Ray Bradbury Theater: The Small Assassin

Episode 12

First aired 9th April 1988

Production Credits Synopsis Review

"The Small Assassin"

The short story first appeared in Dime Mystery Magazine, November 1946.

Its first book appearance was in Dark Carnival (1947).

 

Bradbury on "The Small Assassin"

"...I remember the day and the hour I was born. I remember being circumcised on the second day after my birth...I remember the doctor. I remember the scalpel.

I wrote the story "The Small Assassin" twenty-six years later."

Ray Bradbury, "Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle" (1980).

 

Production Credits

Directed by Tom Cotter

Cast:

Alice Leiber - Susan Wooldridge
David Leiber - Leigh Lawson

Doctor Jeffers - Cyril Cusack
Nurse - Lottie Ward

Synopsis

The camera glides around a bedroom at night. We see a crib, soft toys, a teddy bear, all from a low angle. We glide across to see the outline of a woman in a bed. She screams.

An ambulance is rushing the woman, Alice, to hospital, in labour. She screams, "He's killing me!".

After a painful labour, Dr Jeffers talks to the woman. "Am I alive?" she asks; "Is it alive? What a shame..."

Dr Jeffers meets with the husband/father, David, and asks whether the child was wanted. The father insists that it was. He says he will love the child for now, but Alice will "catch up." Alice clearly does not care for the baby. When it is placed beside her, she looks away. When David calls it beautiful, she disagrees.

At dinner, Alice makes eye contact with the baby. She begins to break down. She tells David that whenever he leaves the house, the baby begins to cry; it never stops until the minute he returns. David tells her it will take time for her and the baby to bond. "What if there isn't enough time?" asks Alice. "Well, then, you've got a little monster on your hands," jokes David...

In the night, David finds Alice sitting at the foot of the stairs. She rambles hysterically: If the baby keeps her awake, it keeps her weak; it lays there listening to them talking.

While away on a business meeting, David is brought a note. It brings him home, where he meets with Dr Jeffers. Alice had called the doctor at three in the morning, saying she was going to kill the baby by smothering it.

In the night, Alice hears movement. She looks at the baby and sees that it is red and perspiring - yet he hasn't been crying. As David heads off to get Alice some milk, he slips on a teddy bear. He begins to fall down the stairs, but manages to grab the handrail. He watches the toy bounce down the stairs.

The next day, Alice insists that the baby had tried to kill him. David considers this ridiculous, and they argue. He leaves the house. The baby cries instantly.

Alice visits Dr Jeffers. She asks him if he remembers being born. She claims that she does. She hasn't told many people, because they always laugh. She remembers the pain and especially how she hated her mother for ejecting her from a warm, sleepy place; for abandoning her. Dr Jeffers says babies don't hate their mothers; they can't reason. "Exactly," says Alice, "but they can feel." Alice asks what if the baby has inherited her genes, and has the same capability of memory and resentment. What if it also has the ability to crawl, months before other babies would have that ability. "Impossible," says Jeffers. Alice decides that her sister will take charge of the baby. She hasn't discussed this with David, who she feels has isolated her. "Are you going to tell the baby?" asks Jeffers.

Alone in the house, Alice checks in on the baby, now in a separate bedroom. It sleeps. Alice, too, takes to her bed. Later, Dr Jeffers appears outside the house. The front door is open. He wanders in, calling out to David and Alice. There is no response.

He finds David in a twisted position, dead at the foot of the stairs. Upstairs, he finds Alice dead in her bed. An electric cable plugged in to the wall socket has sparked, blackening the wall. Jeffers follows the cable to the bed, where he sees a safety pin has been pushed into the cable.

Jeffers heads for the crib. The baby is not there, and yet the door is shut. Jeffers speculates to himself that the door must have blown shut, preventing the baby from returning to the crib. He seems to be convined by now that the baby is indeed a killer. He wanders around the house (while the camera also glides around the house, accompanied by heartbeats and wheezing baby-breaths). Jeffers finds the teddy bear, once again placed near the top of the stairs. He kicks it aside.

He spots the baby, and follows it into a small room. Placing his doctor's bag calmly onto a chair, he takes out a scalpel - "See, baby? Something bright, something pretty..."

Trivial Differences

  • in the story, Alice philosophises that "a baby is so new, so amoral, so conscience-free". This equation of innocence with amorality is missing from the adaptation.
  • in the story, David insists that his business trip (to Chicago) is important, while Alice begs him not to go. In the adaptation, David offers to not go while Alice insists he does
  • in the story: Chicago. In the adaptation: London (not mentioned, but heavily suggested by the shot of the Thames and the sound of Big Ben).
  • in the story, the closing line is foreshadowed by David Leiber dangling his watch over the crib and saying "See baby, something bright, something pretty."
  • in the story, David is summoned home because his wife has developed pneumonia
  • in the story, David's tripping on the teddy bear is an event he consciously keeps from Alice, for fear that it would fuel her paranoia
  • in the story, David finds Alice dead at the foot of the stairs
  • in the story, the naming of the baby is discussed, but always postponed. After Alice's death David says he will call it "Lucifer"
  • in the story, David is killed by gas

Review

This is one of several episodes shot in the UK, as part of an international co-production deal with Granada TV. Like the other British episodes, it features some of the highest production values of the early Ray Brabury Theaters, and some of the best performances.

"The Small Assassin" is like many 1940s Bradbury stories that deal with apparent paranoia. (Others include "The Wind", "The Crowd", "Skeleton".) Typically in these stories, the main character has an apparent obsessive delusion which no one else believes - but it turns out that paranoid was right all along.

In this episode, it is strongly implied from the start that the baby genuinely is hostile - this is suggested by the gliding baby's-eye-view camera, and by the point-of-view shots seen through the opening in the baby's shawl. That being the case, the only mysteries are how hostile the baby will turn out to be, and when it will do whatever evil deed it has in mind.

With this "layout" for the story, we really need to be on the mother's side, as nobody else sees what she sees. The trouble is, Alice is clearly a very uncaring character, who does virtually nothing to attract our sympathy. This may have sprung inadvertently from the short story, where Alice is clearly cut off from the other characters by the experience she is undergoing. The crucial difference, though, is that the short story is told almost entirely from her point-of-view, so that our sympathy is unquestioning.

As both Alice and David are killed by the baby (unlike the short story, where Alice is killed first, prompting David to hypothesis about the baby's true nature), the one character who is transformed by events is Dr Jeffers. As played by Cyril Cusack (familiar as Beatty in Fahrenheit 451), he works very well. He is both warm and rational; and his transformation is a most rational one. Bradbury has implemented some small plot changes that help us understand immediately how the doctor changes his view of the baby. Whereas in the short story he visits Alice because she is struck down by pneumonia (he doesn't have much idea that she is paranoid), in the adaptation he is there because she has tried to kill the baby (he clearly has an insight into her state of mind).

No doubt some viewers will find the juxtaposition of scalpel and baby to be disturbing. This I find reassuring - let us not forget that Bradbury's 1940s tales were often very macabre. Nevertheless, Jeffers's final line sounds more like Robert Bloch.

About this first official screen adaptation of "The Small Assassin", Bradbury once said, "...it has been done six times as major films and I never got ANY credit. You think, well, everybody else had a crack at it, I might as well. This is one of the cases where you change the ending yourself. The original ending, to me, is much too violent, so I myself have chosen to use a much more subtle ending because I don't like what's going on with horror films, the blood, the gore."

Overall, this adaptation is a curious mix. Parts of it exemplify Bradbury's belief that his stories can be filmed directly from the printed page. The short story is, in fact, very cinematically structured. On the other hand, there seems to be a problem with point-of-view and the viewer's sympathy; problems that just aren't present in the short story. Maybe the necessary pace of the adapation is partly at fault here. The events of the short story span several season, enabling us to believe in a gradual shift in character's attitudes. The events of the adaptation are necessarily highly compressed, giving the impression of only a few days or weeks of actual time. It may be that the visual shorthand works against any sympathy we might otherwise muster up for Alice.

 

Information source: Goldberg, L. (1986) "This is...the Ray Bradbury Theater", Starlog 104, March 1986.

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