There are more books written about the feature films of Alfred Hitchcock than perhaps any other filmmaker, yet his substantial body of work for TV tends to be glossed over as a mere footnote.
While naturally lacking the budget and scope afforded the features, the 20-odd films that Hitch directed for TV often reveal the same themes and mischievous sense of humour familiar to even the most casual fan.
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Most of these can be found amid the 268 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the widely-syndicated half-hour show that ran from 1955 to 1962. The iconic silhouette and theme song (Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette) that opened each episode helped cement Hitchcock’s position as Hollywood’s most famous filmmaker.
As he put it himself in the pilot episode: “I shall not act in these stories but will only make appearances – something in the nature of an accessory before and after the fact, to give the title to those of you who can’t read and to tidy up afterwards for those who don’t understand the endings.”
Here’s some of the best TV directed by Leytonstone’s favourite son…
Described by the director as “a sweet little story” in his introduction, Revenge was the first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be broadcast. It tells of a newlywed couple making a fresh start in a trailer park by the sea, following the wife’s recovery from a nervous breakdown. When she’s assaulted in her husband’s absence, regressing to a catatonic state, he takes matters into his own hands. Was she really attacked? The husband kills the perpetrator she identifies regardless. Two minutes later she singles out another. Hitchcock’s droll commentary comes after the fact: “Well, they were a pathetic couple.”
A hard-hearted businessman (Joseph Cotten) gets his comeuppance when his car crashes into a prison work-gang. Paralysed from the neck down, the steering wheel wedged against his throat, he’s presumed dead by the escaped prisoners, who strip him of his clothes. Breakdown is told in a series of static shots – morbid close-ups and fixed POVs – with the helpless internal narration we hear escalating as the man is transferred to the morgue, everyone oblivious to the minuscule movement of his tapping finger. One of Hitchcock’s best episodes, even if he bottles taking it to the wickedest conclusion.
Back for Christmas (1956)
Sleazy intro from Hitch aside, this is one of the best episodes in the first series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. John Williams (not that one), fed up playing the role of henpecked husband, is digging a new ‘wine cellar’ in the basement – the size of the hole corresponding exactly to his wife’s proportions. Offing the missus and enjoying his new life in the States (“Beer for breakfast!”), he receives a letter from beyond the grave that serves as an unexpected ticket home. The cheeky black comedy of Hitch’s direction tickles, but it’s the nonchalant delivery of action and dialogue from Williams’ middle-class twit that seals the deal.
One More Mile to Go (1957)
A broken tail-light leads to a run-in with the law. We know David Wayne has his wife’s body in the boot of his car from the extended opening shot, which saw him smash her head in with a poker. Is the motorcycle cop who pulls him over going to force him to open it? One More Mile to Go is a straightforwardly brilliant exercise in suspense, which prefigures Janet Leigh’s journey to a certain motel. The first half of the episode plays out dialogue-free, as Wayne takes to the road to dispose of the corpse. It’s the most tightly wound of Hitchcock’s ‘getting away with murder’ episodes.
Four O’Clock (1957)
Before Alfred Hitchcock Presents expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hitch executive-produced the single-season run of Suspicion for NBC. He only directed the pilot, but it’s the best of his hour-long episodes. Perfectly demonstrating his description (to François Truffaut) of the difference between ‘surprise’ and ‘suspense’, it borrows from Breakdown the interior narration, as a watchmaker finds himself tied up and gagged by burglars, then awaiting the hour at which the bomb he’s laid for his cheating wife is set to explode. The ending is superb: all crazed close-ups as the ticking of the bomb intensifies before a white-out into a coda steeped in madness.
Lamb to the Slaughter (1958)
Hitchcock’s sponsors (to whom he mockingly defers in his introductions) insisted that if any episode sees a crime going unpunished the perpetrator must be admonished in the coda. Lamb to the Slaughter – perhaps the best known of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes – proved one such example. The first of six Roald Dahl stories adapted for the series (four of which were directed by Hitch), it sees Vertigo’s Barbara Bel Geddes clobber her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, before serving it to the investigating officers. It’s deliciously macabre, and the final shot of Bel Geddes smirking to herself as the police tuck in foreshadows the shot of a strait-jacketed Anthony Perkins at the end of Psycho (1960).
Dip in the Pool (1958)
Another Dahl adaptation, and one of Hitchcock’s funniest episodes. The title refers both to an after-dinner gambling pool in which the passengers on a cruise make a bet on how far the ship has sailed that day, and the ill-conceived last resort taken by our protagonist in a bid to avoid bankruptcy. Hitchcock has great fun skewering the upwardly-mobile pretensions of the central couple: she pontificating on her plans for a grand European tour; he over-tipping and over-talking. He then takes great pleasure in dishing out the comeuppance.
One more Dahl for our list, this one a confined exercise in amplified suspense. A man has been lying in bed all day, unable to move an inch because of the poisonous snake asleep under the sheets on his stomach. A friend arrives, his initial disbelief giving way as he realises it’s a situation of which he can take advantage. When the doctor finally arrives, tensions rise as they discuss means to get the man out of bed without harming him. The ending has a sting in the tail, but it’s the series of sweaty close-ups and steady-handed manoeuvres that quicken the pulse.
Banquo’s Chair (1959)
John Williams again, here effectively reprising his role from Dial M for Murder (1954) as a cunning detective out to solve a murder. This time he’s retired, taking a break from birdwatching to settle an unsolved case with an outlandish plan. Inviting the accused to dinner at the scene of the crime, Williams intends to elicit a confession by hiring an actress to play the victim’s ghost. “We won’t bring her on with the soup, that would be rushing it. We’ll bring her on with the pheasant.” The spectre appears, the man confesses, only for the actress to turn up at the end, apologising for missing the show. A rare foray into the supernatural for Hitchcock, it’s perhaps his most handsomely mounted episode, beautifully shot by Psycho cinematographer John L. Russell.
Bang! You’re Dead (1961)
“Despite the fact this has been introduced with my usual flippancy,” says Hitch at the start of the episode, “it concerns a very serious subject and I would be doing you a disservice if I led you to regard it lightly.” It’s certainly lost none of its power in the nearly 60 years since it aired. A boy is playing cowboys when he finds a real gun in the suitcase of a visitor. Loading the weapon and taking to the streets, the boy takes imaginary shots at passers-by, the bullet edging ever-closer to the chamber. What follows is a superlative exercise in suspense that echoes the bomb-on-a-bus sequence in Sabotage (1936), albeit without that scene’s mean-spirited conclusion.