Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Dick Carr, Part One-Triggers in Leash [1.3]

by Jack Seabrook

Richard "Dick" Carr (1929-1988) wrote for radio, film, and television from 1947 to 1981. He wrote three teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, all in the first season, including "The Big Switch."

Carr's first teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "Triggers in Leash," based on the story of the same name by Allan Vaughan Elston that was first published in the July 1925 issue of The Frontier. In a small restaurant on the prairie, Del Harte and Red Delaney come face to face after months of waiting to encounter each other. Old Maggie Flynn owns and runs the small establishment and finds herself standing between the gunmen. Rain pours down outside and a cuckoo clock announces noon. The men have sworn to kill each other but Maggie refuses to move out of the way because she knows they won't shoot her. She tells them that she'll be a witness to say who shot first and they holster their guns, since neither wants to be guilty of murder.

"Triggers in Leash" was
first published here
At Maggie's urging, Red and Del sit across from each other at a table and she cooks ham and eggs and feeds the men as they eye each other warily. The tension mounts as the gunslingers taunt each other across the table, each man waiting for an opportunity to shoot. The ticking of the clock on the shelf is loud in the small room; the men finish eating and stand, agreeing that they will wait to fire until the cuckoo emerges at one o'clock. As the hour approaches, Maggie takes a heavy marble crucifix from the other end of the shelf in order to prevent it from being hit by a stray bullet. Before one, the clock suddenly stops and she claims that it was due to the hand of God intervening to prevent slaughter.

The men drop their gun belts to the floor, honoring their agreement, and sit down to a friendlier meal, not hearing Maggie mutter that they don't know that the clock won't run when the shelf on which it sits is not level. She replaces the crucifix on the shelf but the clock no longer runs.

"Triggers in Leash" is a thrilling story set in the Old West, though the events it depicts could take place just as effectively in a contemporary bar between any two men with guns. Maggie is portrayed as a simple, hardworking woman, so it is a surprise at the end to see her trick the gunslingers into ending their standoff. The story was reprinted in the 1947 collection, Alfred Hitchcock's Fireside Book of Suspense, which is probably where Joan Harrison read it and chose it to be adapted as the third episode of the TV series to be broadcast, premiering on CBS on Sunday, October 16, 1955.

Gene Barry as Del
The very first shot shows us the objects that will figure in the show's conclusion. The camera starts by focusing on a small window in Maggie's restaurant before panning across the shelf that holds the crucifix and the clock, then down to Maggie, who pulls the chain to wind the clock. Ben, a new character, is added for one reason: he will reveal the surprise at the end of the show rather than having Maggie mutter it under her breath, as she does in the story. Ben wants more food but Maggie sends him out to fetch wood for the stove, clearing the way for the arrival of Del, who enters alone; in the story, he and Red enter simultaneously from two doors at opposite ends of the single room building. The first interesting shot occurs here, making me think, in error, that the show is directed by Robert Stevens, for whom unusual shots are a hallmark; the camera is set at the level of the stove and looks up at Del and Maggie.

Ben walks back in, carrying wood, and Del pulls his gun, thinking it's Red and causing Ben to drop the wood in fright. The viewer sees that Del is jumpy and refuses to remove his gun belt, but why? The TV version of the story increases the suspense in these early scenes by making the viewer wonder why Del is so nervous. There is another unusual shot with Del looming large in the foreground while Ben and Maggie converse, their figures smaller in the background. Ben leaves and Red suddenly bursts through the door; Del leaps to his feet and the men face each other, ready to draw their guns. There is a third interesting camera angle here, looking from behind Del at the level of his wrist, showing Red and Maggie positioned in the space between his gun and his hand.

Darren McGavin as Red
The dialogue that follows between Del and Red establishes their reasons for wanting to kill each other, something that is absent from the short story: they had a disagreement the night before during a card game and Red thinks that Del ran away out of cowardice, while Del explains that he left in order to avoid having to kill a hotheaded Red. Maggie controls the situation first with her remark that she will be a witness and then by cooking the men breakfast. As the men sit at the table, the cuckoo clock sits in the distance but in the center of the shot, establishing it again in the viewer's mind before it is revealed as a central object in the story. The pendulum swings back and forth as suspense mounts; this visual motif was not available to Elston in the short story, where the clock's ticking is represented by repeated use of the onomatopoeic words, "pink, pank; pink, pank."

Maggie's history is expanded in the TV show, where we learn that she is a widow whose husband Charlie was a gunfighter who died; this gives her all the more reason to abhor gunplay. Suspense mounts as the men stand, agreeing to draw when the cuckoo emerges, and we learn that the crucifix on the shelf also has sentimental value to Maggie, since she tells Del and Red that her late husband gave it to her on their wedding day. This is another detail not present in the original story. At the climax, Maggie cowers in a corner, clutching the crucifix, and the clock stops just before noon. The tension breaks and the men approach the clock, staring in awe. In the short story, they sit down to eat together, but in the TV show they leave together. Instead of Maggie muttering the truth about the clock to herself as she relights the stove, Ben rushes back in, sees the shelf, and provides the explanation for why the clock ceased ticking. He replaces the crucifix and, unlike the short story, where the clock does not resume running, in the TV version it not only starts up again but the cuckoo emerges to sound noon, and this is the show's final image.

Ellen Corby as Maggie
"Triggers in Leash" is a superb adaptation that expands its source story at the beginning to spend more time setting the scene. It adds the new character of Ben in order to increase the impact of the final revelation, and it ratchets up the suspense. For a one-room drama, it never seems crowded; the small space where the events take place only serves to increase the tension. Don Medford's direction is excellent and the pace never flags. The acting is outstanding as well. Gene Barry, as Del, and Darren McGavin, as Red, give powerful performances and are utterly convincing as two men whose determination not to back down nearly leads to tragedy. Both actors show off: Barry twirls his gun while holstering it and McGavin similarly twirls his hat while hanging it. Casey MacGregor makes the most of his small role, playing the character of Ben like Gabby Hayes.

The short story's author, Allan Vaughan Elston (1887-1976), had a degree in civil engineering and worked on railroads and as a cattle rancher in the early decades of the twentieth century before turning his hand to fiction. In his long career as a writer, he had scores of stories published from the 1920s to the 1940s; he then began writing novels, mostly westerns, and these appeared from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s. His stories served as the basis for a few films and a number of TV episodes, two of which were for Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the other was "The Belfry." Elston's papers are held at UCLA.

The camera looks up from the stove.
"Triggers in Leash" is directed by Don Medford (1917-2012), the stage name of Donald Muller, who was a busy director of episodic TV from 1951 to 1989. In addition to two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he directed five episodes of The Twilight Zone and also the final, two-part conclusion of The Fugitive. He was a quick worker--in an interview for the Archives of American Television, Pat Hitchcock mentions that his other episode, "Into Thin Air," the first of the series to be filmed, took only two days. She adds that, after that, they realized that the time was too short and subsequent episodes were given three days.

Gene Barry (1919-2009) gets top billing as Del; he had a long career on screen as a leading man. Born Eugene Klass, he started out on stage in 1940 before appearing on TV and in the movies from 1950 to 2005. His most memorable film, The War of the Worlds (1955), came early in his career; he then had a recurring role on the TV series Our Miss Brooks (1955-1956) before starring in four series over the course of fifteen years: Bat Masterson (1958-1961), Burke's Law (1963-1966 and 1994-1995), The Name of the Game (1968-1971) and The Adventurer (1972-1973). Barry appeared on the Hitchcock series three times, including "Dear Uncle George," and there is an informative website devoted to his career here.

Del is large in the foreground, while
Ben and Maggie are smaller in the background.
Giving an equally thrilling performance as Red is Darren McGavin (1922-2006), who appeared on three episodes of the Hitchcock TV series. Born William Lyle Richardson, he appeared on stage, film, and TV from 1945 to 2008. He starred in five TV series: Crime Photographer (1951-1952), Mike Hammer (1958-1959), Riverboat (1959-1961), The Outsider (1968-1969) and, of course, The Night Stalker (1974-1975), which followed two very popular TV movies featuring the same character, Carl Kolchak, who kept encountering supernatural menaces while working as a newspaper reporter in Chicago. McGavin also had a memorable role as the father in A Christmas Story (1983) and there is a website about him here.

Ellen Corby (1911-1999) portrays Maggie; born Ellen Hansen, she started out as a script girl in Hollywood and played many uncredited roles on film from 1928 until she got her first screen credit in 1948. Her career continued until 1997 and included appearances on Thriller, Batman, The Odd Couple, and Night Gallery. She was in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and she was featured in five episodes of the Hitchcock TV show, including "Party Line." She is best remembered for her role as Grandma Walton on The Waltons (1972-1980), for which she won three Emmy Awards.

Casey MacGregor as Ben
Finally, Casey MacGregor (1904-1988) plays Ben; he was on screen from 1942 to 1971 and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

There were not very many Westerns in the ten-year run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents/The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. In the fall of 1955, when the series premiered and "Triggers in Leash" was broadcast, there were a number of Western series running on prime-time TV, including Cheyenne, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Lone Ranger, and Gunsmoke, but the television landscape was not yet overrun with Western shows as it would be later in the decade. The film, High Noon, had been released a few years before, in 1952, and won four Oscars in 1953; perhaps it was the memory of this classic that led Dick Carr to alter the timing of the clock in "Triggers in Leash" so that the hands creep toward noon as the show progresses.

Watch "Triggers in Leash" online here or buy the DVD here


Elston, Allan Vaughan. "Triggers in Leash." Alfred Hitchcock's Fireside Book of Suspense. Ed. Alfred Hitchcock. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1947. 215-224.


Galactic Central,

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



"Triggers in Leash." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 3, CBS, 16 October 1955.


Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Triggers in Leash" here!

In two weeks: Our series on Dick Carr concludes with a look at "Salvage," starring Gene Barry and Nancy Gates!

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