Alfred Hitchcock Presents proposes a squirm-inducing wager

Alfred Hitchcock Presents proposes a squirm-inducing wager

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the next eight installments is “competition.”

“Man From The South” (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 15; originally aired 1/3/1960)
In which Peter Lorre just wants to make a little bet

Todd VanDerWerff: I hate gambling. I’m not sure why. I’m incredibly comfortable wasting my money on stupid bullshit that I’ll never use, but the second I put even a dollar into a slot machine, I start to get very nervous. I seem to possess none of the requisite excitement over the possibility of a big payoff that might result from a small initial investment. In short, it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever become a gambling addict, and my anxiety about the whole enterprise probably informs the fact that “Man From The South” is one of the episodes of TV that makes me the most squeamish.

That said, upon returning to the half-hour, I was surprised just how little time the central wager takes up. As partially scripted by Roald Dahl (from his short story) and directed by Norman Lloyd, the episode takes its time in first setting up the wager, then in preparing it to be carried out. We don’t actually see Steve McQueen’s gambling fool begin his mad quest to light that lighter 10 times in a row until there are something like six or seven minutes left in the story proper (because, remember, we’ve got to leave plenty of time for Hitch to make fun of the sponsors). Everything up until that point is Peter Lorre’s Carlos proposing the plan, the gambler deciding to go along with it, then the agonizing preparation process.

And agonizing is the best way to describe it. Once the episode gets past the very basic setup—if you can light this lighter 10 times in a row, I’ll give you my convertible; if you can’t, I get the little finger on your left hand—then it really has nowhere else to go until the wager is carried out. I find that’s sometimes a problem with these older, genre-specific anthology series. Once their episodes have established the central premise, then we’re just waiting for the shocking denouement or (particularly in the case of The Twilight Zone) the clever twist. This can lead to a lot of downtime in the middle section of the episode, which is often filled with people talking about the situation that has already been set up. Often, there’s just nowhere for the story to go

“Man From The South” solves this by showing us the situation as it’s set up. Carlos takes his time making sure he gets just the right equipment for his wager, specifying the kind of knife he needs (in the sort of chilling fashion only Lorre is capable of), then running nails into a table and tying down the gambler’s hand, that he might not remove it when the time comes to chop off that little finger. This whole section is delightfully, deliciously queasy, and Lorre’s evident satisfaction at the bet being carried out is wonderful—as is McQueen’s growing unease at the realization that this guy has done this many, many times before. (The number is well over 60, if you work out the math from the final monologue by Carlos’ wife.)

But it’s the final section that sticks in the memory. I had remembered the pauses being much more agonizing, the amount of time taken up being that much longer than it actually is. I suspect that’s because what is here is already agonizing enough, so your brain mentally inflates it to make it even worse. There’s a little moment where McQueen sets the lighter down, evidently ill at ease and needing to take a breather, and it lasts probably 30 seconds, but it feels like a lifetime. Dahl’s scenario is so bizarre that it feels like something that would never happen, even while it’s occurring right in front of you, and all of the characters in the room (who include several interested bystanders who become complicit in the event) seem to have followed this trajectory as well. It’s not immediately clear whether it would be great to see Carlos defeated or whether we really just want to see the gambler lose that finger, and that makes the whole thing become even more unmoored.

I know the episode has long been seen as a triumph of the twist ending, but I must confess that I find the ending a bit of a cop-out. I really do want to see this competition between Carlos and the gambler, this battle of wills that’s testing the latter so thoroughly, play out. It’s fantastic to see that Carlos’ wife lost all of those fingers in her attempt to wrest control of everything her husband owned away from him, both to get that car and to break his vicious cycle, but it also feels as if it interrupts things just as they’re getting going. I know it’s true to Dahl’s short story, but I found myself wanting to see things play out.

What about you? Do you agree with consensus opinion that this twist ending is a knockout? And would you take that wager with a lighter you were secure enough in?

Noel Murray: I’d say that this episode isn’t really about the twist, Todd. We do get all the information we need to know about how the bet would’ve played out: When McQueen tries to light Neile Adams’ cigarette right after the wife barges in, it fails, which means he would’ve lost the bet; and given the state of the wife’s hand, it’s clear that she’s not lying when she calls Lorre “a menace.” All we were spared was seeing Lorre do his Bill The Butcher impression. No, I’d say that “Man From The South” is a classic Hitchcockian “bomb under the table” scenario: The suspense doesn’t come from seeing the bomb explode, it’s from waiting for it to explode. And as long as it’s ticking away, we’ll sit still for whatever the storyteller wants to say.

Well, I will, anyway. I’m a huge fan of this episode, in part because of the fun of watching Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre do their respective shtick together—McQueen the beautiful loser who’s less confident than he pretends to be; Lorre the sweaty little buffoon with a dark streak—and in part because of every single detail is telling. Even before Lorre arrives, the way McQueen feeds Adams sugarcubes and calls her “a lot to take at 8 in the morning” is fascinating. Are they just commiserating over their respective losses? Fighting off boredom after a bad night? Sniffing around each other for sex? (All three, most likely.) And then when Lorre shows up, it’s already obvious that he’s done this many times before, from the way he says, “I like the pleasant company of young people” a little too quickly, like it’s a line he’s memorized, to the way he clumsily breaks his cigarette in two in order to get McQueen to pull out his lighter again.

And then, once the wager is accepted, there’s still so much to chew on. Lorre’s preparations for the game—the hammering, the cord-twisting—are excruciating to watch because they allow the viewer time to think about the potential end result of all the set up. (Imagining how it’s going to look and feel is much worse than actually seeing it, I’d argue.) Adams’ pre-game conversation with McQueen—she walks up and casually says, “Hello, stupid,” to which he says, “Heeeey…”—is just as curious as their initial flirtation. Who is this woman, anyway? My bet: A thrill-seeker from Idaho, who craves any kind of action, even if she can’t admit that she may be more than a little sick. And then there’s “The Referee,” who comes up to the room because he’s “got a weakness for these barroom propositions,” and then hesitates for a moment when Lorre tells him to give the word for when to begin. If the ref never blows the starting whistle, does the game start? And if not, is the ref responsible in some way for whatever happens next?

But it’s McQueen’s reaction to all this that powers the episode. In keeping with our Roundtable theme of competition, here’s a gambler who’s drawn into this bet not just because he’s compulsive, or because he’s down on his luck, but because Lorre challenges his entire generation, calling them “soft.” And so once he agrees to play, McQueen has to keep up the tough guy act, even faux-calmly asking the ref to keep count of the lighting, as though this is the kind of request he makes every day. (The referee eagerly agrees, because he’s far more comfortable with that assignment than he is with saying, “Go.”) Then McQueen starts lighting that lighter, and again there’s a lot to consider. Lorre lifts his cleaver a little before each flick; can a maniac who’d make a bet like this be trusted not to start hacking capriciously? Should McQueen be letting the lighter stay lit for as long as he does each time? (“Save it for the World Series, you mind?” Adams half-jokes to him at one point, when he lights his lighter before the bet.) And then there’s the biggest question of all: Here’s a 99-cent lighter that McQueen insists is one of the most reliable things in his life, but given the state of his life when the episode begins, does that really mean anything? With each flick, each flame, and each little lift of Lorre’s cleaver, this episode asks: What can you count on?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: There were more than 260 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and I feel as if I watched at least half of them, either when the local station showed them on Sunday afternoons when I was a kid or later, when they were a mainstay of Nick At Nite. All I can remember about most of them are the wraparound segments with Hitchcock himself. It’s not hard to understand why. There are only so many stories of this kind that can be told in a little less than half an hour without feeling either padded or truncated, and within the limits set by Standards And Practices at the time. The fact that this one holds up pretty well is a tribute to Roald Dahl’s mastery of the form. (Dahl also wrote the story that inspired another classic episode, and one that Hitchcock directed himself, “Lamb To The Slaughter.”)  The device of the bet supplies suspense, and it also naturally provides for the kind of dialogue that can help postpone the big setpiece. (“What—you’re suggesting we do what!?”) For me, part of that mastery is the twist at the end, and I agree with Noel: It works gangbusters for me. 

Part of the beauty of the craftsmanship is the way it enfolds a twist-within-the-twist—the almost incidental revelation that, if the game had continued, McQueen would have lost his finger, which obviously would have been unacceptable, given that it comes yoked to the news that Carlos has made the bet in bad faith, having no car to give. (McQueen’s steadily escalating display of grace under pressure is very skillfully done, but I confess that my favorite demonstration of the actor’s art here comes when Lorre, who looks like a depressed bullfrog throughout, brightens up so cartooonishly when he’s reminded of all the maimed hands he left back on the islands in his salad days.)

I would maintain that a story like this also needs a touch of the grisly to keep it from seeming like a parlor game, and the finger-chopping gimmick provides that, even if we don’t actually see anything more unsettling than a woman wearing a trick glove. Incidentally, we’ve been referring to the woman who breaks up the party at the end as Lorre’s wife, but I don’t think she’s ever identified as such. In at least one of the other versions of this story that I’ve seen, the woman announces that she’s Carlos’ sister. Clearly, director Norman Lloyd didn’t think it was important enough to specify even in passing, but I prefer having the two of them unmarried, aging siblings, who’ve been joined at the hip their whole lives, with Carlos locked into his madness and she kept too preoccupied by having to keep an eye on him to even think about starting a family of her own. It’s so much more gothic that way.

Donna Bowman: 25 minutes? This episode would make a great psychology experiment. Take out the Hitchcock interstitials and commercial breaks, show it to an audience in a room with all the clocks removed, and see what the estimate the running time to be. On the one hand, it’s packed to the gills with plot and incident. On the other, everyone involved acts like they have all the time in the world. I’d be one of the people who would have pegged it as a suspenseful 47 minutes, because there’s so much detail, and none of it is rushed. We see every step in the process, every word of the pitch, every instruction to the principals, every nail hammered into the table, every wry look from McQueen as Lorre repositions his hand. We even take a break for some back-and-forth with the bellboy on the matter of how hard it’s going to be to get a cleaver from the kitchen.

But I wouldn’t cut a second. I’d watch this at three times the length, and make a point of patronizing the sponsors Hitch so creatively derides. The real trick is keeping us in the dark about what the ultimate point of this story is going to be. Are we going to learn something about these randomly thrown-together characters from their trial by fire, like whether McQueen is as cool as he pretends, or whether the referee is as disinterested a party as he seems? Does Lorre have some grudge or fetish that motivates his apparently random choice of betting partner? Will we discover the source of the desperation that drives McQueen, or the horrified fascination of Adams that keeps her gaze locked on the table, waiting for the blade to descend?

While we second-guess what Hitch, Dahl, and Lloyd want us to focus on, the puppetmasters reveal that there’s actually less to the scene than its classic stylings led us to believe. No backstory for McQueen and Adams, no treachery from the referee, no winner in the battle of nerves. Just what did we want to happen? What kind of seedy story of down-on-their-luck gamblers wooing Lady Luck were we hoping for? Instead, McQueen and Adams seem relieved to have escaped from way too deep, and the real iron will belongs to Carlos’ sister/wife/whoever, who knew the odds and still took them on again and again. As a viewer, I have to laugh at my own foolishness in buying into the genre trappings, and feel some relief at being allowed to escape with my moral sensibilities intact, the consequences of my voyeurism having been tactfully deflected.

Genevieve Koski: Count me among the subjects who would peg this at much longer than 25 minutes, Donna, and not all of them suspenseful in a good way. I’m not saying “Man From The South” isn’t excellently crafted in its slowly mounting tension, because it certainly is. And I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy this, my first time really sitting down with a full episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, because I certainly did. (And I’m eager to see more.) But there’s a fundamental obstacle to my engagement with the premise here, which some of you have also hinted at: I have no patience for gambling—especially games of chance, which seem like utter wastes of time and mental energy. Consequently, the portion of this episode that takes place in the bar, with Lorre wheedling and tempting McQueen into his little game, felt interminable and frustrating as I shouted in my head, “Just walk away! This is stupid! You don’t need that supposedly real sports car, you didn’t even want it until he told you you could have it!” (Then again, this is Steve McQueen we’re talking about, so know your audience, I guess.) Yes, there are hints that McQueen is coming off a string of bad luck and is in need of a win of any sort, but that’s the sort of thinking that drives a cut-your-losses pragmatist like me insane, and made the first half of this episode feel like torture: It’s maddening to feel so anxious about an outcome to which you feel so little sympathetic connection.

Which is what makes the second half that takes place in the hotel room so brilliant. What previously seemed like a pointless exercise in masculine bravado—seriously, guy, she was clearly gonna sleep with you anyway; anyone too drunk to keep her shoe on is a, pardon the phrase, sure bet—is suddenly imbued with a real sense of danger as Lorre methodically sets about his business with the practiced efficiency of a psychopath. As Noel says, it’s obvious from the beginning that something isn’t quite right with this guy, but he doesn’t feel dangerous—not only capable of collecting on his bet but eager to do so—until he calmly asks that bellboy for a knife. In the grand scheme of things, losing a pinky isn’t that big a deal—about as big a deal as getting a free sports car, but on the opposite end of the desirability spectrum—but the idea of losing it to someone who’s eyeing it like it’s a cocktail weenie, raising his cleaver in anticipation with every flick of the lighter, is nauseating. It creates stakes out of a situation that should never even exist, tapping into the basic human instinct for self-preservation, overriding any and all questions of good judgment or common sense.

Erik Adams: Since we efficiently covered the ground on gambling and the implied battle between the generations (which, since we’re dealing with a story by Wing Commander Roald Dahl, Royal Air Force, I’d ascribe to tension between those who fought World War II and those who didn’t), I’d like to mention two crucial shifts between Dahl’s short story and the episode of television it inspired. First, there’s a crucial shift in perspective: The short story is told from the perspective of “The Referee”; to preserve the voyeuristic tinge of that POV (for a series produced by a man who knew from voyeurism), Alfred Hitchcock Presents makes the viewer the morbidly curious onlooker. This also frees us up, as several of you have noted, to check in with various characters who we’ll only know for some 25 minutes. Ultimately, I feel an attachment to all of them—even Carlos, who, in Peter Lorre’s hands, becomes the type of shamefaced, sympathetic, yet utterly evil persona few beyond Lorre are capable of embodying.

The other shift involves that amount of breathing room. It’s funny that we’ve delved so deeply into the details of this half-hour, because Dahl’s short story is astonishingly sparse. It moves briskly for seven or eight pages before encapsulating the wager and its interruption over the course of a few concluding paragraphs. For obvious reasons, anthology series are often considered the television equivalent of short stories, but even at 25 minutes, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or one of its contemporaries affords a writer a much greater depth for characterization—and a visible endpoint at which the tension must be relieved and a conclusion delivered—unavailable in the pages of The New Yorker or Harper’s. This could have the effect of cheapening Dahl’s economically told story, but the viewer’s investment in the characters make this “Man From The South” just as suspenseful as the source material. Anyone willing to take a wager on that?

Stray observations:
NM: We should mention a couple of movies in association with this episode: The Cincinnati Kid, one of McQueen’s signature films, again about the guts of a gambler; and Four Rooms, in which Quentin Tarantino has a bunch of Alfred Hitchcock Presents fans re-enact this very episode, with a different (and funnier) twist ending. Both are examples about how once a plot’s in place, a good filmmaker can coax the audience through the pleasures of atmosphere, performance and dialogue. The story of The Cincinnati Kid isn’t what makes it a great film; it’s McQueen and Edward G. Robinson trading steely looks in a roomful of colorful characters. And while Four Rooms’ “Man From Hollywood” is a straight steal from Dahl, aside from the premise, it couldn’t be more different from this episode.

NM: I hate gambling too, Todd and Genevieve. I have two problems with it, really: I can’t be happy when I win, because I always think about how much more I could’ve won if I’d bet more; and I’ve never been a guy who minds losing, so I tend to make stupid wagers the longer I stay in a casino or at a card table, just because I get impatient.

PDN: I honestly can’t remember whether I’d ever seen this episode before. I thought I had, but the waters are kind of muddy, because I know I’ve seen two other TV versions: One that opened Tales Of The Unexpected, a syndicated series devoted, in early episodes at least, entirely to Roald Dahl stories (it produced a version of “Lamb To The Slaughter,” too), and one that was part of the three-story pilot for the 1985 revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which combined remakes of old episodes with “colorized” versions of old Hitchcock intros. (Considering that Hitchcock was a pasty-white dude unvaryingly dressed in a black suit with a white shirt, it was as if some subversive at NBC was having a laugh at the sheer pointlessness of the whole colorization idea itself.) The latter is notable for its cast: It starred John Huston in the Peter Lorre role, Kim Novak as his sister, and Steven Bauer and Melanie Griffith (who were married at the time, just as Steve McQueen and Neile Adams were when they made the earlier version). Griffith’s mother, Tippi Hedren, does a bit part as a waitress, which is probably the type of gig Hitchcock expected her to receive after he shredded her contract.

PDN: It’s worth mentioning that, in terms of movie history, the most significant thing about this long-running, highly regarded series—which did so much to make Hitchcock himself a name brand beyond the reach of other directors with less sense of personal showmanship—is that it got Hitchcock thinking about doing a feature film using his TV crew and the same fast, cheap method of shooting that he had to develop when he was working on the network’s dime. The result was Psycho, which mated those techniques to material that obviously never would have been approved by the network at the time.

GK: The twist of McQueen’s lighter not sparking at the end is a stomach-dropping moment, but it’s foreshadowed (perhaps unintentionally, though I suspect not) when he lights Adams’ cigarette right before Lorre enters: The first flick of his lighter doesn’t catch. Literally a second later, Lorre swoops in.

Next week: Donna Bowman asks us how well we know the cast of Friends with “The One With The Embryos.” (It’s not available online, but chances are it’s playing in syndication at this very moment.) After that, Phil Dyess-Nugent’s pick gives us a look at a feud within the separate yet equally important groups of the criminal justice system with the season-eight Law & Order episode “Divorce.” (The episode is available for streaming at Netflix.)