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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One (1955)

October 21st, 2007 · 1 Comment

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Production history
Following the success of Rear Window, director Alfred Hitchcock was urged by his agent Lew Wasserman to go into television. Hitchcock had initially been wary of the impact TV might have on the film industry, but the opportunity to explore short subjects appealed to him. Alfred Hitchcock Presents would consist of thirty-nine half hour episodes per season. Hitchcock would earn $129,000 per episode, with all rights of sale to revert back to him after first broadcast.

Screenwriter Joan Harrison – who started her career as Hitchcock’s personal assistant – was chosen as producer. Hitchcock’s preference – beyond material involving suspense and mystery – were published stories. He had a file of favorites, and over the course of the show’s seven season run, Roald Dahl, Stanley Ellin, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West and A.A. Milne would be among the many British writers whose tales were adapted for television. Ray Bradbury was the most prominent American novelist to contribute.

In addition to lending his name and taste to the show, Hitchcock was game to appear on camera, to introduce each episode and “tidy up afterwards for those who don’t understand the endings.” An Emmy winning American writer named James Allardice penned the director’s droll monologues, which frequently poked fun at the sponsors. As well made as most of the episodes were, it was Hitchcock’s dry mischief and self-mockery as narrator that set the show apart.

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TV shows used to have their own theme music, and for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, composer Bernard Herrmann suggested “Funeral March of a Marionette”, an 1872 tune written by Charles Gounod. The orchestration struck a chord with audiences, and Hitchcock may still be the only director to be recognized by his own theme music. Hitchcock directed 17 episodes of the series, four during the show’s inaugural season:

Opinion
In Episode 1, “Revenge,” Carl (Ralph Meeker) and his wife Elsa (Vera Miles) have relocated to a mobile home park in Malibu. Elsa, a ballet dancer, suffered “a small breakdown” and the couple is here for her health. When Carl returns from work, he finds his wife in a catatonic state following an apparent attack by a salesman. He moves her to a hotel, but when Elsa spots her assailant on the sidewalk – “There he is. That’s him!” – Carl makes a stop.

Adapted by Francis Cockrell from a short story by Samuel Blas, “Revenge” is the best of the Season One episodes Hitchcock directed. It’s impossible to watch and not immediately think of Psycho, due not only to the casting of Vera Miles, but because of its stripped down aesthetic and haunting murder. The episode was remade and chosen to relaunch the series on NBC in September 1985, but by showing the attack, it was far less eerie.

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In Episode 7, “Breakdown,” a business tycoon (Joseph Cotten) on vacation notifies an employee that he’s being fired. The employee breaks down and cries, earning the tycoon’s contempt. But upon taking a detour and crashing his car, the tycoon regains consciousness unable to move or speak. Everyone who comes across his body assumes he’s dead, right up to the coroners preparing their autopsy. Francis Cockrell and Louis Pollock adapted the mildly creepy teleplay from Pollock’s short story.

In Episode 10, “The Case of Mr. Pelham,”Albert Pelham (Tom Ewell) approaches a psychiatrist with a problem. People have begun to recognize him being in places he has no memory of. It dawns on him that he might have a double, until Pelham is notified that the double has knowledge only he would know. Then the other Pelham starts showing up at Pelham’s home. Francis Cockrell wrote this episode as well, but it’s not memorable in terms of suspense or much else.

In Episode 23, “Back For Christmas,” Herbert (John Williams) prepares to depart to the States as his nagging wife (Isabel Elsom) needles him about them being “back for Christmas.” Once their guests leave, Herbert kills his wife and buries her in the cellar. He has fun in America, until he receives a Christmas present from his late wife. Adapted by Francis Cockrell from John Collier’s short story, this episode is laced with the black wit and sinister glee Hitchcock is so renowned for.

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Nate Meyers at Digitally Obsessed writes, “Watching the series today, little has been lost over the past half century, with every episode featuring masterful direction, elegant acting, and superb writing.”

“Despite the overt tidiness of each episode’s epilogues, this is a set of Hitchcock-directed works that stand the test of time, and comfortably bear multiple viewing,” writes Dan Jardine at Apollo Movie Guide.

David Perry at BC DVD Review says, “The first season puts its best foot forward, with star power, smart writing, and the always enjoyable banter of its famous host.”

“I venture that by this time you can see we are not presenting a romantic comedy tonight.” View Hitchcock’s introduction to Episode 17 from Season One, “The Older Sister”.

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Ambiguous ending · TV series

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Dave Kees // Apr 28, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    I’m an English teacher in China. It is always a problem to find material for my students that is both at a more basic level of English but also interesting.

    This collection from Hitchcock is great: short, basic English, slow and clear speech, engrossing. My students will not say that they “like” these sorts of stories but they get completely entrapped by them.

    I play them in English with English subtitles. The only way they can try to understand the mystery is through English.

    It is highly effective for English students.

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