Monday, December 6, 2010

Kraft Suspense Theatre; A Cruel and Unusual Night; Ronald Reagan; Scott Marlowe; Anne Helm; death penalty debate

Click here to see the previous episode review.

Season #1, Episode #28 - (this episode would be the final episode for season #1)

A Cruel and Unusual Night
Original Air Date - June 4, 1964 (It is almost unheard of today for prime time television programs to air new episodes as late as June).

Setting/Time - A modern city, an abandoned restaurant in the country and the inside of a penitentiary (via flashback).

Plot/Review/Discussion -

For those of us too young to remember Ronald Reagan as an actor, but old enough to remember him as President, this episode has a certain appeal. We enjoy seeing the man we knew as President Reagan confront a killer as the episode builds to a climax.

While Ronald Reagan's involvement is definitely a plus for the episode, it does not make up for a weak and politicized plot. Criminal laws and prosecutions had been under attack for years in the United States at the time this episode aired. The attack on the death penalty was part of this movement. This movement would culminate in the Supreme Court banning the death penalty in a controversial 1972 decision. (That decision would be modified in 1976, as the Court would again allow the death penalty under certain circumstances.)

This episode would reflect that movement, as it would become the second KST episode to make an issue of the death penalty. While the previous episode would skirt the issue (while providing bizarre theories on hitting and killing women), this episode would take on the issue directly. This directness became evident when the main portion of the story was introduced by an argument between Reagan's character and a convicted murderer over the validity of the death penalty.

Ronald Reagan plays a judge who is kidnapped by a former death row inmate/escapee played by Scott Marlowe. Marlowe holds Reagan in an abandoned restaurant outside of town in an effort to recreate for Reagan the feelings that death row creates for the inmates. Marlowe plans an "execution" for Reagan the next morning, while recreating as much as possible the circumstances of a state sponsored execution.

The escapee was bitter over having been sentenced to death by Reagan for a murder. This episode's agenda became apparent as the two men argued during the night. Marlowe compared himself to a victim of the holocaust and Reagan to a Nazi. The dispute would have been more realistic had the writers not held back the best of the pro-death penalty arguments. In particular, when Marlowe likened his own sentence to the holocaust, the obvious response would be to question Marlowe's comparison. The holocaust victims were law abiding citizens who were not being punished for any actual crime. They were not murderers. While Reagan's character was permitted to oppose the comparison of himself to the Nazis, the writers would not permit Reagan's character to speak out against Marlowe's self-elevation to holocaust victim status.

Following the kidnapping and the argument, Marlowe describes his time on death row. Much of the episode is then consumed by a long flashback of Marlowe awaiting execution some time in the recent past. Marlowe recounts many of his death row conversations with the warden, a preacher and the guards. All of them tell Marlowe how "sorry" they are that he will soon be killed. At least I recall Marlowe saying that he is tired of hearing everyone say how sorry they are (I sympathize with him on this point. I, myself, was tired of hearing about their sorrow by this point in the program also). Marlowe remained indignant about his predicament to the very end.

As Marlowe's own execution approaches in the flashback, we see him eat his last meal. Strangely, the meal includes staple side dishes that one normally eats solely for their nutritional value instead of their taste. It seems strange that Marlowe would be concerned with nutrition instead of simply trying to enjoy one or more main dishes. I will definitely do things differently if I ever reach death row.

Marlowe, after additional indignant banter, is then lead into a chamber and strapped into a chair. The guards leave the chamber and seal the door/vault. We see white bags lowered into a liquid by some automated process. We hear a hissing/sizzling sound as a chemical reaction between the bags and the liquid releases gas into the air. Marlowe begins to suffocate/choke. But he is spared when the warden receives the proverbial last minute reprieve via telephone as the gas takes effect and the guards scramble to rescue him. This entire scene is powerful solely because of the details. The viewer sees and hears the execution through the eyes and ears of the prisoner inside the chamber. The director and writers took their time with this scene and let it develop in painstaking detail.

Marlowe wakes up later in the infirmary and learns that the reprieve was only temporary. He screams in terror at the thought of going back to the chamber.

The flashback ends shortly thereafter. We learn at some point that Marlowe's sentence was ultimately commuted to life in prison, but he escaped anyway so he could find Reagan and show him the horror of death row. The conflict in this episode then comes down to a question of whether Reagan will crack under the pressure of the pending execution - which is what Marlowe appears to want.

We never find out exactly what Marlowe's motive was in kidnapping Reagan. The story makes sense only in the context of a larger campaign against the death penalty. Because we are watching what is largely a political message, the conflict becomes watered down and the story becomes less realistic. The message is less likely to resonate with the viewer - not simply because the death penalty is a remote subject to most people, but because the characters are driven by a desire to make a point instead of making real choices in their lives. The characters thus appear to be disposable for the sake of the agenda.

Agenda driven episodes also do not stand up well after time passes. The message of this episode seems almost quaint in light of the anti-crime backlash of the past three decades. It is difficult to understand fully this episode without context.


This episode's title is not to be confused with "Once Upon a Savage Night" (episode # 1.21). As I wrote for episode #1.21, this is another pairing of KST episodes with confusingly similar names (with both titles sounding like they were written by Snoopy). I am sure the similarity is purely coincidental, as the title is a reference to the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment.


As noted, Ronald Reagan played the judge. This episode marked one of his final acting roles before entering politics. Reagan would make headlines later that summer for political speeches on behalf of Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. Two years later, Reagan would be elected governor of California. This episode aired the same year as The Killers, in which Reagan acted with KST guest stars Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager.

Scott Marlowe appears in the second of his two KST roles, having played in "My Enemy, This Town," earlier in 1964.

Anne Helm played the wife of Marlowe's character. She acted for thirty years, appearing on most of the big-name television programs of her era, including Big Valley, Hitchcock, KST spinoff Run for Your Life, Perry Mason and many others.


Ronald Reagan drove a light blue 1960 Mercury Monterey, in which he was kidnapped. This episode marked the third appearance of that vehicle (probably the same vehicle in each episode). The previous appearance of this vehicle occurred in the previous death penalty episode. This appearance was somewhat unique, in that the viewer can see exterior shots of the vehicle speed through the streets as part of the action. This model had a distinctive appearance even for cars of its era. Today's museum or car show experience does not equal the sight of a classic car such as this one actually in motion.

I found it interesting when Reagan's car phone played a role in the episode and two of the actors appeared to be momentarily flustered by the novelty of such an item.

The stock footage of the city street rolling behind Reagan as he drives is also very telling. We all know that studios use stock footage of traffic behind drivers as they sit behind a steering wheel in the studio. But in this case, the stock footage was obviously more than a decade old. The cars in the stock footage dated from the late 1940's. The difference between a late 1940's car and the cars of the early 1960's was very large. Today, producers could easily use stock traffic footage from 10 or 15 (or more) years ago without such use being obvious.

This obversation is telling not so much with regard to the production of this episode, but with regard to the state of the automobile industry over the past few decades. Because cars of our generation have become so uniform looking, not only is it impossible to date film by looking at vehicles, but films have lost one interesting aspect. No one in the future will look back on television of 2010 with the goal of commenting on the cars.

Lessons I learned from "A Cruel and Unusual Night."
  • When you are executed, everyone involved will be very sorry.
  • Even though you are about to be executed, you should make sure that your last meal is well-balanced and nutritious.
  • If you were ever on death row, even if you killed someone, you are just like a Holocaust victim.


  1. Do you think the arguments for and against the death penalty would be given a more balanced telling if this were to be remade today, and which side of the argument would modern TV studios fall on do you think?

  2. It all depends on what show told the story. "Boston Legal" or that new Jimmy Smits show would not even bother with the appearance of balance. There are others that might try to appease the anti-crime backlash of the past 40 years, but they would still come down against the death penalty (using race as an argument). (Although I still remember Sipowicz on NYPD blue yelling at some suspect that he was at risk of the death penalty because of "my hero" Governor Pataki).

    Keep in mind also that the law has changed since KST and the DP can be used only in certain circumstances. This would change the story.

    Despite its shortcomings, KST's presentation of the gas chamber scene was compelling and RR's performance was good. Today's TV would present a wooden one-dimensional judge and would be unable to present the death chamber scene with any subtlety.

  3. I live in NYC and Time Warner Cable doesn't carry Retro TV so I am unable to view this show. I am 63 and I remember Kraft Suspense Theater... and I have vague memories of the episodes. One particular episode sticks with me and haunts me. I only recall that at the beginning a woman was packing a picnic basket and then she has premonitions and at the end she has the chance to re-do the day.

    I looked for this show in DVD. It's not available. Any information? Thanks.

  4. Marjorie:

    There are about a dozen episodes that I have not seen (from both seasons). Your description does not match any episode that I have seen. Look at my descriptions of each (season #1) episode from the "Episode List" on the left. See if those reviews match your memories.

    You may be thinking of "Kraft Mystery Theatre," which aired in the 1950's and early 1960's. Can you remember any of the actors? Or anything else about the plot? I hope you find what you are looking for.

    If you want to send me an e-mail, I can respond with the names of the episodes I have not seen. That would help narrow your search online.

  5. I didn't see this episode until Antenna TV aired it over a month ago. Why the long wait?

    WABC-TV in New York used to show the "SUSPENSE THEATRE"/"CRISIS" repeats, on and off, from 1965 through 1982. In 1980-'81, they started showing it again as part of their "Late Movie" package. In March 1981, they were supposed to show "A Cruel and Unusual Night"...that is, until John Hinckley tried to assassinate PRESIDENT Ronald Reagan on March 30th. Yep, Channel 7 pulled that episode, replacing it with "Charlie, He Couldn't Kill A Fly"(!). They never aired "A Cruel and Unusual Night" again...

  6. I remember seeing this episode in June 1964. I had just finished the school year, so that was the reason I was up late enough to see this show. Needless to say the execution scene was quite heavy for me at age 9. I did see most of the episode again about a year ago on Retro TV. I think it ran close to Reagan's 100th birthday which was in February 2011.

    Interesting comment above about the episode being pulled due to the assassination attempt on Reagan.

    One inconsistency in the story is that Marlowe recounts a story about a man who screamed before and during his execution. How would Marlowe have known about this if, as it was done with him, the prisoner is moved from death row to a distant holding area the night before execution? This procedure was used at San Quentin when some time before execution the prisoner was moved from Death Row downstairs to a Ready Room near the gas chamber. I know this because I read a book years ago called Death Row Chaplain, by a man who was Chaplain at San Quentin during the 1950s. Marlowe's story is very similar to one told by the Chaplain of a mentally challenged man who screamed incoherently and was undoing some of the straps before the gas rendered him unconscious. BTW, this Chaplain witnessed the executions of Caryl Chessman and Barbara Graham.

  7. Way above average entry in the series, more subtle than might first appear if one only has seen it once. Scott Marlowe's character is selfish and obnoxious. Yes, he's had bad breaks but he also broke the law. He murdered a man by accident but still, he held a gun to the guy's face. I'm not saying that he ought to have been executed but his self-pity and lack of feeling for others made me root for the judge,--and that's a first for me!

    Ronald Reagan was perfect casting as the judge: stern and yet humane. Scott Marlowe got on my nerves as the troubled young criminal but I guess that was the idea. His girlfriend was lovely and devoted to him and he scarcely seemed to notice or care so long as she did as she was told. This was one tough episode, and the ending had me reeling. I'd forgotten how it began and when the scene changed back to the courtroom, and Reagan passed judgment on the young man standing before him I was shocked by the outcome.

    Had the judge learned nothing from his "cruel and unusual night"? Or perhaps, by his lights, he'd learned everything. A deceptively subtle and provocative drama, this one doesn't pull any punches.