“Change of Address”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep. 2 - David Friedkin (1964)

“Change of Address” (1964) was an episode (Season 3, Episode 2) of the popular TV anthology series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65).  This episode was directed by David Friedkin and scripted by Friedkin and Morton Fine based on an Andrew Benedict story. Interestingly, the musical score was provided by Bernard Herrmann.  As usual, it featured performances by major screen figures in the lead roles. And of course also as usual, it bore the famous Hitchcock earmarks of a suspenseful tale with a twist at the end.

The story concerns a middle-aged couple, Keith (played by Arthur Kennedy) and Elsa (Phyllis Thaxter) Hollands, who have just leased a beach house in fashionable Malibu, California.  The couple seem to have independent means, so this appears to be a lifestyle move, and their anticipations concerning those prospects are decidedly mixed.  Keith, seeking to recapture his fading youth, sees the home as providing an opportunity for adventure and new socializing with the trendy crowds that frequent the beach.  But Elsa, longing for the tranquility of their old homestead, hates the new setting.  When she looks out from their new apartment over the vast wavy ocean, she sees only wild turbulence and loneliness.  She also tells her husband that she thinks there is something eerily wrong with the new house and urges an immediate return to Philadelphia and stability. 

It soon becomes evident to the viewer that the Hollands’ marriage is teetering.  Keith has a roving eye, and his gestures of affection towards his wife are grandiose but phony.  In fact the more we see of Keith, the more evident it is that he is a complete egotist and has concern only for himself and his standing among pretty young women.  Elsa quietly senses this absence of affection from her husband, and she cannot conceal her growing unhappiness.

As an expression of his treasured sense of manliness, Keith fancies himself as a handyman, and he soon begins digging a deep hole in the cellar in an effort to improve drainage in the house in order to reduce the prevailing feeling of dampness.  Any viewer familiar with Hitchcock’s macabre tales can’t help wondering what other use this hole might soon be put to.

Meanwhile Elsa is embroiled in efforts to find a way to break their lease so that they can move out of the odious (to her) house.  She learns that the owners from whom they are leasing the house, the Wilsons, used to live in it, but Mrs. Wilson left her husband, and Mr. Wilson then moved away to Seattle.  Elsa wants to get in touch with the Wilsons, particularly with Mrs. Wilson, in order to learn more about the history of the house and perhaps about possible things wrong with it.

While she is doing this, Keith is busy cultivating a budding amorous relationship with a pretty girl (Tisha Sterling) he finds on the beach, who seems susceptible to Keith’s pseudo-manly boastfulness.

Things don’t look setup for a happy ending, and indeed what turns out doesn’t work out for anyone.  The twist at the end is interesting, but it is something I anticipated early on, and you will probably do the same.  Indeed the closing twist could have been better presented, and too much time is spent on Keith’s obnoxious, self-centered preening. Arthur Kennedy’s performance in this regard is energetic but lacks subtlety.  More nuanced and human is the performance of Phyllis Thaxter as Elsa.  Her worried and concernful visage is what sustains our sympathies throughout most of this tale.

Iulian Mihu

Films of Iulian Mihu:

"Felix si Otilia” - Iulian Mihu (1972)

Felix si Otilia (Felix and Otilia,1972) is a Romanian romantic drama directed by Iulian Mihu and based on the novel Enigma Otiliei (Otilia's Riddle, 1938) by the famous Romanian writer and literary scholar George Calinescu. Some reviewers have complained that Mihu’s film production strayed too far from Calinescu’s original material and, in particular, lost track of some of the alleged social themes covered in the novel.  Not having read Calinescu’s novel, I cannot comment on that issue, but I can say that the film, as it stands on its own, is a bizarre and haunting masterpiece.  It deserves more exposure on the wider world stage.

What Mihu has done is present the viewer with a broad, expressionistic tapestry concerning love  and its various manifestations within the mad swirl in which we struggle to find our places.  In particular, within the scope of all the ways love is supposedly sought for and expressed, there is a focus in this tale on the elusiveness of true love.

The story of the film is set mostly in a wealthy landed estate in Bucharest, sometime in the early years of the 20th century.  Felix Sima (played by Radu Boruzescu) is a young student who has come to Bucharest to study medicine and intends to stay at the estate of his wealthy but eccentric uncle, Costache Giurgiuveanu (Herman Chrodower).  The only person he knows in Costache’s extended household is his cousin Otilia Marculescu (Julieta Szönyi), who is Costache’s stepdaughter and who was Felix’s playmate many years ago when they were children.

Early on there is established two parallel and what seem to be rather separate narrative threads:
  1. The Greedy Family Quest for Costache’s Money.  
    Costache Giurgiuveanu is a crotchety and self-centered old man approaching senility.  His younger relatives living with him at his large estate are all equally self-centered in their various ways.  Since none of them seem capable of making their own way, they are concerned about how they can secure a large portion of Costache’s money after the old man dies (which event appears to be imminent).  To make things more difficult for them, Costache is selling off various elements of the family estate and hiding the cash from everyone. So when Costache dies, it is feared that a large portion of the estate will be lost to the relatives. Some of these relatives are:
    • Aglae Tulea (Clot Bertola), Costache Giurgiuveanu’s sister.  She is a stoic cynic who tries to look after the practical affairs of the estate.
    • Olimpia Ratiu (Gina Patrichi) is a married daughter of Aglae.
    • Stanica Ratiu (Gheorghe Dinica), Olimpia’s husband, is a lawyer and an outlandishly greedy gold-digger who devotes all his energies towards extracting money from his in-laws and acquaintances. He does have some money but not enough to support his visions of a lavish lifestyle.
    • Aurica Tulea (Elena Dacian), another daughter of Aglae and unmarried, is obsessed with her fears of spinsterhood,, and she aggressively beseeches every eligible bachelor she meets to consider marrying her.
    • Titi Tulea (Ovidiu Schumacher), son of Aglae, is another self-centered and unemployed individual who fancies himself to be a fine artist.
    • Simion Tulea (Árpád Kemény), Aglaei’s husband, is already senile and mired in his own selfish fantasies of resentment.
  2. The Romance of Felix and Otilia.  
    Felix is clearly in love with Otilia, and he makes little effort to disguise his affections for her. Otilia seems to respond to Felix accordingly, but the situation is complicated by her being courted by wealthy and gentlemanly landlord Leonida Pascalopol (Sergiu Nicolaescu). Throughout the film Felix and Otilia have various romantic encounters, but Felix has difficulty getting Otilia to commit and bring their relationship to full fruition.
What connects these two seemingly disparate narrative threads is the nature of love in its various guises and manifestations.  To be sure, true love is the most profound experience we can have in life and represents the most authentic encounter of one’s true, inner nature with the world.  Compared to these authentic encounters, everything else we experience is bizarre, fragmentary, and meaningless. And this is how things are portrayed expressionistically in this film.  Most of the scenes from the first narrative thread not involving Felix or Ortilia show characters who are exaggerated phonys, in fact, almost clownishly so.  This gives the first narrative thread the character of a phantasmagoria – like a house of horrors – and it offers a striking contrast with the characterological authenticity of the scenes in the Felix and Otilia thread.

Mihu achieves this moody effect by locating much of the film inside the ornately decorated mansion that serves as Costache’s estate house.  In fact the production design is key to this film’s effectiveness, and evidence of that emphasis can be detected when note is taken of the fact that Radu Boruzescu, who plays the role of Felix, was primarily a film production designer, not an actor.

The lush feelings of the interiors in the film are presumably enhanced by a new color photography technique, Graphys Color, that was invented by Alexandru Intorsureanu and Gheorghe Fischer and which was used for the first time in this film.

But the most important production technique of all is the use of the many extended camera tracking shots that sinuously course through the labyrinthine and claustrophobic interiors as they follow the action.  This is what really creates and sustain’s Felix si Otilia’s moody atmosphere.

In the various contexts presented in the film, the viewer is exposed to a number of different ways that love, or the imitation of it, takes shape in the world.  Some contrasting examples are embodied by the following characters:
  • Aurica  
    Aurica is desperate to find a husband and is essentially selling what she calls love to anyone who will offer a settled marital existence for her.  Yet there is a certain naive sincerity about this plaintive selling of herself.
  • Weissmann  
    Felix’s fellow medical school student Weissmann is an avowed proponent of free love.  For him this means the mutual momentary satisfaction of sexual desire with no thoughts of a longer-lasting amorous union.  He finds a willing partner in Aurica.
  • Georgeta  
    Georgeta is a beautiful mistress of a general who has a brief affair with Felix when Otilia is away. She sincerely offers her unrestricted affection to whomever appeals to her fancy.

  • Stanica  
    The lawyer Stanica is a hypocritical narcissist, who uses the external, conventional signs of “love” for his utilitarian purposes. When towards the end he secures his fortune, he cold-bloodedly uses his legal skills to annul his marriage to Olimpia and then marry the beautiful Georgeta.
  • Pascalopo  
    The aristocrat Pascalopo sincerely loves Otilia, but in a paternal way.  There is no clear passion between the two, and he essentially sees Otilia as the daughter that he had always wanted.
All of these other expressions of love contrast with Felix’s soulful and fully immersive love for Otilia. Otilia seems to genuinely love Felix, too, but she has questions – she wonders whether their love can stand the test of time.  She is a little older than Felix and feels that her beauty will begin to fade when she reaches the age of thirty.  And she is also curious about Felix’s ambition to become a doctor and wonders if his professional goals would take precedence over their love.

At what appears to be a joyful and culminating point in the story, Otilia finally avows her total love for Felix.  But the next morning, Felix finds her bed empty and that she has run off for good with Pascalopo. In her farewell missive to Felix that he finds, she tells him that she ultimately thought she would wind up being a drag on his professional career and that he should now forget all about her. So her pragmatic doubts about love’s infinite possibilities finally took hold of her and ended their chances for lasting bliss.

In the final scene some years have passed, and Felix is shown now serving as military medic during World War I. He is attending to the wounded and dying soldiers after a horrific battle and is shocked to discover Pascalopo, who has been mortally wounded. With little strength left, Pascalopo tells him to pull out a picture from his pocket. Asked if he recognizes the person in the picture, Felix says, no. Pascalopo tells him that the unrecognizable figure is Otilia. Then Pascalopo dies before Felix can find out where Otilia is now, and the film comes to its somber end.

The beauty of Felix si Otilia is the aura of fatalism accompanying its melancholy portrayal of love – love that inevitably finds itself cast into the context of a practical world that appears, in comparison to the authenticity of true love’s profound experiences, as a phantasmagoric show of fakery and false love. True love is real, but it is elusive and ephemeral.  When it does come, it is only in those loving moments that we are truly alive.  It must then be embraced and held for as long as possible. For only as long love endures, we, in the sense of our truly authentic being, endure.

“Return of Verge Likens”, TAHH, Season 3: Ep. 1 - Arnold Laven (1964)

“Return of Verge Likens”, the first episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Season 3 (1964), is an extended dramatic exercise in revenge and self-glorification.  Based on a story by Davis Grubb and scripted by James Bridges, this episode is directed by Arnold Laven.  It starred Peter Fonda, who gained later fame with his roles in The Wild Angels (1966) and Easy Rider (1969).

The basic story is straightforward. Stoney Likens owns a small southern farm that is threatened by a corrupt eminent-domain legal takeover on the part of slimy businessman Riley McGrath. When Stoney angrily confronts McGrath with a bottle in his hand at a local roadside bar, McGrath draws his gun and shoots Stoney dead.  Witnesses and the police testify that the murder was in self defense (it wasn’t), and McGrath isn’t even arrested.

Stoney Likens had two sons, the meek Wilfred and the more staunch Verge.  Verge vows to his brother that he intends to take his revenge on McGrath by killing him.  But he doesn’t just want to put an end to McGrath; he wants to see the man slowly suffer and know who it is that kills him.

So Verge shadows McGrath for weeks and learns how the man spends every hour of the day.  One of the things he learns is that McGrath visits his doctor every week because of his weak heart.  Thanks to the timidity of brother Wilfred, McGrath gets wind of Verge’s intentions and attempts to buy the brothers off by giving Wilfred $500.  This gift doesn’t mollify Verge in the slightest, however, and he takes the money and heads off to Charlotte for unknown reasons.

After six months, Verge returns to their small town with a new skill: that of a trained barber. He immediately gets a job at the barbershop where Riley McGrath routinely visits to get shaved with a straight razor.  It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what happens now.  Verge gets McGrath (who had never previously met Verge and so doesn’t recognize who his new barber is) as his next customer and proceeds with his grisly plan. 

The rest gets to be excruciating, and there is no subtlety here. It just becomes an orgy of vengeful psychological torture, reminiscent of the Iranian movie Tangsir (1974).  To me there are no satisfying characters – both Verge and McGrath are equally repulsive.  The only character with some humanity is timid brother Wilfred, but the script scornfully portrays him as essentially a spineless and unmanly figure.

The production values for this episode were generally good, with a characteristic southern redneck performance by Robert Emhardt, as Riley McGrath, and a sensitive portrayal by Sammy Reese, as Wilford Likens.  However, I always find Peter Fonda’s stilted and phony screen persona unconvincing.  And given the weakness of the narrative, the episode as a whole is a disappointment.

Nevertheless, the iMDB rating for this episode is high, and the user reviews celebrate the supposedly satisfying delivery of “justice” to the villainous McGrath.  It seems that what should appeal only to the old drive-in movie crowd, always has a much larger following than that.  In fact current events reflect the reality that a substantial proportion of the public relishes stories based on hatred and revenge.  They want attention given to their resentment and are willing to vote for demagogic autocrats (e.g. in Russia, Turkey, and the US) who ignore the common welfare and instead devote their energies to hatred, revenge, and punishment.  This apparently makes their backers feel strong and proud.

But films can be used effectively to express and evoke all possible emotions, and we need more films that make us feel love and compassion – ones that can evoke the fact that, as Leo Tolstoy eloquently stated long ago, The Kingdom of God is Within You [1].

  1. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, (Constance Garnett, trans.), Kshetra Books, (1894).

“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:
  • "Consider Her Ways"(The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Season Three: Episode 11, 1964), written by Oscar Millard and directed by Robert Stevens
  • "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):

“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.

“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.

“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.

  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 boil down to key questions concerning (1) who we want others 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):