Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Hitchcock Project: Henry Slesar Part Six-"The Right Price" [4.22]

by Jack Seabrook

"The Right Price" is based on Henry Slesar's short story, "Make Me An Offer," which was first published in the December 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine under the pseudonym Jay Street. The story is slight but enjoyable; the show is less successful.

Slesar's story tells of Mort and Jocelyn Bonner, a not so happily married couple who have both grown fat with advancing age and who now sleep in separate rooms. One night, lying in bed unable to sleep, Mort hears a noise downstairs and gets up to investigate. He discovers a burglar, who invites him to take a seat on the living room sofa. Frightened, Mort encourages the thief to take what he wants and depart, but the man proposes an arrangement where Mort tells him where the valuables are and is later able to collect on his insurance.

Mort proposes another sort of deal. The two men discuss having the thief murder Jocelyn and agree on a price of $3500. The thief goes upstairs to carry out the deed and Mort waits below until it seems to be taking too long. He ventures upstairs, finds the thief in Jocelyn's room, and is suddenly overtaken and killed by suffocation with a pillow. Jocelyn thanks the thief and gets out her checkbook.

"Make Me An Offer" is well written, and Slesar makes good use of descriptive phrases and recurring motifs. "There was a moon, plump and full in the center of his bedroom window," describes the view from Mort's room at night. His pillow is uncomfortable and he punches it "savagely." He imagines Jocelyn raiding the refrigerator, "tip-toeing around like an over-weight ballerina" and thinks of her figure as "elephantine." The burglar wears "a blue-dyed Eisenhower jacket" as well as "dirty sneakers and workman's gloves"--he is said to resemble "a jockey out of silks." The thief, never given a name, converses with Mort amiably, his phrasing recalling the speech patterns of Damon Runyan's characters, best remembered in the stage musical and film Guys and Dolls.

The story takes place in a suburb of New York City and the thief remarks that he "worked the numbers in Jersey." Mort suggests he try robbing homes in Scarsdale. The imagery of moon, weight, and pillow returns at the story's end, when the narrator comments that "the moon . . . was still plump and imposing." The face of the moon is said to bear "a distinct resemblance to Jocelyn's own fat features," and right before Mort is killed, "Jocelyn's moon of a face exploded into a brilliant nova" and "another white moon was descending towards him"--the moon this time is the pillow that will smother him, bringing Jocelyn, plumpness, moon and pillow together at the climax.

The unhappy home office
The short story was adapted for television by Bernard C. Schoenfeld and retitled "The Right Price." Although the story had been published originally as by Jay Street, Slesar is given credit as its author onscreen. It was broadcast as part of the fourth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and premiered on SundayMarch 8, 1959. While the Hitchcock series excelled at certain kinds of humor, such as the host's introductory and conclusory remarks, this episode falls flat precisely because it tries too hard to be funny. Instead, it commits the cardinal sin of being boring.

The program opens with a slow dolly shot in on Mort and Jocelyn working unhappily together in an office. Jocelyn, played by Jane Dulo, suddenly gets up from her desk and whips off her dress, revealing a slip underneath and announcing that she is going to bed--the office is shown to be a room in the house they share. Unlike in the story, Mort and Jocelyn sleep in the same bedroom (in twin beds, of course). Mort comments that her first husband fell out of an open window to his death and Jocelyn tells him "you'll never get a cent of my money," suggesting a financial motivation for the subsequent murder plot.

Allyn Joslyn as Mort
When Mort encounters the burglar downstairs, the man, who is never given a name in the short story, tells Mort: "Just call me The Cat. I read that once in a story. 'Call me The Cat,' the handsome burglar said." This is probably a reference to Hitchcock's 1955 film, To Catch a Thief, which starred handsome Cary Grant as a cat burglar. In "The Right Price," The Cat is played strictly for laughs by Eddie Foy, Jr. The episode's incidental music plays along and sounds like a laugh track on a situation comedy, complete with "wah-wah" horns.

Foy picks up little items around the house and pockets them, though Allen Joslyn, as Mort, grabs his cigarette lighter back when Foy moves to pocket it. The chatter between the two men wakes Jocelyn briefly but Mort lies to her and tells her that he is listening to the radio and having a midnight snack. The chat between Mort and The Cat seems to go on and on; at one point, Foy reclines in front of the fireplace with a sandwich and a beer! A beat cop named Joe even stops by because he saw a light on in the house; Mort sends him on his way with a promise to stop by the station house to praise his neighborhood patrol skills.

Foy's oddly gleeful expression
moments after the murder
The final scene is surprisingly brutal. The burglar knocks Mort out with the butt of his gun then smothers him on the bedroom floor with a pillow. It is unusual to see a murder committed so graphically; what is even stranger is the follow up, as The Cat beams at Jocelyn and tells her to "Make it out to cash. Five thousand." Cheerful music is heard as the picture fades out on The Cat's goofy grin.

Eddie Foy, Jr. (1905-1983) plays The Cat and recalls Phil Silvers with his big, black glasses and silly smile. Born Edwin Fitzgerald, Jr., he was the son of a vaudevillian. He was on Broadway from 1929-1961, in movies from 1913 and on TV from 1957. Memorable movies in which he appeared included Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Pajama Game (1957) and The Bells Are Ringing (1960) This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series. As a child, he was part of the act called The Seven Little Foys; a 1955 movie was made about them but he was not in it.

Mort is played by Allen Joslyn (1901-1981), who was on Broadway from 1918-1952 and appeared onstage with Boris Karloff from 1941-1944 in Arsenic and Old Lace. He was in movies from 1937 and on TV from 1953, appearing just this once on the Hitchcock show. Memorable movies included Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Preston Sturges's The Great McGinty (1940), and The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), a movie that starred Jack Benny and one which the great comedian never lived down.

Jane Dulo as Jocelyn
In the role of Jocelyn, Jane Dulo (1917-1994) creates another in a long line of acerbic women. Dulo appeared in countless TV episodes from 1951 to 1992 as well as the occasional movie; like her two co-stars, this was her only time on the Hitchcock series.

Bernard C. Schoenfeld (1907-1990), who wrote the teleplay, did much better work than this in the films Phantom Lady (1944) and The Dark Corner (1946). He wrote for TV from 1952-1975 and was responsible for 16 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Night the World Ended."

Finally, Arthur Hiller (1923- ), whose direction of this episode is so uninspired, helmed 16 other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as three sub-par episodes of Thriller. He has been making movies since 1957 and directed the classic comedy The In-Laws (1979).

"The Right Price" may be purchased on DVD here or seen for free online here.

The murder

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 June 2013.
"The Right Price." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 8 Mar. 1959. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "Make Me an Offer." 1958. Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. Ed. Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Avon, 1960. 137-43. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 June 2013.


Walker Martin said...

Henry Slesar should have taken the story even further because the problem is that the police might figure out the wife did it and offer her a plea bargain deal if she would name the burglar, etc.

The burglar should have killed both of them. That way no one would be left to convict him, etc. Plus nowadays, it seem everyone is an undercover cop. It's hard to find an honest killer...

Jack Seabrook said...

Isn't it the truth?

Grant said...

More than anything else, I associate Jane Dulo with THE ODD COUPLE. She played a lot of one-time characters, usually those comical matronly characters. I think she even played Oscar's mother, though heaven knows whether she was the slightest bit older than Jack Klugman.

Jack Seabrook said...

Dulo was five years older than Klugman. She not only played Oscar's mother in one episode, she played Murray the cop's wife in another!

Harvey Chartrand said...

Excellent review of a so-so episode. Rather than THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT, I prefer to remember Allyn Joslyn for his role as the social climber aboard the TITANIC (1953). There's a moment when Joslyn indulges in a little transvestism – seven years before Tony Perkins donned the dress and wig in PSYCHO. I saw THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT recently on TCM and was appalled. Allyn Joslyn was cast as a fallen angel who played the trumpet! Jack Benny didn't have much of a film career after that bomb!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Harvey. I have not seen Titanic but I was excited to be able to sneak in a reference to Jack Benny--he is one of my favorite old radio stars.

john kenrick said...

I just finished watching the episode tonight, Jack, enjoyed it the first couple of times I saw it, not so much this time around. For one thing, it felt edited. Allyn Joslyn is an actor I've always liked but he's made up to look younger than his actual age, and I find it difficult to believe that his hair is natural, and that includes the color. His performance was nothing special. On the other hand, Eddie Foy, Jr. for some reason charmed me. Yeah, I know: go figure. His brand of what I can best describe as soft shoe vaudeville playing made the episode work for me in the past, didn't charm me nearly so much this time. As to Joslyn, he's at his best in his first movie, They Won't Forget, an anti-lynching drama loosely based on the Leo Frank case. His co-star is future Hitchcock presents player Claude Rains. It an excellent movie, but I digress...

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I thought this episode was just not funny! I'm sure I'd like the actors in other roles, though.

john kenrick said...

Watched it again the other night. It wasn't all that funny but for some reason,--the acting, the journeyman witty dialogue, the "reassuring" suburban ambiance bringing back childhood memories--it worked. As to the episode's brand of humor, I'd call it droll. It was quietly funny, not the laugh out loud kind, like a well drawn and nicely conceived cartoon (newspaper kind, not movie). Gardner Rea maybe. Or Chon Day. I find this an easy episode to smile at. It's cozy, even with the "shock" ending. Foy the Young really sells it. Damon Runyon in the'burbs vibe? Maybe.

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't seen it since I wrote this post almost five years ago, but in my memory it was a disappointment. I'm glad you enjoyed it.