Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Eighteen: "The Last Escape" [6.17]

by Jack Seabrook

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was the greatest escape artist of his day, as shown in the 1953 movie, Houdini, that starred Tony Curtis as Houdini and Janet Leigh as his wife Bess. In Henry Slesar's story, "The Last Escape," published in the July 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Joe Ferlini fancies himself at least as great as Houdini, but he comes to an unhappy end.

The story opens as he plays to a small crowd in a club with Wanda, his wife and assistant. Both Ferlini and Wanda are past 40 years old and their age is beginning to show. Ferlini remains egotistical and boastful; cruel to his wife, he points out the lines in her face. When they go out to dinner with Joe's agent, Phil Roscoe, Joe refuses to accept that escape acts are no longer a big draw and talks Phil into promoting his water escape trick.

Slesar writes that "the great Ferlini needed only one admirer, and he saw him in the shaving mirror every day." Wanda is not an admirer, and is instead in love with Tommy Bagget, an "aging crooner." She muses about rigging the water escape so Joe can't get out.

Following a big publicity buildup, the day of the water escape arrives. Joe is tied up and handcuffed, put in a sack, locked in a trunk, and dropped into the lake. After six minutes, Wanda faints. Late that night, Joe's body is recovered. When it comes time for the funeral, the ceremony is interrupted when the pallbearers complain that the coffin seems too light.

When it is opened, it is empty--Ferlini has made his last escape. Later, Phil explains to a doctor that he had made a deal with Joe many years before to pull off one last trick. He never suspected that the shock of seeing the empty coffin would drive Wanda insane.

"The Last Escape" features themes of infidelity, revenge, murder and insanity, all set in the milieu of an escape act and featuring characters who are similar to circus or carnival performers. There is a fine line between entertainment and deception; the ability to fool people is central to the success of the Ferlinis' act, yet they are not able to combat the ravages of time and aging, nor are they able to create a strong, loving bond that would prevent hatred from growing into the need to kill.

Slesar adapted his own story for television, and "The Last Escape" was broadcast during season six of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC on Tuesday, January 31, 1961, the week after the previous Slesar episode, "A Crime for Mothers," had aired. The teleplay follows the story closely, with some insignificant exceptions. Keenan Wynn is perfect as Ferlini, boasting and preening in his dressing-room mirror, puffing out his chest to demonstrate the expansion that allows him to wriggle free from ropes in his act. Also perfectly cast is Jan Sterling as Wanda, looking like a showgirl who is beginning to get too old for the outfits she wears. The teleplay adds a bit of foreshadowing, as Wanda comments about the danger of the water trick while she and Joe argue in the dressing room; later, at dinner with agent Harry (Phil, in the story), she comments that the trick sounds "like a ticket to the graveyard."

Keenan Wynn
The episode features a larger cast than usual, as well as some outdoor filming in the scene by the lake. The direction by Paul Henreid is competent but unremarkable. The big lead-up to the water escape in the story is cut down considerably in the teleplay; at the end of act one, Wanda tells Tommy of her plan to kill Joe; act two opens with the crowd by the lake, waiting for the water escape.

Unfortunately, the two moments in the show that should be filled with suspense fall flat. The first occurs when Joe fails to emerge from the lake and Wanda reacts with feigned horror; the scene seems too quiet without any music and does not last long enough to build tension. The second marks the most noticeable change from the source story. At the funeral, instead of pallbearers saying that the coffin is too light and opening it in front of the crowd, a man appears and says he is from the county coroner's office. He has orders to re-examine the body and he has the coffin taken back to the caretaker's cottage, where only four people witness it being opened. Wanda screams, but the shock is much less than it would have been had the event occurred at the funeral in front of a crowd.

Jan Sterling
The best shot in the episode is the last, when the doctor takes Harry to see Wanda, who struggles to escape from her straitjacket. Sterling looks insane, her hair askew, as she turns to face the doorway. The shot provides a nice parallel to the show's opening scene, where Joe sits onstage in a straitjacket, trying to escape. In the end, pretending has become reality and what was only make-believe has turned into a life sentence, punishment for a murderess whose crime is known only to her and her lover.

Keenan Wynn (1916-1986) had a long career in movies (from 1944) and on TV (from 1955). The son of vaudevillian (and, later, TV actor) Ed Wynn, Keenan appeared twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, once on The Twilight Zone, and twice on Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He also had notable roles in Rod Serling's live TV drama "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1956) and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Dennis Patrick
Paul Henreid (1908-1992) directed 28 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Kind Waitress" by Henry Slesar and "The Landlady." He directed one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Annabel."

"The Last Escape" was the second and last appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents for Jan Sterling; the first was Slesar's "On the Nose." Playing Harry, Ferlini's agent, was Dennis Patrick (1918-2002), who was on the Hitchcock series three times. He made more than 1800 TV appearances in his career, including "Age of Peril" on Tales of Tomorrow and a recurring role on Dark Shadows. Finally, John Craven (1916-1995) played Wanda's lover Tommy; he was also on the Hitchcock show three times and made single appearances on The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

John Craven
"The Last Escape" is part of the newly-released DVD collection of Alfred Hitchcock Presents season six, and may be viewed for free online here.

It marks the seventeenth episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from a story collected in the Avon paperback, Clean Crimes and Neat Murders (T-485), which was published in 1960 with a 35 cent cover price. The 160-page book features an introduction that is signed by Alfred Hitchcock, but which was probably written by Slesar, in which Slesar is called "a soft-spoken young man with an excellent criminal record." The book was probably published in the fall of 1960, since the introduction urges viewers to watch the television show every Tuesday night on NBC, and the series did not begin broadcasting on that network or that night until September of that year. The book contains 17 of the first eighteen Slesar stories to be adapted for TV; the exception is "A Crime for Mothers," which would be the lead story in a subsequent collection.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
"The Last Escape." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 31 Jan. 1961. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "The Last Escape." Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. New York: Avon, 1960. 103-113. Print.
Wikipedia., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.


Grant said...

If there's anything wrong with the "nearly over-the-hill" image Ferlini has, it's that Keenan Wynn looks awfully well-built in this and many other things (including that still photo of him doing those exercises).

Jack Seabrook said...

He gives a very energetic performance. "Then let's have dinner!" has become a new catchphrase at my house from the way he yells it at his wife.

Harvey Chartrand said...

I saw Keenan Wynn recently in an episode of NAKED CITY. It struck me that "his face travels well" and he has a lot of charisma. Today, Wynn would be a star character actor, like Gene Hackman was. In the NAKED CITY story, Wynn's character was getting it on with a twenty-something bimbette, and the relationship was credible. You could see why this girl was attracted to him.

Jack Seabrook said...

The comparison with Hackman is a good one. They were both strong character actors.

john kenrick said...

Keenan Wynn was amazing in this one. Although he was playing a very vain man his performance was anything but vain. He nailed it, served the material, was suitably obnoxious at times, nearly always somewhat off putting, and yet,--and this is what made Wynn such a wonderful actor--the viewer doesn't want him to die. I was pulling for him to make that final escape, was half-expecting him to jump out of the coffin during the funeral service.

Agreed on the way the episode played. I thought the script and the actors were fine, the presentation often wanting. There was near zero suspense despite there being a good deal of suspense inherent in the kinds of acts Ferlini specialized in. As to the no vanity business, Jan Sterling, still an attractive woman, played it plain, morose and defeated. Fine acting, and certainly not a star turn.

The Big Reveal in the madhouse should have been more of a shocker, a la Tod Browning's Freaks, which the story in some ways resembles, however I thought that the sight of the tied-up Sterling didn't have what was apparently the desired effect on me. No fault of Jan Sterling, but egads, her now institutionalized should NOT have been wearing eye shadow or any makeup whatsoever.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. Good point on the makeup!