Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Ten: "Forty Detectives Later" [5.28]

by Jack Seabrook

"I was publishing a lot of short stories in the Hitchcock magazine as well as Ellery Queen," said Henry Slesar, "and they were being purchased in such sufficient quantity for the Hitchcock show that my agent eventually met with [producer] Joan Harrison when she came to New York and said, 'Why don't you give my client a chance to write one of your scripts?' Joan was a little dubious since I had never written for the screen before, so my agent took the bit between his teeth and implied that we might not sell her any more stories if she didn't give me a crack at an adaptation. I think she agreed because she figured she had less to lose by offering me that one assignment. The first one I did was called 'Forty Detectives Later'" (McCarty and Kelleher 27).

After having seen nine of his short stories adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents by other writers with varying degrees of success, it was finally time for Slesar to do the job himself. And what a job he did! "Forty Detectives Later" is an excellent adaptation of his own story and the quality of the teleplay surely led to further assignments and the beginning of a long and successful career writing for television.

First published in the May 1957 issue of Manhunt, "40 Detectives Later" is told in Chandleresque style, complete with first person narration by its private detective, Tyree. He has a visit from Munro Dean, whose wife was murdered in 1948 and who has been looking for her killer ever since, hiring at least forty private dicks along the way. Dean recently saw the killer at a lunch counter and wants Tyree to locate him and arrange a meeting. Tyree finds and tails the man, following him into a record shop and starting a conversation about jazz records. The killer, whose name is Otto, agrees to meet Tyree at the Hotel Bayshore that evening.

Tyree tells Dean and Dean offers him $3000 to kill Otto. Tyree refuses the assignment but later that evening finds himself drawn to the hotel. He follows Otto inside and waits in the hallway outside Room 305 until he hears a gunshot inside and rushes in. Dean has shot Otto, who is still alive. Tyree intervenes but is unable to prevent further gunplay; Otto shoots Dean and Tyree shoots the gun out of Otto's hand. As Dean is dying, Otto tells Tyree that Dean hired him to kill his wife years before and then tracked him down to kill him so that he would keep quiet.

George Mitchell
Slesar had been paying attention to the methods used by other writers to adapt his story for television. When he adapted this one himself, the title was changed to "Forty Detectives Later" and it was broadcast on April 24, 1960. The narration that had been present in the story was now done by voice over, making the show both homage to and parody of the classic detective film. Tyree is now William Tyre, and the scenes are shot in high-contrast, noir style, with an emphasis on shadows. The dialogue is filled with snappy patter and tough talk, but the most entertaining performance comes from Jack Weston, who plays Otto. The record store of the story becomes a used bookstore, one that also sells old postcards and records.

James Franciscus
Otto is in love with modern stereo equipment and tells Tyre, "I dig hi-fi!" To pad out the running time a bit, Slesar adds a scene where Tyre visits Otto at his apartment. This scene is a classic among those of the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially on the Hitchcock series, where the Beat Generation may be observed. Otto's girlfriend Gloria is a young woman in a leopard skin jumpsuit who sits and plays a bongo drum along with the music on the stereo. Otto bops around the room to a jazz record while Gloria sits, bored: "Hey, Otto, how 'bout some Brubeck? My bongo's gettin' cold," she remarks. The scene ends in bizarre fashion as Otto plays a recording of two trains crashing into each other, a sound that causes him to roll his eyes in ecstasy.

Jack Weston
At the episode's climax, Tyre breaks into the hotel room and sees Dean shoot Otto. Otto shoots Dean in return and then takes aim at Tyre, telling him: "Now it's your turn, finger man!" Tyre manages to avoid getting shot and Otto tells him the truth with his dying breath. Tyre's voice over narration ends the show: "I used to think that I was the kind of a guy who'd do anything for money. But I'd done too much already. It didn't help much, but I gave it back." We see Tyre drop the cash that Dean had given him as his fee on top of Dean's corpse, and the episode ends.

With "Forty Detectives Later," Slesar takes a good story and fashions from it a very entertaining teleplay. Arthur Hiller (1923- ) directs with much more crisp and fast-paced action than he demonstrated in his two prior Slesar episodes, and the script includes such hard boiled remarks as Tyre commenting that Otto would "hear a riff like he never heard before" when he met Dean in Room 305. There is even an inside joke, as Otto phones in an order for eggs and wants them "hard boiled." The result is a pleasure to watch, especially for viewers familiar with the conventions of the private eye genre.

Arlene McQuade
James Franciscus (1934-1991) plays Tyre. With leading man looks and a resemblance to Robert Redford, Franciscus never lacked for work and was a regular in six TV series during his career: Naked City (1958-1959), The Investigators (1961), Mr. Novak (1963-1965), Longstreet (1971-1972), Doc Elliot (1973-1974) and Hunter (1976-1977). He was in movies as well, including The Valley of Gwangi (1969) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), and he made one other appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Bopping to jazz music as Otto was Jack Weston (1924-1996), who only appeared in this single episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents but who was on TV from 1949-1986 and in movies from 1958-1988. He was a regular in four series: Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers (1953-1954), My Sister Eileen (1960-1961), The Hathaways (1961-1962) and The Four Seasons (1984). He appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller twice each, and he was in the film Wait Until Dark (1967).

Munro Dean is played by George Mitchell (1905-1972), who appeared on the Hitchcock series four times. He was also on The Twilight Zone four times and on Thriller twice.

Finally, Arlene McQuade (1936- ) plays Gloria; she had played Rosalie Goldberg on the pioneering Jewish TV series, The Goldbergs, earlier in the 1950s.

"Forty Detectives Later" is available on DVD here or can be viewed online for free here.

"Forty Detectives Later." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 24 Apr. 1960. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.
McCarty, John, and Brian Kelleher. Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Illustrated Guide to the Ten-year Television Career of the Master of Suspense. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. Print.
Slesar, Henry. "40 Detectives Later." Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. New: Avon, 1960. 51-58. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.


Harvey Chartrand said...

Sounds like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS needed some new blood after five seasons. Novice screenwriter Henry Slesar showed those old hacks how to write a proper teleplay! How is Slesar pronounced, by the way. Slay-zar? Sleezer? Slesser?

Mike Doran said...

The consensus pronunciation seems to be between "Slesser" and"Slezzer",which unfortunately doesn't rhyme with anything.
See Norman Lloyd's Academy interview for verification.

When my brother and I were kids, he was into science fiction and I preferred mysteries.
Sean had seen Henry Slesar's stories in SF magazines (and I learned the hard way never to use "sci-fi" , which he considered a slur, in his presence).
When he saw Slesar's name in one of my EQMMs, it confused him: " ... But he's a science-fiction person!"
Never the twain, and all that.
He had a similar problem a few years later with Isaac Asimov.
We live and learn ... maybe.

Jack Seabrook said...

Mike, you beat me to it! I think Lloyd says Slessar, but with his "theatrical" way of speaking one can never be sure if he's accurate.

Mike Doran said...

One of my old TV GUIDEs, circa early '70s, has a profile of Henry Slesar, with emphasis on his headwritership of THE EDGE OF NIGHT and SOMERSET (two daytime soaps produced by Procter & Gamble).
It was here that I first learned that P. G. Wodehouse was a fan of EDGE, and in particular of Slesar's writing.
According to TV GUIDE, Slesar is pronounced "SLEH-sir", which I guess means that the central "s" is soft.
... or something like that ...

Todd Mason said...

Yes, Harlan Ellison in PARTNERS IN WONDER also reported "sleh-sir"...imagine a softer attack on "slay-sir"...

Todd Mason said...

And Sean was correct, on sigh-fie. Even if oddly parochial about what writers were allowed to do.

Mike Doran said...


Actually, Sean's "parochialism" isn't odd at all.
In fact, it's even more commonplace within genres, as witness the pissing matches between fans of "noir" versus fans of "cozy" in the mystery world.

In his last couple of posts on his family blog, my friend Max Allan Collins, who works all sides of the mystery thoroughfare, has written about this phenomenon. Max just sighs and rolls with it, and I guess I should too.

I suppose I ought to add in passing that Sean passed away about three years ago, so this is no longer an issue with him ...

Stephen Bowie said...

I asked Slesar about the pronunciation a few years before he died and, oddly, there wasn't a simple answer. Meaning, I guess, that there wasn't a family consensus? I've forgotten the details now. I'd have to check the tape but I think he used "Sleaze-er" -- in any case it was something less elegant than any of the guesses above (or my own).

john kenrick said...

Forty Detectives Later was a good episode of the Hitchcock series. James Franciscus was a decent actor and he played his part well. He struck me as incongruously Ivy League for a private eye, especially for the show's time period. That he seemed a fish out of water actually worked in the end, though.

George Mitchell reminded me a bit of John McIntire, who had co-starred with Franciscus on the half-hour Naked City a couple of years earlier. Both actors had a somewhat folksy style, which well suited them to play rustics and westerners, the occasional small town doctor, clergyman or justice of the peace. They both had an air of authority about them, with McIntire's presence somewhat more dour.

The story wasn't quite as tense or engaging for me as the best Hitchcock episodes, with maybe the absence of a truly decent, heroic seeming character a major factor. There was a distastefulness to what was happening that even good actors and some lively dialogue couldn't conceal, though maybe that was the point.

Still, the ending came as a genuine surprise to me. I didn't see it coming, had forgotten that early in his career Jack Weston, prior to his moving to more benign, often humorous roles, could really play a sleaze, and play it well. We've probably both known a few like him in our lives: lowlife types with some redeeming traits, in this case a love of music, that could make one forget, if only briefly, just how unsavory they really were.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I always liked Franciscus, ever since seeing him at a young age in the 2d Apes movie and on Longstreet, which my parents watched.

john kenrick said...

Jack: based on your most recent post here you are,--and I think I'm guessing correctly--several years younger than I'd have guessed from the way you write, think and feel. By the time James Franciscus was appearing in Longstreet I seldom watched anything on TV with my parents, aside from the occasional All In The Family. As to age, there's maturity, a seasoned quality in the way you write that has always come across to me as avuncular, and I mean that in a good way.

Yes, this is more a personal post, thus OT as to what this blog is about, and I hope I haven't broken any rules in writing this way. Most blog type sites are fairly liberal when it comes to such things, yet some places can get stuffy. In any case, I'm still enjoying what must be by now my third or fourth go-round with Hitchcock Presents on MeTV. They're nearly half-way through the second season now. It's fascinating seeing the show literally evolve...

There's some rough stuff in the early shows, and yet many show off (as it were) Hitchcock's fondness for (obsession with maybe?) gentility and its discontents. In such matters Hitchcock was still very much the Englishman abroad, and I have to give him points for not taking a condescending attitude toward those "rougher hewed and not so civilized as us" Americans. He plays fair with America and American subjects, impressive in a man of his age and generation, and overall, for all his drollery, a far more straightforward sort than one might have expected; for his time, I mean.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! I'll take avuncular as a compliment and define it in a genial, kindly way. I was born in 1963, so I never saw any of these shows outside of reruns. I fell in love with them in the '70s watching them on channel five in New Jersey. I was researching the series in high school and planning to write a book in the early eighties when the McCarty & Kelleher book came out and I threw out all my notes. I was allowed into the CBS Program Information dept. one memorable day and allowed to look at their microfilmed records from the series; I wonder what ever happened to those? It's so great that the shows are now out on DVD and online so everyone can enjoy and dissect them.