Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Eleven: Return of Verge Likens [10.1]

by Jack Seabrook

Over the course of the first two seasons of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, James Bridges had written three teleplays that dealt with characters in the American South: "The Star Juror," "The Jar," and "Bed of Roses." His teleplay for "Return of Verge Likens," the first episode of the series' third season, also takes place in a rural area, this time in West Virginia.

The story was written by Davis Grubb and published in the July 15, 1950, issue of Collier's. Grubb was born in West Virginia in 1919 and began his career writing for NBC Radio in New York City in the early 1940s. In 1945, he began selling short stories to a few popular magazines and his first novel, Night of the Hunter (1953), was made into a classic film in 1955. Grubb went on to write more novels prior to his death in 1980. Three movies and a handful of TV shows were adapted from his works; two of his stories were filmed for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. "Return of Verge Likens" was reprinted in his 1964 collection, Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural, which may be where the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour noticed it.

"Return of Verge Likens"
was first published here
The story is set in fictitious Tygarts County, West Virginia, and begins as Verge Likens and his brother Wilford are summoned to the Airport Inn by Sheriff Reynolds to see the dead body of their father, Stoney, who has been shot dead by Riley McGrath, the "self-elected emperor of our state." Verge comments that Stoney had no gun on him, so there was no reason to shoot him. He and Wilford suddenly drive off "like wraiths."

Verge vows to kill Riley McGrath and thinks of nothing else from then on. Months later, Wilford asks his brother why he does not simply wait outside the Airport Inn and shoot McGrath, who "comes there all the time with that black-haired Mary from Baltimore Street." Verge replies that he wants McGrath to die slowly and to know who killed him. Worried about his brother, Wilford finds McGrath at the barber shop of Rush Sigafoose and accompanies him across the street to his office, warning the powerful man that Verge plans to kill him. McGrath tries to smooth things over by giving Wilford $500, which Wilford takes home and gives to his brother.

Peter Fonda as Verge Likens
The next morning, Verge Likens takes the money and leaves to take the bus to Charleston to attend school. He is gone for sixteen months and all Wilford hears from him is a single postcard, two weeks after his brother leaves.

One morning, McGrath is in the barber shop for a shave when the barber goes back to the storeroom for a few minutes and emerges to see McGrath, "his head strained back in the head rest as far as it would go, his face purple and livid by turns and his mouth shaping idiot sounds." Verge holds a razor to McGrath's neck and threatens to cut the man's throat if the barber comes any closer. Sigafoose sits down while Verge spends the next half hour shaving and talking quietly to McGrath. The young man had gone to barber college using McGrath's money and came back to pester Sigafoose for a job. Rush hired him and found he was a "natural-born barber." When the doctor comes later to see McGrath's dead body, he sees not "so much as a mark on his throat."

Robert Emhardt as Riley McGrath
Grubb's brilliant story of revenge uses a distinctly American location and vernacular to tell the tale of a poor man using a rich man's money to avenge his father's murder. Suspense is built with subtlety and the conclusion is implied rather than shown explicitly--Verge's behavior terrifies McGrath so much that he dies of a heart attack.

James Bridges was the perfect choice to adapt this story for television, having been born in Arkansas and having written teleplays with country settings before, most notably "The Jar." His script both adheres to and expands Grubb's story, turning it into a classic hour of television suspense. The acting performances are all excellent and the creative direction by Arnold Laven makes this episode unforgettable.

Once again, Bridges takes events that occur before the opening of the short story and dramatizes them to tell the story in chronological order, compressing the time over which various events occur to tighten the narrative and make it move more quickly from the start to the tense conclusion. The TV show begins at Fred's Hideout Cafe (no longer the Airport Inn), where Stoney Likens is thrown out by Fred for speaking harshly to McGrath, who sits in a booth, drinking and laughing with a pretty young woman. Outside, Stoney turns around and goes back in.

Robert Barrat as Stoney Likens

Here, director Laven uses the first of a series of stylized camera placements, as we look under Stoney's outstretched arm at Riley and the woman.

Stoney threatens McGrath, telling him that "no law of yours is forcing me to sell," and throws a bottle against the wall near McGrath's head. He shakes up two more bottles of beer and begins to spray beer all over the seated couple, causing McGrath to pull a gun and shoot the old man dead. McGrath tells Fred to call the sheriff and then leaves with the woman.

At the Likens home, 20 miles outside of town, Verge and Wilford play mumblety-peg with a pen knife on the kitchen table. Verge is established as the smarter brother while Wilford is simple and gentle. They await their father's return but, instead of the old man coming to the door, the sheriff appears and tells them to come with him because there has been an accident. The sheriff does not know them by sight, which shows that they are not known in town. This will be important in the show's final scene.

Jim Boles as Sheriff Reynolds

The show picks up where the story begins as Verge and Wilford arrive at Fred's and see their father's corpse. The sheriff mentions McGrath's heart condition, thus starting to set the viewer up for the fatal heart attack at the end. Instead of disappearing like wraiths, Verge and Wilford go out to their father's truck and Verge loses his temper, throwing peaches from a basket in the back of the truck and breaking windows at the cafe. Before his fit, Verge comments that Stoney got $10, a good price, and this should be remembered later on when McGrath gives Wilford $500, more than 50 times a good day's take selling peaches. By throwing and wasting peaches, Verge throws away pieces of his family's livelihood, just as his father's life has been so casually discarded.

Sammy Reese as Wilford

The next scene opens with another stylized shot, as Wilford and his two aunts are framed through the arch made by the top of a sewing machine. Like the earlier shot framing McGrath under Stoney's arm, this shot comments on the scene and the action while also getting the viewer used to creative shots in preparation for the tour de force camera work in the final scene. Here, the sewing machine is a tool used by these country women to make clothes for themselves and their family members, showing both their poverty and their resourcefulness.

The sheriff brings Verge home after the young man has spent the night in jail, presumably for his outburst outside the cafe. The family's poverty is further shown when Verge tells Wilford to put water on the stove so he can take a bath; their house does not even have hot running water. A small, quiet funeral for Stoney is held at home, with the coffin in the parlor and no guests beyond the two aunts. Again, it is clear that no one knows these country folk, a fact that will benefit Verge in his final act of revenge. Verge reads from the Bible and then quotes the "eye for an eye" passage from Leviticus as he tells Wilford of his plan to kill McGrath.

We then see Verge hiding in the bushes in town watching as McGrath emerges from his house; the poor man points a shotgun at the wealthy man but does not fire. Back at home, Verge hangs up the gun and tells his brother that he has been stalking McGrath for a month, learning his habits. He comments that McGrath has a bad heart (a remark with a double meaning) and visits a doctor regularly; this is the second time the heart condition is mentioned, reinforcing it for the viewer. Verge tells Wilford he did not shoot McGrath because he wants his victim to know his name when he kills him.

Charles Seel as Rush Sigafoose
Wilford finds McGrath at the barber shop and there is great dialogue between the powerful man and the barber; McGrath tells Sigafoose that he must be five-eighths Indian because he is so good at scalping his customers and gives him a dollar tip to buy his wife some "wampum beads." Sigafoose thanks the "Great White Father" and both laugh until Wilford announces that his father was Stoney Likens and the laughter abruptly stops. Like Verge, Wilford is a country boy, not used to town ways and unknown there; he looks at everything with wonder and appears to be an innocent among untrustworthy men. When he goes to McGrath's office, McGrath once again reminds us that he has a bad heart; his mother died eight months ago, he says, adding that "the heart is a delicate thing--I know."

At home, Wilford speaks with Verge and gives him the money, causing Verge to pack a bag and leave right away. He does not wait out the night to think things over as he does in the story; he is smart, crafty, and determined. Instead of being gone for sixteen months, Verge is gone for six. The next scene appears to occur at the end of that span of time, as a flower truck delivers a funeral wreath to McGrath with a card telling him that it is from Verge Likens. Wilford receives his sixth monthly postcard from his brother and McGrath's driver/bodyguard/enforcer picks up Wilford at home and takes him to see McGrath at the cafe.

The funeral wreath provides director Laven with an opportunity for another stylized shot, with the camera looking through the center of the wreath at the figures beyond it.

McGrath questions Wilford about Verge's whereabouts and then D.D., the driver, takes Wilford for a very short ride around the side of the cafe, where D.D. attempts to beat information out of the gentle man.

Wilford after the beating

The final act of "Return of Verge Likens" is one long scene, one of the most suspenseful of the series. After McGrath leaves his office and hurries to the barber shop for a shave, the new barber is seen from the side, standing over the sink, his face hidden.

When he stands up, we see that he is Verge Likens, who has made his return as the title promised. Rush, the other barber, finishes up with his customer as Verge gets ready to shave Riley. This is the big payoff of all the setting up that James Bridges did throughout the episode. We know that Verge Likens was little known in town, so no one knows his face and he is able to return unnoticed and secure a job in the barber shop. We know that McGrath has a heart condition. And we know that Verge has vowed to kill McGrath. In true Hitchcockian fashion, what happens next puts the viewer in the uncomfortable position of rooting for a man to commit a horrible murder, both dreading the act and anticipating it.

Verge asks Rush to get some supplies and suspense builds as we see the young barber testing his straight razor. There is no music, just sounds of shaving and dialogue. Verge tells McGrath that his name is Odell Jones and, after Rush leaves the barber shop to go down the street to the drugstore to get supplies, Verge locks the front door. Unlike Grubb's story, where Sigafoose emerges from the stockroom to see Verge shaving McGrath and then has to sit quietly by as the deed is done, the TV adaptation has Sigafoose leave Verge and McGrath alone in the shop, a much more visually exciting choice.

In a series of highly stylized shots, Arnold Laven depicts what happens next. Verge is shown in the mirror as he approaches the chair, the razor looming large in the foreground.

Slowly, carefully, and quietly, he begins to shave the man in the chair, who starts to question the new barber about his background. Verge begins slowly to reveal his identity and there is an effective shot from overhead as McGrath's eyes begin to widen in fear.

Verge shaves ever closer as he provides clues to his identity. He admits that he went to barber's college in Charleston and, when Riley tries to sit up and get away, Verge warns him, coolly, "I might slip and cut you right through to the gullet," as he draws the razor through the air just above McGrath's throat to demonstrate what could happen. "Remember your heart," warns Verge, also reminding the viewer of McGrath's perilous state of health. As Sigafoose and others begin to try to get in but find the door locked, Verge warns Riley, holding the razor to his lips, and resumes shaving. Next comes the most stylized shot of the episode, looking up at Verge from Riley's point of view as he reveals his true name and repeats it four times, waving the razor in the man's face. He gently runs the razor over McGrath's throat once again, not quite touching the skin.

"Verge Likens. Verge Likens. Verge Likens. Verge Likens."

We see one more point of view shot from outside the door as Verge bends over Riley and the crowd tries to break in.

Verge finishes shaving his customer and cleans up methodically before unlocking the door and letting the sheriff in, along with the rest of the crowd that has gathered outside. A towel is removed from McGrath's face and he is seen to be dead; though the sheriff tells Verge that he is under arrest, Verge replies that there is not a scratch on McGrath and there is no law against giving a man a shave. The show ends with a shot of Riley McGrath's face, his dead eyes staring straight ahead.

Verge Likens has succeeded in accomplishing his goal. He wanted to kill Riley McGrath and avenge his father's death, and he wanted to do it slowly so that his victim could see him and know his name when he killed him. Best of all, there was no violence or blood spilled; the sheer terror of anticipating what could have happened made the man's weak heart give out.

"Return of Verge Likens" is a masterpiece of suspense, highlighted by the brilliantly executed last act. It benefits from great writing, direction, acting, and pacing, and is a superb example of James Bridges' growing ability to turn a short story into a thrilling piece of film.

Arnold Laven (1922-2009), the director, worked in the U.S. Air Force motion picture unit in WWII and had various jobs in the film industry after the war before forming a production company with his partners in 1951. He became a director in 1952 and directed many TV shows and a few movies over the next three decades. He created The Rifleman, which ran from 1958 to 1963, and he was a producer on The Big Valley, which ran from 1965 to 1969. He directed one half-hour episode of the Hitchcock show in addition to this single hour-long episode.

Starring as Verge Likens is the strikingly handsome Peter Fonda (1940- ), son of Hollywood great Henry Fonda. Peter's career on screen began in 1962 and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. His many films include The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967), both directed by Roger Corman; Easy Rider (1969) made him a major star. He is still acting today and he has a website here.

George Lindsey as D.D., the driver
The great Robert Emhardt (1913-1994) is perfect as Riley McGrath, portraying him as a powerful, corrupt man who can seem charming one minute and cruel the next. Emhardt was in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last examined here was "Martha Mason, Movie Star."

Returning for his third appearance in a James Bridges-penned, country-themed episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is George Lindsey (1928-2012), who was also in "The Jar" and "Bed of Roses." He is menacing and utterly believable here as McGrath's driver, who always seems on the verge of breaking into violence.

June Walker as Aunt Mary Jane
Sammy Reese (1930-1985) is particularly effective as Verge's simple brother, Wilford; his scenes in town show an almost childlike fascination with the life of those not from the country. He had a rather brief screen career, from 1959 to 1970, but during that time he was on The Outer Limits twice and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour four times, including roles in "The Jar" and "The Star Juror," both written by James Bridges.

For two of the members of the cast of "Return of Verge Likens," the show was their last acting credit. Robert Barrat (1889-1970), who appears in the first scene as Stoney Likens and is gunned down by Riley McGrath, appeared in over 150 films from 1915 to 1955 and ended his career on television, appearing just this once on the Hitchcock show. June Walker (1900-1966), who plays Verge's Aunt Mary Jane, also began her screen career in the silent era and appeared in films from 1917 to 1963, adding TV as of 1949. She was on Thriller once and the Hitchcock show three times.

Seen very briefly as the girl sitting in Fred's Hideout Cafe with Riley McGrath is Cathie Merchant (1945-2013), a 19-year-old beauty who was on screen for only four years, from 1961 to 1965, but who managed to appear in four episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "The Star Juror," where she plays the young woman in the bathing suit who is murdered in the park.

Cathie Merchant as Mary

Other cast members:

William Bramley as Fred
Jim Boles (1914-1977) plays Sheriff Reynolds; he was on screen from 1949 to 1977 and appeared twice on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; he also was seen on The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Odd Couple.

William Bramley (1928-1985) plays Fred, proprietor of Fred's Hideout Cafe; his most memorable role may be that of Office Krupke in West Side Story (1961); he was also seen in three Hitchcock episodes (including "The Test"), and episodes of The Outer Limits and Star Trek.

Charles Seel (1897-1980) plays the barber, Rush Sigafoose; he was on screen from 1938 to 1980 and he was in four episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Kind Waitress"; he was also seen on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Night Gallery.

Nydia Westman as
Aunt Ida Maye
Nydia Westman (1902-1970) plays Verge's Aunt Ida Maye; she was on screen from 1932 to 1970 and this was her only time on the Hitchcock show.

"Return of Verge Likens" was adapted one other time, for a South African radio horror anthology series called Beyond Midnight. The episode was titled either "Mr. McGrath and His Victim" or "My Daddy Had No Gun," and what sounds like a slightly truncated version of the broadcast may be heard here. It aired on April 10, 1970.

The TV version of "Return of Verge Likens" is not available on DVD or online, but MeTV should be running it late at night around June 10th.

Read Davis Grubb's story, "Return of Verge Likens," here (the last page is here).

The FictionMags Index. Web. 13 May 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Grubb, Dave. "Return of Verge Likens." Collier's 15 July 1950: 22-23+. Web. 13 May 2017.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017.
"Return of Verge Likens." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC. 5 Oct. 1964. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 May 2017. Web. 13 May 2017.

In two weeks: Where the Woodbine Twineth," starring Margaret Leighton and Carl Benton Reid!


Unknown said...

Ummm, Jack ...

Where's the rest of this?

You know, the part with the pictures, and the notes about the actors, and like that there?

I mean, I hope nothing's wrong or anything, but the regular features are conspicuous by their absence.

All the best to you personally, but we're all waiting here, patiently ...

Grant said...

I don't know the episode well, but Wilford's relationship to Verge always makes me think of Fredo and Michael Corleone.

Jack Seabrook said...

I've seen The Godfather but I don't know it like you do, so I'll trust you!

john kenrick said...

It's a first rate, well acted episode of the Hitchcock hour, yet I can't help think, whenever I watch it, that Peter Fonda is way too good looking for Verge Liken; too dazzling, with those perfect teeth (for a hillbilly!). If there was ever a role Bruce Dern was born to play in a Sixties anthology series it was this one. He played so many creepy, demented backwoods types, usually secondary characters. This is an episode he could have OWNED. Fonda is competent but generates no tension. The rest of the cast, however, is superb, and after Sammy Reese and Robbert Emhardt, George "Goober" Lindsey as Emhardt's goon is disturbingly effective, almost casual in his credibility.

Jack Seabrook said...

I think it's a tremendous episode. Having attractive actors play roles that were described in less attractive terms in print is a common occurrence on this series. Still, I thought Fonda was very good--much better than in many of his later roles.

john kenrick said...

I agree that Peter Fonda is way above average. His acting seldom impressed me and he definitely out more into his performance as Verge Likens that he did in most of his roles (when he was young).

Unknown said...

I saw this episode on its first airing October 1964 when I was 10 years old, and it was seared into my brain. I think Peter Fonda was FABULOUS; He was so handsome and kind, that the deviousness of his plan was more incredibly shocking than if a menacingly evil actor like Bruce Dern had been cast as Verge.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Michael. I agree that Fonda was fabulous in this. I have to think that part of his appeal here was that viewers looked at him and saw his father; the revenge at the end would have been shocking coming from kind, gentle Henry Fonda, so that may have been part of why it worked so well.

Anonymous said...

One of the 3 best hourly Hitchcocks. Awesome ending!!

Jack Seabrook said...

It's a great episode!