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A man who works in a clock repair store suspects his wife is meeting with someone in his own house while he is at work. He decides to get his revenge, which allows Hitchcock to work his magic and add lots of suspense and plot twists for you in just an hour's time.
TVLand broadcast this during their 100th birthday tribute to Hitchcock, but who knows if they will broadcast it again later. If you get a chance to see this, please take advantage of the opportunity!
Shortly before this episode aired, Hitchcock gave a long interview to Pete Martin of the Saturday Evening Post. This interview has been reprinted several times; it discusses several of Hitchcock's motifs in detail (including his notorious dislike of eggs, his penchant for blonde heroines, and his famous dismissal of actors as 'cattle'). During the interview, Hitchcock describes the premise of "Four O'Clock", but then he wickedly refrains from revealing the ending ... thus keeping readers in suspense. Far more Hitchcock fans have read this interview than have actually seen "Four O'Clock", so they are probably curious to know how it ends.
In the teaser scene which opens "Four O'Clock", we see bland husband Paul Steppe (very well played by E.G. Marshall) constructing a time bomb in his cellar. The bomb's timing device is a modified wall clock, and it uses conventional house current. We see Steppe setting the timer, plugging in the clock, then watching as it detonates a tiny amount of gunpowder. Satisfied by this, Steppe unplugs the clock.
Middle-aged Steppe has observed his wife acting very friendly with a handsome young man, and he concludes that she's philandering. Hence his decision to blow up his house with his wife in it. He plans to be far away when it happens, of course. Steppe knows that his wife will come home shortly before 4.00pm, so he sets the timer on his bomb (now containing a full charge of gunpowder), plugs it into the wall socket, and gets ready to scarper.
But just before Steppe can leave, two burglars break into his cellar. They tie him up and (improbably) gag him, then they depart ... leaving Steppe tied to a chair in his cellar, unable to leave or to call for help, and unable to turn away from the time bomb as he watches the clock's hands ticking steadily towards 4pm.
Great set-up, yes? So far, this is what Hitchcock described in his interview with Pete Martin. The rest of this hour-long drama ratchets up the suspense as the clock ticks towards doom. E.G. Marshall, bound and gagged, turns in an amazing performance as a desperate man whose thoughts we hear in voice-over. SPOILERS COMING. He tries various schemes to attract attention. A small boy glimpses him through the cellar window, but doesn't summon help. Through the ceiling, Steppe can hear his wife upstairs entertaining her handsome admirer (well played by Richard Long) ... who turns out to be her brother from out of town. Steppe's suspicions were groundless, and now he's going to die...
We are with Steppe in the last few seconds (in a brilliantly edited sequence) as the clock ticks to 4pm. Then, suddenly, we cut away to an exterior of the house in long shot. A crowd have gathered outside the cellar... and an ambulance is ready to take Steppe away. He's gone insane, but he isn't physically harmed. What happened?
BIG SPOILER NOW. The ending is a cheat. We saw in the teaser that the time bomb runs on house current. Now it turns out that, in fact, the clock is running on batteries: Steppe only needed the house current to detonate the gunpowder charge. (This is utterly ridiculous.) Unbeknownst to Steppe (and us), his wife had shut off the house's electrical current that morning. (Conveniently, *after* he made the test run which we saw in the teaser.) So, the battery-operated clock ticked along merrily until doomtime, but then there wasn't any electricity to set off the charge. Oh, pull the other one!
Right up until this gimmicky and dishonest ending, 'Four O'Clock' is a taut suspenseful drama with a fine performance by E.G. Marshall ... but that ending made me want to chuck my television out the window. No wonder Hitchcock refused to reveal how this story ended. Also, we get the usual fallacy that a gagged person cannot cry out to attract attention. (Wrong; a gag prevents the victim from speaking coherently, but does nothing to constrain the voice's loudness.) Nowadays, a drama about home-made bombs would likely never get shown on American television.