Thursday, August 31, 2023

Journey Into Strange Tales Issue 94: Atlas/ Marvel Horror (Last Gasp of the Pre-Code!)


The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 79
February 1955 Part II
by Peter Enfantino

Marvel Tales 131
Cover by Carl Burgos

“The Man Who Bought a Dingbat” (a: Bill Everett) ★★★

“Five Fingers” (a: Paul Hodge) ★★1/2

(r: Tomb of Darkness #21)

“The Rookie” (a: Werner Roth) 1/2

“Farewell-Moon” (a: Howie Post) ★★1/2

“While Death Waits” (a: Gene Colan) ★★★1/2

Used car dealer Honest Ernest is anything but honest. He’ll take an old couple for every dollar they have and talk them into buying a worthless piece of junk. Then one day, Ernest has a strange little man visit the car lot; the man needs a used car but only has a hundred bucks to spend. Ernest asks about a trade-in and the man shows him what he’s got. Ernest has never seen anything like it so he immediately gives a thumbs-up to the deal.

Turns out the auto travels to other worlds and the planet Honest Ernest visits is made of solid gold. One trip isn’t enough for the world’s greediest man and so he makes a return visit. Bad idea; Honest Ernest runs out of gas. “The Man Who Bought a Dingbat” is an amusing farce, with some slapstick choreography compliments of the great Bill Everett. This was Everett’s 48th and final pre-code appearance.

Pickpocket Ned Field has a unique way of plying his trade. Ned has a fake hand he keeps tucked in his coat pocket, while his real right hand lifts wallets. The thing looks so real, it even creeps out his conmen buddies. Ned grooms and polishes the hand and, in turn, it takes care of him. Then, one day, a mark catches Ned in the act and busts his fake hand. Ned laughs it off and heads home but, on the subway, the third hand reaches for a policeman’s gun and Ned gets blown away. The hand gets its revenge. The set-up for “Five Fingers” is very unsettling; Ned’s obsession with his third limb is well-written and unnerving. The story seems to be centering on Ned’s grip on reality (which would have been more interesting, I think), but then takes that unexpected turn in the end. 

Young Jed Broome can throw a 100-mile an hour fastball but country life keeps him down on the farm. Jed finally achieves his dream of trying out in front of scouts but, at the last second, decides to keep his skills to himself. It’s inexplicable that “The Rookie” landed up in Marvel Tales; there’s not one aspect of the story that qualifies as fantasy, sf, or horror unless one considers a life in the majors as a fantasy. I assume Marvel Baseball Tales was cancelled at the last moment and Stan had inventory to use.

“Farewell-Moon” concerns the race of werewolves that live on the moon, yearning for a warmer climate and looking longingly at Earth. When their leader finds “secret papers” that detail the sending of werewolves to Earth in spaceships centuries before, new ships are built and an emissary is sent on recon. When the lycanthrope (who resembles a dog) is injured in the touchdown and cared for by a small girl, the alien decides this is paradise and sends word back to the moon that Earth is uninhabitable. A charming little fable with some equally charming sketches by Howie Post.

When the mine they’re working caves in, five workers concede that they’re going to die and confess about their shortcomings and the lives they might have led. When the round-robin gets to Grogan, he allows that he’s led exactly the life he wanted to the fullest and then details robberies and murders he been involved in. Since they will never live to see the light of day again, he seems confident that his confessions will remain in that tight dark area. Then a shaft of light reaches the miners and they’re elated to hear the voices of their rescuers. A taut, gripping narrative, “While Death Waits” offers up hope that strong writing can overcome the stifling hands of the Code around the neck of funny book writers. The art is prime Colan, using its setting to intensify Colan’s masterful use of shadows and half-lit profiles. This is, finally, the master who would help revolutionize the Marvel superheroes a decade later.

Though this was the final pre-code issue of Marvel Tales, the title would limp along a further 18 issues before receiving its pink slip. Though the scripts would become tame, at least the quality of artists contributing remained high. Among those visiting include Matt Fox, Bernie Krigstein, Joe Orlando, and Gray Morrow. The title would be resurrected in 1964, spotlighting reprints of Marvel superhero strips.

Mystery Tales 26
Cover by Carl Burgos & Sol Brodsky

“The Tunnel to Nowhere” (a: Dick Ayers & Ernie Bache)

“Eyes of the Cat!” (a: Paul Reinman) ★★

“I Married Cleopatra” (a: Jay Scott Pike) ★★

“The Census Taker” (a: Mort Lawrence) 1/2

“The Other Face!” (a: John Tartaglione) ★★

Jason finds a huge hole in the back of his closet, one he’s sure wasn’t there minutes before. Berating his wife for being “sloppy” (as if a big hole in the closet is a result of not dusting), Jason enters the hole and exits into another dimension. The aliens there are less than friendly and he is captured. After their leader tells the astonished dope that he’ll have to be disposed of, Jason escapes and heads back to the hole in his closet, only to discover his wife has upped her repair work and sealed the hole. I’m not sure better art would have salvaged the disaster that is “The Tunnel to Nowhere,” but I wouldn’t mind if Stan had given it a shot. The Ayers/Bache work looks like the doodling of a first year art student; no dynamic, no life, nothing remotely original or engaging.

In “Eyes of the Cat!,” George Grubb’s hatred of felines leads to obsession when a black cat won’t stop bothering him. George takes the cat out to the wilds and dumps it numerous times but the thing just keeps coming back. On one final trip, George decides he’s going to leave the kitty in the swamp but realizes, too late, he’s become lost. He follows the cat, thinking it will lead him home, but George ends up sinking in quicksand. Shoulda treated kitty better, George!

Three archaeologists stumble onto the secret chamber where Cleopatra has been hiding for centuries. Astonished, the trio watch as Cleo rises and explains that the whole asp story was a put-on designed to throw her enemies off the track. She needs a husband now so that she can venture forth into the new world and rule her land. Only problem is, she explains, only one can marry her and the other two have to die. Garson decides he’s the most capable of fulfilling an ancient Egyptian queen’s desires so he murders his comrades and takes Cleopatra’s hand. They exit the pyramid but Garson is arrested for murder and when he points to Cleo as an explanation, she’s vanished. The climax of “I Married Cleopatra” is ambiguous and that’s a good thing. There’s a seed of doubt planted in our minds as to whether Garson had gone crazy from the heat or if that gorgeous brunette made an asp of him (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Ben Brand is startled to discover that “The Census Taker!” who comes to his door is actually from another world. Dismal SF tale with adequate Mort Lawrence art. Con-man Harry Chase takes compromising photos and blackmails the subject. While snapping a photo, Harry is run over by a car and awakens in a hospital bed some time later. The plastic surgeon explains that Harry’s face was destroyed in the accident and he had to reconstruct it using the photo in Harry’s pocket! Unfortunately for Harry, the guy whose pic he took was actually an alien from space and his fellow spacemen mistake Harry for their comrade. “The Other Face” is needlessly complicated but visually compelling. John Tartaglione (in his eighth and final appearance) had a strange style that seesawed between ugly and distinct (sometimes meeting right in the middle of those two extremes), much like a more-restrained Tony Tallarico.

Strange Tales 34
Cover by Carl Burgos

“Flesh and Blood” (a: Werner Roth) ★★★

“Moment of Glory” (a: Pete Tumlinson)

“The Last Barrier” (a: Ed Winiarski)

“The Strange Room” (a: Al Hartley)

“Family Tree” (a: Mort Lawrence) ★★

Scientist Foster Hale has created the perfect robot, a “Univec” that can do all of man’s thinking for him. A big business man offers Foster a king’s fortune if he’ll hand over the rights to make a Univec in human form but the egghead refuses, claiming that eventually humans would come to resent the androids. But public opinion changes Hale’s mind and he grants permission. Very soon, Univec-Humans are in every household and replacing humans at the workplace.  

Just as Foster had foretold, unemployment skyrockets and a mob stands in front of the Univec factory, vowing to burn it down. Foster intervenes and is beat to death for his troubles. As the mob gathers around the dead body, they realize that Foster himself was a robot. “But… if he made the robots… then who made him?” Precisely! Who indeed? A sharp reader, with hundreds of Atlas stories under his belt, might expect a reveal along these lines but the final panel, with the golden question, adds an exclamation point to “Flesh and Blood.”

Gas station attendant Sammy Glenn is tired of people telling him how he grew up to be a nothing, a genius in school but a flop at life. When a rich man brings his caddie in and asks Sammy to keep an eye on it for a while, the dumb gas hop decides to take it for a spin and impress all his boyhood chums. What he finds makes him happy for what he’s got. “Moment of Glory” is a schmaltzy variation on It’s A Wonderful Life, with an utterly average graphic display from Pete Tumlinson. Truly awful.

UFOs have suddenly been appearing above the U.S. What’s the story? “The Last Barrier” may just put you to sleep before you find the answer. Marriage has become a hell for the Howards but something in “The Strange Room” located at the Blue Cedars Hotel completely transforms them. As long as they stay in the room, they love each other but once they leave… Like the two stories preceding, “The Strange Room” contains sub-par script and art. 

With an eye to becoming royalty, Karl Schultz weaves an intricate tapestry of fraud in order to convince the powers-that-be that he is the rightful heir to the throne of Slovania. What Schulz doesn’t realize is that the family he’s inserted himself into was cursed with lycanthropy and “purged” by country officials. Kurt soon meets the same fate. It’s not great literature (and again, the art is weak) but “Family Tree” is entertaining enough and boasts a pretty good twist.

In our new Monday slot
on September 18th...
Jack joins Peter
for the Post-Code Age!

Monday, August 28, 2023

Batman in the 1960s Issue 3: May/June 1960


The Caped Crusader in the 1960s
by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Detective Comics #279

"The Creatures That Stalked Batman"
Story by Bill Finger(?)
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris

"The Impossible Inventions"
Story by Jack Miller (?)
Art by Joe Certa

"The Creature from the Sorcerer's Stone!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Ruben Moreira

While making their rounds one afternoon, the Dynamic Duo notice that the gates to Professor Martin's laboratory are open. Concerned, Batman and Robin enter the lab and discover the prostrate form of Martin; the professor is conscious long enough to warn Batman that the door to his dimensional gate has been opened. With that, he collapses.

The boys get Martin to a hospital and ponder the egghead's declaration. Acting on a hunch that suddenly comes to him out of the blue, the Dark Knight tells his young partner that they'll be returning to Martin's lab for clues. But, on the way, the duo are summoned to Foster and Benson Avenues by Gotham's Finest and, once there, they discover an astonishing sight: two gigantic creatures standing very still in the middle of the street: one metallic robot and a purple beast with light bulbs attached to its cranium. Quite a sight.

The silence does not last for, as Batman approaches, the monsters attack. The costumed crimefighters escape via a manhole and plot their avenue of counterattack while hiding in the sewers. Brainstorm at an end, our boys reappear on the street (oddly enough, the police have left the creatures unattended--donut shop sale?), where they are swiftly set upon once more. But Batman is ready for the titans this time and litters the space between bulb-dome and silver-man with bits of aluminum foil, thus temporarily breaking the psychic bond between the two intruders. A bat-a-rang renders the robot useless, but that still leaves the purple people eater.

Just at that moment, Batman spots thugs with Tommy-guns entering the box office of the Alaskan Exhibit across the street from their alien brouhaha. They round up the gunmen and turn their attention back to the creatures, who now stand still once again in the street. Suddenly, both giants turn tail and run; Batman and Robin try to keep up with their prey but, when they lose them, they return to the Batcave. Shockingly, that's where they find the pair from another dimension. Silver metal robot dude suddenly begins talking and explains that he is Ardello, a "chief of robot detectives of another dimension" and has arrived in our world to investigate a recent visitor to his dimension... a man dressed just like Batman!

Seems this interloper witnessed a top-secret demonstration of a powerful weapon known as the "Arrow of Energy" and then stole the gizmo, slipping back through Prof. Martin's dimensional revolving door and bringing the firearm back to our world. Ardello is tasked with finding the weapon and bringing it back in one piece. Using a few clues lifted from the Prof.'s lab, Batman feeds the info into the Bat-Computer and a card spits out with the identity of the Faux-Caped Crusader: Ed Collins, a/k/a Gimlet! After that, it's not long before the Dynamic Duo track down Collins and return the Arrow of Energy to Ardello, who vows never to forget his new friend. Discharged from the hospital, Prof. Martin destroys his dimensional machine and promises Batman he'll never again tread where man was not meant to tread.

For a 12-page funny book strip, "The Creatures That Stalked Batman" is certainly filled with a lot of clever twists and ideas; of course, it's filled with a whole lot of guffaws as well. I love how Batman suddenly gets a hunch while driving and exclaims such to his pre-teen partner. And you gotta love those Gotham cops, just up and leaving two dangerous monsters in the middle of the city. Where the hell is the Commish? Lucky for them, this Gotham is sparsely populated. You never see too many inhabitants in the background. The biggest mystery to me, though, has to be why Ed Collins felt the need to dress as Batman to jump into another dimension. To disguise himself from the locals? How would Collins know about the other dimension and the weaponry available there? And why does Collins have such a nifty moniker but sports no spandex? Does Prof. Martin's machine only go to this particular dimension?

But I digress (as I often do). All that goofiness adds to the fun of Bill Finger's complex plot, a script that could easily have been broken up and spread out over three different stories. The Moldoff/Paris art is typical 1960s DC/science fiction quality, just enough to present an illustrated story but nothing strenuous.

In "The Impossible Inventions," J'Onn J'Onzz must contend with a wacky inventor while trying to apprehend escaped felon, Willy Ward. Laughter ensues. Not sure a man should be made Chief of Police if he can't figure his "ace sleuth detective" John Jones is, in reality, J'Onn J'Onzz! I mean, sure, it was a stretch Perry White couldn't put two and two together even though Clark was the spittin' image of Supes, but this one is a bit ridiculous, no? And an extra guffaw that said Chief tells J'Onn he has to make himself scarce or Willy Ward will stay in hiding. You've got a superpowered being but you tell him to lay low while the cops sniff out a low-level runner. Why doesn't J'Onn just use his uncanny abilities to track Ward? And why is a Martian Manhunter wasting said abilities on small-time crooks and not interstellar invaders? I'm confused. But the goofy inventor adds quite a bit of fun to the ho-hum surroundings, making this one (barely) a thumbs-up.

Roy Raymond has his hands full when he must battle "The Creature from the Sorcerer's Stone!" The titular monster walks the earth after thousands of years when a crazed archaeologist says the magic words and presto...! Luckily, Roy is a genius, and he's able to deduce how to get the genie back in the bottle (at least until Harry Potter encounters the Stone a few decades later). Roy Raymond loses his second-act status but maintains the highest level of art in any of the monthly strips.-Peter

Jack-Not only did the Roy Raymond story have the best art, as always, but this time around it had the best story as well! The sorcerer's stone strongly resembles a pepper-grinder and I thought for sure that when Roy's gal-pal Karen slipped some rings off of the stone to add to her charm bracelet, she'd somehow come to the rescue in the end, but not so. As for J'Onn J'Onzz, he definitely comes up with some complicated solutions to simple problems, doesn't he?

The highlight of the Batman story for me was the giant Humpty Dumpty statue made out of wax that was prominently displayed in the Batcave. I don't recall seeing that before. It was pretty callous of Batman to melt such a treasured memento just to foil the robot from outer space!

Batman #132

"The Martian from Gotham City"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris

"The Three Faces of Batman"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff

"The Lair of the Sea-Fox"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff

When Batman and Robin encounter what appears to be "The Martian from Gotham City," he escapes after an electric bolt from his ray-gun causes a water tower to fall and nearly crush our heroes. Commissioner Gordon explains that the Martian is really Clive Norris, an actor in a science fiction movie who hit his head and now thinks he's from the Red Planet. Three crooks trick him into helping them by posing as fellow Martians in disguise, but when Batman and Robin fight the crooks, Norris heads back to the movie set, thinking it's really Mars. Batman scares the actor with a cat after learning that he has a phobia of felines; the encounter jolts him back to recalling his human identity.

Once again, I wonder why they feature something other than the lead story on the cover. After plunking down my dime for an issue highlighting the Sea-Fox, I want to open to the first page and read about the Sea-Fox!

Batman surprises a trio of thieves trying to steal rare metals from the Gotham Science Laboratory. One of them knocks Batman backwards into a machine that suddenly emits an alarm and a siren. The leader of the crooks escapes and, the next night, when Batman is summoned to deal with an escaped convict atop a tower at the Gotham Oil Field, bells herald the arrival of fire trucks and the Caped Crusader suddenly becomes reckless, going after the convict alone in a way that requires Robin to prevent his death. Afterwards, Batman can't remember what happened.

The next night, Batman and Robin are asked to execute a daring maneuver to free a stuck landing wheel on a plane circling Gotham Airport. Batman stands up in the Bat-Plane but, when a siren warns the crowd below to clear the field, he is suddenly paralyzed by fear and Robin has to free the plane's wheel. Again, Batman can't recall what happened.

The next day, the Gotham Gazette asks if Batman is cracking up and Commissioner Gordon shines a big "R" in the sky to summon the Boy Wonder, alone. Robin rushes to the Gotham Balloon Company's factory and finds crook Big Jim Masters, who escaped at the start of this tale and who has already enlisted two more goons. The bad guys overpower Robin and tie him to a helium-filled balloon, intending to set him free to drift up into the sky to his doom.

Luckily, Batman appears. Masters sets off a siren and Batman is suddenly afraid, but wait! He's faking it to get close enough to Masters for a sock in the jaw! Batman knocks out the other two villains, frees Robin, and explains that the scientist at the lab used the same machine that set off his problems to cure him.

A fun story and a good example of how Bill Finger can pack a lot of plot into nine pages. The GCD credits the art on this story and the next to Moldoff alone (without Paris); he draws a classic Dynamic Duo but his Bruce Wayne leaves something to be desired.

Batman and Robin encounter three men in purple scuba suits robbing a shop in Chinatown, but the crooks get away by escaping through a hole in the floor into the sewer below the shop. The Dynamic Duo head down into the sewers only to let the crooks get away again. How will our heroes discover "The Lair of the Sea-Fox"? With the rarely used Bat-Sub, of course! The gang robs a bank that sits above an underground river and the chase is on; eventually, good triumphs over evil and Batman captures the Sea-Fox at his lair on the abandoned Fort Island.

Why in the world do these crooks dress up in purple diving suits and go to such lengths to rob Gotham's banks and stores? Why does the Sea-Fox's headpiece have two fox ears while his subordinates' head-pieces sport fins on top? Who knows? What really intrigues me is whether we'll see a story that doesn't revolve around robbery. Gotham City's courts and prisons must have been filled with robbers, leaving very little room for other sorts of ne'er-do-wells.-Jack

Peter-"The Martian from Gotham City" (my favorite Batman story of the five covered this time out) reminds us of the dangerous early 1960s when studio special effects crews created ray guns for their science fiction thrillers that actually worked! Oh, for the days before CGI! Karik's henchmen look exactly like the guys who are helping out Atomic Man in 'tec #280! "The Three Faces of Batman" is good for a handful of chuckles, chief among them when the Commish gives up on his old chum and lights up the Robin-Signal. Surely, this is the first and last time we ever see that prop.

"The Lair of the Sea-Fox" closes out the issue and, again, I'm amazed that Bill Finger was able to whip up so many clever and entertaining stories each and every month. I have no idea (nor does the GCD) who the author of the 'tec installments was, but they have a similar, energetic vibe to them, so I'm not going out on a limb to say those might be Bill Finger properties as well. Where does Batman keep his Bat-Sub anchored/submerged? You'd think some underwater bad guy would have stumbled onto it and hijacked it by now. I'm intrigued to find at what point all these crazy crafts start disappearing from the mythos.

Detective Comics #280

"The Menace of the Atomic Man"
Story Uncredited
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris

"Prof. Wetzel's Mystery Ray!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Ruben Moreira

"Bodyguard to a Bandit"
Story by Jack Miller (?)
Art by Joe Certa

There's a new villain in Gotham and his moniker is the Atomic Man! In real life, he's disgraced electrical engineer Paul Strobe. Years before, Batman and Strobe's partners sent him up the river for stealing platinum and gold from the company. That day in court, Strobe vowed to get his revenge against the four men who testified against him. Now, thanks to his brilliance, he has concocted lenses that permit him to "alter the molecular structure" of any object. He can transform glass into water, metal into air, Justin Bieber into a singer.

Which brings us back to the present. Batman answers a distress call from the Hayes Float Company and arrives as Strode and his henchmen are destroying Hayes's inventory. Hayes was one of the Filthy Four and he's going to rue the day he ever set eyes on the Atomic Man. The crazed Molecule Man is too much for the Dynamic Duo but, as he's making his exit, he promises to see them later.

Sure enough, Batman deduces that A-M's next target will be the ship-building docks belonging to another of the four, Mr. Barker. Batman discovers the villain cracking a safe onboard a docked ship and a kerfuffle ensues. Once again, Atomic Man escapes but, as he's making his getaway, he makes the boat lighter than air and it floats up to the heavens with Batman in tow. Only the quick thinking of Robin and a Whirly-Bat save him from a sure death. Using his crafty detective brain, Batman eliminates all other alternatives and decides the place to go is the gallery owned by remaining partner, Jenkins! He and Robin put the kibosh on A-M's plans and put the tenth-tier rogue back into Gotham's penal colony. At least for now!

"The Menace of the Atomic Man" is another jewel crafted with looniness and imagination. Rather than simply kill the quartet of enemies, Strode goes to great lengths to do hardly any damage at all. In the course of the story, he manages to damage a few floats and a big boat, turn a safe into glass, and break into an art gallery. Knowing Gotham's lenient court system, I'd say Strobe gets ninety days with credit for time served. The real dum-dums here are the henchmen (who dress in very nice suits and ties), who never get paid for all their hard work. Early CSI detection methods are seen when Batman pulls down his ear chart in the Batcave and gives Robin a tutorial on lobes. "This is our man..." he exclaims, ten seconds after looking at the chart! He's the world's greatest detective, but why didn't he pack his Anti-Molecular-Structure-Alternator in his utility belt and save the boys a whole lot of trouble?

Roy Raymond, TV Detective, works with local police to "smoke out a gang of thieves" by disguising himself as the brilliant Professor Wetzel, creator of a molecular structure change-o-zapper (stop me if you've heard this one before). Unfortunately for Roy, the hoods get the upper hand and unmask our hero. Fortunately for Roy, the criminous lair is located across the street from a fire station. A little ingenuity goes a long way when you're a TV detective. "Prof. Wetzel's Mystery Ray!" is the weakest of the Raymond back-ups thus far. Most of Roy's adventures are far-fetched, but this one is way out there. Roy must know he's acting under the CCA and murder isn't allowed as he's pretty confident these guys won't leave him in a ditch somewhere. And two stories based on the same gizmo in one issue is pushing it.

In a tale that defines the word "convoluted," J'Onn J'Onnz aids police in thwarting a bad guy's attempts to be thrown into jail. Yep, that's right, the cops suspect that Biff Benson will be committing a robbery so that he can be incarcerated and commit another crime while in prison! J'Onn, always one to play along with authorities, does his best by, among other tricks, transforming himself into a meteorite to prevent Biff from robbing an armored truck. In the end, J'Onn discovers Biff wants to kill an inmate who'll be testifying against his boss, mobster Sam Spooner. At some point, does the Martian Manhunter take on dangerous missions? The art's not bad, but scriptwise, this series is just awful.-Peter

Jack-I thought the Martian Manhunter story was fun and I appreciate the complex solutions to somewhat simple problems. His approach seems playful to me, much like the approach of the villain in this issue's Batman story. It's the Atomic Age and the last year of Eisenhower in the White House, so we're sure to get plenty more bad guys messing with the might atom. I do have a question: when Bruce and Dick are in the Batcave and Ace brings them something, why is the pooch masked? Bruce and Dick are in civvies.

The villains in the 1960 Bat stories are all averse to direct killing and prefer to give the good guys a sporting chance at survival. It's rather refreshing, isn't it? I was starting to think this was a landmark story where the villain's motive was revenge, not robbery, until the Atomic Man exposed cash in a safe. Why not just use the weapon to turn the kitchen garbage into $1000 bills? It would be so much simpler. As for Roy Raymond, it's too bad the stories aren't up to the level of the art, since the drawings this time out were as good as any we've seen in 1960.

Next Week...
Sail the seven seas with
the S.S. Batman!

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Allan Gordon, Part One-Very Moral Theft [6.3]

by Jack Seabrook

If a crime is committed to help a desperate loved one, is it excusable? That's the question at the center of "Very Moral Theft," a short story by Jack Dillon that was first published in the May 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Helen is 38 years old and unmarried and she has been unlucky with a series of men. The most recent is Harry, a 50-year-old tire distributor whom Helen's brother, John, thinks looks like a gangster. Harry pays alimony to his ex-wife and Helen, who went to finishing school and works for a real estate firm, sees him as earthy. One evening, when Harry picks Helen up to go to dinner, he reveals that one of the companies he deals with has gone out of business, which means his own business will fail. He needs $8000 in 48 hours to stay afloat. Helen volunteers to mortgage the home she lives in with her brother, as long as Harry can repay her within 48 hours so that John doesn't find out. In reality, Helen plans to take the money from the real estate business where she works.

Betty Field as Helen
The next morning, she gets the money at the bank and gives it to Harry, who assures her that he'll pay her back in 48 hours. For the first time, he mentions marriage, to her delight, and when she goes home, she proudly tells her brother. Helen goes to work the next morning and receives a call from Harry, who says he'll have the money for her tonight. That night, Harry arrives at Helen's house to pick her up and angers John when he mentions that Helen mortgaged the house. Harry is upset and tells Helen that he can't get the money; she admits that she stole it. Harry then insists that he'll pay her back on time.

The next day, Helen goes to work and waits for Harry to call. He shows up at the office and hands her the money in an envelope; they go to deposit it in the bank and he reveals that he got it from crooks. Harry reassures Helen that he can safely delay paying them back. She does not hear from him for several days and goes to a bar where they had been together before. She asks the bartender about Harry and he tells her that Harry is dead, remarking that "'you just don't get cute with a couple of ex-racket guys.'" Months pass, and Helen concludes her story by writing that, "somehow, I'm not lonely anymore."

Walter Matthau as Harry
In the end, Harry, a con man, sacrifices himself to protect Helen. She may be alone now, but she knows that, at least once, she was loved. "Very Moral Theft" was adapted for television by Allan Gordon and it was broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, October 11, 1960. While the short story is narrated by Helen, who tells the reader her background, her thoughts, and her observations, the TV version features no narration at all, so the story's non-verbal elements must be conveyed to the viewer by other means. The story opens with Helen providing details about herself, her history with men, Harry's reputation, and John's poor opinion of him. The TV show instead opens with a scene that portrays Harry as an unscrupulous businessman who runs a lumber yard and cheats his customers. Helen meets Harry and they walk off together; we next see them as Harry drops her off at home after dinner. She invites him in but he refuses because her brother is there--"'I met better guys up the river,'" Harry remarks.

Karl Swenson as John
Inside, John tells Helen about his upcoming marriage and she avoids discussing how it will affect her. Scriptwriter Allan Gordon takes pages of narrative from the short story and compresses them into short scenes that introduce the main characters, their relationship, and their personalities. A short scene at the bank follows, as in the story, where Fescue gives Helen a check; the next scene moves the action from Harry's car (in the story) to the inside of a bar, where Harry explains his business problem and the dialogue follows that of the story closely.

Sal Ponti as Carl
The TV show eliminates Harry's ex-wife entirely and there is no mention of his having to pay alimony; instead, some humorous banter between Harry and the bartender is added. In this scene, director Norman Lloyd adds visual interest by using the camera to pan from side to side and zoom in on characters to avoid having to rely on too many shot/reverse shots as they converse. As the conversation comes to an end and Helen lies to Harry about the money, the camera zooms in tight on a two-shot that makes them look like conspirators.

The next scene shows Helen at the office, lying to Ivers, as in the story, then Helen goes to the bank, where her nervousness is underlined with ominous music. Everyone seems suspicious of her and the first act ends with her asking for the cashier's check. In the second act, instead of Harry picking her up in his car, she goes to his office and gives him the check. This is the second important scene to be moved from Harry's car to the inside of a building; perhaps Gordon thought that scenes heavy with dialogue would work better in a room than in a car. A line is added when Harry jokes, "'You sure you didn't steal that money?'"--he laughs and smiles for the first time in the show.

David Fresco
as Parker
At home that night, Helen proudly tells John about her engagement and again any mention of Harry's ex-wife or alimony is omitted. The following scene marks a change from the story as Harry, clearly drunk, arrives at Helen's office the next morning, looking for her. He asks Ivers to tell Helen that "'Tonight's the night.'" In the story, Helen fears that she'll be found out and arrives at the office to discover that Ivers has gone on a trip. In the show, she encounters Harry on the sidewalk. That night, he arrives at her house and she lets him in; in the story, she's upstairs and he gets into an argument with John downstairs. In the TV show, Harry breaks the bad news to Helen and John walks in and hears about the mortgage; he berates his sister in front of Harry and events are again compressed.

Harry leaves and John verbally attacks Helen, referring to two of her prior bad relationships, something she tells the reader about at the beginning of the short story. The next day, before Helen gets to the office, Harry meets her on the sidewalk and gives her the money. In the following scene, she sits, morose, on her front porch. John mentions that she hasn't heard from Harry in three days; in the short story, this is part of her narration. The final scene in the bar follows the story closely, though a line of dialogue is added for clarification when the bartender says, "'He took two of the guys in the racket for $8000.'" The show ends with a fadeout on Helen sitting alone at a table and does not include her concluding comments from a later date that end the story.

Rusty Lane as Ivers
Allan Gordon's script for "Very Moral Theft" does a fine job of removing all of the first-person narration that drives the short story and conveying all of the important information by other means. I have not been able to find any information at all about Gordon other than that he is credited for two teleplays--this one and one more for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Jack Dillon (1923-1991), who wrote the short story, was an advertising executive who also wrote short stories from 1958 to 1968 and who wrote four novels. Two TV episodes were adapted from his stories: this one and an episode of Hawaiian Eye.

Sam Gilman as Charlie
"Very Moral Theft" is directed by Normal Lloyd (1914-2021), who was one of the people most responsible for the success and quality of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Born Norman Perlmutter and active in the theater in the 1930s, he had a long career as a film and television actor, from 1939 to 2015, and appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and Spellbound (1945). He also directed for television from 1951 to 1984. He acted in five episodes of the Hitchcock series and directed 22, including "Man from the South."

William Newell as Fescue
Betty Field (1916-1973), who plays Helen, was 47 when this episode was filmed, making her almost a decade older than the character as described in the short story. She began acting as a teenager and had a long career on Broadway, from 1934 to 1971. She appeared in films from 1939 to 1968, on radio from 1939 to 1954, and on TV from 1948 to 1968. She trained with the Actors Studio and also appeared in "The Star Juror" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Her co-star, Walter Matthau (1920-2000), was only 39 when this was filmed, making him over a decade younger than the Harry of the story, who is 50. Matthau is wonderful as Harry, his laconic speech and manner seeming at once vaguely humorous and also unsavory. Born Walter Matthow in Manhattan, he was a child actor in Yiddish theater who served under Jimmy Stewart in the Air Force in WWII, earning six battle stars. He went on to star on Broadway, then on television, and finally in many films. He won two Tony awards and an Oscar. His TV career began in 1950 and his movie career followed in 1955. He appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Dry Run," but he will always be remembered for his comedic film roles, especially The Odd Couple (1968) and The Bad News Bears (1976).

In smaller roles:
  • Karl Swenson (1908-1978) plays Helen's brother, John. His acting career lasted from 1935 until his death and he was frequently seen on episodic TV. He was on the Hitchcock show three times, including "On the Nose," he had a small role in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), and he was a regular on Little House on the Prairie.
  • Songwriter turned actor Sal Ponti (1935-88) plays Carl, the workman at the lumber yard in the first scene; he was on TV from 1959 to 1978 and he appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Keep Me Company."
  • David Fresco (1909-1997) as Parker, the nosy man in the bank; he was on screen from 1946 to 1997 and he was blacklisted in 1956. Despite that, he appeared in twelve episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Day of the Bullet," as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.
  • Rusty Lane (1899-1986) as Ivers, Helen's boss; born James Russell Lane, he was in nine episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Manacled."
  • Sam Gilman (1915-1985) as Charlie, the bartender; his career is most interesting. He started out as a comic book artist for Marvel and Centaur from 1939 to 1942, drawing a text illustration for Marvel Comics #1. He then served in World War Two. On returning to civilian life, he became an actor and befriended Marlon Brando. He moved to Hollywood and got his first role in Brando’s film, The Men (1950). He went on to a career on screen that lasted until 1983 and he may be seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Insomnia." He was also on Thriller.
  • William Newell (1894-1967) as Fescue, who gives Helen the check at her office; he was on screen from 1930 to 1965 playing countless bit parts, including the role of Alfalfa's father in the Little Rascals shorts; he was on the Hitchcock TV show five times, including "The Horseplayer."
  • Charles Carlson (1930-2013) as George, the bank teller; he was on TV from 1960-1967 and appeared in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Where Beauty Lies."
Charles Carlson
  • Keith Britton (1919-1970) as Ben, the bank guard; he had a brief career on screen from 1955 to 1962 and appeared in three episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Crack of Doom."
Keith Britton

Watch "Very Moral Theft" online here or buy the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps review of this episode here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story!


CTVA-The Classic TV Archive, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 6,             AlfredHitchcockPresents_06_(1960-61).htm

Dillon, Jack. "Very Moral Theft." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 1960, pp. 82-97.


Galactic Central,

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



"John Dillon, A Novelist And Ad Executive, 68." New York Times, 8 Nov. 1991,sec. D, p. 19.

"Very Moral Theft." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 3, NBC, 11 October 1960.


Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "My Brother Richard" here!

In two weeks: Our series on Allan Gordon concludes with a look at "The Man who Stole the Money," starring Arthur Hill!