Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Harold Swanton Part Seven: Bang! You're Dead [7.2]

by Jack Seabrook

When watching the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Bang! You're Dead," it is important to keep in mind three things that were going on at the time it was broadcast in October 1961. The first is the civil rights movement, which had been growing in the U.S. since the end of World War Two. By the spring of 1961, Freedom Riders were touring the southern states and bringing national attention to segregation and poor living conditions among African Americans. The second is the series of wars for independence in Africa that were fought by native Africans to overthrow the colonial powers that had ruled their countries; these wars were going on throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s and resulted in numerous African countries gaining their independence around 1960.

Steve Dunne as Uncle Rick
The third topic to keep in mind is the popularity of the Western genre on television in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1959 alone, there were no less than 26 Western TV series airing in prime time. Little boys across the country dressed up in cowboy hats and boots, shooting toy guns at each other and pretending to reenact the same colonial oppression of Native Americans that had been the subject of so much rebellion in Africa.

All of these themes come together in Harold Swanton's script for "Bang! You're Dead," directed by Alfred Hitchcock. According to the title card, the show is based on a story by Margery Vosper (1912-1981), an English woman who ran a talent agency for many years. She has no short stories to her credit anywhere that I have been able to find, though she is credited with writing a short play called Tea for Three (1939) that adapts an Agatha Christie story. There was a radio play titled "Bang! Bang! You're Dead" that was broadcast on June 5, 1950, as part of the series, Hollywood Star Playhouse. One online source credits Vosper as that episode's writer, but the show is lost and no summary has been found, so it is uncertain as to whether it was an earlier version of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode. The radio series presented original suspense plays, so it is possible that Vosper wrote the play for radio in 1950 and Swanton adapted it for television a decade later.

Biff Elliot as Fred
The television version of "Bang! You're Dead" has been written about on occasion because it was directed by Hitchcock, but the discussions have focused on the director's creation of suspense and on similarities of the plot of this episode to an incident in Hitchcock's 1936 British film, Sabotage. In his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock recalls a sequence in that film where a boy is carrying a package that contains a time bomb. The boy is delayed on his journey and the bomb explodes, killing him. Hitchcock tells Truffaut, "A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience." Hitchcock famously commented that, in retrospect, he should have changed the events so the child's death did not occur onscreen.

Hitchcock here demonstrates the importance of the screenwriter in adapting a source and altering it for film or television. In 1936, he was a young director near the beginning of his career, adapting a novel by Joseph Conrad, one of the most admired writers in the English language. It would have been audacious for Hitchcock to change a key event in the book simply because he thought it would not sit well with the viewing audience. By 1961, when he filmed "Bang! You're Dead," and by 1962, when he spoke with Truffaut, Hitchcock was an old master, at (or just past) his prime as a filmmaker, for whom changing any source story for the screen was not a concern. The point of his comment in the context of Sabotage and "Bang! You're Dead" is that the script matters, and Hitchcock, who was a master of audience manipulation, understood that.

Billy Mumy as Jackie
The focus on suspense in the TV show misses one of its main themes. Of course, gun safety is highlighted in Hitchcock's closing comments, but colonialism, racial injustice, and the influence of television on children are all significant aspects of the episode that need to be examined to understand what Swanton was doing and how a TV audience in the fall of 1961 would have reacted to the show.

"Bang! You're Dead" was first broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, October 17, 1961. The show opens with a close up of a gun being loaded by a little boy named Stevie, who proceeds to have a pretend shooting war with another boy hiding behind a tree. The two boys are on the front lawn of a suburban American home and there is a third boy present named Jackie Chester. A few years younger than the others, Jackie wears a cowboy hat and wants to join them in battle, but Stevie tells him that "'This is our war''" and runs off, leaving Jackie alone with his pretend revolver.

Rick scares Jackie with the tribal mask
A car pulls into the driveway and Jackie runs to meet his father, who has brought home his Uncle Rick. Rick scares Jackie with an African tribal mask and Jackie's father, Fred, tells Jackie that his uncle "'was in Africa yesterday.'" Jackie's mother, Amy, greets her brother Rick and, when they enter the house, Rick asks what's going on, since a party is scheduled but the Black maid has not arrived. Fred replies, "'You think you're the only one that had trouble with the natives?'" Rick shows Amy the mask and calls it "'what the well-dressed witch doctor is wearing.'" When Amy asks if he's home for good, he responds that "'it's a little tough to do business in a country that's blowing sky high.'" Even more callous is Rick's comment about the mask that it is "all that was left--just one incident. You might even say that it had its blood bath.'" Rick says that the African country he was in was "'no place for an innocent automobile salesman, I'll tell you that. Going to sleep every night with a gun under your pillow? It leads to a certain amount of insomnia.'" Rick sighs happily and welcomes the peace he finds in suburban America.

Lucy Prentiss as Amy
Immediately, Amy looks around with annoyance and asks, "'Where is that Cleo? Nobody's even started the canapes!'" Amy is so unmoved by Rick's tales of the carnage in Africa that all she can think of is why her Black maid is late and how it will affect her role as a hostess. The irony is evident as the script demonstrates the different ways Black people are treated around the world: in Africa, they are colonialized and killed, while in America they are disparaged as servants. Watching and listening to all of this is little Jackie, who responds by pulling out his cap pistol and pretending to shoot Uncle Rick. The little boy has learned his lesson well from his elders and treats violence as a game.

Jackie leads Uncle Rick upstairs to show him his room, leaving Fred and Amy alone in the living room. She telephones to find out why Cleo is late, while Fred looks at the African tribal mask once again and remarks that "'I must say I don't care for it next to the olives.'" To him, it is merely a "'conversation piece.'" Up in Uncle Rick's bedroom, he tells Jackie that he "'never did meet Tarzan,'" perpetuating a cultural depiction of Africa that he thinks the little boy will understand. Jackie again points his gun at Rick, telling him to "'fork over,'" at which point Rick gives the boy a coin. He adds that he has a surprise for Jackie that will have to wait until after the party that will soon begin downstairs.

Fred comes in to join them and suggests that Jackie unpack Rick's bag while the two men head downstairs. As he unpacks his uncle's suitcase, Jackie finds Rick's revolver, which resembles his own cap pistol. He takes it out of its holster and practices shooting with it, pointing the barrel right at the viewer. Taking his own pistol out of the holster at his waist, Jackie compares the two guns, sees that they look very much alike, and puts Rick's gun in his own holster before putting his cap pistol in the holster in his uncle's suitcase. Even worse, he finds a box of bullets and empties them onto the bed. Jackie knows all about these items because he watched Stevie take fake bullets out of a similar box in the show's first scene to load his toy gun. He places all but one of the bullets in his pocket and loads the final one in his new gun. Five-year-old Jackie Chester is now in possession of a loaded gun.

Hitchcock uses an insert shot here to show the viewer the bullet in the revolver's chamber as Jackie spins it, the way he has seen cowboys do it on TV. The extreme close up of the gun allows us to see where the bullet is and to know how soon it will be in a position to be deployed. When discussing this episode, Hitchcock later noted the importance of what he called the "'big inserts of the gun.'" Jackie leaves the bedroom and walks downstairs, where Uncle Rick is sitting in an easy chair, holding the African tribal mask. "'I guess it's as good a way as any to work up the people,'" he says, looking at the object, "'I tell you, if you could just see it, or hear it, you'd wish you were six years old again, shooting honest Injuns.'" Jackie walks up behind Rick as he makes this comment, a comment which ties together the violence occurring in Africa with the pastime of little boys who imitate their ancestors' murder of Native Americans. The comparison between the history of the American West and the then-current events in Africa is shocking and demonstrates how, to people like Rick, Fred, and Amy, it is all something to be discussed lightly, a topic suitable for the pretend world of little boys.

Meanwhile, Amy is on the telephone, annoyed that the Black maid is late in arriving to set up for the party. Jackie approaches her with the gun. The viewer understands that there is one bullet in the gun, and Jackie spins the cylinder as his mother tells him, "'Don't bother me, honey.'" Another insert of an extreme close up of the gun shows Jackie's finger pulling the trigger and we wait to see if the one in six chance that he will shoot his own mother point blank will come true. Fortunately, the hammer lands on an empty chamber and Amy is spared. Jackie paces around the living room, the camera at his level, so the viewer sees the adults only from the waist down. As they discuss Cleo's delayed arrival, Fred tells Jackie to go outside and play, suggesting that he see if he "'can bring down a real live maid.'" Though it is said in jest, Fred has just suggested that Jackie head outside to shoot a Black woman, foreshadowing the near-miss at the episode's conclusion.

Karl Lukas as the mailman
The camera then heads outside to follow Jackie as he walks through the neighborhood. The first person he meets is a mailman, and Jackie points the gun at him. The mailman says "'I'm not a rebel soldier,'" referring to yet another violent episode in American history. The mailman jokes with Jackie and says he has to "'crank up the stage and get going before the Injuns get me,'" adding another reference to the Old West that will be understood by the little boy who watches TV westerns. Back at home, Uncle Rick unpacks his suitcase and discovers that his gun is gone and has been replaced by Jackie's toy pistol. Into the room walks Fred, who continues to make light of the violence in Africa by wearing on his head the surprise present Rick has bought for Jackie, a native headdress he referred to in an earlier scene as "'one of these Masai feather hats.'"

Jackie arrives at the supermarket and mounts a coin-operated toy horse outside, pretending to ride it. He takes a coin out of his pocket to start the horse's motor and a bullet falls out; in another insert, we see him put a second bullet in the gun. Now, instead of a one in six chance of disaster, the chance is one in three. At home, his mother is on the telephone, trying to track down her son. Fred is outside, interrogating Stevie, when Rick pulls up and tells Fred and Amy that the mailman said Jackie was "'heading for the supermarket.'" The three adults take off in pursuit of the boy, who is still riding the horse. A close up shows the position of the two bullets in the cylinder as Jackie again pulls the trigger repeatedly.

Olan Soule as the over-indulgent father
Jackie appears about the shoot a real bullet just as a bratty little girl runs up, wanting to ride the horse. Her overly indulgent father asks Jackie to let his daughter go for a ride, telling him "'You know how women are, and this one is murder!'" The father lifts Jackie off of the horse and puts his daughter in the saddle; Jackie calls him a "'horse thief'" and begins to pull the trigger, but the man is spared a bullet in the gut when Jackie spins the chamber right before firing the gun. Jackie marches in to the store, where three children loiter by the magazine rack, reading comic books. One of the little boys, who wears a cowboy hat, loads pretend bullets into his pretend gun, demonstrating to the viewer that Jackie's actions are no different than those of other little boys everywhere. Jackie is too young to be able to distinguish reality from fantasy.

Imitating what he has just seen, Jackie inserts a third bullet from his pocket into the chamber of the revolver. A friendly grocery clerk, unaware of the danger, tells Jackie to "'Keep out of mischief'" and adds that he'll "'see you on television,'" reinforcing Jackie's inability to distinguish the real danger he poses to the actions he sees on the small screen at home. At the front of the store, Amy finally arrives but has to wait her turn while the market clerk deals with a Girl Scout troop leader who is looking for cardboard cartons to make a puppet theater. Once again, the fantasy world of performance encroaches on the real world. Amy is sent to see the store manager, who also makes her wait while he deals with another customer. Just as she is asking him to make an announcement over the P.A. system, he is interrupted by a phone call, and she leaves the office to search the store herself.

John Zaremba as
the store manager
Swanton's script brilliantly ratchets up the suspense with these alternating scenes, as we see Jackie edge ever closer to shooting someone while his family members search for him. Amy stands at the end of an aisle, but her view of Jackie is blocked by a full shopping cart, and then she is distracted by the other little boy who had been at the magazine rack. She heads off down an aisle and the viewer sees Jackie sitting on a box at the end of an aisle. In an insert, he is shown loading three more bullets into his gun, which is now full. The viewer understands that the next time he pulls the trigger, a shot will be discharged.

A pretty young woman approaches the little boy and avoids being shot by popping a couple of "Jiffy Snacks" into his mouth. Amy returns to the manager's office and he makes an announcement, but at this point Jackie has once again found the bratty little girl and her father. Just as the announcement is made, the man loudly grinds coffee beans in a machine, obscuring the message. Jackie is about to shoot the little girl when the other boy with a gun runs up, and the two little boys run off down the aisle together. As Amy grows more frantic, Jackie is spotted out in the parking lot, and she runs outside to rejoin Fred and Rick, who have also been searching for the boy. Amy nearly faints when she hears what sounds like a gunshot, but it turns out to be a backfire from a jalopy.

Marta Kristen as the Jiffy Snack girl
The scene dissolves to a shot of Jackie, walking back home without a care in the world. The stage is set for the final confrontation, one that has been foreshadowed by the show's early scenes. Jackie does not know the difference between fiction and reality, he has a loaded gun, and he has heard adults joking about the killings of Black people in Africa. The Black maid was expected to arrive to set up for the white homeowners' party. What could go wrong?

Juanita Moore as Cleo
Jackie enters the house to find Cleo there, alone, setting up for the party. He sits down in an easy chair and briefly puts the African tribal mask over his face, trying out another adult identity. He points the gun at her and tells her that it was a present from Uncle Rick. "'Did he tell you all about Africa?" she asks, and he replies that "'Tarzan doesn't live there.'" She plays along jokingly, but Jackie laments that "'Nobody will play war with me.'" She tells him to put down the gun and he says "'Make me,'" rudely responding to an adult who may not be seen as fully an adult due to the color of her skin. Cleo chases Jackie, who hides behind a sofa and points the gun at her.

Fred throws the mask
Outside the house, Fred, Rick, and Amy are seen pulling up in the car. They decide to call the police at last. Inside, Cleo is busy and tells Jackie to "'go ahead and shoot me.'" "'I'll shoot you, Cleo, I'll shoot you,'" says Jackie, and the camera suddenly takes a new position, looking at the maid from Jackie's point of view, the gun looming large in the foreground. In an insert, Jackie's finger starts to pull the trigger, and the camera cuts to show his father, having grabbed the tribal mask from the chair, throwing it at Jackie's hand. The act causes the gun to jerk slightly, and the bullet misses Cleo by inches, instead shattering a mirror that hangs on the wall. Jackie rushes to his mother's arms as Fred and Rick pick up the gun and the tribal mask, looking at them and then at each other.

A near miss!
The final moments of "Bang! You're Dead" are packed with symbolism. The little boy, raised on Westerns and gunfights, has no concept of what he is doing as he shoots at the Black servant. The father instinctually grabs the mask and uses an African religious object to prevent the murder of a woman descended from Africans. The mirror shatters, preventing it from reflecting the scene of carnage. In essence, Fred has realized the world that has been created in miniature in his living room, and the picture of that world shown in the mirror is too horrible to consider. For the moment, violence has been avoided and the status quo has been maintained. But for how long? In a world of violence, even little boys are not immune.

Though Peter Bogdonovich wrote that this episode was "probably the most suspenseful of all the television films" directed by Hitchcock, it is more interesting to study this show than it is to watch it. Donald Spoto wrote that Hitchcock "took over for an ailing director" but that, by 1961, Alfred Hitchcock Presents "had little interest for Hitchcock; he would return only for one more effort in television (which was beginning to bore him) and this would be a year later" ("I Saw the Whole Thing"). "Bang! You're Dead" has all of the building blocks of suspense, but it lacks a musical score, instead using only pieces of incidental music. The key scene at the end is played in real time and thus is hard to make out--one must freeze the DVD of the episode and advance frame by frame to realize exactly what is happening. The clear subtext of race relations is something that has been overlooked in criticism of this episode to date, even though it is obvious while watching the show.

Steve Dunne (1918-1977) gets top billing as Uncle Rick. Born Francis Michael Dunne, he acted on radio in the 1940s and was on screen from 1945 to 1973. He was on Batman twice and appeared in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Special Delivery," in which he also encountered a menacing little boy.

Playing Jackie's father Fred is Biff Elliot (1923-2012), who was born Leon Shalek and who served in World War Two. He was on screen from 1950 to 1986 and played Mike Hammer in I, the Jury (1953). He was also on Star Trek and he was seen in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Day of the Bullet." A website is devoted to him here.

Amy, Jackie's mother, is played by Lucy Prentiss, who was born Lucy Propst and who had a brief television career from 1960 to 1962. She appeared in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Juanita Moore (1914-2014) lights up the small screen as Cleo, the maid. She had a six-decade career on screen from 1939 to 2001, and is best remembered for co-starring in Douglas Sirk's remake of Imitation of Life (1959). She was also in three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "Where the Woodbine Twineth."

Only sixteen years old when this episode was filmed from July 25th to 27, 1961, Marta Kristen is instantly recognizable as the Jiffy Snack girl who speaks to Jackie in the supermarket. Born Birgit Rusanen in Norway, she has had a long career on screen that began in 1960. She was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("The Gloating Place") and will always be remembered for her role as a regular cast member of Lost in Space (1965-68).

A seven year old playing a five year old, Billy Mumy (1954- ) is the real star of the show as Jackie. He does not recall the filming process fondly and tells a story of Hitchcock playing cruel trick on him in order to get a close up shot at the end of a long day of filming. On and off screen since 1957, Mumy appeared in three episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "House Guest," as well as three episodes of The Twilight Zone. In fact, the famous Twilight Zone episode, "It's a Good Life," aired just 17 days after "Bang! You're Dead" had aired on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Mumy went on to co-star with Marta Kristen on Lost in Space and is still acting as of this writing. A website devoted to him is here.

In smaller roles:
  • John Zaremba (1908-1986) as the supermarket store manager; he was on screen from 1944 to 1986 and was seen on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Batman. He was in eleven episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Kerry Blue."
  • Karl Lukas (1919-1995) as the mailman; born Karol Louis Lukasiak, he was on screen from 1951 to 1991 and had roles on Batman, Night Gallery, and The Odd Couple. He had begun his career on Broadway in the 1940s and was a semi-regular on The Phil Silvers Show (1955-58). He was in five episodes of the Hitchcock show.
  • Olan Soule as the overly indulgent father of the little girl at the supermarket; he started out on stage and on the radio in the 1920s and went on to a long career on screen and as a voice actor from 1949 to 1991. He was on the Hitchcock show eight times, including "Little White Frock," as well as on The Twilight Zone and Batman. Later in his career, he was the voice of Batman in cartoon series.
"Bang! You're Dead" was remade as one of four segments making up the TV movie pilot for the 1980s' color remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The movie aired on May 5, 1985, and Harold Swanton's script was revised by Christopher Crowe. This time, the protagonist is a tomboy who is told to play with her dolls by one of the boys playing war games, which have replaced the cowboy and Indian games of the earlier version. Her uncle is back from Central America, not Africa, but his remark about not being able to do business in a country blowing sky high is retained.

Bianca Rose as Amanda in the 1985 version
The racial theme of the first version has been eliminated. There is no Black maid and no parallels with colonialism in Africa. The acting and direction are no match for those in the earlier version and the performance by the actress playing the little girl with the gun only serves to underline how good Billy Mumy is in the role. The highlight of the remake comes when an adult Bill Mumy makes a cameo appearance as a clerk in the supermarket. At the climax, instead of shooting at the maid, the little girl shoots at the little boy who won't let her play war games; the sequence is depicted in slow motion, which is more effective than the real-time depiction used by Hitchcock, since in Hitchcock's version the events happen too quickly for the viewer to process.

Unfortunately, the original version of "Bang! You're Dead" is not available on U.S. DVD or online. This may be part of the reason why the main themes of the episode have been mischaracterized in the ensuing decades. In fact, Bill Mumy, in his interview for the Archives of American Television, incorrectly recalls the plot as involving a little boy playing "'cops and robbers'" and says that the child's uncle returned from a holiday.

The remake of "Bang! You're Dead" may be viewed for free online here.

Sources:
"Bang! You're Dead." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 5 May 1985.
"Bang! You're Dead." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 7, episode 2, NBC, 17 Oct. 1961.
Dunning, John. On the Air: the Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press, 1998.
The FictionMags Index, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
"Karloff's THRILLER Coming to DVD!" Classic Horror Film Board, 3 Apr. 2011, www.tapatalk.com/groups/monsterkidclassichorrorforum/karloff-s-thriller-coming-to-dvd-t26595.html.
"Mini Reviews #14." A Sign of the Crimes, signofthecrimes.blogspot.com/2018/02/mini-reviews-14.html.
New York Times, 5 June 1950.
Rudel, Ulrich. "Cinema En Miniature: The Telefilms of Alfred Hitchcock." The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, pp. 97–108.
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius. Collins, 1983.
SPRING 2019 - Clearwaterbooks.co.uk. www.clearwaterbooks.co.uk/images/Clearwater_Books_Catalogue_Spring_2019.pdf.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. Simon and Schuster, 1967.
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Www.digitaldeliftp.com. The Digital Deli Too Golden Age Radio Preservation Home Page, www.digitaldeliftp.com/DigitalDeliToo/dd2home.html.

In two weeks: The Twelve Hour Caper, starring Dick York!

2 comments:

Grant said...

I know it so badly I had no idea all those people were in it, like Juanita Moore. It's especially funny to imagine Billy Mumy aggravating Marta Kristen in something as early as this.

Whenever someone says that people never used to talk seriously about guns, including kids and guns, maybe they're GENERALLY right, but this story is a very big exception.

Jack Seabrook said...

Swanton's teleplay is subversive. On the surface, it's about kids and guns, but not far beneath the surface, it's about so much more.