Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Hitchcock Project-Albert E. Lewin and Burt Styler, Part One-Cheap is Cheap [4.26]

by Jack Seabrook

Albert E. Lewin and Burt Styler wrote the teleplays for two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Cheap is Cheap" and "Craig's Will," both of which explore the lighter side of murder.

Albert E. Lewin (1916-1996) was an animation artist at the Disney studio in the late 1930s and early 1940s, working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), and Pinocchio (1940). He also wrote gags for radio comedians including Bob Hope and Jack Benny. He began writing for the movies in 1949 and for TV in 1955. Among his many TV scripts are episodes of My Favorite Martian and The Odd Couple. His papers are archived at UCLA.

Burt Styler (1925-2011) served in the infantry in WWII and began writing for radio after the war, teaming up with Albert E. Lewin. He placed one short story in a pulp magazine in 1949 and wrote gags, movies, and TV shows with his partner until they split in 1966. Styler went on the write for The Carol Burnett Show and won an Emmy for a 1972 episode of All in the Family. Styler and Lewin wrote at least one episode of The Dennis Day Show in 1954.

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In an interview, Burt Styler said that he and Lewin had a story idea for Markham, a private eye series starring Ray Milland that ran from 1959 to 1960. The idea was thought to be too strange for that show, so the producer called Joan Harrison, who was producing Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and she gave the go-ahead for the duo to write the script. Styler added that it was written for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, but the show was filmed starring Dennis Day and Alice Backes.

Dennis Day as Alexander Gifford
"Cheap is Cheap" is a superb example of the macabre humor that usually was found in Hitchcock's remarks before and after each episode of the TV show, an extension of the sort of humor displayed in his film, The Trouble with Harry (1955). Yet there is no happy ending in this episode, and the consistency among the characters, who each behave the same way from start to finish and never change, makes it a delight.

The show begins as Alexander Gifford, played by Dennis Day, trudges up the stairs to his apartment and laments in voiceover that he did not get a Christmas bonus. The first sign of his extraordinary cheapness is that he does not lament his inability to splurge or to buy presents; instead, he laments the fact that he cannot earn interest by putting the money in a bank! There is a sight gag where Gifford picks up a newspaper that is in front of the door to an apartment and looks at it; only when he refolds it and puts it back in place does it become apparent that he is reading his neighbor's paper, since he walks across the hall to his own apartment!

Alice Backes as Jennifer
A viewer watching "Cheap is Cheap" in spring 1959 would be primed for humor, since Day was known as a singer and sidekick on The Jack Benny Show, a comedy. Unlike that show, whose star had a persona of being extremely cheap, in this episode, Day plays the cheap one. He enters his apartment and chides his wife, Jennifer, for turning on a three-way light bulb all the way; she appears unhappy and tired of his penny-pinching antics. The apartment itself is no frills and resembles the one inhabited by Ralph and Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, with an icebox and a kitchen table rather than a modern refrigerator and a separate dining room.

Throughout the episode, cheerful music sets the tone, in contrast with the events depicted. It is this contrast that makes the episode succeed as black comedy. Alexander is distressed to see a present on the kitchen table, and he's even more concerned to see a steak on his wife's dinner plate. She explains that when she was dusting in the back of the bedroom closet, she found bankbooks that he had hidden, showing over $33,000 saved in six different banks. To his horror, Jennifer is determined to live like other people. When he makes a weak attempt to forbid this, she announces that she will get a divorce. Once again, Gifford's reaction is unexpected yet consistent with his extreme cheapness; in voiceover, he is concerned about the cost of divorce in a community property state, not with the loss of his beloved spouse. When Jennifer suggests that she would rather not live at all if she can't live the way she wants to, he immediately thinks of murder, once again in voiceover.

There is a dissolve to a scene showing Alexander at a drugstore, where he examines a spinner rack of paperbacks and selects one titled The Bashful Killer, which features a fake cover that can be seen in a few other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He is certain that he cannot commit murder himself, so Alexander vows to find someone else to do the job.

Another dissolve leads to a closeup of the scowling face of Monk McGinnis, a prisoner in the county jail. Alexander meets with Monk and matter-of-factly asks for the name of a colleague to help have someone "'bumped off'"--according to newspaper reports, Monk was a member of "'Crime, Inc.'" The mix of naivete and forthrightness in Gifford's approach to hiring someone to kill his wife is very funny, and Dennis Day makes the actions believable by performing them with a straight face. Monk, on the other hand is shocked (or at least he pretends to be shocked) by the request, loses his temper, and storms out of the interview room. Alexander is nonplussed.

Frank Richards as Monk McGinnis
Back at home, he sees that Jennifer has purchased a new hat and dress. Absentmindedly, he saves the string that has been tied around the package. There is a knock at the door and Alexander opens it to find someone who casually identifies himself as a hit man sent by Monk, who must have been more receptive to Alexander's request than he seemed at the time. Alexander and the unnamed hit man meet later on a park bench for one of the best scenes in the episode. As they begin to discuss the cost of murder for hire, a cop on the beat strolls by and the hit man immediately begins to speak gibberish until the policeman is out of earshot.

The hit man tells Alexander that "'five bills'" includes murder and disposal of the corpse. Alexander is pleased by the price and counts out five one-dollar bills, but when the crook clarifies that the price is $500, Alexander is shocked. The hit man is quite understanding and admits, "'I'm a family man with expenses myself.'" He suggests that Alexander do the job himself and, in what may be the only time a character on Alfred Hitchcock Presents refers to an event from another episode of the series, mentions a TV show he saw where a "'cute dame...clobbered her old man over the head with a frozen leg of lamb.'" Of course he's referring to the classic episode, "Lamb to the Slaughter," which had aired a year before, on April 13, 1958. Alexander, remaining true to form, shoots down this suggestion with his reply, "'at 59 cents a pound?'"

The hit man takes out a little notebook and draws a diagram of how to blow up a car, but Alexander thinks this would be too costly as well. Finally, the hit man suggests poison and recommends that Alexander visit his friend Arthur, who will sell him poison without keeping a record of the transaction.

As great as the scene on the park bench is, it may be topped by the scene that follows in the laboratory of the poisoner. With bubbling beakers all around, Arthur resembles a mad scientist and, though he is at first reticent about talking to Alexander, once the visitor reveals that he is there to buy poison to murder his wife, Arthur perks up and pulls out a scrapbook with newspaper clippings of what seem like accidental deaths but what are really examples of his skilled work with poison. All seems to be going well until he tells Alexander the price of a bottle of "'L'amour de Nightshade'"--$600! Alexander exits as fast as he can.

Fred Essler as Arthur
Home again, Alexander sees a front page story (in the neighbor's newspaper, of course) about food poisoning at a picnic and gets an idea. In a scene where the only dialogue comes in Alexander's voiceover, he visits a biologist, who is not among the criminals Alexander has been visiting and, while the man's back is turned, Alexander pilfers a sample of botulism toxin by dipping his fountain pen into a test tube and filling it up with the poisonous liquid!

Back at home, Jennifer--dressed in a new outfit and very happy--leaves, at which point her husband emerges, takes a ham out of the refrigerator, and draws a big, black X on it with his poisoned pen. Later, at dinner, his wife has eaten the ham; Alexander says he was not hungry. That evening, while getting ready for bed, Jennifer collapses to the floor, poisoned by the contaminated ham. Alexander is visibly delighted. The next day, after Alexander gets home from work, a doctor makes a house call and emerges from the bedroom to tell Alexander that Jennifer is very ill. The doctor takes what's left of the ham to have it tested for botulism and, after he leaves, Alexander watches as his wife writhes in pain in bed. He ensures that she does not recover by smothering her with a throw pillow that bears the slogan, "Home Sweet Home."

Gage Clarke as the doctor

Next day, the doctor again visits and fills out the death certificate. Alexander is unhappy at the prospect of a costly funeral but, in the show's final shot, he is seen emerging from the front door of a medical school, where he has just sold his wife's corpse for $75!

There are moments in "Cheap is Cheap" where director Bretaigne Windust achieves a noir look, such as the shot early on when Alexander is looking into the living room light and criticizing Jennifer for turning on all three filaments. The first view of Monk's face in jail and the nighttime conversation on the park bench also feature noir lighting, though these shots contrast with the humorous conversations taking place.

Alexander is utterly consistent throughout the episode, viewing everything that happens through a lens of cost and waste. His wife seems like a reasonable person, yet to Alexander, her behavior is unacceptable and he is justified in seeking her demise. To him, marriage is far less important than money and he thinks of murder as "'the only sensible solution.'" Alexander completely fails to understand how his actions appear, so he matter-of-factly approaches Monk and asks for help planning his wife's murder.

Jack Lambert as the hit man
Of all of the criminals whom Alexander encounters, the hit man is perhaps most like him. He arrives at the apartment door like a door-to-door salesman, only what he's selling is murder for hire. On the park bench he tells Alexander that "'we depend on a volume business'" and he is nonplussed by his potential customer's cheapness; instead, he is quite understanding and they engage in a civil discussion. Arthur, the mad scientist, laughs hysterically after he reads each headline about death from his scrapbook aloud; once again, murder is treated lightly. Only when a price is quoted does Alexander decide that Arthur is a "'dangerous maniac.'" In the end, Alexander never seems psychotic, despite his murderous behavior: everything he does is perfectly in line with his love of money above all else. The humor in "Cheap is Cheap" is similar to that which Hitchcock usually engages in during his comments before and after each episode. Most satisfying of all is that Alexander never changes, never sees the error of his ways, never gets a comeuppance. He lives in a world where murdering one's profligate wife is completely understandable and not deserving of punishment.

"Cheap is Cheap" is one of two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Bretaigne Windust (1906-1960). Born in Paris, his family escaped to London during World War One and returned to Paris after the war. His parents divorced in 1920 and he and his mother moved to America, where he became a successful Broadway director, staging plays from the mid-thirties to the late fifties. He moved to Hollywood in 1947 and directed films from 1948 to 1952 and television shows from 1957 to 1960. He directed one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Avon Emeralds."

Dennis Day (1916-1988), who stars as Alexander, was born Owen McNulty and began appearing on the radio in 1939. He served in the Navy in WWII and was a regular singer on Jack Benny's show on radio and TV until Benny's death in 1964. Day continued to appear on screen until 1981 and this was his only role on the Hitchcock TV show. "Cheap is Cheap" aired two hours after The Jack Benny Show on CBS's Sunday night lineup.

Alice Backes (1923-2007) plays Jennifer; after serving as a WAVE during WWII, she worked in radio and then in film from 1948 to 1978. Her busy TV career lasted from 1952 to 1997 and included roles on Thriller, The Night Stalker, and six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Jar."

In smaller roles:
  • Fred Essler (1895-1973) as Arthur, the mad scientist who sells poison; born Fritz Essler in Vienna, he appeared on screen from 1943 to 1966 and this was his only role on the Hitchcock show.
  • Jack Lambert (1920-2002) as the hit man on the park bench; he started on Broadway and then went to Hollywood, where he played many tough guys in a screen career that lasted from 1942 to 1970. He was on Thriller and appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Better Bargain."
  • Gage Clarke (1900-1964) as the doctor; he was on Broadway from the late 1920s and his screen career lasted from 1949 to 1964. Clarke was on The Twilight Zone and Thriller and he appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Right Kind of Medicine."
  • Frank Richards (1909-1992) as Monk McGinnis, the prisoner; he served in WWII and appeared on radio; his screen career lasted from 1940 to 1984. He was on The Twilight Zone and one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Baby-Blue Expression."
"Cheap is Cheap" aired on CBS on Sunday, April 5, 1959. Watch it online here or order the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps review of this episode here.

This cover shows up in other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. See "Breakdown" (where the book is called Wolf Woman Strikes),  "Nightmare in 4-D," (Night of Horror) and "Insomnia." (The Bashful Killer).


"Burt Styler." Burt Styler Oral History,

"Cheap is Cheap." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 26, CBS, 5 April 1959.


"Finding Aid for the Albert Lewin Papers PASC.0314." Online Archive of California,

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



Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "I Killed the Count, part one" here!

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

In two weeks: our short series on Albert E. Lewin and Burt Styler concludes with a look at "Craig's Will," starring Dick van Dyke and Stella Stevens!

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