Hitchcock Reviews: The TV Episodes
Posted by therebelprince on April 21, 2012
This week, in my complete Hitchcock reviews, I thought I’d take a break from films to have a look at Hitchcock’s contribution to television. Here, from 1955, the great director became a household name, thanks to his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
“Next thing you know, they’ll be televising the whole thing.”
— Captain Wiles, “The Trouble with Harry”
These kinds of anthology series were hugely popular in the 1950s, and I for one wish they still existed. In the era of only two or three channels, viewers in England or America could watch leading actors perform one-time-only versions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, famous musicals, new sci-fi stories, and so on. While these were invariably studio bound, and the production costs were obviously minimal, it was the age of the actor. Film actors could be lured into doing one week’s rehearsal for an anthology series; many – like Joseph Cotten – transcended both mediums. And Grace Kelly made her name in television, never taking a series role but instead filming anthology episodes until her big film discovery. Gradually, such series died out – or, at least, evolved. With increased community theatre programs, the growth of home video, and the fact that it was cheaper to have standing sets and cast, rather than the rights to new works each week, shows like The Twilight Zone faded away in favour of semi-anthology series like The Love Boat, or police procedurals. (TV royalties played a part too. In the ’50s and ’60s, many series worked on a system whereby actors would receive royalties for two or three reruns, and then the episode wouldn’t be aired anymore. Once things changed, TV was more prohibitively expensive.) By the ’90s, emphasis was placed more and more on the recurring characters, and the expectations of TV viewers meant that a production of Brigadoon on a studio set was never going to appease. The idea of a genuine anthology series was laughable.
In 1955, however, all that was a distant future. Hitchcock oversaw the production of his series – which ran for ten years, first as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and then as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The series’ theme music (Charles Gounod‘s Funeral March of a Marionette became iconically linked to Hitchcock for all time). And a wide variety of talented writers, directors, and actors appeared across the series, which was produced by Joan Harrison, one of Hitchcock’s most beloved film collaborators since he arrived in America. As he aged, Hitch spent more time devising each film, and no longer was releasing one film a year as he had in the ’30s and ’40s. The TV series was a way of not only maintaining a profile – the great man would introduce each episode, often in a sly, self-mocking manner – but of promoting new talents, and telling a variety of stories that were denser and more thematically unified, with a running time of just 25 minutes (later, an hour).
Hitch himself directed 18 episodes, as well as two episodes for other contemperaneous anthology series, and I thought I’d cover the more notable ones in brief sentences. These are inevitably Hitchcock works, and in some ways they are the most Hitchcockian, since the director rarely had to fight writers or cast as he often did in film. (This is the first of two posts on the subject; I’ll hopefully look at the remaining episodes down the line.)
If you haven’t seen the episodes, the outline below will contain considerable spoilers. A basic list of titles can be found at the Alfred Hitchcock Wiki.
The series’ tone was a mixture of suspense and horror, often with that sadistic, knowing sense of humour that pervaded so many of Hitchcock’s works (once a Catholic school boy, always a Catholic school boy). As with The Twilight Zone, the episodes that depend primarily on an “a-ha!” twist, can be a tad obvious. If you figure out the twist in advance, there’s little to gain from viewing other than a growing sense of being correct. (Of course, the acting and direction are a reward in themselves, but still…) Beyond this, television production in the ’50s meant that – even for a 25-minute production – the style was more slowly-paced than we’re used to. But the best episodes of this series are still highly watchable. I’ve seen very few of the non-Hitchcock directed episodes, but much of the series is now available on DVD (and on Youtube, as linked below!). It’s a great window into an era, and an enjoyable way to appreciate a style of storytelling that is sadly often overlooked in our era, in favour of endless procedural dramas about wacky nerds and “will they or won’t they?” couples.
A typical episode is Revenge , the premiere, directed by Hitchcock. In it, a young woman (Vera Miles, who would have her greatest Hitchcock performance in The Wrong Man but – through timing – never became the Hitchcock lead she should have been) is attacked and almost killed. When she points out the man to her husband (Ralph Meeker), he pursues and kills him. At episode’s end, however, as the police close in on the wife-defending husband, the crazed wife notices another man by the road, and tells her husband “that’s him!”. It’s a simple plot, and very few of the episodes require any more summary than that. The episode’s focus is on the mounting tension, the psychological journeys of the characters, and our visceral reactions, knowing that there’s a twist coming or a surprise lurking around the corner. We’re trying to beat Hitchcock at his own game, but the man has come prepared.
Many of the stories are reminiscent of Dial M for Murder, with wrongdoers coming up with complex schemes to save themselves, only to unravel at the last minute. In both Back for Christmas and One More Mile to Go, browbeaten husbands (first John Williams, then David Wayne) kill their wives (Isobel Elsom and Louise Larrabee) then successfully hide the body, only for their near-perfect set-up to collapse in the final scene. In both cases, rather than outright exposure, we fade out just as it becomes clear to the killer that they will be caught, making things all the more delightful.
It’s a mark of the era that Alfred Hitchcock Presents could do similar tales within a year of one another. Of course, formula television dominates the airwaves now as then – someone tell me the difference between any two episodes of Supernatural – but before the rise of weekly internet criticism, there was a freedom to storytelling. This could be extreme: Bewitched actually recycled scripts late in the run, figuring (fairly) that no-one would be able to rewatch earlier episodes, and who would remember? Weekly TV reviewing can be a grind, since any experimentation that doesn’t succeed 100% is going to get picked apart, even if it will seem perfectly adequate on a full-season DVD release. Thankfully, Hitchcock and his ilk could experiment without this kind of pressure. Viewers knew that an anthology series would provide something new each week, even if that newness often had a faint taste of the old.
This also meant, though, you could play around with these formulas in yet further attempts to get the audience guessing. Not dissimilar to those mentioned above is Lamb to the Slaughter, one of Hitchcock’s most successful episodes. Barbara Bel Geddes plays a woman who snaps and kills her philandering husband. As the police investigate, Mary calmly cooks the leg of lamb with which she killed the man, ultimately dishing it up to the unaware cop (Harold Stone). (The less successful Arthur takes this to the next logical step. Here’s a hint: the guy makes his own chicken feed.)
A few function as short stories, in the manner of O. Henry. One of my favourites is Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat, in which a woman’s lover (Alden Chase) breaks up with her. Pawning a mink coat he gave her, Mrs. Bixby (Aubrey Meadows) hatches a scheme in which she will “find” the pawn ticket, her husband (Les Tremayne) will go and pick up whatever might be on the ticket. She’ll be able to keep the coat without her husband asking questions. Unfortunately, after Mr. Bixby goes to the pawn shop, he brings his wife back only a cheap necklace. Unable to say anything, Mrs. Bixby must meekly accept this confusing occurrence, even as she realises her husband’s secretary is wearing a new mink coat…
On occasion, however, Hitchcock would explore more serious dramatic issues. His own pet actress Vera Miles starred in Incident at a Corner for the anthology series Star Time, in which Miles’ crossing-guard father (Paul Hartman) is accused of pedephilia, and the town devolves into scandal and gossip. Sadly, Incident at a Corner is not readily available, as it is certainly one of his most unsettling episodes without ever being a suspense story. The subject is dealt with delicately (a necessary requirement due to censorship of the time), but the point is scathing. Bang! You’re Dead – Hitch’s final contribution to the half-hour incarnation of the show – is one of the most tense of Hitchcock’s installments, as a young boy finds a gun he assumed is a toy, and takes it into town to play. Although very little happens, the entire episode is an exercise in controlled tension. I Saw The Whole Thing, meanwhile, is an engaging hour from the series’ later years, in which a writer (John Forsythe) is charged with causing a fatal accident, and each trial witness brings different, conflicting information to the table. There’s a crispness to each episode, and a strong narrative throughline due to their length, that makes Hitch’s episodes immensely watchable after all these years.
Finally, there are two episodes that are decidedly weird. In Breakdown, one of the earliest instalments, Joseph Cotten plays an emotionless businessman who is presumed dead after a car crash, but is in far completely paralysed. Breakdown is a fascinating filmic exercise, with its protagonist lying completely prone for most of the story. It could only work in a 25-minute episode of a 1950s anthology series, and even then only on a series run by one of film’s most renowned directors.
The Crystal Trench is Hitchcock’s homage to The Twilight Zone (or, it would be, if it hadn’t aired in the very week The Twilight Zone began). Stella Ballister (Patricia Owens) learns that her mountaineering husband has died, frozen within a glacier. Believing that he will be preserved for forty years, Stella waits for her husband to return. Finally, after decades of waiting, Stella recovers her husband’s body… and the locket he carries, which holds the picture of another woman…
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, like any anthology series, didn’t always work, for a number of reasons. But it was a way of bringing talented actors, performing short stories on film, into the home each week, and certainly increased Hitchcock’s profile remarkably. It’s definitely worth checking out at least the best of these episodes, as a reminder of not only Hitch’s consummate professionalism, but the way in which he inspired and aided another generation of filmmakers.