Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

[Ephebiphobia] Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Memo From Purgatory (1964)

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Memo From Purgatory - Title Screen
Title Screen
Aspiring author Jay Shaw wants to write a novel about youth gangs, but he's not content to sit at his desk in the Midwest and hammer out some piece of pulp fiction that draws only on that which he has read about elsewhere. No, Shaw wants to go full gonzo for his art, so he moves to the infamous Red Hook neighborhood of New York, crafts a new identity for himself, and plans to infiltrate a youth gang under the guise of Phil Beldone.

It's not happenstance that Shaw stumbles into the soda shop that the Barons frequent, channeling the raw machismo of Marlon Brando. He had already done his research, and knew exactly where to find them, and who he had to impress when he got there. After a dust-up with prickly members Fish and Candle, Shaw is granted an audience with their fearless leader Tiger. Suitably impressed with the way that Shaw handled himself, Tiger offers him membership into the gang. But before he can earn his Baron jacket, he has to pass a three-step initiation process.

Step one: Run the gauntlet through a line of gang members lashing at you with their belts, the buckles freshly sharpened.

Step two: Bed down with the "deb" (gang girlfriend) that has been assigned to you—in this case a young filly named Filene.

Step three: Jump a random passerby, and murder him.

Let's forget about the headscratcher that is step two—have sex with an attractive girl, how harrowing—and concentrate on steps one and three. Shaw is perfectly willing to take a bit of a beating to gain inside access to the street gang, but he's certainly not going to extinguish the life of some innocent for it. In the end, he passes all three Herculean trials (yes, even step two) through innovation, deception, or merely talking his way around it—but never actually completing the tasks as assigned.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Memo From Purgatory - On Trial
On Trial
Tiger grants him membership to the Barons just the same, earning him even more ire from Fish and Candle, who break into Shaw's rented room and discover the notes that he had been keeping on the gang members all along. Believing him to be an undercover police officer, he is put on trial by his criminal peers, much like in Fritz Lang's 1931 classic M.

Shaw does manage to convince them that he's not a narc, rather an author who wants to portray them fairly and accurately. Tiger grants him 24 hours to get out of town, but that offer is quickly revoked when Tiger reads what Shaw has written about him. Shaw has noted that Tiger bounces from girl to girl in order to keep up masculine appearances, but in reality he is terrified of women. Although not allowed to state so in these more conservative days of television, the subtext of Tiger's implied homosexuality remains clear. Enraged by the implications, Tiger declares that Shaw will follow them into war with rival gang the Fliers, where he will be killed one way or another.

Shaw does manage to escape by getting himself arrested. After a brief stint in jail, he is told that his "girlfriend" has posted his bail. Shaw leaves, determined to flee the city, but is ambushed by Tiger and his top officers. There is a skirmish, and in a fateful accident, Filene is critically stabbed. Holding his dying deb in his arms, Shaw watches as the light fades from her eyes, while at the same time red and blue lights flood the alley.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Memo From Purgatory - Jay Shaw/Phil Beldone
Jay Shaw/Phil Beldone
This was the tenth episode from season three of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, originally airing on December 21, 1964, and was one of five episodes to be directed by Joseph Pevney. It was based on portions of the nonfiction Harlan Ellison book Memos From Purgatory, and adapted to the screen by Ellison himself. Shaw was portrayed by a young James Caan, who would go on to perfect the tough guy role many times over. Shaw's deb, Filene, was played by Lynn Loring, who worked her way up from child star to president of MGM/UA Television Productions. Tony Musante filled the role of Candle, and later played on all sides of the law—as a police officer in the TV series TOMA (1973), a mobster in the series OZ (1997), and a victim in Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970). Fish was played by Zalman King, who was an actor before finding his calling as writer, director and producer of softcore smut such as RED SHOE DIARIES (1992-1996). Gang leader Tiger was played by Walter Koenig, who will forever be remembered as Chekov in the original STAR TREK series.

Memos From Purgatory was originally published in 1961, but "The Gang", the section of the book upon which this episode was based, depicts events that happened in 1954. Harlan Ellison had always wanted to be a writer, and attended Ohio State University with that occupation in mind until he was reportedly expelled for assaulting a professor who belittled his written work. He had only a few short stories under his belt when he began planning work on his first novel, Web Of The City, which was to be about youth gangs.

Assuming the guise of Phil "Cheech" Beldone, Ellison did join the Barons in the name of research, and there were members named Candle, Fish and Filene... But that's basically where the similarities end. The belt-beating that Ellison received as part of his initiation was much more brutal than the one that Shaw received, and although he seems to skirt around the issue, one definitely gets the feeling that he committed statutory rape with Filene, rather than convincing her to lie about it, as Shaw had done. He never talked his way out of the random assault of a passing stranger, but he did get into an officially-orchestrated knife fight with Candle, effectively ending his nemesis's involvement in the gang. But most importantly, the gang never learned that Ellison was a writer, and he did participate in the big rumble against the Fliers, an episode so bloody and violent that it caused him to quit his research and run away from the Barons, never to return.

I'm unsure why Ellison made so many changes from his original story, but I would venture a guess that
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Memo From Purgatory - Memos From Purgatory by Ellison
Memos From Purgatory by Ellison
Standards and Practices forced him to tone down the violence, and perhaps had Shaw being found out as some sort of preventative measure, lest others find themselves "inspired" by this episode. The death of Filene was surely added as the requisite tragedy that is the cornerstone of good drama, while also serving as proof that they were not glamorizing the gang life.

Ellison is primarily known for his work in the wide-ranging genre of Speculative Fiction, so his early J.D. novels and this memoir eventually became something of an anomaly in his bibliography. Within his usual choice of genres, Ellison is something of an anomaly himself, with his tough-guy attitude and bullying antics sticking out like a sore thumb among his more sedate colleagues. Memos From Purgatory reads like an early book-length foray into the field of the so-called New Journalism, normally associated with the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese. More than a decade before Hunter S. Thompson would take the same basic conceit, douse it in Jack Daniels, and set it aflame with Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Ellison had already broken that ground, albeit on a slightly less-public scale.

The television adaptation is a fine example of good youth drama, with solid performances by memorable actors, and should not be missed. It is, however, not a very good example of an adaptation. Watch the episode first for its entertainment value, but then read the book for the truth. Somewhere in the middle lies genius.


1 comment:

  1. Just saw this episode. It seemed pretty clear to me that we were supposed to understand that Tiger was homosexual. I wondered if that was in the original book.