A student has a violent argument with his professor, storms out of class, then returns several minutes later, brandishing a gun and shoots the professor before the entire class. Its a classic open and shut case, except the student doesn’t remember anything of the incident. That’s what gets Petrocelli’s attention.
“Petrocelli” was a short lived lawyer series, set in the American Southwest. Anthony Petrocelli (Barry Newman) left the faced-paced big city to take up a legal practice in the mythical city of San Remo, with the aid of his wife Maggie (Susan Howard) and the assistance of private investigator Pete Ritter (Albert Salmi).
Description: This episode (#13 of the first season) starts with the scene described above: Petrocelli is called in to the case, interviewing the student, Willie, and hearing that he doesn’t remember anything of the incident. Actually, anything after he called another professor for help. Further investigation confirms the rest of the case, how he was discovered in the professor’s office, stealing his gun, after making the call to determine if the professor was there or not. Its a tough case to take, but Petrocelli is willing to take it as long as Willie is willing to try to remember.
But its the discovery that the rest of bullets in the gun were blanks that really captured Petrocelli’s attention. The gun was a clip-fed automatic double-action pistol, meaning that it carried several bullets in the clip but could also have one loaded in the chamber, ready to fire, which was the case. Its obvious that someone unfamiliar with guns did not known to remove the bullet from the chamber if the intent was to replace all of the bullets in the gun with blanks.
Nothing about the case seems to fit, however, until Petrocelli, Susan, Pete and Pete’s girlfriend take the evening to see the lovely stage hypnotist Anabelle Tracey (Francine York.) After trying to get Petrocelli up on stage, they get Pete up instead. The statuesque hypnotist immediately has Pete flustered, a state that she will take full advantage of in performing her induction.
Annabelle: “Thank you, thank you. And now, I’d like to ask for another volunteer from the audience. Another man …”
(closeup) “… because I like men.”
Annabelle: “I promise I don’t bite. (laughs) Not much.”
Pete gets up on stage and stands before the hypnotist, staring at the floor.
Annabelle: “Tell me something Mr. Ritter: may I call you Pete?”
Pete: “Well, that’s my name, ma’am.”
Annabelle: “Tell me something Pete, have you ever been hypnotized?”
Pete: “Well, no, I don’t believe so …”
Petrocelli: “No, but’s he’s been in a fog for the last ten years!”
Annabelle: “Do you like my eyes Pete?”
Pete: “Well, I’ve got nothing against them.”
Annabelle: “Well, um, would you look at me, hmm?”
Pete finally looks up at Annabelle’s face as she smiles charmingly towards him. Her voice and mannerisms have become more and more intimate and personal; her voice has become softer and her attention is now totally directed to Pete.
Pete stares at Annabelle for a long moment. Out in the audience Maggie remarks to Tony “He’s scared to death.”
Pete: “Am I … hypnotized yet?”
Annabelle: “No, not yet. You like my eyes, don’t you Pete?”
Pete grins. “Well, I sure have seen worse.” He’s quite fascinated by her now.
Annabelle: “Now, Pete, I’m going to count from five backwards and I want you to listen to me very carefully in case I make any mistakes. Are you ready? … Are you ready?”
Annabelle counts “Five … four … three … two … one …” as the camera switches between closeups of Pete and Annabelle as she says each number, until the last number, showing Annabelle snapping her fingers beside Pete’s head, and he falls immediately into a trance. His eyes close and his head drops forward.
Annabelle: “Can you hear me Pete? … can you hear me?”
Annabelle: “Now we’ll just see how asleep he is.” She lifts his arm and lets it go: it immediately drops to his side. “Woo, he is sleeping. Now those friends of Pete’s — tell me something about Pete, something that he’s fond of.”
Annabelle: “Beer — that’s fine. Now Pete, I’m going to bring you out of it, but before I do we’re going to have to agree on something, all right?”
Pete: “All right …”
Annabelle: “What we’re going to have to agree on, Pete, is that beer tastes like turpentine, okay?”
Pete: “Okay …”
Annabelle: “Now I’m going to give you a word; a post-hypnotic word. After I wake you up, you won’t remember anything that we’ve said while you were sleeping. But as soon as I say the post-hypnotic word you will immediately remember and believe that beer tastes like turpentine … do you understand?”
Pete: “Right …”
Annabelle: “Now, the post-hypnotic word is … uh … marbles. Have you got it?”
Pete: “Yes …”
Annabelle: “Now Pete I’m going to bring you out of it, and as soon as you come out I want you to ask for a beer. Now here we go: Five … four … three … two … one … and” more and more commandingly and snaps her fingers. Pete wakes up to a round of applause.
Pete: “Mind if I have a beer?”
Annabelle laughs; Tony in the audience is suddenly thinking over the implications.
Annabelle says “A nice cold glass of beer” as the beer arrives. Pete holds it in his hand and starts to take a drink.
Pete: “You want to get on with that hypnotizin’?”
Annabelle: “You like the beer?”
Pete: “Tastes great.”
Annabelle: “You’re sure: have another taste.”
Pete: “Now if you’re trying to get me drunk you picked the right liquid because I love beer.”
Annabelle: “That’s just fine, Pete: now, Pete, I think you ought to have one more sip. Oh, by the way, Pete, when you were a boy, did you ever play with marbles?”
Pete grimaces in disgust.
Annabelle: “What’s the matter Pete?”
Pete: “This isn’t beer: this is turpentine!”
Tony: “That’s it: that’s got to be it.”
Upon questioning by Petrocelli, Professor Logan states that Joan and Willie are two of his best students, two of his teaching assistants. He also admits that the two have carried their mutual exploration of hypnosis far beyond his expectations. Investigation also reveals that Joan bought the blanks, and she admitted replacing them and setting up the whole bit of theater to prove her point about the power of hypnosis and to prove the professor wrong. She just didn’t want anyone to get killed, but was too afraid to come forward until confronted by Petrocelli.
That’s when Petrocelli does what no defense attorney does: put his client on the witness stand. As Willie is on the stand, Petrocelli plays the recording of Professor Logan’s recording machine, which is the post-hypnotic trigger to put him into a trance. He remains in trance until Petrocelli fires a blank from the pistol, the release trigger. It may have been theatrical, but the court found it convincing enough to free Willie. Joan, however, will be charged with manslughter, a case Petrocelli is willing to take.
And, at the end, everything it back to normal, except for Pete, that is, who’s drinking root beer because he still thinks beer tastes like turpentine.
Commentary: Its the classic dilemma: can you use hypnosis to make someone do something they wouldn’t normally do, in this case, commit murder? Its a question that’s been debated even before George Estabrooks announced “I can hypnotize a man — without his knowledge or consent — into committing treason against the United States.” Milton Erickson answered in the negative but the controversy still continues, and has become the basis for a number of stories, including the most famous example, “The Manchurian Candidate”.
Expert opinion tends to strongly favor Erickson here, but however, in this situation, the argument starts getting unclear. For one thing, there is the relationship between Joan, the hypnotist, and Willie, the subject in this situation. Their professor indicates they have taken their exploration of the subject to depths beyond any of this other students. That implies a tremendous level of trust and familiarity between the two, which can be capitalized upon here.
Then there is the very real antagonism between Willie and his professor. “And his half-wit theories on hypnotic induction … It started when he began quoting William James on hypnosis. You might as well start quoting Calvin Cooledge on women’s lib!” Willie says. He is honestly angry at the professor, a reaction the whole post-hypnotic trance is designed to take advantage of.
Added to the mix was the image of the professor holding a shotgun instead of the pointer he wielded, part of the flashback scene that Willie is reliving. Seeing the class in immediate danger from the professor might just have been the final piece that drove him to finally pull the trigger, as he does hesitate to fire until the professor turned to him.
However, it is possible that on some level Willie was aware of what he was doing, trusting that Joan had somehow arranged for the safety of everyone involved. He could even have checked the clip himself and discovered the bullets were blank, not knowing, like Joan, that there was a live bullet in the chamber. But once the deed was done, instead of being the result of a deep trance, he is suffering from the trauma of killing someone that he has post-trauma amnesia.
Recommendation: Highly recommended, not only for the extended stage hypnosis scene but also for the way the story makes the case that murder under hypnosis can be possible under the most demanding of circumstances. Unfortunately, however, it is extremely hard to find. The series has not been released on DVD and probably only exists in videotape collections. It was shown on the TVLand cable channel many years ago (which is where I got my copy.) I have not been able to find any clips on YouTube, either.
- “Petrocelli” was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards (one each for Newman and Howard) and three Emmy Awards, winning one for Best Film Editing of an Individual Episode, with the other two nominations going again to Newman and Howard.
- Another episode ‘The Mark of Cain’ was nominated for a Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
- Barry Newman as Anthony Petrocelli