Friday, October 2, 2020

This Day in TV History (‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ Premieres)

Oct. 2, 1955—When Alfred Hitchcock launched his half-hour anthology series on CBS, he found a new platform for his work in the growing medium of television and reached a level of recognition other directors of similar duration and distinction had never known.

As Peter Ackroyd observes in Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life, the English director was less personally involved in the show named for him than many viewers suspected. He did not write any of his droll intros or close-outs, for instance, and left crucial script and casting decisions to his long-time associates, executive producer Joan Harrison and associate producer Norman Lloyd. Moreover, on a regular basis, he only entered into the production process as he watched rough cuts of episodes, when his team knew how to follow up on his brief, sometimes cryptic comments (e.g., a camera-angle suggestion, or a “Well, thank you” that signified dissatisfaction).

None of this is meant to suggest, however, that his restricted role in Alfred Hitchcock Presents had no bearing on the focus of his attention: his films.

His penchant for self-promotion, already evident in the cameos that fans had come to expect from the “Master of Suspense,” now gave him additional money and clout in making movies as he wished. He could assess the work of actors he might use later for the big screen. And the 17 episodes he directed out of the series’ more than 300 enabled him to experiment cheaply and quickly with techniques and themes he would use more intensively for his larger canvasses.

In a sense, the visual that opened each show—the bald, rotund Hitchcock stepping sideways to the tune of Charles Gounod’s "Funeral March for a Marionette," until his figure formed a silhouette—could serve as a metaphor for how he shaped the series. (Unlike his work on much of the rest of the show, he worked on this sequence himself, harking back to his early days in the British film industry, when he illustrated title cards for silent movies.) In the case of the show, Hitchcock designed the outline. It was up to his collaborators to figure out how to give substance to his formidable shadow.

Several actors featured in the series would show up later in his films, including Barbara Bel-Geddes (Vertigo), John Forsythe (The Trouble With Harry, Topaz), Vera Miles (The Wrong Man, Psycho), Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern (both in Family Plot).

But, among the episodes in which he took the helm himself as director, Hitchcock delighted in the low-cost, low-risk environment of TV to try something different. In “Breakdown,” for example, he shot from the viewpoint of a callous businessman, William Callow. After Callow is paralyzed, then stripped of his clothes and left for dead following a terrible car accident, Hitchcock focuses on blank, horror-stricken eyes, much as he would with Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane sliding down in the shower in Psycho. (The tears coming down his face alert the coroner in the morgue that the body in front of him is, in fact, alive, so Callow is saved, ironically, by a show of emotion he scorned previously.)

But shooting immobility posed the danger of looking static. So, as Jack Seabrook pointed out in a post on the blog “barebonesez”, Hitchcock and editor Edward Williams used a “good variety of angles and distances that keep the shots of Callow's paralyzed form from becoming repetitive or monotonous.”

One More Mile To Go” touches on a motif that Hitchcock would explore at greater length in Psycho and Torn Curtain: the need to clean up thoroughly after a gruesome killing. Death, he is emphasizing, is an extremely messy business. This second season episode also underscored the primacy of image in his work, as 10 minutes--one-third of its length--elapse before any character says a word.

The Case of Mr. Pelham is a small-scale version of the doppelganger or “double” theme that Hitchcock had employed previously in Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train (I examined the latter in this prior post), and would do so again in Psycho.

Far before the term came into common parlance, Hitchcock created a personal “brand” through the show. He drew a reported $129,000 per episode from CBS and sponsor Bristol-Myers, then, the following year, leveraged that into a deal to license his name for a new suspense publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (which still exists today).

That cushioned him against the inevitable flops that moviemakers sometimes experience (in his case, The Wrong Man and, at least on its original release, Vertigo). Better yet, it enabled him to self-finance Psycho when its gory subject matter made Paramount Pictures balk. (He even used the sets, camera and crew from the series.)

There really can be too much of a good thing, and so it proved with Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After six seasons, CBS decided to give the show an additional half-hour. Though the show survived another three seasons, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour did not benefit from the new length, losing much of its tightness and suspense. 

But in its most interesting early episodes, it offered useful employment to writers such as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Henry Slesar, Ed McBain, and John D. MacDonald; opened space for a new, subversive tone on TV (Hitchcock’s close-outs were meant, in part, to circumvent censors who objected to any suggestion that a killer could get away with a crime); and helped its host achieve new levels of popularity even as it spurred his dark art.

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