At the time he hatched the idea that became the cult-film classic The Hypnotic Eye, William Read Woodfield was a photographer covering the Hollywood personality beat. He'd tried his hand at television writing, and later, along with writing partner Allan Balter, utilized his love of con games and chicanery to turn television's Mission: Impossible into a smash hit, even producing the multiple Emmy-winning series for a season. More recently, Woodfield has scripted installments of Columbo and the feature-length Perry Mason episodes. Here, he recalls the genesis of one of his most enduring cons, the lovingly lurid gimmick shocker, The Hypnotic Eye.

TOM WEAVER: The Hypnotic Eye is a Bloch-Woodfield Production. Does that mean that you actually co-produced it?

WILLIAM READ WOODFIELD: Charlie Bloch was my agent -- I was a magazine photographer at the time. You want to know the history of this story? It's hilarious. I was a photographer who, sort of on a dare, had written some television shows -- a couple of Sea Hunts and a Death Valley Days -- but it never occurred to me that anybody makes a living as a writer in television. Charles Bloch was with Globe Photos, and he was my photo agent. I was up shooting Spartacus in Death Valley, staying at the Furnace Creek Inn, and I drove to Las Vegas to see [Frank] Sinatra, who was an old friend.

Q: You were one of the still photographers on Spartacus.

WOODFIELD: One of the magazine photographers. They had still men on the picture, but four or five of us were [also] hired to shoot pictures. We got all of our expenses, we owned the pictures, and then we sold them to the various magazines around the world.

After Las Vegas, I was driving back to Death Valley to continue work with Spartacus -- it was the pre-dawn, early morning hours. I should mention that I'd been a magician in my youth -- a prodigy magician, as a matter of fact -- and was publishing at the time a magic magazine, which I started when I was about 20. So I'm driving along and I'm seeing the white line on the road. I look at the white line and I say to myself, "You know, you could make a movie about this!" People would come into the theater ... the picture would start ... and it's just a white line, just like the one on the road. A voice would say, "All right, everybody -- just relax. Keep your eye on the white line." And we would hypnotize the audience. And, once we'd done that, we'd say, "Now we're going to give everybody a test, and everybody who doesn't pass the test will get their money back. The others can stay for the greatest movie you've ever seen in your life." We would then tell the ones who passed the test a story while they were under, and we'd keep getting them under deeper and deeper hypnosis. Ultimately we'd tell them it was the greatest movie they ever saw in their life and to tell all their friends. Goodbye! The post-hypnotic suggestion would be, "Talk it up!"

We were only in Death Valley on Spartacus for, oh, five or six days, and then Kirk Douglas fired the director, Tony Mann. When I got back [to Hollywood], I was telling Charlie Bloch about my idea. "What a way to make a movie! It'll cost nothing!" I told it as sort of a whimsicality to Bloch, but he said, "Mmmm. We may be able to sell that." So he went over and he told it to Allied Artists, and they said, "We love it!" They thought the idea was terrific. But they had one little problem: They really wanted a movie. They thought that the idea of what I called HypnoVision was terrific, but they said, "You can't really do that [make a movie that's nothing but a white line], you gotta give 'em a movie."

Q: What a shame! Your "white line" movie would have been a great experiment.

WOODFIELD: It could be a fun movie, because the imagination is so powerful. If you put somebody into a trance and tell 'em a tale and make 'em think they really saw it -- at least in theory, it seemed to me like a rather interesting entertainment. But Allied Artists wouldn't go for that -- they gave me x-number of weeks to write a movie, and they paid me thirty or forty thousand dollars. I sat down and I banged out this turkey story; The Screaming Sleep was what I [initially] named it.

Q: Ben Schwalb, who made a lot of movies at Allied Artists, got an executive producer credit.

WOODFIELD: He was there to watch us, but he didn't really have anything to do with the movie. Ben was the studio's line producer, and a very nice fellow. He let us do what we wanted. I mean, he was not gonna get into this [laughs], he didn't understand hypnosis. But he wanted to make sure that we were being frugal and not wasting the company's money, and make sure we didn't do anything too tasteless. So it was a very pleasant relationship. Truly, it's hard to believe, in this era today of everybody getting into everything, and then the studio having a final cut, that none of that happened. Nobody said, "Change the script. Do this. Do that." Nobody went in for final cuts. And therefore I must tell you that all the faults in that picture [laughs], I take full responsibility for! I really had as much control as I wanted. They wouldn't let me direct it, but they brought in a director [George Blair] who I could just tell what to do next! I'm not proud of that, because it wasn't a very good movie. It's an interesting idea.

Q: Was Jacques Bergerac your first choice for the evil hypnotist?

WOODFIELD: My idea of casting was a man named Pedro Armendariz; I thought he would have been wonderful as the hypnotist. Somebody got the idea of Jacques Bergerac, and Bergerac was available and Armendariz wasn't, and Armendariz had language problems that were too much. But Armendariz to me had the look. No one has ever accused Bergerac of being a very good actor.

Q: You being a photographer, did you collaborate with Archie Dalzell, the movie's cinematographer? There are a number of innovative shots in the movie.

WOODFIELD: Well, I was the photographer. I was a very good photographer -- really, I say in all modesty, I made several million dollars as a magazine photographer in that period and photographed the biggest stars in the world and worked on the biggest movies that were made, with the best cameramen and directors. I did things like The Manchurian Candidate and all of Frankenheimer's pictures, and Billy Wilder's. So you do pick up stuff! When you're a magazine photographer, you really have absolute control over the stars and the set when you are doing your pictures. In other words, they shoot the film, and then you get to re-stage it and re-light it-- you can do anything you want with it. And you have the stars. So you really have a great sense of power! On The Hypnotic Eye, I would sort of tell [Dalzell] generally how I wanted it to look and he'd say, 'Fine.' It was all just play -- I mean, nobody took all this very seriously.

Q: I like the stove's-eye view of the girl putting her hair in the flames, and the sink's-eye view of the girl washing her face with acid.

WOODFIELD: Filmically, shots like that -- for instance, shooting from behind the fireplace out -- became the subject of dissertations, about that being absolutely bad film form and so forth. At the time, it seemed like a good idea [laughs], but no really good director did that.

Q: How about that effective poster of Jacques Bergerac outside the theater?

WOODFIELD: That big poster where only half of his face is showing, and there's a dot in the eye? That was something that I did, and had blown up.

Q: I thought the beatnik scenes disrupted the mood of the movie.

WOODFIELD: Yes, no question about it. The beatniks in the picture, Lawrence Lipton and Eric "Big Daddy" Nord -- that was an attempt just to get publicity and to "bring something to the game." Fred DeMara, too, "The Great Imposter." He's in it, playing a doctor, and that got us on the [Jack] Paar show.

Q: Around that same time, William Castle was using a lot of audience participation gimmicks in his horror pictures. Did the things he was doing give you any of your ideas?

WOODFIELD: I don't think so. What gave me the idea was, I realized I had to write x-number of pages, and what do you do when you're [writing about] hypnosis? As I discovered later, as I wrote a lot of television stuff, you have to entertain the people, you have to show them some stuff that surprises them. I mean, what do you do, how does a hypnotist kill people? He doesn't strangle them, he uses hypnosis!

Hypnotists ... basically, they all used to walk around with a couple of girls, and those girls they would put into a trance instantly. Most hypnotists -- if you ever get talking to them -- tell you that the reason they got into hypnosis was to be able to control women. That's the fact of it. So once you know that, and once you've talked to a few hypnotists, you realize that they are basically masturbators who have a way of getting their rocks off without having charm or anything! They are really strange people!

Q: There really are a lot of very cruel touches in the script. As a horror film, The Hypnotic Eye was ahead of its time a bit.

WOODFIELD: Frankly, I don't remember that. Look, in a movie, you try to get conflict in every scene, try to get something that makes people remember. Stop 'em and hold their attention.

Q: How many days did you have to shoot it?

WOODFIELD: I think we did it in 12 days, something like that. It cost 365,000 bucks -- that's it! That included the 30 or 40 or whatever the hell it is I got. It was a delightful experience.

Q: Where did you premiere the picture?

WOODFIELD: We opened The Hypnotic Eye with [hypnotist] Gil Boyne on the stage at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco, a large first-run theater that used to be a big vaudeville house, on the corner of Taylor and Market. We had a little press screening the night before the opening, in a projection room some place. A very good friend of mine, George Davis, was Caryl Chessman's lawyer; I invited George to come and see the movie, and he came and he enjoyed it. Chessman at that time was getting enormous amounts of publicity because he was on his eighth stay of execution; there was a worldwide clamor about Chessman. His execution was coming up, and I said to George, 'You're getting all of my publicity. How can we tie in Chessman to The Hypnotic Eye?' He said, 'I don't know.'

We had Gil Boyne with us, the hypnotist who (between pictures) was doing the stage show, bringing people up. (Gil did a week's personal appearances at the Golden Gate Theater, three or four shows a day.) I said to George, 'How 'bout this: You take Gil over to Chessman; he hypnotizes Chessman, and gives him a post-hypnotic suggestion; and then you file a lawsuit saying that you didn't realize that this hypnotist from The Hypnotic Eye hypnotized your guy, and they can't send a man who's under hypnosis to the gas chamber.' George said, 'I like that!' I said, 'Will Chessman do it?' and George said, 'Why the f**k not?'

Q: By the way, in your opinion, was Chessman guilty?

WOODFIELD: I asked George, I asked, 'Is he guilty?' And he said, 'Yeah. And he's a real prick!'

Q: Did he then ask Chessman to get involved with this?

WOODFIELD: George did ask him, and then he came back to me and said, 'Chess'll do it.' Almost at that exact moment, the governor gave Chessman a stay of execution at the State Department's request. Actually, a White House request -- they wanted to take the "heat" off of this trip Nixon was about to take to South America, or wherever the hell it was. So we lost that. Oh, and I remember I did say to George, 'Listen, George, if it doesn't work and he dies, can we have the body and we'll put it in a glass case and put it in the theater?' 'Billy,' he said to me, 'I think that's going a little too far!' [Laughs] It's funny but it's true.

Now, the interesting thing about it is, shortly thereafter, I got a call from Argosy. Milt Machlin, the editor, said, 'Do you know anything about Caryl Chessman?' I said, 'Sure. What do you want to know?' He said, 'We want a story about him -- we'd like his confession.' I go and I meet Chessman in Death Row, and this man is rather extraordinary -- he just had an amazing bearing, a great deal of dignity. And we bond. I told him I would like his confession, and he said, 'Well, I unfortunately didn't do it.' I said, 'Look, nobody believes you. Is there any way to prove it?' He said, 'Yes. I have a private detective who's been working with me for the last five years. I have instructed him to give you everything, to take you down to the courtroom, go through all the files, give you all my notes, give you everything. And you write whatever you want. If you find that I have at any time lied, you may consider that a confession. If you catch me in a lie, I'll sign a confession. That's our deal.'

I went immediately to the courthouse, and there were all the boxes there and the guns and all the stuff. Being a photographer, I photographed it all. And I photographed all the documents. Now I came back to Los Angeles and had 'em all developed and I'm laying it all out and looking at it, and I see some things. I said, 'Shit, this guy might not have done it.' So I phoned George Davis and I said, 'George, get on an airplane and come down. I wanna show you something.' I laid it out for George, and George says [softly], 'He didn't do it.' I said, 'No, I don't think he did either.' Now we call Machlin in New York, and Machlin flies out, sees Chess and gets the same feeling about it. And now Machlin and I decide that we will try to save him from the gas chamber. And indeed, in that period of time, we gathered a lot of evidence, including we burglarized the arresting cop, who was on [gangster] Mickey Cohen's payroll. We named Charles Terranova, a guy who the D.A. was saying did not exist -- we named him [as the actual guilty party], we had his F.B.I. rap sheet, his m.o., etc., etc. Bottom line is, at the very last minute we got a judge to agree to give him another stay of execution based on this evidence, the ninth stay. But in the judge's office, the secretary misdialed the phone number-and he was executed in that five minutes that it took. This became the essence of the Argosy pieces and a book which we called Ninth Life, that is available in your library.

It's strange how things [develop]. This all started with a silly idea about making a movie that's nothing but a line. And then, 'No, you gotta make a movie.' Then, 'You've made the movie, and you've gotta sell the movie.' And then, through that, you get involved in a thing like this Chessman thing, which ultimately altered my entire life. The Chessman thing is one of the things I'm most proud of. It was done for all the wrong reasons, but the character changed and became a good guy from being a cynical prick. So, The Hypnotic Eye was very interesting for me [laughs]!

Q: What do you think of the movie today?

WOODFIELD: Look, I told you the history [laughs]-- I had an idea, a wacko idea about the line, then instead of making a film for 45 bucks with a line in a loop and a voiceover, we're into 365,000 bucks. It was cast badly, and it wasn't a very good movie by any stretch of the imagination [laughs]. I went on to do better things. This was an early, quick effort. I must tell you, I never took it very seriously, it was all just sort of a lark. The funny part about the movie is that a little magazine called Films in Review, a publication of the National Board of Review, listed at the end of each year the Best Films of the Year on the back page. And among the best films that year was The Hypnotic Eye [laughs] -- I couldn't f**kin' believe it! That and Ben-Hur! I can't figure that out. I'm not ashamed of The Hypnotic Eye. I'm not proud of it either. But I want to tell you something: Most people never make a movie. And this came out of probably the most wacko [idea for] making a movie in the world: "We're gonna photograph a line and hypnotize the audience." The Hypnotic Eye was an interesting interlude ... one that I had almost forgotten.

Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland & Co.

"The amazing new audience thrill that makes you part of the show!"
The Hypnotic Eye

"Beware the stare that will paralyze the will of the world!"
Village of the Damned

"All new and more horrific than before!"
Return of the Fly

 All contents copyright The Astounding B Monster®