“Return of Verge Likens”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep. 1 - Arnold Laven (1964)

“Return of Verge Likens”, the first episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Season 3 (1964), is an extended dramatic exercise in revenge and self-glorification.  Based on a story by Davis Grubb and scripted by James Bridges, this episode is directed by Arnold Laven.  It starred Peter Fonda, who gained later fame with his roles in The Wild Angels (1966) and Easy Rider (1969).

The basic story is straightforward. Stoney Likens owns a small southern farm that is threatened by a corrupt eminent-domain legal takeover on the part of slimy businessman Riley McGrath. When Stoney angrily confronts McGrath with a bottle in his hand at a local roadside bar, McGrath draws his gun and shoots Stoney dead.  Witnesses and the police testify that the murder was in self defense (it wasn’t), and McGrath isn’t even arrested.

Stoney Likens had two sons, the meek Wilfred and the more staunch Verge.  Verge vows to his brother that he intends to take his revenge on McGrath by killing him.  But he doesn’t just want to put an end to McGrath; he wants to see the man slowly suffer and know who it is that kills him.

So Verge shadows McGrath for weeks and learns how the man spends every hour of the day.  One of the things he learns is that McGrath visits his doctor every week because of his weak heart.  Thanks to the timidity of brother Wilfred, McGrath gets wind of Verge’s intentions and attempts to buy the brothers off by giving Wilfred $500.  This gift doesn’t mollify Verge in the slightest, however, and he takes the money and heads off to Charlotte for unknown reasons.

After six months, Verge returns to their small town with a new skill: that of a trained barber. He immediately gets a job at the barbershop where Riley McGrath routinely visits to get shaved with a straight razor.  It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what happens now.  Verge gets McGrath (who had never previously met Verge and so doesn’t recognize who his new barber is) as his next customer and proceeds with his grisly plan. 

The rest gets to be excruciating, and there is no subtlety here. It just becomes an orgy of vengeful psychological torture, reminiscent of the Iranian movie Tangsir (1974).  To me there are no satisfying characters – both Verge and McGrath are equally repulsive.  The only character with some humanity is timid brother Wilfred, but the script scornfully portrays him as essentially a spineless and unmanly figure.

The production values for this episode were generally good, with a characteristic southern redneck performance by Robert Emhardt, as Riley McGrath, and a sensitive portrayal by Sammy Reese, as Wilford Likens.  However, I always find Peter Fonda’s stilted and phony screen persona unconvincing.  And given the weakness of the narrative, the episode as a whole is a disappointment.

Nevertheless, the iMDB rating for this episode is high, and the user reviews celebrate the supposedly satisfying delivery of “justice” to the villainous McGrath.  It seems that what should appeal only to the old drive-in movie crowd, always has a much larger following than that.  In fact current events reflect the reality that a substantial proportion of the public relishes stories based on hatred and revenge.  They want attention given to their resentment and are willing to vote for demagogic autocrats (e.g. in Russia, Turkey, and the US) who ignore the common welfare and instead devote their energies to hatred, revenge, and punishment.  This apparently makes their backers feel strong and proud.

But films can be used effectively to express and evoke all possible emotions, and we need more films that make us feel love and compassion – ones that can evoke the fact that, as Leo Tolstoy eloquently stated long ago, The Kingdom of God is Within You [1].

  1. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, (Constance Garnett, trans.), Kshetra Books, (1894).

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