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.

Monday, December 22, 2014

[Musophobia] Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Water's Edge (1964)

Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Water's Edge - Title Screen
Title Screen
Rusty Connors has been rotting in a jail cell with his bunkmate Mike Krauss for a good couple of years now. With nothing but chatter to keep them entertained, Rusty has heard a great deal about Mike's life on the outside, such as his drop dead gorgeous wife Helen, who has been patiently waiting for his return. Rusty has also learned about the supposed crime that landed Mike in the clink: a payroll heist, from which the stolen money was never recovered, and the subsequent murder of his best friend and partner-in-crime Pete Taylor, whose body was never found. (It almost makes you wonder how they know that a crime had even been committed.) Mike, though, has always claimed that he was innocent. Not that such a declaration is any surprise. Aren't most men in prison "innocent"?

Mike is stricken with pneumonia, and as he lies on his deathbed, Rusty is at his side, prodding him for information on the whereabouts of the missing money. All that Rusty manages to get out of him before he dies is that the money—a cool $56,000—is with Pete Taylor...which doesn't tell us much. That's like saying that the lost batteries are with the lost remote control.

It's not much longer before Rusty is out on parole, and he heads back to Mike's hometown, thinking that he can sniff out the lost cash. His first stop is a local greasy spoon, where Helen is said to be waitressing these days. If anybody would have a clue as to the money's whereabouts, it would be that sexed-up bombshell that Mike wouldn't stop yapping about.

He finds Helen serving hash and coffee to the blue collar crowd, but she's nothing at all like Mike described
Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Water's Edge - Frumpy Helen
Frumpy Helen
her. She's rather frumpy-looking with her greasy hair and her spectacles, and a bit meatier than Mike had let on. Glorifying what's waiting for them outside is probably commonplace for an inmate, so this in itself isn't reason for immediate concern, and Rusty isn't about to let it get in the way of his plan. He quickly seduces her and pulls her into the scheme to find the cash. With his criminal instincts and her intimate knowledge of Mike's routine, it should prove quite easy for them to puzzle out the location like a pair of low-rent Sherlocks.

After Helen reveals some previously unknown details about the day of the crime—Mike came home muddy and bloody, mumbling about rats—they reach the revelation that Pete's corpse (and thus the money) must be stashed at an empty boathouse by the lake where Pete and Mike used to fish. A cursory glimpse offers no evidence of theft or foul play, but there is plenty of evidence of furry rodents lurking somewhere off camera. With the presence of the rats, Rusty is positive that they have the right place, and he discovers that the ceiling above them is quite a bit lower than it should be based on the height of the roof outside. After tearing a hole in the ceiling with a boat hook, Rusty peeks his head into the crawlspace to discover a lockbox full of loot...and the stark skeleton of Pete Taylor, picked clean by the very rats that are now staring Rusty in the face. He collects the box and retreats to safety, preparing to brain Helen with a rock and make a clean getaway. But Helen beats him to the punch, making use of the boat hook once again.

Rusty comes to and finds himself tied up. Like a Bond villain, Helen explains everything that has lead up to this point, which is something of a convoluted story that I will try to simplify here: Helen, quite the looker a few short years ago, was having an affair with Mike's best friend Pete. When Pete admitted to Helen that he was going to be stealing the payroll from work, she saw an opportunity to get her hands on the loot. She came clean to Mike about the affair on the day of the robbery, and staged a lethal confrontation between the two when she knew that Pete would have the money. She assumed that Mike would murder Pete, find the money, and then bring it home to her, but she was only half right. After Mike was arrested, she hoped that it was only a matter of time before she stumbled across the money. She began to let her physical appearance go as a means of camouflage, figuring that it would be easier for a humdrum-looking woman to disappear without being noticed than a goddess. Then along came Rusty with his own dreams of finding the cash, and he played right into her hand.

Rusty, angered at being double-crossed before he could double-cross her, begins insulting Helen with a string of jabs at her appearance, playing her still-existing vanity against her. She grows angry enough to approach him and he lashes out at her, kicking her squarely in the ample bottom and causing her to fall atop the boat hook, which fatally impales her.

All that is left is for Rusty to free himself from his binds and escape with the cash.

And that's when the rats come after him.

There is genuinely nobody to root for here, nor are there any sympathetic characters. Absolutely everybody is guilty of something, to some degree, and the fact that they all wind up dead does not sadden the viewer in the least. This is a grim and uncompromising episode, where everyone gets their comeuppance and nobody walks away free.

Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Water's Edge - Helen & Rusty
Helen & Rusty
Rusty was a devious little bastard, that much is certain. It's unclear whether he ever felt any true feelings of friendship for Mike or if it was all a ruse, but if they did exist, they were still overpowered by his greed and baser instincts. As soon as he got out of the joint, Rusty rushed right out and banged his supposed buddy's act that probably displeased him almost as much as it would have displeased Mike. He used her, abused her, and then fully intended to toss her away. What struck me most interesting is that he really did outsmart the police, finding the missing body and money in a very short period of time after they had failed to do so in more than two years. If not for his more blatant crimes, Rusty easily could have been a private eye of the era, and it made me realize how close in nature the villain and the hero can be in these old crime shows. If it's hardboiled enough, the only difference is that one of them has an office door.

Too bad for Rusty that he wasn't as shrewd as he believed he was, otherwise he might have known that Helen had the same basic plan as he did. If Rusty was a bastard, then she was a stone cold bitch, manipulating men like chess pieces and using her vagina as a mind control device long before this episode even began. By the time that Rusty met her, she was already wearing her own body like a disguise, but beneath those few extra pounds, unnecessary spectacles, and that mousy hair, she was still a femme fatale like any other. Her physical appearance may have subverted the trope, but her true colors still shined through.

When the rats first make their presence known, they are off camera but still exude a definite menace. The very thought of them was enough to send chills up Rusty's spine, as he had already professed to having a phobia of them, but the fact that they could not be seen probably made it even worse. The squeaking and pattering about could have been the product of dozens of rats, possibly hundreds of them.

Of course, when Rusty does peer into the secret crawlspace above the ceiling, the reality is nowhere near as terrifying to the viewer as the fantasy that we had conjured up in our mind. Instead of hundreds of rats, we only get five or six of them—though they are, evidently, a flesh-hungry lot. And yet to Rusty, who suffers from musophobia, five is just as bad as five hundred and his slow and unsteady movements showed to us how close he was to freezing up in terror altogether.

Given Rusty's aversion to rats, it is only fitting that his death should be delivered by their tiny paws and gnashing teeth. Helen may not have met her doom via the rodents, but poetic justice was still had. She had planned to utilize the stolen money to help restore her to the beauty that she had once been, but when she died, she died as the portly slob that she had since become.

This very solid entry of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR was the third episode of season three of the series, originally airing on October 19, 1964. It was based on a short story by author Robert Bloch, which should come as no surprise, as the mixture of real world crime and psychological terror was old hat for the Psycho scribe. The only way that this could have been better is if it was scripted by Bloch himself—the man was no stranger to scriptwriting or adapting his own work—but he must have been busy that week. The duties instead fell to Alfred Hayes, who did an admirable job of capturing Bloch's essence. Hayes had previously written the scripts for the Fritz Lang noirs CLASH BY NIGHT (1952) and HUMAN DESIRE (1954), as well as assorted westerns. He was also a novelist—his novel The Girl on the Via Flaminia was adapted as the 1953 film ACT OF LOVE—as well as a poet. His poem "I Dreamt I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" was turned into a song that has been performed by many musicians, most notably Joan Baez at Woodstock. Hitch must have been a fan of the man's work, as he tapped him to write a total of seven episodes of the series.

Directorial duties went to Bernard Girard, who was no stranger to Hitchcock's television programs himself, having directed four episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and eight episodes of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. He also put in work on other series, including BAT MASTERSON, WAGON TRAIN and THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but he never managed to craft himself a very distinguished career.

Helen was played by Ann Sothern, who hit it big with her portrayal of the burlesque dancer Maisie Ravier in a series of films for MGM. She starred in two television sitcoms—PRIVATE SECRETARY and the eponymous THE ANN SOTHERN SHOW—and provided the voice of the title character in the infamous MY MOTHER THE CAR. Her final film was the dramatic THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987), starring alongside other aging luminaries as Lillian Gish, Bette Davis and Vincent Price. Genre fans may be interested in her hangover/murder mystery THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953) directed by Fritz Lang, the home invasion themed LADY IN A CAGE (1964), the sex-and-violence thriller THE KILLING KIND (1973), and the Native American mythos horror THE MANITOU (1978).

Rusty Connors was played by John Cassavetes, who worked frequently within the Hollywood studio system but was also an early component of independent filmmaking. He started his indie career with the improvised jazz and Beatnik-influenced SHADOWS (1959) and followed it up with FACES (1968), A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976), and OPENING NIGHT (1977)—all five of which have been collected into a Criterion box set. Horror fans will doubtlessly remember him for his turns in ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and THE FURY (1978), but his work on this episode should not be easily dismissed, either.


1 comment:

  1. The four-legged rats are the heroes in this episode, serving as the agents of justice to their far-less reputable two-legged counterparts.

    The implication is that Rusty dies, too, but he actually might have a chance, because the rats would have been drawn to the blood pooling up around Helen's body and direct the main focus of their attention upon her, at least initially. This would buy Rusty some time, presumably hours, to free himself.

    The atmospheric music for "Water's Edge" was by the great Bernard Herrmann, who wrote so much memorable scores for Hitchcock.