Author Roald Dahl is known for his classic children’s
stories, such as The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory. However,
very few are unaware of his wicked and decidedly mature sense of humor. Although, it can’t be too much of a surprise
to some, given the dark undertones prevalent in almost all of his stories.
A number of years ago, I picked up a collection of Dahl’s
short stories and was floored by the incredibly menacing nature of his
storytelling. I’ve always adored him as
an author simply because he refused to talk down to his audience. Chances are, when you walk into your nearest
bookstore, most of his writing will be found in the children’s section. It’s probably because he is so hard to
categorize. He blends atmospheres and genres
and plays on our preconceived notions of them.
He was a master storyteller, the kind that challenged his readers with
deliciously dark and twisted fare.
One of his most haunting short stories is The Man from the
South, about a foreigner vacationing in Las Vegas who coerces a young hotshot
to take part in a most twisted and disturbing bet. If the young man can strike his cigarette
lighter ten times without fault, then he wins the foreigner’s Lamborghini. If he misses just once, however, he’ll lose
his pinkie finger. Admittedly, it’s an
absurd plot, but a frighteningly plausible one.
Dahl lathers on the tension from the moment the young man and the
foreigner cross paths and it doesn’t let up until the final sentence; what’s
more, he takes it seriously, with just the right amount of tongue in cheek
humor to ease the tension.
Chances are, most of you are familiar with this scenario
thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s contribution to the anthology film Four Rooms
back in 1995, in which Tim Roth’s Ted the Bellhop encounters a room full of psychos
taking part in a similar bet. For me,
though, it was an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that brought
this story to my attention.
Starring Steve McQueen and the great Peter Lorre, the
episode is a classic, not only of the series, but of episodic television as
well. As opposed to Four Rooms, it
doesn’t stray from the source material one bit.
The tension is almost unbearable and the low budget of the series only
enhanced what we were seeing. But then
again, who are we kidding? This is a
great story, starring two of the greatest actors to ever grace the screen. McQueen has never been more arrogant and
confident, while Lorre has never been more out and out creepy. Just look at the way in which he gleefully
hugs the cleaver, as McQueen strikes his match each time. Seeing these two act opposite one another is
a treat you all should witness.
Dahl’s sensibilities were a perfect fit for Alfred
Hitchcock Presents. It’s a shame that
more of his short stories weren’t adapted for the series. And seeing as how Tarantino is an admirer of
great storytelling, I suppose it was a tribute on his part to have one of his
best films (I dare you to argue that fact) based loosely on Dahl’s story.
What’s more, this episode represents a time in which big Hollywood
stars served the story… not the other way around. My, how times have changed.