Thursday, June 22, 2023

Thriller: Guillotine

Say what you will about the French, but back in the day, they certainly had a flair for public executions. The ominous sight of the guillotine blade slowly going up and quickly coming down really made an impression. Thesp-turned-director Ida Lupino capitalized on that inherent drama in one of the nine episodes she directed for the classic Boris Karloff-hosted anthology series Thriller. A convicted murderer hatches a plan to cheat the blade, but irony might still kill him in “Guillotine,” which screens Saturday at UCLA.

This episode of
Thriller will be presented as part of a sort of triple-crown of macabre anthology episodes helmed by Lupino. Some of us might rank Outer Limits above Alfred Hitchcock Presents¸ but nobody will argue with The Twilight Zone and real fans will defend Thriller to our dying breaths. “Guillotine” is from the second season, so we no longer get the catch-phrase: “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thriller.” However, this episode introduces the guest stars as severed heads falling into a basket. It is a crude super-imposed video trick by today’s standard, but the spirit is still delightfully ghoulish.

Robert Lamont was sentenced to death for murdering his wife Babette’s lover, which makes her feel rather guilty. Evidently, if the executioner, a.k.a. Monsieur de Paris, the “headman,” blows off the appointment, or dies himself before a successor is announced, the accused walks free—sort of like when the rope broke in the Old West gallows. Therefore, Lamont asks his wife to repeat her infidelity, to keep his head attached. If she can’t keep him in bed, then she should put him into the ground.

Film Noir was definitely Lupino’s forte, as you can see from this stylish episode. Even though it is not supernatural in nature (unlike some episodes), her dark visual sensibilities give this historical
Thriller an almost gothic feel.

She also gets some great performances from her ensemble, none of whom ever became wildly famous, but many maintained long careers as TV character actor mainstays. Robert Middleton portrays Monsieur de Paris with tragic dignity that really is quite poignant. Marcel Hillaire is also immensely sinister, in a snarky kind of way, as Guillaume, the barber who comes to shave the back of Lamont’s neck.

Even though there were no future movie stars in the cast, “Guillotine” still has a terrific lineage. In addition to Lupino (the director) and Karloff (the host), it was written by Charles Beaumont (“The Howling Man”), adapting a Cornell Woolrich. The under-rated early 1980s anthology
The Darkroom (hosted by James Coburn) also produced a decent version of the same story. “Guillotine” is a solid episode and an excellent showcase for Lupino’s skills as television director, but there are at least a dozen Thriller episodes that are creepier and more intriguing, which just goes to show how under-heralded the classic series has always been. Highly recommended, “Guillotine” screens this Saturday (6/24), with Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ “A Crime for Mothers” and the famous Twilight Zone episode “The Masks,” at the Billy Wilder Theater.