The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!
Season: 1, Episode: 1.
Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: James P. Cavanagh, based on a novel by William O’Farrell.
Cast: Leslie Nielsen, George Grizzard, Natalie Trundy, Dianne Foster.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon.
Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Her eyes. They were often upon him. Candid, admiring, possessive. Her eyes. Her extraordinary eyes. Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes. And used to them. In the lunch counter. In the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month. And they were to lead him into guilt and terror and murder... as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. Our story is about a watcher, and the watched... and a not so innocent bystander. There’s an outsider, too: Alan’s wife. Four pairs of anxious eyes. But no one could see the shattering effect of... the Twisted Image. Well, I’ll say no more, but I promise you one thing: this is a thriller!”
Synopsis: Successful executive Alan Patterson (Leslie Nielsen) has a pair of stalkers: Lilly (Natalie Trundy), an attractive female employee who has some crazy fatal attraction crush on him... and will do anything to ruin his marriage so that she can become his next wife; and Merl (George Grizzard), an envious mail room employee at the company who wants to take over Alan’s life... once Alan is out of the way, of course. So we have a hybrid of FATAL ATTRACTION and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, decades before either of those movies were made.
Lilly shows up at Alan’s office at lunchtime, and insists he take her to lunch. His secretary sees them together, and assumes... and when they go to lunch, another business associate sees them together and assumes... But during the lunch, Alan is a bit freaked out by Lilly: she flat out says she’s going to marry him. When he says he is already married and has a kid, she is not deterred at all. She’s crazy! She calls him at home and leaves odd messages with his wife... who thinks he may be cheating.
When Alan has lunch with Lilly to tell her to just leave him alone, she *loudly* professes her love for him in the company lunch room... and is overheard by Merl, who now has some leverage against the boss he love/hates. It’s hinted at that Merl is Gay and also has a strange crush on Alan... he’s very similar to Bruno in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in some respects. When delivering the mail, Merl steals Alan’s watch from his office.
The more Alan tells Lilly to leave him alone, the more she calls his home and office. His marriage is eroding, his wife (Dianne Foster) is sure that he is cheating on her with Lilly. His life is falling apart!
One night Merl seeks out “Alan’s mistress” Lilly, telling her he has a message from Alan. Merl has a cheap bottle of wine and soon we have *two* drunk mentally unstable people in Lilly’s apartment... both in love with the same man. When Merl puts the moves on Lilly, trying to live out his Alan fantasy, she pushes him away... and he kills her. Oops!
That’s when Alan knocks on the door to demand that Lilly leave him the hell alone. Oops!
But Merl knocks him unconscious, steals his wallet, and wipes away all of his own finger prints... making it appear as if Alan killed Lilly. When wakes up and finds the dead body of the woman who everyone thinks is his mistress, Alan leaves Lilly’s apartment, and he’s seen by the building manager... who then discovers her dead body. Now Alan has to find the real killer before the police catch him.
Merl goes out on the town, using Alan’s money and Alan’s identification.
Alan’s wife goes to have it out with Lilly... arriving just in time to see the police take her out in a body bag. Did Alan murder his mistress?
Alan decides Merl is #1 suspect, goes to his apartment... but Merl isn’t there. When Merl does come back, he sees Alan’s car on the street, and steals it... becoming more like Alan every minute. Wearing his watch, driving his car, dressed to look like him. The transformation is almost complete! But to actually *become* Ala,, Merl goes to Alan’s house and accosts Alan’s wife... *his* wife, now. Then takes Alan’s cute little kid! And holds a gun to her head! Now Alan must race home to save his wife and kid from the maniac pretending to be him.
Review: For the amount of talent involved and the number of great episodes this series would have, not an amazing first episode. Though you might only know Leslie Nielsen from comedies, he began as a serious dramatic actor... and that’s why he was perfect in movies like AIRPLANE! The audience expected him to be serious... as he is in this episode.
You may not be familiar with George Grizzard, but he was a hot actor at the time, cutting his teeth on TV before moving on to films (one of my favorite cop movies you’ve never heard of WARNING SHOT) like ADVISE AND CONSENT... but you would probably recognize the older version of him as the stern father of the bride in BACHELOR PARTY and the old version of Ryan Philippe in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. So we have a great cast.
Director Arthur Hiller was a TV veteran at the time, who would go on to direct huge Hollywood hits like LOVE STORY as well as great films like THE HOSPITAL and MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH... and comedies like the original THE IN LAWS.
Writer James P. Cavanaugh was a writer for Hitchcock Presents, and many other TV crime shows. So we have all of this talent, and the episode is kind of a muddled mess.
Novelist William O'Farrell was probably famous at the time for his novel REPEAT PERFORMANCE, which is kind of GROUNDHOG DAY as a thriller, about a man who must relive the year he commits murder over and over again.
I suspect the reason is that this hour long episode is based on a novel... and what might work over the course of a novel might not work well when condensed into an hour of TV. The two stalkers thing seems unrealistic; this isn’t a movie star, it’s a business executive! In order to flesh out each character we spend some extra screen time on scenes like Merl and his sister having a dispute... which was probably a fine scene in the novel, but here it seems to come out of left field and slow down the story. And compressing all of the things that happen into a couple of days makes it seem like Alan has the worst luck in the world. When the two stalkers come together, that just seems like a huge coincidence. So we have a story that probably worked well in book form condensed into too little time... and all of the things that could be either set up or glossed over in the book now seem abrupt. The story also ends up “too plotty”, so much going on that we don’t get enough time to really see the emotional impact on Alan. Things like Merl transforming himself into Alan are rushed, and often end up more exposition than demonstration. Adding to this is that the thriller aspects don't kick in until the last quarter of the show. Too much going on!
The music for this episode is basically variations on the THRILLER theme, which makes it seem a little cheap. The same composer will do *great* work on later episodes, like PAPA BENJAMIN (about a big band leader, which Rugalo was before doing TV scores) who must deal with a voodoo curse.
Despite all of this, it’s a competent episode... it just probably should have been a two parter or something. The acting and direction is fine, and the idea that an insignificant person in your life could turn your world upside down like this is scary. I almost wish they had split the story into two stories, one with the crazy FATAL ATTRACTION woman at the office and the other with the SINGLE WHITE FEMALE stalker who transforms themself into a clone of you... an unstable, violent, murderous clone. That way each idea could have been fully explored, and more time spent on the suspense of the situation. One of the reason why I loved this show as a kid were the episodes that take a simple situation and ramp up the suspense until it is unbearable. When we come to GUILLOTINE, you’ll see a great example of that: will a poisoned executioner make it to work today? This isn’t a bad episode... but it doesn’t display the brilliance this show will achieve in later episodes.