Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Andrew Solt, Part One-Safe Conduct [1.21]

by Jack Seabrook

Andrew Solt wrote three teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Two aired in 1956 and the third, "The Return of the Hero," which is credited to Solt and Stirling Silliphant, aired in 1958. Solt was born in Hungary in 1916 as Endre Peter Strausz and began writing plays as a teenager in Budapest. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1939 and landed in New York City, but by the next year he was in Hollywood, where he would sign a contract with Columbia Pictures and work as a writer for movies and television for the next several decades. He co-wrote In a Lonely Place (1950) and his papers are held at the University of Albany. Solt was an anti-Communist, which is notable in regard to his first teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Safe Conduct." He died in 1990.

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Claire Trevor as Mary Prescott
Some basic knowledge of political and sports history is useful when watching this episode, which was probably written in late 1955 and which aired on CBS on Sunday, February 19, 1956. In the years following the end of WWII in 1945, the continent of Europe had been carved up by Eastern and Western powers, resulting in countries in Central and Eastern Europe being controlled by the Soviet Union, which was controlled by Russia. As of 1955, Germany was split in two, with East Germany being part of the Soviet bloc and West Germany being an independent country aligned with the West. Bordering West Germany on the east were East Germany and Czechoslovakia; the border crossings between those nations were dangerous places, where citizens from Soviet bloc countries were carefully searched and not allowed to travel west without good reason, for fear that they would not return.

One area where rival countries were able to compete on reasonably friendly terms involved the sport of soccer. The 1954 world championship tournament featured national teams from sixteen countries. The tournament was held in Switzerland, which had been neutral during WWII. The championship game was won by West Germany, which beat Hungary (a Soviet bloc country) in the final match, by a score of 3-2. Ferenc Puskas, Hungary's captain, was considered by many to be the greatest player in the world at that time. East Germany and Argentina did not participate in the tournament that year.

Jacques Bergerac as Jan Gubak
When watching "Safe Conduct," imagine that East Germany beat Argentina in the championship match, and that Puskas was the star of the East German team. Finally, imagine that Martha Gellhorn, perhaps the most famous female journalist in the world in 1955, and the ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway, traveled to East Germany to meet with its president, tour its sites, and return home to write about what she saw. Andrew Solt, a Hungarian-American screenwriter, took all of these ingredients and sifted them together in his imagination to create this teleplay, which was not based on a short story but rather was written for TV.

The show opens with a shot of a train speeding through the night, surely one of the best ways to begin any film! The train whistle screams, smoke pours from the engine's smokestack, and there is a dissolve into a private room inside the train, where Mary Prescott, a reporter, sits, typing on a typewriter. She appears middle-aged and well-off, wearing a pearl necklace and a bracelet. There is a knock at the door, and she responds with "Entrez," a French word that tells the viewer that this train is traveling through Europe, not the U.S. She follows this with "Come in," and a train conductor enters, accompanied by a military officer. Mary hands over tickets, her passport, and a letter of safe conduct from President Stoska, the leader of the country through which the train is passing.

Werner Klemperer as Klopka/Kriza
The officer announces that he knows who Miss Prescott is and that she has been in their country to gather material for articles about it. He is already in possession of a copy of the president's letter, which shows that nothing is secret in this unnamed land. He adds that the train will arrive in Furtburg at midnight before crossing the border into West Germany. Furtburg is a fictional place, but context clues throughout the episode suggest that Mary has been visiting East Germany. The officer is friendly and, after a cursory question about whether she carries any official documents, he places a sticker on her suitcase to indicate to officials at the border that her luggage has already been inspected and does not need to be opened.

Just then, a man passes in the corridor outside Mary's room and the officer speaks to him. The man is Jan Gubak, a handsome young celebrity who is known by appearance. Gubak replies that he is traveling incognito and refers to the officer as "'comrade,'" suggesting that they are both from the same Soviet bloc country. Prescott asks the officer if Jan is a movie star, adding that she saw that he had a crowd of people around him at the station. The officer explains that Jan is the captain of the national soccer team and that he was responsible for their winning the championship last year in Switzerland. The officer leaves, intending to ask Gubak for an autograph for his son.

Another dissolve shows that time has passed. The whistle blows outside and there is a knock at the door. Jan Gubak enters Mary's compartment and sits down. She explains that she is an American reporter, and he replies that he saw her picture in the newspaper, when she was visiting national sites with the country's president. Jan asks if he can buy a piece of lingerie from Mary to give as a gift to his sister, who is in a hospital in Munich, West Germany. Adding that he can only take 100 Kronen (further confusing the issue of what country they are in, Kronen were not currency used in Germany or Czechoslovakia) out of the country, he is critical of excessive government regulations and his honesty appeals to her. Mary gives Jan a new pair of stockings in exchange for a promise of a signed photo of himself in his soccer uniform.

Peter van Eyck
He asks her to join him for dinner and there is a dissolve to the dining car, where Jan uses salt and pepper shakers on a tablecloth to show the positions of players at the end of the prior year's championship game. He says that the other team was from Argentina. Two conductors pay rapt attention and explain how Jan's header won the game by a score of 4-3. The man sitting at the next table asks for a salt shaker once the demonstration ends and introduces himself as Professor Mihail Klopka; he says that Mary is now as famous as Jan, and explains that he is a medical researcher on his way to Munich to report on the new polio vaccine recently developed in the United States. He claims that scientists in his country discovered a vaccine for polio years ago, and Mary plays along with his claim in order to avoid a scene.

There is a dissolve back to Mary's room, where she shares drinks with Jan. He suggests dinner the next night, but he suddenly becomes serious and shows Mary a valuable watch that he is smuggling out of the country to sell to pay for an operation for his sister. The conductor announces that the train is approaching Furtburg, and Mary insists on taking the watch and wearing it on her wrist, certain that she will not be detained at the border. Jan leaves and there is another dissolve to a shot of the train arriving in Furtburg. The officer enters Mary's cabin with a customs officer named Trevitch, whose questioning is friendly and easygoing until Jan bursts in and accuses Mary of trying to smuggle the diamond watch out of the country. Mary and Jan are both taken off the train by the officials.

At the customs office, Mary insists that Jan gave her the watch, but he denies any involvement. Mary and Jan are taken to the detention room, where they encounter Professor Klopka, who says that he has been accused of trying to escape his country. Later, the officer enters and takes the professor out; in the customs office, Trevitch addresses Klopka as Captain Kriza, of the secret police. Kriza tells the train officer to telephone the president, but the call is abandoned after Trevitch examines the watch and sees that it is worthless. Kriza concludes that it was all a trick to embarrass them, so Mary and Jan are put back on the train and allowed to cross the border safely into West Germany.

John Banner
After one last shot of the train crossing an aqueduct, there is a dissolve into Mary's room as Jan knocks at the door and she lets him in. He explains that his behavior was part of an elaborate ruse to enlist her aid in helping him and the rest of the anti-Communist underground. Jan is smuggling microfilm that contains the diary of Bishop Dresev, who recently died in prison. The business with the watch distracted the border officials and kept Jan from being searched, so the microfilm was not discovered. He gives it to Mary and asks her to publish it so that the free world will know the truth about the late bishop's persecution, torture, and death. He insists that they can never see each other again, for his own protection, and they part with a kiss.

 "Safe Conduct" is an exciting episode that benefits from some understanding of the political climate of early 1956, when it first aired. Claire Trevor is believable as Mary Prescott, a woman who is tough enough to stand up to Communist officials when she is wrongly accused of smuggling. Jacques Bergerac is adequate as Jan Gubak, though his heavy French accent makes it hard to accept him as a star soccer player from a Soviet bloc country. The rest of the cast are believable as Soviet officials or train conductors. Justus Addiss's direction keeps the story moving quickly, and the setting is perfect--there are enough shots and sounds to remind the viewer that the story is playing out on a train that is speeding through the night toward a dangerous border crossing.

Director Justus Addis (1917-1979) worked in television beginning in 1953 and directed ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "A Bullet for Baldwin." In his private life, he was the lifetime companion of Hayden Rorke, who played Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie. Addis worked almost exclusively in television, from 1953 to 1968. He also directed three episodes of The Twilight Zone. His only feature film was The Cry Baby Killer (1958) for producer Roger Corman; this film was notable for being Jack Nicholson's first role onscreen.

Claire Trevor (1910-2000) was born Claire Wemlinger in Brooklyn, New York. Her film career stretched from 1931 to 1982 and included such classics as Dead End (1937), Stagecoach (1939) and Key Largo (1948), for which she won an Academy Award. She won an Emmy Award in 1956 for "Dodsworth" and appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the other one was "A Crime for Mothers." The Claire Trevor School of the Arts in California is named after her.

Konstantin Shayne as Trevitch
Jan Gubak is played by the French actor Jacques Bergerac (1927-2014), who was recruited by M-G-M when he was a 25-year-old law student in Paris. He was on screen from 1954 to 1969 and appeared in Gigi (1958) as well as three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (all written by Andrew Solt) and episodes of Batman. After retiring from acting, he became an executive at Revlon.

Werner Klemperer (1920-2000) portrays Captain Kriza, who masquerades as Professor Klopka. Born in Germany, his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1935 and he served in the Army in WWII. His screen career lasted from 1952 to 1993, mostly on TV, though he had a bit part in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956). He appeared in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Crystal Trench," along with episodes of Thriller, Batman, and Night Gallery, but he is best known for his role as Colonel Klink on Hogan's Heroes from 1965 to 1971.

The officer on the train is played by Peter van Eyck (1911-1969), who was born Gotz von Eick in Prussian Pomerania. He came to the U.S. in the 1930s and, after working at various jobs in the entertainment industry, he had a long career on screen from 1943 to 1969, appearing in films in the U.S. and Europe, including Fritz Lang's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. This was his only role on the Hitchcock series.

Ralph Manza
John Banner (1910-1973) plays the train conductor who first comes to Mary's room; Banner, of course, gained fame as Sergeant Schultz on Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971). He was on screen from 1940 to 1973 and appeared on Thriller, as well as in "Murder Case" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

The customs officer is played by Konstantin Shayne (1888-1974). Born in Russia as Konstantia Veniaminovich Olkenitski, he fought for Russia in WWI and emigrated to the U.S. in 1928. He began appearing in films in 1938 and on TV in 1952, and his career on screen lasted until 1965. His films included The Stranger (1946) and Vertigo (1958). He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Flight to the East," and two episodes of The Outer Limits.

Ralph Manza (1921-2000) plays the other train conductor, who participates in the discussion of the soccer match. He was on screen from 1954 to 2000, appearing in numerous films and TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, Batman, Night Gallery, and The Odd Couple.

Watch "Safe Conduct" online here. Order the DVD here. Thanks to my wife, Lorraine, for research help!


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

"Safe Conduct."  Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 21, CBS, 19 February 1956.



Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Safe Conduct" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Safe Conduct" here!

In two weeks: Our series on Andrew Solt concludes with a look at "The Legacy," starring Leora Dana and Jacques Bergerac!


Grant said...

I don't really know this one, but I can guess where that reference to that vaccine comes from.
For a long while there was a sort of comedy cliche where a Russian character among a lot of other people would hear about some invention and say something like "We already inwented it!"
(I'm a very haphazard STAR TREK fan, but you even hear Chekhov say it at least once, and of course he's a futuristic Russian!)
Since I don't know this story I don't understand what that scientist's nationality is supposed to be, but the scientist's claim about the vaccine (with Claire Trevor humoring the man) sounds like that familiar cliche.

Jack Seabrook said...

I'd not heard of that! The fake scientist is supposed to be from East Germany, as far as I can tell. I wonder if it was a cliche by 1956?

Grant said...

I wish I knew.
I only know that patriotic Russians would say in several comedy scenes something like "We inwented that!" - in order to make them sound arrogant.

(Maybe not as big a comedy cliche as I think, but some kind.)