Sunday, March 24, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "Return of Verge Likens"

Peter Fonda stars as Verge Likens in one of his finest performances. 


A mansion in the darkness of a storm, a mask, a broken clock face, a door with the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, "Funeral March of a Marionette" plays in the background, and suddenly he appears. "Good evening," he says with his trademark droll tone. 

Episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour always consist of two shows in one. There is the first show, the performance by Sir Alfred Hitchcock, and the second show, which he refers to as "the play."
In this particular episode, we see Sir Alfred Hitchcock greeting his guests, then suddenly he is charming, good-natured Al sitting behind a set of drums. He places a shaggy dark wig on his head, imitating the popular British group, The Beatles. "If you see three young men with electric guitars please send them back," he tells the viewing audience. "They seem to have wandered off. They can't be far, however, as they are still plugged in, all evidence to the contrary." Hitchcock tells us he is convinced that music has charms to soothe he savage breast, and the drums are his example. The drums, he claims, were made by a tribe of aborigines and were made from human skin. He holds up two giant bones and tells the audience they are drum sticks, "which we buy at a modest profit," he says. "Unfortunately we keep running out of salesmen," implying that the drums are, of course, made out of the salesmen. This is the morbid sense of humor of the great Alfred Hitchcock.

Tonight's play is "Return of Verge Likens," which first aired in 1964 and stars Peter Fonda and Robert Emhardt. There are few performances by Peter Fonda that have impressed me, and his most famous performance as Wyatt in the 1969 film Easy Rider is not one of them. However, he has had some stellar moments on screen, including his performance as Ulee Jackson in the 1997 film Ulee's Gold. He has also had smaller roles that impressed me greatly, such as this one on the Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  Fonda is spot on.

The Play

The play begins in a bar with the bartender forcing a customer, Stoney Likens (Robert Barrat), out the door. He tells Stoney he cannot allow him to speak to his customers that way, "especially Riley McGrath." Clearly, McGrath is a man of some importance in this community. The bartender steps inside and apologizes to a loud, obnoxious customer and his girlfriend who are seated at a table. There is loud, 50s rock music playing in the background and McGrath shouts out for pickled pigs feet and more beers as he nibbles on the neck of the woman beside him.

George Lindsey plays D.D. Martin in "Return of Verge Likens." 
He later became famous as Gomer Pyles in Mayberry R.F.D.

Stoney walks into the dark parking lot. He stands behind his truck bed that is filled with boxes of peaches. He hears McGath laughing, turns around and storms back into the bar. Then the door opens, and Stoney returns. D.D. Martin tries to grab Stoney's arm. Martin appears to be working for Mr. McGrath, his "man." Martin is played by George Lindsey, who later becomes famous as Goober Pyle in The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. Martin appears in three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Show as well as a few other supernatural anthologies, such as The Twilight Zone and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

"It's a free country Mr. McGrath," Stoney says. McGrath waves him on. Stoney tells him he worked hard for his hundred acres and no one will make him sell. Stoney starts throwing beer bottles at McGrath. McGrath pulls a gun. Stoney shakes up some beer bottles and sprays McGrath and his girlfriend and McGrath shoots Stoney. Stoney dies on the barroom floor.

Next we are in the Likens home Verge Likens (Peter Fonda) and his brother, Wilford (Sammy Reese) are tossing a knife into the dining room table. A truck pulls up and Wilford, who appears to be mildly mentally challenged, believes it's their father, but Verge does not recognize the sound of the truck. Verge answers the door with a piece of cornbread in his mouth. The sheriff asks if he's Stoney Likens boy. The two men nod. The sheriff tells them there's been an accident. They drive to the bar.

The bartender claims it was self-defense, that Stoney was going after McGrath with bottles. "My daddy didn't have no gun on him," Verge Likens responds. "If he'd had a gun on him, and had been pointin it at him, well then that'd be a different thing, but it ain't self-defense to me when a man with a gun shoots down a man who ain't got none." The bartender seems confused and says it seemed like self-defense, but now he's not sure. Verge asks what McGrath was doing in the bar. The sheriff says he was stopping by on his way back from a political rally in Charleston. Verge asks why he didn't stay. The sheriff says there was no need, that he questioned McGrath at his home. "He was tired, upset, taking handsful of heart pills. I told him to go to bed, get a good night's sleep," the sheriff says. "You two boys do the same. Verge questions the sheriff, if that's all he plans to do, and the sheriff looks around, points out that seven people are willing to swear it was self-defense. Verge storms out. The sheriff hands the items from Stoney's pockets to Wilford.

The boys walk out to Stoney's truck. Verge comments that Stoney had a good day, made ten dollars. Then he tells Wilford not to cry, but Wilford cries. Verge picks up a peach and throws it through the bar window, breaking the glass. He throws more peaches. The sheriff runs onto the porch. The next morning, Verge and Wilford's aunts are cleaning the house and setting up a wake. Wilford comments that they never really had any friends. The aunts seem very loving toward the two young men. One aunt comments on the marks on the table and Wilford explains how the two brothers used to practice with their knives by throwing them at the table.

The dog barks. The sheriff is returning Verge. Apparently he was arrested the night before. The sheriff warns Verge to forget everything. "Stay here and pick your peaches." Wilford tells Verge the aunts have cooked plenty of food. Verge walks into the yard and hugs his aunts. Next, it is evening, and Verge is reading the Bible as they sit around Stoney's coffin. Wilford asks if its bedtime. Verge says he won't go to bed until their father is in the ground. "It wasn't self-defense, Wilford," Verge says. Wilford reminds him their father is dead and there's nothing they can do about it. "Yes, yes there is something," Verge tells him. Wilford may be slow, but he knows what his brother is talking about. He reminds Verge that their father is gone, that there is nothing that can be done. "I'm fixin to do it, Wilford," Verge replies. "It's all I've been thinking about since I saw Daddy dead on the barroom floor." Verge reads from the Bible, the book of Leviticus 24:17-20, "an eye for an eye." Wilford asks Verge straight out what he plans to do. "I'm sayin I'm gonna kill Riley McGrath," Verge replies. He turns and looks at his father in his coffin, nodding his head. This is prime acting by Fonda. He is so convincing he gave me goosebumps.

Next we see Verge outside the McGrath house. He has a rifle. He takes aim, but he can't shoot. He smiles, though. A very disconcerting smile. He comes home to Wilford who is visibly upset, complaining that he's been left alone three nights. Verge asks Wilford if he knows where Mr. McGrath is at the moment, then he tells him, every detail, that McGrath will go to his office, open his mail, drink his coffee, then go downstairs at 10 a.m. to the Sigafoose Barber Shop and get a shave and a shine. Verge tells Wilford it's an expensive barber shop, costs $1.25, and McGrath has his hair cut once a week whether he needs it or not. Verge knows where he eats dinner, that he has a girlfriend, and every other Thursday he sees a Doctor Sanders for his bad heart. Clearly, Verge has been watching McGrath very closely. He confesses to his brother he's been following McGrath every day for a month. He tells Wilford he almost shot him that very morning, then realized it wasn't enough. "I want him to know my name when I kill him," he says. Wilford is afraid. He reminds his brother that Verge is the only real family he has left. Verge goes to bed, but Wilford is afraid.

The Clues

This is an interesting play because all of the details that are important to the story are presented to the viewer in the first few minutes. We learn that Stoney has two adult sons and sells peaches on 100 acres. We learn that McGrath, a ruthless politician, is trying to force him from his land, that he won't hesitate to use force, and that the people of the town are afraid of McGrath and will always take his side. We also learn that McGrath takes heart pills. We learn from the aunt that the brothers are experienced with knives, particularly Verge. And we learn when and where McGrath gets his haircut. The clues are all there, laid out before us, but the story is so compelling, the acting so fine that we cannot stop watching. We suspect that we know what is to come, but we cannot stop watching.

Wilford's Fear


Wilford pays a visit to Mr. McGrath at Sigafoose Barber Shop. When he tells Mr. McGrath his name, McGrath and the barber stop their banter and exchange a glance, then McGrath suggests that he continue the conversation with Wilford in his office. Wilford tells McGrath that he is afraid for his brother, afraid his brother might kill McGrath. Wilford asks McGrath to send for Verge and talk to him. McGrath asks Wilford for his address, which Wilford willingly provides. I'm not sure why this is important as this is information McGrath could easily obtain from the sheriff since the entire town seems to be on McGrath's payroll. McGrath then does something that surprised me as a viewer--he tells Wilford that he knows how it feels to lose a parent--both his parents died recently. McGrath then removes $500 from an envelope and gives it to Wilford, then tells him he hopes this will "spread some oil on these obviously troubled waters." He tells Wilford to go with his blessing.

We next see Wilford at the dinner table trying to explain his visit to his brother. Verge is clearly incensed, until Wilford pulls out the $500. Verge stands up from the table and goes to his room. He tells Wilford he hopes he thanked McGrath for the money. "Momma didn't raise us in a barn, you know," he tells his brother. Then he begins to pack. He tells Wilford he is sending for their aunts to take care of him because Verge is going to school. "What kind of school?" Wilford asks. Verge stops packing and stares at his brother with a determined look in his eyes. "The kind of school that's gonna teach me how to kill Mr. Riley McGrath the way I wanna," he says. Wilford asks if there's a killing school in Charleston. Verge claims there is, the kind of school that will teach him to kill McGrath "real slow, so he has to look at my face a long time and know what's coming." He then makes Wilford promise that if McGrath comes looking for him Wilford will not tell McGrath what Verge is doing in Charleston.

Intermission

Alfred Hitchcock once again appears onscreen. He doesn't always perform an intermission, but he does in this show. He is still seated behind a set of drums. "We have not come to the end of our play. There is much more," he informs the audience, "but we thought it wise to stop here in order to ease tensions and break station." I found this station break interesting because it made me realize I really was growing tense over this plot! And yet, as I've said before, I do wish they would show the old station breaks and vintage television commercials. I think that would add to the fun of watching classic television!

Special Delivery

When we return to the show a delivery truck from Flowers by Florene pulls up in front of McGrath's office. The delivery is a large memorial wreath wrapped in a ribbon that says "Rest in Peace." D.D. Martin (George Lindsey) carries the wreath into McGrath, who is taking an afternoon nap in his office lounge chair. "Who's that for?" McGrath asks. D.D. Martin tells him it is a gift from Verge Likens. McGrath tells Martin to fetch the car.

Wilford, the Good Brother

In the meantime, Wilford receives another card from Verge. No message, no words, just his name. The aunts comment on how the men in the house need a woman to teach them manners. Wilford makes it clear that he does not expect information from Verge. He knows Verge is working on a plan and does not want to expose his brother's intentions to his aunts. He pins the card to the wall. He counts the cards. Six. Verge has now been gone for six months.

Wilford is more than a good brother in this story, he is a great brother! Now, this is not to say that Verge is bad, he's just angry. Obsessively angry. Wilford, on the other hand, is protective of Verge. He wants to make sure that Verge is safe. He has already visited McGrath once on Verge's behalf. Even with his slow thinking, he must have known he was risking his life as the town is "owned" by McGrath, but his love for his brother is more important. McGrath made it clear when he paid Wilford $500 to compensate for the death of his father that he, McGrath, considered the matter closed. The problem is, of course, that Verge does not consider the matter closed, and Wilford, the good brother, must do all he can to protect Verge, even from himself. At this point, I have begun to realize just how impressed I am with the performance of Sammy Reese, who plays Wilford Likens. His acting is convincing, always.

The Knock at the Door

D.D. Martin is in the doorway at the Likens' house looking for Wilford. He tells him Mr. McGrath wants to see him. The aunts are suspicious and warn him not to talk to McGrath. Wilford willingly follows. He trusts McGrath, perhaps not as much as he trusts his brother, but he sees the good in people that his brother does not. The audience, however, knows that Wilford is using bad judgment in this situation.

Wilford follows Martin out the door. He is impressed by the limousine and asks if he can sit in the back seat. Martin laughs and opens the door for him. The aunts are standing on the lawn, twisting their hands, exchanging worried glances. Martin drives Wilford around, but Wilford quickly realizes they are not headed back to town. They stop at a cafe, but it is closed. Martin escorts Wilford inside. The wreath is on the bar. McGrath asks Wilford about the wreath and Wilford admits he received a postcard from his brother in Charleston, but refuses to tell what his brother is doing. In all fairness, Wilford doesn't know what Verge is doing. McGrath tells Wilford he believes him. It is a tense scene. Clearly, McGrath means to harm Wilford. He tells Martin to take Wilford home then tosses the wreath on the ground.

Martin drives a few feet then stops outside the cafe. He asks Wilford about Verge once more and when Wilford repeats that he doesn't know Martin beats him up and leaves him on a pile of boxes. He drives back around to the door and picks up McGrath. McGrath pays the bartender. The bartender no longer appears to be comfortable with McGrath.

Sharp as a Razor Blade

Mr. McGrath enters Sigafoose Barber Shop for a shave and a shine. He removes his hat and coat and sits in his usual chair. The barber explains that he still has ten minutes to go on his current client, but McGrath has to give a speech in half an hour. McGrath asks for the barber's assistant, Mack, but he's on vacation. However, Mr. Sigafoose has hired a replacement who is wearing a white coat, washing his hands and preparing for the shave. He raises his head, looks in the mirror, slowly turns around and who do we see? Verge Likens! "I guarantee you, Riley, he'll give you a fine, fine shave," Sigafoose says to the accompaniment of eerie music.

Likens wraps McGrath's face in a towel, then tells Sigafoose there are no towels. Sigafoose heads outside for towels and Likens tells him they are out of bay rum, too. Likens sets out his tools of the trade on a clean, white towel, opens a black velvet case and removes a razor. He checks the razor on his thumb and slices his thumb. Then he picks up a jar of cream and a brush. He slowly spreads the cream on McGrath's face. McGrath asks his name and Likens introduces himself as Odell Jones. McGrath tells him he wants a close shave. Sigafoose returns, confused about lack of bay rum, but he tells them he'll run down to the store for more. Likens runs to the door and shouts outside that they also need witch hazel. McGrath is watching him. "I just wanted to save him from making two trips," Likens says with a grin, then he turns and locks the door.


Classic razor blade. Photo by Dr. K.


Likens returns to McGrath. He picks up the razor and sharpens it once more on the strap. McGrath is still watching, but doesn't seem suspicious. I however, am on the edge of my seat. Likens makes a cut. "Don't take off my sideburns," McGrath says. He then asks if "Jones" is related to someone in town. McGrath remarks that Likens looks familiar and Likens tells him he saw McGrath once in a parade. He scrapes the razor across McGrath's neck and I am holding my breath. Likens looks in the mirror and says, "Some folks say I look like my daddy." McGrath asks about his father and Likens says, "My daddy's dead. He didn't have no hardware store. A hundred acres. Real poor. Had to work real hard for that land. Someone tried to put a road through there, but my daddy wouldn't sell." McGrath is suspicious. Likens continues his story, telling about how nice it was picking peaches, and how proud his daddy would be to know one of his sons went to Charleston for an education in barbering.

"You're not Odell Jones!" McGrath says. He tries to leave the chair.

"You're going to have to sit still Mr. McGrath," Likens says. "You jerk around like that, I might cut you," and he looks like he might do so anyway. The expression on McGrath's face, on the other hand, is one of sheer terror. "Now that I got me a trade I'm figuring on saving my money to send my brother, Wilford, to the big city to open up a barber shop of our own." He turns McGrath's head and holds the razor to his throat. McGrath is panting, trembling. "Remember your heart," Likens says.


Human heart. Photo public domain.


Sigafoose returns. He bangs on the door, then runs for the sheriff. McGrath is panting. He is staring up at Verge Likens, precisely as Verge described it so many months earlier to his brother--the murderer of his father staring up at his face. Likens repeats his face numerous times as he walks in a circle around McGrath, razor in hand, repeating his name. "Verge Likens, Verge Likens, Verge Likens." Then he says, "This here's the scary part Mr. McGrath because the juggler vein is right there."

The sheriff returns. People are banging on the door and windows. Likens slowly walks to the door. "I found the bay room Mr. Sigafoose," he says. "It was in the drawer with the scissors." He returns to McGrath and removes the towel. "There you go, Mr. McGrath. All done."

The sheriff tells Likens he is under arrest for the murder of Riley McGrath. "Oh, you can't arrest a man for giving a shave," Likens said. "Look at him. Not a scratch on him." And it's true, there's not a scratch. It was the perfect shave. Riley McGrath died of a broken heart.

Prologue

Hitchcock often closes with a few words about how the killer is actually convicted in the end. Audience surveys revealed that fans of the show preferred not to know, but Hitchcock insisted, ending most of his shows with some comment regarding justice for the victim, even though the victims in his shows were often the "bad guys." Sometimes, though, he returns to his own mini-performance.


Drum set. Photo by Artaxerxes.


In this episode, at the end, Hitchcock is shown still standing in front of the drums with the wig in his hand. "By the way," he says, "I know the secret of these wigs. They are actually ear muffs so you don't have to listen to your own music. Next week we'll be back with another story, and perhaps by then my three companions will have returned (remember, he is imitating The Beatles). Until then, good night," he says, and the show closes to the tune of "Funeral March of a Marionette."

A Few Last Words

I think "Return of Verge Likens," the first episode to air on NBC, is one of my favorite shows from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The suspense is almost overwhelming, and yet, the plot is simple, obvious, clear, the characters are uncomplicated, the dialogue is blunt, revealing.

The author of the teleplay, James Bridges, was a graduate of Arkansas State Teacher's College and obviously had a clear understanding of the language and atmosphere in a small southern town. Bridges received an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America for one of the 16 episodes he wrote for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. In 1979, Bridges directed one of the most intense films of its time, The China Syndrome. In 1980, he wrote the screenplay for the edgy and violent, Drama/Western Urban Cowboy. 

The show was based on the short story, "Return of Verge Likens," by author Davis Grubb, who also wrote The Night of the Hunter, a terrifying and macabre novel made into a film in 1955 starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.