The Night The World Ended is one of many Hitchcock half-hours that focuses on aging, unfortunate, often poor people and the problems they face in simply living in the world. Adapted from a Fredric Brown short story, this one has an edge as well as some changes in tone that make is worth one's time. Episodic as it is it's a modest tale with real heart.
A bunch of newsman in a bar in an unnamed city are drinking and shooting the breeze and talking about the proclivity of one of them, Halloran, their apparent ringleader, for playing practical jokes. This night he has decided to play a nasty one on Johnny, an unfortunate, aging down and outer who frequents the place, appears well enough liked, is always cash poor and, one gathers, chronically unemployed.
Halloran had his newspaper print a fake headline announcing the end of the world that night, and says it's for real, and poor old Johnny believes it, gets himself a free drink at the bar, and promptly leaves. He then proceeds to steal a couple of bottles of wine from a liquor store, which he drinks in the park, and is then literally stumbled upon by a woman of about his own age, walking her dogs, who apologizes to him for causing Johnny's jacket to get soiled, takes him to her home, where she cleans the jacket and offers Johnny a cup of tea.
It's here that we learn a few things about Johnny, notably that he once had a wife and child, and that both died, thirty years ago, which explains his current state without his asking for any sympathy. The woman never married, is what they used to call an old maid; and for a few brief shining moments it appears that these two sad souls might make a genuine connection. Their idyll, such as it can be called, is brief, and when Johnny starts carrying on about the impending end of the world,--which the news headline announced was to be at 11:45 sharp--she panics.
Out the door Johnny goes when a neighbor responds to the noise in the apartment, and now Johnny, still somewhat drunk, dazed and confused, meets some boys in an alley, feels sorry for them, asks them what they would like the most, and they tell him, whereupon he takes them to a store, which he breaks into, and he and the boys proceed to play. As with his previous encounter with the spinster, there is some happiness, sadly brief, when the party is interrupted by a uniformed guard, whom Johnny shoots and kills, more from confusion and panic than in anger.
Once again, Johnny is in flight. He stops at a news stand and questions the vendor why there's nothing in the various newspapers on display that tell of the earth's imminent demise, and he soon learns the truth: he has been duped, is the victim of a not so practical joke. The man who pulled the joke on him chose someone way his social inferior: this poor soul who lacked the subtlety, sophistication, the just plain street sense to realize at any point in the previous three hours that his leg had been pulled. Johnny then returns to the bar where Halloran and his pals are still boozing, and where he decides to take his revenge.
There's no need to spoil a good story by giving away its ending but to say that its conclusion is likely to be satisfactory for most viewers. To this it's worth the time to praise the actors, especially the excellent Russell Collins, who really convinces in what is a far more complex and difficult part to play than one might imagine in his first few moments on screen. Also worthy of much praise is Edith Barrett as the sad and lonely woman who, in an alternate universe, might have been just what the doctor ordered for Johnny. Alas, there is no alternate universe that we can move to; and in the world we live in empathy is in short supply.
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