by Deborah Harter Williams
The scene fades up on a simple line-drawing* of Alfred Hitchcock’s rotund profile (the word rotund seems to have been invented to describe Hitchcock, imagine finding this caricature next to the word in the dictionary); The “Funeral March of a Marionette” plays, and Hitchcock emerges in silhouette from the right side of the screen. Walking to the center of the frame his bulk fills in the caricature. He turns to the camera and says – “Good Eeevening.”
* Hitchcock made the drawing himself, having worked in his past making title cards for silent movies.
“I’m doing material on television of a downbeat nature that possibly I could never do for the movies,” Hitchcock recalled. “The very first one I did [“Revenge”] was a story about a man who set out with his wife (Vera Miles) to find a rapist who had attacked her. The wife points out the criminal and her husband kills him. Then he discovers that his wife is deranged and had no way of knowing who her attacker was.”
Alfred Hitchcock was fifty-six when his television program premiered in 1955. He had already directed forty-two movies. His friend and former agent Lew Wasserman was now the head of MCA** and wanted the studio to get into television. Hitchcock was the perfect entrée as he already had a strong following from his movies. The series started out as a half-hour anthology and remained that way for seven years, after which it changed to an hour-long format for the last three years.
**MCA (Music Corporation of America) was the predecessor of Universal Studios, then NBCUniversal and today a subsidiary of Comcast.
At least two versions of the opening were shot for every episode. One was for the American audience, which would frequently mock the sponsor or spoof a recent popular commercial; another version for European audiences, would spoof Americans in general. In later seasons Hitchcock expanded the fun by doing French and German versions for international distribution; he spoke German fluently.
The success of the series might well be measured by the talent involved. It drew top-notch writers like Roald Dahl, H.G. Wells, John Cheever and Ray Bradbury. Many had published stories in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Directors included Robert Altman, Sydney Pollack and William Friedkin and a host of fine actors. Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes to name a few.
One long time performer, director and producer on the series was Norman Lloyd. Many will remember him as Dr. Daniel Aschlander on St. Elsewhere. At the time he went to work on AHP he had been blacklisted and Hitchcock rescued him by offering him a job. He is 100 years old this year and recently appeared in the movie Trainwreck with Amy Schumer.
One famous episode from the show was “The Man from the South.” Steve McQueen bets Peter Lorre that he can make his lighter light ten times in a row. If he wins he gets a Lorre’s convertible, if he loses – he gives up a finger. The story was by Roald Dahl and also starred McQueen’s then wife Neile Adams.
Irrational fears, things that go bump in the night, the demons in your head – these were the themes that Hitchcock used in many episodes:
“Jail”-Based on a story by Ray Bradbury tales a tale of people imprisoned by transferring their minds to other people’s bodies.
“And So Died Riabouchinska” – A puppet convinces a man to confess to murder.
“The Cuckoo Clock” – A widow becomes obsessed with the fear that her woman companion is an escaped mental patient.
“My good luck in life was to be a really frightened person. I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film,” said Hitchcock.
He also loved the juxtaposition of the domestic and the violent. In “Lamb to the Slaughter” – Barbara Bel Geddes famously kills her cheating husband with a leg of lamb and then cooks up the murder weapon.
“Some of our most exquisite murders have been domestic, performed with tenderness in simple, homey places like the kitchen table.” AH
“Lamb” was a Roald Dahl story again. While his children’s books (James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) could be delightful, his short stories were often quite creepy, just the thing Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The surprise and often-macabre endings to the stories are reminiscent of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone though without aliens.
Critic Sydney Gottlieb said that “Alfred Hitchcock succeeded and created a unique style, and once established, even he couldn’t escape it.” Hitch agreed. “I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.”
Often called the master of “suspense” Hitchcock excelled at setting up situations where the viewer knows more than the character, or sees something that the character is unaware of. If you’ve ever yelled, “Don’t go in there!” at the television screen, you know how powerful this kind of suspense can be.
And yet he reveled in humor and believed that there needed to be laughs to balance out the suspense. For the series the humorous opens and closes were as compelling as the stories, which Hitch seemed to realize and played to the hilt.
As Time Magazine observed: “what most viewers wait for is Hitchcock’s deadpan, devastating comments on the show’s Bristol-Myers commercials. He ordinarily treats them with a disdain that is the equivalent of a fastidious man brushing a particularly repellent caterpillar off his lapel.”
After one drama, Hitchcock said gloomily: “As you know, someone must always pay the piper. Fortunately, we already have such a person. This philanthropic gentleman wishes to remain anonymous, but perhaps the more discerning of our audience will be able to find a clue to his identity in the following commercial.”
Another time, he observes: “You know, I believe commercials are improving every day. Next week we hope to have another one-equally fascinating and, if time permits, we shall bring you another story.”
And so he did for ten years and it made him a very rich man. In 1964, Hitchcock would sell the rights to the series, as well as to Psycho in exchange for approximately 150,000 shares of MCA stock, which made him the company’s third-largest shareholder.
But he was not really a Hollywood kind of guy. He fell in love with Northern California after shooting Rebecca near Carmel. Shortly thereafter he bought his “country home” and vineyard in Scott’s Valley finding many excuses to shoot in San Francisco and the Bay Area.
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