Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Hitchcock Project: Henry Slesar Part Two--"Night of the Execution" [3.13]

by Jack Seabrook

"Night of the Execution" was broadcast on December 29, 1957, during the third season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was an adaptation of Henry Slesar's short story, "The Day of the Execution," which had been published earlier that year in the June 1957 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

As the story begins, young prosecuting attorney Warren Selvey can barely contain his glee at receiving his first murder conviction. He races home to his wife, Doreen, deflecting any expressions of sympathy for the convicted man, Murray Rodman. On the day that the prisoner is to be executed, Selvey is approached by a "stooped, gray-haired man with [a] grease-spotted hat." The man, Phil Arlington, tells Selvey that he killed Rodman's wife and was out of town during the trial. On his return, he became consumed with guilt that another man had been sentenced to die unjustly.

Selvey is shaken and tells Arlington that he must have "dreamed the whole thing." That night, as the time of the execution draws near, Selvey is jumpy and short with his wife. Arlington telephones him, unable to forget his crime. Selvey tells the tramp to come to his apartment (near 86th Street in New York City). Doreen retires to the bedroom, miffed that her husband is working so late.

Arlington arrives and Selvey plies him with liquor until midnight, when Arlington tries to telephone the police with his confession. Selvey attacks him and strangles him, only to see Doreen watching from the bedroom doorway. Later, Selvey's rival, assistant D..A. Vance, is puzzled, asking Selvey why he "would want to kill a harmless old guy like that." Vance explains that he knows Arlington, who had a habit of "confessing to murders" What he can't understand is why Warren killed him!

The producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents must have been impressed with Slesar's story, because they bought it and filmed it quickly. The teleplay is by Bernard C. Schoenfeld, and he took significant liberties with the source, expanding it and changing the focus. The televised version begins as Warren's father-in-law Sidney, whose business relationship to Warren is never made clear (he is a former judge who seems to be the equivalent of a party boss now), tells Warren that he needs to be passionate in front of the jury in order to secure a conviction. Warren has to break his string of losses so that he can ensure his political future. Unlike the Warren of the short story, whose ambition is never in question, the Warren of the TV show is uncertain, commenting that his rival Vance will use any cheap trick to make a jury laugh or cry. Sidney attacks Warren on two fronts, arguing that his professional ambition and his marriage to Doreen both depend upon a conviction.

Warren is a gentle man who has to be prodded into action, but when pushed he can rise to the occasion; we see him presenting his closing summation to the jury, as he demands the death penalty. As the jury deliberates, we see Vance chatting with reporters, certain that Warren has lost again. He is facile with the members of the press and possesses an easy familiarity that Warren lacks.

At home, Doreen is much different than her counterpart in the short story. Here, she is cold, calculating, and anxious for a victory that will help Warren's career and support her expensive taste in clothes and jewelry. When she visits Warren at the bar where he awaits the verdict, she wears a fur stole and is clearly the dominant partner in the marriage. "Someday your name's gonna be important in this state," she tells Warren, but it is clear that this means more to her than it does to him.

Russell Collins as Ed Barnes
The tramp, who is renamed Ed Barnes in the TV show, first approaches Warren in the bar before the verdict has been rendered, but he is unable to speak his piece before Warren rushes back to the courtroom. After the verdict, Warren relaxes at home with Doreen, who is already thinking about the governor's mansion. Barnes arrives and interrupts their romantic moment. He confesses to the murder in front of Warren and Doreen, implicating her in the cover-up. Warren cross-examines Barnes, trying to discredit his story, then threatens to turn the old man in to the police.The Warren Selvey of the TV show is a complex character, well-played by Pat Hingle. Is he kind or is he weak? One thing is certain: he is easily manipulated by his wife and her father. As the tramp, Russell Collins again plays the role he has played before (see "The Night the World Ended"): that of a drunk whose best days are behind him. He looks the part, with his red nose, rumpled clothes, and grizzled, unshaven face, though his blue eyes are bright and shine with conviction when he insists that he killed Mrs. Rodman.

The pressure mounts on Warren when his father-in-law telephones even as he is interrogating Barnes. Sidney tells him that "the boys all think you should run for US. representative." Sidney is a one-dimensional character, as is Doreen, unlike the compassionate wife in Slesar's original story. Warren, however, is morally complex, arguing with Doreen that he cannot let Rodman go to the electric chair now that Barnes has confessed. Doreen's reply is chilling: "it's Rodman or us." Warren then puts on another performance, this time manipulating Barnes into withdrawing his confession and fleeing.

Georgann Johnson as Doreen Selvey
On the night of the execution, Doreen appears in a dress that, she tells Warren, "cost you a fortune," and is ready to go to the governor's dinner, but Warren cannot stop thinking about Rodman and the injustice that may be imminent. Ironically, Rodman probably is guilty and Doreen is right--Warren succeeded in getting a conviction of a man who deserved it. Yet Warren's doubt and compassion are all part of the weakness that has kept him from succeeding.

As the heavy, metal clock on an end table ticks closer to midnight, Barnes bursts into Selvey's apartment. Warren is a wreck and has obviously been drinking. Barnes rushes to the telephone and Selvey pushes him away. Barnes grabs the clock to hit Selvey but Selvey pulls it away from him and hits Barnes with it. Just then, Doreen and her father enter. Sidney examines Barnes and announces that the old man is dead. Surprisingly, Sidney knows "Old Barnes," remarking that "when I was on the bench he was always confessing to murder. He'd study the evidence and then claim he did it." Doreen asks Warren why he did it and the clock strikes twelve, marking the time of Rodman's execution and tolling a death knell for Doreen's ambition and Warren's life and career. Their triumph is hollow after all.

Warren Selvey did not remain true to himself. In trying to remake himself in the image desired by his wife and father-in-law, he lost his moral compass and acted in a way that sealed his doom.

Vinton Hayworth as Sidney
"Night of the Execution" was directed by Justus Addis (1917-1979), with little flair and no notable camera angles or shots. Addis worked in television from 1953 and directed ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; this was his last. In his private life, he was the lifetime companion of Hayden Rorke, who played Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie. Addis worked almost exclusively in television, from 1953-1968. He also directed three episodes of The Twilight Zone. His only feature film was The Cry Baby Killer (1958) for producer Roger Corman; this film was notable for being Jack Nicholson's first role onscreen.

Bernard C. Schoenfeld (1907-1980), who adapted the story for television, does an interesting job expanding and refocusing the story, making Warren the tragic hero and adding complexity to his character. Henry Slesar was later quoted as saying that he thought the teleplay improved upon his story by deepening the characterizations of the minor characters; I would add that Schoenfeld made the main character more intriguing as well. Schoenfeld wrote 16 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Night the World Ended," as well as an episode of The Twilight Zone. He wrote for television from 1952-1975, and earlier in his career he wrote the film adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's Phantom Lady (1944) and co-wrote another noir film, The Dark Corner (1946).

Pat Hingle as Warren Selvey
Playing Warren Selvey was Pat Hingle (1924-2009), making his only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also appeared once on The Twilight Zone and played Commissioner Gordon in Batman (1989) and its three sequels. He worked extensively in episodic television from 1951 on, appearing in films later in his career.

Georgann Johnson (1926- ) played Doreen. She started on television in 1952 and can be seen in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Like Hingle, she appeared in episodic television a great deal until 2007 and had a recurring role on Mr. Peepers (1952-1953).

Once again playing an aging drunk, Russell Collins (1897-1965) is impressive in one of his nine appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was also memorable in the "Kick the Can" episode of The Twilight Zone and he was seen in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and an episode of The Outer Limits. He was in movies from 1935-1965 and on TV starting in 1948.

Frank Marlowe as the judge
Another familiar face was that of Vinton Hayworth (1906-1970) as Sidney, Warren's father-in-law. He began in movies in 1934, was in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, played a bit part in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), and had a recurring role as General Schaeffer on I Dream of Jeannie, where he surely ran into Justus Addis from time to time. Vinton Hayworth's niece was the 1940s pinup/movie star Rita Hayworth.

Finally, Frank Marlowe (1904-1964) has a small role as the judge. He was in movies from 1931-1961, appeared twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and had small parts in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), Notorious (1946), and North By Northwest (1959), as well as being seen in The Dark Corner (1946--co-written by Bernard C. Schoenfeld) and The Screaming Mimi (1958), adapted from the Fredric Brown novel.

"Night of the Execution" can be viewed online here and is also available on DVD.

In two weeks: "On the Nose," based on Henry Slesar's story, "Something Short of Murder."

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.
"Night of the Execution." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 29 Dec. 1957. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "The Day of the Execution." 1957. Clean Crimes and Neat Murders. New York: Avon, 1960. 153-60. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.


Walker Martin said...

Another example of a great cast of veteran actors. It's a shame that we don't have an anthology series producing first class TV drama like HITCHCOCK or TWILIGHT ZONE. But at least we have the dvds.

Jack Seabrook said...

DVDs are one of the greatest inventions of my lifetime!

Harvey Chartrand said...

Russell Collins excelled at playing squinty-eyed, obsequious or malevolent old boozehounds. Collins was only 60 when he made NIGHT OF THE EXECUTION but looks much older.
Henry Slesar's stories are so ready-made for the ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS format. Two seasons of the show could have been called HENRY SLESAR PRESENTS.
PHANTOM LADY is now being rediscovered as one of the great film noir classics, and is renewing interest in its star Franchot Tone. PHANTOM LADY would have made a great episode of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for the comment, Harvey! I like Russell Collins a lot but sometimes I wonder if it's because he looks like how I remember my grandfather looked. Phantom Lady is a great movie and I'm glad it's being rediscovered. The scene that sticks in my head is the crazy drum solo by Elisha Cook!

john kenrick said...

This is a very good episode, and its twists and turns do not, unlike (sad to say) so many in the series, give the ending away, or strongly hint at how the story's going to end. I didn't expect it to play out as it did, an Pat Hingle's performance nicely suggest a man walking on the knife edge somewhere between wimpiness and integrity. His character seemed to have more to him than he was allowed to show, and I don't mean so much in the episode but in his life. He was stuck in a marriage that he wasn't suited for. The introduction of the old tramp at first made him feel skeptical, then roused the good citizen in him, and in the end drove him to violence. The ending was a little too neat but the kicker was his father in law's knowing who the tramp was.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. Schoenfeld did a nice job adapting this for the small screen, and there's Russell Collins again!