Several years ago, I happened to catch “Man From the South” during a marathon of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, loved it, then suffered the fate of not being able to find it again, going so far as to scan through the descriptions of every episode of the 4 seasons available on Netflix. As it turns out, Man from the South was from season 5, which has yet to be given a new lease on life in DVD.
But worry not! Some kind person took the time out to load the entire episode onto Youtube, where it can be streamed for free.
Despite its decades of obscurity, Man From the South has managed to carve out its own niche in pop culture, inspiring both remakes and clever adaptations. The episode itself is fairly closely adapted from a story of the same name by Roald Dahl (which can be found in the story collection Someone Like You). If the name sounds familiar, Roald Dahl is also the writer who gave the world classic kids’ books like James and the Giant Peach and The Fantastic Mister Fox.
Be forewarned though, Man from the South is hardly kiddie-fair. Perhaps that’s the reason why I love it so. On one level, it’s a wonderfully effective and devilish little thriller, executed without a single instance of blood or special effects. At the same time, on another level, Man from the South can be analyzed for themes involving male insecurity and the allure of wealth. It also contains veiled illusions to the legacy of Nazism post-WW2.
If you’d like, now would be a good time to simply watch the episode. If you don’t have half an hour to spare, I’ll briefly summarize it here. The story begins with a man in a tropical resort lounge (played by a young Steve McQueen, before he was famous)cozying up to a beautiful young woman, when, all of a sudden, a creepy, tuxedoed old codger (superbly played by Peter Lorre*) inserts himself into the conversation, noticing the apparent pride Steve’s character takes in lighting the woman’s cigarette with his Zippo. He then strikes up a diabolical bet: if the young man can light his Zippo ten times in a row, he wins a convertible. If the lighter should fail to light even once, then Peter will cut off Steve’s pinky.
(Spoilers ahead) The young man, the girl, an onlooker acting as referee, and the scary rich guy then go up to a hotel room and prepare for the bet. Peter Lorre calls up room service for the instruments he needs, including a rather ominous meat cleaver. Steve McQueen’s hand is tied to a table with his little finger extended. With his free hand, he begins to light his Zippo. Who knew the flicking of a lighter could be used to generate such suspense? After 7 or 8 flicks, the game is stopped by a woman who intrudes crying foul. As it turns out, this woman is the rich guy’s wife, who says his name is Carlos and that it was just this type of sadistic gambling that made them seek exile in the tropics.
In their home country (she doesn’t specify where), she says he claimed 47 fingers in this way, and lost 11 cars. Freed, Steve McQueen goes to light the girl’s cigarette, and, in an ironic twist, the lighter doesn’t work, but this goes unnoticed. The clencher comes next: Carlos’ wife explains that even if the young man would have won, the car would not be his, for the car wasn’t Carlos’ to give. She’d won it from him, but paid a dear price. It ends with showing her gloved hand. She only has a thumb and a pinky. Thus, although she won the car, she was unfit to drive it.
Like I said before, you can study Man from the South as a sublime piece of entertainment, and indeed, that’s what it is, beyond anything else. However, if you think about it a little more, the story becomes darker and more suggestive than it at first seems. For example, what does the title refer to? Wouldn’t the story make more sense if it were titled something trite like Fingered for the Crime or Light of My Life? No. The title is a masterfully subtle clue into the story itself. The man from the south is Carlos, and by the south, Roald Dahl doesn’t mean the American South… he means South America.
What does this portend to? After WW2, many Nazis, fearing persecution for war-crimes, fled to South America where communities sympathetic to nazism let them in. Although it’s not stated outright, it can be inferred Carlos is just such a person. In this light, his sadism appears as more than a personal quirk. After all, what good is a detached finger to anyone? Perhaps he just wants his “pound of flesh” (or a few ounces in this case), or he developed a liking for cruelty in the Third Reich and wanted to see that need met in peacetime.
Then there’s a weirdly sexual undertone in the story that’s much more prevalent in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version than in the Roald Dahl original. It’s very strange the way Carlos first appears right as the young man begins to flirt with the girl.
Stick with me here for a minute. It might get Jungian.
The flame from his lighter could symbolize any number of things–virility, strength, passion and so on–while the pinky at stake acts as a crude and unflattering stand-in for the phallus. Carlos looms over him like a neurotic inhibition, ready to emasculate him the instant his light fails.
The irony of the final minutes of Man from the South then becomes rather funny in a way. Carlos, who seeks to emasculate young men, it turns out, was himself emasculated by his wife. As soon as she enters, you can tell she’s the authority figure in their relationship. By winning Carlos’ last car, she also won the only source of pride the ex-Nazi had left. He can’t even play his diabolical games anymore, save for when she turns her back for an extended amount of time.
While the Roald Dahl version is a classic in its own right, it’s the TV version that really succeeds. In the short story, much is the same, except the girl plays a much smaller role and the young man is barely characterized, except to say that he’s American, which I guess to British readers signaled he was brash and gung-ho.
There were several other remakes, including an episode of Tales of the Unexpected (hosted by Roald Dahl himself), a 1985 remake based on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version, a Quentin Tarantino directed homage in the film Four Rooms, and a very loose adaptation by Park Chan Wook (director of Oldboy) titled Cut. Out of all of these versions, the episode Man from the South from Alfred Hitchcock Presents remains the best.
*It’s saddening to think of how often a great actor like Peter Lorre was typecast as a shady European villain or an ex-Nazi (most notably in the Hitchcock classic Notorious), especially since he himself was Jewish and had to give up his budding career in the Berlin studio system to avoid persecution. Legend has it that Goebbels himself, who was a film buff and a fan of Peter Lorre’s work, once hinted to the actor that his career might be served best by a little traveling.
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What’s your opinion of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Man From the South?