Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Allan Gordon, Part One-Very Moral Theft [6.3]

by Jack Seabrook

If a crime is committed to help a desperate loved one, is it excusable? That's the question at the center of "Very Moral Theft," a short story by Jack Dillon that was first published in the May 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Helen is 38 years old and unmarried and she has been unlucky with a series of men. The most recent is Harry, a 50-year-old tire distributor whom Helen's brother, John, thinks looks like a gangster. Harry pays alimony to his ex-wife and Helen, who went to finishing school and works for a real estate firm, sees him as earthy. One evening, when Harry picks Helen up to go to dinner, he reveals that one of the companies he deals with has gone out of business, which means his own business will fail. He needs $8000 in 48 hours to stay afloat. Helen volunteers to mortgage the home she lives in with her brother, as long as Harry can repay her within 48 hours so that John doesn't find out. In reality, Helen plans to take the money from the real estate business where she works.

Betty Field as Helen
The next morning, she gets the money at the bank and gives it to Harry, who assures her that he'll pay her back in 48 hours. For the first time, he mentions marriage, to her delight, and when she goes home, she proudly tells her brother. Helen goes to work the next morning and receives a call from Harry, who says he'll have the money for her tonight. That night, Harry arrives at Helen's house to pick her up and angers John when he mentions that Helen mortgaged the house. Harry is upset and tells Helen that he can't get the money; she admits that she stole it. Harry then insists that he'll pay her back on time.

The next day, Helen goes to work and waits for Harry to call. He shows up at the office and hands her the money in an envelope; they go to deposit it in the bank and he reveals that he got it from crooks. Harry reassures Helen that he can safely delay paying them back. She does not hear from him for several days and goes to a bar where they had been together before. She asks the bartender about Harry and he tells her that Harry is dead, remarking that "'you just don't get cute with a couple of ex-racket guys.'" Months pass, and Helen concludes her story by writing that, "somehow, I'm not lonely anymore."

Walter Matthau as Harry
In the end, Harry, a con man, sacrifices himself to protect Helen. She may be alone now, but she knows that, at least once, she was loved. "Very Moral Theft" was adapted for television by Allan Gordon and it was broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, October 11, 1960. While the short story is narrated by Helen, who tells the reader her background, her thoughts, and her observations, the TV version features no narration at all, so the story's non-verbal elements must be conveyed to the viewer by other means. The story opens with Helen providing details about herself, her history with men, Harry's reputation, and John's poor opinion of him. The TV show instead opens with a scene that portrays Harry as an unscrupulous businessman who runs a lumber yard and cheats his customers. Helen meets Harry and they walk off together; we next see them as Harry drops her off at home after dinner. She invites him in but he refuses because her brother is there--"'I met better guys up the river,'" Harry remarks.

Karl Swenson as John
Inside, John tells Helen about his upcoming marriage and she avoids discussing how it will affect her. Scriptwriter Allan Gordon takes pages of narrative from the short story and compresses them into short scenes that introduce the main characters, their relationship, and their personalities. A short scene at the bank follows, as in the story, where Fescue gives Helen a check; the next scene moves the action from Harry's car (in the story) to the inside of a bar, where Harry explains his business problem and the dialogue follows that of the story closely.

Sal Ponti as Carl
The TV show eliminates Harry's ex-wife entirely and there is no mention of his having to pay alimony; instead, some humorous banter between Harry and the bartender is added. In this scene, director Norman Lloyd adds visual interest by using the camera to pan from side to side and zoom in on characters to avoid having to rely on too many shot/reverse shots as they converse. As the conversation comes to an end and Helen lies to Harry about the money, the camera zooms in tight on a two-shot that makes them look like conspirators.

The next scene shows Helen at the office, lying to Ivers, as in the story, then Helen goes to the bank, where her nervousness is underlined with ominous music. Everyone seems suspicious of her and the first act ends with her asking for the cashier's check. In the second act, instead of Harry picking her up in his car, she goes to his office and gives him the check. This is the second important scene to be moved from Harry's car to the inside of a building; perhaps Gordon thought that scenes heavy with dialogue would work better in a room than in a car. A line is added when Harry jokes, "'You sure you didn't steal that money?'"--he laughs and smiles for the first time in the show.

David Fresco
as Parker
At home that night, Helen proudly tells John about her engagement and again any mention of Harry's ex-wife or alimony is omitted. The following scene marks a change from the story as Harry, clearly drunk, arrives at Helen's office the next morning, looking for her. He asks Ivers to tell Helen that "'Tonight's the night.'" In the story, Helen fears that she'll be found out and arrives at the office to discover that Ivers has gone on a trip. In the show, she encounters Harry on the sidewalk. That night, he arrives at her house and she lets him in; in the story, she's upstairs and he gets into an argument with John downstairs. In the TV show, Harry breaks the bad news to Helen and John walks in and hears about the mortgage; he berates his sister in front of Harry and events are again compressed.

Harry leaves and John verbally attacks Helen, referring to two of her prior bad relationships, something she tells the reader about at the beginning of the short story. The next day, before Helen gets to the office, Harry meets her on the sidewalk and gives her the money. In the following scene, she sits, morose, on her front porch. John mentions that she hasn't heard from Harry in three days; in the short story, this is part of her narration. The final scene in the bar follows the story closely, though a line of dialogue is added for clarification when the bartender says, "'He took two of the guys in the racket for $8000.'" The show ends with a fadeout on Helen sitting alone at a table and does not include her concluding comments from a later date that end the story.

Rusty Lane as Ivers
Allan Gordon's script for "Very Moral Theft" does a fine job of removing all of the first-person narration that drives the short story and conveying all of the important information by other means. I have not been able to find any information at all about Gordon other than that he is credited for two teleplays--this one and one more for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Jack Dillon (1923-1991), who wrote the short story, was an advertising executive who also wrote short stories from 1958 to 1968 and who wrote four novels. Two TV episodes were adapted from his stories: this one and an episode of Hawaiian Eye.

Sam Gilman as Charlie
"Very Moral Theft" is directed by Normal Lloyd (1914-2021), who was one of the people most responsible for the success and quality of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Born Norman Perlmutter and active in the theater in the 1930s, he had a long career as a film and television actor, from 1939 to 2015, and appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and Spellbound (1945). He also directed for television from 1951 to 1984. He acted in five episodes of the Hitchcock series and directed 22, including "Man from the South."

William Newell as Fescue
Betty Field (1916-1973), who plays Helen, was 47 when this episode was filmed, making her almost a decade older than the character as described in the short story. She began acting as a teenager and had a long career on Broadway, from 1934 to 1971. She appeared in films from 1939 to 1968, on radio from 1939 to 1954, and on TV from 1948 to 1968. She trained with the Actors Studio and also appeared in "The Star Juror" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Her co-star, Walter Matthau (1920-2000), was only 39 when this was filmed, making him over a decade younger than the Harry of the story, who is 50. Matthau is wonderful as Harry, his laconic speech and manner seeming at once vaguely humorous and also unsavory. Born Walter Matthow in Manhattan, he was a child actor in Yiddish theater who served under Jimmy Stewart in the Air Force in WWII, earning six battle stars. He went on to star on Broadway, then on television, and finally in many films. He won two Tony awards and an Oscar. His TV career began in 1950 and his movie career followed in 1955. He appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Dry Run," but he will always be remembered for his comedic film roles, especially The Odd Couple (1968) and The Bad News Bears (1976).

In smaller roles:
  • Karl Swenson (1908-1978) plays Helen's brother, John. His acting career lasted from 1935 until his death and he was frequently seen on episodic TV. He was on the Hitchcock show three times, including "On the Nose," he had a small role in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), and he was a regular on Little House on the Prairie.
  • Songwriter turned actor Sal Ponti (1935-88) plays Carl, the workman at the lumber yard in the first scene; he was on TV from 1959 to 1978 and he appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Keep Me Company."
  • David Fresco (1909-1997) as Parker, the nosy man in the bank; he was on screen from 1946 to 1997 and he was blacklisted in 1956. Despite that, he appeared in twelve episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Day of the Bullet," as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.
  • Rusty Lane (1899-1986) as Ivers, Helen's boss; born James Russell Lane, he was in nine episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Manacled."
  • Sam Gilman (1915-1985) as Charlie, the bartender; his career is most interesting. He started out as a comic book artist for Marvel and Centaur from 1939 to 1942, drawing a text illustration for Marvel Comics #1. He then served in World War Two. On returning to civilian life, he became an actor and befriended Marlon Brando. He moved to Hollywood and got his first role in Brando’s film, The Men (1950). He went on to a career on screen that lasted until 1983 and he may be seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Insomnia." He was also on Thriller.
  • William Newell (1894-1967) as Fescue, who gives Helen the check at her office; he was on screen from 1930 to 1965 playing countless bit parts, including the role of Alfalfa's father in the Little Rascals shorts; he was on the Hitchcock TV show five times, including "The Horseplayer."
  • Charles Carlson (1930-2013) as George, the bank teller; he was on TV from 1960-1967 and appeared in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Where Beauty Lies."
Charles Carlson
  • Keith Britton (1919-1970) as Ben, the bank guard; he had a brief career on screen from 1955 to 1962 and appeared in three episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Crack of Doom."
Keith Britton

Watch "Very Moral Theft" online here or buy the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps review of this episode here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story!


CTVA-The Classic TV Archive, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 6,             AlfredHitchcockPresents_06_(1960-61).htm

Dillon, Jack. "Very Moral Theft." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 1960, pp. 82-97.


Galactic Central,

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



"John Dillon, A Novelist And Ad Executive, 68." New York Times, 8 Nov. 1991,sec. D, p. 19.

"Very Moral Theft." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 3, NBC, 11 October 1960.


Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "My Brother Richard" here!

In two weeks: Our series on Allan Gordon concludes with a look at "The Man who Stole the Money," starring Arthur Hill!

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