Thursday, March 21, 2024

The Hitchcock Project-Calvin Clements, Part Two-The Old Pro [7.8]

by Jack Seabrook

The second and last teleplay by Calvin Clements for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "The Old Pro," which aired on NBC on Tuesday, November 28, 1961, just two weeks after "Beta Delta Gamma," the first teleplay that Clements wrote for the series. "The Old Pro" is based on a short story of the same name by H.A. DeRosso that was published in the December 1960 issue of Manhunt. Clements did a fine job retaining the story's plot and expanding it for the small screen.

The story begins as Ralph Whitburn, who calls himself Burns, telephones a man named Mike Sargasso to hire a hit man to kill someone near Walton Lake this weekend. Whitburn lives in a small town in Wisconsin near the Michigan border. He has retired to the country after a life spent in cities, and when his partner, a beautiful redhead named Loretta, notices that he seems preoccupied, Whitburn tells her that he plans to spend the weekend alone at the lake.

"The Old Pro" was first published here
That weekend, he kills time by fishing while waiting for the hit man to arrive. Whitburn returns to his cottage to find the hit man, named Mace, already there. Mace quickly grasps that Whitburn is being blackmailed by Earl Cullenbine, a former police reporter with underworld connections, and that Whitburn wants Cullenbine eliminated. Whitburn asks Mace to make the death look accidental and Mace suggests that Whitburn accompany him to make sure that he kills the right man. Whitburn reluctantly agrees.

The men approach an island by boat, expecting to find Cullenbine waiting for his weekly Saturday night blackmail payment. Mace follows Whitburn through thick underbrush. Surprised to find Cullenbine unfazed by the appearance of Mace, Whitburn discovers that the blackmailer called Sargasso first and that Mace is there to kill Whitburn. Mace explains that he knows that Whitburn used to work for Sargasso before retiring and comments that he was "'his best.'"

Mace tells Whitburn to start walking back the way they came and Mace follows him. Whitburn turns the tables and succeeds in drowning Mace. He takes Mace's gun, returns to Cullenbine, and kills him, too.

Time passes and Whitburn is living happily with Loretta when Sargasso telephones and insists that he come out of retirement and commit another murder for hire. The boss threatens Loretta to make sure that the assassin will cooperate. Whitburn hangs up, aware that his happy life is at an end and that, eventually, he will be killed as well.

Richard Conte as Frank Burns
"The Old Pro" uses inference and subtlety to create surprise after surprise. Initially, Whitburn asks Sargasso to send "'an engineer experienced in removing obstructions.'" When Whitburn meets Mace, it becomes clear that he has hired a hit man to kill a blackmailer, but when they meet Cullenbine, the situation is reversed. Whitburn succeeds in killing both men and only toward the end of the story does it become apparent that he is a retired hit man himself. The final irony comes when Sargasso pressures him to go back to work; had Whitburn never called the boss in the first place, he could have continued to enjoy his retirement from killing, albeit with the annoyance of having to pay a blackmailer.

H.A. DeRosso (1917-1960) was known for western short stories and paperback original novels that were published in the 1940s and 1950s. His novels explored noir themes and there is a good article about him here. He also wrote a handful of crime stories, such as "The Old Pro." One other story of his was adapted for television as an episode of a western series in 1957.

The TV adaptation of "The Old Pro" is an excellent mix of suspense and black humor that features memorable performances by Richard Conte as Frank Burns (Ralph Whitburn in the short story) and  John Anderson as Joey "Nick" Nicholson (Sargasso in the story). The show begins with some new scenes that have been added to the story to provide background. The idyllic married life of Frank and Loretta (her first name is never mentioned until the end credits) Burns is shown as the two chat briefly at their home on the lake before he leaves to go fishing. Burns takes a small motorboat across the lake, where he meets Cullen (Cullenbine in the story), the blackmailer, who holds a rifle in his lap.

John Anderson as Nick
Cullen refers to Burns as a retired killer, thus removing one of the short story's surprises, since Whitburn's prior job is not revealed until later in the story. Cullen adds that Burns married a "'junior league beauty'" who thinks that her husband is a "'retired engineer.'" In Clements's teleplay, the short story's euphemism of "engineer," which is used in place of "hit man," is greatly expanded; gradually, as the episode plays out, it becomes clear that Burns has created an elaborate fiction about himself that Loretta believes to be the truth. Burns has paid Cullen $40,000 in blackmail so far and at first refuses to pay any more, but he quickly relents and promises to bring the money later that day, around five p.m.

Burns returns home to his wife and he and Loretta seem as happy as ever, but he goes into another room and telephones "Nick" Nicholson (Sargasso in the story); this is how the short story begins. In the first instance of the humor that will enliven the show's final scene, Nick takes Burns's call while receiving a  vigorous massage from a heavy-set man. As in the story, Burns asks Nick to send an "'engineer'" to the lake; he requests that the service be provided at about 4:30 that day, half an hour before he promised to return to meet Cullen with the money. Nick hangs up and asks the masseur, who looks like a criminal henchman, to "'get a hold of Mace.'"

Sara Shane as Loretta
Later, Burns again drives his motorboat to the same landing spot and meets Mace, who waits at the dock in a suit and tie that seem out of place in the rural environment. Mace is a fish out of water, a slick criminal more used to a city environment, and this will soon play to Burns's advantage. Mace tells Burns that "'Nicholson says you were the best in the business and I'm always willing to learn from an old pro,'" again underlining the fact that Burns was formerly a hit man himself, something that has not been revealed at this point in the short story. They walk toward the clearing where Cullen waits; as in the story, Burns turns the tables by the lake and kills Mace by drowning him. He returns to the clearing where Cullen waits, but Burns's murder of the blackmailer is not shown, just as in the story.

In the short story, the murders of Mace and Cullenbine are followed by a short phone call between Whitburn and Sargasso that takes place at a later date. The TV show takes the narrative in a more interesting and entertaining direction that reaches the same conclusion after strengthening the roles of Loretta and Nick. Back at home the day after murdering two men and making both killings look accidental, Burns watches with delight as Loretta models three news hats. In passing, she mentions the "'two men who drowned yesterday,'" and the viewer realizes that she is referring to Mace and Cullen. Loretta goes inside to make lunch and Nick suddenly appears on Frank's deck. Burns looks down to the lake and sees two men with a boat by the dock (one is the masseur/henchman); he remarks to Mace, "'I see you brought your muscle along.'"

Nick admires Burns's way of living and, when Loretta emerges with lunch, the crime boss introduces himself to her; she asks him to stay for lunch and he agrees. As Nick and Burns chat, there is an underlying tension that Loretta fails to grasp. When she is inside the house, Nick lightly but ominously mentions another woman who had nice skin like Loretta's, "'before the affair with the acid.'" Nick is jovial, a charming rogue with a violent, dangerous undercurrent. Nick tells Loretta that he's there on business but she insists that her husband is retired. Nick says that he's hoping to talk Frank out of retirement and Loretta responds that she doesn't want to spend nights alone while her husband is away on a job.

Stacy Harris as Cullen
Nick tells her, with a smile, "'I always say an old pro never retires.'" She goes to the kitchen and Nick says that he needs Frank for a job in Vegas. Frank declines and Nick again mentions Loretta's lovely skin, implying that she could have an accident with acid if Frank refuses to return to the fold. "'Welcome home to an old pro,'" says Nick, and the show ends with the camera focused on Frank's face--he is clearly trapped.

The TV adaptation of "The Old Pro" adds new opening scenes, removes the mystery about Frank's former line of work, and adds the long final scene in which Nick pays a visit to Frank. In the story, he simply telephones sometime after the murders; the new scenes add greatly to the enjoyment of the show, as the words exchanged between the two men hide their subtext. The middle section follows the short story closely. Richard Conte, as Frank, is terrific, intense when he needs to be yet relaxed when he's alone with his wife. John Anderson, as Nick, is a delight, a cold-blooded criminal with a charming, affable demeanor.

Richard Carlyle as Mace
"The Old Pro" is directed by Paul Henreid (1908-1992) who began his career as a film actor. He started directing in the early 1950s and he directed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "A Little Sleep."

Richard Conte (1910-1975) was born Nicholas Conte and served in the Army during WWII. He started out on Broadway and on film in 1939 and began appearing on TV in 1953. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show; he was also in Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953), the Twilight Zone episode, "Perchance to Dream," the film Assault on a Queen (1966), which was adapted from a Jack Finney novel, and The Godfather (1972).

John Anderson (1902-1992) served in the Coast Guard during WWII and started his acting career on Broadway in 1937. He began appearing on TV in 1950 and on film in 1953; in addition to a role in Psycho (1960), he was seen in many classic TV shows, such as The Twilight Zone, Thriller, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery. Besides "The Old Pro," he was in two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of which was Robert Bloch's "The Second Wife."

In smaller roles:
  • Sara Shane (1928-2022) as Loretta; she was on screen from 1948 to 1964 and also appeared on The Outer Limits, as well as in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Captive Audience."
  • Stacy Harris (1918-1973) as Cullen; he was a busy voice actor on radio from 1946 to 1960 and appeared in numerous TV shows and a few films from 1950 to 1972. He was also in two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "The Thirty-First of February."
  • Richard Carlyle (1914-2009) as Mace; he appeared mostly on TV, from 1950 to 1994. He was on an episode of Star Trek and he appeared in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "The Paragon."
Oddly, while making his closing comments at the end of the episode, Hitchcock is buried up to his neck in sand as the tide is coming in. This would have fit much better with "Beta Delta Gamma," the other episode written by Calvin Clements, which aired two weeks before "The Old Pro."

"The Old Pro" has the distinction of being the last episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to air in prime time; it was rerun on NBC on Tuesday, September 18, 1962, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour premiered two nights later, on September 20, 1962, on CBS, where Alfred Hitchcock Presents had aired for its first five seasons.

Watch "The Old Pro" online here.


Burwell, J. Charles. "The Seeker in the Shadowlands: Three Novels of Western Noir by H.A. DeRosso." bare*bones #3, summer 2020, 70-82.

DeRosso, H.A. "The Old Pro." Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories. Ed. Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian. NY: Oxford UP, 1995. 405-417.


Galactic Central,

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


"The Old Pro." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 7, episode 8, NBC, 28 November 1961.

S, Sai. “H. A. DeRosso - Western Noir Pulp Author.” Pulp Flakes, 14 Dec. 2012,


Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Cream of the Jest" here!

In two weeks: "Don't Interrupt" starring Chill Wills and Cloris Leachman!


Grant said...

Obviously when it comes to this episode getting taken COMPLETELY seriously, the character name "Frank Burns" would backfire eventually.

Jack Seabrook said...

That is a funny coincidence!