The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: The Complete Series (Viavision) DVD.
In my previous review of The Complete Alfred Hitchcock Presents I ended it by requesting Viavision to also issue The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Well they have done so. It’s a 24 DVD set that goes without saying is essential viewing for all Hitchcock enthusiasts. I repeat essential because Presents and Hour still tend to be overlooked by critics who consider Hitchcock’s television work as peripheral to our understanding of his film artistry.
True, the Hitchcock directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents are now receiving more analysis. However it’s the Hitchcock influence on the non-Hitchcock directed TV films that also deserves our attention. Although each director brings his own craft and style to their episodes the ubiquitous shadow of Hitch falls strongly on them.
From the 1950’s on Hitchcock so dominated the TV murder mystery melodrama that other directors’ approaches unavoidably displayed the Hitchcock touch. It’s as if Hitchcock had committed an Orson Welles type intervention on the set – apparently Welles, acting in the film Black Magic, once said to its director, “You’re surely not going to place the camera over there?”
As far as I know we have no evidence of Hitchcock physically taking over someone else’s direction. He obviously vetted the scripts, with producers Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd, to create a sympathetic Hitchcock world-view. And his unique TV shows were bonded by his guest appearances, creating the impression that he was orchestrating everything, even to his weekly brusque dismissal of the sponsor’s commercial breaks.
I delved into this set and discovered many gems with strong Hitchcockian ideas and themes. Take an obsession with food and power. Lonely Place (director Harvey Hart) has Bruce Dern, a young psychotic tramp, attempting to seduce a farmer’s wife (Teresa Wright) whose husband has hired Dern to pick peaches on his farm. In this dark tale of sexism and a revenge killing it’s not just the farm truck peaches that get bruised but a marriage, already tired and sterile. Not difficult to see that food idea later returning in black comic form to underpin Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy.
An Unlocked Window (director Kurt Neumann) has a small town serial killer of nurses breaking into a Gothic looking house on the hill. The set with its dark shadows, staircase and a suspicious older nurse pitted against her neurotic junior intimates that Psycho (1959) was just round the corner.
Nothing Ever Happens in Linvale (director Herschel Daugherty) features an irascible man claiming he’s digging a hole in the garden in order to bury his dog. Next door’s spying female neighbour is convinced the hole is for his possibly murdered wife’s body. This felt like a sketch using situations from the Hitchcock features The Trouble With Harry and Rear Window.
The Monkey Dance (director Joseph Newman) has two men meeting on a train. When they arrive at the caravan, which they both claim to own, Efrem Zimbalist Jnr persuades Roddy McDowell to murder his lover. Yet McDowell then discovers that this ‘crazy’ man wasn’t her husband but possibly just one among many other disappointed men used by a rich, fickle woman. You are made to think of the guilt transference of Strangers on a Train.
More bizarrely the episode, containing dialogue spiced with a Pinter / Ionesco menace, has a sense of the theatre of the absurd. Whilst the episode’s introduction and epilogue features a moustached Hitch playing his brother. He’s pulling the strings of a life size puppet (the real Hitchcock): gleefully proclaiming that this is all “Brother Alfred’s Theatre of the Absurd!”
In Return of Verge Likens (director Arnold Laven) Peter Fonda is a farmer, now trained barber, with his razor, who kills the man, who shot his father, without recourse to spilling any blood. Fear being the more effective weapon.
A Home Away from Home (director Herschel Daugherty) is an amusing variation on the old story of the patients in an asylum taking over the institution. Ray Milland excels as the pretend doctor who murders the principal.
And the Sign of Satan (director Robert Douglas) has Christopher Lee, a real Satanist, playing a devil worshipper in a horror movie pursued and murdered by the angry members of his sect.
Those last three dramas may not reference in moments, already filmed or to come, from Alfred Hitchcock’s big screen offerings but illustrate the variety of Hitchcock’s choice of effectively macabre TV material.
Like Alfred Hitchcock Presents the number of outstanding actors and writers who wanted to work with Hitchcock on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is very impressive. Perhaps on occasions the stories could have been more effectively realised in 30 minutes. Yet there aren’t many that fail to deliver. Hitchcock was a shrewd operator who inspired directors to subtly hold back on the shocks and twists in the tale, deepen our concern and prolong the tension.
This unique blend of suspense, tension and anxiety raised the bar on our expectations as to what a thriller could achieve. The results of Hitch’s omniscient TV producer influence, alone, on others creativity, kept us watching. And will, far into the future. This is classic television.
Alan Price © 2022.