Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Twenty-One: "Incident in a Small Jail" [6.23]

by Jack Seabrook

The twenty-first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be based on a story by Henry Slesar was "Incident in a Small Jail." Broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, March 21, 1961, it was directed by Norman Lloyd, it starred John Fiedler and Richard Jaeckel, and it was based on "The Man in the Next Cell," which had been published in the February 1961 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

"The Man in the Next Cell" begins as Leon Gorwald, a Philadelphia businessman, is pulled over by a state trooper after speeding through a small town. When he tries to bribe the policeman, Gorwald is arrested and taken to the town jail, a two-cell affair, where he is told that it may be a while before he gets a hearing before Judge Webster, since it is Sunday.

The door bursts open and the sheriff announces that the man who murdered Susie Fremont with a knife has been caught. Wearing a mechanic's overalls, the killer is brought to jail, where he is locked in the cell next to that of Gorwald. Gorwald begs the sheriff to let him have a hearing, but to no avail. Soon, a deputy arrives to announce that a lynch mob is forming. The sheriff lets the mechanic out of his cell, intending to move him to a safer place, but the prisoner knocks the sheriff unconscious. Taking the sheriff's gun, the mechanic forces Gorwald to exchange clothes with him and switch cells. The mechanic flees right before the mob arrives.

Gorwald is dragged out, presumably to be lynched. Later, awakening to the sheriff's voice, Gorwald learns that he was saved by the timely return of the same trooper who had arrested him in the first place. He is released and, next morning, he drives out of town, picking up a young, female hitchhiker on the way, "glad now that he had left the knife in the glove compartment." The reader realizes that Gorwald was the man who had murdered Susie Fremont, and he nearly had been lynched for a crime he actually committed.

"The Man in the Next Cell" was adapted for television by Henry Slesar from his own story and retitled "Incident in a Small Jail." The main change from story to screen occurs at the beginning of the episode, as Gorwald drives into town and pulls into a gas station. He leaves his car to be filled with gas and walks across the street to get a drink. As he walks, the light changes, and he nearly is run over by a police car. The policeman accuses him of jaywalking and the story is essentially the same after that.

Myron Healey as Carlie, the state trooper
Why did Slesar change the offense from speeding to jaywalking? Perhaps to make the situation seem even more absurd; in the story, it is implied that Gorwald makes an effort to escape the pursuing police car. In the TV show, he appears almost wholly innocent, guilty of a technical violation that seems to trigger a punishment far greater than it deserves. The trooper is presented as rigid and very serious, and Gorwald's obvious attempt to bribe him is what lands him in jail.

One curious aspect of both story and TV show is the character of the mechanic, who is never given a name. He is arrested trying to hitch a ride near the scene of the girl's murder and he behaves like a criminal from the first time he appears, not trying to argue his innocence and seeming angry and violent. Even worse, when the sheriff opens his cell door to protect him from the approaching lynch mob, he attacks the sheriff, takes his gun, and carries out a plan that is almost certain to result in the death of a man he has every reason to think is innocent. Finally, he flees, having taken no action that would suggest he is an innocent man. Perhaps he has a criminal past and fears that he will be wrongfully convicted of Susie's murder; in any case, his violent, criminal behavior is in stark contrast with that of meek Leon Gorwald, making the revelation that Gorwald is a killer all the more shocking.

Richard Jaeckel
"Incident in a Small Jail" is ironic, since two wrongs (Gorwald's arrest for jaywalking and his near-death at the hands of the mob) almost make a right (the identification of the real killer). Norman Lloyd's direction is top-notch, his camera mobile throughout the show. He and the show's editor, Edward Williams, succeed in creating a mood of excitement and suspense. Williams was nominated for an Emmy award for his editing of this episode, but he did not win. It was his third nomination for his work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (he won for "Breakdown," a first-season episode).

Joan Dupuis as Gorwald's next victim
Starring as Leon Gorwald is John Fiedler (1925-2005), the short, balding character actor whose high, squeaky voice is instantly recognizable. Fiedler gives a strong performance, with no indication that he is anything other than meek and mild until the final scene, where he takes a knife out of his suitcase, picks up a pretty hitchhiker, and turns his head to stare at her as they drive away. Fiedler's TV career began in 1952 with appearances on Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. His first movie was 12 Angry Men (1957). He appeared three times on the Hitchcock show, as well as on seemingly every other TV series over the next several decades. He was the voice of Piglet in Disney's Winnie the Pooh cartoons, and a book about him was published last year: What's His Name? The Man The Face The Voice.

Crahan Denton
Richard Jaeckel (1926-1997) plays the mechanic in the next cell. Jaeckel is a recognizable tough guy from TV and movies, having started his film career in 1943 and his TV career in 1951. He was on the Hitchcock series four times, including a key role in "Off Season." Jaeckel had regular or semi-regular roles in six TV series in his career; the most memorable was as Martin Quirk, the police captain on Spenser: For Hire.

The sheriff is played by Crahan Denton (1914-1966), who also appeared three times on the Hitchcock show.

Director Norman Lloyd (1914- ) had three roles on the Hitchcock series: associate producer, occasional actor, and director of 22 episodes. The last episode directed by Norman Lloyd discussed on this blog was "The Life Work of Juan Diaz"; "Incident in a Small Jail" was the only time he would direct a story by Henry Slesar.

"Incident in a Small Jail" was well-remembered by viewers and it was remade in 1985 as the first episode of the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The color version stars Ned Beatty as Gorwald and is notable mainly for its utter lack of suspense. Like so many TV shows in the 1980s, it increases the amount of violence at the expense of any subtlety. A good example of what is wrong with this episode is that Beatty is dragged out by the lynch mob and is in the process of being hanged when a police helicopter flies to the rescue.

"Incident in a Small Jail" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online for free here. The remake may also be viewed online here.

In Two Weeks: "A Woman's Help," by Henry Slesar.

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
"Incident in a Small Jail." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 21 Mar. 1961. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "The Man in the Next Cell." A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon, 1962. 18-28. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.


john kenrick said...

I enjoyed this one, Jack. Good, not great. It struck me as a bit ironic that two diminutive character actors with distinctive high voices appeared in back to back episodes, with John Fiedler in this one following the much older, heavier Percy Helton in The Horseplayer.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say I guessed the ending I knew something had to up with with this one. The surprise "intrusion" of a very serious crime and then criminal rather interrupted what appeared at first to perhaps be a comedy episode. Good work from a more subdued and menacing looking than usual Myron Healey as well as a somewhat distracted and hungover looking Crahan Denton.

The ending was no shocker. There had to be a twist. It couldn't just end up with pompous officer Healey letting Fiedler go. Richard Jaeckal's silence puzzled me and made me wonder what was up with him. That he didn't protest his innocence made me wonder if he was innocent. I found the Big Reveal re Fiedler somewhat artlessly done and out of sync with the rest of this well made episode. It was rather a B ending to an A entry in the series.

Jack Seabrook said...

It worked for me. That screen capture of John Fielder smiling at the passenger is just creepy. He really had a wide range--remember him on Star Trek?

john kenrick said...

I agree on John Fiedler being far better than most of the stereotyped parts he played, Jack, however this was a case (for me) of the herring being too red. Imagine, as a thought experiment, if you will, if it had been, oh, say Murray Hamilton in the part. Or a basically sympathetic common man type along the lines of Steve Brodie, Ed Binns or Frank Maxwell. Coming from one of them the smile would be downright terrifying. Imagine the Ed Binns of 12 Angry Men turning into a psycho killer before your eyes!

Jack Seabrook said...

Those are all good suggestions, but I have a soft spot for Fiedler and am always happy to see him pop up.