I don’t remember exactly when Jamie and I stumbled onto Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was definitely while we lived in Venice Beach, in our tiny one bedroom within earshot of the waves. We didn’t have a dining room, so our evening meals were spent in the living room in front of the television, on the Couch of Irresistable Drowsiness. And I think it was during our short-lived time with Comcast cable – before the Media Gods determined that Time Warner was more deserving of our market and dollars. Comcast had started offering its On Demand content. And there were (and maybe still are) some very unexpected and interesting choices, like the Something Weird catalog, and stuff like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
I had loved and admired Hitchcock since I took a film class dedicated to his work while attending Spanish-moss-draped Jacksonville University. One of my favorite classes ever, I devoured scenes from his varied works – from the first, a black and white version of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, to his rather kooky final film, The Family Plot in 1976. It was fascinating to study his methods and styles that influenced many a filmmaker – from his signature move of starting a shot from far away and then moving in, slowly, until you finally focus on a revealing detail – to his fixation on cool, beautiful, unattainable blondes like Kim Novak (Vertigo) and Grace Kelly (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch A Thief). He was of course well known for terrifying viewers with extreme efficiency in Psycho and The Birds (and I still to this day do a double take whenever I see a huge flock of birds hanging out quietly in one place…looking at me). But his films were also often infused with gorgeous glamorous style and a surprising amount of humor.
But during that class, I don’t remember hearing about the huge amount of work he did for television. So when Jamie and I stumbled upon the title Alfred Hitchcock Presents on the Comcast menu, we dove in immediately. And to be clear, these were shows that Hitchcock produced – he only directed a small handful. But the quality for each and every show was outstanding.
You know those old, old black and white cartoons from the 30s and 40s? Especially by Max Fleischer (who did Betty Boop and Popeye among others)? Remember how much detail and sheer artistic work went into every single background and character? They blow me away with the obvious amount of effort and care that went into each frame before styles and economies changed enough to demand less detailed work that was faster and cheaper to produce.
These Alfred Hitchcock episodes have the same amazing level of detail and craft and artistry. From 1955 to 1965, Hitchcock hosted and produced this series and every single episode showcases excellent writing, great casts and a unique and jaw-dropping ending virtually every time. There was a spectrum of suspense – on one end you had some feel-good funny fluff and on the other, absolutely terrifying psychological twistedness. And Hitchock introduced every episode personally with scathing wit, slowly delivered in his unique, droll voice. The best part of his hosting was his regular skewering of the always-anonymous and meddling “Sponsor”. I don’t think television shows today would even be allowed to say half the things Hitchcock said to show his utter loathing for the interruption caused by commercials (and mo’ is the pity).
Other contributions of the television series were the introduction of the classic Hitchcock caricature (which he actually drew himself) and the use of the cute but creepy theme song Funeral March of a Marionette. Although his opening monologues poked fun at some topical story of the day or skewered his Sponsor, the closing of most episodes almost always reassured the viewer – if the criminals were not punished in the course of the show – that the perpetrators were always apprehended in the end.
And, much like The Twilight Zone, this series was also the spawning ground – or new platform – for many a fine actor of the day, including: Charles Bronson, Bette Davis, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall, Christopher Lee, Sydney Pollack, Dean Stockwell, Steve McQueen, Dick Van Dyke, Cloris Leachman and SO many more.
The series actually changed from half an hour – from 1955 to 1962 – to an hour format (with the illuminating change of title to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). Both are excellent but it still amazes me how well the half hour stories play. And they came up with stellar stories 30 – 40 times a season! Sheer heavenly bliss for mystery and thriller nerds everywhere.
Here are some of my favorites (though I haven’t quite seen them all yet – which I hope to remedy soon!) I heartily encourage you to scrounge these up on Netflix, HULU or whatever outlet you can find. I just wish mainstream television today was nearly as interesting or actually scary (or well written!)
Into Thin Air – Set in Paris in 1899, this episode is about a vanishing lady – in a nod, of course, to one of Hitchcock’s famous oldies, The Lady Vanishes. In this case, the lady in question is the mother of sweet Diane Winthrop (played by Hitchcock’s own daughter, Pat Hitchcock), who suddenly falls ill. After the doctor sends Diane out for medicine, she comes back to find absolutely no trace of her mother nor anyone who acknowledges ever having seen her.
You Got to Have Luck – In the early days of John Cassavettes as actor. He’s broken out of prison and into an isolated farm house, where he scares the lady of the house into helping him. But things just don’t happen the way you expect.
Back For Christmas – One of the few directed by Hitchcock himself. Herbert and Hermione plan to go on a trip but tell their friends they’ll be “back for Christmas.” Well, except for Hermione. But don’t worry – that’s not the big surprise of the episode. And I’m realizing how terribly difficult it is to discuss these shows without giving away too much. But believe me, there’s way more to this one.
The Glass Eye – With Jessica Tandy and William Shatner. There’s a ventriloquist’s dummy involved and that alone is creep-worthy enough for me to stop before I get creeped out even more thinking about it.
Lamb to the Slaughter – Ooooh, this is a goody. Sweet housewife is pushed too far by philandering husband and doesn’t live to regret it (again, that’s not even half the story). Written by Roald Dahl (Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach) and starring Barbara Bel Geddes (if you’ve seen many black and white movies, you’ll recognize her, and she’s goooood).
Man With A Problem – A wicked twist to the old cliche of a man standing on the ledge of a building threatening to jump. With Elizabeth Montgomery!
Breakdown – Eeeeek, seriously chilling considering how little “action” there actually is! Joseph Cotton plays a cruel businessman who experiences the most terrifying case of karma I can imagine. His performance is incredible and this one will keep your eyes wide and unblinking for the full 25 minutes (at least it did to me and I had to throw out my contacts after watching this!)
The Belfry – Oh my god, oh my god – I’m shivering right now just thinking about this. This is the one episode I won’t see again – I don’t even know if other people would feel that way but there’s something about this tale of a twisted young man who kills the woman he loves that just icks me the heck out. View at your own risk!
And a few from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour:
Diagnosis: Danger – This one is a humdinger directed by Sydney Pollack. It’s about a good-natured doctor who must turn detective to track down the origins of a mysterious outbreak of anthrax.
The Cadaver – A medical student plays a prank on his medical student roommate with disastrous results.
Mr. Blanchard’s Secret – This is one of the more lighthearted ones starring a female mystery novelist with a hyperactive imagination and new neighbors.
And folks, this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. There’s literally hundreds of great picks and you’ll realize what a great thing mainstream television writing used to be.
Hitchock’s twisted humor, scathing intellect and penchant for pushing the boundaries of his genre is fantastic – but if you’re a bit sensitive, do yourself a favor and do NOT watch the entire series in a row, night after night after night. Cause it’ll do a number on your dreams, belief in the goodness of Man and general twitchiness for a while!