Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Hitchcock Project-Don't Interrupt by Sidney Carroll [4.2]

by Jack Seabrook

In an interview at the American Film Institute, Alfred Hitchcock explained the difference between surprise and suspense. When a bomb goes off unexpectedly in a film, it is a surprise, but when the viewer is shown the bomb in advance and must wait to see if it goes off, it is suspense. Hitchcock talked about the dichotomy between the conversation among the characters on screen, which could be about a banal subject, and the viewer's increasing distress; the viewer knows more than the characters about the danger they are in and is thus consumed with increasing worry about whether they will be killed. Hitchcock added that it is imperative that once the bomb is shown it does not go off, or else the viewer will be angry at having tension build without relief.

In "Don't Interrupt," the only episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents written by Sidney Carroll, a situation similar to that described by Hitchcock is shown. However, in this instance, a single character is aware of the danger but has a vested interest in keeping his mouth shut.

Chill Wills as Kilmer
The scene is set in a brief establishing a shot that shows a train speeding through New Mexico in a heavy snowstorm at night. Inside the train, Johnny Templeton, a young boy dressed as a cowboy and holding two toy six-shooters, creeps along a passageway, trying the doors of each private compartment until he is stopped by his parents, who have different reactions to their son. His father is patient and tries to reason with the boy, while his mother appears to be at her wits' end and is tired of his antics.

Johnny bursts into the club car, where two African American staff members await: a bartender and a waiter. On the bar itself is a radio, and a key piece of information is delivered immediately as a news bulletin is broadcast, reporting that "'The patient who escaped two days ago from the state mental hospital has been reported in the area of San Lucerne. Due to the extreme weather conditions, however, the police expect to apprehend the patient shortly.'" Johnny asks the bartender, "'Don't we stop at San Lucerno tonight?'" and is told, "'That's a fact,'" but this key piece of information is immediately forgotten by the adults in the club car. In a sense, the bulletin is the first sign of the bomb spoken about by Hitchcock.

Biff McGuire as Larry
In the dialogue that follows between Johnny's parents, we learn that he was expelled from an expensive private school, forcing his parents to travel cross-country for three days, presumably to fetch him and bring him home. Johnny's mother twice tells him, "'don't interrupt,'" when he tries to speak, providing the episode with its title and setting up the final scene, where this instruction becomes one of deadly importance. The parents continue to struggle with their energetic son until a new character enters the club car and approaches them. This character will entrance Johnny and captivate his parents for the rest of the episode with his tall tales.

Wearing a cowboy hat and a string tie, the man introduces himself as Kilmer, asks if he can join them for a drink, and immediately melts Mary's chilly exterior with flattery. Johnny is thrilled to meet "'an old cowpoke'" and, though his enthusiasm is welcomed by Kilmer, Johnny's parents continue to stifle him, telling him not to interrupt and to be quiet. Kilmer remarks that the train seems to be slowing down and he talks about the horror of being caught out in the cold, telling the family that "'I sure pity anybody out there on a night like this.'" The viewer doesn't know it yet, but his words foreshadow later events. Suddenly, the train comes to a stop and the lights go out.

Since Kilmer commented that he got on the train at San Lucerno, it seems that he could have been portrayed as possibly being the escaped mental patient described in the radio news bulletin, but Chill Wills's performance as Kilmer is so engaging that the character never exudes a sense of menace.

Cloris Leachman as Mary
An hour later, the Templeton family and Mr. Kilmer sit in the club car by candlelight when a conductor informs them that the train's generator failed and they should be on their way again in ten or fifteen minutes. The scene is set for the events that the whole show has been building toward: a small group of people are huddled together on a train at night in the middle of nowhere and a blizzard is raging outside, so they are trapped. Just then, the radio on the bar broadcasts an update: "'The police have redoubled efforts to locate the mental patient, now believed to be lost in the storm. Hospital authorities wish to emphasize the fact the man is not dangerous. He needs help.'" Unlike a prior Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode that dealt with an escaped mental patient, "The Dangerous People," this mental patient does not pose a threat to the main characters.

Kilmer says that he seems "'to be reliving something that happened fifty years ago,'" and offers to tell the Templetons another story. Larry buys Johnny's silence for the next ten minutes by promising him a silver dollar. Everything up to this point in the show is setup; what happens over the next ten minutes is where the suspense builds. Kilmer is spinning a story about his days herding sheep in 1905 and his experience being out alone in  a terrible snowstorm, when Johnny suddenly sees a man's hand outside the train window, in a blizzard similar to the one Kilmer is describing; the hand leaves lines in condensation as it slides down the window.

Peter Lazer as Johnny
At this point, the viewer realizes that the escaped mental patient who needs help is outside and that Johnny is the only one who knows it. But Johnny has been promised a silver dollar by his father if he stays quiet! Johnny tries to speak but his parents hush him, and his attention is split between the train window and the silver dollar on the table next to him. Kilmer goes on with his story, talking about the extreme cold he experienced and the sense of being alone and lost. Coincidentally, Kilmer was saved when a train came out of nowhere; as he tells his story, Johnny sees the man outside trying to climb up the side of the train car, his hands attempting to grasp the window glass.

Robert Stevens, the director of "Don't Interrupt," ratchets up the suspense by focusing on Johnny's face and cutting back and forth between shots of his anguished expression, the time on his wristwatch, and the silver dollar. Johnny tries to speak again but his parents silence him. He sees the face of the man outside the train, his cries for help unheard because of the insulated glass. The time on Johnny's wristwatch ticks closer to 9:00 and, just as Kilmer concludes his story, the man outside falls off, the train's interior lights go back on, the horn blows, and the train starts moving again.

Scatman Crothers as Timothy
Kilmer remarks, ironically, "'Imagine being caught out in a blizzard and what comes along to save you? A Train!'" Johnny tries to tell his parents about the man outside the train but they don't believe him, and the mental patient's fate is sealed. In a final note of irony, Johnny tucks the silver dollar in his belt for safe keeping but it falls to the floor at the waiter's feet. After the guests have left the club car, the bartender chastises the waiter for keeping Johnny's silver dollar, to which the waiter replies: "'What's a dollar mean to a kid like that, anyway?'"

The final irony in the show is that the dollar meant so much to Johnny that he was willing to let a man freeze to death in a blizzard outside the train rather than interrupt Kilmer's story and risk his parents' anger. In Hitchcock's terms, Johnny was in the place of the viewer, having more information about what was happening than everyone else around him. Yet the "bomb" does go off in "Don't Interrupt" when the man outside the train falls off and the train speeds away from him. This works in the half-hour television format, where suspense can lead to a surprise ending that does not show the characters living happily ever after. It would not work as well in a longer film, in which the audience would expect the tension to be broken and the man to be saved.

"Don't Interrupt" would be more engaging if the character of Kilmer were suspected to be the escaped mental patient. Also, the final scene is uncomfortable to watch today; the African American waiter essentially steals the boy's silver dollar and the boy addresses the adult waiter by his first name, Timothy, although he has addressed the white men in the show as either "sir" or "Mr. Kilmer."

Jack Mulhall as
the conductor
The end credits for "Don't Interrupt" state that the teleplay is by Sidney Carroll, "From his Story 'Don't Interrupt.'" These credits suggest two things: first, that there was a prior, published short story, and second, that the episode was originally titled something other than "Don't Interrupt." Otherwise, why would the credits give the story's name? An exhaustive search has failed to turn up any published short story that could have served as the basis for this episode; I reviewed every story listed in the FictionMags Index and none fit the bill. It appears that Carroll stopped writing short stories and began writing for TV around 1954, so it's probable that the story referred to in the credits was unpublished.

Sidney Carroll (1913-1988) wrote non-fiction articles and short stories for mainstream magazines such as Esquire and Cosmopolitan from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. He then wrote for the screen until 1986, winning two Emmys and one Edgar. This was his only contribution to the Hitchcock TV show. He was one of the writers credited with the screenplay for The Hustler (1961), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. His papers are held at UCLA, but they don't appear to contain any references to "Don't Interrupt."

Robert Stevens (1920-1989) directed "Don't Interrupt," one of the 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series that he directed; he won an Emmy for "The Glass Eye."

Roy Glenn, Sr., as
the bartender
Receiving top billing as Kilmer is Chill Wills (1902-1978). Born Theodore Childress Wills, he began performing as a child, first as a singer and then as an actor. He was in vaudeville and appeared on screen from 1934 until his death. He was seen in many westerns and was the voice of Francis, the Talking Mule, in a series of films. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show; he later appeared in an episode of Night Gallery.

Starring as Larry Templeton is Biff McGuire (1926-2021), who was born William McGuire and who started out on Broadway, including a role in the original cast of South Pacific (1949). He acted on screen from 1950 to 2013 and was in the classic 1973 film, Serpico. He appeared in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Gentleman from America," where he also was directed by Robert Stevens.

Geoffrey Lewis as the
escaped mental patient
Mary Templeton is played by Cloris Leachman (1926-2021), who was in the 1946 Miss America Pageant before becoming an actress. She studied at the Actors Studio and began appearing on screen in 1947. She was in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and she appeared on The Twilight Zone ("It's a Good Life") and Thriller before winning an Academy Award for her role in The Last Picture Show (1971). She played Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and on its spinoff, Phyllis (1975-1977) and won nine Emmy Awards. She also had a memorable role in Young Frankenstein (1974). Leachman was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Premonition."

Peter Lazer (1946-2008) plays Johnny; he acted mostly on TV from 1953 to 1967 and was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Special Delivery."

In smaller roles:
  • Scatman Crothers (1910-1986) as Timothy, the waiter who keeps Johnny's silver dollar; born Benjamin Sherman Crothers, he was a singer and a musician who also had a long, successful career on screen from 1951 to 1986. Though this was his only role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he appeared on The Night Stalker and The Odd Couple and had memorable roles in many films, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), The Shining (1980), and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • Jack Mulhall (1887-1979) as the train conductor; he started out in vaudeville and had a long career on screen from 1910 to 1959. He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Never Again."
  • Roy Glenn, Sr. (1914-1971) as the bartender; he was on film, radio, and TV from 1935 to his death, but this was his only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Geoffrey Lewis (1913-1997) as the mental patient; he was seen mostly on British TV from 1957 to 1976 and this was his only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
"Don't Interrupt" aired on CBS on Sunday, October 12, 1958. Watch it online here or order the DVD here.


Bose, Swapnil Dhruv. "Alfred Hitchcock Reveals the Secret Ingredient for Creating Suspense." Far Out Magazine, 7 July 2020,,the%20characters%20in%20the%20movie.%E2%80%9D.

"Don't Interrupt." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 2, NBC, 12 October 1958.


"Finding Aid for the Sidney Carroll Papers, 1957-1981." Online Archive of California,

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


"Roy Glenn." RUSC Old Time Radio - Download over 40,000 OTR Shows,


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

In two weeks: our short series on Albert E. Lewin and Burt Styler begins with a look at "Cheap is Cheap," starring Dennis Day!

1 comment:

Jon said...

Biff McGuire, like Cloris Leachman, died in 2021. Both of them survived the actor who played their son by many years.

I knew Scatman Crothers mostly from when he was a regular on CHICO AND THE MAN, playing the neighborhood trashman, Louie, also for at least one memorable LOVE BOAT appearance from Season 1 of that show. He lived 1910-1986.