Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Two Sharp Knives (CBS-TV “Studio One,” 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I ran another episode of the CBS-TV series Studio One, a much better show than There Was a Crooked Man: Two Sharp Knives, a 1949 adaptation of a 1934 short story by Dashiell Hammett (for some reason, the blacklist prevented him from doing new work for films or TV — not that given his long-term alcoholism he’d have been in much shape to do new work even if he’d been allowed to — but it did not prevent the networks from paying him for rights to his old stories and characters), though the publication of the story I read in the Hammett anthology Nightmare Town must have been from a later edition since some of the dates were moved up to the 1940’s.

It begins on a train — shown, given the limitations of live television, by a stock clip of a train which dissolves to a train interior but with blank spaces on the back wall where the windows are supposed to be (since there was no way in 1949 they could do the process-screen effect of scenery passing by one took for granted in the movies) showing a dapper-looking mystery man named Lester Furman, with a 10-year-old girl in tow. They’re on their way to the town of Deerwood, Pennsylvania to look for the man’s ex-wife — the girl’s mother — only as soon as he gets off the train he’s arrested on the basis of a wanted poster which claims he killed a man in Philadelphia named Paul Frank Dunlap, and before the night is over he’s found hanged in his cell. The coroner’s official verdict is suicide but he later tells the police chief, Scott Anderson (Stanley Ridges), that he only said that to cover for him in his political feud with district attorney Ted Carroll (Robert Emhardt), who’s trying to get Anderson fired and is using the death of a prisoner Anderson was responsible for as a political point against the chief.

What really killed Furman was a blow to the back of his head from a blunt object, committed while the police officer that was supposed to be guarding him was asleep at his desk. The ex-wife, Ethel (Wynne Gibson, who had got a star buildup from RKO in the early 1930’s but never quite made it even though she certainly could act: here she delivers a strong, though occasionally overacted, performance), turns up and identifies the body but notes that the picture on the wanted poster was an old one, taken just before she married Furman a decade earlier, touched up to make him look 10 years older — confirming Anderson’s suspicions about the poster after he called the police in Philadelphia and found they had no record of the mysterious Paul Frank Dunlap actually having been murdered. It turns out the whole thing is a criminal scheme in which Ethel is involved, along with her boyfriend Bill and two other persons, an old crook and a hard-bitten blonde woman, and the purpose is to get their hands on Lester Furman’s $500,000 estate — and what makes this story unusual and provides the Hammett-esque twist at the end is that the mysterious “Bill” is actually Anderson’s deputy, Wally Stott, who was sent undercover to infiltrate a numbers racket in Detroit, met and started dating Ethel, and ultimately worked out this scheme with the members of the gang he was supposedly working undercover to bust to knock off her estranged but still legally married husband, make it look like suicide, marry her himself and split the fortune four ways.

The other gang members plot to ambush Anderson in their hotel room — they think he and Wally will be the only cops there — but Anderson figures it out, realizing that the only person who could have murdered Furman without arousing (physically and mentally) the sleeping deputy was someone who had a perfectly normal reason to be in the jail, and who had access to a key that would allow him to let himself into Furman’s cell. The Hammett story was adapted by Carl Bixby and directed by Frank Schaffner — who, as Franklin J. Schaffner, would later helm such important high-quality feature films as The Best Man and Patton — and though he was hamstrung by the limitations of live TV (where, quite frankly, you were lucky if you got a picture at all; they generally used three cameras but quite often one camera went out in the middle of a telecast and the director had to improvise frantically to keep the show on the air with the remaining two) he tried to get the noir atmosphere important to filming Hammett; at one point, he shot Ethel Furman through the vertical rails of her hotel bed — an obvious visual quote from the famous scene at the end of The Maltese Falcon where the bars of the elevator gate are pulled closed in front of Mary Astor and symbolize the prison bars that will soon enclose her murderess character — and though the actors were not identified with their roles in the credits, this was nonetheless a generally well-acted TV episode, intelligently adapted by Bixby even though he made some curious changes to Hammett’s original.

In the story, which is told first-person by Anderson, Ethel Furman is a patsy rather than part of the plot — Wally is just courting her for her husband’s money but she’s genuinely in love with him and doesn’t realize that — and there is no daughter (in the story they had one, but she died in infancy, precipitating the breakup of the Furmans’ marriage), whereas Bixby quite powerfully uses the daughter to arouse guilt feelings in Ethel and lead her to confess to Anderson and name her co-conspirators. There aren’t any co-conspirators in the story; the plot is Wally’s own and he’s implementing it without help. There’s a hard-bitten blonde woman in the story but she’s just Ethel Furman’s traveling companion, not a part of the murder plot; and the faked wanted poster ostensibly comes from a private detective agency (whose head sees it and pronounces it a fake but quite a good one, done on their authentic letterhead) rather than the police department, but for the most part the story and the TV version track pretty closely, and in at least one respect the show improves on the story by making more of the political rivalry between the police chief and the D.A. — not surprising since Studio One had already done a TV version of Hammett’s novel The Glass Key, which focused on two equally corrupt factions (though one was posing as “reformers”) fighting over control of a major city. Two Sharp Knives was an unusually well-done live TV show based on an obscure story by a major author, even though Bixby’s script omitted the philosophical tag that gave the piece its title: a (supposed) old proverb, “To a sharp knife comes a tough steak.”