw it, since their adaptation was copyright 1960 and aired in early March 1961. This version is a big improvement over the version that aired on Suspense and preserves the short story's ending, though Hitchcock (as usual) tells the audience in his closing comments that Ernie (the name has been restored) was later caught after committing another crime.

"The Kiss-Off" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents is an excellent example of TV noir, thirty minutes of snappy dialogue, shadowy lighting, and tight plotting that feature a strong lead performance by Rip Torn as Ernie. This time, instead of a white wig, Ernie is disguised as a hobo, with a rumpled hat and jacket and excess facial hair. The tax clerk is alone, as in the short story, but here the woman enters the office as another customer and Ernie orders her to join the cashier behind the counter. The woman enters the story in a different way in each version: in the short story, she looks out of a window and sees Ernie escaping; in the Suspense version, she works with the cashier; and in the Hitchcock version, she is another customer.

Don Keefer as the tax office clerk
This time, Ernie takes all of the money that is in the cash drawer and the safe; on Suspense, he only takes $15,000 because that equals the amount of money he lost while in jail for six years. In the story, Ernie leaves the office and the clerk sounds the alarm right away; this time, he tells the clerk to wait five minutes before sounding the alarm, claiming that "'I got a cover man in the hallway.'" In this version, as he leaves the tax office, Ernie removes a handkerchief from his pocket and drops a hotel key in an ashtray by the door instead of dropping a crumpled piece of paper on the floor.

He then rides in the cab, as in the story, and makes himself memorable by giving the cabbie a ten dollar bill to pay for his ride. He visits Florrie and removes makeup from his face, transforming himself into the man she remembers. He mentions that he spent six years in jail for a crime he didn't commit and reveals that the real person at fault recently confessed, leading to his name being cleared. In the short story, this did not come out until the end, yet in the Hitchcock version it is revealed in an early scene and then reinforced later in the episode. This has the effect of changing the question in the viewer's mind from why Ernie robbed the tax office to whether he will get away with it.

Bert Freed as Detective Cooper
The scene shifts briefly to the D.A.'s office, where Detective Cooper receives a telephone call identifying Ernie as the man staying in the room that corresponds to the hotel key. Cooper then breaks into Ernie's room and frisks him. Surprisingly, Ernie has a room key on a table in his room and the hotel clerk confirms that no duplicate was requested. Cooper is a classic, tough-guy detective, throwing items around the room as he searches for the money and disguise and then shoving Ernie. Ernie remains calm the whole time, making the viewer take his side as a man wrongly jailed and harassed by a detective who can't admit error.

The D.A. and Cooper discuss the problem of the extra key and Cooper mentions that Ernie worked in the machine shop in jail and could have made a duplicate key himself. The TV show then takes a different turn from the short story and presents a very effective scene that replaces the one in the story where each of the three witnesses is brought into the D.A.'s office to try to identify Ernie. In the Hitchcock version, there is a police lineup (similar to the one Rip Torn was in in "Number Twenty-Two"), where Ernie is one of five men and the cashier, the woman, and the cabbie sit in the gallery and argue about whether they can identify him.

"Number Twenty-Two"

"The Kiss-Off"

Noir lighting highlights this scene as Cooper and the D.A. try unsuccessfully to persuade the reluctant witnesses; for his part, Ernie makes smart remarks and chides the men trying to build a case against him, reminding them (and telling the eyewitnesses) of his prior, wrongful conviction. The final scene in the D.A.'s office is similar to that in the short story, but with the added buildup in the Hitchcock version, the ending is not a surprise and the situation is clearer. Ernie says that the extra key "'must have belonged to an old occupant'" and reasons that he would have made $24,000 had he not been in jail, so the $12,000 that was stolen represents only half of what he lost. In the last lines, the D.A. tells Ernie to get out of town and stay out; Ernie replies, "'I can afford to,'" and the screen fades to black.

Mary Munday as Florrie
"The Kiss-Off" is a strong episode, in large part to crisp direction by Alan Crosland, Jr. (1918-2001), who started out as a film editor, working on features from 1944 to 1954 and on TV from 1955 to 1957, then began directing episodic television in 1956. He directed 16 half-hours and three hours of the Hitchcock series, including "The Woman Who Wanted to Live," as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Crosland directed a handful of movies, but his focus was on TV and he directed his last show in 1986.

John P. Foran, who wrote the short story, wrote short stories for pulps, digests, and men's magazines from 1949 to 1958; the two TV versions of "The Kiss-Off" are the only adaptations of his works for the screen.

Kenneth Patterson as
D.A. Phillip Bentley
Starring as Ernie Walters is Rip Torn (1931-2019), who gives an outstanding performance. Born in Texas as Elmore Torn Jr., he began appearing on screen in 1956 and was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as on Thriller. For decades, he played character roles on TV and on film while also appearing on stage. He became well known for his Emmy-winning role on The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998) on TV and he was married to actress Geraldine Page from 1963 until she died in 1987.

Mary Munday (1926-1977) plays Florrie, Ernie's girlfriend; she was on screen from 1951 to 1990 and also appeared on The Twilight Zone.

Florence MacMichael
as Mrs. Simmons
D.A. Phillip Bently is played by Kenneth Patterson (1911-1990), who was on screen from 1946 to 1989. He also appeared on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in "Isabel" and had a role in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Florence MacMichael (1919-1999) plays Mrs. Simmons, the witness. She appeared on radio and on Broadway and her long screen career lasted from 1943 to 1971. She was on The Twilight Zone and she was a semi-regular on Mister Ed (1963-1965); she also is credited with roles in three other episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Annabel."

The taxi driver is played by Harry Swoger (1919-1970), who played numerous small parts, mostly on TV, from 1959 to 1970, including appearances in two episodes of The Twilight Zone and three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; one was "Coming Home."

Harry Swoger as the taxi driver
The clerk in the tax office is played by Don Keefer (1916-2014), a familiar face to viewers of The Twilight Zone from his role in the classic episode, "It's a Good Life." He was in three episodes of that series and three episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Percentage." Keefer had a long career on screen, from 1947 to 1997, and was also on Star Trek and Night Gallery as well as being part of the original Broadway cast of Death of a Salesman (1949-1950)

Frank Sully (1908-1975) makes a brief appearance as the hotel desk clerk; he started out in vaudeville and was in numerous films between 1952 and 1967. He had a recurring role on The Virginian (1963-1967), appeared on Thriller, and was in two other episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Black Curtain."

Frank Sully as
the hotel clerk
Finally, Bert Freed (1919-1994) plays Detective Cooper. Freed served in the Army in WWII and was on screen from 1947 to 1986. In addition to roles on The Outer Limits and The Night Stalker, he appeared in a similar role on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Not the Running Type;" his grey, brush-cut hair and scowling facial expressions made him perfect for the role of detective. He also appeared in Otto Preminger's noir classic, Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950).

Watch the Suspense adaptation of "The Kiss-Off" here and watch the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version here to compare for yourself. The Hitchcock episode is also available on DVD.

Read the GenreSnaps review of "The Kiss-Off" here.



Foran, John P. "The Kiss-Off." Best of the Best Detective Stories, Dutton, 1960, pp. 112–124.

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


"The Kiss-Off." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 21, NBC, 7 Mar. 1961.

"The Kiss-Off." Suspense, season 5, episode 20, CBS, 3 Mar. 1953.

"Talmage Powell." Fantastic Fiction,

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "John Brown's Body" here!

In two weeks: Our brief series on Talmage Powell concludes with a look at "Victim Four," starring Peggy Ann Garner!

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