Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Thirty-Six: "The Opportunity" [7.33]

by Jack Seabrook

Let's talk about sex! Then again, maybe not. That's the theme running through "The Opportunity," the next-to-last teleplay Henry Slesar wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The show opens with an establishing shot of a busy department store before dissolving to the office of Paul Devore, the store's assistant manager, as he talks with a supplier by telephone. Mrs. Ranwiller, the store's security officer, enters and tells Devore that she has caught a shoplifter. Devore asks her to send the woman in and then dismisses Mrs. Ranwiller, leaving him alone with Lois Callen, an attractive 32 year old woman.

Richard Long and Coleen Gray
Devore is handsome and well-dressed with an easy smile and a smooth manner that alternates between putting the nervous woman at ease and increasing her anxiety. He begins to question her and his questions grow more invasive and personal as he goes along. How old is she? Is she married? Does she love her husband? He is playing a cat and mouse game with her, telling her that because a necklace she stole is worth more than $75 she can be charged with grand theft, but then leaning over her from behind to suggest that there might be a way out of her predicament. We have begun to sense that there is something wrong with Devore's approach, and our suspicions are confirmed when he says that escape from prosecution depends on what she is willing to do. He writes his home address on a slip of paper and puts it into her purse, telling her to be there at 7 o'clock on Sunday evening. She immediately assumes that he wants to trade sex for escape from prosecution and he does nothing to disabuse her of this notion. When she seems to resist, he threatens to call the police and her husband, so she replies, unhappily, "Alright--I'll do what you say." He tells her, "Conveniently, my wife will be away for the weekend . . ." Devore seems intent on making the most of "The Opportunity" afforded to him.

This first, extended set piece of "The Opportunity" is shocking for a TV show from 1962. Not a word is ever said about sex, but that is what we are led to believe is being discussed. As far as we can tell, Devore wants Mrs. Callen to sleep with him in exchange for his forgetting about her shoplifting. Mrs. Callen is very attractive and Devore looks her up and down more than once while speaking to her. We think we know what he wants, as does she, but nothing is said--only suggested.

Rebecca Sand
The second scene takes place at Devore's home, as he and his wife talk in the bedroom while she packs a suitcase. Right away it becomes clear that they despise each other, but once again everything is below the surface and subtly presented. There is no yelling, only ironic smiles and exaggerated politeness. We learn that Kate got Paul the job at the department store so she could keep an eye on him. Since then, she says, she has stopped meddling in his . . . affairs (there are many significant pauses in the dialogue in this episode), so he should stop meddling in hers. They have been married for four years and they have changed a lot, but she refuses to grant him the divorce he seeks. He compares her to a woman who has bought a charming bauble but who later decides she does not like it and wants a refund. The scene is beautifully played, with powerful emotions bubbling just below a veneer of civility. Kate opens a wall safe and inspects her jewels; it becomes clear that she is wealthy and he is not, and she tells him that he should consider himself "well paid for . . . services rendered" (another pause!). "Affairs," "services rendered,"--these are all words used to get around explicit discussions of sex. Kate is a good looking woman who is repelled by Paul, just as the attractive Mrs. Callen finds his intentions repugnant. The scene ends as Kate leaves for her trip.

Tighter, Mrs. Callen!
In the next scene, things begin to take an unexpected turn as we get a hint of what is really going on. Paul smashes things in the bedroom but does not appear angry--just methodical. The doorbell rings and it is Mrs. Callen, punctual for her 7 PM Sunday appointment. Paul escorts her into his living room and offers her a drink; she refuses but he imbibes. She sees a framed photograph of his wife and is surprised to see that she is so attractive. Paul tells her that his wife despises him. Mrs. Callen (Paul never calls her Lois) tries to talk him out of going through with his plan and offers to pay for the merchandise, to which he replies: "That's exactly why you're here, isn't it?" Once again, Paul leads Lois and the viewer to believe that he expects her to trade sex for protection. He caresses her face, further reinforcing the belief that he has amorous intentions, and she turns away. He summons her to the bedroom and she stops to down a glass of alcohol on the way. The music is ominous as they head toward their apparent destiny.

My wife will be away . . .
In the bedroom, Mrs. Callen sees the mess and wonders (as do we) what is happening. The story then goes off in a wholly surprising direction and--for a minute or two--nearly strains the boundaries of what was acceptable on TV in 1962. Paul hands Mrs. Callen several neckties, lies down on the bed, and orders her to tie his feet and hands to the bedposts! Is he interested in bondage or kinky sex? He orders her to hurry and to tie the knots tighter. She complies, and he seems to enjoy being made to submit as he barks orders at her. Finally, she ventures into the next room, sees the empty safe, and figures out his real motive, accusing him of theft and telling him that he is no better than she is. For the first time in the episode, it becomes clear that all of the sexual innuendo was a trick--Paul is using Mrs. Callen to help him commit a robbery and make it look like he has been subdued by the robbers. "Phony burglary, that's your idea, isn't it! You robbed that safe!" Mrs Callen says. She puts tape over his mouth and leaves.

Paul then passes some long, sweaty hours alone, tied to his own bed and spread-eagled. In the early hours of the morning he hears Kate come home. She goes to the safe and sees that she has been robbed--"Gone!" Everything!"--she sobs. As she is about to pull the tape off of his mouth, she thinks better of it and decides to make the most of "The Opportunity" presented to her. "What would I do without you?" she tells Paul. "What will I do?" And she takes a pillow and smothers him, the pillow coming down over his face and the camera as the screen fades to black.

What a great episode this is! The story on which it is based is called "Golden Opportunity," written by J.W. Aaron and published in the March 1957 issue of Manhunt. The story differs from the teleplay in a few ways. First, it is narrated by Devore, and in his thoughts we learn right away that "he wasn't interested in having carnal relations" with Mrs. Callen. Instead of ending their time in his office by telling her to come to his house, he makes her wait and tells her that he will call her within a week. These two changes from story to teleplay serve to increase the suspense in the TV show by stringing the viewer along until the last possible moment in thinking that Devore's plans include sex with Mrs. Callen.

The other big change is the addition of the scene at home between Paul and Kate Devore. This scene does not occur in the story, where Kate does not appear until the very end. By adding this scene, the authors of the teleplay provide more of a motive for Paul's actions and expand the characterizations of him and his wife. It is an excellent scene. The story is a good one but the TV show is even better.

Original illustration from Manhunt
So who is J.W. Aaron, the supposed author of the story? Reference works credit him with only a few short stories in magazines in the late 1950s, but I have not been able to find out any other information about a writer by this name. Is this a pseudonym? This issue of Manhunt also includes stories by Henry Slesar and Richard Deming, but I doubt that Aaron is a pseudonym for Slesar because, in other instances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Slesar was credited with the source story under his real name even though the story had been published under a pseudonym.

The authorship of the teleplay is even more interesting, since it is credited to Bryce Walton and Henry Slesar. Bryce Walton was a very busy writer of genre fiction for the pulps and digests from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s. He is credited with over 1000 short stories and a handful of novels. He wrote mysteries, crime stories, and science fiction stories, following the popular trends in the middle decades of the twentieth century like so many other writers who started out being paid by the word. He wrote scripts for Captain Video in the early days of TV around 1950 and his name is found on six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Three of his stories were adapted by other writers, then he wrote three teleplays himself, one of which was an adaptation of one of his own stories. "The Opportunity" was his last work for the series and his stories will be the subject of a future series on this blog.

I have no evidence on which to base my suspicions, but I think that Walton adapted Aaron's story for TV and then Slesar was asked to revise Walton's teleplay. This seems more likely to me than the other two possibilities, which are a collaboration (Slesar had not collaborated with another writer on any prior teleplay for this series and would not do so until 1964) or a Slesar teleplay that was revised by Walton (Slesar was writing so many teleplays for this series by 1962 that it seems inconceivable that the producers would have asked Walton to rewrite one of his scripts). This was Walton's last credit on the series, while Slesar had ten more scripts still to write before the hour-long series ended in 1965.

"The Opportunity" was directed by Robert Florey (1900-1979), who was born in Paris, France, and who came to the U.S. in 1921. He directed many movies from 1927 to 1951, including The Cocoanuts (1929), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Beast With Five Fingers (1946). He moved to television in 1950 and soon was directing only episodic TV. He directed "The Incredible Dr. Markesan" on Thriller, three episodes of The Twilight Zone, one of The Outer Limits, and five of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Changing Heart," by Robert Bloch. He stopped directing in 1964. His work on "The Opportunity" is strong, with a standout shot coming near the end of the episode as the camera looks down on Devore from high above, his body making a giant X as he is tied to the bed.

Richard Long (1921-1974) stars as Paul Devore. Born in Chicago, he started in movies in 1946 and added TV shows in 1954. He was in "Four O'Clock," the episode of Suspicion directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1957, as well as a single episode of Thriller and two of The Twilight Zone. He was in William Castle's House of Haunted Hill (1959), appeared as Gentleman Jack Darby four times on Maverick, and had a recurring role on 77 Sunset Strip, but he is probably best known for starring on two TV series that have had long lives in reruns: The Big Valley (1965-1969) and Nanny and the Professor (1970-1971). In addition to "The Opportunity," he appeared in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Playing Mrs. Lois Callen, the attractive but buttoned-up shoplifting suburban wife, is Coleen Gray (1922- ). Born Doris Jensen in Nebraska, she was in movies from 1945 to 1985 and on TV from 1950 to 1986. Among her film roles were parts in Kiss of Death (1947) and Nightmare Alley (also 1947), as well as Red River (1948) and The Killing (1956). This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series. At 91, she is still active and giving interviews, which may be viewed online, where she discusses her work in some of the classic films I mentioned.

Finally, Rebecca Sand plays Kate Devore. She has a rather sparse list of credits, mostly on TV, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, but I have not found a birth date or any other information about her. She also appeared in a handful of movies.

"The Opportunity" is an entertaining episode that will reward the viewer who looks for it in reruns until it comes out on DVD.

Special thanks to Thomas P. Jabine at the Library of Congress for providing scans of the rare story "Golden Opportunity." As far as I can tell, it has never been reprinted, despite the information in The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion to the contrary.

Aaron, J. W. "Golden Opportunity." Manhunt March 1957: 4-7. Print.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 26 Aug. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 26 Aug. 2014.
"The Opportunity." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 22 May 1962. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 26 Aug. 2014.

Antenna TV is now running two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents every night! Check the schedule here.

ME TV is now running The Alfred Hitchcock Hour every night! Check the schedule here.

Coming in two weeks: "First Class Honeymoon," starring Robert Webber and Jeremy Slate.


Walker Martin said...

I see sex is rearing its ugly head again. I had a history professor in college who liked this saying and repeated it at least once each lecture. To this day I don't know what it means. I looked it up on google but still I don't know. I guess some people just think sex is ugly?

Three years ago on the Mystery*File blog, while discussing MANHUNT, sex reared it's ugly head again( It seems the next issue after the March 1957 date was in court bought up on obscenity charges in Flying Eagle Publications vs United States.

The April 1957 issue on page 25 had an illustration judged obscene because it appeared to show an erect penis. We argued in the comments about this and it appears to be much ado about nothing.

But MANHUNT, for its time was always pushing the boundary in sexual matters. This story is another example.

Jack Seabrook said...

Walker! Welcome back! I have missed your comments. As you can tell, I enjoyed this episode and had fun writing the article. Is that Manhunt illo online anywhere? Since that's a bedsheet issue it's way too expensive to consider buying.

Walker Martin said...

Jack, I googled Manhunt, April 1957 and a lot came up about the obscenity trial and Mike Ashley's short history of the magazine, but no illustration.

Speaking of comments, a couple pulp collectors at the last two Pulpfests have told me they enjoy reading about Thriller a Day and other articles on bare*bones e-zine. My comments on Thriller were back in 2010, so maybe these blog posts have a longer life than I thought.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for checking. Ashley's article is excellent. We get lots of page views months and even years after the posts go online. Every time "The Jar" airs on TV hundreds of people Google that article. I think the Internet is the new library for the people--easily available and free.

Peter Enfantino said...

A great episode. Richard Long was one of my favorite character actors of the 60s (he excelled, of course, on The Big Valley) and this performance is so at odds with the nice guy role he usually took. When I see Long, I think of Gig Young. Fabulous last shot too, of that pillow.

Jack Seabrook said...

I like Richard Long, too. He does a great job in this episode of using that nice guy personality to his advantage--until the end.

Peter Enfantino said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention I'd give this three obese Alfs out of a possible four.

john kenrick said...

The Opportunity is a good, nasty episode of the Hitch series. It's one of those,--I don't recall how many there are altogether--that has no wholly good people in them. They're not all bad; and Coleen Gray's character is just a nice young woman who did a bad thing. Her character is, ironically, given what she's up against, the nearest there is to a heroine, as she's the only person I care for in the story.

All three major players are good, and I wish the nature of Long's bad marriage had been more neatly detailed. That which I understood of his relationship with his wife was one of mutual loathing did not help me quite "get with the system" with this one. This is one Hitch half-hour the ending of which I would not, could not have guessed based on the "set-up".

The episode is a rare chance to see Richard Long play a character who isn't a gentleman. He could play villains, but usually of the charming sort. He scarcely shows any real charm in The Opportunity. Coleen Gray was usually a sympathetic presence, and this helps one identify, at least a little, with someone in the story. The actress who played Long's wife rather resembled the Hugo Haas "bad girl" actress Beverly Michaels, with a more sophisticated demeanor and way about her.

Overall, I rate The Opportunity a good but not great episode. There's a coldness to it that made me keep a distance from it emotionally.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! I think this is a very strong episode.

Greg May said...

Rebecca Sand (Kate DeVore) had just finished a stint on the CBS soap 'The Edge of Night' playing icy blonde murderess Theresa Vetter who poisoned her husband and murdered her lover. Larry Hagman ('JR' from DALLAS) was in this storyline as Theresa framed his girlfriend. Interestingly, 'The Opportunity' was written by Henry Slesar who later wrote for 'The Edge of Night'!

Greg May said...

An episode with Rebecca Sand from 'The Edge of Night' was featured in the movie, 'Driving Miss Daisy' when Esther Rolle suddenly dropped dead while she was watching the soap opera while shucking peas.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg! I did not see much about her online when I wrote this.