Sunday, April 07, 2019
"The Key to the Killer" (1960)
"Did you ever wear handcuffs?"
That's how Barbara Stanwyck introduces the first episode of her new anthology series on October 31, 1960. It was Halloween night, and the teleplay by Leonard Praskins served up fear in steady doses -- but not the kind of fear you feel when you see an ugly monster mask or hear a fake ghost moaning "oooOOoooo" from behind a tree. This is real fear.
Meet Leroy Benson (Vic Morrow). He's been picked up by a deputy for vagrancy in a small mountain town. Probably because he had his coat collar flipped up like that. It screams "hoodlum," Leroy. You'd blend in better if you turned it down like the good deputy's shirt collar.
Never mind. If you're armed and dangerous, maybe you're not really caring about blending in.
And Leroy gets real dangerous with those armaments real fast. He pulls a switchblade on the aging deputy and takes away his pistol. But why does he look sort of surprised and worried?
Because a woman with a shotgun just walked in the door, that's why. And she looks like she knows exactly how to use it. Meet Stella King (Barbara Stanwyck), the sheriff's wife. Just like that, she turns the tables on Leroy, and he gets locked behind bars where he belongs.
Don't worry, the old geezer (William Fawcett) is not the sheriff. He's just a deputy. Stella is a deputy too. Her husband is in the hospital, and she's basically running the town's police force in his absence. Leroy can't stand the old deputy, who is constantly ragging him about heading for death row. You see, Leroy killed a shopkeeper during a hold-up. The deputy twits Leroy one too many times about his final destination, and Leroy retaliates by whipping the water from his jail lunch tray in the deputy's face. I wish I could make really good GIFs so you could see how lightning-fast he whips that water at him. It's a thing Vic Morrow could do -- go from totally still to a burst of action in the blink of an eye. He used it to great effect a couple times on Combat! too, always to illustrate a moment of fury, which is how he uses it here.
Anyway, he makes no such move toward Stella. Instead, he asks her for a light once the deputy is gone. He's suddenly quiet, almost sweet, like he's trying to sweet-talk her, almost.
Stella sees through him, though. When a call from the state police comes to say they need to take Leroy to the train station at a nearby town, the first step in his journey to death row, she says she and the deputy can take him there together. After all, she says, "a boy shouldn't be too much trouble for an hour."
Of course, we know that the episode is only just beginning, so she must be wrong. In the car on the way to the train, she sits in the back with the prisoner while the other deputy drives. Leroy looks alternately angry, tough, and a little scared as they get closer and closer to the train. But he manages to make the deputy wreck the car. And, because there's a lot of episode left yet, nobody dies in the crash, either.
Leroy gets the deputy's gun away from him again (maybe the guy is related to Barney Fife?), and when he pulls Stella out of the car, we see for the first time that they are handcuffed together. Which means this all got a lot more interesting all of a sudden.
Leroy goes all vicious-killer, with the cold eyes and the blank expression, and shoots the deputy while Stella looks on in horror. Could she have yanked him off balance and made his shot go wild? Sure, but then he'd probably have shot her AND the deputy, and where would that get us? Can't kill off your leading lady in the first act of the first episode of her brand-new TV show, after all.
Have I mentioned yet that Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses, and Vic Morrow is one of my favorite actors? This might be a good time to mention that. They both starred on some of my favorite TV shows, Barbara on The Big Valley (1965-69) and Vic on Combat! (1962-67). In fact, their characters on those shows are two of my absolute favorite fictional characters, as well as personal #goals for me as well. I wrote about Barbara's character Victoria Barkley here a few years ago, and about Vic's character Sgt. Saunders here a few days ago. I admire both characters very much, and both actors as well.
So seeing them go toe-to-toe in this episode is pure pleasure. Both excel at playing tough, bold, gutsy characters, and both could sometimes overwhelm lesser co-stars a bit with their magnetic, nuanced performances. But when given someone to act opposite who is every bit as good as they are, it's like aiming two fireworks at the sky at the same time. One is nice, but both together are spectacular.
Oh, and Vic gets to say, "Shut up!" which makes me all happy. Weird? Yes. I'm a weird person.
There's no reason for this shot being here except to show that Leroy's collar is still flipped up, which I find very attractive. Also, it shows that Stella refuses to be afraid of this killer she's handcuffed to, alone in the mountains. She will look him in the eye and do everything within her to bring him to justice.
SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to spoil the whole plot from here on out. Can't say I didn't warn you.
Leroy tells Stella to unlock the handcuffs. She gets out her big ring of deputy keys, says she has to take the key off the ring to make it unlock properly, takes the key off, and throws it over the cliff.
I mean, did I say Barbara Stanwyck could play gutsy? Bold? Tough? Stella is like a razor blade, she's so sharp and so pointy.
Leroy tries to break the cuffs with a rock. No good. He tries to get her to drive the car, but the engine won't start. They are stuck with each other.
Off they go. Very few cars go by, and they mostly keep to the road, him ahead and her lagging behind as much as she dares. Finally, she begs him to stop so she can get a stone out of her shoe.
Leroy goes all nice. Sure, we can stop, and there's a nice log for you to sit on. He likes Stella because she's playing straight with him, she's not treating him like a creep just because he killed the deputy. He'll help her take her shoe off, even.
He'll inspect her foot. Caress it a little. Say he's worried she might have gotten a bruise from that stone.
And Stella, she plays right along, smiling at him, telling him he has gentle hands, asking him kind questions about his past.
Oh, except oops, Leroy hates talking about his past. He had this drunk for a mom, see? And he doesn't like to think about her, see?
So off we walk again. And we find a little trailer house.
Inside the little trailer house, we find a little boy. A little boy who informs Leroy that oh by the way, you're not going the way you thought -- you're heading right for that town where those state police will be expecting you. Stella hasn't been playing so straight with you after all -- she directed you the opposite way from the one you wanted to go. Sorry, Leroy.
So off we run again. Until finally, Stella needs to stop and rest. And that's when Leroy gets a bright idea. They'll go back to the car and get his switchblade, which they were taking along with all his personal effects, and he'll cut off Stella's hand to get the cuffs off.
EXCUSE ME? When did this become a slasher flick? I mean, I know this aired on Halloween, but WOW, that veered off into Gruesomeville awfully suddenly.
And yet, we get this shot of Leroy pressing her hand to his face. His forehead. Almost like he's swearing fealty to her. He doesn't want to cut her hand off. He's just so desperate. Or so he says. Does he actually feel kindly toward her? Will he actually cut her hand off anyway? Is he just a psychopath trying to get her to trust him? Stay tuned during these commercial messages to find out!
Oh, wait, this is on DVD. No commercials. Here we go, off to find the car and the switchblade and give poor Stella a handectomy.
Except that plan falls through.
New plan! We'll just shoot off the cuffs! Nothing could possibly go wrong with that! No one will, at the very least, get severe powder burns from the gun going off that close to their bare skin. No one will, at the worst, loose several fingers. No one will fall off a cliff.
Oh, wait. Everyone will fall off the cliff when we conveniently discover that Leroy is afraid of heights because his mother fell off a building. Good thing Stella had a cliff handy to throw them both off when she learned that.
Leroy freaks. He flails. He... does not drag Stella down to her death because have you already forgotten that she is played by the star of this show and this is its first episode? And even though each episode will have Barbara Stanwyck playing different characters because it's an anthology-style show, so each one is a different story, still, they're just not going to kill off the leading lady's character in the first ep. Though it might have been really interesting if they did.
Anyway, the state troopers conveniently find us right after we've crawled our way back up out of the abyss. And that's when Stella drops a big bomb right on Leroy's head.
Poor guy -- look how stunned he is! Betrayed. Saddened. Here he thought she was such a straight-shooter, and all this time, nope, she's just been tricking him time after time.
Skip the next paragraph if you want there to be ONE surprise left to you in this show, should you ever see it.
You remember that time Stella got all feisty and threw the key for the handcuffs off the cliff? She didn't. She threw some random other key. She still had the key all along and just let Leroy drag her all over the place rather than lose her prisoner.
I mean, talk about GUTS. Holy cabooses. That one revelation right there totally makes up for any conveniences the plot may have relied on for getting them back to where they could be found again. Wow. Way to go, Stella.
This has been my final entry for the Tribute to Vic Morrow blogathon hosted by DKoren and myself this weekend. Thanks for joining us!