Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Forty-Three: "Starring the Defense" [9.7]

by Jack Seabrook

In "The Test," Henry Slesar explored the bond between father and son and showed how a father's belief in his son's innocence can stand in the way of learning the truth about a crime. In "Starring the Defense," he returns to that theme and examines it from a different angle, this time in a compelling story that merges the worlds of acting and law with family relations. This is the third of six teleplays so far that Slesar has written for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to revolve around a jury trial, and this one is by far the most successful to date.

The story on which the teleplay is based was published in the April 1963 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and is reprinted in the 1989 collection, Death on Television. Miles Crawford, "deep in a dream of the past," is at home one evening when his old friend and law partner Sam Brody pays him a visit. Miles is an aging lawyer and former movie star. His son Tod comes home early; in his early 20s, Tod is a sullen young man who barely speaks to his father as he heads upstairs to his bedroom. Sam notices that Tod left drops of blood on the floor and Miles goes upstairs to find Tod treating a bad wound on his arm.

Tod admits to having been in a fight and the police arrive to take him away: it seems he had been in a fight with another young man named Jules Herman, who is now dead. After the police take Tod away, Miles tells Sam that he blames his own poor parenting skills for the way Tod turned out and decides that he should defend his son in court, even though he is not a criminal lawyer. He thinks that his background as lawyer, movie star and father will give him a special perspective on the case, allowing him to appeal to the jury in a way no one else could.

Richard Basehart as Miles Crawford
Miles visits criminal lawyer Edwin Rutherford for advice and then asks Tod for his blessing; Tod is grateful for the offer. Rutherford and Miles prepare for trial and focus on the question of premeditation and intent to kill. Reporters grill Miles, who becomes angry at the suggestion that his plan to defend Tod is really a stunt to pave the way for a comeback as a  movie star. The trial begins, with Miles squaring off against a skilled prosecutor named Hanley. Tod is called as the first witness and describes the fight and his history with Jules Herman. Two more witnesses are called: Rudy Trask, who provides testimony that helps Tod, and Barbara Riordan, whose testimony is damning.

Teno Pollick as Tod Crawford
Miles calls Tod back to the witness stand for a second time and Tod's testimony concludes. Miles then gives an emotional closing statement to the jury, one that is so powerful and theatrical that the observers in the courtroom break into applause at its conclusion. The next day, the judge grants permission to Hanley to show the jury a reel of film, and he plays a scene from The Guilty One, an old movie that starred Miles Crawford, in which he portrayed an attorney. Everyone is shocked to see that the speech given to the jury in the film is the same as the one Miles had given in Tod's defense the day before. Miles is mortified but asks the judge to let him show the final scene of the film, in which the jury finds the young man guilty and he is taken to be executed. As a result of seeing the final scene, the jury spares Tod's life by sending him to prison for 20 years for manslaughter.

Russell Collins as Sam Brody
The reader is left to wonder, what were Miles's true motivations for acting as Tod's lawyer? Was his decision based solely on a desire to help his son, the son whom he believed had turned out badly in large part due to poor parenting? Or was there a kernel of truth in the reporter's question about whether this was a way to start a comeback as a movie star? The story leans toward the former, though one wonders what happened to Miles after the verdict. Slesar realizes that performing is an essential skill for a successful trial lawyer, and Miles's powerful closing argument to the jury is a fusion of all that he has learned in his years in both professions, even though it is taken word for word from one of his old films. His final success in defending his son is also a synthesis of actor and lawyer; the lawyer in Miles knows that showing the film's final scene will have an emotional effect on the jury, while the actor in him understands the power of cinema to change viewers' minds.

Miles addresses the jury in Tod's defense
This was a perfect story to adapt for television due to the role that film plays in its conclusion. Slesar adapted his own tale and retained the title for the show that was aired on CBS on Friday, November 15, 1963, three weeks after Slesar's "Blood Bargain." The TV show follows the story closely, with some interesting alterations. In the initial scene, Sam looks through a scrapbook of old movie stars and encourages Miles to try to make a comeback in motion pictures, something Miles says is long behind him. Sam's comments to Miles along these lines replace the scene in the story where the reporter asks Miles if his plan to defend his son in court is part of an attempted comeback.

Rockne Tarkington as the police officer
When the police come to the house to take Tod to the station, the lead policeman is played by a black actor named Rockne Tarkington. The jury of twelve that later hears Tod's case also includes a black man and a black woman. The appearances of black actors in roles that could have been played by white actors is a sign of the times, since the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in the fall of 1963, when this program aired.

The teleplay provides more background on Miles's past and Tod's childhood. Miles tells Sam that his movie career dried up in 1943, that he and Tod's mother were divorced the year Tod was born, and that Miles quit acting when Tod was two years old. Miles studied law and began his career as an attorney when Tod was a child, and Miles's sister raised Tod from birth until age ten, when Miles took him in. This is all said in order to provide a basis for Tod's delinquency and to support Miles's claim that his bad parenting is a source of his son's problems. The theme of Tod's unfortunate childhood and Miles's guilt about it is essentially forgotten in the source story once the trial gets underway, but in the teleplay it receives more focus and underlines Miles's claim that his motive for acting as his son's lawyer is selfless rather than selfish; he wants to save his son's life, not return to the Silver Screen.

Diane Mountford as Ruthie,
Ed Rutherford's daughter/secretary
A brief scene is added to the teleplay that provides an interesting contrast with Miles's treatment of Tod as a child. When Miles visits Ed Rutherford, the criminal lawyer, Miles is greeted by Ed's young daughter, who sits at the front desk in his office and acts as his secretary. She wears glasses like an adult and tries to be very mature, but when her father does not answer his intercom she yells, "Daddy!" and he comes out to bring Miles into his office, telling Miles that his daughter is not a very good secretary. The point is subtle but clear: Rutherford has found a way to stay involved in the life of his young daughter, even while running a busy law practice, something Miles was unable to do with his own son.

S. John Launer as Ed Rutherford
Slesar's teleplay changes the timing of some events in the story. In the story, Miles has the idea to act as Tod's attorney right after the police take his son away and discusses it with Sam. In the teleplay, Miles does not come up with this suggestion until midway through his conversation with Rutherford. In the teleplay, Tod is less excited about Miles's offer to help than he is in the story; he asks Miles, "How come you're so worried about me, all of a sudden?" Tod has a fatalistic viewpoint and comments, "One way or the other, I'm in for it."

The trial in the teleplay proceeds in basically the same way as it does in the story, though in the teleplay Tod's testimony is not split into two parts. In one of Slesar's prior episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "I Saw the Whole Thing," the actors John Zaremba and Barney Phillips played the prosecuting attorney and a police lieutenant. In "Starring the Defense," they are back, but this time Phillips plays the prosecutor and Zaremba has been promoted to the role of judge!

Jean Hale as Barbara Riordan
Tod's fatalistic attitude continues in another scene that is new to the teleplay. After Barbara Riordan provides testimony that is particularly harmful, Miles and Tod have a private conversation outside the courtroom. Though Miles tells Tod that he must make Barbara out to be a liar, Tod admits that she told the truth when she said that Tod had expressed a desire to kill Jules in the past. Tod seals his fate with his own testimony on the witness stand by saying: "I was glad when I did it. I was only sorry later."

The highlight of "Starring the Defense" is, of course, Miles's passionate closing statement to the jury. Richard Basehart gives an outstanding performance as Miles and really nails this scene as he subtly recalls Jesus' exhortation to the crowd around the woman caught in adultery--"Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her." The show's director, Joseph Pevney, breaks from the usual practice of showing the jurors as a group in medium shots by focusing on a few of them in individual close ups. Perhaps most impressive is the subtle difference in the performances of Richard Basehart in the present-day oration and in the one captured on film in his old movie, retitled We the Guilty for the TV version. In addition to the obvious change from the older Miles (Basehart wears old age makeup throughout the show) to the younger, the acting style is also slightly different, as Basehart's 1930s-era performance in the film is slightly more flamboyant than his speech in 1963.

John Zaremba as the judge
The biggest change from story to teleplay in "Starring the Defense" comes at the end, as the projection of the film takes place in the judge's chambers rather than in the courtroom. Instead of being shown to the jury, the film is shown to the judge and the attorneys only, in a shadowy scene where they sit together in the dark. The viewers of We the Guilty become like the TV audience, watching a performance and deciding whether to let their emotions be swayed. In the story, the jury finds Tod guilty and sentences him to 20 years in prison. The TV show is more effective, mostly due to the performance by John Zaremba as the judge. He uses carefully modulated facial expressions to show that he is struggling with his decision, and the show ends with him telling Tod that he is sentencing him to life in prison but recommending a review for parole at the earliest opportunity. Miles puts his arm around Tod's shoulders and the screen fades out, father and son together at last.

Barney Phillips as the prosecutor
Some online comments have criticized "Starring the Defense" for "ripping off" the 1938 James Cagney film, Angels With Dirty Faces. The critics miss the point. The reel of film shown at the end of "Starring the Defense" ends with a young man taken to the death chamber and complaining that he does not want to die, which is similar to the conclusion of the Cagney film. However, the point of the Cagney film's ending is that Cagney's character is (or is he?) faking his fear in order to change the opinion of the young men who idolize him There is no such subtext in "Starring the Defense," where the film is meant to evoke films like Angels With Dirty Faces in order to show an example of the kind of movies that Miles Crawford made decades earlier. The film's final scene is shown in order to have an effect on the judge, and it succeeds. Saying that Slesar's teleplay "ripped off" the Cagney film demonstrates a limited understanding of both works.

Joseph Pevney (1911-2008), the director of "Starring the Defense," began his career as an actor before becoming a director in 1950. He directed movies in the fifties, including the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), then moved into TV in 1959. He directed five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and 14 episodes of Star Trek.

Richard Basehart as Miles Crawford
addressing the jury in We the Guilty
Starring as Miles Crawford is Richard Basehart (1914-1984), who was in films from 1947 to 1979 and on TV from 1957 to 1984. He was in Fellini's La Strada (1954) as well as Being There (1979) with Peter Sellers; this was one of two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which he was featured. He also appeared on The Twilight Zone but is best remembered as the star of the Irwin Allen series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which ran from 1964 to 1968.

Miles's friend and law partner Sam Brody is played by Russell Collins (1897-1965), a familiar character actor who was in ten episodes of the Hitchcock series, most recently Slesar's "The Right Kind of Medicine."

S. John Launer (1919-2006) plays Ed Rutherford, the criminal lawyer; he was on TV and in the movies from the mid-fifties till the late eighties. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, but he may be seen in four episodes of The Twilight Zone, 33 episodes of Perry Mason, the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and Hitchcock's Marnie (1964).

Teno Pollick (1929-1991) plays Tod Crawford. Pollick made 13 appearances on TV from 1961 to 1976 and did not appear in any other episodes of the Hitchcock series. Pollick was in the original Off-Broadway cast of Steambath (1970).

The brief role of Barbara Riordan, the girl over whom Tod and Jules were fighting, is played by Jean Hale (1938- ). She was 24 years old at the time and had been on TV since 1960. She appeared in one other episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour along with two episodes of Batman and Roger Corman's 1967 film, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

John Zaremba (1908-1986), this time playing the judge, was in 11 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including six written by Henry Slesar. He was most recently seen in "Final Vow."

Selmer Jackson as the chaplain in We the Guilty
Rockne Tarkington (1931- ), the black actor who plays the policeman, was on TV and in movies from the early sixties till the mid-nineties. This is his first credit and only appearance on the Hitchcock show. In 1974 he starred in Black Samson.

Selmer Jackson (1888-1971) makes a short appearance as the chaplain in the film shown to the judge at the end of the show. He was a busy character actor who started in film in 1921 and moved to TV in 1951. He was in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "A True Account"; "Starring the Defense" was his last credit.

Finally, Barney Phillips (1913-1982) plays the prosecutor. He was in movies from 1937 and on TV from 1950, and he was last seen in "I Saw the Whole Thing."

"Starring the Defense" is not available on DVD but may be viewed on YouTube here.

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
JohnThe New American Bible. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible, 1977. Print.
"Official Site for Richard Basehart." Official Site for Richard Basehart. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "Starring the Defense." 1963. Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989. 194-219. Print.
"Starring the Defense." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 15 Nov. 1963. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.

*MeTV is showing The Alfred Hitchcock Hour every Saturday night/Sunday morning at 3 a.m. Eastern Time.

*Antenna TV is showing back to back episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents every night from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. Eastern time.

*In two weeks: "Behind the Locked Door," with Gloria Swanson and James MacArthur!


Peter Enfantino said...

The Verdict: Richard Basehart proves that ham is best served with vanilla frosting. Seriously, I want my 45 minutes back. This was just Gawdawful.

Jack Seabrook said...

Peter, you need to check that disc. You accidentally watched an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Grant said...

I've only seen it a couple of times. The walk to the execution didn't make me think of ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (which I also don't know well), but the speech made me think of Orson Welles in COMPULSION, and I guess that actual Clarence Darrow speech that it's based on. (I hardly know true courtroom stories at all, but the Leopold and Loeb one is an exception.)

Jack Seabrook said...

I will have to check out Compulsion--it's one of the Welles flicks I've never seen!

john kenrick said...

I liked Starring The Defense the first time I saw it, as a child; as an adult I find it dreadful; and Richard Basehart, whom I liked very much when I was growing up, just doesn't do it for me anymore. Like the otherwise very different James Whitmore, Basehart tries too hard, relies on familiar mannerisms,--mannerisms that often don't work the first time--to make his performances work.

His screen dignity was too weighed down by an obviously big ego, and the man simply lacked the bravura of, say, a John Barrymore, to overcome it. He was even worse in a Route 66 episode as a Hollywood composer "going native" in the American South, where he was "hunting" for folk tunes. All this must read like an "I hate Richard Basehart" rant. It really isn't. He wasn't a bad actor, he just overrated himself.

Starring The Defense would have had a better chance to work with a lead player who possessed a larger than life presence. George C. Scott,--probably too young at the time--might have made it catch fire. Stress on the words might have. The fault in this one wasn't really in the star. It was in the script. Basehart should have passed. It wasn't worth the effort.

Jack Seabrook said...

I thought Basehart was very good in it, especially in the way he changed his style to reflect the film acting styles of the '30s and the '60s. I'm reading a biography of Fellini by Tullio Kezich and just yesterday I read about Basehart and La Strada--the author described him as having a sweet disposition and being unfailingly considerate.

john kenrick said...

I've read good things about Basehart as a private person, Jack,--isn't there a theater named for him in L.A. or nearby?--and his Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea co-star David Hedison spoke highly of him. I felt a bit guilty writing off the episode in large part due to what I felt was Basehart's inability to rise to the occasion. He did the best he could with what he was given, which was mediocre to begin with, and which is also, quite frankly, the norm for most actors in Hollywood, then and now. I look at some of Dan Duryea's later work on television, much of it undistinguished, but then I see him in a film from his prime, when he was at the top of his game, and he's fabulous.

Jack Seabrook said...

When you mention Dan Duryea, I think of his great performances in the Lang films in the '40s and then his arguably great performance in The Twilight Zone in 1959 as the decrepit gunslinger.

john kenrick said...

Yup. Duryea was great. His late western (1965) The Bounty Killer features one of his best performances! The movie's just okay, a typical A.C. Lyles-like cheapie, but Duryea shines.

Unknown said...

Christopher Connelly made his television debut in the episode

Jack Seabrook said...

I'm not familiar with his work.