Monday, 28 November 2016

Every Hitchcock-directed episode of
Alfred Hitchcock Presents* reviewed
and ranked for some reason

*and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Good evening.

Watching and ranking every film Alfred Hitchcock directed (as I did last year) is all well and good, but it does leave you in the depressing position of not having any Alfred Hitchcock films left to watch. Fortunately Hitch predicted that this fate might befall me, so he kindly directed eighteen shorter films to help ease my withdrawal symptoms, and called them "television programmes". These he buried within the 361 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, broadcast between 1955 and 1965, a decade when Hitchcock was arguably at the height of his fame and powers.

By their very nature, these TV episodes were hardly the ideal platform for Hitch to replicate the kind of magic he was then working on cinema screens. Restricted by budget and time, he saw the series more as a lucrative opportunity to expand the Alfred Hitchcock brand, work with some of his favourite casts and crew and, with luck, discover new talent. So while there's none of Rope's technical showboating, or North By Northwest's meticulously devised set-pieces, or Vertigo's chilling psychodrama to be found in these episodes, they do offer the chance to ruminate on where Hitch was at that fascinating stage in his career, which stories appealed to him as a director and where he left his grubby, incriminating fingerprints.

Like much of the series, the episodes Hitch directed often featured murder, crimes of passion and marital woes; usually all three, if possible, glued together with sticky black humour. Short of that, though, it's tricky to identify the director by watching the episodes. Hitch biographer Donald Spoto noted that a handful of them have characters deliver "the stare of madness" - that vacant gaze, assumed while something deeply unpleasant was going on either physically or emotionally - but that's about as Hitchcockian as we get. Even the series' best-regarded episode, The Man From The South (starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre), was directed not by the chubby fella with his name in the title but by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Norman Lloyd.
Still, as a tedious completist I felt it my duty to watch Hitch's contributions (I haven't yet managed to sit through all 361 stories) and, as is necessary in order to prevent mental atrophy in the reader, list them in reverse order of excellence as if that somehow matters. So here are the seventeen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents - plus one of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour - directed by the man himself, ranked for my own amusement. Do keep an eye on The Incredible Suit in the near future for full examinations and rankings of Hitchcock's Best Words, Hitchcock's Best Dinners and Hitchcock's Best Wees. Until then...


18. Wet Saturday
Episode 2.1     First broadcast September 30 1956
Script: Marian Cockrell     Story: John Collier
Hitch launched the second series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in incongruously dull fashion, with an episode that ends so drearily he has to rewrite it in his closing monologue. Rope’s Cedric Hardwicke plays a devious patriarch forced to protect the daughter he despises after she murders a lover; John Williams (no, not that one; the moustache-combing inspector of Dial M For Murder) is the unfortunate patsy who Hardwicke incriminates. Hitch directs Tita Purdom and Jerry Barclay to play Hardwicke’s grown-up children as irritating imbeciles so we identify with the exasperated father, but he’s no less annoying than they are, and you wish the whole family had been bludgeoned with a croquet mallet.

17. Arthur
Episode 5.1     First broadcast September 27 1959
Script: James P Cavanagh     Story: Arthur Williams
The Manchurian Candidate's Laurence Harvey deploys his voice of silk and poison to narrate the story of how his sociopathic character dealt with a particular irritant (the solution involves hungry chickens and an industrial meat-grinder). A pre-Avengers Patrick Macnee co-stars, and the two men make an otherwise rote episode worth watching. That and the unintentionally comical sound effect used to denote the death cry of both a chicken and a human, despite sounding nothing like either.

16. I Saw The Whole Thing
Episode 1.4 (of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour)     First broadcast October 11 1962
Script: Henry Slesar     Story: Henry Cecil
John Forsythe heads up an uneventful courtroom drama (never Hitchcock's forte) as a man accused of manslaughter after a hit and run accident. The only fun to be had is from the performances of the five witnesses, each of whom Forsythe must attempt to discredit: a dizzy blonde, a drunk, an obstinate war veteran, a pompously righteous berk and a sad mom. The twist is a bit shit and nobody seems to give a stuff about the poor bastard who died, but at least John Forsythe wears some nice jackets.

15. Lamb To The Slaughter
Episode 3.28     First broadcast April 13 1958
Script and Story: Roald Dahl
Barbara Bel Geddes wallops her old man to death with a leg of lamb the size of a small child, then cooks it and serves it up to the investigating police. And that’s it. There’s a distinct whiff of Lamb To The Slaughter being written because Roald Dahl thought the phrase was amusing, which is a shame given his usual skill at weaving tales of the unexpected from humble beginnings. This was Hitchcock's favourite of all his TV outings, but while it makes for an amusing anecdote it's not quite meaty enough to fill half an hour of telly.

14. Revenge
Episode 1.1     First broadcast October 2 1955
Script: Francis Cockrell     Story: Samuel Blas
Hitch kicked off his big TV project inauspiciously, directing an unengaging whodunnit with an improbable climax and a predictable twist as the very first episode. Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles are newlyweds; he comes home to find her unconscious after a mysterious attack. Typically Hitchcockian police incompetence leads Meeker to take matters into his own hands, with hilarious consequences (lol j/k, the consequences are tragic). The staging is vaguely cinematic and the episode benefits from repeat viewings when you care less about the payoff, but there's little Hitchcock magic here. Only really notable for being the first time Hitch would work with Vera Miles (a professional relationship which would shape his entire future), Revenge is the kind of opener that would get a series axed before the first ad break if it ran today.

13. Banquo's Chair
Episode 4.29     First broadcast May 3 1959
Script: Francis Cockrell     Story: Rupert Croft-Cooke
A wily copper sets up a dinner party with the specific intention of eliciting a murder confession from one of the guests in this rather humdrum tale. The twist is as old as time (or maybe it originated in the source play, written in 1930), and isn’t particularly well staged by Hitchcock, but just about makes the episode worthwhile. Also features one of many missed opportunities in the series for John Williams – more or less reprising his Dial M For Murder character here – to give his moustache another cheeky comb.

12. The Crystal Trench
Episode 5.2     First broadcast October 4 1959
Script: Stirling Silliphant     Story: AEW Mason
The crystal trench of the title refers to a glacier, which claims a victim in Act I and spits it out again forty years later in Act III, along with an unwelcome secret. An unexceptional episode, made even more so by charisma-free leads James Donald and Patricia Owens, this is nevertheless notable for a) a cameo by an almost unrecognisable Patrick Macnee as a suspiciously accurate forecaster of glacial movement (he predicts the emergence of the body to within a few hours, four decades in advance) and b) bearing a striking resemblance to the premise of 2015 rom-dram 45 Years.

11. Mrs. Bixby And The Colonel's Coat
Episode 6.1     First broadcast September 27 1960
Script: Halsted Welles     Story: Roald Dahl
Marital infidelity is the catalyst for a gentle but amusing episode in which the titular Mrs Bixby receives the titular coat from the titular Colonel, only for Roald Dahl to twist events towards a satisfying bit of petard-hoisting. Hitch keeps things light and breezy despite a lengthy prologue in which he promises another season of amateur murders, and - considering how Hitch's subversive women usually end up - the episode lets Mrs B off lightly.

10. The Case Of Mr Pelham
Episode 1.10     First broadcast December 4 1955
Script: Francis Cockrell     Story: Anthony Armstrong
Notable for being based on the same story as Roger Moore’s undisputed masterpiece The Man Who Haunted Himself, this episode sees Tom Ewell as the businessman discombobulated by the unwelcome appearance of his doppelgänger. Ewell is suitably mousy and nervous in the role (talking to himself only slightly less than in The Seven Year Itch), but his implied degeneration into madness isn’t given enough time to fully convince, as it does in the feature-length version. The premise is nice and creepy, more Twilight Zoney than Hitchcockian, but there’s little for Hitch to get hold of and make his own.

9. Dip In The Pool
Episode 3.35     First broadcast June 8 1958
Script: Robert C Dennis     Story: Roald Dahl
A morality tale which proves cheats never prosper; nor, for that matter, do gamblers, liars, bad husbands, boozehounds or men in loud jackets, as one poor sap who happens to be all of the above discovers on a cruise ship. Keenan Wynn plays the improbably-named Mr Botibol (thanks, Roald Dahl), a walking compassion repellent who nevertheless doesn’t quite deserve the fate dealt to him by the story’s final twist. Hitch enjoys shifting our sympathies though, and knows full well we wanted Botibol to get everything his dispassionate creators could throw at him. Anybody would think we’re the bad guys here.

8. Breakdown
Episode 1.7     First broadcast November 13 1955
Script: Francis Cockrell & Louis Pollock     Story: Louis Pollock
Joseph Cotten plays a stone cold bastard in Hitchcock's second episode; when a car crash leaves him paralysed he soon learns the value of emotions. Wait, come back! It’s much better than that sounds. Hitch busts out some welcome formal experimentation, telling the story almost entirely through Cotten's internal monologue, and you can sense his mischievous glee at taking an actor of that calibre and having him do nothing but stare blankly into space for twenty minutes; this is Spoto's "stare of madness" extended across an entire story. Minus points for the world’s worst coroner though, who can’t distinguish between a corpse and a breathing man with a pulse.

7. The Horseplayer
Episode 6.22     First broadcast March 14 1961
Script and Story: Henry Slesar
Hitch takes the opportunity to have a primetime pop at hypocrisy and moral lapses in the Catholic Church, and in the process slips some decidedly irreverent entertainment under the noses of God-fearing viewers everywhere. Claude Rains is, obviously, eminently watchable as the priest trying to plug the holes in the chapel roof, and his furtive glances skyward when presented with a less-than-holy solution are delicious.

6. Poison
Episode 4.1     First broadcast October 5 1958
Script: Casey Robinson     Story: Roald Dahl
"There’s a snake in my boots!" says nobody in this episode, because the snake is actually in Harry’s pyjamas, and he daren’t move lest it sinks its poisonous fangs into his gut. Harry’s pal Timber spends the evening deeply unsympathetic to Harry’s plight, so let’s hope for his sake their roles are never reversed, hmm? Hmm? Hitchcock enjoys wringing tension out of both the unseen critter in the bed and Timber’s hair-pulling ambivalence, and Roald Dahl gives his characters enough backstory to lace their words with sinister meaning; seems the poison was there long before the snake was.

5. The Perfect Crime
Episode 3.3     First broadcast October 20 1957
Script: Stirling Silliphant     Story: Ben Ray Redman
An overly talky two-hander, but when one of those talking hands belongs to Vincent Price you can forgive Hitch for having him yammer on for an entire episode. Price plays a Holmesian detective whose cunning is challenged by a visiting lawyer; while the episode plays out like a Conan Doyle short story for the most part, its climax takes a decidedly Hitchcockian turn. Like John Dall in Rope, Price gets to ruminate on murder as a statement or an art form, but as the director reveals in a typically droll epilogue, there’s never a perfect crime in Hitchworld.

4. Mr Blanchard's Secret
Episode 2.13     First Broadcast December 23 1956
Script: Sarett Rudley     Story: Emily Neff
Just two years after Rear Window, Hitchcock directed this lesser tale of a nosey parker with an overactive imagination who suspects the neighbour of offing his wife. Hitch enjoys the repeated setups and debunkings of each far-fetched theory, and encourages the audience to suspect everyone in the story of some crime or other at some point. A gentle episode with a darker edge provided by our own expectations, Mr Blanchard’s Secret throws a metatextual light on the effect of crime fiction on suspicious minds.

3. One More Mile To Go
Episode 2.28     First broadcast April 7 1957
Script: James P Cavanagh     Story: FJ Smith
Three years before Psycho, Hitchcock directed this eerily familiar episode about an ordinary citizen who commits a crime in the heat of the moment. Unequipped to adequately deal with the consequences, their getaway is hindered by a traffic cop who doesn’t realise their darkest secret is in the car with them, and things only go less smoothly from thereon after. Hitch plays to his silent era strengths in the dialogue-free first act, and obviously enjoys the motif of a troublesome wife who becomes no less troublesome despite her cadaverous status.

2. Bang! You're Dead
Episode 7.2     First broadcast October 17 1961
Script: Harold Swanton    Story: Margery Vosper
Five-year-old wannabe outlaw Jackie is wandering around town with a gun which he thinks is a toy, but we know he's inadvertently picked up Uncle Rick's loaded revolver. From that simple premise Hitchcock stretches out the tension to snapping point, and he delivers in spades the very lessons in suspense he's been preaching on the big screen for years. A terrific episode, marred only by some bungled editing at the climax which carries a strong whiff of network censorship. So strongly did Hitch feel about the subject matter that his usual flippant closing monologue is replaced with a sombre public service message about gun control in the presence of minors. That was 1961; in 2015, 265 under 18s in the US picked up a firearm and accidentally shot someone. 83 of those shootings were fatal.

1. Back For Christmas
Episode 1.23     First broadcast March 4 1956
Script: Francis Cockrell     Story: John Collier
Boasting a loveless marriage, a long-planned murder, genuine comedy suspense and a lip-smacking twist, this episode is the first Hitchcock-directed story in the series to actually feel like a mini Hitchcock film. John Williams is the hen-pecked husband with a flawless plan for a wife-free retirement which, obviously, isn’t quite as flawless as it seems. Williams and his screen missus Isabel Elsom are great, and Hitch magics seat-squirming fun out of a hole in the ground and a rickety stepladder.

*

Huge thanks to Fabulous Films. Every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is currently available on DVD.

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