by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — not either the current movie from the Disney studio or the 1940 segment from Walt Disney’s Fantasia that inspired it, but a grim little half-hour episode from the last season of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was so scary the original sponsor decided to have nothing to do with it, it was pulled from its scheduled network airing and not seen until the series finally made its way into syndication. Though Hitchcock didn’t direct this episode personally — it was done by a director whose name was variously spelled Joseph Lejtes and Josef Leytes — it did involve two of the key talents behind his film Psycho, writer Robert Bloch (whose novel had been the source for Psycho and who here not only supplied the original story but did his own adaptation) and cinematographer John L. Russell.
The tale involves Hugo (Brandon de Wilde), a young man who’s just turned 18 and has been released from the orphanage where he’s spent his whole life — or at least all of it he remembers — where he’s acquired a surprisingly naïve view of human existence. He falls asleep on the grounds of a carnival and is discovered by Irene Sadini (Diana Dors, top-billed), on-stage partner and off-stage wife of Victor Sadini (David J. Stewart), the carnival’s magician. The moment he sees Irene, Hugo falls into a teenage crush at first sight, telling her she looks like an angel — and telling Victor, when he appears on the scene, that he looks like the devil. Victor tries to convince him that he really isn’t the devil and all the tricks he does in his act are just that — tricks, done with sleight-of-hand and special apparatus — but Irene wants Hugo to believe otherwise and she has a quite nasty, self-serving reason for doing so.
It seems that Irene is carrying on an affair with a high-wire walker, George Morris (a surprisingly butch-looking Larry Kert) and wants to get rid of her husband but fears the beating she’ll get if she asks him for a divorce, so she convinces Hugo to murder Victor so she and George can be together and Hugo will take the fall. Only Hugo becomes convinced that Victor’s “magic wand” — which we, of course, know is really just a prop — is the secret of his power, and in a final scene that still scares even though we know what’s going to happen well before it does, Hugo straps Irene into the apparatus for the saw-a-lady-in-half trick and, not knowing how the trick works, actually saws her in half — and as we hear her screams the show fades out.
One can see why this tale rubbed the sponsors the wrong way — even so it’s still a good illustration of the surprising freedom Hitchcock had on his TV show relative to his films, including quite a few stories in which murderers get away with their crimes (something he couldn’t have got away with in films at the time — unless you count Vertigo, in which the censors probably missed that Tom Helmore’s character got away with murder and escaped scot-free at the end because Hitchcock, with his own magician’s skill at indirection, threw so many other more momentous dramatic issues at us we just forgot about it). The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was a nicely chilling little movie, vividly shot in noir-esque chiaroscuro by Russell and with the ghastly outcome of Bloch’s tale marvelously dramatized in a way that made it genuinely shocking instead of just disgusting.