Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Bernard C. Schoenfeld Part Six: The Percentage [3.14]

by Jack Seabrook

Big Eddie Scarsi's beautiful blonde girlfriend, Fay, stares at his broken combination "color TV, FM radio and hi-fi phonograph." Though he is rich and has everything a man could want, Eddie is bothered by something. He rose to power in the Syndicate by "knowing how to figure the percentage." Organized crime is big business now and Eddie is in line for promotion to the position of "big boss." "The percentage meant everybody owed you something and you owed nothing to anybody." Eddie only owes one debt, to a little guy he can't find named Pete Wladek.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Sergeant Eddie Scarsi lost his nerve and froze; Pete Wladek had seen it happen, kept his head and kept everyone alive. Eddie got a medal and Pete never said a word, and to this day Eddie thinks he owes Pete a debt that must be repaid. The blonde is disappointed that Eddie called a different repair outfit to fix the broken TV set, because the last repairman was a handsome Swede.

Alex Nicol as Eddie
Eddie is shocked when the new TV repairman walks in and says, "'Hello, Sarge'"--it's Pete, who has followed Eddie's career with interest and who changed his last name to Walters, got married, learned a trade on the G.I. Bill, and bought a ranch house in Queens. Eddie is determined to pay his debt but Pete is only there to fix the TV. Pete tells Eddie to forget about the incident on patrol. Eddie tries to give Pete money but Pete says he has all he wants. Eddie suggests setting Pete up in a crooked TV repair business, but Pete says he does not want to be a boss. Eddie even offers to pay off the mortgage on Pete's house, but Pete says he is fine.

Seeing Eddie's desperation, Pete finally suggests that they go out for a nice dinner to impress Pete's wife, Louise. At dinner, Louise shows an unhealthy interest in Eddie but he resists, not wanting to be deeper in debt to Pete by taking the man's wife. Days later, Louise calls Eddie and asks him to meet her, but instead Eddie throws a party for the couple. Even then, Louise tries to edge Eddie into the bedroom.

Nita Talbot as Louise
Unable to pay his debt to Pete to his own satisfaction, Eddie begins to get sloppy with his business and people begin to notice. Paranoia sets in as he becomes haunted by the number nine. Finally, Louise calls Eddie, frantic, claiming to be afraid of a sex maniac who has been preying on women in her neighborhood. Pete is working the night shift and she begs Eddie to come over and keep her company. Eddie agrees, hoping to "even up the percentage," and goes to Pete's house, where Louise welcomes him in "a sleazy negligee" and hands him a drink. She asks him to put his hands on her, but she did not mean for him to "put them on her throat." Eddie kills Louise and feels better than he has in a long time; "the percentage was right again" since he had killed Pete's tramp of a wife. The only thing Eddie did not expect was "the intruder," who slipped in the back door while Eddie was busy killing Louise. The intruder shoots and kills Eddie who realizes, at the last moment, that the gun "looked just like the figure 9."

"The Percentage," by David Alexander, is 9/10 of a good story, but the ending is a letdown. The intruder comes out of nowhere and kills Eddie for no reason. It would have been better to end the story with Eddie killing Louise, thinking that he had done Pete a favor. Eddie is a successful mobster who has a preoccupation that no one knows, one that is all in his head. The man he thinks he owes a debt to wants nothing from him, and Eddie cannot understand that Pete is satisfied with the life of a working man, but he does realize that Louise is not worthy of her husband. His solution is one that only a gangster would think made sense.

Don Keefer as Pete
What did Bernard C. Schoenfeld do when confronted with this unnecessary twist ending? Why, he replaced it with something even more unexpected. Did it work? Let's examine the TV version of "The Percentage" to see. First of all, Schoenfeld removes much of the story's buildup that establishes Eddie's problem, instead suggesting it in a short bit of dialogue where Fay asks him what's wrong. She suggests that Eddie called a repair shop way out in Queens, even though he lives in Manhattan, because he is embarrassed at having broken the TV set when he tried to fix it. However, when Pete the repairman arrives, Eddie is not surprised at all to see his old Army buddy. In fact, Eddie called that particular shop in order to get Pete to come to his apartment! Eddie tells Pete that he has been looking for him with the help of detectives and finally tracked him down. Schoenfeld removes the unlikely coincidence of having Pete turn up at Eddie's door, yet having Eddie break his own TV set in order to get Pete to visit seems inconsistent with the personality of a successful mobster.

Carol Mathews as Fay
Fay is friendly with Pete, who tells her that he and Eddie were in Korea together. This seems like another pointless change, since the actors who play Eddie and Pete were both born in 1916 and would surely have been of age to have fought together near the end of World War Two. Unlike Pete in the story, this Pete does not own a home, which will become important at the show's climax. The TV show eliminates Eddie's growing phobia about the number nine, something that is no loss, but the biggest surprise comes at the end, when Louise calls Eddie at night and asks him to come over to her house. There is no mention of a sex maniac and, when Eddie strangles Louise, she screams, alerting her neighbors in the apartment building. Before Eddie can make his escape, neighbors knock at the door and Pete enters to find his wife dead. There is no intruder and Eddie is not killed. Eddie tells Pete that they are even now, but when a policeman appears, Pete says that Eddie killed Louise.

Walter Woolf King as Eddie's boss
This might be a suitable place to end the show, but it seems that no episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents can end without a twist. Here, the twist is completely new to the story and it is ineffective. After Pete tells the policeman that Eddie killed his wife, there is a dissolve to a scene where we see Fay sitting alone in her apartment, wearing pants and eyeglasses and reading a book. She seems utterly unlike the character we saw all through the episode, a glamorous woman dating a successful gangster. Pete enters and tells her that Eddie has just killed Louise and things will be alright from now on, and they kiss! This final scene is nearly incomprehensible, suggesting that Pete and Fay are completely different people than we've been led to believe.

Not only is the script for "The Percentage" problematic, the direction is lackluster and the acting, for the most part, is unimpressive. James Neilsen (1909-1979) directs the show; he worked mostly in television from 1953 to 1973 and also made movies in the late 1950s and 1960s, often for Disney. He directed twelve episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Help Wanted."

Fay in a more studious moment
Alex Nicol (1916-2001) stars as Eddie. He was trained in the Actors Studio and spent his career playing character roles on TV and film from 1950 to 1976. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show; he was also seen on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Schoenfeld renamed his character Eddie Slovak and one reviewer on IMDb pointed out that Private Eddie Slovik was the only U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War; he was put to death near the end of World War Two. Perhaps this is why Schoenfeld also changed the war that the men were in together to the Korean War.

Nita Talbot (1930- ) receives second billing for her role as Louise. She chews the scenery and makes the most of her part as a tramp, but her character is strictly one note. Born Anita Sokol in New York City, Talbot was a busy actor, appearing in movies and many TV episodes from 1949 to 1997. Her only other role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents came in "Maria."

Lillian O'Malley
as a neighbor
The episode's best performance comes from Don Keefer (1916-2014) as Pete. Keefer was a founding member of the Actors Studio who got his start on Broadway in the 1940s before moving to the small screen in 1947 and the big screen in 1951. His career on TV and in film lasted till 1997 and included three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Night Gallery. He was the man who was turned into a jack in the box in The Twilight Zone episode, "It's a Good Life."

Carole Mathews (1920-2014) portrays Fay. Born Jean Deifel, she was crowned "Miss Chicago" in 1938 and went on the be in movies from 1935 to 1962 and on TV from 1950 to 1978. This was one of her two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In smaller roles:
  • Walter Woolf King (1899-1984) as Eddie's boss in the mob; he started out on Broadway in 1919, worked in radio, and was seen in many movies and TV shows from 1930 to 1977, including A Night at the Opera (1935), Swiss Miss (1938), and Go West (1940). He was in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Our Cook's a Treasure," from season one, and "Isabel," from season nine.
  • Lillian O'Malley (1892-1976) as one of the neighbors who comes to the door after Louise is killed; she had bit parts in no less than eight episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), as well as five episodes of Thriller and one of The Twilight Zone. She seems to have made a career out of playing maids, nurses, housekeepers, and neighbors.
David Alexander (1907-1973), who wrote the short story, was a newspaperman turned freelance writer whose first novel was Murder in Black and White (1951). He wrote about 16 novels and one short story collection, Hangman's Dozen (1961). His series characters were Bart Hardin, Tommy Twotoes, and Marty Lane. He also wrote a racing column and the FictionMags Index lists a couple of dozen short stories under his byline. Bill Pronzini wrote that he was better at short stories than novels, but "The Percentage" does not seem to be a good example of that skill. Only two of his stories and one of his novels have been adapted for the screen.

The story appeared in the April 1957 issue of Manhunt and has not been reprinted as far as I can tell, but the TV show, which first aired on CBS on Sunday, January 5, 1958, is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps review of this episode here to see that I was not the only one puzzled by the conclusion to this episode.

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story! A fun postscript: this issue of Manhunt was the subject of an obscenity trial, and the court, writing in 1960, commented that: "The six stories . . . do not have even the slightest redeeming social significance or importance. Nor do they have any claim whatever to literary merit."

Alexander, David. “The Percentage.” Manhunt, Apr. 1957.
“David Alexander.” Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.
The FictionMags Index,
“Flying Eagle Publications, Inc. v. United States of America.” 273 F.2d 799, 21 Jan. 1960,
Galactic Central. Galactic Central,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
“The Percentage.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 14, CBS, 5 Jan. 1958.
Pronzini, Bill. A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review: DAVID ALEXANDER – Hangman's Dozen.,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Oct. 2018,

In two weeks: Listen, Listen . . . . . ! starring Edgar Stehli!

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