Peter Lawford is a name people will most often associate to The Rat Pack or The Kennedys (he was married to Patricia Kennedy, JFK’s sister). Sadly, the man’s acting career was often overlooked and, along with the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor, he was labelled “famous for being famous”. (1) His alcohol and drug consumption later in his career, unfortunately, didn’t help the actors to live beyond his bad reputation.
However, it’s people like him whom, for better and for worst, make this world a somehow fascinating place. I am not entirely familiar with all the history surrounding Peter Lawford. However, I know that some people still remember that he was first and foremost an actor and should be remembered as such. One of those people is Kristen, who owns the blog KN Winiarski Writes. She is currently hosting a blogathon honouring Lawford, and it’s for this one that I am currently writing this article. That is her first blogathon, so I wish her the best of luck for it!
The London-born actor was part of the distribution of some highly reputed classics such as The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945), Easter Parade (Charles Walters, 1948), Little Women (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949), Ocean’s 11 (Lewis Milestone, 1960), Dead Ringer (Paul Henreid, 1964, and more. However, I’ve decided, for my contribution, to instead focus on the 1955’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode entitled The Long Shot in which Peter Lawford shared the small screen with British character actor John Williams (one of Hitchcock’s “regulars”).
The Long Shot features a horseplayer, Charlie Raymond (Lawford) who is highly indebted and owns a lot of money to a certain “Dutch”. In a bar, he sees an ad in the newspaper: A British visitor is looking for someone, a Londoner, to drive him to San Francisco. The job will be paid $150. Charlie sees an opportunity to get out of town and escape that “Dutch” and also make some money. Charlie is American, but uses his best Londonian accent and calls the number. He is hired immediately by Walker Hendricks (Williams), the man who put the ad in the newspaper.
During their car trip, Walker’s only subject of discussion is London, the “best city in the world” according to him. Luckily for him, Charlie manages to share the discussion with him and not reveal his true American identity. During a stop at a hotel, while Hendricks is away, Charlie gets the not-so-good idea to rob is money (which is much more than $150). While looking for it in Hendricks’s briefcase, he discovers that this one has inherited a fortune of $200 000 from his dead uncle. However, he has to go to San Francisco to have his identity confirmed and reclaim the money. Nobody in the US has seen Hendricks before, so, you’ve guessed it, Charlie sees another great occasion to make a fortune. However, stealing someone’s identity is not without obstacle and points of no return.
I have to admit, before I watched this episode, I was not sure I was going to like it. Stories about gamblers have never really been my cup of tea, but this one turned out to be a good surprise! It doesn’t revolve so much around the gambling world (we actually never see Charlie gambling) but more around the “dangers” and downhill of certain people that surrounds it. Peter Lawford portraits the typical type of failed gambler: no money; dressed in a striped suit; drinking in a bar although he has no money left and kind of use of his many defeats. Lawford’s acting game accompanies well this idea of contended defeat by remaining subtle and well-calculated. I can think of that moment towards the beginning when he learns via the radio in the bar that the horse he bet on didn’t win the race. You can see the disappointment on his face but also guess his thoughts of “I’m not so surprised”. Then, what drives him to do what he does next is pretty much the result of an “I have nothing to lose anymore” mentality. Even at the end when he lives the plot twist of the story (a brilliant plot twist- one of the major qualities of this episode) he doesn’t really know how to react and is pretty much stunned by the whole thing just like we are.
The advantage of Peter Lawford being born in London is that he could use a credible upper-class British accent when passing for a Londoner in the company of Walker Hendricks. We know a lot of American actors sometimes try to impersonate British accents in films (or TV shows), but it doesn’t always work. Well, in this case, Peter Lawford’s accent was on point. It actually reminded me a bit of Charles Hawtrey’s accent! When he talked in real life, Peter also had a British accent. Therefore, him impersonating the American accent belonging to his character’s true identity proves his “voice versatility”.
When I was investigating on his accent, I found a video of him being interviewed in France and in French. And I have to say his French was quite good!
On his side, John Williams is always John Williams, just the way you would expect him to be. The perfect embodiment of the chic British man, with his little moustache and good manners. Interestingly, at the end of the episode, there is a promo of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief which was also released in 1955 and featured John Williams. I read that information first on IMDb and, when I looked at the episode, I didn’t see it. However, on another version of the video, it was there alright. Curiously, the narration voice that promotes the film only mentions the names of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, but not John Williams, probably because he wasn’t the “star” of the picture.
I liked the way this episode was constructed and especially how Charlie is introduced to us. This one narrates the story and presents himself that way:
” A week ago, Thursday it was, in a New York bar called Happy Jacks. On the bar was a classified ads section of a newspaper. On the newspaper was a glass of beer. And behind the glass of beer was a […] horseplayer named Charlie Raymond. That’s me.” I have to say, I didn’t quite catch what he said before “horseplayer”, but that’s not so important. As he says these lines, we see an ensemble shot of the bar, then the newspaper on the bar, the glass of beer on the newspaper and himself taking a sip out of this glass of beer. It’s a perfect example of how the narration and the visual are in harmony together. I like how it goes from a vast space with various people to finally focus on one of them.
The course of the story also presents a narrative that follows the idea of progression. A progression for the protagonist that is. We, the spectator, are the sole witness of his actions and his downhill from failed gambler to, well, criminal. And there’s not much we can do to stop it. We observe. But just like it happens in Hitchcock films, we become accomplices and unconsciously wish Charlie success in his criminal way of getting some money. He is not necessarily a sympathetic character, but we can’t help it. The episode was actually not directed or written by Hitchcock, but Robert Stevenson (director) and Harold Swanton (writer) understood well the essence of the Hitchcockian world.
Peter Lawford would also appear a few years later in an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode entitled Crimson Witness that I yet have to see.
But, in the meantime, if you are looking for a thrilling story with a great plot twist, I highly recommend you to watch The Long Shot! You can watch it here:
Peter Lawford would have been 97 today. Sadly, he passed away at the still too young age of 61 from a cardiac arrest. Exploring his life as an actor is perhaps more relevant than exploring his life as a scandalous socialite, so I hope you’ll take pleasure in reading the other entries that were written for this blogathon!
Many thanks to Kristen for hosting it!
(1) “Peter Lafword,” TCM, accessed September 7, 2020, http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/109743%7C124097/Peter-Lawford/biography.html.