Friday 15 May 2015

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (season one, 1955)

I bought the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on DVD recently. I already have the third season and I’ve watched quite a few episodes of that but I thought it might be worthwhile going back to very first episode of the first season. And it was.

Anthology series were all the rage during the 50s and early 60s. The most famous anthology series was The Twilight Zone but the most successful by far at the time was Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It ran for seven seasons as a half-hour series (for a total of 268 episodes), then after a name change to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ran another three seasons in an hour-long format.

The very first episode, Revenge, was one of the seventeen half-hour episodes Hitchcock directed himself. Does that make a difference? I think it does. The other directors who worked on this series were all very competent and some were very good indeed. Revenge though includes a few shots that seem just a little bit better thought-out than you generally expect from series television. 

It’s a nice little story of the kind that appealed to Hitchcock. Not quite black comedy, but getting close to that territory. A newly married couple have moved to California where the husband, Carl (Ralph Meeker) has just landed a job at an aircraft factory. His wife Elsa (Vera Miles) is recovering from a “nervous breakdown” and she’s still a bit fragile. Carl goes off  to work but when he returns home he finds to his horror that Elsa has been assaulted. This being 1950s network television the word rape is not used but it’s certainly implied strongly enough to leave us in no doubt. Carl is determined to get revenge but things don’t work out the way he expects. To say any more would be to risk giving away spoilers. 

It was a fine episode to start a new TV series which of course went on to be enormously successful (and made Hitchcock a household name to an extent that no other director has ever achieved). Hitch’s intro shows him already getting into his stride as a TV personality. His celebrity status is something he enjoyed very much.

The second episode, Premonition, is a nicely twisted tale and a perfect follow-up to the strong opening episode. Famous composer Kim Stanger returns to his hometown after a very long absence. His return was prompted by vague premonitions and these become steadily more troubling. He is anxious to see his father again but learns that he is too late - his father is dead. The accounts of his father’s death given by other family members and friends just don’t seem to add up. Kim is determined to find out what really happened, and he does. And he finds out why nobody wanted to tell him the truth. This is the sort of story at which this series excelled, darkly ironic and with a nasty little sting in the tail.

The third episode, Triggers in Leash, is about two gunfighters in the Wild West, each  determined to kill the other. The woman who runs the town’s eatery is equally determined to stop them from doing so, which she does by a very ingenious method. It’s an amusing little story. This is followed by Don't Come Back Alive. Frank Partridge and his wife are getting on in years and their financial position is far from secure. They hatch a brilliant plan to swindle  their life insurance company by pretending the wife is dead. The only problem is that without a body they will have to wait seven years after which she will be assumed to be legally dead and the husband can claim the money. For seven years the husband is harassed by a very determined insurance investigator. Again the tone is bleakly ironic and the final payoff packs a very nice little punch.

The sixth episode is another very strong story, Salvage. Gene Barry plays a mobster who has just been released from prison. He is determined to avenge his brother’s death by killing the woman he believes was responsible. He is about to kill her when he realises he’d be doing her a favour. What happens next is exactly the sort of vicious twist that this series specialised in.

The seventh episode, Breakdown, was another episode that Hitchcock directed himself. Joseph Cotten is a hard-driving businessman who believes in never showing weakness. Then he is involved in a horrific traffic accident. We see what follows entirely from his point of view. It’s a good story but what makes this one special is Hitchcock’s extraordinarily bold and experimental approach to telling the story. Most of the episode looks almost like a series of still images but it’s a brilliantly effective technique, and wildly innovative for 1950s television. 

The Case of Mr. Pelham is another Hitchcock-directed episode. It’s interesting in being a very rare episode with a genuine hint of the supernatural, something this series was generally scrupulous in avoiding.

The stories were often by very celebrated writers indeed. Our Cook's a Treasure, in which a realtor suspects his new cook might be a serial killer, is based on a story by Dorothy L. Sayers. Shopping for Death was written by Ray Bradbury and is an example of his writing at its best. 

The Older Sister is a potentially interesting take on the infamous Lizzie Borden case but it’s one of the rare episodes in this series that falls rather flat. It’s just too obvious and doesn’t really go anywhere.

Season one comprised no less than 39 episodes and the high standard is maintained to a remarkable degree. The tricky thing with an anthology series is to establish a consistent tone. The series has to have its own distinctive flavour. In this case that flavour had to be characteristically Hitchcockian - dark sardonic stories with a nasty sting in the tail and a touch of black comedy. This is achieved quite successfully. This was made easier by the fact that producer Joan Harrison had worked with Hitchcock for many years. She knew his style and his approach and she made sure the stories reflected this. All story ideas had to be approved by Hitchcock and he had to OK the final scripts. He made a few changes but he did this only occasionally - he trusted the people involved the series and there was no need for him to try to micro-manage proceedings.

TV networks in the 50s insisted that criminals should never be allowed to get away with their crimes. This series got around this rather neatly by having cynical endings and then having Hitchcock appear at the end to assure us that the perpetrator got their just desserts, but he always did so in such a way that the audience was well aware that this was merely a device to placate the network.

The enormous success of the series blazed the trail for other anthology series such as Thriller, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Alfred Hitchcock Presents has stood the test of time better than most such series. The stories hold up well, there’s a definite cynical edge to them and the quality is there. 

The DVD boxed sets are very good but be warned - the text intros tend to give away spoilers so it’s a good idea to avoid them.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents was innovative and quite daring for its time and it remains superb television. Very highly recommended.

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