by Sam Juliano
“When a man shuts himself off from his neighbors, when he conducts experiments behind locked doors, there is bound to be talk. There were those who whispered that Dirk Van Prinn was a sorcerer – and worse. He might never have been remembered at all had not his research led him to the discovery of a most unusual formula for making glass.” -Boris Karloff
Robert Bloch’s short story “The Cheaters” made it’s first appearance in the November 1947 issue of Weird Tales. Bloch, who also authored the sources that yielded two other exceptional episodes in Boris Karloff’s Thriller, (“The Weird Tailor” and “Waxworks”) and seven other teleplays for the series, also included it in his acclaimed 1960 short story collection Pleasant Dreams: Nightmares, which won the Hugo Award for the selection “The Hell-Bound Train,” a captivating tale about outsmarting the devil. “The Cheaters” which debuted on Thriller’s fifteenth week, is one of the most perfectly executed episodes of the series, showcasing an extraordinary ensemble, a clever specification of a popular science-fiction deceit and a remarkable economic teleplay that unifies four short stories with a pre-title vignette. “The Cheaters” with it’s focus on human greed and the murderous treachery that people will engineer to acquire money is one of the darkest episodes on the show, one where nearly all, the central characters meet their doom by violence or horrific means. The play on the term ‘cheaters’ extends to virtually all the activities in the omnibus narrative: a wife cheats on her husband, a player cheats in a card game, characters cheat to gain wealth, and the glasses themselves as invented are devices to cheat since they reveal something that should not be observed by another person.
The power of mind control or reading one’s mind has always been a favorite device for screenwriters, who can utilize this fearful power to craft some dramatically engrossing dramas with the hook of some characters knowing more than others, with only the audience knowing the full picture. Donald S. Sanford’s screenplay from Bloch’s story features yellow-tinted glasses that enables the man or woman who wears them to learn what the persons around them are thinking. By eerily distorting the audio, the persons sporting the “cheaters” hear the diabolical plans that are being masked by phony patronizing. Visually the person whose mind is being probed is shown in darkened contours and evincing the gravest of expressions. The entire deceit was explored with variations in John Carpenter’s They Live almost thirty years later.
Though the time structure of the episode sets up events that are separated by a few years, there is a turn-of-the-century prologue that plays to the strength of John Brahm (The Lodger and Hangover Square), a literate director with a distinct visual style who brings Gothic atmospherics to the chilling first segment where Dirk Van Prinn has perfected his new invention, and promptly tries them on while looking at a mirror. He sees something in the mirror that is so terrifying that he screams in mortal agony, and shortly thereafter hangs himself. With the narrative hook of the glasses being passed on to others (one recalls Anthony Mann’s Winchester 73 and Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de) the story then moves to a good natured junk dealer named Joe Henshaw and his abusive wife, Maggie who badgers him relentlessly for his various failures to secure profits. It’s clear enough that she’s more than interested in Joe’s younger helper Charlie, who returns the secret affection. The two men go on to search the ‘Bleaker House’ for possible antiques (this was previously Von Prinn’s home) but find nothing and prepare to leave, though Joe’s parting kick at Von Prinn’s old desk causes a secret drawer to open. There he finds the glasses with the Latin phrase Veritas (truth) printed above the lens. Thinking he can use them for reading, he instead finds out that his wife and Charlie are lovers who are planning to kill him. After he learns the plans while wearing the cheaters he fakes leaving the house and closing the doors, returning suddenly to kill them with a crowbar. A policeman hears the screams and shoots Henshaw dead after the junk man lunges at him, condemning as he does the “cheaters,” which of course applies to his wife and her boyfriend and the iniquitous object that leads them all to their demise.
The next person to come upon the cheaters is an older lady named Miriam Olcott (wonderfully played as an airy eccentric by the great Mildred Dunnock) who pays two bits for them in a half-price off liquidation sale after shoplifting from another store in what is apparently a regular pastime on her outdoor forays. Soon after she wears the cheaters she discovers that her daughter Olive and son-in-law Edward Dean are planning a nasty accident that will end with her death and allow her plotters to claim her fortune. Shortly after that she finds out that her attorney Clarence is in on the conspiracy, stabs him in the heart with a long knitting needle and makes herself a drink, toasting him with “to what is most precious between friends….the truth.” In a drunken state she inadvertently starts a fire and perishes. A short time after, the smug and aristocratic Edward who came into wealth with Olive after Miriam’s death, is seen dressing as Benjamin Franklin for a costume party. Olive furnishes him with the cheaters that somehow survived the fire after he is chided by his party guests from not sporting the right look for the great American statesman. Edward finds out the players are sizing him up disparagingly and armed with new revelations he accuses one of the players of cheating. This leads to a major brawl that ends with the player Sebastian Grimm felling Dean with a plaster object that kills him instantly.
Grimm himself provides the final clue to the mystery of the spectacles. An author who is looking for the right subject for his big break, he sees the cursed history of the spectacles as a feature story godsend, and finally decides to incorporate the truth behind the demise of all the characters as a part of his progressing novel. He explains to his skittish wife Ellen what he has discovered the palpable reason why the cheaters were invented: to discover oneself, even at the expense of a shocking self-revelation. Says Grimm: “I believe that these spectacles enable the wearer to know the naked, absolute truth about anything or anybody,” hence they weren’t intended for mind reading. Seeking a re-enactment of Primm’s own self-discovery without the atmospheric environs of the very house the cheaters were created in, Grimm goes to the Bleaker House with his unwilling spouse and finds a ghastly image of a decaying face that horrifies him so completely that he screams in terror and destroys the glasses.
Wholly appropriate for a stellar omnibus episode, “The Cheaters” boasts some prodigious acting across the board. Harry Townes as the tortured Grimm (in Bloch’s story he actually commits suicide when he sees his inner demons) exudes cocksure certainty boldly pursuing the verisimilitude that doomed all the people who crossed paths with this instrument of destruction. He bravely faces an unflattering unmasking of humanity at the fear of meeting the same fate as all the others who peered through the all-knowing lenses. Townes gave some terrific performances in memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Star Trek as well , and was a visible television actor of that period. As Von Primm, the charismatic Henry Daniell, who matched Boris Karloff scene for scene as the haughty and domineering Toddy McFarland in one of the final great Val Lewton RKO classics of the 40s, The Body Snatcher, and who left his mark in classic swashbucklers, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, three of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Homes films and the malevolent Dr. Emil Zurich in Edward L. Cahn’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake in 1959. Daniell is such a commanding screen presence that he dominates the scenes he appears in, and even though he is seen only in the opening scene of “The Cheaters”, his specter can be felt through the entire episode. This is the first of five Thriller appearances for the gifted thespian, with the devilish turn in the later “Well of Doom” as the absolute standout. The aforementioned Mildred Dunnock, who is best know for her legendary performance in the 1951 Death of a Salesman, straddles the line between batty humor and sympathy, as even the harshest viewers wouldn’t find her impending murder as just punishment for kleptomania. Her classic scene is the one where she nonchalantly dispatches Dayton Lummis’ Clarence, and peers at the dying man with a sense of gloating amusement. Jack Weston is properly obnoxious as the ill-fated Dean who, excuse the pun, does not keep his cards all that close to his vest. While both Paul Newlan as Joe Henshaw and Ed Nelson as Charlie do fine work in the first long segment, it is Linda Watkins as the scheming, bitchy wife who defines trashiness.
Jack Barron’s horrific makeup is attuned both thematically and figuratively to Albert Lewin’s 1945 The Picture of Dorian Gray. The aural undercurrent – one of the most effective scores Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the series – includes some pulchritudinous violin lyricism and the trademark dissonance that underscores the jarring dramatic events in the story. In the end, “The Cheaters” brings in an interesting hybrid of the Val Lewton films, where the horror is what you don’t see but fearfully imagine, with the hideous monster image in the 1957 Curse of the Demon, which gives the viewer an idea of what can be accomplished when the images are shown. “The Cheaters” works on both levels and perhaps more than any other Thriller most successfully weaves unity of theme and narrative.