Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-John Williams Part One: The Long Shot [1.9]

by Jack Seabrook

Norman Lloyd called John Williams "Hitchcock's favorite actor," referring to "the underplaying, the subtle humor, the indirect approach that he had." Who was John Williams and what was his contribution to Alfred Hitchcock Presents?

Born in England in 1903, Williams began performing on stage in 1916 in his native country and made his debut on Broadway in 1924. By 1930, he had begun to appear in movies, and he added TV to his repertoire in 1951. Among his many film roles were three movies directed by Hitchcock: The Paradine Case (1947), Dial M For Murder (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). He then appeared in ten episodes of the half-hour Hitchcock TV series, starting in the fall of 1955, and he later made appearances on many other shows, including The Twilight Zone, Thriller and Night Gallery. One of his most visible roles, especially for those of us who grew up watching TV in the 1960s and 1970s, was as the host of the long-running TV commercial for 120 Music Masterpieces, record albums that collected classical music works.

The first of John Williams's appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents came on November 27, 1955, in "The Long Shot," which was adapted by Harold Swanton from his radio play of the same name. Swanton was born in 1915 and began his career as a playwright; he won what was likely a small cash award from ASCAP early in his career and he went on to write many radio plays. He also wrote film scripts from the late 1940s to the late 1960s and he wrote many teleplays from the early 1950s until the mid-1980s. He won an Edgar Award in 1958 for Best Episode in a TV Series for his script for "Mechanical Manhunt" on The Alcoa Hour, and he wrote eleven teleplays for the Hitchcock series, including "Anniversary Gift."

John Williams and Peter Lawford
Swanton's radio play, "The Long Shot," first aired on January 31, 1946, as part of the long-running CBS series, Suspense. "The Long Shot" starred George Coulouris, was directed by William Spier, and is available to listen to online for free here. The story opens as the police interrogate a horse player named Charlie Raymond about a murder. Raymond recalls having been down on his luck in New York City ten days before. He saw a want ad that had been placed by an Englishman willing to pay $150 plus expenses to a fellow countryman, preferably a Londoner, to drive and act as his companion on a trip to San Francisco.

Raymond needed an excuse to leave town before his gambling debts caught up with him, so he took the job, but as he and Walker Hendricks drove West, Raymond found that all Hendricks wanted to talk about was London. In Chicago, Raymond ran into an old gambling chum who offered him a hot tip on a horse that required $500 to buy in. Raymond went through Hendricks's bag, looking for money, and discovered papers that showed that the man was set to inherit $100,000 from a late uncle. Hendricks was not known by sight and thus had to bring documents to San Francisco to prove his identity and collect the money. Raymond began to hatch a plan to take the man's place and collect the inheritance himself.

Peter Lawford as Charlie Raymond
Raymond tells the police who are interrogating him that he called off the bet on the horse and continued the drive West the next morning. As he and Hendricks approached Salt Lake City, Hendricks mentioned that he had an aunt named Marguerite Stoddard living there. Raymond visited the woman alone, pretending to be Hendricks, and she fell for the ruse completely. Knowing that he could pull off the impersonation, Raymond drove into a desolate area of the Nevada desert at night, where he pulled the car over to the side of the road and murdered Hendricks with a wrench from the car. He hid the body in a small cave and returned to the car, only to find a Nevada state police car parked behind his auto. Raymond disconnected his own car's battery cable and, when the policeman arrived, pretended that the car had stalled. The policeman fixed the cable with the murder weapon and Raymond drove off.

He then spent three days alone in a Nevada hotel room, watching in vain for news of the murder in the papers. He flipped a coin and went through with his plan, but was met by the police at the lawyer's office. They tell him that they were holding him for the murder of Walker Hendricks, but it turns out that the man who Raymond killed was not Hendricks at all, but rather another Englishman who had murdered the real Hendricks and then taken his place, intending to collect the inheritance and using Raymond to brush up on his knowledge of London in order to make his impersonation of the dead man more convincing!

"The Long Shot" is a classic radio tale of suspense with a clever plot and a surprise ending that is impossible to anticipate. The play was performed again on radio on June 8, 1952, starring David Niven, on a series called Hollywood Star Playhouse; this version seems to be lost or unavailable.

Swanton's third version of "The Long Shot" was the ninth episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He adapted his own radio play for television and, like "Place of Shadows," another early episode that Robert C. Dennis adapted from his own published short story, the onscreen credit does not mention the source. The TV version stars Peter Lawford as Raymond and John Williams as the fake Hendricks, and the episode was directed by Robert Stevenson.

While Swanton's teleplay follows most of the radio play closely, there are some significant changes. First of all, the show does not begin with Raymond being questioned by the police for murder. Instead, it opens with him sitting in a bar in New York City, where he listens to a horse race on the radio and hears his horse lose. He avoids a phone call from a bookie named Dutch, to whom he owes $4200, and when he picks up his glass of beer, which had been sitting on a newspaper, he sees that the moisture on the bottom of the glass has left a ring around the want ad placed by Hendricks--this is a great way to use the visual medium to highlight the suggestion that the meeting of the two men was determined by fate.

Peter Lawford is perfect as the young gambler who tries to be a con man, but John Williams is even better as the old Englishman who is so good a con artist that Raymond (and the viewer) never suspects him. Charming, urbane and funny, Williams is the epitome of a Londoner abroad. The rest of the story is told in scenes featuring dialogue alternating with scenes where Raymond narrates in voice over. We see Raymond adopt a limp when he visits Aunt Margaret, and the visual adds something to the performance that was not possible on radio.

The biggest change is a surprising one. When Raymond pulls over at night in the Nevada desert, instead of clubbing Hendricks with a wrench, he suggests that they sleep outside on the ground until the sun comes up and they can figure out where they are. We see Hendricks sleeping on the ground with a blanket, and Raymond creeps up, gets in the car, starts it, and backs over the sleeping man--Hendricks lets out a dreadful cry and we know that the seemingly harmless English gentleman has been killed. There is then an establishing shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, telling us that Raymond has continued on to San Francisco, and we see him in a hotel room, making the fateful decision to go to the lawyer's office.

Robert Warwick as Kelson
At the office, the lawyer, whose name is Kelson, welcomes Raymond, who again affects a limp. Kelson looks through his documents before telling him that there won't be any money. A second man, who had been looking through a file cabinet drawer, announces that he is Sergeant Mack, from San Francisco Homicide. "They found the body," he says; "You're through, mister." But the revelation of what has happened is delayed. Raymond confesses to murder, and as it dawns on Mack and Kelson that he killed someone other than whom they expected, they silently exchange looks to tell each other to let Raymond keep talking. The looks are another storytelling technique that was not available on radio. Mack soon reveals the truth and tells Raymond that Hendricks was really a con man named English Jim. The show ends with a close up of Raymond, laughing at the irony of the situation.

"The Long Shot" is a classic, early episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that works for several reasons. Of course, the plot is quite good, and Swanton and director Robert Stevenson take full advantage of the visual medium to open up the story and to enhance it by doing things that could not have been done on radio. The surprise ending works so well in large part because of the performance by John Williams, who is so much the opposite of a con man and a murderer that no one would ever suspect him of being an impostor. In the end, the neophyte con artist is taken in by the veteran con man and has to confess to murder to avoid being suspected of a murder he did not commit.

Robert Stevenson (1905-1986), who directed "The Long Shot," was a talented filmmaker who made movies from 1932 to 1976 and TV shows from 1952 to 1982. He directed seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one examined here was the excellent first season episode, "The Derelicts."

Born in London, as his character Charlie Raymond claims to have been, Peter Lawford (1923-1984) was in movies from 1931 to 1984 and on TV from 1953 to 1982. He was very well known in the 1950s and 1960s, in part due to his connection with Frank Sinatra and his membership in Sinatra's Rat Pack, and also due to his marriage to President Kennedy's sister from 1954 to 1966. In addition to "The Long Shot," he appeared in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Gertrude Hoffman as Aunt Margaret
Even the small parts in "The Long Shot" are played by veteran character actors. Gertrude Hoffman (1871-1968) plays Aunt Margaret. Born in what is now Germany, she was a German film star in the silent years who moved to the U.S. and appeared in Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the 1950s. She had parts in Hitchcock's films Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Suspicion (1941), but this was her only appearance on his TV show.

Kelson, the lawyer, is played by Robert Warwick (1878-1964), who appeared on Broadway beginning in 1903 and on screen from 1914. A WWI veteran, he was in many movies and TV shows, but this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Frank Gerstle
Frank Gerstle (1915-1970) is a familiar face as Sgt. Mack; he played similar roles in two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Deadly." Charles Cantor (1898-1966) plays the racing tout in Chicago who tries to get $500 out of Raymond for a sure thing; he was a popular radio actor who moved to TV and appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Finally, Virginia Christine (1920-1996) has a small part as Kelson's secretary; she had a long career on radio, stage, screen and television, was married to actor Fritz Feld for over 50 years, and was best known as Mrs. Olson in a series of commercials for Folger's Coffee. She was seen in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Peter Lawford and Virginia Christine

Charles Cantor
You can't keep a good story down for long, and "The Long Shot" was produced one more time on radio, appearing on Suspense again on February 9, 1958, using nearly the same script from the 1946 radio broadcast and this time starring film star Herbert Marshall. The meaning of the story's title is clear: Raymond is a horse player who thinks of things in horse racing terms. His decision to replace Hendricks and collect the inheritance is a long shot, yet he does not know that the man he kills and replaces was betting on the same long shot. The 1958 radio version is available to listen to for free online here. The TV version is available on DVD here. This episode is no longer available to watch for free online.

Berard, Jeanette M., and Klaudia Englund. Radio Series Scripts, 1930-2001: A Catalog of the American Radio Archives Collection. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.
"John Williams Is Dead at 80; Stage, Screen and TV Actor." The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 May 1983. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
"The Long Shot." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 27 Nov. 1955. Television.
"The Long Shot." Suspense. 9 Feb. 1958. Radio.
"The Long Shot." Suspense. CBS. 31 Jan. 1946. Radio.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.

In two weeks: "Whodunit," starring John Williams and Amanda Blake!


Grant said...

Are you thinking of moving on from writers connected with Hitchcock's shows to actors now? Along with John Williams, there are some obvious ones of course, like Gary Merrill and Phyllis Thaxter.

Jack Seabrook said...

Anything is fair game! I need to do some hours. I may do Matheson next and then maybe James Bridges.

Brian Durant said...

I've yet to come across a performance from Williams that wasn't spectacular. I was bummed to see him get run over by a car and then buried in the desert by Peter Lawford, but he returns only a few episodes later so it's okay. Lawford is great here as well. Excellent as always, Mr. Seabrook! And thanks for posting the link to Swanton's radio play. I'm not really familiar with Coulouris but his performance is pretty good.

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't know Coulouris either but he did a nice job with the radio play. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment!

john kenrick said...

A delightful episode, The Long Shot, and one I either had never seen before or had never finished. It was new to me when I caught it on the recent MeTV reboot of the Hitchcock Presents series, which is turning out to be better than I expected, or maybe remembered is the better word.

I've tended to prefer the hour longs as the years have gone by, as they allow for greater character development and, especially, more complex relationships, which lends a "novelistic" air to many of the best episodes, even those adapted from short stories!

Back to The Long Shot: Peter Lawford was amazingly good in the lead, and he had my sympathy from beginning to end (having some, shall we say, gambling tendencies myself helped enormously), and I was reminded just what a good actor Lawford could be away from Sinatra & Company.

John Williams irritated me almost as much as he did Lawford. The ending was more of a surprise than a shock, as I knew that full justice had to be done on prime time back in 1955, thus once Lawford committed murder he had to get caught. His response to this was priceless.

While not a comedy, The Long Shot charmed me, and did a much better job at it than many Hitch half-hours that set out to be charming and whimsical and just plain fall flat for me.

Jack Seabrook said...

It is a fine episode, like so many in the first season. AHP seems to have started out as a copy of Suspense with a bigger budget and then found its own identity in subsequent seasons.