Thursday, October 14, 2010

Guillotine: Season 2 Episode 2

Originally aired 9/26/61
Starring Robert Middleton, Danielle De Metz, Alejandro Rey.
Written by Charles Beaumont, based on the short story by Cornell Woolrich.
Directed by Ida Lupino.

Robert Lamont (Rey) has a date with a guillotine after murdering his wife's lover. Only one event can stay the blade: if the executioner, Monsieur de Paris (Middleton) dies, the convicted is granted pardon. Lamont talks his guilt-ridden wife, Babette (De Metz) into taking on the project. After gaining his trust, Babette poisons him. In an ironic twist, the executioner tries to stave off death for just a bit while he tries to make it to his appointment.

PE: Where "Well of Doom" was a shudder pulp come to life, "Guillotine" is an EC horror comic personified and improved upon. You can almost see where the panel breaks should go: here where Babette visits her doomed husband in prison, next panel she invites herself into Monsieur de Paris' life, next the poisoning, then several boxes to illustrate the walk from Monsieur's house to the prison courtyard, and finally, a nice big "THOK" to give sound to the twist ending. All that's missing is for the Vault Keeper or The Old Witch to come up from off stage to cackle that "'tis a pity Robert lost his head...heeheehee!!" Illustrated by Joe Orlando, perhaps?

JS: Sure, I can see that—as an 8 page story. But if it went on for the entire issue of one of your favorite EC tales of terror, I have to believe even you would be saying enough already. Getting to that final punchline is a long time coming.

PE: Robert Middleton more than makes up for the hideous "Fingers of Fear" in his strong performance as the Monsieur. We see the man in several guises, from workaholic head hunter to love-struck fool to, inevitably, dying man of death. His stumble through the deserted streets of Paris is a grueling tour de force. You can almost feel that gut coming apart. Director Ida Lupino also atones for her previous snoozefest, "What Beckoning Ghost?" She perfectly captures the feel of 1875 Paris.

JS: I'm not sure when you last visited 1875 Paris, but this felt a lot more like 60s television to me. Having Mel Blanc as the dialogue coach probably didn't help either.

PE: Don't crack wise with me, sonny. You know what I meant. It evokes what I feel 1875 Paris would be. You appreciate the realistic feel of the Star Wars films but when was the last time you had a lightsabre battle? Don't answer that.

JS: Frankly I can't understand what it is that you see in this episode. I thought there were a lot more interesting shots in "Ghost" than you'll find in this episode. I thought the high point was the clever way in which Karloff introduced our players. And I agree Middleton's stumble through the backlot is grueling. It went on forever and ever and ever.

PE: Ah, I get it. Playful debate. Makes for good blog reading. I'll play along.

JS: We'll see what the masses say, but this is the first time we've had a 3 Karloff delta between our individual ratings... I still can't believe this basically has a guaranteed slot in your final top ten. Pardon my (1875) French, but you're bloody insane.

PE: Of course, the quality of the show could probably be attributed to its writer, the great Charles Beaumont. One of the original members of "The Group," something of a contemporary version of The Lovecraft Circle, that also included Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and other California-based writers, Beaumont sold several high-calibre scripts to Twilight Zone and contributed two screenplays to the Corman/Poe cycle of films (The Premature Burial and The Haunted Palace) before tragically dying at 38. He was also a highly regarded writer of short stories, most of which were published in the science fiction digests and men's magazines of the 1950s (his "Black Country" was the first short story ever published in Playboy).

JS: As a half-hour show, this might have worked. It's an interesting idea, and there are a handful of moments I found interesting: Babbette's dinner with the executioner, and of course the finale (despite anyone watching already knowing what's coming). But overall, I was far less impressed with this than I was "Pigeons from Hell."

PE: "Guillotine," the third and final of the Cornell Woolrich adaptations for Thriller, first appeared as "Men Must Die" in Black Mask, August 1939. It's been reprinted in the Woolrich collections Dead Man Blues and The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich. As detailed in our interview with Alan Brennert, "Guillotine" was remade by ABC-TV for Darkroom in 1982, starring Michael Constantine as Monsieur and Patti D'Arbanville as Babette.



  1. Come on, men. STAR WARS is no standard of excellence for anything.

    It is merely a spike to hammer deeper, again and again, to no point whatsoever, as a default gag when you get bored by something that looks like 1960s television ... because it IS 1960s television.

    With that mindset, THRILLER is doomed for lack of modern conceits like action-packed car chases and lots of explosions.

    "Guillotine" is much more akin to a Victorian parlor drama dragged down into the dungeons and out into the streets ... as told by a guy in 1939. Call it buildup, padding or boredom if you will, but it's all aimed at that exciting climax, and Robert Middleton sells the hell out of it. I love the detail that the death crew comes in stealthy, without shoes. Or that the executioner has a special, handy-dandy carrying case for his favorite blade (what, does he have a collection of them? And if so, we should see them!). I don't care about the particulars of Lamont and Babette's deep, abiding love any more than I care about the utility leads in any Corman film — they're all interchangeable pawns to shove the plot along.

    And nearly EVERYTHING Beaumont wrote after his first few TWILIGHT ZONEs is suspect, as he had the habit of farming scripts out to his cohorts. Beaumont is without a doubt a talented writer, and I champion him, but he spread himself too thin, too fast — even in some of his prose. The proper provenances of his script work — especially his television work, when he wanted to be known as a feature screenplay writer — may never be reliably sorted out.

  2. Robert Middleton saves this episode for me. I have the DARKROOM series on two bootleg dvds and so I watched the 1982 remake of GUILLOTINE. Follows the THRILLER plot except they make it even clearer that the girl sleeps with both the prison guard and the executioner. One funny addition is when the guards trip the prisoner and he falls down a flight of stairs because they are afraid the executioner will not show up! But then he jumps up grinning saying "so you try to break my neck since you cannot cut it".

    I give the THRILLER 2 Karloffs and since James Coburn was the host of DARKROOM, it gets 1 Coburn.

  3. Weren't Beaumont's health problems also a factor in his farming out scripts?

    I love this one. Sure it has its longueurs--the opening scene in the cell seems to take forever, as does the dinner scene. And Middleton's performance is the only really good one of the three leads. Still, it perfectly captures that Cornell Woolrich clockwork-of-doom feel. Also, I love Karloff's intro of the cast.

    And it's hard for me to get worked up over the 1960s TV feel, as the original story seems more like 1930s New York than 1870s Paris.

  4. I prefer to let our comments stand as originally written, but I wanted to clarify one of my points from today's review.

    I did not intend for it to come across as if I was criticizing the show for looking like it was shot in the 60s; that's one of the things I love most about Thriller. I was trying to elicit what it was about the episode that so impressed upon Peter the feel of 19th Century Paris.

  5. For a 1961 weekly hour-long show to even attempt a reasonably accurate (outdoor)recreation of another historic locale/era is a stretch; true, Revue had the Universal backlot and (I assume) costumes and props at their disposal. In the end, "Guillotine" accomplishes all that it possibly could have in terms of it's visual setting on its relatively tiny budget.

    The opening scene may be a bit slow (if you agree, wait 'til we see Senor Alejandro Rey's NEXT romantic encounter on "Thriller"), but it really didn't bother me; the fact that the lover's dialogue takes place while they are watching the other unfortunate prisoner being beheaded in the courtyard below is but the first of MANY such clever and telling juxtapositions in this show, neatly laid in by Beaumont and director Lupino.

    Great work from Ida throghout; I find myself thoroughly invested in the interaction between the characters. One always questions the use of French dialect/accents in these things--but Alejandro delivers in his heavily accented Argentinian, Danielle de Metz ("Thriller" babe-of-the-week...right, guys??...Yes?) is authentically what's Middleton to do? Use a bronx accent? C'mon--he does just fine. Also, some of the supporting players are also "real" French (ie; Marcel Hillaire).(Again, wait 'til a later episode wherein Jack Weston takes on the role of a French elitist....oi!)

    Middleton steals the damn show from beginning to end; his CLEARLY belongs in the annals of great Thriller performances. His excruciating trek through the (almost entirely) bare streets is one of the entire series' most memorable sequences; yes, it's long...but this, in my opinion, makes it all the more suspenseful and emotionally grueling for the viewer. Again, his long walk is cleverly intercut with the real-time parallel events as the prisoner is ritualistically prepared for the slaughter. And Middleton's final scene with De Metz is heartrending; beautifully played.

    Boris is at his best in the prologue; the writers and Mr. Karloff were really grooved in for the second season.

    I'll never forget the morning after we watched the premiere of this episode back in September, '61; I was on the school bus, excitedly telling a friend about the end of this show and shouting "I ween! I ween!...." to the consternation of all around me.

    Neuf tetes de Karloff!


  6. I think the problem I had with this one was that I'd already seen the 'Darkroom' version first and for me, this episode plus 'Stay Tuned, We'll Be Right Back' were the highlights of that anthology's short life.

    I personally don't mind a show being so ambitious and trying to do a period piece, after all, the Tom Baker 'Dr Who' serial - 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', fuses Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, the Phantom of the Opera, Jack the Ripper, ventiloqists dummies and whole host of other elements of Victoriana into the most sublime steam-punk and is voted as one of the 2 or 3 finest shows done for the series.

    For me, the problem was the pacing of the show and the sensuality. To expand a short story into an hour requires immense crafting skill and artful creativity, such as Heyes' taking a mightily short little tale like 'The Hungry House' and giving it echoes and resonances that the original never had. He was so good, so inspired, he could made a feature. The 'Darkroom' version is approximately 35 minutes, 15 shorter than 'Thriller' and it's far tighter and the end sledges a shock with marvellous guillotine fast cut. And the sense of corrupting sexual favours (she's his lover, I believe, rather than his wife) favours the remake vastly.

    You guys can catch it here...and compare for yourselves:

  7. Make that three Beaumont screenplays in the Corman/Poe cycle, including THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, on which he shared credit with R. Wright Campbell. The late Jerry Sohl, who ghosted three of Beaumont's TWILIGHT ZONE scripts, confirmed to me that his health issues did indeed contribute to the need to farm them out.

  8. Forgot to mention Goldsmith's fine score. Unlike Season 1, which featured an autonomous score for every episode, Season 2 would see an increase in scores "tracked" from previous episodes; thus, the "Guillotine" score would be chopped up and reused in later shows.

    It's another terrific Goldsmith opus (with NO strings this time), featuring not only that seductive, French/impressionistic duet for clarinets and harp, but also a series of horn calls, somber chorales, dirges, and that militaristic snare drum that punctuates Mr. Middleton's torturous journey through the deserted streets. There's no doubt that Goldmsith's expert sense of pace and character helped immensely in sustaining tension during the final 10-15 minutes of the show.


  9. Bobby J mentions one of the greatest TV serials that I've seen: "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", a Dr Who adventure that combines so many crazy story elements that I started to buy the rest of the series on dvd. One of the most interesting episodes in the history of TV.

  10. hey Walker, they are releasing 'The Seeds of Doom' in a couple of weeks, which mixes Quatermass, The Thing, The Day of the Triffids and 'The Avengers'. Sheer bliss for fans of small screen master-works of horror and SF. The 3 year Hincliffe/Holmes era is one of the summits of fantasy/SF and in terms of creativity, one would have to go back to Stefano's brilliant 'Outer Limits' with which it stands comparison.

  11. I'm sorry but I feel that Guillotine is tres magnifique. That slow, determined pacing through the whole show, which reaches a staggering crawl in the final quarter, fit the plot like a glove. Lupino provides some polished, impressive angles and keeps the shots embraced in shadows at all the right times. Then, the acting takes it up a notch -- especially Middleton (who i considered a one-dimensional thug from previous roles) and the lovely De Metz (why didn't i see her more often? I'm certainly going to see her in my dreams, to the lush sounds of Stranger in Paradise)... Middleton, especially, established his lonely, meticulous blademan as a sympathetic character. Some nice piece work by the supporting cast -- great to see Marcel Hillaire providing his ample accent as the jailhouse barber. The music by Goldsmith, especially in Middleton's painful march, tenses it up with snare and bass drums. And as perusual, Karloff launches it with a stupendous intro (thank gosh they dumped the 'it's a thriller!' season one forced tag). I've admittedly fallen behind in my viewing, thanks to Mary Tyler Moore's appearance in my mailbox. But this was one that restored the pall that satisfies... Eight and a half Karloffs!


    Hugh Hefner gives Beaumont a very nice shout-out at about the 8:00-minute mark:

  13. Oh my God! After having to rely on a dim VHS print for years, I just watched this last night (catching up Thrillers I'd missed) and what a revelation a clean print makes. I'd have to rate this my clear, undisputed favourite crime 'Thriller'. The pacing and cutting in between the different locales in a series of beautifully staged match cuts and the subtle angular framing.... Lupino drains every acre of suspense and the maximum value from each, sequence and shot. It's the masterpiece that she always threatened the show with if she got her hands on a first rate script. Marvellous...

  14. You and I are in the same court on this one, Bobby. I think it's the best crime show as well and I picked it as the 6th best show overall.

  15. Thriller has a date with Madame Guillotine. The opening scene with guillotine brought back memories of Peter Lorre in Mad Love. After the basic plot premise was laid out I didn't have high hopes for this one, but wound up enjoying the episode as it slowly crept towards the final chop.

    Alejandro Rey and Danielle De Metz were good enough as the two young lovers who found themselves in rather dire circumstances, but it was Robert Middleton whose splendid performance as Monsieur de Paris that really lifted the blade up high.

    The scenes with Rey and De Metz seem childish and immature, but De Metz has a major babe factor, which kept me interested. As soon as Monsieur de Paris gets in on the screen time he gets and holds my attention. Middleton perfectly conveys the brutish, but lonely and misunderstood headhunter. I wanted to yell at the TV when he quickly fell to Babette's poisonous charms. Even though a child could guess each forthcoming bit in her seduction, the scenes were acted with an understated bit of 1920s chutzpah that worked.

    Poisoned fruit turnovers. What a terrible way to start a day. Monsieur de Paris should have ordered the Denver Omelette. I thought that Monsieur would next go grab a latte at Starbucks, but evidently he was late for work and didn't have time. Now it's the start of the long slow stagger. Yup, this was one drawn out scene, but it worked for me. The camera work, and relatively deserted streets along with the wonderful sickened grimaces from Middleton never gave me a chance at boredom.

    Up until this elongated act I thought that the Monsieur was gonna croak right off the bat, Lamont would get his freedom and Babette would be caught and found guilty for the murder. The story would end with her walking towards the guillotine. Nope, I guessed wrong. The plot played out straight and after several light years de Paris finally makes his appointment, but he expires before he can do his duty. Not really, the hand of fate appears and we get our plot twist.

    I was entertained. Three Karloff heads for Madame Guillotine.

  16. After the season opener flop its great to see Lupino and Beumont hit one out of the park with Guillotine. I haven`t seen the rest of the series yet but have to agree with Peter this is by far the best crime thriller I`ve seen and definitely a candidate for top ten.

  17. I just saw it on TV. Thought it was solid but imperfect. Good acting, great filming, so-so script.

    Middleton's character is so gentle, yet committed to doing what he believes is right. His pursuit of his (in his mind) noble job, aware of what missing his appointment would mean, was incredible. Too much? Not in the context of the film.

    The guard dropping Middleton's hand on the lever was silly. They should have found another way.

    De Metz is sweet enough to believe she is truly wooing Middleton. De Metz seems to be a little implausible, as she had already moved on from Rey. That's a script problem, and maybe a directing issue. The transition was abrupt from (preshow), an affair, then scheming to help Rey, then amazing ingénue-like wooing, then the harsh denial. Strong acting from De Metz, but she should not have needed to have that range.

    Rey is pure evil -- a little hard to buy as his crime was not that of a habitual murderer, but one of passion. His glib attitude near the end was a little over the top, as was the coarse harassing of him by prison staff. His horror as he was lead to be killed felt real.

  18. On the whole, I like this episode. This is one of the two or three Thriller episodes that I remember seeing in reruns as a kid, by the way (the next episode is another).

    Most of the episode works. Middleton is great, La Metz is ooo-la-la. The Ambrose Biercian twist at the end is exactly the kind of thing that a lot of these shows have needed. Overall eval is thumbs up. But there are a couple of minor problems.

    What's the difference between a minor problem and a major problem, by the way? I just finished raking "What Beckoning Ghost?" over the coals, for what I thought were major problems. The difference between a minor and a major problem is in what happens if you don't fix it, but just remove it from the story entirely? With a major problem, you have no story left if you remove it. With a minor problem, the story would go on pretty much the same as before in its absence.

    With that in mind, one minor problem I have with this story is Rey's attitude. He boasts to one and all that the execution will not come off. He makes it clear that his hope of salvation is based on that law that lets him free if the executioner doesn't make it. He even takes bets on whether or not de Paris would make it there alive. Long before the end, it was clear to me that even if he succeeded in getting himself freed, that he would be up on a fresh murder charge. If de Paris dies of poisoning, all the evidence points right at him. This was confirmed a few minutes before the end, when de Paris identifies Babette as his poisoner. At this point, it is absolutely certain that Rey is either going to be executed for the original charge, or for killing de Paris. Freedom is no longer an option.

    And yet, all of this idle boasting could be removed entirely without changing the plot one iota. I understood that this was a 30 minute story, being padded out to 60, and that they had to fill the time somehow.

    I was a bit incredulous that a foot pedal could be activated just by having an arm dropped on it, but find that overlookable too. Maybe de Paris just liked a hair trigger. Not a serious flaw, and the ending is good enough to grant it a little leeway. A lot of these shows get a bit too talky at the end. Take a decent episode like "Parasite Mansion". The story ends about 4 minutes before the end, and the last 4 minutes are taken up with the visitor explaining to the survivors that they mustn't blame themselves, it was all granny's doing all along (Yeah, we'd figured that out). This is the first Thriller episode with a major plot development in the last two seconds. Good work.

    When I saw this as a kid, I never was sure if the doctor had dropped the executioner's arm on the lever deliberately or accidentally (and I never saw it again until recently). I'm still not 100% sure, but lean towards the accident view. It's a good thing the episode ended right there, because if it had gone on even one more minute, the aftereffect of "The Mother of All Whoopses" would have killed the mood.

    They certainly love poisoning on this show. Doesn't this make something like a half dozen episodes that have used it as a major theme?

  19. Agree with the consensus. Last scene pure Hitchcock. About the Twilight Zone episode where the hangman's rope breaks, que pasa?

  20. I saw it last night for maybe the first time completely.
    I have some of the same problems as GraemeCree, when it comes to the character's over-the-top arrogance, even though Alejandro Rey really "sells it" in an entertaining way. There's another great line of his, where (if you take it literally) he includes pretty out-there blasphemy (at least, if I heard it correctly). When Babette's letter ends "God forgive us both" he smiles and says "I forgive you." As if to say, "Never mind the God part."

    I also agree that the detail of the other man holding and letting go of Middleton's hand muddles things. Even if it's COMPLETELY an accident, it still gives him a role in the execution.

    Those are nearly my only complaints, except for the roach scene. I have an incredibly horror of them (they're the only animal that can make me react entirely that way), so that scene was the "real horror story" of the episode for me.

    If Anonymous is asking which Twilight Zone was referred to, it's their version of Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge."

  21. I enjoyed the story in the episode by I'm surprised that no one has brought up the fact that the audio synchronization in this episode goes way off at about 9:30 with the audio abruptly jumping way ahead of the video and it remains noticeable for another 10 or 12 minutes. Sadly, Image never created a replacement disc program for what is quite obviously a flaw in the disc or the source material that they used.

  22. Jack Rabbit, INLAND EMPIREDecember 3, 2015 at 1:12 AM

    Yeah, the audio sync is way off. Not a big fan of this episode, I prefer "What Beckoning Ghost?" which had room for ambiguity. This episode seems without poetry to me.

  23. Jack Rabbit, INLAND EMPIREDecember 3, 2015 at 6:17 PM

    The more I've thought about this episode today, it's my least favorite Thriller episode so far. I hate the drawn out death walk, and all the characters. It looks good, yeah, but I didn't like the story at all. But I did enjoy looking at Alejandro Rey, because he's pretty gorgeous.

  24. Jack Rabbit, INLAND EMPIREDecember 4, 2015 at 8:29 PM

    The more I've thought about this episode for two days now, it's one of the best. Difficult to watch, like a 60s version of a Haneke or Noe film. Objectivity is impossible, but objectively and aesthetically this is a great episode. My personal taste just doesn't bond with it.