Directed by John Brahm, and adapted by Donald S Sanford from the short story by Robert Bloch which appeared in Weird Tales Magazine, The Cheaters concerns an odd pair of spectacles which allow the wearer to read people’s thoughts. Inscribed on the inside is Veritas The Latin word for The Truth.
In Roman mythology Veritas (meaning truth) was the goddess of truth, a daughter of Saturn and the mother of Virtue. It was believed that she hid in the bottom of a holy well because she was so elusive.
“The Cheaters” also lay bare the frightening and often hideous true nature of someone’s soul hidden behind their façade. Their Anima Sola or The Lonely Soul, as Jungian psychology considered it.
The Anima Sola or Lonely Soul is a Catholic depiction of a suffering person — almost always a woman — in chains amidst the barred prison doors and flames of Purgatory, the place where sinners go while awaiting final judgment.The Anima Sola is taken to represent a soul suffering in purgatory, usually, if not always, a woman. The woman has broken free from her chains in the midst of a prison (barred doors) and is surrounded by flames, representing purgatory. She appears penitent and reverent, and her chains have been broken, an indication that, after her temporary suffering, she is destined for heaven.
In the case of The Cheaters, I think that the soul’s chains are the corporeal body that binds the true inner self. The funny yellow glass that van Prinn has invented through alchemy allows the boundaries to be crossed over in order to see the actual soul suffering in it’s physical purgatory.
Karloff introduces this memorable episode, his words linger on the edge of air so melodically like a soft sermon as the preamble to The Cheaters
“When a man shuts himself off from his neighbors, when he conducts mysterious experiments… there’s bound to be talk. There were those that whispered that Old Dirk van Prinn was a sorcerer or worse… He might not have been remembered at all had not his research led him to the discovery of a most unusual formula for making glass.”
Fade in Henry Daniell’s who makes a brief appearance as Dirk Van Prinn, the alchemist/inventor of the spectacles or “the cheaters” Locked away in his primitively rustic laboratory, we see him tinkering amongst the flasks of liquid and scales, a pair of pliers in his hand as he finishes setting the “yellowed old lenses” in the wire frames. He has discovered a peculiar formula for making glass!
The house keeper Mrs. Ames brings him a package annoying him with an offer of some nourishing soup since he hasn’t had a bite all day. Irritated by the intrusion he just wants her to leave him alone. Mrs. Ames keeps peaking around him trying to catch sight of his mysterious room. He tells her goodnight.
Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative score teems with eerie delight as the strings pluck and trill out macabre musical strokes and a piano tinkles with flute embellishments that flutter as after thoughts as he sits himself in front of the large mirror by candle light.
He tries on the spectacles and stares at his own reflection the camera blurs our vision momentarily. van Prinn is horrified by the image he is gazing at. As we view his face in close up, it distorts as he becomes more frightened by what he sees looking back at him in the mirror. The camera closes in on his tinted spectacles and the look of abject fear in his eyes.
The music becomes a frenzied climax as the scene trades with a black background and a few low piano notes held as Boris Karloff walks on screen to tell us about the evening’s terror tale.
I’ve always been struck by Henry Daniell’s unusual facial features that often lend to many of the sinister roles he’s played in the horror film genre. He’s somewhat like a Faustian marionette, with a wooden like grimace frozen in extreme sardonic glee. I particularly loved him in one of my favorite classic campy films of 1959 The 4 Skulls of Jonathon Drake Daniell’s make-up for the Well of Doom episode bears a striking similarity to Lon Chaney’s character in Tod Brownings, London After Midnight 1927
One hundred years later the spectacles are found by Joe Henshaw junk man, in a hidden compartment of an old rotting,dust covered desk in Prinn’s abandoned house.
The Cheaters includes wonderful performances by Paul Newlan as Joe Henshaw, the down on his luck junk dealer who discovers the cheaters in more ways than one, when he stumbles onto the spectacles at the old Bleaker Place where van Prinn did his experiments.
Joe’s trying to drink his coffee and eat his breakfast in peace, but wife Maggie (Linda Watkins) starts ragging on poor Joe about buying up more junk.
She asks him how much he bid, he tells her not much a hundred dollars. She gets irate. He’s promised they’d unload the place and get into a decent business. Joe tells her to quiet down in front of the kid, his employee Charlie (Ed Nelson) She don’t care who’s coming,“How we ever gonna get out of here if you keep spending money on more junk?”
Charlie comes in says hello to Maggie bringing Joe the mail who takes it and holds it far away because he needs reading glasses. Maggie tells him “Why don’t you admit it Joe get yourself a pair of glasses”
Charlie and Maggie shoot each other looks then she tells him to sit down she’ll pour him some coffee. Joe tells Charlie to eat on his own time and to get the truck.
Charlie can’t believe it, the Bleaker place has been pad locked since before the first world war. Joe points up at him and tells him to keep his mouth shut. Maggie shouts at him to pick on her instead of Charlie. Charlie cracks wise about them finding a million dollars worth of confederate war bonds in a house once. The two laugh at Joe’s expense. Joe gets angry and snaps at him to go get the truck.
“That fine talk from a wife” He tells her he was tipped off that there might be some real antique pieces up in the attic. “Maggie you gotta take a chance once in a while maybe our luck will change” “Yeah from bad to worse “ “Look, what’s happened to you Maggie, ever since I hired the kid you been treat in’ me like dirt” ” Oh don’t start that again”
Joe and Charlie arrive at the abandoned Bleaker house. Once inside they see it’s filled with debris. “It’s gonna cost you money to haul this stuff to the dump” Joe tells Charlie, ” Who asked you to worry”
They come upon a door, Charlie says maybe the valuable stuff is in there. They break the door open in and find the room in utter darkness first Joe uses a flashlight then he rips the curtains open for light to come in. There are dusty shelves lined with books that could be rare editions but as the two men handle them they crumble into dust in their hands. Then they spot the old desk thinking they might be able to get something for it.
The drawer comes off in Charlie’s grip. He tells Joe he oughta sue the city. “Advice from you I don’t need” “Maggie’s gonna froth and foam when she hears about this” Joe throws him out and tells him to go tell her.
When Joe kicks the desk it releases a secret compartment holding van Prinn’s spectacles. He puts them on and picks up one of the rotting pieces of book leaf trying to read it with the found specs. Suddenly the writing comes into clear focus for Joe’s farsighted eyes.
Later he comes home and finds the table set with candles. Maggie hugs him and acts happy to see him, wishing him a happy birthday. She apologizes for the way she acted that morning. He asked if the kid told her he found a basket of diamonds. She tells him Charlie said it was nothing but rubbish. She says she’s been rotten and selfish and that he must have been so disappointed, as she nestles up to him suddenly a doting wife.
Joe asks her where the morning mail is, she says she took care of the gas bill for him. As she mixes cake batter in a bowl he looks at her wearing the spectacles. Maggie becomes a blurry version of herself while her teeth flash a phony smile. She becomes lit in an ominous light, her voice becomes distorted as if being sucked through a reverberant can. As her image starts to shift in and out of strange definition he suddenly hears her thoughts.
He lifts the spectacles up and stares at his wife puzzled saying Huh??. Now the light around Maggie’s face lightens as surround hue of her features revert back and she speaks aloud with drippy affection, “if you hadn’t been too busy to buy a pair of glasses I’d a lost the pleasure of spoiling ya”
Again he asks what? as he hears her thoughts. Her false voice says “Enjoy it while you can dear tomorrow you’ll be dead tired from hauling all that rubbish”
Linda Watkins has a voice like hot gravel.
Joe finally starts to catch on. These odd spectacles allow him to hear Maggie’s thoughts. He takes the them off and asks another question. Where was the other bill from again? She tells him from the gas company. He puts them back on and once again the remote spectral like voice of Maggie’s inner thoughts says “They want to buy this property Joe for a lot of money.”
Charlie comes in wishing Joe a happy birthday. He’s brought him a jug of his favorite poison. “And if this doesn’t kill ya, then I will”
Charlie and Maggie try to get Joe to drink. It’s then Joe sees that the two are in cohoots together carrying on behind his back. The camera focuses on the sneaky ‘cheaters’ as Charlie’s thoughts confess “You should have been an actress baby”Maggie’s thoughts betray “Fill his right to the top, the quicker we get him drunk the quicker we get him over to the old house” Joe hears Charlie think “The three of us are going on a midnight treasure hunt. Maggie’s inner voice “You’re gonna have a nasty accident.”
Joe is watching this exchange between the two conspirators. Maggie looks at Charlie “I never thought it would be this excitin’ Gee I love ya Charlie”
Joe takes his glasses off again. He’s had enough of listening in on their lurid scheme. He asks Charlie “You’ve got an education what does the inscription on the inside of the glasses mean Veritas?”
He tells Joe it’s Latin for the truth. Joe leaves the two alone and goes into the shop, slamming the shop door pretending to get the car. Charlie gets worried, what Joe mean too bad I got my fancy clothes on. Maggie says who knows what that stupid old coot means. She pulls Charlie down on top of her on the couch. Charlie acts hesitant and Maggie asks him if he’s losing his nerve. Joe is listening in the shadows. A local police officer has stopped outside, we can see him at the call box through the shop door glass. Joe grabs a crow bar after he hears them making up to each other on the couch. “Maggie Maggie what you do to me”
Joe takes the crow bar and smashes on Charlie’s head first then chasing Maggie to the ground and striking her as she screams. The police officer hears the screams and comes rushing in asking Joe why. Out of breath he blurts out “Cheaters… cheaters” As he points to the spectacle on the table.
Joe rushes toward the cursed spectacles intending to smash them with the crowbar but the cop mistakes it for an attack and he shoots Joe.
As the white hash lines of the Thriller graphic spread across the screen like broken glass, it’s now Miriam Olcott’s (Mildred Dunnock) turn to suffer the curse of van Prinn’s curious spectacles.
The delightful Mildred Dunnock is marvelous as usual as the eccentric little old fashioned lady who’s also a kleptomaniac. Mother Olcott stumbles onto the cheaters after Joe Henshaw is shot by the policeman. She’s also quite convinced that her nephew and wife are putting either drugs or poison in her tea, which she usually spills out into the flower pot next to her bed. It’s memorable characters like Dunnock’s “Mother” Olcott that create the layers of dimension to the plots of Thriller. While wearing the cheaters which she has lifted from Joe’s antique/junk store, Mother Olcott commits murder driven by the spectacles which expose the plot by her greedy relatives to off the old biddy for her money. I never thought it possible to be rattled by “death by hat pin” A hat pin straight through the heart that is.
But Mildred Dunnock is the perfectly sympathetic old lady that makes it all the more horrific.
We see her in bed on the phone talking to someone named Clarence. She’s convinced her nephew Edward Dean and his wife Olive have put something in her tea. She tells him she’s not a fool she knows when her tea’s been drugged. She pours the contents of the silver tea service into the plant next to the bed. Miriam Olcott is the epitome of the old biddy who complains about every small detail and suspects everyone is out to get her. In this case they actually are.
She tells Clarence she’s not ungrateful that she’s aware of the sacrifice Edward and Olive have made coming to look after her. But she feels that she’s a prisoner in her own home. She whines that she’s hungry as she throws down the hard biscuit onto the plate. “Diet, oh pooh” her hearts perfectly normal, she just gets a little out of breath sometimes. Clarence promises to come over that night, she tells herself at least she has one friend left. She hears Olive coming up the steps. Olive is very attentive to Mother Olcott, taking away her tray, fixing her blankets and tucking her into to bed. Miriam ‘mother Olcott’ tells her she doesn’t want to intrude on Olive’s bridge game but she tells her she’d be an asset to any party. She pretends to sleep til Olive leaves the room.
She begins to window shop then entering a small boutique she pretends to ask for a bright yellow handkerchief while the sales girl looks for her, she slips something into her handbag. “Oh dear those are horrid shades, I’m afraid I’ll have to inquire elsewhere”
The violins escort her with a delicate bow whilst on her daily jaunt through town as she shoplifts through each store.
As she walks out of the boutique she grabs a small piece of jewelry and slips it into her bag. The strings become more poignantly drawn out. Goldsmith’s melody is beautiful as she comes upon Joe Henshaw’s junk shop where men are loading up a truck clearing out the inventory.
Inside she asks about a piece of furniture and mistakes the man for Henshaw. “Henshaw’s dead don’t you read the papers he brained his wife and her boyfriend and a cop shot him” Unaffected by the news she browses around shoving a handful of pearls into her bag. He comes over asking if she sees something she likes. She asks about the spectacles and he sells them to her for two bits.
The scene cross fades as she returns home. Olive and Edward have been worried about her being out alone against the doctors wishes. “Where have you been?” “If you must know I’ve been fitted for some glasses.” Olive says “My aren’t they attractive aren’t they Edward Yes, Yes they’re very unusual”
“Perfect touch for that Halloween costume that old bat is wearing” Edward’s inner voice mocks her. We see the same dark transformation take place as the revealing gaze of the cheaters allows Mother Olcott to hear what her nephew is truly saying.
When she takes them off she hears him say out loud in a phony saccharine voice, “Just the perfect touch for the custom look everyone’s wearing” Olive says “I see you’ve been shopping again” looking at her bag. Olive’s thoughts convey this “Dotting old thief now Everette will have to return all the junk you’ve stolen”
Like Joe Henshaw, Mother Olcott soon realizes the power the spectacles have. Edward’s inner voice says “This’ll be the last time you make trouble for me old girl. You’re next trip will be to the morgue”
Mother Olcott is filled with secret panic. She heads up toward her room turning down their offer to help upstairs.
Scene fades Mother Olcott is sitting in her chair playing with the spectacles. A knock at the door. It’s Clarence who’s brought her up the dinner tray. He heard she was out on the town. He ignores her when she tells him that Olive and Edward are planning on killing her.
He discusses the delicious dinner and where she should sit. “I heard them say, I mean I heard them think it. I don’t know but I think it has something to do with these spectacles. “ He continues to talk over her, telling her they’ll go downstairs after supper. He helps her sit down by the fire she puts on the cheaters after he says “Come along now young lady “Clarence says with patronizingly.
He offers her brandy, she takes the glasses off and smiles curiously at him. She puts the glasses back on “I’m going to need it before I shove you down the stairs you senile old scarecrow”
She asks who will inherit her money when she dies. He tells her Edward and Olive as long as they retain her in the house as long as she lives.
Clarence goes to get the brandy Miriam sits on the bed. The strings become diabolical short strokes like a devil’s jig.
She grabs a long hat pin staring at the point. When Clarence comes back in with the brandy she leans away from him, hiding the pin behind her back. He comes near her while he’s chatting about Edward’s good brandy and his words turn into another inner lethal monologue “You know how to live” Inwardly, “But you’re over doing it a bit you old hag”
He tries to give her the brandy glass “Take it I don’t want any trouble pushing you down the stairs” She pulls the pin out and stabs Clarence in the heart. The scene is ghoulish as this little old woman impales this murderous greedy cad with her quaint hat pin all the while holding her little brandy glass.
Clarence groans in pain while the crystal end of the pin sticks out of his perfectly pressed suit jacket
He calls out her name Miriam, she smiles a sense of victory and of curious sense of peace. She takes off the cheaters and walks over to Clarence slumped in the chair. She giggles to herself.
She drinks more brandy and becomes so intoxicated that she falls asleep by the fire which winds up setting her nightgown a flame as the scene fades.
The Thriller graphics separate the scene. Olive and Edward are having a costume party. He’s dressed like Benjamin Franklin “The symbol of wisdom and stability”
At the party Sebastian Grimm tells him “Every school boy knows that Franklin wore spectacles” The guests roar with laughter. Edward’s been trying to ingratiate himself into the high society crowd by throwing this festive party. They begin to mock him for not wearing spectacles then they start playing poker. Olive brings food in from the buffet, telling him she found glasses among Mother Olcott’s things. He can’t see with them on but Grimm says it might improve his game. He asks the judge for more chips.
“Delighted to take your money you fat little fool” Edward takes off the cheaters at first taken aback by the comment. While off his pudgy face he only hears him say is “Delighted” but putting them back on the hazy aura of the truth washes over the judges face once again “It’ll take more than a patriot’s costume to cloak your intentions you tedious little poser”
Grimm grabs the glasses and says “Oh there’s a laugh, the world Veritas is engraved across these spectacles… Latin for truth… It is supposed to be your calling isn’t it Judge Fluger” When the judge asks what his calling is he tells them he’s “an unpublished author, unsung, unfulfilled a soul in search of the eternal Veritas of life”
Edward puts the glasses back on again. He can now see what cards Grimm is holding in his hand and Judge Fluger thinks, “Wait till I tell the boys at the club how this stupid little climber pretended to lose like a gentleman… I wonder if he really did do away with the old lady”
Edward catches Thorgenson cheating with two aces under his arm. Thorgenson drops the cards on the floor but Edward picks them up and tries to show the other men but they don’t believe him. Angered, he tells them he sees them for what they truly are.
Thorgenson accuses him of hiding the aces in order to embarrass him. Edward loses his cool and starts yelling. He tells them he didn’t see him hide the cards under his arm “These spectacles I’m not certain what there is about them, but I just knew.” Judge Fluger says he thinks they all know who the cheater is. While Edward chokes Thorgenson in a rage Grimm hits him in the head killing him when not meaning to hit him so hard. Blood runs down his lifeless fat face.
Later Grimm is in his parlor with his wife, she’s knitting and he’s smoking and inspecting the spectacles. “I admit that when I picked the spectacles off the floor I was merely curious, and then the inscription Veritas intrigued me”
He relates the story to his wife. Telling her what Edward Dean said about the spectacles. He tells her he’s onto something it’s not one of his hair brained projects he’ll be bored with in a week. He shows her a rough draft of his new book complete except for the last chapter.
He reminds her about the Henshaw murders and surmises it wasn’t infidelity that was the motive rather that when Henshaw seemingly attacked the police officer rather, he was trying to destroy ‘the cheaters His wife Helen tells him it’s nonsense.
He also looked up the inquest in the Olcott murder Olive Dean stated on the day the old lady put the hat pin in Clarence Kramer’s chest she’d been down town and one of the things she brought back with her was a pair of funny old glasses” He talked to the man who remembers selling Miriam Alcott these glasses for twenty five cents.
“I believe these spectacle allow the wearer to know the naked absolute truth about anything or anybody”
She asks if he’s tried them he says no, she asks why not “Because they weren’t intended for mind reading. I think they were intended for seeing the truth about one’s self , that’s the real purpose of these glasses Helen. That’s what van Prinn was after when he discovered the secret of “this funny yellow glass”
According to the local historical society he built the old house on Bleaker Road. His neighbors called him a sorcerer. He laughs what do you supposed they would have called Edison or Einstein. “Know thyself” He waves the cheaters in her face. She gets upset and tells him to put them away. “What’s the matter afraid I’ll put them on and see you for what you really are”
He pretends to put them on, she cries no don’t “Don’t worry darling when I put these on it’ll be for something important”
He tells her that they’re going out to the old house on Bleaker Road for authentic atmosphere when he reports on van Prinn’s experiment. It’s going to be the last chapter of his book called “KNOW THYSELF”
They arrive at the house. Helen asks Sebastian what happened to van Prinn after he put on the glasses. She asks again what happened to van Prinn. He shines his lantern upstairs. He tells her the desk is still upstairs and the old mirror that he used. He finally answers her question. “He hanged himself.”
As he climbs the stairs he calls to Helen “Helen I know you think this is a fool thing for me to do but I have to. It’s the only way I have of satisfying my twisted sense of the dramatic you understand that don’t you” She cries “You don’t have to prove yourself to me or to anybody” “Darling How’d it look if I entered in my book saying I lost my nerve” She begs this is wrong this is unholy hugging him holding onto him.
“I imagine that’s what van Prinn’s ignorant neighbors said it’s unholy…well If Satan’s waiting up there so be it”
He turns to her at the top “Helen, do you know that the greatest men in every century have been hated and ridiculed by men like Thorgenson and Judge Fluger. van Prinn knew that”
Helen pleads with him.
Harry Townes is wonderful as Sebastian Grimm, the struggling tortured writer, who is the final recipient of ‘the cheaters’ He eventually comes face to face with his own image, the dark at the top of the stairs, in the episode’s climax.
He walks thru the black cobwebbed hallway with his lantern and enters van Prinn’s room. He stands in front of the mirror and puts the cheaters on. An ominous wind blows the door shut. As Grimm turns away from the mirror he hears an evil cackling. He demands to know who’s there, who’s in this room
“Just you Sebastian Grimm… you’re not afraid of your own voice are you?” Grimm gazes into the mirror and sees a distorted face…
“So you want the truth about yourself do you? Yes The junkman, the old lady and Edward Dean read only the minds of others, Think of the agony they suffered”
He tells the disembodied voice “They were afraid they let their emotions get out of control”
“But you are different you can master your emotions. You even dare to look into your own mind… very well then, bring the light closer”
The horrible image of the grotesque self in the mirror comes into focus. A decrepit decaying face like that of Dorian Gray. Grimm stomps on the glasses and scratches his face drawing lines of blood as he screams in torment while Helen bangs on the door trying to get to her husband.