Alfred Christmas Presents

Before we run out of Hitchcock Year, I just wanted to run through the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the master, so I can say I’ve done ’em.

Breakdown is a real mini-masterpiece, reuniting Hitch with two-time collaborator Joseph Cotten. There’s an extremely nice conflation of theme, character and plot in this one, which gives the impression of being a simple exercise in suspense and subjective camera. Many of the best AHPs do this: deceptive simplicity at the service of an idea.

Revenge went out as the series opener, bumping Breakdown into a secondary spot, purely because Hitch was so pleased with Vera Miles. She co-stars with Ralph Meeker in a very dark, upsetting little conte cruel, strong meat for 1950s TV.

The Case of Mr Pelham I’ve already discussed, and it’s a nice, inexplicable fantasy tale with Tom Ewell and Tom Ewell. Hitch’s intro and outro actually expand the story nicely.

Mr Blanchard’s Secret is basically comedy — I think Hitch was often drawn to these episodes as a way of working outside the thriller genre which his feature films committed him to. This is a tiresome, overplayed story, with a very annoying performance by Mary Scott as a crime writer (a frequent Hitchcock character/stand-in) with REAR WINDOW style suspicions about a neighbour. I found this so tedious the first time, I’m deliberately leaving it unwatched in Hitchcock Year. Because nothing should ever be really complete.

Maybe because it’s so dull, the episode escapes mention altogether in Charlotte Chandler’s filmography in It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

Back for Christmas is a marital murder romp (lots of wives and husbands get the chop in these things), undistinguished as a story but enlivened by the presence of John Williams, sometimes called Hitchcock’s most frequent star. Williams also crops up in —

Wet Saturday, a fairly delightful John Collier adaptation with Sir Cedric Hardwicke, another actor Hitch enjoyed greatly. Collier’s stories also graced The Twilight Zone, and one, The Fountain of Youth, got the experimental treatment by Orson Welles. If you haven’t sampled his short fiction, I highly recommend it. In amoral little comedies like this, Hitch’s outro is often used to placate the censor with a tacked-on “happy” or “moral” ending.

One More Mile to Go is another neat little suspense situation, referred to in my PSYCHO post. David Wayne (the killer in Losey’s M) plays another sympathetic wife-murderer in search of a body of water to lay his wife to rest in, and pestered by a persistent traffic cop and a faulty tail-light. A lot of these pieces nicely balance the sympathies of the audience, as deftly manipulated by Hitch, with the demands of morality and censorship.

Perfect Crime is enjoyable enough, the story not being anything special, but the pleasure of seeing Hitchcock direct Vincent Price is a unique one.

A Dip in the Pool is a comedy with uncertain sympathies but a very nice twist. Keenan Wynn stars, and it’s nice to see Fay Wray in a supporting role. Spectacular stunt, also (above).

Poison — almost missed this one! Will watch it tonight and report back.

Lamb to the Slaughter is the famous one where Barbara Bel Geddes kills her policeman husband with a leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to his investigating colleagues. Even better than the idea suggests, although it is basically a typical Roald Dahl piece, stronger on its central gimmick that anything else. This shot of BBG seems to anticipate the end of PSYCHO.

The chair against the wall, the slow track in to a smile…

Banquo’s Chair is a fairly predictable story, in which a fake ghost is to be used to trap a killer, but the cast is magnificent: John Williams, Kenneth Haigh, Max Adrian. The VERTIGO echoes are amusing too, with impersonation, faked supernaturalism, a retired detective hero, and a Ferguson.

Arthur is a black comedy about a homicidal chicken farmer, with a lovely sinister and charming perf from Laurence Harvey, and the always-welcome Hazel Court.

Crystal Trench crams most of Fred Zinneman’s 5 DAYS ONE SUMMER into half an hour, with this tale of a woman waiting decades for her lover to be freed from the glacier in which he perished. Evan Hunter, preparing to take the job of writer on THE BIRDS, came by the set, and the block of ice shipped in nearly melted while Hitch entertained Hunter’s attractive wife.

Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat is another incredibly drab comedy, with no bad-taste or homicidal element whatsoever — it shouldn’t have been done on the show, let alone by the master himself.

The Horseplayer could be said to have similar issues, but the religious setting is intriguing for Hitch, and the presence of Claude Rains (and Percy Helton!) means the piece can’t be considered a total loss. Quite enjoyable.

Bang! You’re Dead is another masterpiece, and a great note to end on. It’s not the last ever episode of Hitch’s show, but it’s the last he directed himself. The story is so nerve-wracking, Hitch dispenses with humour in his intro in order to justify the torture he’s about to subject us to. It’s a little gun-safety lecture wrapped up in another basic suspense situ: a small boy with a loaded gun. The small boy is Bill Mumy. As he aims the pistol at his mother, neither of them realizing that it’s a genuine weapon, the effect is both frightening and deeply shocking, almost blasphemous. Various parties are placed in danger as the story goes on, and the jeopardy mounts as the kid keeps adding bullets to the gun, so what starts as Russian roulette ends with the certainty of a shot being fired…

Hitch guesses that we don’t expect him have the kid assassinate his own mother, so for the climax he aims the pistol at the family maid. We’re calculating… is Hitch going to go through with this? He wouldn’t kill the other, that would be too much. But maybe the maid? After all, she’s not a family member, she’s not white, she’s not middle-class… You’d think the mother might produce the maximum suspense, but it’s the maid, because she seems more… disposable.

Hitch and his writers have thought it all through, of course.

British readers can support Shadowplay by shopping here:

Fancies and Goodnights (New York Review Books Classics)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 1 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 2 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents : Complete Season 3 [1957] [DVD]

14 Responses to “Alfred Christmas Presents”

  1. Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat was remade by (wait for it!)

    Jacques Rivette

    as Le Coup de Berger — one of his pre Paris Nous Appartient shorts.

  2. I had forgotten about “Bang! You’re Dead”. What other child star (besides Ron Howard) could even come close to the old world meets new world career of Billy Mumy? His credits are jaw dropping.

  3. I think I have that Rivette. I do hope he had more luck with it. The story must have invisible literary merits, because not much comes across on the screen, I can tell you.

    I see Mumy played the supermarket clerk in an 80s remake of his Hitchcock episode. Nice.

  4. The Rivette movie was written by Chabrol and some feel it’s more in common with his work than Rivette’s. Like many early N-V shorts, a lot of cameos abound. The final party features the whole Cahiers du Cinema mafia as guests, Truffaut looks quite enigmatic in specs.

  5. That’s usually Godard’s job!

    That Mumy’s a lucky kid.

  6. Mumy starred in the original “It’s a Good Life” — one of the two most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone (The other of course being “To Serve Man”) and he was featured in Joe Dante’s remake of “It’s a Good Life” in Twilight Zone: The Movie (one fo the very best things Joe has ever done.)

  7. David E, Joe Dante’s ‘It’s A Good Life’ is my favourite section of the film. Love the design and effects work. (Rob Bottin?) Making the 2D cartoon fantasy world of the boy 3 dimensional is incredibly effective and fantastically sinister.

  8. Christopher Says:

    ..I’d forgot about Bang! Your Dead too…what a gripping episode!….lol..and Dear Brigitte!…I hadn’t seen that in ages..It was run quite a bit on TV in pre- cable days….no no..thats not our brigiiiitte

  9. Crystal Trench & Five days One Summer are based on a story by A.E.W. Mason. I don’t know the title of the story. That’s how I ended up here,in a search to find it.

  10. I don’t have Fred’s book to hand, but I believe he said something about taking one source story, and the screenwriter adding a subplot based n another story, the one with the frozen body perfectly preserved in youth — can’t recall if he said it was from a published story or just a kind of folk myth/friend-of-a-friend story. But it’s certainly very very close to Crystal Trench.

  11. Just finished watching “Banquo’s Chair.” Along with the VERTIGO echoes, one could also claim FAMILY PLOT echoes (fake attempts to contact the dead) and PSYCHO (spelled out time and place at the start). It’s also one of the view ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episodes that *I* know of, at least, with an overhead shot … fancy camera work being fairly rare on that show.

  12. (Errata: “one of the few,” etc. etc.)

  13. Yes, they had to shoot ’em fast for TV. Hitch frequently tried interesting angles, but rarely anything that would require additional set-up time or special gear.

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