Thursday, February 2, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Eight-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

by Jack Seabrook

Diana Dors as Irene
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is that rare example of a great short story that is even better on film. Appearing first in the January 1949 issue of Weird Tales, Bloch’s tale of horror is told in the first person by Hugo, a deformed young man of limited mental capacity who was raised in a “Home” by the “Sisters,” but who ran away when he grew old enough to be sent to live at a county facility. He lived a transient life until he was found, lying nearly dead in a snowy alley behind a theater, by the Great Sadini, also known as Victor Sadini, who has a magic act with his wife and assistant Isobel.

Sadini feels pity for Hugo and takes him in, allowing him to help with the loading and unloading of props. Isobel does not have as much sympathy for the boy, even though Hugo tells her that she looks like an angel in contrast to her husband, who Hugo thinks resembles the Devil. Hugo is amazed by Victor’s illusions and relieved when the magician does not really saw his beautiful wife in half with an electric saw.

Although Hugo does not really understand the relationship between the bickering Sadinis, he does understand when he sees Isobel two-timing her husband with George Wallace, a singer and dancer traveling with the same show. After Hugo overhears Wallace urging Isobel to run away with him, Isobel speaks to the boy privately and uses his simple belief that Sadini is a servant of the Devil to convince the lad that his suspicion is true.

Angel and Devil?
Isobel kisses Hugo and talks him into murdering her husband. Hugo sneaks up on Sadini and kills him by bashing him in the back of the skull with a lead pipe. Wallace, drunk, happens upon the crime scene and receives the same fate as Sadini. Isobel arrives and faints when she sees her husband and her lover both dead. Certain of the power of Sadini’s wand in his hand, Hugo imagines himself as Hugo the Great. In the empty theater, he straps the unconscious Isobel into the box and saws her in half with the electric saw.

Shocked that the trick went awry, Hugo screams until he is taken away, and he tells his inquisitors—police? doctors?—that he is very tired and wants to go to sleep.

Bloch adapted “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the episode was filmed in the summer of 1961, probably in August. This makes it likely the first of his scripts for the seventh season of the series, since episodes seem to have been produced no more than a couple of months before they were aired, and his next episode did not air until January 9, 1962 (“Bad Actor”). As has been reported many times before, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was deemed too gruesome by the show’s sponsor, Revlon, and thus was not aired as part of the network run of the series. It was included in the syndication package, however, and is now considered to be in the public domain.

Hugo the Great
The televised version of the story makes a number of changes to the printed version, but they do not change the plot. The story’s frame, told by Hugo, is removed, and the setting is changed from a theater to a carnival, with many tents and acts. The seedy carnival setting fits the story perfectly. Hugo is not deformed (in the story, he refers to “the way I looked, with my eyes and back”); he is just simple, naive, and sincere to a fault. Isobel becomes Irene, and George Wallace becomes George Morris, perhaps to avoid confusion with the controversial governor of Alabama, who had lost the primary election in 1958 but who won in 1962.

The teleplay’s dialogue mirrors that of the story very closely, and Bloch provides exposition through exchanges of conversation rather than narration, as he had in the story. Other changes include Irene telling Hugo that her husband is really the Devil, rather than his slave, and in the televised version she explains to the boy that the magic is in the wand, something she denied in the story. On television, Hugo kills Sadini with a knife, not a pipe, and he does not kill George at all—the lover merely passes out drunk on the floor of Sadini’s trailer.

Finally, at the conclusion, Irene falls, hits her head, and is knocked unconscious; in the story, she is asleep. The show ends with Hugo running the giant buzz saw into the box in which she is trapped. She wakes up screaming as the saw approaches, and the picture fades to back as Hugo the Great urges her gleefully to “Smile, Irene! Smile! Smile!”

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” benefits from perfect casting. Brandon deWilde plays Hugo with a sense of wide-eyed innocence that seems more that of a simpleton than a mentally challenged youth. He had become famous as the boy in Shane (1953) and he appeared in the beloved Thriller episode, "Pigeons From Hell." He died in a traffic accident in 1972, when he was only 30 years old. David J. Stewart plays Sadini; born in 1915 as Abe Siegel, he appeared in movies and on TV but had no major roles prior to his death in 1966. In “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” he looks like a magician/devil and walks a tightrope between being a tough carnival man and a tender friend to Hugo.

Larry Kert as George
Larry Kert was born in 1930 and plays George, Irene’s lover. He was the original Tony in West Side Story on Broadway and did more work on stage than on TV or film; though he played one of the most romantic parts in Broadway history and played Irene’s lover in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, ” he was openly gay and died of complications of AIDS in 1991.

Finally, and perhaps most impressive, was Diana Dors (1931-1984), the blond bombshell who was known as the British Marilyn Monroe. She was born Diana Fluck and led a stormy life, appearing in films from 1947 to her death. She is perfect for the part of Irene, her stunning good looks and brash nature making a real contrast to Hugo’s belief that she is an angel. Learn more about Diana Dors at this fan website or at her estate’s website.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was directed by Josef Leytes (1901-1983), a director who was born in Russia, came to the US in 1958, and made TV and films as Josef Leytes or Lejtes. Very little has been written about him and this was his only effort for the Hitchcock series. In my opinion, the auteur of a television show, particularly one of about 24 minutes in length, is usually the screenwriter rather than the director, unlike in films. I think that Bloch’s script is more responsible for the success of this episode than the direction; however, it is filmed competently, shot clearly, and paced quickly, so it is a great pleasure to watch.

This episode has been easily available on DVD for years, appearing in packages with Hitchcock films such as Rich and Strange, Blackmail, and Easy Virtue. It can also be viewed online, though the picture quality is better on DVD.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was originally a German poem by Goethe (1797); it was then adapted as a symphonic poem by Paul Dukas in 1896-97, and this piece of program music served as the basis for the Mickey Mouse segment of Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which is probably what most people think of when they hear the title of this terrific story and teleplay by Robert Bloch.


Bloch, Robert. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." The Ghoul Keepers: Nine Fantastic Stories. New York: Pyramid, 1961. 9-22. Print.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <>.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Television.

Wikipedia. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <>.

Yankee Classic Pictures. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <>.


Peter Enfantino said...

I remember buying this classic on a really badly dubbed (but legitimate) VHS put out by (I think) Goodtimes in the mid-80s. My favorite Hitch written by Robert Bloch. Yet another stellar job, Jack. Thanks for keeping bare bones alive!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter! This episode has everything that epitomizes Robert Bloch's work for me. And as a Fredric Brown fan, I love anything involving a seedy cfarnival!

Matthew Bradley said...

Yup, that was us (speaking on behalf of the late, semi-lamented GoodTimes). I had the honor of writing copy for "Apprentice" when we repackaged it in later years. Not quite as satisfying as invoking Matheson on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and some of the Poe films, but there it is. said...

You can learn more about the late Brandon deWilde at our tribute site.

Jack Seabrook said...

A very impressive website! Thanks for reading!

granitoons said...

I just like how two of the characters are called Victor and Hugo.

Jack Seabrook said...

Good catch! Bloch's humor was wonderful.