“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
½

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).


Notes:
  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.
½

“Mail Order Prophet”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 2 - James Neilson (1957)

“Mail Order Prophet”, the second episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 3, was more conceptual than some of the other thrillers in the series, and so the narrative is largely devoted to working through the idea.  The production is not as smooth as other episodes in this series, with numerous awkward jump cuts marring the visual flow.  But the acting is good and helps compensate.  The show stars veteran character actors Jack Klugman and E. G. Marshall (who was later famous with the 1960s TV courtroom drama The Defenders), and they embody contrasting ways at viewing the world.

The story begins with two menial clerks, Ronald Grimes (E. G. Marshall) and  George Benedict  (Jack Klugman) shown working for an investment in a big desks-in-a-row office.  Grimes and Benedict have desks next to each other, so they use the proximity to complain about their dreary, future-less lives.  They are looking for a way out.  One day Grimes gets a personal letter from a mysterious Mr. Christiani, who makes him a strange offer.

Christiani’s letter says he has gained a mysterious occult power to predict the future, but the higher forces prevent him from profiting from this capability, such as placing wagers on the predicted outcomes.  However, there is nothing to prevent him giving away correct predictions to others and subsequently receiving voluntary contributions (i.e. payments) from his grateful recipients.  So Christiani has given Grimes a predicted outcome of an upcoming boxing match, asked that this information be kept confidential, and suggested that he might receive in turn a voluntary payment in gratitude. 

Christiani’s prediction turns out to be correct, and when Grimes receives follow-up letters from Christiani, he winds up discussing the matter with his friend Benedict.  Right away we see  the contrasting perspectives of Grimes and Benedict.  While Grimes is a gullible dreamer who wants to believe in miracles, Benedict is a hard-boiled skeptic, who assures Grimes that predicting the future with precision is scientifically impossible.  Much of the remaining narrative consists of an ongoing dialogue between these two men.

Grimes starts making wagers on Christiani’s predictions and, in turn, rewarding his mysterious benefactor by sending him payments.  So far, all five of Christiani’s predictions have been correct.  Benedict assures him that it has all been a matter of luck. With the sixth prediction, which concerns a stock-market future.  Grimes, now completely hooked, decides to go whole hog and he embezzles from his own company what would amount today to more than $ 100,000 to make his investment.  He is now putting his whole life on the line.

In the event on the stock-market trading day, Grimes hopes to see his stock shoot up in value, maybe clearing the equivalent of $ 1 million in today’s dollars.  This would save his neck and enable him to escape the drudgery of his current existence.

Benedict still can’t believe it, though, and when later looking for Christiani, he eventually discovers from the police that the man is a known scam artist. In fact it is the operational mechanics of this scam that makes this particular episode interesting.

This is how Christiani operates.  He starts by sending confidential letters to, say, 4,000 recipients (a US postage stamp cost only $ 0.03 in 1957).  To half of them he predicts one side of a future two-sided outcome, and to the other half he predicts the other side.  After the event, he sends letters to the 2,000 winners – to 1,000 of them predicting one side of another upcoming binary contest will win and to the other 1,000 predicting the opposite outcome.  After two rounds, he has 1,000 people who have seen him make two correct predictions.  Continuing in this way, after five such rounds, there would still be a guarantee of 125 people who would have received all correct predictions and believe that Christiani is a seer.  Grimes just happened to be in this privileged group.

I am not sure what would be illegal about such a scam, since Christiani is not coercing his recipients to pay him.  But by the time we get to the sixth round, Christiani would probably receive tens of thousand dollars from his grateful few hundred recipients who believe in his occult powers. This is the kind of thing that could be exploited by religious cult leaders.  By doing so they can potentially develop a fanatic following of believers in the magical powers of their leader, who then reap big financial rewards from those who believe in their occult powers. 

But if you really want to believe in magic, just think how incredible it is that you are a living, conscious being in this world.  To express your gratitude for this miracle, bestow your love on all the other beings that you encounter.
½

“The Glass Eye”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 1 - Robert Stevens (1957)

"The Glass Eye", which was the first episode of Season 3 of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was one of the very best.  It featured two of producer Alfred Hitchcock’s trademarks – suspense and the theme of mistaken identity.  We always expect suspense from “The Master of Suspense”, but on this occasion, our concerned curiosity is heightened by the early introduction of a glass eye and what it may mean to the main character.  In fact the entire story amounts to a suspenseful buildup to the dramatic climax that reveals the meaning of the glass eye.

Although simple in its concept, the 25-minute show features excellent production values from all concerned.  It is based on a story by John Keir Cross and was scripted by Stirling Silliphant, who would soon find even greater fame in connection with two popular television series that he created and for which he wrote most of the scripts – Naked City (1958-63) and Route 66 (1960-64).  This episode’s director, Robert Stevens, won an Emmy Award [1] for this  production. 

And, like many episodes in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the drama is graced by a famous performer, in this case Jessica Tandy.  Ms. Tandy had a long and distinguished career on the stage and screen.  Perhaps her most famous role was her Tony-Award-winning performance as Blanche DuBois in the Broadway stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947).  But modern viewers may remember her more for her performance in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).  In all her appearances, she evinced a level of heartfelt sensitivity that raised the emotive tone of the drama of which she was a part.

The story begins with  Jim and Dorothy Whitely going through the personal belongings that have been left to them by their elderly spinster cousin, Julia (played by Jessica Tandy), who has recently passed away.  When they come across a glass eye that has been kept in a jewel box, Jim (William Shatner, famous for his role in the Star Trek TV series and films) begins explaining to Dorothy what was the special meaning of this glass eye, and the rest of the tale is told in flashback.

Julia was an aging, single woman who worked in an office and lived alone in her apartment.  One of her few social contacts was when her neighbor asked her to look after her young boy when she was busy.  On one occasion she took the boy to see performances at a music hall, and she became enthralled with the comic act of a ventriloquist who would speak to his stuffed dummy.  The ventriloquist, Max Collodi (Tim Conway), is always suave and debonair, while the dummy, George, is cast as an obstreperous, wise-cracking goofy young boy who constantly contradicts his master.
 
Julia, who has presumably never had a romance, begins repeatedly going alone to more performances of Max Collodi, and the more she sees of the man, the more she is enraptured.  When Collodi departs London to perform in other cities, Julia, increasingly in love, follows him in order to attend his shows.  She writes letters to him, which mostly go unanswered, and she begs to get the chance to meet him.  She sends him a picture of herself, but it is not a recent picture – she wants to present a younger and prettier image of herself in order to make a positive impression.

Finally, the demure and reserved Collodi agrees to a meeting, but he will only allow a very brief visit. But Collodi’s evident loneliness and shyness only make him even more appealing to Julia.  She feels that they are a perfect match.

Finally, on the fateful evening of the arranged meeting, Julia arrives at Collodi’s apartment and sees Max seated at a table with George sitting next to him.  What happens next is the dramatic denouement to which all the suspenseful buildup has pointed.  For the benefit of first-time viewers, I will leave it to you to watch it and see what happens.  All I can say is that the mistaken identities and the mystery of the glass eye are revealed – both to Julia and the viewer – in traumatic fashion.  The climax is stunning and makes it all worthwhile.
 

Notes:
  1. Emmy Awards are to television productions what Oscars are to motion pictures – the awards of professional academies for excellence.  In the case of the Emmy Awards, there are several professional television academies that make specific, nonoverlapping awards:
    • the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS), 
    • the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS), and 
    • the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (IATAS).

"Alfred Hitchcock Presents” - Alfred Hitchcock (1955-62)

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most well-known film directors in the 1950s and 60s when he directed a string of what are now classic films.  But his fame and popularity at the time was substantially derived from the weekly half-hour anthology television show that he produced and hosted, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62). More than anything else, it was probably this series that made him popularly known as “The Master of Suspense”.  The show featured top stars from stage and screen playing the dramatic roles, and it won or was nominated for a number of prestigious awards.

Of the hundreds of episodes in the series, Hitchcock directed only seventeen, but the entire series bore the stamp of Hitchcock’s ingenious thematic and presentational style.  And of course each episode was personally introduced by host Hitchcock, himself, right after the signature opening theme music, “Funeral March of a Marionette” (by Charles Gounod).  Hitchcock’s opening remarks were invariably dryly ironic about the events that the viewer was about to see.

Hitchcock would also appear again after each drama ended in order to offer some closing reflections  on what had just happened.  This often included sardonically solemn assurance that any perpetrator of a crime who may have appeared to have “gotten away with it”, was subsequently arrested by the appropriate authorities. Such assurances were presumably a mocking deference to motion picture and broadcast codes that were supposed to uphold moral principles concerning what was presented to a wide audience.  But such remarks also fit in perfectly with Hitchcock’s dry, whimsical persona.

In 1962 the Alfred Hitchcock Presents program was shifted from 25-minute episodes to 50-minute episodes and renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65).  The new series had essentially the same format as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but now with more time to spin out each suspenseful tale.

A key common theme in much of Hitchcock’s work is the notion of mistaken identity.  Sometimes an innocent protagonist is misidentified by the authorities or by threatening agents.  And sometimes the protagonist, him or herself, misidentifies another person who has an entirely different identity than had been first thought.  These misunderstandings always boils down to key questions concerning (1) who we want other to believe us to be, and (2) who we think we are.

Of course many of us often have somewhat different guises in different social situations, and we want to present ourselves in the most favorable way we can in whatever context we find ourselves.  So this, too, can involve some degree of concealment or misrepresentation, and this factor also complicates the narrative of mistaken identity in these stories. Notable examples of this misidentification theme in Hitchcock’s feature films include The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942), Notorious (1946), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959).  And this theme repeatedly appears in the television episodes, too.

Another common element of these stories is the vaguely noirish atmosphere that often creeps in on the protagonist(s) as the story progresses.  Although not usually fully qualifying as film noir, these stories share with that genre the uncomfortable feeling that the world has suddenly become a little more obscure and eerily threatening than had been thought.  This, of course, enhances the irresistible suspense.

Some of my favorite episodes from these series include:
  • “The Glass Eye” (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season Three: Episode 1, 1957), written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by Robert Stevens.
  • "Lamb to the Slaughter" (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season Three: Episode 28, 1958), written by Roald Dahl and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
  • "An Unlocked Window" (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Season Three: Episode 17, 1965), written by James Bridges and directed by Joseph M. Newman
 

Episodes from Alfred Hitchcock Presents (AHP):