Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Cheaters: Season 1 Episode 15

Originally aired: 12/27/60
Starring Mildred Dunnock, Harry Townes, Jack Weston, Paul Newlan.
Written by Donald S. Sanford from a story by Robert Bloch.
Directed by Jon Brahm.

Dirk Van Prinn (Henry Daniell) creates a special pair of spectacles: when donned, they reveal the truth in others. We follow "the cheaters" from owner to owner, as they finally end up in the hands of a writer determined to understand exactly what they are meant to do.

JS: Let me to be the first to say, "Now this is a Thriller!" From the first note, Jerry Goldsmith establishes the tone with his original score, a welcome relief from the all too familiar jazzy riffs of Pete Rugolo that we've grown accustomed to. He's certainly an important ingredient to the success of the episode.

PE: In addition to the Goldsmith score, "The Cheaters" represents several other firsts:

1) the first appearance of Robert Bloch, arguably, the greatest horror writer who ever picked up a pen. You won't find me arguing that point: I'm firmly in the Bloch camp. I'm a big Steve King fan but I'll take a 10-page Bloch nightmare any day. Bloch contributed to 10 Thrillers in all. (Allow me to argue the point. Bloch's done some great stuff, but he's no Richard Matheson, one of the greatest writers—period—of all time. -JS)

2) the first adaptation of a story that originally appeared in Weird Tales, inarguably the greatest horror and fantasy magazine ever published. Its pages saw the best of Bloch, Robert E. Howard, and August Derleth (all Thriller alumni). 18 stories from "The Unique Magazine" became Thrillers. "The Cheaters" appeared in the November 1947 issue.

Townes delivering a performance far superior to the lamp.
3) the first classic Thriller. "The Cheaters" is widely regarded as one of the two best episodes of the run (the other being "Pigeons from Hell"—stay tuned for our thoughts on that) and it's hard to disagree. It's a very solid production. John Brahm makes up nicely for the previously put-upon "The Watcher." The performances are all top-notch. It's hard to zero in on one in particular but Harry Townes is Emmy-worthy. His final scene could have been disastrous if handled by a lesser actor. We can feel, as well as see, his character's sanity shredded. (Along with his face! -JS)

JS: As a horror episode, "The Cheaters" certainly delivers the goods where "The Purple Room" petered out (if you'll pardon the expression), but it's my turn to pick a few nits in this otherwise excellent episode:
    I'm willing to accept that the veritas spectacles allow the wearer to hear the innermost thoughts of the people around them. I have trouble suspending my disbelief when other characters start to carry on conversations in their innermost thoughts the way Joe Henshaw's wife (Linda Watkins) does with her secret beau, Charlie (Ed Nelson). Or how, like ventriloquists, they try to impress us by holding up a drink to their mouths while they keep talking. Um, it's a voice over, so your lips wouldn't be moving anyway. Whatever the reason, they must not have been too fond of whatever the prop guys gave them to drink.

    And is it just me, or does Edward Dean's (Weston) death by candelabra seem rather forced when compared to the rest of the murders? It's as if they needed some way to connect the dots to get to the final reel and just ran out of ideas.

    PE: It was nice to see John Mitchum in uniform as a beat cop before he graduated a decade later to Inspector Frank DiGiorgio in the first three Dirty Harry movies. (Before he had too much linguini. -JS)

    JS: It may be purely coincidental, but I would be curious to know if Edward Dean inspired the name of Thriller-fan Stephen King's Dark Tower protagonist Eddie Dean.

    And can anyone reading this believe that Peter went an entire episode review without mentioning the presence of a bedridden old biddy? (Crap, it's in my notes! -PE)

    OUR COMMENTS ON THE COMMENTARY:
    Gary Gerani's commentary is a delight, much like his duet with Lucy Chase Williams on "The Prediction." His comparison of "The Cheaters" to Winchester 57 is spot-on, but I have to draw a line in the sand at Gerani's opinion that Townes' reveal at the climax is the "#2 most shocking moment of TV horror" behind only the Gremlin from "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (The Twilight Zone episode adapted by Richard Matheson from his own story). I won't get into that hot tub, nope. I offer up your choice of Zanti Misfits, Zuni fetish dolls (Karen Black's little buddy deserves the #1 slot. -JS), and a killer scarecrow named Bubba, among others (yeah - don't forget the murder of Madeleine Ferguson [Sheryl Lee] from the second season of Twin Peaks! -JS). The big stuffed animal at 20,000 feet? I don't think so. Good commentary otherwise, Gary.

    OUR RATING:

    29 comments:

    1. Ha! Sorry, guys... Nothing beats that "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" reveal for sheer, heart-stopping terror. Okay, so maybe the panda-man looks a little funny when presented in full body suit mode, but that c.u. at the window is and will always remain absolutely devastating. It's the first time we see the monster's grotesque face, another "twisted nightmare" concept from Bill Tuttle; and just look at the way that moment is built! Shatner's extended hesitation, director Donner drawing out the moment for maximum suspense, then the sudden curtain pull and -- wow! The friggin' nightmare face is already there, and staring back! Just compare how this same bit-of-business was handled in the campy, over-the-top TWILIGHT ZONE movie, which telegraphed the reveal and as a result forfeited its impact, even with a state-of-the-art creature costume and some bizarre, literally eye-popping fx.

      Oh Geez... We're supposed to be talking about "The Cheaters," right? Next post!

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      1. While it's lost most of it's punch with 50 years of advances in special effects, back in the day, the gremlin reveal was certifiably terrifying. Shatner is so good in that role, and the Tuttle makeup is primo. One of television's greatest shock moments ever.

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    2. You guys are right on target regarding "The Cheaters." In many ways, it's the first real episode of THRILLER as we've come to think of the series (a classic horror anthology inspired by Weird Tales), and for all the reasons you've mentioned: Bloch, Goldsmith, overall tone. And we mustn't forget that amazing face of horror created by make-up artist Jack Barron, his first real opportunity to shine on the series. Grimm's unforgettable final reveal told us -- Yes! This is a horror show, and it pulls no punches. And while it was fun to see the Man of a Thousand Faces headpiece used in the context of a bogus haunting for "Purple Room," we all knew the difference between that and what Barron whipped up for us here. Add unique, offbeat-looking actors like Henry Daniell and Harry Townes into the mix, a portentous and evocative intro by Boris, stir with mad resolve, and presto! The second greatest THRILLER ever conceived, just as impressive now as it ever was. Thank you, Bill Fyre, Bob Bloch/Don Sanford, Johnny Brahm (Johnny?!) and everyone else involved for one of the greatest horror tales ever filmed for television.

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    3. Thanks to Messrs. Scoleri and Gerani for their spirited defense of Matheson and his work, gremlin, Zuni doll and all. Am I right that this and "The Premature Burial" are the only episodes introduced by their host with the exact words, "As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a THRILLER"? Interesting that Sanford, who I believe was the show's most prolific scriptwriter (just as, if I'm not mistaken, director Brahm's eleven episodes were second only to Herschel Daugherty's fifteen), significantly beefed up the role of Van Prinn, who was alluded to only briefly by Bloch. Another feature film that followed an object from owner to owner (assuming you meant WINCHESTER '73) was TALES OF MANHATTAN (1942), with its dress tailcoat. And it might be worth noting that two-time Oscar nominee Mildred Dunnock had appeared in Hitchcock's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955).

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    4. Yep, thanks Matthew for pointing out the mistake (which was all mine). One of my favorite westerns and I can't remember the title!

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    5. I looked up my copy of the November 1947 Weird Tales and see that I read the Bloch story a couple years ago and made the note that the story was excellent but not as great as the Thriller teleplay. How you could only give it 3 1/2 Karloffs is a surprise to me. I'd say this is a definite perfect 4. By the way, if you have the Weird Tales issue look at the Fred Humiston illustration for "The Cheaters". It is a stunning illustration.

      I think Robert Bloch is a very good horror writer but not on the level of the Weird Tales big 3: HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert Howard.

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    6. Well, Walker, you bring up an interesting point about our ratings system. If one of us gives it 4 (me) and one gives it 3 (um, the other guy) it averages out to 3 1/2. Obviously I agree that it's one of the best (could be the best, we'll see).

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    7. Hmmm....this is the problem with awarding 3 Karloffs to "Guilty Men"; it might come back to haunt you. "The Cheaters" is four-star material all the way; it's what makes "Thriller" great.

      Anyway, most everything has already been said. With this show, the bar has been set VERY high indeed. It's stunning to see how a series which had until recently been churning out "Big Blackout" and "Man in the Middle" could turn around and unleash this one on an unsuspecting public.

      I love Karloff's entrance onscreen, as the camera pans away from Henry Daniell's horror-stricken face, with Boris then appearing as if walking through a field of blackness. Wonderful structure to the teleplay and an excellent production in every way.

      I am always intrigued by the actual HOUSE that was selected for the Van Prynn residence; it's hardly a typical haunted mansion, and one wonders how the Act 4 action could have taken place in such a small-ish, mundane looking structure. But that's perhaps part of the mystique of the show.

      I agree that Harry Townes does an excellent job in a pivotal role. Townes could chew the scenery with the best of 'em, but here he stops just short, creating a portrait of an eccentric, pompous and very driven man. And let's not forget the always impressive Dayton Lummis as Clarence, who does a nice job of taking a gigantic knitting needle through the heart. Ouch! And, of course, the great Henry Daniell makes the first of his five appearances in the series; what a stroke of brilliance to hire this greatest (and my favorite) of old-time Hollywood villains.
      LR

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    8. As long as we're kicking around the most shocking moments in TV horror (a pretty subjective topic, of course), I'd like to list a few.

      I've always been rather shocked by the Union officer on the horse with his eyes burned out in TZ's "The Passersby" (debut in Fall of '61, significantly, when "Thriller" and others were pushing the violence/gore envelope).

      I certainly think that David Whorf in the dark, hatchet in hand and split-open noggin in Act 1 of "Pigeons" is up near the top. I also think that Lee Philip's demise in TZ's 5th season "Queen of the Nile" is quite a shocker; glad I never saw it as a kid, because I'm sure it would have been a major freak-out.
      LR

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    9. Want some MORE?

      Here's something that should be referenced, or linked, since it might evaporate at any moment -- the Last Drive-In blog, by “MonsterGirl,” who posted some nice stuff about THRILLER in 2007-08. The whole blog went dormant around early 2009.

      “MonsterGirl” is musician Jo Gabriel. In a recent interview, she name-checks THRILLER, fetes Goldsmith, Morton and Gil Melle, talks of her “Dr. Pretorius moment,” and notes that one of her songs is titled “God Grante That She Lye Stille.” Check it out:

      http://www.adequacy.net/2010/03/interview-with-jo-gabriel/

      Here are her THRILLER links:

      Overview:
      http://monstergirl.wordpress.com/2008/08/07/boris-karloffs-thriller-1960s-television-series/

      14 episodes in brief:
      http://monstergirl.wordpress.com/2008/08/07/thriller-with-boris-karloff-14-episodes-in-brief/

      "The Grim Reaper"
      http://monstergirl.wordpress.com/2008/08/07/the-grim-reaper-essay-on-thriller-with-boris-karloff/

      "The Cheaters"
      http://monstergirl.wordpress.com/2008/08/07/the-cheaters-essay-on-thriller-with-boris-karloff/

      "The Incredible Doktor Markesan"
      http://monstergirl.wordpress.com/2008/08/07/the-incredible-doktor-markesan-essay-on-boris-karloffs-thriller/

      "The Hungry Glass"
      http://monstergirl.wordpress.com/2008/08/07/the-hungry-glass-essay-on-boris-karloffs-thriller/

      "Pigeons from Hell"
      http://monstergirl.wordpress.com/2008/08/07/pigeons-from-hell-essay-on-boris-karloffs-thriller/

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    10. In addition to all that has been written above, I was very impressed by Jack Weston's performance. Even in a silly Ben Franklin getup, he manages to create a character with some pathos. His behavior at the card game doesn't seem to gibe with the dark thoughts he expresses when Mildred Dunnock puts on the glasses.

      Which brings me to something I've always wondered about this episode--are the cheaters always truthful, or do they in some way exhibit the paranoia of the wearer? It seems pretty clear that the cheating couple in the first segment does have bad plans for the junkman, but the second segment gives me pause. Do Weston and his wife really plan to do in Dunnock? How about the doctor? It seems kind of ambiguous to me--especially since Dunnock reveals herself to be a drunk and a thief. Perhaps the "self-revelation" that Towne's character believes is the cheaters' real purpose is somehow reflecting the evil or distrustful thoughts of the wearer rather than the evil intent of those he or she beholds while wearing them.

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    11. Best episode yet. Creepy, gothic, over-the-top performances. Loved it! Also, loved all the "Oh, I've seen her in other things! I've seen him in other things! But what???" moments.

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    12. I am one of those guys who are revisiting their childhood through the DVD box set. I first saw episodes when i was eight and The Cheaters was indelibly etched in my mind. This is petty but the pictures that the DVD set creaters put in the menus have the effect of spoilers. The Cheaters had a picture from Harry Townes final scene.

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    13. Anon - Unfortunately that's an all too common trait with the Thriller DVD menus. Those are designed by marketing folks who pull the most interesting image out of the episode, regardless of the context.

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    14. I love The Cheaters, which is solid from start to finish, and begins to feel a bit surreal at the costume party near the end. A nice touch, segues into the final Sebastian Grimm part of the story.

      Does anyone have any thoughts as to how 1960 audiences responded to the last scenes? The ones with Grimm alone in the Van Prinn house, hearing the voice, going mad, ripping his face off fuh cryin' out loud!--this is 1960 televison, Ozzie and Harriet era--and the last thing we see is his wife banging on the door.

      Television was very different back then (duh!), all black and white. Issues were supposed to be wrapped up at the end of every show, whether it was Dragnet or I Love Lucy. The Cheaters doesn't tell us what happened to Grimm (the story does), and the viewer is left wondering. This is my favorite Thriller ending. No leaping out the window a la Shatner, no grannies on fire, just a man shrieking in physical and emotional agony. Egads, what an episode! Harry Townes seals the deal. I can't imagine anyone else doing it better.

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    15. This was my first THRILLER - 50 years ago. I was 13, an avid Famous Monsters reader, and it still shocked me! That face was something you just didn't see back then. Now I'm more inclined to ask why he looked like that. What did it mean? But, hey, I've kept that image in my head for half a century. That, to me, is a testament to the power and timeliness of this program.

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    16. An excellent THRILLER episode. Everything from the music to the fine performances and a frightening, yet interesting tale. I think that's the difference here. The story is unique and grabs hold of you. Everyone at some time has wondered what it would be like to read another's mind.

      I particularly liked how the lighting and shadows played differently as the wearer heard their thoughts. I wasn't bothered by the "interthought conversations". It just added to the fun.

      "3 1/2 Karloffs". Nice job.

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    17. Hey Guys! Jo Gabriel aka MonsterGirl at The Last Drive In still lives!

      It's way cool of you to mention me. I am really trying to blog more lately. Although I tend to be long winded. Love your site. It's very fun. Glad we love Boris in common. I've got some more Thriller posts coming up.

      Your scoring method is cute! Stop by the drive in sometime. Joey MonsterGirl
      http://monstergirl.wordpress.com/

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    18. After churning out crime dramas of varying quality, the Thriller staff surprises with this gem.

      As I've posted earlier, I don't mind the crime dramas, but none of them have that intangible horror/mystery element that is capable of producing maximum impact, such as The Cheaters.

      The premise of being able to mind read is not unique to the arts, but it's a given an interesting twist by using a pair of spectacles to bring on the power.

      The opening scene with the alchemist from years past sets our story up nicely. Just a quick question, were there any scientists from back in the day who didn't bring upon themselves the wrath of horror. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, etc.?

      The first trio we are introduced to are a henpecked sad sack of a husband, his cheating wife and her lover. The smallish and ordinary stature of the Van Prinn residence belies the extraordinary treasure that has been resting inside. Lucky for Junkyard Joe he stumbles upon the Cheaters just before his wife and her boy toy are about to bump him off with a last supper. For a moment there I thought that Joe was going to intellectually counter the cheaters with a clever plan, but no, Joe was far too much the simpleton and counters with good old fashioned rage of passion.

      Next to stumble upon the cheaters is klepto-granny. The problem with granny is that she's in the way of an inheritance to her ungrateful kin. Granny gets wise to the plan to bump her off and uses every favorite granny murdering weapon, a knitting needle.

      Fast forwarding a year, the cheaters are still in the family, but undiscovered. Lucky for us there is an upcoming costume party and the cheaters are just the perfect accoutrement for granny's nephew's Ben Franklin outfit. During a poker game, the cheaters do what they are designed to do and we soon have the fourth death attributed to these harmless spectacles.

      Now we're in the home stretch. The keenly observant Sebastian Grimm was quick to make the connection between the unusual deaths and that ordinary looking pair of spectacle. Grimm explains the powers of the cheaters to his wife and is eager to subject himself to their powers. Sebastian takes them back to their birth house, the old Van Prinn residence, and then dons them where all of his inner being is revealed to poor old Grimm as he manically proceeds to lose it.

      I put on the Cheaters for my eye exam and I see three and a half Karloffs.

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    19. I remember the final scene of this scaring the crap out of me when I was a child and has stuck with me since then. What I had forgotten (or didn't appreciate at the time) was Mildred Dunnock's performance as what hynek called "kelpto-granny." She has this wonderful sense of animal cunning when she's feigning drowsiness with her nephew's wife and trying to lift object and even when she's getting ready to kill the old man. And I love her drunk scene later. Does she toast the old guy by clinking on the glass in his hand or the hatpin sticking out of his chest? Either way, it's a great bit. I hated to see her go up in flames.

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    20. This episode is tightly wound, with little filler to protract the running time. That’s because it is, in a sense, 5 short stories, or 4 shorts and a pre-title vignette. Each story follows the same pattern but without becoming repetitious. Together the stories add up to one narrative whole.

      Though employed only in the first of the 4, the gimmick is most clever where the mind-read thoughts of mayhem heard by the junkman (Paul Newlan) are re-stated aloud with an innocent spin.

      I wish the commentary had paid some attention to Henry Daniell, whose character invents the cheaters. However, he does get some attention in the track about “Well of Doom.”

      It’s a shame that the dvd chose for its background image the climactic revelation of what the Harry Townes character saw in the mirror. That reduces the shock for the first-time viewer.

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      1. Right on your last point. All they needed was a still of Daniell wearing the "cheaters". That would be plenty scary enough.

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    21. I totally agree that this was the first real "thriller" upstaging the Purple Room. However, in terms of shock effect, the final scenes showing the fatal choice made by our misguided hero" does not compare to the horribly macabre picture of Dorian Grey. I note the Grim Reaper prop--that should be another category--best props.

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      1. Dorian Gray. That was a static display a la the Grim Reaper painting but absolutely macabre. Don;t believe Serling did this one in Night Gallery-certainly ripe for the production. Too bad.

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    22. Loved this episode except for the suspension of disbelief needed to buy that Ed Nelson was lusting after Junkman Joe's 15-to-20-years-older-than-him wife (who in turn seemed a decade or two younger than Junkman Joe).

      That was almost as bad as the suspension of disbelief needed to buy that Kevin James could get a hot chick like Leah Remini in King of Queens.

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      1. He probably was lusting after her money. Get rid of Joe, then get rid of her.

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    23. Just watched this eye glasses show for the first time at
      3AM on Me-TV. What was that ending scab face in the
      mirror all about? I don't get it. Please explain further.
      OFW

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      1. Supposedly, the wearer of the spectacles saw into his inner soul or whatever we substitute for the religion of our choice--he came off as, a, well, Dorian Gray type without benefit of not aging.

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