You know who Alfred Hitchcock is. He’s one of the probably 5 directors that have managed to become household names. He directed some of the most innovative and brilliant films of all time. But, he also hosted a television program for 10 years in which he would produce short films for other directors, or, occasionally, himself. It was very similar to the format of The Twilight Zone, with Hitchcock himself introducing the episode, and then appearing again at the end to close out the episode, often tying up loose ends in the closing monologue. Interestingly, 2 versions of the opening monologue were shot for each episode. One, for the American broadcast, would include jokes or contemporary pop culture references. The other, for the British broadcast, would mostly joke about the fact that Americans needed contemporary pop culture references in order to enjoy someone introducing artistic short films. Yeah, even 10 years after WWII, the British were taking shots at our lack of culture. Things never change.
This episode stands out because it was a combination of talents coming together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. This episode was written by Roald Dahl, famed for his twisted mind, and directed by Norman Lloyd, a longtime collaborator of both Dahl and Hitchcock. It starred a young Steve McQueen, a man who was literally given the title “the King of Cool,” and Peter Lorre, a man who was so iconic in his creepiness that you’ve definitely heard a character do an impersonation of him at some point.
Rather than put it at the end, I’m going to go ahead and put the episode here, and advise you to watch it now (30 Minutes long):
McQueen is a down on his luck gambler, commiserating with a young woman (played by his real-life wife Neile Adams). They’re joined by the Man from the South (Lorre), and over the course of a conversation, Lorre asks if McQueen would accept a little wager: If McQueen can light his lighter 10 times in a row, then Lorre will give him his convertible. If McQueen cannot, then Lorre will cut off the little finger on his left hand. Eventually, McQueen accepts.
Normally, the show would jump to the execution of the wager at this point, but not this episode. It shows all the details of how Lorre sets the scene of the bet. He asks for a specific kind of knife. He selects a referee for the wager. He ties down McQueen’s arm. And throughout it, you can see exactly how excited Lorre is to do this. He’s so filled with a combination of sadistic glee and perfectionism that instead of being slow, the scenes are nauseatingly suspenseful, despite the fact that, objectively, almost nothing happens.
Finally, the bet starts. McQueen starts flicking his lighter, with the room containing himself, Lorre, the referee (Character actor Tyler McVey), and Adams. Adams moves around in the background, trying to both watch and avoid watching. The referee forcefully and tensely counts the lightings, managing to convey discomfort but also determination to see this through. McQueen’s performance, however, is a little subtler. His face shows a slight glimmer of fear under a façade of confidence. Even when he throws a glance at Lorre to show some dominance, it slides back into anxiety. Lorre, meanwhile, manages to play between hopeful and disappointed with each lighting, even starting to look longingly at McQueen’s hand with its outstretched pinkie.
McQueen makes it to 7, at which time another woman breaks into the room and reveals herself to be Lorre’s wife. She reveals something even more horrifying: This is what Lorre does for fun. He has done it more than 50 times, and has taken dozens of fingers. They had to flee from their homeland because he was going to be locked up. Moreover, he doesn’t even have a car to lose. The car belongs to her, along with all of his other property, because she won it all from him over the years. The last shot reveals that she only has 2 fingers remaining on her left hand. As she is revealing this, McQueen goes to light a cigarette… only to have his lighter fail on the next strike. He would have lost his finger, and Lorre didn’t even have the car to satisfy his end.
The acting is amazing, the tension building during the set-up is phenomenal, but what really sells it in some ways is the last 30 seconds when the wife shows up. She refers to Lorre as a menace. She says that she regrets any time she leaves him alone. He’s ruined her life. But SHE’S STILL WITH HIM. She feels responsible, not for him, but for anyone he hurts. Responsibility is a theme within the episode. The woman follows McQueen because she feels responsible for not talking him out of it. The referee hesitates to start and thanks the wife for stopping it because he felt he would be responsible for what happened.
This episode itself is only 25 minutes or so long, but at the end of it, you’ll feel you aged a year. If that’s not the mark of good suspense, I don’t know what is.
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