Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-Bill S. Ballinger Part Four: Escape to Sonoita [5.37]

by Jack Seabrook

Charlie and Bill are driving a tanker truck through the desert in southern Arizona when the radiator overheats and they have to stop, refill it with water, and wait for the engine to cool. Bill, the younger of the two, is frustrated and unhappy with the heat and the old truck; Charlie remarks that he has been "'haulin' loads to people out here since I was thirteen.'" Bill asks Charlie when he'll paint over the old "Maxwell Oil" logo and Charlie sees a cloud of dust that signals a car coming fast along the narrow track. The car tries to swerve around the stopped tanker truck and skids off the road, landing on a rock with a blown tires.

Bill opens the car door and finds a young girl in the back seat with tape over her mouth and more tape binding her wrists and ankles. She has been kidnapped by Tony and Larry, and Tony points a gun at Charlie and Bill, demanding to know how far they are from the Mexican border. Tony grazes a bullet off Bill's bicep and orders him to take the girl out of the car; Bill removes the tape from her mouth and gives her water from his water bag. Charlie, angry at the crooks for the way they have treated the girl, tells them where they are and goads Tony into leaving him, Bill, and the girl to die of thirst in the desert, rather than shooting them. Tony and Larry take the tanker truck and drive off.

"Escape to Sonoita"
was first published here
Charlie, Bill, and the girl sit in the shade of the car until the sun goes down, slaking their thirst by drinking water from the car's radiator and planning to walk to the highway in the cooler darkness. The next afternoon, a police car pulls up behind the stranded tanker truck and Charlie emerges with a policeman. They find Larry, shot to death and left alone in the cab. Charlie tells the policeman that Bill changed his mind on the walk to the highway and has decided to stay in business with Charlie. They deduce that Tony shot Larry and set off on foot with the nearly empty water bag when the old truck's radiator overheated and the engine seized up.

The policeman fills a water bag from a valve on the back of the tanker and remarks that Tony and Larry never knew that the truck was carrying 6000 gallons of water when they both died fighting over the small amount of water left in the bag. Charlie comments that he plans to have the truck repainted with a new logo: "'Davis and Son, Water Contractors.'"

"Escape to Sonoita," by James A. Howard, was first published in October 1959 issue of the British magazine Suspense. Clever and well-written, the story provides fair clues and benefits from a clear sense of place. The end holds dual surprises: first, that the tanker truck held a huge amount of water that would have saved the crooks from dying of thirst, and second, that Charlie and Bill, the bickering duo, are father and son.

Burt Reynolds as Bill
Almost all of the locations mentioned in the tale are real places that are easy to locate on a map. Charlie and Bill mention that they set out from Aguila, which is in south-west Arizona, not far from the Nevada border, and they drove along the highway before leaving the main road to drive into the desert on an unpaved track. The action in the story occurs at a spot called Hell's Basin, which appears to be fictional; the nearest town is said to be Ak Chin, an Indian village, and Tony and Larry's goal is to escape to Sonoita, where there is a border crossing into Mexico.

An editor's note in The Saint Mystery Magazine (September 1964), where the story was reprinted, mentions that the author, James A Howard (1922-2000), was a clinical psychologist practicing in Minnesota who had lived in the Southwest and presumably had some knowledge of the story's location. This is his only short story listed in the FictionMags Index but, in addition to psychology books, he wrote ten crime novels, eight of which were published between 1954 and 1961 and two of which appeared later, in 1981.

Murray Hamilton as Marsh
The story was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, June 26, 1960. The teleplay is credited to James A. Howard and Bill Ballinger, which suggests that Howard turned in a teleplay that required enough revisions to bring in Ballinger to clean it up. The televised version of the story follows the printed version for the most part but contains one major change that allows the story to examine the crooks' personalities in an interesting way.

The truck's logo in the TV show is "Max Bell Oil Co.," not much different from the story's "Maxwell Oil." As usual, narrative passages in the story become dialogue in the TV show; Charlie is renamed Andy, while Tony and Larry are rechristened Marsh and Lemon. Marsh wears a dark suit and tie and is sadistic and smart, while Lemon, dressed more casually in a sports shirt and beret, is mentally slow, with three long scratches on his cheek. Those scratches came from Stephanie Thomas, a beautiful woman who replaces the kidnapped child of the story.

Venetia Stevenson as Stephanie
Did the producers (or the network censors) think it would be too harsh to show a kidnapped child in danger? Perhaps so, but whatever the reason, the teleplay uses this change to create sexual tension among the characters. Lemon displays a sexual interest in the woman and grabs her by the hair in a suggestive way to force her to take a drink of water from a suddenly phallic water bag. Bill jumps Lemon at this point and is hit in the back of the head with Marsh's gun, not shot in the bicep, as he is in the story. The odd sexual undercurrents continue: Marsh comments that Lemon had his chance with the woman earlier but couldn't make it, suggesting impotence, and Marsh then points his gun at Bill and urges him to kiss Stephanie. He changes his mind and tells Lemon to kiss her, then stops him; Marsh seems to get a thrill from the idea of Bill and Stephanie kissing.

James Bell as Andy
Marsh's sadism is played up and becomes part of Andy's calculus in goading the criminal not to shoot him and Bill; the teleplay also adds a lack of ammunition to the equation, since Marsh has only one bullet left in his gun and Lemon has two. The combination of the bullet shortage and the sadistic streak make the decision by Marsh not to shoot Andy and Bill more believable than it is in the story. It is Andy's knowledge and experience in the desert that saves the trio; as often happens, country wisdom trumps city smarts, with Marsh overestimating his own intelligence and allowing himself to be tricked by Andy.

The final scenes of the show are also slightly different than those in the short story. Bill insists on making the long walk through the desert to seek help but Andy slips away when Bill is not looking, leaving Bill to take care of Stephanie, the two young, attractive characters left together alone in the desert as darkness falls. Right after Andy disappears, Bill calls him "Dad" and we learn that the duo are father and son; the father has made a sacrifice for his child and we understand their relationship better. This secret was not disclosed until the very last sentence of the short story.

Harry Dean Stanton as Lemon
The other alteration comes when Andy and Bill (in the story, it's Charlie alone) come back the next day with two policemen (one in the story). The foursome find Lemon dead, lying in the desert, with a bullet through his head. They then drive to where they find the tanker truck, and there is a moment of suspense as they approach, thinking Marsh is inside with a gun. Instead, the cab is empty. Andy tries to crank the engine but it has seized; Bill tells him that "'All we need's a new engine, Dad, and we'll be back in business.'" In the story, Charlie tells the policeman that Bill changed his mind about staying in business with his father; in the TV show, the dialogue between father and son conveys the change of heart more directly.

Not far off, the policemen find Marsh dead, and there is a graphic shot of him lying in the desert, his eyes wide open. As in the story, the show ends with Andy commenting about repainting the truck, but this time the fact that it will read "Andy Davis and Son, Water Contractors" does not carry the surprise that it does on the printed page.

Robert Karnes as a policeman
Stuart Rosenberg (1927-2007) directs "Escape to Sonoita" skillfully, drawing fine performances out of all the actors and keeping the story moving along at a rapid clip. Rosenberg got his start directing TV shows in 1957 and worked in both TV and film until the late 1960s, when he became exclusively a film director. He directed five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the most recent of which was "Road Hog," also from a teleplay by Bill Ballinger.

Top billing goes to young Burt Reynolds (1936-2018), who had tried acting after a college football career was sidelined due to injuries. Reynolds began acting on TV in 1958 and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. After his first film in 1961, Reynolds starred in a couple of TV series--Hawk (1966) and Dan August (1970-71)--before making a splash in the film Deliverance (1972) and becoming a major movie star. He was the world's number one box office star for five years in a row, from 1978 to 1982, and continued to make films and TV shows until his death.

Murray Hamilton (1923-1986) plays Marsh, the smarter of the two kidnappers. other than some uncredited film roles in 1944, his film and TV career spanned the years from 1951 to 1986. He appeared in just this one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and he was in an episode of The Twilight Zone and one of Night Gallery as well. Hamilton's two most famous parts were as Mr. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) and as the mayor in Jaws (1975).

George Dockstader as Roy
The beautiful Stephanie Thomas is played by Venetia Stevenson (1938- ), the daughter of film director Robert Stevenson. Born in London, she had a brief career on screen from 1954 to 1961 and this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show. From 1962 to 1970, she was married to Don Everly, one of the singing Everly Brothers.

James Bell (1891-1973) gives a sensitive performance as Andy, Bill's father. He was on stage from 1920 and his screen career spanned the years from 1932 to 1963. He was in I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, both in 1943, but this was his only episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Playing the mentally-challenged but lustful crook, Lemon, is Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017), credited here as Dean Stanton. After serving in the Navy during WWII, he started acting on TV in 1954 and on film in 1956, with his first big screen role being an uncredited part in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956). Stanton went on to become a popular and respected character actor in films such as Cool Hand Luke (1967), Wise Blood (1979), Alien (1979), Paris, Texas (1984), and Wild at Heart (1990). He was still making films at the time of his death.

The two police at the end of the episode are played by:
  • Robert Karnes (1917-1979) as the lead cop; he is called Ted in the short story but not referred to by name in the TV show; Karnes was on screen from 1946 to 1980 and appeared in eight episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "A Little Sleep."
  • George Dockstader (1914-1987) as Roy, the other cop; he was on screen from 1947 to 1974, often in uncredited roles. He was on the Hitchcock show three times, including "The Cadaver," and had an uncredited role in Psycho (1960).
"Escape to Sonoita" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the short story!

"Escape to Sonoita." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 37, CBS, 26 June 1960.
The FictionMags Index,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Howard, James A. "Escape to Sonoita." The Saint Mystery Magazine, Sept. 1964, pp. 116–126.
Pierce, J. Kingston. "PaperBack: 'Die on Easy Street.'" The Rap Sheet, 11 Nov. 2018,
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,
Venetia Stevenson - The Private Life and Times of Venetia Stevenson. Venetia Stevenson Pictures.,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Oct. 2019,

In two weeks: Our look at Bill S. Ballinger's scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents wraps up with a discussion of "Deathmate," starring Lee Philips and Gia Scala!


john kenrick said...

Good episode, Jack. It's not one of my favorites from Hitchcock Presents, but I always find it watchable. Burt Reynolds and James Bell have a good rapport. The first time I saw it I was either inattentive or sleepy, as I didn't catch, early on, that these two were father and son, and I don't think it was made fully clear till near the show's ending, although the relationship feels that way as presented: old pro and young assistant, so it works. Hamilton and Stanton were well cast in their parts, with, IMHO, Hamilton's genteel cruelty more unsettling than Stanton's more primitive kind, as he was the "brain guy". I like the upbeat ending, unusual for a Hitch show. Venetia Stevenson was eye candy and she played her part well enough. Thanks, for the review, btw.

Jack Seabrook said...

I've always liked Hamilton, especially his role on The Twilight Zone. The fact that the characters were father and son is the twist ending of the story but it's moved up earlier for the TV show. Thanks for your comment!

Grant said...

In spite of things like Jaws and The Graduate, Murray Hamilton always makes me think of the comedy No Time For Sergeants (the inspiration for Gomer Pyle). In that story he gets to play a COMICAL devious character making trouble for the good guys, as opposed to a serious one in Jaws and this story and others, and he's pretty believable.

Jack Seabrook said...

Never seen that one. I've grown to like certain aspects of The Andy Griffith Show over time, but Gomer Pyle isn't one of them. I love Ernest T. Bass, while my wife can't stand him.

Anonymous said...

Very Good Review Of An Excellent Episode! I Loved The Ending!!!