Answer Man

Alfred Hitchock taught the importance of emotion in ‘Breakdown’

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock AP

Q: Please help me. I am trying to recall a TV program with William Bendix in which he is paralyzed and on a gurney. Everyone thinks he is dead, but you can hear his thoughts. What saved his life was a single tear that ran down his cheek. A friend thinks this is a “Twilight Zone” episode.

Kathryn, of Collinsville

A: Right plot, wrong show — and wrong star.

What you are remembering is “Breakdown,” an episode of the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” that originally aired Nov. 13, 1955, during the show’s first season on CBS. In it, the late, great Joseph Cotten stars as heartless CEO William Callew, who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, gets a taste of the nastiness that he dishes out only to find redemption at the last minute.

Here’s how it goes: While on a working vacation, Callew fires a long-time employee over the phone, berating him in the process to all within earshot. When he hears the employee start crying, Callew adds this final insult: “He should have learned to control his emotions.”

As you know, that would turn out to be the show’s most telling bit of dialogue. While driving back to New York, Callew crashes into a vehicle carrying a Georgia chain-gang. Paralyzed by the accident, Callew is left pinned against his steering wheel while the convicts make their escape.

Things don’t get any better when the ambulance arrives. The EMTs think he’s dead, so he spends the night in the hospital morgue with a sheet over his head. All the while, of course, his mind is functioning perfectly fine, so he gives viewers a running commentary of his ghastly predicament, which apparently will lead to him being buried alive.

But as he gives Callew a final once-over, the coroner notices something that immediately tells him Callew is still alive — there are tears rolling down his cheek, giving him a never-to-be-forgotten lesson that you can’t — and shouldn’t — always keep your emotions in check.

As was his custom, the droll Hitchcock returns at the end to offer his wry guess that the fired employee will be reinstated even as Callew makes a full recovery. You might find it interesting that horror master Stephen King said he was inspired by this episode to write his short story “Autopsy Room Four” and that a 33-year-old Aaron Spelling had a bit part as a fleeing convict. The episode also earned Edward Williams an Emmy for best editing.

A poor-quality trailer with Spanish subtitles can be found on YouTube. You can also see the full episode at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4s8z3v.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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