The first AHP of the 1960s!
However progressive this sounds, the first shot is decidedly retro. We see the old Las Vegas strip — The Golden Nugget, the giant mechanical cowboy. It is all very gritty, with steel and bolts compared to the smooth, mirrored high-rises built today.
Neile Adams (no character name, so just call her Neile) has just bought a Brandy for $.45. She is sitting at the bar dangling a shoe in the way only a pretty girl can without looking like trash. When her shoe drops to the floor, Steve McQueen slips it back on her foot in the only way a guy can without getting kicked in the f***ing head — by being Steve McQueen.
After her brandy, they get a table for a more nutritious breakfast of coffee and cigarettes. As cool Steve McQueen lights the exotically beautiful Neile’s cigarette, then moves to light his own, it is comical when Peter Lorre leans into the shot for a light. Not only is he crassly intruding on their flirtations, compared to these two uber-specimens, he looks positively otherworldly.
Lorre takes a couple of puffs, then purposely breaks his cigarette. He bums a new smoke from Neile, then compliments McQueen’s lighter as he lights it for him. McQueen says, “I don’t wear it as a badge. It’s a good lighter and it works.” Then he makes a click noise. I think he made that same click in The Great Escape. Did I discover the secret of his cool? Was it the click? I’ll have to rewatch Papillon: “We’re something, aren’t we? The only animals that shove things up their ass for survival . . . click.” No, not very cool.
Lorre says he is a very rich man, and a sporting man. He wonders if McQueen would like to make a wager on the reliability of the lighter. If McQueen can make his lighter fire 10 times in a row, Lorre will give him a convertible. If the lighter fails even once, McQueen will get a finger chopped off. But just the little one. And
on off the left hand.
McQueen eventually accepts the bet. After checking out the convertible, they go to Lorre’s room #12 — so the rich sporting man has a first floor room? We don’t get to see the car inspection. I’m sure it was the standard kicking of tires, making the roof go up and down, making sure there is 750 pounds of chrome, and checking the registration for Lorre’s name.
When they enter the room, Lorre removes some women’s lingerie that is lying around. This is never explained, but suggests a scene more blood-curdling than anything that will follow here.
Two set pieces follow. First is the preparation for the game. Second is the contest itself. The contest is what everyone remembers from this episode, but credit is also due to the prep-work. Realistically showing something being built or prepared is always fascinating. Lorre has a bellhop get some supplies, and he constructs a device to secure McQueen’s hand. It gets the suspense ramping up early as you see that Lorre is serious — thought has actually gone into this. It also increases the stakes. If McQueen loses, he isn’t going to just be able run out.
There is no way to do justice to the contest. I can’t believe Hitchcock didn’t grab this script for himself. It is just a masterclass in suspense.
After 7 successful flicks of the non-Bic, a woman bursts into the room. She takes the butcher knife away from Lorre and chews him out. Lorre is a fraud. He doesn’t even own the convertible. Over the years, he lost 11 convertibles and picked up 47 fingers from other rubes. She says over the years, she was able to win all his possessions from him, so he has nothing to bet with. As proof, she reveals her left hand which now has only a thumb and little finger left. Although how she drives without a middle finger is not explained.
Three talented, charismatic performers and a great script with a classic suspense scene come together to make this the best episode of a very good series.
- AHP Deathwatch: Steve McQueen died at 50 years old, but Neile Adams is still with us. Director Norman Lloyd . . . I’m double-checking at 11:18 PM — yes still around at 103.
- How did Norman LLoyd not have a massive career directing theatrical movies?
- This episode was remade in 1985 for an AHP reboot. John Huston was pretty good in the Peter Lorre role. Steven Bauer and Melanie Griffith just couldn’t compete with Steve McQueen and Niele Adams, though. But, really, who could?
- No subtly was allowed on TV by the 1980s, so the contest goes all the way to 10. Huston brings the butcher knife down but the ending is so muddled that it is not clear if he missed on purpose or was startled. It is really a decent remake, though.
- Adams and McQueen were married when this was filmed. According to IMDb, she is 26% Chinese, Japanese & Mongolian, 7% Polynesian, and 67% Spanish; she plays a woman pretending to be Russian, then admits she is from Iowa. Only in America.
- For a more complete and coherent look at the episode and production, check out bare*bones e-zine.