- By TOM WEAVER
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.
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
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."
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.
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
Was Jacques Bergerac your first choice for the evil
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.
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
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.
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.
I thought the beatnik scenes disrupted the mood of the
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?'
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!'
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
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
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]!
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