There’s an old urban legend about an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was so gruesome – so disturbing – that it was never aired on network television. Of course, we all know that urban legends are blown out of proportion, and whatever kernel of truth they were based on is buried under years and years of exaggeration.
But this urban legend is true.
By 1962, Robert Bloch had a nice sideline as a screenwriter. As a teenager, he had become the youngest member of the Lovecraft Circle, and had since published countless short stories and novels. One of those novels, Psycho, had been adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960, and it made quite the splash. After that, Hollywood came calling and Bloch quickly established himself as a reliable source of spine-chilling scripts.
A good number of those scripts were adaptations of his own short stories, so when he was asked to pen an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on his 1942 tale “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” it didn’t seem like it was going to be anything but another paycheck for a job well done.
Unfortunately, the ending turned out to be a problem. Revlon, one of two rotating sponsors at the time, quickly deemed it unacceptable, far too horrific for the living rooms of America. It’s also pretty tough to sell cosmetics with this episode, as you’ll no doubt come to realize, despite the leading lady being none other than British sex goddess Diana Dors. Her real name, by the way, was Diana Fluck. I only mention that because it’s hilarious.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” actually ended up being sold in the syndication package (though some channels still choose not to air it – looking at you, MeTV), narrowly avoiding it becoming a truly “lost” episode.
We start with ol’ Hitch standing by an x-ray of a goat. He tells us that in Ancient Rome, the future was predicted by looking for omens in the entrails of animals. Unfortunately, in modern times, vivisection is frowned upon, so the only way to know what’s coming is to use x-rays.
“Hmm. Looks like rain,” Hitchcock notes.
He then makes his next prediction: a commercial break.
(For a fun twist, he’s utterly wrong. Because it never aired on network, a Revlon commercial was never supplied, so we just jump straight into the story.)
A carnival magician named Sadini is having a cigarette break. His look is sinister, with a pointed beard and curled moustache, but he’s as human as anybody else in this moment; tired from a long day on his feet. It’s almost midnight, but the midway lights are still bright, and the calliope music is still bobbing up and down in the background.
He glances into one of the alleyways between crooked games and candy apple vendors and notices a body crumpled on a makeshift mattress of newspapers. Sadini hurries over to the shape and quickly discovers that it’s a teenage boy, fresh faced, and thankfully breathing.
“This is no place to sleep,” he says as he shakes the kid, “you’ll freeze to death.”
The boy doesn’t wake up.
Sadini takes his pulse and looks him over, then pounds on the side of the nearby hamburger shack. Milt, the proprietor of said hamburger shack, opens a shutter and sticks his head out. Sadini tells him that he thinks he’s found somebody sick and in need of help, and he and Milt carry the kid across the way to Sadini’s trailer.
The inside of the trailer looks exactly how you’d expect a magician’s house to look. There’s overstuffed furniture, a Chinese dresser, and a gallery wall full of photos of elephants – good and true – that Sadini has known throughout his carnival life. Like the man himself, the room is mostly comfortable and honest, with a few dramatic flares.
As Milt takes off and Sadini throws a blanket over the kid, Irene makes her grand entrance. Irene is Sadini’s wife and assistant. She’s none too thrilled to find some hobo kid stretched out in her living quarters; and when Sadini says he thinks the kid is starving to death, she tells him to hand him off to the hospital or the cops. She doesn’t need the headache, and she isn’t going to play nursemaid between shows.
Sadini heads into the kitchenette to grab a cup of coffee and warm up a pan of milk, arguing that the kid might be in some kind of trouble or something, and he doesn’t feel right just handing him off. Irene goes to get a look at their new house guest, and as she does, the kid wakes up.
With wide blue eyes full of confusion, he asks what happened to him. He looks at Irene and asks her if he’s dead.
“You,” the kid says. “You look like an angel.”
Irene likes that. It gets a half a smile out of her.
The kid bolts right up when Sadini and his arched brows appear over Irene’s shoulder.
“You look like the devil!”
Sadini gives his own smile, and explains that he’s a magician.
The kid is clearly a little bit behind the curve in the mental development department. He introduces himself as Hugo – just Hugo, like Cher – and lets it slip that he’s run away from “the home.” For the last few nights, he’s been sleeping under the bridge.
Hugo is being played by Brandon De Wilde. Nine years earlier, he’d been the little boy in Shane, and had his own short-lived TV series. He gives a very stagey performance here. In a different story, it would stand out disastrously, but with the naturalness of the actors playing carnies, it feels like Hugo is inhabiting a separate world. A more illusionary one.
Anyway, Hugo says that he hasn’t eaten anything for two days, so Sadini tells his wife to hop over to Milt’s and grab a couple of hamburgers and see if Milt has some soup on by chance. (I have never, ever seen soup at a carnival. Unless you count chili, but it’s kind of weird to call it soup, even though I guess that’s technically its category.)
Irene grumbles a bit before heading out, but she goes. Sadini pours the warm milk into a glass for Hugo, who flinches away from him like a scared cat. Hugo’s heard all about magicians. They can put spells on you.
Sadini says that somebody better put Hugo straight about magicians, and suggests that once the kid is on the mend, he come and watch the show. Hugo likes this idea because Irene is in the show, and he’s a little enamoured with her.
He’s not the only one.
George the acrobat seems pretty enamoured with her as he kisses the side of her neck. Turns out, Irene and George are having quite the affair.
It’s been a couple of days since Hugo was first taken in by Sadini, and he’s walking the carnival that evening, when he happens upon George’s trailer just as he and Irene are stepping out. Irene is shocked, but Hugo doesn’t realize the implications of what he’s seen, and she notices his obliviousness quickly. She asks him if he’s feeling better, and he says that he thinks he’s well enough to watch the show.
She then introduces him to George, and hurries away to get ready for her next performance.
Hugo tells George he thinks that Irene is an angel. They told him all about angels and devils at the home. He wonders what an angel like her has to do with Sadini, and George says he wonders that same thing. He claps Hugo on the shoulder and says they’re going to go see the Great Sadini in action.
“We’re going to see the magic!” Hugo smiles breathlessly.
Sadini’s show is standard carnival magic in the best way. There’s grand gestures and Sadini affects a bit of an accent. His closing illusion turns out to be “the celebrated illusion of sawing a woman in half!” Irene smiles as she climbs into the box and Sadini jokes to the audience that he always saves this one for the end in case it doesn’t work.
Hugo turns to George, terrified for Irene, but George calms him down makes him and watch.
As it happens, Sadini’s twist on this old chestnut is to use a buzz saw – it’s loud and dramatic and actually freshens up the trick a little. Irene closes her eyes for added dramatic effect.
Hugo starts to shout that “the devil’s killed her,” but George manages to quiet him down. George even pre-empts the next panic attack by assuring Hugo everything is alright and putting an arm around him while Sadini does the part where he wheels around the two halves of the box to show that they now separate as though the saw really has passed through them.
“Look,” George points to Irene’s head sticking out of the top box, “she’s smiling!”
Irene is smiling, and when Hugo sees that, he’s both relieved and completely enchanted.
Sadini rejoins the boxes and drapes his red lined cape over the “cut.” He taps it with his wand three times, and what do you know? Irene is safe and sound and back in one piece!
The audience claps, and even though the trick was an illusion, a spell has been cast on Hugo.
When next we see angelic Irene, she’s sewing George into his acrobat tights and complaining about her husband. Sadini thinks it’ll be good for Hugo to work with props and learn a few tricks, and maybe even do a couple of things in the act. Despite the fact that young Hugo is quite taken with her, Irene sees all of this as the last inconvenience she’s willing to take.
George asks the question on everybody’s mind.
“So why don’t the two of us blow out of here and head for the coast?”
According to Irene, it’s because Sadini is a headliner, he gets the big bucks on the carnival circuit, whereas George is just a high wire man. Lower on the totem pole, and out of a job as soon as they leave this show. Who’s going to pay the rent?
Oh, Irene, don’t be so negative! There are plenty of jobs for former acrobats and magician’s assistants. Like… um… well I’m sure you could apply at… huh.
Look, the point is you have to go out and try. You can’t spend your whole life in a lukewarm marriage keeping George on the side. Eventually George will get bored and wander off. That’s what Georges do.
George suggests that she steal his routine, they change the gimmick, she teaches them to George, and boom. They’ve got their own magic act. Take it on a different circuit than Sadini’s and nobody’s hurting anybody.
“The Great George and Company.”
(That’s terrible. Who the hell wants to see a magician called The Great George? You’re Giovanni now. Giovanni, Master of the Cards!)
Irene says that they need money to buy props to start out, and the whole problem is that they don’t have any money. She pulls him in for a kiss as he tells her that they’re made for each other, and there’s got to be some way to sort this all out.
Unbeknownst to them, Hugo is hanging around George’s trailer again, and this time he’s peeking in the windows. He sees George on top of Irene, and Irene sees him watching. She pushes George off of her, and they both hurry to the door. George starts out by yelling at Hugo about privacy, but Irene has another idea.
It’s time for her and Hugo to have a little talk.
She takes Hugo back to Sadini’s trailer and tells him that she’s in love with George. Hugo seems disappointed, even though Mr. Sadini looks kind of scary, he’s a nice man. At the home, Hugo used to have to talk to people about how he didn’t understand things, but now he understands things. Sadini just does tricks.
Irene sees an opportunity and grabs it by the throat.
She tells him she was the same way once. She trusted Sadini when he said that it was all pretend, and that’s how he captured her. Now she can never get free of him, because he really is the devil.
Hugo listens in stunned awe.
When she’s on stage floating, she’s really floating! Oh! She’s so afraid of Sadini! She starts to pretend to cry, and Hugo helplessly pets her hair.
Until a gleam from the other side of the room catches his eye.
Irene follows his gaze and quickly picks up the wand, declaring that it’s how Sadini does his tricks. He waves it, and it focuses all of his power into whatever he commands. If Hugo steals Sadini’s power, he can use the wand to perform magic as well.
Hugo isn’t sure how he’s supposed to steal Sadini’s power, but thankfully Irene is there to explain it to him.
All he has to do is follow her simple instructions…
Later that evening, Hugo is practicing his wand waving technique when Sadini comes home looking for Irene. Hugo tells him he hasn’t seen Irene all day, but he seems to be in a trance while he talks. He eyes a kitchen knife on the counter, his eyes unblinking, his mind disconnected from this moment.
He snatches up the knife and hides it behind his back, while Sadini asks why he’s hanging around so late. Hugo’s supposed to bunk with the roustabouts tonight, and they won’t look too kindly on him making a racket coming in while they’re trying to sleep. Hugo says he needs the keys to Sadini’s trunk.
“The trunk? Did you need to get something out of it?”
“No. Not out of it.”
Sadini goes to the trunk and bends down to unlock it.
Hugo plunges the knife into his friend’s neck.
In a sequence heavily reminiscent of Psycho, we see the knife catch a beam of light as Hugo’s hands brings it down to Sadini – whose form and blood remain off screen. You know for sure it went in the neck, though, because of the staging of the two figures before the murder occurs.
To appease the censors (who turned out to not be a problem), because he was opening the trunk, Sadini’s wounded body falls straight in, and we see no corpse nor geyser of chocolate syrup blood. But then, this is not the offending moment.
Hugo slams the trunk shut and locks it, and as he does, he hears a knocking on the door.
It’s George. He’s quite drunk, Irene was trying to liquor him up so that he’d fall asleep after she let too much of her plan slip. He’s here to stop Hugo before he does anything foolish, but Hugo protests that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
George slurs out that Hugo is a scapegoat, Irene’s going to frame him for the murder because he’s mentally unstable. Hugo’ll tell the police all about angels and devils and they won’t look twice at anybody else. But George is drunk and Hugo’s already done it. With one last plea that the kid not go through with anything tonight, George passes out on the table.
Irene happens to be a little unconscious, too. In her effort to get George drunk, she got herself drunk. Irene is not good at things.
A clattering outside the trailer wakes her up, and she calls a couple of times to George, but gets no answer. She stands up and opens the door to find Hugo, wearing Sadini’s cloak and brandishing the wand with proud grandeur.
She quickly pulls him inside and asks if he’s done it and if he’s seen George. He says yes, he’s done it, and yes he’s seen George. Irene asks where George is, then.
“With Sadini,” Hugo answers cheerfully, mesmerized by the wand as he waves it back and forth.
There’s a cold moment where Irene wonders if Hugo killed George, too. But the boy quickly clarifies that George is just asleep, and he locked him in the trailer with Sadini. Irene scolds him. If the police find George in the same room as Sadini’s dead body, she thinks, they’ll suspect him of the murder.
Hugo tells her it doesn’t matter what the police think. He doesn’t care what happens to George. Now that he has the wand, he can take Irene away himself. They can do whatever they want. He has the magic.
His eyes are glittering with hysteria, his features are intense and feverish as he talks about his new “powers.”
Panicking that things are spiralling out of her control, Irene – still drunk and wearing magician’s assistant high heels – makes for the door and trips.
She hits her head on the side of bench by the door.
Hugo rushes to her unconscious form and takes her lovely face in his hands. He apologizes for frightening her, and promises to show her that he can use the wand. When she sees how good he is at magic, she’ll know that she’s safe with him.
He scoops her up and carries her through the empty, shadow soaked carnival.
There are no midway lights, no calliopes, no barkers calling to laughing crowds. Just the wind whistling through the empty rides, catching the shutters on closed down stalls.
It’s Sadini’s tent he takes her to. Empty and quiet as all the others.
He places her in the trick box and arranges things just as he saw them before, taking special care to make certain her head is in just the right place. He shuts the top and closes the latches.
The wand glitters in the darkness as he holds it triumphantly.
Just one more thing to do, of course.
Hugo hurries to the buzz saw and positions it just right. It’s so heavy, it takes both his hands, and he holds the wand in his mouth as he does it. He announces himself as Hugo the Great (these guys need to work on their magician names) and flips the switch.
The sound of the saw firing up stirs Irene awake.
She looks over, confused for a moment, then struck with the horrific realization of what’s happening.
She screams as Hugo steadily pushes the saw forward.
We’re treated to a closeup of Hugo’s face, the machinery in his hands moving smoothly and surely.
“Smile, Irene! Smile!” He says, just as the saw starts to meet some resistance.
And we fade to black.
The implications are pretty clear – and a little nauseating – in that very last second when the saw slows down. But just in case we’re all optimists sitting around telling ourselves that maybe somebody arrived to save Irene in the nick of time, Hitch comes back to set us straight:
“I don’t know quite how to put this. However, I must tell you the truth. The saw worked excellently, but the wand didn’t. Hugo was terribly upset, and the lady was beside herself.”
This might make me a horrible person, but that is my favourite joke Alfred Hitchcock ever made on this show.
Some of you might be feeling a little disappointed. After all, Hannibal was on NBC weeknights at ten. It’s a different world now. But in 1962, that was a little much. Honestly, in 2016, it’s still an uncomfortable ending. I mean, Hugo clearly had his devils and angels mixed up, but Irene didn’t deserve to go out quite so gruesomely.
Before we go, a word about the story’s title. While the majority of us are familiar with the Mickey Mouse adaptation of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the 1797 poem on which it’s based is a shade or two more moralizing. The end lines remind us to never try to call upon spirits that we can’t control. A lesson for Hugo, or Irene?
As for the rest of us, I think the moral of the episode is that you shouldn’t help people because they’ll murder you for it. And the moral of the backstage story is that Revlon likes red on nails and lips, not on sawblades.