Thursday, June 14, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Seventeen-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Off Season

“Off Season” was both the final episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to be broadcast and the final episode to be written by Robert Bloch. It was based on “Winter Run,” a story by Edward D. Hoch that was first published in the January 1965 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
The story begins as Johnny Kendell, a policeman on duty, accidentally shoots and kills a wino in a dark alley, thinking that the bottle the man held was a gun. Filled with remorse and certain he will be suspended from the police force, Johnny resigns and heads west with Sandy Brown, the woman he plans to marry.
Johnny and Sandy settle in Wagon Lake, a Midwestern town that was once a place for summer cottages but is now a fashionable suburb. They take adjoining rooms in a motel and Johnny gets a job patrolling the lake and keeping an eye on the cottages, which sit empty in winter. As part of the job, he is given a .38 revolver to carry.
Sandy is cold to Johnny, thinking it is too soon after the shooting of the bum for him to resume carrying a gun. She takes a job at a local supermarket while he makes a trial run with Sheriff Dade. Later, on patrol by himself, he meets Milt Woodman in a bar and learns that Woodman was fired recently from the job Johnny now has. As the days wear on, Johnny encounters Milt again and sees him flirting with Sandy while she is at work.
Johnny and Sandy’s relationship deteriorates as jealousy begins to overcome him. While having dinner with the sheriff and his wife, Johnny learns that Milt was fired for taking girls to the cottages while on duty. Johnny begins to suspect Sandy of dating Milt while Johnny is on patrol at night. He searches a cottage and finds evidence that Sandy had been there with Milt.
Late that night, Johnny telephones the motel and learns that Sandy has gone out. He goes to the cottage and sees Milt’s car outside. He sneaks in and walks to the bedroom; he calls Woodman’s name and shoots six times at the figures on the bed. When he lifts the sheet, he sees that Woodman’s companion was not Sandy, but rather Sheriff Dade’s wife. He knows that “he had to keep going. Running.”
Indus Arthur as Sandy
“Winter Run” was Edward Hoch’s first story to be adapted for television. Hoch said that he spoke to Bloch about it later and Bloch claimed that his teleplay had been faithful to the story but that director William Friedkin had made last-minute changes to the script, especially in the final scene. A close comparison of the story with the show as filmed reveals that the changes are more significant than Bloch admitted.
The show opens with shots of neon-lit city streets filmed from a moving car. The mobile camera follows a bum as he breaks the window of a liquor store and steals a bottle, carefully replacing the full bottle he pilfers with an empty one he has just drained. This small act gives a measure of humanity to the man, who is quickly gunned down in an alley by trigger-happy Johnny.
Johnny, played by John Gavin, looks scared, and we see no evidence that the bum represents any danger. Unlike the story, where Johnny and his partner were pursuing a criminal on foot and the shooting is a case of mistaken identity, in the TV show the police arrive by car and Johnny’s only excuse for shooting the man is to say that he was trying to get away.
Richard Jaeckel as Milt Woodman
One of the problems with “Off Season” is the performance of John Gavin as Johnny. Gavin was tall, muscular and handsome; he had featured roles in Psycho (1960) and Spartacus (1960), but Hitchcock referred to him as “the Stiff” and his attempts to demonstrate Johnny’s emotional instability do not succeed.
As the show unfolds, we meet Sandy, played by Indus Arthur, an attractive blond actress who continues the pattern of having female characters appear more glamorous than their corresponding descriptions in the source stories (think of Susan Harrison in The Gloating Place, for example). Bloch (and presumably director Friedkin) made sure to set up the show’s climax by also casting actress Dody Heath as Sheriff Dade’s wife; she bears a strong resemblance to Indus Arthur, and both look like Anne Francis.
Bloch’s teleplay is much more focused on Johnny’s relationship with his gun than was Hoch’s story. In the story, when Johnny takes the job patrolling the summer cottages around Wagon Lake, he is given a gun to carry as part of the job. It is this gun that he uses to kill Woodman and Mrs. Dade at the conclusion. In the show, the gun and Johnny’s need for it present a more complex psychological picture.
Tom Drake as Sheriff Dade
When Johnny talks to Sandy, soon after the initial shooting, he is callous and unremorseful, remarking that “the only thing a cop has between him and extinction is his gun.” In Bloch’s script, Johnny does not resign from the police force voluntarily, as he does in Hoch’s story; instead, a police psychiatrist recommends an honorable discharge, telling Johnny that “this sort of thing could happen again” and implying that a gun carries too much responsibility for Johnny.
Johnny also has a personal gun, which he packs in his suitcase when he and Sandy decide to move west. For Johnny, the gun represents his masculinity: he is big, strong and handsome, but he needs the gun to be a man. After he and Sandy settle in Wagon Lake and he begins to doubt his fiance's faithfulness, he looks for the gun in his suitcase and finds it gone. As his fear and doubt continue to mount, he asks the motel clerk to let him into Sandy’s room (on TV in 1965, unmarried lovers took  adjoining motel rooms—this time, on the same set as the motel in Psycho), where he searches her belongings until he finds the gun. Oddly, he leaves it there, suggesting an inner struggle over whether he can live without it.
John Gavin as Johnny
The lack of a gun as part of the patrolman’s job in Wagon Lake is a key difference between “Winter Run” and “Off Season,” and it is here that Bloch changes the focus of the tale from one of jealousy to one of uncertainty regarding male power. Even Bloch’s subtle humor is on display as he plays with the gun theme: when Johnny confesses his past to Sheriff Dade and says that he has something to tell his new boss, Dade replies: “Well, shoot!” encouraging Johnny to tell him but also punning on the central problem. Bloch adds another humorous touch when the short order cook at the greasy spoon where Sandy takes a job as a waitress laments his own inability to get a real, home-cooked meal.
The show moves inexorably toward its violent conclusion, though there are loose ends that never get tied. When Johnny finds what appears to be evidence that Sandy has been in a cabin with Milt, is it true? Has Sandy been two-timing him? More important is the question of whether Sheriff Dade knew that Woodman had been seeing his wife. Dade tells Johnny that he fired Woodman from the job as patrolman because he used to take “some gal” into one of the cottages. At other points in the show, he asks Johnny to tell him if Woodman gives him any trouble. Tom Drake gives an excellent performance as the sheriff, and it is never clear how much he knows of what is really going on. The imbalance in acting skill in his scenes with John Gavin is noticeable and does not do Gavin any favors.
Dody Heath as Mrs. Dade
The final scene, when Johnny discovers Woodman in a cabin engaging in a tryst, was supposedly changed by director Friedkin, but it is hard to tell exactly what changes were made. As filmed, Johnny enters the darkened living room, sees a man and a woman embracing on a couch, and calls out Woodman’s name. Woodman springs up, pulls a gun, and shoots at Johnny. Johnny then pounces on him and they fight, causing Woodman to drop the gun. Johnny picks it up and shoots Woodman, then shoots the woman as she runs for the door. He walks to her body, turns it over, and exclaims “Mrs. Dade!” before breaking down in tears.
Whoever is responsible for this scene, it doesn’t work. There is no motivation for Woodman to shoot at Johnny, nor is it easy to understand why Johnny picks up the gun and kills both Woodman and his companion. For all of the careful work done to establish the resemblance between Sandy and Mrs. Dade, when her face is revealed it is not clear who she is, causing the need for the voiceover exclamation that provides positive identification.
“Winter Run” is a good story, and Bloch’s adaptation of it is clever, but the show is hampered by a wooden lead performance by John Gavin and by some questionable decisions by William Friedkin, the director.
Harry Hines as the bum
Edward D. Hoch, who wrote “Winter Run,” was a well-known writer of mystery short stories who had over 900 of them published in his lifetime (1930-2008). He won an Edgar Award in 1968 for “The Oblong Room” and was first published in 1955. Very little of his work has been adapted for film or television. On a personal note, he kindly provided me with some rare documents when I was researching my first book at least twenty years ago.
William Friedkin was born in 1935 and won the Academy Award as best director for The French Connection (1971). He also directed The Exorcist (1973). “Off Season” is the first fictional work credited to him as a director; he is also credited with TV documentaries that same year (1965). More recently, Friedkin has claimed that Hitchcock criticized him for not wearing a tie while directing “Off Season.”
In addition to appearing in the films mentioned above, John Gavin (1931- ) was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1971 to 1973 and the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from 1981 to 1986. He appeared in two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
William O'Connell
Richard Jaeckel (1926-1997) played Milt Woodman, the doomed gigolo. He was in movies from 1943, and appeared in numerous films and TV episodes, including one of The Outer Limits, one of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and three of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He was a regular on Spenser: for Hire from 1985 to 1987, playing police captain Martin Quirk.
Tom Drake (1918-1982), who played Sheriff Dade, had a role in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) as well as in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Harry Hines (1889-1967), who plays the bum who is shot by Johnny, is most recognizable as the man who crawls under the out of control carousel at the conclusion of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1950).
Finally, William O’Connell (1933- ) played the motel clerk. O’Connell is instantly recognizable, having appeared on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Odd Couple, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Star Trek, and in a few Clint Eastwood movies, including The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), and Any Which Way You Can (1980).
“Winter Run” was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock: The Best of Mystery (1980) as well as in The Night My Friend (1992), a collection of Hoch’s stories.
“Off Season is not currently available online or on DVD.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2012. <>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Hoch, Edward D. "Winter Run." Alfred Hitchcock: The Best of Mystery. New York: Galahad, 1986. 11-20. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 9 June 2012. <>.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Regan, 2003. Print.
"Off Season." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC. 10 May 1965. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 9 June 2012. <>.


Matthew Bradley said...

An excellent conclusion to your Bloch series, Jack. Look forward with pleasure to seeing you embark upon your next subject.

If the show's executive producer, longtime Hitchcock associate Norman Lloyd (quoted by John McCarty and Brian Kelleher in their book ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS), is to be believed, Friedkin also wrongly asserted that it was Hitch who "discovered" him. According to Lloyd, MCA agent Joe Wizan brought Friedkin to the attention of Lloyd, who hired him to direct "Off Season" after seeing his documentary THE PEOPLE VS. PAUL CRUMP.

Walker Martin said...

I'm sorry to see this series end. I read the story by Hoch in my January 1965 AHMM and thought it was ok but nothing special. I did find it hard to believe that the sheriff would keep a deputy that had mistakenly shot a man.

The TV adaptation was ok also but I couldn't tell the difference between the two women. Still, it's fun comparing the short story to the TV version.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Matthew. I find it hard to believe that Hitch was hanging around the set when Friedkin directed this episode.

And thanks, Walker! I'm glad you liked the series.

My plan is to do all 361 episodes but to link them by themes rather than plodding through them chronologically.

Walker Martin said...

Jack, I thought you were joking earlier, a few days ago, when you mentioned doing all the ALFRED HITCHCOCK episodes, so this is great news that you intend to do the entire series.

When you do the Ray Bradbury story, THE JAR, I hope you cover all three versions. A couple years ago I watched all of them on dvd:

1--It first appeared on the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR in 1964.

2--Second adaptation on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS in 1986.

3--Third version adapted for RAY BRADBURY THEATER in 1992.

The hour long version was the best by far but it was very interesting to see the differences in the three shows.

Harvey Chartrand said...

OFF SEASON was a good suspenser for the AHH series to go out on. Starts off with a bang: the totally unjustified killing of an old wino in a back alley by a trigger-happy cop (the bum looked like Cyril Delevanti's twin brother). Three slugs to the chest for a stolen bottle of muscatel. No way could that bottle be mistaken for a gun. I thought John Gavin played his part well. (I also liked Gavin as a clean-cut and respectable young doctor infatuated with slatternly bottled blonde lounge singer Diana Dors in the 1963 AHH episode RUN FOR DOOM.) The way Gavin's jealous cop falls apart in the sock finish was most convincing. I liked OFF SEASON's dreary PSYCHO-like ambience (barren woodlands seen mostly at night, abandoned cottages and semi-vacant rustic motels) – or perhaps director William Friedkin was recycling sets from FINAL PERFORMANCE. OFF SEASON is the perfect title for the final episode of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. Ten years is a good run, but that show should have lasted forever.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks Harvey! I hope you continue as I explore other episodes, starting with the Shatner twosome!

Grant said...

Like Harvey Chartrand, I've just never had a problem with John Gavin as an actor, even though it seems kind of a popular opinion to have.

This episode would be interesting to COLUMBO fans, because the police psychiatrist is played by Fred Draper, one of those character actors who show up in one COLUMBO after another, in big or small parts.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading, Grant! I've started to catch a few Columbos on ME TV and they are still great.

john kenrick said...

I like the episode better than you do, Jack, due to if nothing else the Psycho connections (Gavin, the motel, the rather passive lawman). Psychologically, you're spot on re the issues with John Gavin's character. I wish they'd given him more back story (PTSD? Korean War vet?). Richard Jaeckal never seemed to lose that punk quality, and he was just fine in his role. It's a well made episode rather than a good story, such as there's a story.

They'd have done better to have had a brainstorming session, especially as they must have known that Off Season was going to be the show's final episode, and focus on character development over plot. I can scarcely remember the plot points, but the main character was unforgettable. Limited actor he may have been, when well cast, John Gavin could deliver the goods. Another thing I like about this one: Gavin is almost never likable on screen, even when playing the good guy (!), and this really works in Off Season's favor.

Jack Seabrook said...

It's not a bad episode, but Gavin is stiff and the ending is a mess.