BOOTLEG FILES 479: “Suspense – A Cask of Amontillado” (1949 episode of the popular anthology series, starring Bela Lugosi).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It was part of a collection of “Suspense” episodes gathered for a 2007 DVD release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A very rare Bela Lugosi television appearance.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Yes, there was a commercial release – but you can’t stop the bootleggers!
Unless you were around in the late 1940s and early 1950s, you probably never heard of “Suspense.” Originally created as a radio program, this half-hour anthology series was among the popular programs in the very early days of American television. However, the series fell into obscurity because its episodes were broadcast live and never repeated. Over time, the bulk of the “Suspense” output became lost – of the 245 episodes that were produced during the show’s 1949-1954 run, only 90 are known to survive via 16mm kinescope prints.
Contemporary viewers watching “Suspense” can enjoy finding a large number of then-unknown actors at the beginning of their careers. Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Grace Kelly and Leslie Nielsen were among the up-and-comers to appear on the program. But one episode in particular has a special resonance, since it presents the only known offering of Bela Lugosi acting in a made-for-television drama.
By the late 1940s, Lugosi’s career had been in a serious slump. After his star-making role in the 1931 “Dracula,” Lugosi found himself typecast in horror films and thrillers. As his career progressed, he found himself limited to lower-budget efforts. In 1948, however, he enjoyed a comeback of sorts by reviving the Dracula character for the lowbrow comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” The film was a major commercial success, and Lugosi was eager to leverage this hit for new roles.
However, the film studios did not beat a path to Lugosi’s door. But with the rising popularity of television, Lugosi was eager to explore new opportunities. Sadly, he got off on the wrong foot with a September 1949 appearance on Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theatre” – Berle’s boisterous ad-libbing caught Lugosi off-guard, and he appeared confused by the comic’s shenanigans. (The Tim Burton flick “Ed Wood” presented an erroneous version of this incident, as well as goofing up the facts on other events from Lugosi’s later life.) But it appeared that no great damage was done, as Lugosi received an offer to star in a “Suspense” episode for broadcast the following month.
The episode was an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story classic “The Cask of Amontillado.” However, writer Halsted Welles and director Robert Stevens realized that a literal adaptation of the Poe tale would be very difficult in the low-budget, live television environment. The core of the story’s power is the gradual process in which the narrator (Montresor) kills his foe Fortunato through immurement. Rather than present a straightforward dramatization of this act, the “Suspense” made significant and often zany changes to the story – which included renaming the story “A Cask of Amontillado” and crediting the source to Edgar Allen Poe.
In this version, Montresor (now spelled Montressor) is an aristocrat in post-World War II who revisits the palace that was previously his family’s estate. The palace is now the headquarters of the American occupation forces, and a pair of boorish G.I.s (Ray Walston and Frank Marth, neither of whom receive billing) are in charge.
Count Montressor (played by Romney Brent) announces that he has come to report a murder. He is patient as the silly soldiers mock him. “Okay, count, spill it,” says one soldier as Montressor maintains his dignity in the midst of the taunting. Eventually, Montressor details what transpired, and the episode goes into an extended flashback set in wartime Italy.
What took place? Well, it seems that Fortunato (played by Lugosi) was a one-time stable worker at the Montressor estate, but over the years he rose through the ranks of the Mussolini military and became a general. Fortunato forced Montressor’s younger sister into marriage, and he also made overt romantic advances at Montressor’s wife. Humiliated by the general’s damaging impact on his family, Montressor becomes convinced that Fortunato is planning to kill him.
From here, the story swings back into Poe’s territory, with Montressor leading a drunken Fortunato down a winding staircase into the palace’s catacombs. Because the production could not afford an elaborate set, a small section of the vast stairs was created. Lugosi and Brent were instructed to go down the stairs over and over, but the effect was bungled when Brent’s flashlight accidently wound up shining behind Lugosi when he was supposed to be in front of him. (Such were the problems of live television.)
As for the immurement at the heart of the Poe story, this episode makes major changes. Montressor grabs Fortunato’s gun and forces him to stand against a wall sporting two great chains. Fortunato is chained with his hands above his head, and the act of sealing the space as Fortunato’s tomb is not shown (the finished wall is shown in a rapid cutaway). The episode ends with Montressor finishing his confession as the dumbfounded American soldiers look on in shock.
Contemporary viewers judging Lugosi’s performance will be happily surprised to know that he does a great job here. Yes, his accent is not Italian, and he is in a fairly cheapo setting, but he effectively manages to present the arrogance and menace of his fascist character. And despite his poor health during this period, the actor provides considerable energy in his work. In comparison, Brent (a Mexican-born character actor who was a ubiquitous figure on early television) flubs a major line (he claims that Fortunato married his daughter, when he meant his sister) and never truly brings the degree of terror and paranoia that the role requires.
“A Cask of Amontillado” was broadcast on October 11, 1949. For no clear reason, Lugosi never received any further offers for anthology television work – which is fairly surprising, because fellow horror icons Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. worked extensively on television during this period.
“A Cask of Amontillado” was not seen again until 2007, when it was included in a DVD presentation of previously lost “Suspense” episodes. The DVD was released by Infinity Entertainment Group, a company that specialized in public domain offerings. (The “Suspense” episodes, as with many live productions in the early days of television, were not registered for copyright protection.) That DVD release has been out of print for years, although older copies can be found online.
But for those who don’t feel like buying old DVDs, “A Cask of Amontillado” can be found on YouTube. The quality of the surviving kinescope is surprisingly good, and the original commercials for the show’s sponsor (the Auto-Lite brand of automobile parts) are included. Lugosi fans will certainly get a kick at watching their favorite Dracula in this very rare performance – though picky Poe purists might wish this footloose adaptation was sealed up alongside Fortunato in the catacombs.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!