Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Thirty: "The Test" [7.20]

by Jack Seabrook

"The Test" was broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, February 20, 1962, with a teleplay by Henry Slesar. It was based on Slesar's short story "Thicker Than Water," which had been published the previous fall in the November 1961 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. As the story opens, attorney Vernon Wedge reluctantly admits a prospective client, an old man named Blesker whose son Benjy has been accused of stabbing another young man to death. Blesker believes in his son's innocence and is desperate for help. Wedge tells him that the evidence against his son is strong, but Blesker is so insistent that Wedge agrees to "think it over."

Visiting Benjy in jail, Vernon finds a sullen young man who is in a gang but who says he did not commit murder. Vernon tells Benjy that he should plead guilty because the evidence against him is so compelling, but the young man refuses to follow his advice. Wedge talks to the boy's father again and finally agrees to take the case and enter a not guilty plea. The first day of trial goes badly for the defense, as witnesses identify Benjy as the killer. Benjy still insists on his innocence as the trial continues to favor the prosecution's case.

Over the weekend before the last day of trial, Vernon has an idea and goes to see Doc Hagerty. Hagerty tells Vernon about a test that can show if blood was ever on a knife, even if it has been wiped clean. He demonstrates the test, turning a solution pink to indicate a history of blood. Vernon talks to Benjy, who insists that no blood has ever touched his knife.

Make your test!
Back in court, Vernon introduces the test and explains its importance, stating that it will conclusively demonstrate Benjy's guilt or innocence. As he is about to dip the knife's blade into the solution, the prosecutor objects. The judge tells Vernon that he may not conduct the test and Vernon sums up by telling the jury that no guilty man would have allowed the test, even though he was prevented from going through with it. The jury acquits Benjy after less than an hour of deliberation.

After the verdict, Vernon meets with Benjy and his father in an adjoining chamber and explains that he had counted on the prosecutor's objection as part of his trial strategy. Vernon wants to do the test privately to satisfy his own curiosity. Blesker takes the knife, cuts his own hand, and tells Vernon, "Make your test." He and his son walk out together, having prevented Vernon from learning if the jury's verdict was a just one.

Eduardo Cianelli
Slesar did not make many changes to his story when he adapted it for television. Most puzzling is the change of the old man's surname to Marino. This is made even odder by the fact that the onscreen ending credits list him as Mr. Bleeker (not Blesker, as in the story) and his son as Benjy Bleeker. Marino is played by Eduardo Cianelli, an Italian-American actor, and I cannot help but think that the change from Blesker or Bleeker to Marino was an example of the bias against Italian-Americans that was prevalent on TV of that era--in March 1961, Italian-Americans had protested in front of the New York offices of ABC television due to the negative portrayal of their brethren on The Untouchables.

Brian Keith
As played by Brian Keith, Vernon Wedge is laconic, world-weary and disinterested in the old man's pleas. Marino tells him that "a boy without a mother is sometimes a wild, wild boy," explaining why Benjy "runs around" and "fights." Director Boris Sagal uses close-ups effectively in this scene, with the camera looking down from above on Wedge's face, then looking up from below at Marino's face, demonstrating the relative positions in society of the two men. The lighting of the faces also tells a story, as Marino's face is bathed in light, giving it a look of religious fervor, while Wedge's face is partially in shadow, suggesting that his ethics lie in a more grey area.

Rod Lauren, Brian Keith
Keith gives a strong performance as Wedge. In one scene, he plays with a cigarette, then in the next the cancer stick is replaced by a match, presumably because he is not allowed to smoke while visiting Benjy in jail. His nervous energy is apparent even as his reactions are delayed; his face is a mask but one can tell that there is plenty going on underneath the surface.

"The Test" once again finds Slesar setting a tale in New York City, with the murder occurring on the corner of Avenue C in New York's Lower East Side, long a neighborhood populated by recent immigrants and darkened by violence. The trial scenes are staged by Sagal in a manner that was already familiar by 1962, since the TV series Perry Mason had standardized the format since its premiere in 1957. Doc Hagerty's test is an early TV example of the sort of thing that would be made popular decades later on shows like CSI, and Wedge's courtroom trickery recalls similar successful work by James Stewart's "country lawyer" in Anatomy of a Murder (1959). In "The Test," Brian Keith is very intense in the courtroom scenes, especially when discussing the test in front of the jury. Television is a perfect setting for courtroom drama, as has been shown repeatedly over the years.

Steve Gravers as the prosecutor
In the end, "The Test" poses questions of guilt and innocence, truth and lies, what is true and what a jury can be convinced to believe. Is Benjy guilty or innocent? We never know for sure. What are we to make of his father's devotion and, especially, his final act that hides the truth from being known? Is it done out of filial love, out of doubt, or as protection? His son is free, so the result of the test is meaningless, yet Marino prevents even Wedge, his son's attorney, from learning what could be a shocking revelation. Marino's faith is not based on certainty in his son's innocence and he is not as simple as he had seemed to be up until the final moments of the story. He cuts his own palm with the knife without hesitation, suggesting that behind the mask of holiness lurks a man who can accept violence in the service of his family.

Rusty Lane, Steve Gravers
Both "Thicker Than Water," the title of the short story, and "The Test," the title of the TV show, have more than one meaning. Blood is surely thicker than water, but it is also what holds families together in a sometimes unbreakable bond. As for the test, who and what is being tested? On the surface, the title refers to the courtroom test that is never carried out, but the title also suggests that Wedge's skills are being tested, as is his (and Marino's) faith in Benjy's innocence and in the judicial system.

Twelve years after "The Test" aired, Slesar adapted his story a second time, this time using the original title ("Thicker Than Water") for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Expanded to an hour, the story was broadcast on the radio network on September 17, 1974. The crime that sets the story in motion is dramatized, though this time it is a mugging and murder rather than a gang-related fight. Wedge is shown to have been a victim of a recent mugging himself, which makes his agreement to defend the boy ironic. Slesar again follows his story closely in most ways, though in this trial the boy takes the stand in his own defense. Strangely enough, the boy and his father's surname is now Bleeker, as it was in the TV show's end credits in 1962 and nowhere else. Slesar's ability to tell this story successfully in three formats is impressive.

Rod Lauren
Boris Sagal (1923-1981), who directed "The Test," was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the U.S. He worked mostly in TV from 1955 to his death and also directed a handful of movies, including The Omega Man. He directed two episodes of The Twilight Zone and three of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Maria." Sagal was killed in a freak accident on the set of the TV miniseries World War III when he accidentally walked into the spinning tail rotor blades of a helicopter from which he had just debarked.

Brian Keith (1921-1997), who played Vernon Wedge, was a very popular actor in TV and on film. Born in New Jersey, he made his film debut in 1924 at age three. He was a Marine air gunner in World War II and then went into acting as an adult after the war. He started on TV in 1952 and eventually would star in no less than 11 TV series and miniseries, the most famous being Family Affair (1966-71). He also appeared in the prison-break film 5 Against the House (1955), based on a novel by Jack Finney. He appeared on the Hitchcock series five times. He committed suicide in 1997. A website is devoted to his memory.

Rusty Lane
Eduardo Cianelli (1889-1969), who played Marino, was born in Italy and came to the U.S. after World War II. He won a Tony Award for his stage acting in 1961 and appeared in nearly 150 movies. He was on TV from the early 1950s to his death and in movies from 1917 to 1969. Among his films was Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940). He appeared on the Hitchcock series twice and was also seen on Thriller.

Rod Lauren (1940-2007), who played Benjy, was a teen idol who had a hit song with "If I Had a Girl" in 1960. Born Rod Lawrence Strunk, "The Test" was his first acting role and his only appearance on the Hitchcock series. He had scattered TV and movie roles in the 1960s, was suspected of having killed his wife in the Philippines years later, and is believed to have committed suicide by falling to his death in 2007.

Small roles in "The Test" were played by Rusty Lane (1899-1986), who played the judge and who had been seen before in "None Are So Blind," and by Eve McVeagh (1919-1997), who played the mother of the murdered boy and who had been seen before in "The Gloating Place."

Eve McVeagh
"The Test" is not yet available on DVD or online, but the radio version may be heard online for free here.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 08 June 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "Thicker Than Water." 1961. A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon, 1962. 127-40. Print.
"The Test." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 20 Feb. 1962. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 08 June 2014.


Peter Enfantino said...

Another great post, Jack. It amazes me how much detail you put into each entry.

Though I never saw the Hitch episode of "The Test," I can vividly remember hearing the CBS Mystery Theater show as a kid. I listened religiously each night on KSFO (in San Fran-cisco!).

Brian Keith, to me, was one of the most underrated actors in both TV and film. HIs The Westerner (created by Sam Peckinpah) remains my favorite western show of all time and The Deadly Companions (directed by Peckinpah) is criminally neglected in all the "Best Westerns of all Time" lists.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter! Like you, I remember listening to the CBS Mystery Theater in the '70s. And when I mentioned it to my wife the other day, she said "E.G. Marshall?" So I guess it made an impression on a lot of us.

I'm right there with you on Brian Keith. Too bad he'll always be associated with Buffy & Jody!

Grant said...

Even though it's generally disliked, I've always liked Rod Lauren in THE CRAWLING HAND, one of those mixtures of a monster movie and a "teen angst" movie.

The last parts of this one are a little like an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode called THE SECOND VERDICT, with Martin Landau and Frank Gorshin. That one also had a lawyer upset over the idea of defending someone who's guilty, but in that one the lawyer's whole life starts to unravel because of it. I don't remember whether it was written by Slesar.

Jack Seabrook said...

Yep, that's a Slesar episode, so I'll be getting to it before too long! Thanks for your comment. Like "Wait Till Your Father Gets Home," I've never seen "The Crawling Hand," though at least I've HEARD of it!

Anonymous said...

Eve McVeagh who had a small part here as the mother was a fine character actress who added class to every one of her hundreds of television and film roles. She was in a total of 7 Hitchcock television projects including multiple Alfred Hitchcock Hours, Alfred Hitchcock presents, and the Hitchcock directed episode of Startime "Incident at a Corner" as the woman with a dark past Georgia. My favorite Hitchcock role of hers is as Mae in "What frightened You Fred?" a woman with no class as is Georgia ironically played by this classy lady of "High Noon" fame.

Jack Seabrook said...

"Incident at a Corner" is very underrated. It looks great in color and features a cast of Hitchcock favorites, some great camera work, and themes that are close to Hitchcock's heart. Thanks for reading!