Thursday, November 13, 2008


The live-action CBS-TV "Suspense" anthology presentation of Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of terror "The Cask of Amontillado" updates the author's 1846 short story (first published in the magazine "Godey's Lady's Book") with its eighteenth century setting so that the action takes place just after World War II has ended, and everybody is celebrating the success of the Allied victory over Hitler. A U.S.A.F.F. sergeant (Ray Walston of "My Favorite Martian") approaches his intoxicated superior officer, a major (Frank Marth of "Satan's School for Girls") and explains that the Count (Romney Brent of "The Sign of Zorro") has come to report a murder. The major collapses in a drunken stupor onto a nearby cot, and the sergeant decides to transcribe the Count's deposition in short-hand. The Count, an older looking gentleman with patrician features, a neatly clipped mustache, a trim Vandyke beard, in the wardrobe of an aristocrat, primly informs the sergeant that the palace where the Americans are billeted once belonged to him. They sit down, and the Count begins his story.

"Early in the war," he states, "when the Fascists were in full power, I had to give the property to a General Fortunato. Actually, Fortunato used to be a stable boy here, but he rose by devious means until he became one of Mussolini's favorites and after that a general." The Count informs the sergeant that far beneath the palace lays a catacomb where "for thousands of years my ancestors have been buried . . . " The besotted major revives briefly to point out that in the catacomb is about a quarter of a mile below "down a long spiral staircase every few steps a corridor leads off." The officer pronounces it the greatest wine cellar that he has ever seen during the three years that he has spent in Italy. The sergeant mentions to the Count that it is off bounds to the troops. However, by that time, the major has passed out for good. The Count goes on to say that the catacomb: "It is so far down it is actually under a river bed." When the Fascists came to power, explains the Count, General Fortunato (Bela Lugosi of "Dracula") commandeered the palace and forced the Count to let him marry the Count's "youngest and dearest sister." The sergeant suggests that the Count should have refused, but the Count reminds him that Fortunato could summon storm troopers and resort to torture chambers. Fortunato confined the Count and his wife to a small suite over the stable. At this point, "3:10 to Yuma" writer Halsted Welles and "Never Love A Stranger" director Robert Stevens shift the story into flashback mode at about six minutes into the action.

The Count works in an office and his sister in the hospital. Meanwhile, the Count's snooty wife dines with the general on the terrace. The amorous but disheveled general and the Count's wife discuss their relationship. Fortunato values his sister-in-law's judgment above that of his simpleton wife. Nevertheless, he fails to convince her to accompany him to Rome. She refuses because she feels their flirtatious behavior appear too brazen. Stevens shifts back to the present in 8 minutes so that he can see the sergeant light up a cigarette and say: "And then?" Stevens racks focus from the sergeant to the flashback again. A year later, Fortunato returns to the palace. The general's wife has died and the Count's wife has moved to Rome. Indeed, Fortunato is bent on killing the Count. Fortunato's infidelity with the Count's wife precipitates his moral demise and seals his doom.

The Count and General Fortunato spend more of their time together in the second act traipsing down the eternal spiral staircase. Initially, they are lounging on the terrace when the Count reveals to the general that he has bought a cask of amontillado from a black marketer and has hidden it in the catacomb. Fortunato demands to taste his share of it. Eventually, the Count lures him into a nave that is partially bricked up. He gets the drop on Fortunato, appropriates his revolver, and claps him in shackles facing the wall. Afterward, he bricks up the wall completely, and the cries of Fortunato from behind the wall are haunting. Essentially, the entire story serves as the Count's confession. He explains that he fled to Switzerland afterward and then joined the anti-Nazi underground. Finally, the story resumes in the present day, the smashed major is sitting up and listening as attentively to the Count as the sergeant. As the story concludes, the Count leaves his fate to judgment.

Welles' talkative teleplay provides a wealth of pertinent plot details that foreshadow events in the first and second acts, primarily the geographical logistics. Lugosi delivers the best line of dialogue: "You know, life is nothing but . . . uh . . . a lot of steps, either you go up, or you go down." Stevens doesn't let the action dawdle. In extreme contrast to his supernatural horror roles, Bela Lugosi is superb as the drunken, egotistical Italian general that winds up shackled in a nave. Walston is memorable as a gum-chewing sergeant who uses slang in the modern day sequences. Alas, Romney Brent delivers the only flawed performance. During his expository scene about his sister having to marry Fortunato, he goofs up and refers to her as his daughter but he recovers quickly.

The original Poe story never specified what triggered the Count's murderous rage. Indeed, the idea of being burying alive—in this instance, immurement—was a fear that preoccupied Poe. Immurement occurs when an individual is trapped and bricked up within a building and left to starve or dehydrate to death. The chief problem with this otherwise competently done drama is its flimsy sets and props. The walls of the spiral staircase set flutter when the actors breeze past them. Clearly, "Suspense" had to cut corners to keep their production costs down.

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