Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-Joel Murcott Part One: Number Twenty-Two [2.21]

by Jack Seabrook

Joel Murcott (1915-1978) was born in Brooklyn and wrote nine episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The FictionMags Index shows one short story by Murcott, published in Dime Detective in 1945, and he also wrote a column titled "Mike Fright" for Movie Mystery Magazine in 1946. He had joined the publicity staff of radio's Blue Network in 1945 but was fired after a few months; he claimed it was because he was a union organizer, while the network claimed that his hiring was only temporary.

Joel Murcott and his wife,
actress Diane Foster, in 1954

Murcott then became a freelance script-writer and was the radio editor for The Hollywood Reporter. His credits for radio scripts stretch from 1947 to 1958, but by 1954 or 1955 he was also writing scripts for TV. He was an associate producer, story supervisor, and scriptwriter for the TV series, Sheena of the Jungle (1955-1956), and his credits as a TV writer last until 1975. He also wrote the scripts for one feature film and one short film in 1956.

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The first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to air with a script by Joel Murcott was a winner: he adapted "Number Twenty-Two" from Evan Hunter's short story, "First Offense," which had been published in the December 1955 issue of Manhunt and which was collected in Best Detective Stories of the Year, 1956, and Hunter's own short story collection, The Jungle Kids (1956).

Stevie may only be 17 years old, but he has a bad attitude and considers himself a tough guy. After being arrested, he looks down on James Skinner, an older man with whom he shares the back of the police van. Stevie spends the night in jail and, the next morning, he joins the lineup of people being paraded before a room of detectives for questioning. Skinner advises him to keep his mouth shut and stay out of trouble, but Stevie watches with amusement as one criminal after another is brought out for interrogation. He is surprised to learn that Skinner once survived a murder conviction and a death sentence.

When Stevie is questioned, he tries to banter with the chief detective but ends up admitting to having robbed a candy store and stabbing its elderly proprietor. Shocked to learn that the man died and that he will be charged with murder, Stevie is taken to a cell.

"First Offense" was
first published here

"First Offense" succeeds in recreating the experience of being arrested and hauled before detectives for questioning. Stevie is young and arrogant, and his immature view of the other criminals who are being questioned is contrasted with the reader's understanding of their unsuccessful attempts at verbal fencing with the detective. One suspects that Stevie ignores Skinner's advice at his peril, yet the unexpected development at the story's conclusion demonstrates that the young man was doomed from the start by the consequences of his own actions.

Robert Stevens directed the TV adaptation of "First Offense," which was retitled "Number Twenty-Two" after Stevie's place in the lineup. The show begins with a scene that precedes the beginning of the short story--police sirens and whistles are heard as Steve runs frantically down an alley until he is caught by police, who pull a gun from his jacket pocket. Steve appears to have been crying but smiles at the policemen. The next scene is set at the police station, where the detective who arrested Steve points out that the gun is a toy. Smirking all the while, Steve sprays one officer with water from a water fountain and is walked past a series of other men in jail cells; none of them pays him any notice. The camera takes Steve's point of view in this shot, tracking along the row of cells, the men's boredom and despair in sharp contrast with Steve's elation.

Russell Collins as Skinner
Steve is placed in a cell with Skinner, who is asleep on a bunk bed, snoring loudly. There is another shot from Steve's point of view, as he observes the decrepit cell. He awakens Skinner and insults him, but Skinner suddenly grabs Steve, knocking him to the ground and threatening to break his arm. As the two men converse, Steve admits that he hopes to make the papers so that the other men at the pool hall can read about his arrest, but he admits that the people there "'never cared for me much.'" He recalls an incident from childhood when he cried because someone else had a nosebleed--he has become hardened since then, as shown by this effort to treat his arrest as if it were a joke.

Next morning, he and Skinner eat breakfast from trays in the cell and discuss the lineup; Skinner assumes a fatherly role and gives unwanted advice. At the lineup, Steve is assigned number twenty-two, and despite all of his bravado he is just another number. Skinner is questioned first, then Steve is questioned and says he's 20 years old, three years older than the character in the short story (Rip Torn, the actor playing Steve, was 25 when the show was filmed). As the men exit the lineup, the camera focuses on their feet, shuffling out of the room; they are not individuals, they are a group of numbered inmates.

Rip Torn as Steve
Steve and Skinner are separated from the rest of the group and placed in a room with other men--Steve is happy that he has been picked out as "'special.'" The men are brought back to the lineup. A crook named Assisi is questioned and answers sarcastically, to Steve's delight, but the man is forced to admit that his discharge from the Navy was "'dishonorable.'" Skinner is questioned next and it's unclear if he's a drunk who really does not remember what happened or if he is putting on a very good act. His behavior in the cell and in the waiting room with Steve was much different and his mind seemed sharper, which suggests that his performance in the lineup is intended to try to avoid further trouble. At the climax of his interrogation, when his prior murder charge is brought up, the camera focuses on his hands as they hold his hat in front of him. When the murder charge is mentioned, his hands suddenly grip the hat tightly and then loosen and drop it to the floor. In the story, he was sentenced to death; here, he was sentenced to life in prison and then freed on appeal in a case of mistaken identity. When Skinner walks back to the lineup, Steve picks up the hat and hands it to the older man, demonstrating a newfound respect for the unexpectedly hardened criminal.

Ray Teal as the chief of detectives
Finally, Steve is questioned at length, and the chief of detectives for the first time gets up from his desk and approaches the platform where Steve stands. Steve enjoys performing, like he's on stage, and admits that he used a toy gun for the robbery (not a switchblade, as in the short story). Instead of stabbing the candy store owner, he hit him over the head with the toy gun. Steve begins to sweat as the detective presses him about the assault. When the detective reveals that the man died of a fractured skull, realization dawns on Steve. He approaches the edge of the platform for the first time and it is revealed that there is a translucent screen separating the prisoners from the detectives. Steve presses his nose against it (like a kid in a candy store) and he is now firmly on the other side of the law, apart from those who uphold it and destined to follow the path that Skinner warned him about.

James Nolan as Officer Bourne

Joel Murcott's outstanding adaptation of "First Offense" adds the opening scene where Steve flees from the cops and is arrested. Instead of meeting and speaking with Skinner in a police van, the two men share a cell overnight. The lineup sequence is divided into two parts: a short series of questions followed by a longer interrogation. Murcott removes the questioning of the man and woman that is found in the story and instead focuses on Skinner and Steve, with only one other prisoner being questioned in detail. Skinner's prior sentence is changed from execution to life in prison and Steve's toy gun replaces the switchblade, resulting in a fractured skull instead of multiple stab wounds.

The show features excellent performances by all concerned: Rip Torn display a palpable change in attitude when Steve realizes what he has done, while Russell Collins, as Skinner, gives a fine, subtle performance as a criminal who pretends to be a harmless drunk but who is well aware of the pitfalls of the criminal justice system. Ray Teal is solid as the chief of detectives, strong yet sensitive without giving in to any of the prisoners' attempts to avoid responsibility for their actions. Murcott's script deepens the issues in the short story while making it fit the half-hour television format, and the direction by Robert Stevens is superb, with a judicious use of closeups to highlight important moments in the story and the powerful and unexpected revelation of the screen at the end that has all along divided prisoners from police. In all, "Number Twenty-Two" is an excellent adaptation of a great short story.

Paul Picerni as Assisi

The show is directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989), whose skills expanded during the 1950s from the static camera of his work on Suspense, which depended on tight closeups due to small TV screens and poor reception, to his work on the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where he began to depend on trick shots that placed inanimate objects close to the camera to use forced perspective to emphasize their importance, to his later work on the series, in episodes like "I'll Take Care of You" that demonstrate a keen ability to tell the story in a dynamic, propulsive way while still using numerous closeups. Stevens worked in television from 1948 to 1987 and directed 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He won an Emmy for "The Glass Eye." He also directed 105 episodes of Suspense in the early 1950s.

Receiving top billing as Skinner is Russell Collins (1897-1865), a wonderful actor whose stage career began in the 1920s. He followed this with film roles starting in the 1930s and with TV roles starting in the early 1950s. Most of what we see of him today is from later in his career, such as his role on "Kick the Can" on The Twilight Zone and his ten appearances on the Hitchcock show, including Fredric Brown's "The Night the World Ended."

Rip Torn (1931-2019) was near the start of his long career when he played Steve in "Number Twenty-Two." Born in Texas as Elmore Torn Jr., he began appearing on screen in 1956 and was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as on Thriller. For decades, he played character roles on TV and on film, while also appearing on stage. He became well-known for his Emmy-winning role on The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998) on TV and he was married to actress Geraldine Page from 1963 until she died in 1987.

Playing the chief of detectives is Ray Teal (1902-1976); he played many authority figures in a long screen career that stretched from 1937 to 1974 and he was busy as a character actor in the 1930s and 1940s. He appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents eight times, including a role in "Revenge," the first episode; he was also seen on The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

In smaller roles:
  • James Nolan (1915-1985) as Officer Bourne, who arrests Steve; he was on film from 1937 to 1982 and on TV from 1950 to 1982. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show but he did appear on The Twilight Zone.
  • Paul Picerni (1922-2011) as Assisi, who was dishonorably discharged from the Navy; in real life, he was a war hero in the Air Force in WWII. He appeared on film from 1946 to 2007 and on TV from 1951 to 2000. He was seen in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Cream of the Jest," but his most famous role was as Lee Hobson on The Untouchables (1959-1963). A website is devoted to him here and his autobiography, Steps to Stardom, My Story, was published in 2007.
"Number Twenty-Two" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here.


Ellett, Ryan. Radio Drama and Comedy WRITERS, 1928-1962. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017. 


Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred HITCHCOCK Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001. 

Hunter, Evan. "First Offense." The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, edited by Tony Hillerman, Houghton Mifflin, 2000, pp. 426–442. 


"Number Twenty-Two." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 21, CBS, 17 Feb. 1957. 

Old Time Radio Downloads, 

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central, 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Feb. 2021,

In two weeks: "Last Request," starring Harry Guardino and Cara Williams!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Mink" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Cheap is Cheap" here!


Jon said...

Russell Johnson as Skinner? That's how you ID him under his picture, but you ID him correctly otherwise.

I just saw this recently on MeTV, and I didn't understand whether the episode was about the unique form of group questioning or something else, so thanks for helping to explain it.

Ray Teal a few years later played the Virginia City sheriff Roy Coffee on BONANZA for many years.

Jack Seabrook said...

Oops! Thanks. Russell Johnson was busy trying to stop John Wilkes Booth.

Mike Doran said...


Just before his death, Evan Hunter/'Ed McBain' collected his earliest short stories in a book called Learning To Kill, released in 2006.
The stories are accompanied by Hunter's account of how he got into crime writing in the first place; the stories about a literary agent named Scott Meredith and a magazine called Manhunt are worth the price of admission.
The very first story in the set is "First Offense", which was what "Number Twenty-two" was called when it first appeared in Manhunt (as noted above).
All told, there are twenty-five pulp-era stories here, plus remembrances of how Salvatore Lombino came to be Evan Hunter (and ultimately Ed McBain).
(No mention of Joel Murcott, though ...)
Anyway, it's a good book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks! I'll add that to my "want to read" list.