“The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” - Alfred Hitchcock (1962-65)

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65) was a weekly anthology television show that was a follow-on to the similar anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957-62).  For both shows Alfred Hitchcock was the producer and host for the suspenseful dramas presented.  The primary difference between them was that the previous 25-minute format was extended to 50 minutes for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. This provided more time to develop the dramatic tension that pervaded these episodes.

As host for this series, Hitchcock continued his practice of introducing each episode with his characteristic dry wit (which was not always suited to all tastes) that introduced an element of lightheartedness just prior to what would usually be the tense, suspenseful atmosphere of the narrative.  Similarly his lightly dismissive remarks after the close of each episode served to pull the viewer back from the often disturbing circumstances of the just-finished drama and return him or her to our more mundane world.

As with the stories on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the episodes on this series continued to feature two characteristic Hitchcockian elements:
  • the misidentification of a key personage in the narrative that is at the heart of the suspense and
  • an unexpected twist in the tale at the close of the narrative that provides a dramatic surprise.
Some of my favorite episodes from this series include:
  • "An Unlocked Window" (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Season Three: Episode 17, 1965), written by James Bridges and directed by Joseph M. Newman

Episodes from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (TAHH):
  • "Return of Verge Likens", TAHH, Season Three: Ep. 1 - Arnold Laven (1964)

“Silent Witness”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 5 - Paul Henreid (1957)

“Silent Witness,  an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 3 (1957), is a study of guilt and self-recrimination.  The entire half-hour is entirely focalized on a man who agonizes over his sins and fears the awful consequences that are sure to come.  Based on a story by Jeanne  Barry and scripted by Robert Dennis, the episode was directed by Paul Henreid.  Henreid directed a number of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, but he is probably most remembered for playing the role of Ingrid Bergman’s husband in Casablanca (1942).

The two young leads in the cast, Don Taylor and Delores Hart, were at turning points in their careers.  Taylor, a well-known actor, would soon turn to directing and would go on to direct a number of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes.  Hart was only 19 at the time and just starting out, but her promising career as a movie star was soon cut short when she retired from acting to become a Roman Catholic nun at the age of 24. 

The story begins showing college professor Donald Mason (played by Don Taylor) trying to conceal the romantic affair he has been having with his student Claudia (Delores Hart).  In fact Mason wants to end their affair before a scandal breaks out that would end his marriage and cost him his job.

But Claudia refuses to listen to any idea of a breakup and, knowing that Mason’s wife will be going to her gym class that evening, insists that they meet for a tryst “as usual” that very night. She arranges to babysit for Mason’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Davidson, and calls up Mason to come on over.  When Mason shows up, he again insists that they should terminate their relationship; but Claudia refuses and threatens to ruin him if he doesn’t divorce his wife and marry her.  In a momentary and impulsive rage, Mason strangles her and then departs.

With the focalization exclusively on Mason, we only see things from his increasingly fearful and claustrophobic perspective. An investigating policeman amiably visits Mason in connection with the murder and asks him if he knows anything.  He says the police don’t have much to go on and that the only witness was the 14-month-old baby that was in its cradle in the same room at the time of the murder.  He tells Mason that perhaps when the baby begins talking (it only babbles now), it may be able to relate to others what it saw.  Mason scowls in alarm to hear this.

The idea of the baby being able to articulate what it saw is, to me, totally implausible.  But that idea does take hold of Mason’s angst-ridden mind and becomes an obsession.  As the weeks pass he occasionally snoops around his neighbor’s baby and is alarmed to observe that whenever the baby sees him it begins bawling loudly.  Eventually, the baby begins saying its first words, but at this point they are only “da-da”.  Mason is horrified.  Is it all just a matter of time before the silent witness reveals his crime?

The viewer might begin to wonder if Mason is going to do something to silence the baby.  But this is not what happens. Mason is not diabolical; he is basically an ordinary person with human weaknesses, and we can partially empathize with him. If Mason were shown to be a monster, we would lose our empathetic viewpoint in this story.  What happened was that in a moment of weakness, he did something horrible and now fears the consequences.  Anyway, you can guess how it all ends.

The strength, such as it is, of this episode is the heightened sense of anxiety that is conveyed by Don Taylor’s silent, worried expressions and the associated camera work that emphasizes his alarm.  To some extent we could say that the entire episode is just a one-note reverie in guilt and self-induced terror.

“Heart of Gold”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 4 - Robert Stevens (1957)

“Heart of Gold”, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 3 (1957), maintains an interesting narrative tension throughout its 25-minute runtime.  This is due in part to this episode’s neat encapsulation of film noir aesthetics.  It is based on a story by Henry Slesar, and this was the first work Hitchcock adapted from Slesar, whose stories would later be the basis for dozens of Hitchcock TV show episodes.  Slesar’s tale was scripted by James Cavanagh and directed by Robert Stevens.

As I have noted elsewhere [1], film noir involves three linked themes:
  • Fatalism. Most of the characters have pasts they would like to forget and little hope for the future.  The protagonist is just looking for escape and a safe refuge.
  • Truth. The world is dark and obscure.  People, whether police or outlaws, invariably misrepresent themselves and the circumstances.
  • Loyalty. Noone can be trusted, and there is a desperate search for someone to trust and remain loyal to.
Because such stories are dark and gothic, they require emphatic acting performances that suggest both elusiveness and threats.  And this is exactly what we get from the characters in “Heart of Gold”: Mildred Dunnock (famous for her 1949 stage role in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), Darryl Hickman, and Nehemiah Persoff.  The expressionistic atmosphere is also enhanced by the camera compositions, some of them in the form of high- and low-angle shots on the stairways.

The story begins with Jackie Blake (Darryl Hickman), who has just been released from prison on parole, going to visit the mother, Martha Collins (Mildred Dunnock), of his still-in-prison former cellmate to assure her that her son is alright.  He is first greeted by her scornful and abusively importuning other son, Ralph (Nehemiah Persoff); but Mrs. Collins turns out to be warn and receptive.  In fact she urges Jackie to stay with her and board in her imprisoned son’s empty room.

Jackie accepts, but he is suspicious of everyone and always feeling under threat, particularly from the slimy Ralph.  The problem is Jackie was imprisoned for a failed bank robbery, for which he was the wheelman.  Although all the thieves were caught, the stolen $150,000 was never recovered, and both gangsters and police think that Jackie knows the money’s whereabouts.  Jackie swears he knows nothing about the money, and in fact his involvement in the caper was so minimal that he didn’t even know he was taking part in a bank robbery.

Eventually a pair of thugs, demanding the helpless Jackie tell them where the money is, beat him up to within an inch of his life.  Although we assume these thugs are gangsters associated with the original bank robbery, it turns out they were hired by Jackie’s professed “friend”, Ralph. 

It’s not as though Jackie is an angel, though.  We see him in various shots tempted to steal money from his new employer at an automobile garage and from his new landlady.  He is looking out for himself, but gradually he feels that there is, finally, someone he can trust – the woman with a heart of gold, Mrs. Collins.

In a final confrontation, Jackie is physically attacked by Ralph; and when he holds a hastily grabbed knife in self-defense, Ralph is accidentally killed when he lunges at Jackie and engorges himself on the knife.  Jackie, sobbing, tells Martha it was all an accident and begs her to accept him as another son.  He swears total filial devotion to her.  It is then that she tells him the bitter truth.  She is not the person she had seemed to be.

Besides the film noir theme to this story, there is another characteristic Hitchcockian narrative theme present. This is more connected with horror stories and involves the idea of a protagonist, who has been desperately fleeing a descent into Hell, finally discovering that the safe refuge he (or she) had thought he had found turns out to be in fact the very Hell he had been fleeing. This is the theme of Sartre’s No Exit (1944), and it appears also in Hitchcock productions, notably in "An Unlocked Window" (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Season Three: Episode 17, 1965).

  1. The Film Sufi, “‘Le Doulos’ - Jean-Pierre Melville (1962)”, The Film Sufi, (27 February 2009).   

“The Perfect Crime”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 3 - Alfred Hitchcock (1957)

“The Perfect Crime” was one of the relatively few episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Hitchcock, himself, and its dramatic polish reflects the craftsmanship of “The Master”. Based on a story by Ben Ray Redman and scripted by Stirling Silliphant (who also wrote the teleplay for the earlier “The Glass Eye” episode), the episode, like many others of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, featured some well-known character actors, in this case Vincent Price and James Gregory.  The choice of Vincent Price for this story was particularly apt, since the character he plays is an intellectually snobbish supersleuth and connoisseur of the arts.  Price, whose long career dated back to the early days of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater, was himself a Yale graduate and art connoisseur.

The story first introduces us to Charles Courtney (played by Vincent Price), who takes great pride in his work as a detective and prosecuting attorney, which invariably ends in success.  He is visited one evening by John Gregory (James Gregory), a defense attorney who has lost in court to Courtney on many occasions, including a recent case that resulted in Gregory’s client’s execution.  Courtney begins discussing his work and show Gregory his showcase of ornamental artifacts referring to the damning evidence he found in connection with his cases that condemned his accused.  He has one empty position in the case that is reserved for what he thinks is impossible: the perfect crime. There is always some corpus delicti, he claims, that can be found that will lead to the conviction of the accused.  We also learn that Courtney makes artistic pottery and even has his own kiln at home for baking the pottery clay.

But Gregory wants to discuss the recent case involving his client, which he says resulted in an erroneous conviction and execution.  Courtney, of course, disdainfully says that it is impossible that a mistake could have been made.  Undaunted, Gregory tells Courtney that he is cold-hearted and self-obsessed; and then he begins to go over the evidence concerning the case.  Gradually, he shows how Courtney missed some clues and misinterpreted some other evidence.  Eventually, he convinces Courtney that a terrible mistake really was made, and then he threatens to reveal this information if Courtney doesn’t change his attitude.  Courtney’s response is almost immediate: he chokes Gregory to death.

The action now shifts forward two years, and Courtney has just returned from a two-year trip abroad and is jovially showing some guests his trophy showcase of artifacts associated with his successful prosecutions.  In the place that had been reserved for the perfect crime is now a large clay pot.
Viewers of this episode may be reminded of Roald Dahl’s famous story, “Lamb to the Slaughter”, which served as the basis of a later Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode of the same name that same year.  In both cases the corpus delicti was right there in front of everyone, but in a different form.  The key dramatic element in “The Perfect Crime”, though, that distinguishes this episode is the fascinating face-off between the contrasting, emphatic personalities of Vincent Price and James Gregory.