27 March 2009

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962)


Viewers who turned their television dials to CBS on the evening of October 2, 1955, were greeted with Charles Gounod's "Funeral March for a Marionette" played against a simple caricature of a rotund man in profile. After a beat or two, a silhouette appeared, a man also in profile, walking toward the drawing until becoming aligned with it. The silhouette lingered, Gounod's music twiddling away with the silhouette, forever linking the two. Then:

Good evening, I am Alfred Hitchcock. Tonight I'm presenting the first in a series of stories of suspense and mystery called, oddly enough, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I shall not act in these stories, but will only make appearances, something in the nature of an accessory before and after the fact, to give the title to those of you who can't read and to tidy up afterwards for those who don't understand the endings.
And so began the director's foray into television, a medium which, in his words, "brought back murder into the home – where it belongs."

The 1950s are generally remembered as docile years — picket fences and two-and-a-half kids and gin-and-tonics served under the sunny and grandfatherly smile of Dwight Eisenhower. When we think of 1950s television we tend to think of wholesomeness, sitcom fare like Leave It To Beaver. But lingering right underneath that serene illusion of the decade are darker elements, witch-hunts and duck-and-cover exercises done in the fear of nuclear annihilation. The darkness of the decade, or at least its moral ambivalence, is embodied wonderfully by Alfred Hitchcock Presents, one of the most sinister shows to run on network television. And that's all the more surprising when you consider that it debuted a full two years before Leave It To Beaver.

Lew Wasserman, a personal friend of Hitchcock as well as his agent, is credited with the idea of putting Hitchcock on television. And why not? It would be a clear opportunity for Hitchcock to cash in on the name he had spent years connecting with mystery and suspense. The director tried to launch a national radio series during the 1940s but never had much luck, and television was the new mass-media machine of the 1950s. Hitchcock was well known and generally liked (artistic respect, we now know, would have to wait a few years, and it would require this television show to reach the masses completely). Shrinking his popular aesthetic in scope and length to easily digestible episodes on home televisions seemed to have success written all over it. His contract was financially pleasing, and the rights to the episodes would revert to him after they ran.

Hitchcock's bank account benefited wildly from his television show, and he became more popular than ever, reaching a wider audience than merely his films, and for once, he was part of the show, not just a mind behind a lens. But what is not given much credit is how seriously Hitchcock took the television project. He was a savvy marketer — often heading up the publicity projects for his own films — and could have simply lent his name and image to the series, turned over the reins to any random person, and let the money come in. But no doubt part of the show's tremendous success comes from the fact that Hitchcock also lent his mind.

The first four seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents total 268 episodes, each thirty minutes. The final three seasons, totaling 93 episodes, were expanded to sixty-minutes and the program was retitled The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It would be disingenuous of me to say I've seen all of the episodes; but I have seen many, enough to discuss the show at large, including the eighteen total directed by Hitchcock. This essay, an installment in my retrospective on the director, will primarily be about those episodes and the show's historical effect and reach.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents is another argument in the ongoing case that Hitchcock — the man and the mind — was like a lightning bolt, the likes of which we may never see again. Biographer Patrick McGilligan says the television series was "an enterprise that might have consumed a full year's attention for a man less well organized, less brimming with ideas and energy." The 1950s were Hitchcock's prime film-making years, and he had a similar drive in launching the show. Less than six months after the idea for the show was hatched, it premiered. Varying accounts exist of how intensely Hitchcock was involved in the show; obviously we know he wasn't ghost-directing in his free time, or participating in extensive re-writes or re-edits as he did with his films, but the extent to which he participated in the show's development was often undersold, primarily by Hitchcock himself, who preferred to defer credit to his long-time assistant Joan Harrison. (This was characteristic of the man whose films hardly bore his name as a contributing writer.)

Harrison produced more than 250 episodes of Presents, and without question was the chief ringleader behind the scenes. But with Hitchcock's name attached, he also put in grueling hours to make sure it reached success, particularly during the first two seasons. McGilligan notes that the director was involved in story and personnel choices and served as a liaison between the show and the network. As the series continued past the first two seasons, he delegated more authority and responsibility, but through to the end he was still working weekends to approve stories and writers and screening final episodes for any post-production suggestions. "A television show, like a souffle, reflects the taste of the person who selects and mixes the ingredients," Hitchcock once said. "It matters a great deal, for example, whether onions or garlic are used and when arsenic is added."

The television show gave Hitchcock, who had a penchant for short fiction, an outlet for hundreds of story ideas that couldn't be adapted into films. He preferred the simple, single-engine driven plot that keeps a short story pushing forward, and relished the twists that often came at the end. If stretched too far and unsupported with more details, Hitchcock believed short fiction could become tedious for a two-hour film; not so with thirty minutes. Since the launch of his directing career, he had been collecting favorite tales and stories. Much of what appears on Alfred Hitchcock Presents came from published works — the likes of H.G. Wells, A.A. Milne, Rebecca West, Julian Symons, V.S. Pritchett, Eric Ambler, John Moritmor, Roald Dahl, Stanley Ellin, Belloc Lowndes, Ray Bradbury, and Cornell Woolrich. Even with films, the director preferred the published world to the original world; adapting a published work required less story development, thus allowing the director to focus more exclusively on the cinematic rendering of the material. The show also gave opportunities to emerging and established directors, like Robert Stevenson, Ida Lupino, Robert Altman, George Stevens Jr., William Friedkin, and Robert Stevens.

At the end of the show's first season, the New York Herald Tribute wrote that "the best thing about Alfred Hitchcock Presents is Alfred Hitchcock presenting," a sentiment which I think holds up nicely even today. It's a remarkable feat that, as he was in the midst of directing his masterpieces, Hitchcock appears in every single episode of the series as its host. We hear stories of the director as a jokester and huckster on the sets of his films, and his films are often morbidly funny, but if you want to see Hitchcock pushing the boundaries of humor, you needn't look any further than any random episode of Presents. His droll wit, often self-inflicted and regularly cruel toward his network and his advertisers ("Crime does not pay, not even on television — you must have a sponsor," is one of his best lines), is utilized to great success. An actor he is not, but a performer — ah, yes, he is a performer. The man who fed him his words was James Allardice, a former journalist, television writer and playwright, who ghost-wrote most of Hitchcock's lines during the openings and conclusions of the show. It was a fruitful and productive relationship; Hitchcock loved a particular anecdote about a high school play Allardice wrote, in which an electric chair set under a sign that read: "You can be sure if it's a Westinghouse." (Not too difficult to understand why they got along so swimmingly.)

What of the show itself? It is great fun, with episodes often coming across like pressurized Hitchcock films. The hand of the director can be sensed behind nearly every aspect of the series, and the themes and motifs that recur throughout the show are Hitchcockian to the nth degree: murder, suspicion, betrayal, guilt, voyeurism, doppelgangers, crime. The plots are curved and twisted; although Presents predates The Twilight Zone by four years, the two are often connected simply by the skewed angle on humanity and the frequent moralistic twist endings. Presents is hardly political and rarely as fantastical, but no doubt it was a great inspiration for Rod Serling, whose show would also run on CBS. Hitchcock himself introduced to the show's attitude in the first episode as "striv[ing] to teach a lesson or point a little moral, advice like mother used to give – you know, walk softly but carry a big stick, strike first and ask questions later, that sort of thing."

The pilot episode, called "Revenge," has the Hitchcock sensibility in the plot and construction. A woman (Vera Miles, who's ravishing in an over-large white button-up draped across her swimsuit-clad boy) has suffered a mental breakdown and her protective husband moves her to a trailer park adjacent to the California coast. When she claims to have been attacked in their home, he seeks revenge, attacking the man she identifies as her assailant. All is well until she ... identifies another man as her assailant. The episode is a stylish debut, with close-ups and selected lighting, the camera positioned at oblique angles, and a great murder scene partially obscured and partially reflected in a mirror.

The rest of the first season's episodes (of which Hitchcock directed four) play out the same way. One Hitchcock-directed episode, "Back for Christmas," has a murderous husband undone by his wife's kindness. Joseph Cotton appears in the episode "Breakdown," a heavily stylistic episode where a man experiences a car crash and is completely paralyzed except for his single little finger. The story relies on many point-of-view shots — a rarity in television — and a haunting internal monologue to achieve an eerie feeling of inescapability and doom. But the crème de la crème of Hitchcock's work in the first season has to be "The Case of Mr. Pelham," which actually is the sort of thing Serling could have worked into The Twilight Zone. Starring Tom Ewell, the "case" is actually of doppelgangers. Pelham is an aloof and distant man of wealth who grows anxious and paranoid as he begins to suspect someone is impersonating him, not merely at certain moments of importance but in the mundane moments in life.

Throughout the series, Hitchcock ran afoul with the ambiguity of the episode endings — namely whether characters who committed crimes were receiving proper punishment for their deeds. Untethered with the Production Code, Hitchcock was still stuck with nervous advertisers that didn't want to run commercials along successful murders. Where an early episode like "Revenge," the series pilot, would directly imply punishment for the characters in the stageplay, later episodes had to state explicitly what was coming. In "One More Mile To Go," a country man who murders his wife is antagonized by a police officer on a motorcycle who is determined to have the man fix a broken taillight. Normally it'd be as easy as popping open the trunk — except, of course, the dead wife's body is in the trunk. "One More Mile To Go," a Hitchcock-directed gem from the second season, pushes boundaries; after the man murders his wife, he cleans off the weapon and burns a blood-stained handkerchief and decides how he's going to load the body into the car, all while the orchestra swells and sighs with music of unbridled romance. In the end, as the officer escorts the man to the police station where the resident mechanic "will have that trunk open in no time," Hitchcock zooms the camera in on the broken taillight, oval-shaped and flashing on and off to look like a blinking eye. And there the episode ends: a vague impression that the man is caught, but he's alone on a country road and already murdered once, so who knows?

In many instances, the story within the episode would literally take away all possibility of punishment and let the perpetrators get away with the crimes. Hitchcock, as you might expect, would need to toss something onto the ending, but would deflate the safety of punishment with bad jokes. In "The Perfect Crime," from the show's third season (tied with the first season as the best), Charles Courtney (played by Vincent Price) gets away with murdering a lawyer named John Gregory (James Gregory) and using the remains to make a vase out of "special clay." Except, as Hitchcock explains in self-consciously pathetic narration:
I regret to inform you that Courtney did not retain his last trophy very long. He was caught. A charwoman knocked over the precious vase breaking it into pieces, a few of them identifiable as, uh, bits of Mr. Gregory. You see, the gold fillings in his teeth had resisted the heat of the kiln. But all the good doctors and all the good police couldn't put Mr. Gregory together again.

He might as well be rolling his eyes, and by the time we arrive at the lame pun, Hitchcock understands no one except the advertisers really care. The same sense of safety in the ending is elusive in what might be the show's most famous episode, "Lamb to the Slaughter," directed by Hitchcock and adapted from a Roald Dahl short story where a pregnant woman (Barbara Bel Geddes), upon hearing the news that her husband is leaving her, kills him with a frozen leg of lamb. If it's not the best example of the show, it's certainly among the most perverse. The woman deceives the police from start to finish, and even though the lead detective essentially solves the mystery, he can't pinpoint the murder weapon. "For all we know it could be right under our noses," he says as he and his crew sit down to dinner — a perfectly cooked leg of lamb, as a matter of fact. The ending here, with the woman cackling at her masterwork, is blunted by criticism with another Hitchcock tacked-on anecdote: "she would have gone scot-free if she hadn't tried to do in her second-husband in the exact same way." It's a wonder anyone who had trouble with the on-screen murder ever found that excuse satisfying.

These are only a few of the hundreds of episodes in a series that is quite worth your time, and, as the cliche goes, still better than most of the stuff on television right now. As I said above, the first and third seasons are probably the show's strongest — the strongest episodes directed by Hitchcock and the strongest episodes not directed Hitchcock, which still carry the hallmarks of the director. The series is a curious and rewarding departure from his longer, more nuanced cinematic artwork, but because he never let the show venture too far away from his watchful eyes and ever-spinning mind, you know it has the quality the Hitchcock name is known for.

7 comments:

Sam Juliano,  28 March, 2009  

This is a seminal television show for sure, and several episodes, like "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "Banquo's Chair" are classics of their kind (nice you mentioned that Dahl wrote it, as that Norwegian-Englishman is my favorite children's author for his satire and black humor. I often assign his books in class) Still, I have never forgiven Hitchcock (at least in this sense; his film directing is at or near the top) for his abominable actions that caused the cancellation of the gothic and ghoulish horror show "Boris Karloff's THRILLER" in 1961, as a result of Hitch not wanting any competition for his show, and a realization that THRILLER was as Stephen King rightly asserts, "the best show of its kind ever aired on network television." Indeed, as not a single epsode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (albeit AHP has it's own singular style) can match the likes of THRILLER'S best shows: "Pigeons From Hell," "The Cheaters," "The Weird Tailor," "The Hungry Glass," "The Grim Reaper,"Waxworks," "Well of Doom," "The Devil's Ticket," and perhaps the most horrifying single episode of any show ever aired on television (one directed by Robert Florey) titles "The Incredible Doktor Markeson" which offers one of Karloff's greatest performances in any genre, even in a league with his celebrated THE BODY SNATCHER. Hitchcock threatened NBC with withdrawal of his own show unless they canceleld THRILLER, which they reluctantly did despite the very good ratings Karloff's show had at the time. The entire lamentable affair is documented in the superb treatment of th eshow, entitled THIS IS A THRILLER by Alan Warren.
I am a THRILLER junkie since I was a child and am always searching for better prints of teh show, but I also love AHP, and it was wonderful reading through your exceptional and passionate historical examination here.

T.S. 28 March, 2009  

Sam, perhaps it's just my sheltered television existence (I'm not that much into the box and am now deriving most of my TV entertainment from broadcast channel websites and Hulu, among others), but I honestly had never heard of Boris Karloff's Thriller until this very moment. I've looked into it on IMDB, and judging by your comments and the comments there, this show has quite a passionate following. I'm a sucker for television clunkers (or shows too smart to find an audience), so you've just directed me toward my next interest. Thanks, sir.

MovieMan0283 29 March, 2009  

I think I've seen the whole first season (or maybe it was just a "highlights" disc) and I noticed that, as with Twin Peaks, the series is markedly better when the creator/auteur is behind the camera. Hitchs's intros and closings really are the best part of the show, though.

I hadn't seen that chicken leg episode, but I'd seen clips and heard about it. Oddly enough, I was always under the impression that the police couldn't find the body and that the wife cooked the husband up and fed him to them...now THAT would have been a macabre twist...

FilmDr 29 March, 2009  

I liked the way "Lamb to the Slaughter" had evocative pictures on the wall just like a cut-rate scene in Psycho, and didn't Hitchcock use his TV crew to shoot Psycho anyway?

the editor., 30 March, 2009  

Hi! T.S.,
T.S. said,"Viewers who turned their television dials to CBS on the evening of October 2, 1955, were greeted with Charles Gounod's "Funeral March for a Marionette" played against a simple caricature of a rotund man..."

T.S., Unfortunately for me, I wasn't born yet, but fortunately,
I'am lucky enough to own Alfred Hitchcock Presents on DVDs.
(Btw, The infamous Lamb to the Slaughter (04/13/58) Starring Barbara Bel Geddes/Harold J. Stone
is on the 3rd Season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.)And I think a Season 4 is coming soon!...due to the popularity of Season(s) 1,2,and 3.

Dcd ;-D

Farzan 01 April, 2009  

I enjoyed the show and thought the stories were really interesting and satisfying.

Daniel Getahun 06 April, 2009  

Fascinating recap - and great timing. Someone had just asked me a couple of days ago about this show, and I only had a vague notion that it existed. Excellent essay, and gets me excited for the Hitchcock retrospective we're having here in a couple of weeks.

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