Hitchcock Reviews: The TV Episodes, Part 2
Posted by therebelprince on August 8, 2012
Welcome back, for more of my complete Hitchcock reviews. Before I move on to his final films, I’m following up on my previous post about the director’s TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Today, I’ll take a brief trip through the nine episodes that weren’t covered in that post.
“Television has brought back murder into the home — where it belongs.”
— Alfred Hitchcock
A lot of advocates for ‘quality television’ like myself are prone to comment that if Charles Dickens, say, were alive today, he would be working in television. I think it’s true for many of history’s great storytellers but not, perhaps, for Alfred Hitchcock. While there’s no doubt that the director enjoyed the esteem, success, and money of a weekly TV series, it covered only a few of the reasons he made films. On the one hand, each episode was almost like a parlour trick: in just twenty-five minutes you can tell a story, with less oversight from the networks (who, on a film set, are worried about the millions of dollars being frittered away), and you’re done. The “simple complexity” of some of Hitch’s best scripts (Notorious, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, The Birds) rely on us getting to know several characters equally, and their shifting relationships and contexts. This isn’t possible in 25 minutes, which is why most of these episodes focus on just one person at the expense of others. Where the series excelled was in creating these psychological vignettes. The other effect the series had on Hitchcock was a certain filmic restraint. Working on a tight schedule meant that rarely could he achieve the same coup de graces of some of his most famous shots – the tracking shots of Notorious, the shrieking shower-scene of Psycho, the exquisite death scene from Topaz. At the same time, deprived of this extravagance, Hitchcock’s series was able to take advantage of his formal skills as a director. Most of the episodes directed by Mr. Hitchcock could be easily used in classes on film technique to this day.
Okay, it’s an odd choice to open a review of television with reasons why the director should stick to film. All I’m saying is, the series is great, but Hitch’s heart was on the big screen.
(as with last time, for this review spoilers abound)
Most of the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (at least, the ones that I’ve seen – which are those directed by our man Alf) provide a masterclass in the short story, all by focusing on one character’s plight. What makes them stand out from your average Twilight Zone piece is that we’re often supporting the wrong character. In The Perfect Crime, Vincent Price is Charles Courtney, an arrogant lawyer who has never lost a case, and rests his entire life and reputation upon that fact. When DA John Gregory (James Gregory) finds proof that will change this reputation, Courtney snaps and kills the attorney. It should be an act of melodrama to kill someone lest they beat you in court, but the singular focus makes the story work. As Courtney goes about covering up the crime, we’re waiting for the plan to fall apart so that his ego will take the necessary beating (and justice will be served, of course), yet we can’t help sharing his fear. Having said that, The Perfect Crime isn’t one of the show’s best instalments, as it seems just a little too self-satisfied. Courtney bakes Gregory in a kiln (!!) and proudly displays the resulting vase. (In the epilogue, Hitchcock explains that Courtney was eventually caught through his own hubris. Although, as he points out, it was rather too late for poor Mr. Gregory.)
This epilogue is worth noting itself. As with numerous stories before and after, Hitchcock found himself appeasing the network censors by including the epilogue which applied the appropriate justice to the villain. The justly well-known Lamb to the Slaughter, in which Barbara Bel Geddes serves her roasted husband to the very cops investigating his disappearance, ends with an epilogue where Hitch explains that she would’ve got away with it… if she hadn’t tried to do the same to her second husband. These epilogues often work because of the director’s dry delivery and the way that he’s almost rolling his eyes, ignoring the words he’s saying to suggest that the story itself is what matters. Yet, as with those mentioned above, this retracted ending feels a bit like a ‘cop-out’.
(Incidentally, all but one of the episodes I’m discussing today are easily available on DVD, but I’ll link to Youtube videos of them where possible.)
Faring better is a bizarre outing from the show’s first season, The Case of Mr Pelham . Tom Ewell is perfectly cast as Albert Pelham, a rather uneventfully normal man who begins to believe his life is being taken over by a double. It’s one of my favourite episodes from this batch, partly due to Ewell’s pitch-perfect performance. The gradual unhinging of Pelham’s mind plays out rather neatly over 25 minutes (such a refined length for television, I can’t help feeling!) as he begins to believe that the imposter is him. The black-and-white adds immeasurably to the episode’s creepy vibe, but what makes the story work is that Pelham isn’t just concerned by major conspiracies: this isn’t North by Northwest. The concern becomes a philosophical one: even in quotidian matters, Pelham feels there is someone else. Either someone else is him, or he is not himself. Or he is himself, but can no longer recognise this. The sequence in which Pelham comes undone and his trusty valet (Justice Watson) loses faith in him leads to a surprisingly cruel twist, that leaves us questioning what exactly went on.
One of the great benefits of such an anthology series was the cast. Particularly in this era, before the boundaries were so clear cut between film and television acting in America, a lot of great faces appear throughout. This was the era of true journeyman actors: thousands of trained, talented faces shifting between gigs on the stage and the screen. I romanticise it still.
Come-uppance seems to be the order of the day for numerous episodes. While Courtney was only prosecuted in the epilogue (so, if you want that to be “non-canon”, go for it), cruel endings are far from unusual here.
For instance, there’s A Dip in the Pool starring Keenan Wynn and Fay Wray. Wynn is a compulsive gambler who attempts to devise a way to slow down the cruise ship he’s on; you see, he and his fellow travellers are betting on the distance the ship will travel in one day. Wynn realises that he can force the ship to stop if he throws himself overboard. Unfortunately, the only witness to his jump is mentally ill, so she keeps her mouth shut. In a similar vein, the fourth season premiere Poison casts James Donald as a decidedly unpleasant man with a drinking problem and now, an even worse problem: the snake lying on his stomach. Reminiscent of Joseph Cotten’s bravura performance in Breakdown, Donald’s character spends most of the episode stock still in bed. At the climax, he and his friend (Wendell Corey) attempt to defeat the snake, only to be surprised by a rather terrifying outcome. Poison is another effective episode, although by this point it became clear for me that the importance of these tales is not the twist, but the journey we take to get there. The delicate performances and direction are what make these stories still viable today, and it’s no wonder Hitchcock was a household name.
While those are the best of the batch, most episodes directed by Hitchcock were reliable little tales. It pays not to get to excited for a twist to come, because one misses out on the rest of the tale at hand. Some play out more like quirky short stories than anything else. There’s The Horse Player from the show’s sixth season in which Claude Rains (!!) plays a priest who gets involved with a gambler (Ed Gardner) after a horse-racing tip proves to tempting. The story has a typical Alfred Hitchcock Presents formula, with our front-and-centre character, the moral dilemma, the character changing his mind when it’s too late, and then the unexpected twist. Yet, it’s a much lighter tale, far more character focused.
Many of these stories came from the mind of Roald Dahl, who would even refilm some of them for his Tales of the Unexpected series. Yet it’s these more traditional twist-oriented stories that fare less well in retrospect. I’ve been following with great interest The A.V. Club’s ongoing reviews of The Twilight Zone. One of the elements they discuss quite often is how these series play to us today, particularly those whose twist is either famous, obvious, or simply intuitive by the mere fact that we know we’re watching a “twist series”. Many of the episodes do trade on the same beats, it’s true – the very slight Banquo’s Chair will probably surprise very few, with its tale of a seance “faked” by Scotland Yard to get their suspect (Kenneth Haigh) to confess. Yet I feel like a Scrooge to complain too often about this. While there certainly were loyal viewers of the series (in the ’60s, with only a few TV channels, and programming marketed as a “night” of television, there was some reasonable network loyalty), each of these episodes was being produced as a single entity, packaged together under the same brand. To deride one well-made instalment because its twist resembles that of another screened twelve months earlier, seems churlish.
Four O’Clock, which Hitchcock directed for another anthology series, Suspicion, is yet another typical plot: E.G. Marshall plays a man plotting to blow up his philandering wife with a bomb. But the afternoon of his plan goes awry (shades of Dial M for Murder?) when burglars arrive at the house. If you’ve seen any of the episodes I mentioned in this or the previous post, you’ll get where things are going, but as an individual installment, Four O’Clock is very solid. It’s only when viewed in the context of the series, that you begin to realise how many of the beats are being replayed.
Still, there’s a knowing sense to the series that refutes so many complaints, and perhaps explains how it can remain surprisingly watchable fifty years on. Hitchcock’s droll intros and outros remind us that it’s all a game, allowing him to do sadistic episodes like the second season’s Wet Saturday. It is perhaps the hammiest episode Hitchcock directed, although it was chosen as the second season premiere, so they must’ve liked it enough at the time. Young Millie Princey (Tita Purdom, a queen of overacting) kills her schoolmaster. Her concerned parents (Cedric Hardwicke and Kathryn Givney) find a scapegoat in a family friend (John Williams). Pincey offers him the chance of being killed or going along with their story that he committed the crime. Wet Saturday is a most unusual experience, it’s most like going to see an amateur play. The reason it works is primarily because of the context of a TV anthology series: we’re not taking the plot as seriously as we would in the cinema, and we’re willing to forgive the hammy music because Hitch has warmed us up with his intro. Surprisingly though, the episode seems to end without ending. Instead, the family merely agree to turn on Captain Smollett, and he is arrested. Oddly, the denouement is saved for Hitch’s epilogue (apparently now considered part of the episode proper) in which he explains the fate of the characters, and how they got their comeuppance. It is rather ridiculous and anti-climactic, to be honest.
It was far from alone, but Alfred Hitchcock Presents joined a movement of film-influenced series in the ’60s which challenged conventional approaches to television. For the dramatic series, production design and directorial technique were now increasingly prerequisites. (Compare, even, live-to-tape series from the ’50s with their ’60s counterparts like Doctor Who or Dark Shadows – shows that became increasingly inventive with what you could do in 25 minutes, and how you could do it.) Having an acknowledged master like Hitchcock at the helm can only have emboldened the men and women who ran the series on a daily basis. Even when the series wasn’t creating genius, echoing-down-the-ages television, it was churning out reliable half-hours. And those that flopped often did so because of ambition, which is surely an acceptable cause for defeat.
Finally, there’s Mr. Blanchard’s Secret, a convoluted tale fvocusing on Babs Fenton (Mary Scott). In a plot straight from Rear Window (or, years later, the Hitchcock homage What Lies Beneath), Babs thinks her neighbour Mr Blanchard (Dayton Lummis) killed his wife (Meg Mundy). It’s a slight episode, but the black-and-white cinematography manages to lend an eerie tone to Babs’ suburbia, and her voiceover – a technique that Gen Y children instantly shudder at – ends up being quite effective. The episode’s best scene comes in the middle, when our heroine sneaks into the neighbours’ house, exemplifying the advantages of this single-focus storytelling technique. (Shades of the tight opening half-hour of Psycho.) Admittedly, the third act of Mr. Blanchard’s Secret is a bit of a letdown. I’d hoped that there would be a gripping twist – like, for instance, that Mrs. Blanchard actually killed her husband and got away with it – but this is an episode that wants to warm you up on a chilly evening. It’s lovable, it’s lived in, it’s quirky: a comfortable level of terror. Against all the odds, the Hitchcock quote I opened with seems to apply equally to black comedy as it does to horror. Like The Trouble with Harry, the series could taunt you with the horrors of the real world, but always at one remove. From your cosy living room, one could experience the thrills of a Hitchcock film, and know that the portly man himself would dryly end things after 25 minutes. Perhaps that is the series’ raison d’etre.