Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Bernard C. Schoenfeld Part Four: The Better Bargain [2.11]

by Jack Seabrook

A beautiful blonde meets her lover at the zoo and they drive to a nearby motel to spend the afternoon together in private, unaware that they are under surveillance. The woman refuses to tell the man her name, cautioning him that if he learned who she was, their affair would be over. She returns to the home of her husband, "King Louis" Indelicato, a gangster who listens to his investigator's report on her activities and soon welcomes Harry Silver, "free-lance killer," into his office.

King Louis hires the red-haired assassin to murder his wife Marion and her lover, giving him an envelope with a picture of his bride. Louis agrees to pay Silver's price of $20,000 and Silver leaves after studying the photo. Moments later, the killer returns and tells King Louis that he has "figured out a better bargain," since Marion will be a rich widow after Silver kills her husband. He recognized Marion's picture as that of his own lover, and King Louis's investigator had "neglected to mention that his wife's lover had red hair."

"The Better Bargain" was
first published here
Richard Deming's story "The Better Bargain" was published in the April 1956 issue of Manhunt and quickly sold to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where it was adapted for the small screen by Bernard C. Schoenfeld and aired on CBS on Sunday, December 9, 1956. The story depends on the withholding of key information until the end, allowing for the surprise revelation that the hired killer is the gang boss's rival for Marion's affections. When the tale was reprinted in the collection, Hitchcock in Prime Time, editor Francis M. Nevins commented in a note that he wondered how the writer of the TV show managed to avoid giving away the twist.

This is accomplished by removing the first scene of the story, so that the TV show takes place entirely in the office of King Louis and the waiting room attached to it. Schoenfeld's script is a model of structure, using only five characters in alternating scenes to present an entertaining story that improves on its source. The show opens on Baldy, Louis's assistant, a middle-aged man in a suit who is building a model ship at his office desk. A smiling private detective named Cutter enters and is ushered into Louis's office; Baldy is more interested in his model ship than his office duties.

King Louis is a physically imposing man but, as events will show, he is a paper tiger. He insults Baldy yet Baldy is unperturbed; he insults Cutter but the man continues to smile, well aware that Louis's rude words carry no menace. King stops Cutter in the middle of his description of Marion's lover, thus missing out on information that could later save his life. Louis appears nervous despite his bluster, and for good reason, since no one seems to respect or fear him. From what Cutter tells him, it is clear that Marion is cheating on him, but the King tries to rationalize her behavior.

Robert Middleton as King Louis
Unlike the short story, Marion enters the office at this point in the show. Young and beautiful, she mentions her past life in show business and wears a hat that makes her appear birdlike; in the prior scene, Louis had mentioned that she liked birds. She lies to him about planning to visit a friend in Cleveland for the weekend and, when he kisses her passionately, she pulls away. He puts his hand on her throat in a threatening manner but she ignores it--once again, his power is ineffectual. After she leaves, Louis has another scene with Baldy, again insulting his assistant and again being ignored. Even Baldy, whose main interest is in his model ship, understands what is going on with Louis's wife and displays a modicum of sympathy and understanding.

King tells Baldy to contact Silver and there is a dissolve to the next scene, where Silver is already in Louis's inner office. Silver is quite relaxed and makes it clear that he does not need the work; once again, the seemingly powerful mobster is placed in a subordinate position in regard to someone who should be below him in the pecking order. Silver tells King that "I never bargain," though he will later demonstrate that this is not true, and when he compliments Louis on his weight the King tells him that "I go to the gym a lot," suggesting that he is concerned with his appearance. With a wife half his age, he should be! The term bargain is used again when Silver quotes his fee: $20,000 is "a real bargain."

Henry Silva as
Harry Silver
Another dissolve finds Cutter returning with bad news: Marion did not go to Cleveland. No one is terribly concerned with King Louis's crumbling marriage, however, as Baldy continues to pay attention to his model ship and Cutter grins his way through his devastating report. He describes Marion's lover as poetic and surmises that he teaches English literature at the state college; at this point, Cutter relates the scene that takes place at the start of Deming's short story, where the lovers meet at the zoo. He tells Louis that Marion's lover quotes the first lines of Shelley's poem, "Love's Philosophy": "the fountains mingle with the river . . .," and we see that Marion's beau is a more romantic and cerebral man than her husband. Cutter also mentions that Marion refers to her husband as her father: he is old enough to be her parent and in their scenes together she does treat him more like a father than a husband. After Cutter gives his report, Louis discharges him and calls Silver, intending to have both wife and lover killed.

Silver returns to the office, as Baldy continues to tinker with his model ship, and this time when the killer enters he finds King Louis looking at birds in a birdcage, a present for his wife. The bird also represents Marion, who is in a marriage that seems more like a cage. Marion enters and, for the first time in the TV version, shares the screen with Silver, her secret lover. She is momentarily surprised to see him in the company of her husband but she instantly recovers her composure and Louis is none the wiser. Louis lies about the birdcage and says it is a present for "Baldy's kid," suggesting to the viewer and to Silver that his feelings for his wife have changed. She asks for a new car and interacts with Louis like a daughter with a father rather than a wife with a husband.

Kathleen Hughes as Marion
She leaves, and for the first time the camera is positioned below, looking up at both King and Harry in solo shots. The lighting is suddenly more noirish and this moment represents a moral decision point for Louis, one not present in Deming's short story. Shaken by Marion's youth and beauty, King changes his mind and instructs Silver not to kill her, just her lover. They agree on a reduced price of $10,000 and one wonders if this is a bridge too far for Silver, who said before that he never bargains.

Silver leaves, and in one of the few wide shots in the episode we see Louis walk around and settle in behind his desk. He calls a car dealer and orders the sports car that Marion wants, seemingly resolved to be happy with his lot in life, when Silver re-enters the room. Though Silver is clear about not wanting to kill himself, Louis is slow to understand what is happening. Silver waxes poetic about women, quoting Byron's poem from 1813, "She walks in beauty like the night," and telling the King that "The only two things that a man should die for or live for are a poem or a woman like Marion." The truth dawns on Louis, who tries to summon Baldy, but Silver tells him that Baldy is dead--"no charge." Silver then mentions the poet (and killer) Francois Villon, quoting from his 1533 poem that includes the famous line, "Where are the snows of yesteryear?"

At this point, the shift in the balance of power is complete, as the camera looks up at Silver and down at Louis, who is now in a subordinate position. Louis thought he was a king and sat in his "throne room," allowing four people to visit him on and off. Yet they are more colorful and alive than he: Baldy, with his model ship; Marion, beautiful lover of birds; Silver, quoting poetry; even Cutter, the smiling private eye. They all ignore and tolerate his abuse until he is no longer useful, at which point he is eliminated. In the final shots, Silver advances toward Louis with a knife and the King shrinks back in his chair, trying to make himself smaller as the screen fades to black.

Don Hamner as Cutter
"The Better Bargain" is a fine example of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents where a run of the mill short story serves as the basis for something much deeper and more effective, much as Cornell Woolrich's slam-bang story, "It Had to Be Murder," was reimagined as the brilliant film, Rear Window. The acting is uniformly strong, the direction well-conceived, and the script by Bernard C. Schoenfeld is carefully structured and efficient, solving the problem posed by Nevins and creating a more evocative tale.

Richard Deming (1915-1983), who wrote the story, wrote numerous crime short stories from 1948 to 1984, mostly for the digests. He wrote quite a few novels between 1952 and 1971, including ghost-writing a series of Ellery Queen books from 1962 to 1970. Deming also used the pseudonym Max Franklin in the 1950s, when his short story output was prolific, and he wrote the story that served as the basis for a haunting episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour called "The Second Wife," as well as the story that was adapted into the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Bad Actor."

Jack Lambert as Baldy
"The Better Bargain" was directed by Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), who began his career as a dialogue director and actor in bit parts before switching gears in 1952 and embarking on a 23-year career as a director of episodic TV and a handful of films. He directed no less than 27 episodes of the Hitchcock TV show, including "The Blessington Method," as well as 16 episodes of Thriller. There is a charming biographical note about him here.

Starring as King Louis is Robert Middleton (1911-1977), a formidable presence on TV and in film from 1951 to 1977. Born Samuel Messer, he was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "Crack of Doom," and he was on Thriller twice.

Henry Silva (1928- ) plays the poetry-loving hit man, Harry Silver. Born in Brooklyn and trained at the Actor's Studio, he had a long career on TV and film from 1950 to 2001 but only appeared on the Hitchcock show twice. He was also seen on Thriller, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery, and he had a role in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Louis tries to menace Marion
The three smaller roles:
  • Don Hamner (1919-2003) as Cutter, the smiling private eye; he was in four episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Faith of Aaron Menefee," and his career on screen lasted from 1944 to 1991.
  • Kathleen Hughes (1928- ) as Marion; born Elizabeth Margaret von Gerkan, she was active on screen from 1949 to 1984 and has made a few appearances since then; her most famous role was in It Came from Outer Space (1953) and she was on one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Jack Lambert (1920-2002) as Baldy; he played many tough guys in a screen career that lasted from 1942 to 1970 and he was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times.
"The Better Bargain" is available on DVD here or may be viewed free online here.

Baldy with his model ship
Sources:
"The Better Bargain." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 11, CBS, 9 Dec. 1956.
Deming, Richard. "The Better Bargain." Hitchcock in Prime Time, edited by Francis M. Nevins and Martin Harry Greenberg. NY: Avon, 1985. 77-87.
"Deming, Richard." Gadetection / Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction, gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930438/Deming%2C%20Richard.
The FictionMags Index, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
Galactic Central, philsp.com/.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
Turner Classic Movies, www.tcm.com/.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: "Vicious Circle," starring Dick York!

4 comments:

Grant said...

I don't know off-hand if Robert Middleton played a lot of gangster roles, but he probably did because of that imposing look of his. I know he played a COMICAL ex-gangster in the college movie FOR THOSE WHO THINK YOUNG.

Jack Seabrook said...

I've never seen that one, but I enjoy his TV roles very much!

john kenrick said...

Yet another fine episode, Jack, with the actors really selling the story. It's small, tight, lean, with meat on the bone and, leaving aside Robert Middleton's heft, no fat. I was lucky with this one. It was like a good bet: I guessed very early on what Henry Silva's character was up to. This is a Hitchcock half-hour one really has to not only watch but watch closely; and listen closely, too. For a perceptive viewer it's a real treat.

For some people, those who prefer action, it's just a lot of talk, right? I guess so, but here talk is action, and this is the game the viewer (and listener) has to follow. To fully appreciate the excellence of The Better Bargain one has to pay attention. It's decently paced, and it gives hints, as the story progresses, what's going on between the three principal characters. The suspense is on the screen and in the dialogue. A second viewing allows the viewer to appreciate the set-up.

Jack Seabrook said...

John, I agree with you. I always watch the show twice before even starting to write about it, and this time I was not overly impressed on the first viewing but as I watched it again (and then a third time) I began to see how well it had been written, directed, and acted. It amazes me that they could do this in just a few days on such a tight and grueling schedule. As always, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.