Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Seasons 4 and 5

31 01 2011

Continuing our look at episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” directed by the master of suspense, we move on to seasons four and five.

In season four of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Hitch direct only two episodes. The first is called “Poison,” based on a story by Roald Dahl, which aired on October 5, 1958.

Set on the south sea island of Malaya, the story takes place after midnight as Timber Woods (Wendell Corey) returns to his quonset hut home after a party. He finds his business partner, Harry Pope (James Donald), lying rigidly in bed, covered in sweat. Pope swears that while he was reading, a poisonous snake slid into bed and curled up on his stomach, and that he’s been lying completely still for hours.

Woods laughs it off, saying that Pope is drunk as usual, but Pope insists that he’s not, and that he needs help. Woods decides to grab the thing, but Pope won’t let him. They decide to call for a doctor to come with venom antidote, and while they wait for the doctor, Woods torments Pope, threatening to tell his girlfriend about his alcoholism unless he gives up his half of the business. Pope, struggling not to move or cough, has no choice but to agree.

The doctor arrives and administers the serum, but is still worried about the snake. He decides to try putting the thing to sleep with chloroform, which he pours down a tube inserted under the bedsheets. After waiting a few minutes, the doctor and woods gently pull the sheet back to find no snake. Pope is certain that there was a snake, but Woods laughs it off, sending the doctor on his way.

Still laughing at his former partner, Woods offers him a drink. Pope throws it in his face, but Woods shrugs it off and takes a seat on the bed. Yawning, he puts his head down on the pillow, and the snake strikes. Woods is poisoned, and there’s no way to reach the doctor in time.

The master of suspense lets the suspense build slowly but surely in “Poison.” Until the very end, we’re not quite sure whether or not there is a snake in that bed, and when we find the answer, the snake does just what we want him to by poisoning the bad guy. The episode echoed season one’s “Breakdown,” as both feature a protagonist who cannot move, for very different reasons, of course. Hitchcock, meanwhile, discusses his new device for discouraging pickpockets: a snake in his coat pocket.

John Williams returns in “Banquo’s Chair,” broadcast on May 3, 1959. Set outside of London in 1903, the story must have appealed greatly to Hitchcock, as it is from a rather similar mold to his early film “The Lodger.” Here, Williams plays Mr. Brent, formerly a police detective, who’s played a visit to a Major Cockfinch (Reginald Gardiner), who recently bought a house where a woman had been killed two years before. Brent had investigated the murder but never resolved it, but now that he’s retired, he’s determined to find the answer using some unorthodox means.

At the time of the murder, Brent had suspected young Roger Bedford of killing the woman, his aunt. He was her only heir, but at the time, he had an alibi. At the time, Brent had no way of disproving Bedford’s story; now, however, a new production of “Macbeth” has opened on the London stage, starring a woman who’s a dead ringer for the victim. Brent has convinced her to dress as Bedford’s aunt to startle a confession out of him.

Brent has invited Bedford to dinner with Cockfinch under the pretext that some new evidence in the aunt’s killing has surfaced. Brent puts off that topic till after the meal, though, and while they eat and talk, the woman appears in the shadows of the next room, looking for all the world like an apparition. Bedford, who’s been growing increasingly nervous the whole evening, jumps out of his seat and threatens to kill her again, at which point a police officer enters the room to arrest him.

While Bedford is led away, Brent and Cockfinch congratulate each other, and the woman playing the aunt joins them. The woman apologizes, saying she’s just arrives, and asks if she’s too late. Brent stares into the camera in shock.

“Banquo’s Chair” is an old-fashioned ghost story, and if it’s hoary, it’s also fun to watch as Hitchcock revisits the kind of tale that appealed to him since he had been a boy.

Williams, a favorite character actor of Hitchcock’s, appeared in seven more episodes of the series which were directed by others.

Season five, like season four, featured only two episodes directed by Hitchcock. In “Arthur,” first shown on September 27, 1959, Laurence Harvey plays a chicken farmer with a modern, scientific approach to his trade. Wearing a white lab coat, he tells the story of how he became a murderer. It began when his girlfriend, Helen (Lauren Court), tells him that she’s breaking off their engagement to marry someone else.

Arthur takes the news coolly, letting Helen go without much of a fight, but when she returns to him a year later, after leaving her husband, he views her with a cynical eye. He now sees how demanding she is, and before she talks him into accepting her back into his life, he sneaks up behind her and strangles the life out of her.

Things heat up with Arthur’s police sergeant friend, played by Patrick Macnee, traces Helen to Arthur’s farm. Arthur tells his story so simply that he believes he’s thrown the sergeant off his trail, but the police haven’t given up. While Arthur is away, they tear the farm apart and find nothing. Eventually, the police give up, and Arthur finishes his story by explaining that he got rid of Helen’s body by grinding it up and mixing it into the chicken feed.

Hitchcock’s introduction to this episode has him taking up chicken farming as well, but he can’t seem to get his hens to lay geometrically shaped eggs.

The fun of “Arthur” is mostly in the performances, as the punch line – how he disposes of the body – is not much of a surprise. As in “Lamb to the Slaughter,” it’s hard to believe the police wouldn’t look in the right place for evidence of murder.

Hitchcock directed only one more episode in this season: “The Crystal Trench,” which premiered on October 4, 1959. It’s an enjoyable throwback to Hitchcock’s films of the late 1930s, particularly “Secret Agent.” Set around 1910 at the Schwarzhorn peak in the Alps, possibly in Austria, the story concerns mountain climbing and icy death.

The episode stars James Donald as the British mountain climber who’s been asked to tell a fellow hotel guest, Patricia Owens, that her husband has died while climbing the Schwarzhorn. Owens can’t believe it, but after speaking to the climbers’ mountain guide, played by Werner Klemperer, she realizes that her husband is indeed gone. Donald reluctantly agrees to climb the mountain himself to recover the body, but when he finds it precariously perched, and when he and his companions attempt to recover it, it falls off the mountain and into a glacier.

Donald, meanwhile, has a realization of his own – that he is falling in love with this young widow. She, however, is determined to keep the memory of her late husband alive, saying that she will never remarry. Months go by, and Donald asks her to marry him, but she refuses. She then takes him with her to meet a scientist who explains the glacier’s movement. Donald realizes that Owens intends to recover the body of her late husband when it emerges from the glacier – in forty years time!

We next see Donald and Owens forty years later, gray and wrinkled, as several workers dig at the glacier’s edge. They find the body as predicted, perfectly preserved by the ice, giving us a poignant moment of reunion between the young husband and his wife, now so much older than him. The moment is shattered, though, when Donald takes a locket off the body to show Owens. When he opens it, the picture inside is not of Owens but of another young woman.

“The Crystal Trench” has a strong impact because instead of being about a mere murder, it’s about a wasted life.

Hitchcock himself does some mountain climbing in the introduction, cutting a rope that’s in his way – and that happens to have his business partner on the other end. With false innocence, he sends the partner to his doom, watching him fall and then saying, “I seem to have made a faux pas.”

Advertisements




Alfred Hitchcock Travels “North by Northwest”

25 01 2011

“In this picture nothing was left to chance, and that’s why, when it was over, I took a very firm stand. I’d never worked for M-G-M before, and when it was edited, they put on a lot of pressure to have me eliminate a whole sequence at the end of the picture. I refused.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“North by Northwest,” Hitchcock’s final picture of the 1950s, put a cap on his most productive and successful decade while revisiting many of his past themes one last time. Written by Ernest Lehman, the movie starred Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, along with many other fine actors. Lehman signed on to work on the film based on two concepts: One was Hitchcock’s idea about a chase across Mount Rushmore, in which the hero would hide in Lincoln’s nose. (One of the film’s working titles was “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose,” in fact.) The other was a tale from World War II about women working in an inactive intelligence office who made up an operative with such a high degree of detail that the Germans actually tried to find this fictitious agent.

Grant plays Madison Avenue ad man Roger Thornhill, whose life runs like a whirlwind; at the start of the picture, he’s grabbing a taxi with his secretary in tow. She taking notes from him on who to call and where to send flowers, never missing a beat, until he gets out and sends her back to the office to carry out his instructions.

At his club, where he’s meeting clients, Grant realizes that he needs to tell his secretary one more thing. He flags down a waiter who’s calling for a George Kaplan, leading two thugs standing at the door to decide that Thornhill is Kaplan. They hustle him into a car and drive him to a Long Island mansion with the name “Townsend” on the lawn, where Thornhill is questioned by a man played by James Mason, who we later learn is Phillip Vandamm. Vandamm can’t get anything out of Thornhill except protestations that he is not Kaplan, so Vandamm decides to get rid of him. He has his thugs pour boubon down his throat until he’s hammered, then put him in a car on a cliffside highway. Thornhill manages to drive the car until he’s pulled over by the police, who arrest him for drunk driving. (Grant had been driven by drunk women before in Hitchcock’s “Notorious” and “To Catch a Thief.” Nice that he got to do his own drunk driving this time out!)

The next morning, Thornhill is bailed out by his mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis, and his attorney, played by Edward Platt. With two local police detectives, they visit the mansion to see if Thornhill’s story of attempted murder is true, but Thornhill is greeted by a woman who convinces everyone but him that he had been a guest at a party and had gotten drunk on his own.

Thornhill and his mother head back to Manhattan and visit George Kaplan’s room at the Plaza, but learn nothing about Kaplan other than, based on his clothes, he can’t look much like Thornhill. Thornhill takes a cab to the United Nations, where Townsend is about to address the General Assembly – and Thornhill believes that his captor was this Townsend. The real Townsend stops to chat with Thornhill, but as they talk, Townsend collapses, a knife in his back. A crowd forms as Thornhill runs, now wanted for murder.

Spectacular bird's-eye view shot of Grant running out of the U.N.

On Kaplan’s trail, Thornhill goes to Grand Central Station to catch a train to Chicago. Onboard he bumps into Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who hides him from the police. She takes a liking to him, and when they reach Chicago, she tells him that she knows Kaplan. She gets on the phone and arranges a meeting, although Thornhill is unaware that she is working for Vandamm.

In one of the most famous sequences of Hitchcock’s career, Thornhill takes a bus from Chicago into farm country, where he’s to meet the elusive Kaplan. A crop dusting biplane turns toward Thornhill, swooping down and almost hitting him before opening fire. Thornhill takes refuge in a cornfield but is smoked out by the crop dust. Reaching the highway again, Thornhill flags down a gasoline truck, nearly getting run over himself. The plane swoops in low, smashing into the truck and exploding. Thornhill steals one of a rubbernecker’s truck and shoots back to Chicago.

He confronts Kendall at her hotel, but she claims not to know what happened to Kaplan. She slips out for a meeting, and Thornhill follows her to an auction where she meets Vandamm and his right hand man, Leonard (played by a young Martin Landau). After making some ugly accusations against Kendall, Thornhill sees that he is surrounded by Vandamm’s goons. He disrupts the auction and is arrested, but after receiving special instructions, the police take him to an airport.

There Thornhill meets the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), who works for the U.S. government. He explains that there is no Kaplan; he was invented to distract attention from Kendall, who is a double agent working against Vandamm, trying to stop him from leaving the country with microfilm hidden in a Buddha – the film’s Macguffin. The Professor gets Thornhill to agree to help, since he his harsh words at the auction have put Kendall’s life in danger.

Thornhill accompanies the Professor to Rapid City, South Dakota, where, pretending to actually be Kaplan, he meets Vandamm at the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Thornhill proposes to let Vandamm leave the country that night with the microfilm in exchange for the girl, but when she hears this, she pulls a gun and shoots him. Vandamm and Leonard rush out of the cafeteria, and Thornhill his taken away in an ambulance to a wooded spot where we see that he miraculously is unharmed, thanks to the blanks in Kendall’s gun. They make up, but she has to go join Vandamm for his flight out of the country so that he does not suspect her true mission.

Thornhill is horrified to hear this, and he slips out of the hospital where the professor has stashed him. He makes his way to the mountainside house of Vandamm and overhears Leonard telling his boss that Kendall has betrayed him, and that it’s time to get rid of her. Thornhill gets a message to Kendall, and as Vandamm and Leonard escort her to the airplane and her doom, she grabs the Buddha and runs to Thornhill’s side.

The two of them are chased across Mount Rushmore by Leonard and another of Vandamm’s men. They nearly fall to their deaths, and Thornhill tries to lighten to mood by proposing marriage. As they try to hold on, Leonard finds them and steps on Thornhill’s fingers, but is shot by a park ranger. Thornhill pulls Kendall to safety, and in one of the fastest scene changes in film history, Thornhill is suddenly pulling Kendall into the upper berth of a train car, as they are now safe and married.

Cary Grant himself claimed he could not follow the plot of “North by Northwest,” and while the story is very elaborate, it actually holds together well. Hitchcock even goes to the trouble of having Vandamm address the mystery of who killed Lester Townsend at the U.N.; this was more explanation than Hitch usually bothered with.

If Ernest Lehman set out to create the ultimate Hitchcock film, he certainly succeeded in style and in references to previous works, especially “The 39 Steps”; Roger Thornhill is the latest in a long line of wrongly accused heroes in Hitchcock’s films. Most of all, the movie recalls “The 39 Steps,” with its chase-driven plot, its fascination with trains and a mystery woman who, this time, gives the hero refuge. Its auction scene echoes “The Skin Game,” and the fall from Mount Rushmore hearkens back to “Saboteur.”

The many locales in “North by Northwest” give Hitchcock the chance to create one set piece after another; Hitchcock was known for his action sequences in interesting places, from the chase at the British Museum in “Blackmail” to the fight on the merry-go-round in “Strangers on a Train.” Here, key moments occur at a luxurious Long Island Mansion, at New York’s Plaza Hotel, at the United Nations, at Grand Central Station and at Mount Rushmore. Even the barren landscape of the airplace sequence takes on a special significance as Roger Thornhill strains to locate George Kaplan.

Like “Saboteur,” another of Hitchcock’s chase movies, “North by Northwest” blazes from one American locale to another; the two movies also kill off their villains with a fall from a patriotic monument – in “Saboteur,” it was the Statue of Liberty. But “North by Northwest” is much more fast-paced and busy than “Saboteur,” which had a meandering feel to it. Here, Roger Thornhill is in constant pursuit of George Kaplan; his goal is well-defined and never out of mind.

Hitchcock on the set, skipping his normal suit and tie on a hot day.

Hitchcock said that with the exception of the train going into the tunnel at the very end of the picture, “North by Northwest” was devoid of symbolism, yet I’d suggest that Roger Thornhill’s famous gray suit had meaning, as it stamps Thornhill as a New York ad man. The other moment of symbolism occurs when Thornhill shaves in a public bathroom at Grand Central Station, using a tiny razor from the train. Thornhill responds to a scowl from another man with a helpless shrug; surely the tiny razor represents Thornhill’s powerlessness in his situation?

This was Cary Grant’s last film with Hitchcock, and as always, he makes a dashing hero, even when he’s confused and scowling. James Mason is a delightfully slimy villain, certainly the equal of Claude Rains in “Notorious.” Eva Marie Saint lives up to her part in the film, and Martin Landau is dismissive of women as he drops hints about his character’s homosexuality, mentioning his “women’s intuition,” and admitting that he’s jealous of Vandamm’s relationship with Kendall.

The opening credits are designed once again by Saul Bass, who starts with type against a green background, then introduces an isometric grid which slowly reveals New York City. We see shot after shot of crowded sidewalks, followed by a bus pulling into the street just as Hitchcock dashes toward it. It’s one of Hitch’s more clever cameos, and he gets it out of the way almost immediately, setting the pace for the story to come.

It took a long time to settle on the title “North by Nortwest,” a phrase that comes from “Hamlet,” and which Hitch manages to reference by putting Thornhill and the Professor on a Northwest Airlines flight. Working titles included “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose,” “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,” and “In a Northwesterly Direction.” Whatever the names it might have had, “North by Northwest” remains one of Hitchcock’s most enjoyable and lighthearted films.

In the trailer, Hitchcock plays travel agent, taking advantage of his growing recognizability from his duties as host of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Next, we’ll look at “Psycho,” a film that launched Alfred Hitchcock in a new direction and gave us the modern horror film.





Alfred Hitchcock Experiences “Vertigo”

17 01 2011

“I was intrigued by the hero’s attempts to re-create the image of a dead woman through another one who’s alive.” — Alfred Hitchcock

With “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock explored some of his most challenging psychological terrain, and his thoughts on the movie cut right to the heart of what makes it so compelling and disturbing. Released in 1958 and starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes, “Vertigo” was based on the French novel D’entre les morts, published in 1954.

Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco police officer who was forced to leave his job after his acrophobia causes the death of a fellow cop. While trying to pick up the pieces, he is contacted by college classmate who wants to hire him as a private investigator to follow his wife. The man, Gavin Elster, doesn’t believe she is having an affair, but does not know what to make of her strange behavior.

Ferguson explains this all to his friend, an artist called Midge (Bel Geddes), who’s in love with him. (She’s sort of a beatnik – you can tell because she calls Ferguson “Johnny-O.”) Ferguson begins to follow the beautiful, blond Madeleine Elster (Novak) as she leads him in her green Rolls Royce through a series of strange stops: A flower shop, where she looks almost wrapped in fog in her gray suit, a mission cemetery, and a museum where she sits in front of the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, who died in the late 19th century. Her final stop is at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps into the water. Ferguson saves her from drowning and takes her back to his apartment.

When Madeleine regains her senses, Ferguson tries to question her, but she seems vague on the details of where she’s been and what she did. While Ferguson talks on the phone with Madeleine’s husband, he learns that Valdes was her great-grandmother, and that she killed herself after a tragic life.

Ferguson and Madeleine begin spending time together, and she reveals that she has thoughts of suicide that she must repress. After telling him about a bad dream, Ferguson takes Madeleine to the scene she describes at the Mission San Juan Batista. As he tries to bring her back to earth by showing her that her dream was not just a fantasy but a real place, he reveals that he’s falling in love with her. Looking more anxious than ever, Madeleine breaks away and rushes up to the bell tower. Ferguson follows, but can’t reach her due to an attack of vertigo, and as he struggles to climb the stairs, he sees her fall to her death.

After an inquest that clears Ferguson of wrongdoing but damns him for his weakness, Elster forgives him, but Ferguson himself is haunted by Madeleine’s death. He experiences a mental breakdown that’s expressed in a series of nightmarish images: Abstract animation that resembles the bouquet of primroses seen in the painting of Valdes, followed by an open grave and images of himself falling, shot in lurid reds. Ferguson is committed to an asylum for a time, unaware when Midge visits him.

Upper left, an image from the title sequence. Upper center and right and lower left, images from John Ferguson's nightmare; lower center, Madeleine's bouquet; lower right, Judy remade as Madeleine, enveloped in hazy green light.

Months later, Ferguson is released again, and he wanders the streets of San Francisco, visiting all the places where Madeleine had been. Eventually he spots a young woman who reminds him of Madeleine in a way. He talks his way into her hotel room, learning that her name is Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas. Although she does not seem to resemble Madeleine, with her auburn hair, plain green dress and less refined manner, Ferguson can’t stop himself from becoming obsessed with her. After getting her to agree to have dinner with him, she starts to write him a letter explaining that she was Madeleine, hired by Elster to take the place of his real wife so he could murder her, knowing that Ferguson would not be able to reach the top of the tower to see what was really happening.

After their dinner together, Ferguson begins to make her over, forcing her to get her hair bleached and finding her a gray suit like Madeleine’s. When Judy steps out of her bathroom in the suit, bathed in a hazy green light, Ferguson looks like he’s seeing an apparition. The illusion is shattered, though, when Judy asks Ferguson to help her with a necklace – the same necklace that Valdes wore in the museum portrait.

Realizing what’s been going on, Ferguson takes Judy on a drive back to the mission, where he makes her ascend the bell tower as he talks out what happened: That Elster used him and his acrophobia to create a case that Madeleine was mentally unstable so he could get away with murder. Halfway up the stairs, Ferguson realizes that his vertigo has gone away. Judy tries to explain what happened, and says that she loves Ferguson. Just then, a figure appears in the shadows. Ferguson turns to see who it is, and Judy, started by the intrusion, takes a step back and falls out the window to her death.

For foreign markets, Hitchcock was forced to create a coda that showed Midge listening to the radio report on Judy’s death and the impending arrest of Elster. As the report ends, Ferguson enters the apartment, looking completely exhausted. As Hitchcock himself might have said, the scene was simply too on the nose.

“Vertigo” may be the bleakest film Hitchcock ever made; the only light moment is the start of the scene at the beginning of the film, where Ferguson and Midge chat in her apartment; it plays like something out of “Rear Window,” in fact. From the death of Ferguson’s fellow police officer at the start of the movie to the way he thinks he sees the dead Madeleine everywhere to the end – how will Ferguson recover from Judy’s death, one wonders – the atmosphere is almost oppressive.James Stewart, in his last role for Hitchcock, looks desperate, panting and sweating as he tries to unravel the mystery. As Madeleine, Kim Novak is distracted and confused; as Judy, she is sullen and resentful. Even Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge is hopelessly in love with Ferguson, knowing that he’ll never see how much she cares for him.

Hitch’s quote about “Vertigo” speaks to the most disturbing part of the movie, but also reflects the director’s own attitude toward actresses; Novak resisted wearing blond wigs for the part of Madeleine, and also did not wish to wear gray. Hitch’s response was that she could wear any color she wanted, as long as it was gray. (The part of Madeleine originally was to be played by Vera Miles, who had to drop out due to pregnancy.)

A dream-like quality pervades “Vertigo,” integrating the unbalanced psyches of Madeleine and Ferguson much more successfully than Hitchcock’s last exploration of similar territory in “Spellbound.” Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks bathes the settings and characters in shades of reds and greens, giving everything a surreal quality (without resorting to melting watches!). The setting itself contributes to the story, from the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge to the phallic Coit Tower, from downtown San Francisco’s bustle to the quiet of the mission.

Of course, with a long sequence focusing on giving a woman a complete

Madeleine's hairstyle has a vortex all its own

makeover, costuming is enormously important here, and once again Edith Head’s contribution should not be overlooked. The contrast between Madeleine and Judy’s wardrobes tell us much about the two personas.

Bernard Herrmann once again creates a soundtrack that propels the story along, with swirling themes that emphasize the characters’ situations. Although overshadowed by his work on “Psycho,” the music for “Vertigo” is as compelling as the story itself.

“Vertigo” also featured the work of title designer Saul Bass, a newcomer to Hitchcock’s team. Bass had already set a new standard his field, making the title sequence a significant part of the movie for the first time. Here, Bass sets the tone of the movie, starting with a woman’s face under a red light, then moving in on her eye, from which emerges the first few credits. A series of swirling designs appears as the titles continue, until the eye reappears as the credits sequences comes to an end. Bass also designed the poster for “Vertigo,” which looks almost European, as it eschews the stars’ faces entirely.

Here’s the trailer for “Vertigo.” Not one of the best, considering how powerful the movie itself is — the dictionary definition of vertigo is mighty corny – but still worth a look:

Next, Hitchcock teams up one last time with Cary Grant for “North by Northwest,” Hitch’s greatest chase movie.





Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” Season Three

12 01 2011

We continue our look “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” with episodes from season three directed by Hitch himself. As in season two, Hitch directed just three episodes of the series this time out.

Alfred Hitchcock’s first episode in season three of his TV series is “The Perfect Crime,” broadcast on October 20, 1957, and starring Vincent Price and James Gregory, best known as Inspector Luger from the TV series “Barney Miller.” It’s essentially a two-man show, with Price as a self-important detective and Gregory as a defense attorney in New York City, around the 1920s.

Gregory has paid a visit to Price’s apartment to talk about a murder case Price had solved involving a small handgun that’s part of his display of murder weapons. Price tells the story of that case, explaining how he solved the murder, and how criminals always make obvious mistakes that allow him to catch them.

The tables turn when Gregory explains that there’s another side of the story: the truth, which is that Price sent the wrong person to the electric chair. Confronted with the truth, Price agrees to stay away from Gregory’s clients, but then turns and strangles Gregory. We rejoin Price sometime later, on his return from a vacation, when he’s being visited by reporters, and he drops a few hints to tell us he had burned the body and put the ashes in a vase.

Production codes being what they were at the time, Hitchcock used his final segment to explain that a cleaning woman knocked over the vase only to find gold fillings among the ashes, which implicated Price in the death of Gregory. “The Perfect Crime” is a fun, chatty tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, with a teleplay by Stirling Silliphant, who later wrote “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

Barbara Bel Geddes stars in “Lamb to the Slaughter,” adapted for television by Roald Dahl from his own story and first seen on April 13, 1958. In this episode, perhaps the best known from the entire run of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Bel Geddes plays pregnant housewife Mary Malone, who awaits her police captain husband’s return at the end of the workday. When he arrives he acts withdrawn and uncommunicative, but she tries to help him, offering to cancel their dinner plans and fix something simple.

As she walks toward the kitchen, her husband finally speaks, explaining that he intends to divorce her. She begs him not to, but he refuses to discuss the matter. Looking shaken to the core, she go to the freezer to get a piece of meat for his dinner. She selects a large leg of lamb, unwraps it, carries it to where he stands in the living room, and smashes in his head with it. Then, after making sure he’s dead, she goes ahead and puts the murder weapon in the oven to cook.

As she had planned earlier, she slips out to the corner store for some vegetables. On her return home, she calls the police and messes up the living room to make it look like there had been a scuffle. The police soon arrive, question her and examine the room. The evening grows late, and she offers the police some of the dinner she had been cooking for her late husband. The episode ends as the police enjoy the delicious weapon that killed their captain.

“Lamb to the Slaughter” is a fun episode, full of dark humor, filmed in a fairly straightforward way. There’s a bit of split-second editing when Bel Geddes swings that leg of lamb; we see both her and her husband as she swings, and then – an edit! – followed by a closeup of just her as he is struck.

Bel Geddes made several other appearances in the series, as well as acting for Hitchcock again in “Vertigo.”

Keenan Wynn plays an American traveller, Mr. Butibol, on the Queen Mary in “Dip in the Pool,” based on another story by Roald Dahl that ran on June 1, 1958. His wife has just inherited some money from a relative, and while she wants to tour Europe, he would rather spend time in the casinos. After dressing for dinner in his favorite gaudy plaid jacket, he meets with a man he’s befriended on the voyage, who is both more worldly and more wealthy.

The friend and his wife find Butibol a bit on the gauche side, but the man puts up with him, agreeing to a drink after dinner “at the pool.” The pool, it turns out, is not for swimming – it’s a daily auction of lots to bet on the day’s travel. Later, at the auction, Butibol tries to use what information he’s gleaned from various members of the ship’s crew before bidding most of his remaining money on the low end of the estimated miles travelled.

The next morning, Butibol awakens to realize that the ship is making better speed than expected – and that he is likely to lose. Then, he concocts a plan: He’s going to find someone to witness him falling into the water. The ship will be forced to stop while he is rescued, drastically cutting its progress so that he can win the pool. Unfortunately, the woman he picks is a poor choice. She watches him jump overboard rather serenely, and when her mother comes along, we learn that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown. Her mother tells her there was no man, and that is the end of Butibol.

Wynn is always fun to watch, and his coarse manner makes him believable as a social climber. On an odd note, the wife of Butibol’s friend is played by Fay Wray. Also, Hitchcock’s intro and final notes show him on a deck chair, out at sea; during the opening, he’s reading a copy of the new “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.”





Alfred Hitchcock Introduces “The Wrong Man”

4 01 2011

“I thought the story would make an interesting picture if all the events were shown from the viewpoint of the innocent man, describing his suffering as a result of a crime committed by someone else.” – Alfred Hitchcock

At the end of 1956, Alfred Hitchcock found a way to combine his greatest theme – the wrongly accused man – with something new for him: a film based entirely in fact. The movie was “The Wrong Man,” starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles, and it brought to the screen the true story of Manny Balestrero, a musician who is arrested after being mistaken for a criminal.

The wrong man had been a favorite subject for Hitchcock going all the way back to “The Lodger,” including some of his greatest heroes, like Richard Hannay of “The 39 Steps” fame and John Robie from “To Catch a Thief.” There’s nothing particularly clever or witty about Balestrero, though. He lives in a small house in Queens, New York, with his wife and two small boys, eking out a living playing bass in the house band at The Stork Club. When Manny learns that his wife needs some expensive dental work, he decides to borrow against her life insurance policy, and it is during a visit to the insurance company’s office that his troubles begin.

One of the clerks at the office sees Balestrero and thinks she recognizes him as a hold-up man who had come to the office before. She calls the police, who arrest Balestrero as he arrives back at home. In a typically Hitchcockian way, the cops immediately start flexing their muscles, refusing to let Balestrero tell his wife where he’s going and insisting that if he works at the Stork Club, he must have lots of money, as well as insinuating that he is a drinker, a gambler, a drug addict or a womanizer. Balestrero insists that he is none of these things, but the police are determined to fit him to the robberies.

After being arraigned, Balestrero is released on bail, and he and his wife hire a lawyer and start to look for witnesses who can place him elsewhere during the robberies. As they fail to find anyone the strain begins to take a toll on Rose. She is distracted and anxious, and seems unable to focus on the people around her.

Balestrero’s case comes to trial, and on the stand his accusers are positive that he is guilty. The case comes to an abrupt halt, though, when one of the jurors stands up and asks the judge if “all this is really necessary.” A mistrial is declared, and while his lawyer says it’s a good thing, Balestrero is full of dread.

Meanwhile, Balestrero has been forced to have his wife committed, as she has become completely paranoid and withdrawn. Balestrero tries to go about his daily routine by continuing to play at the club. One night, while Balestrero is at work, a man fitting his description tries to hold up a grocery story, only to be stopped by the store’s owner. The man is arrested, and Balestrero is called to the police station to be told the good news: He has been cleared of any wrongdoing. As the robber is marched through the station, Balestrero stops him and says, “Don’t you realize what this has done to my wife?” Of course, the robber has no idea what he’s talking about.

Balestrero is a free man, but it’s a hollow victory, as his wife is unable to hear the good news. The film ends on a hopeful note, though, saying that two years later, Rose recovered and rejoined her family.

Manny Balestrero’s story had been told in Life Magazine and also in a book by Maxwell Anderson, who cowrote the screenplay to “The Wrong Man” with Angus MacPhail. Hitchcock delivers it in a terse, sombre film, shot in stark black and white by Robert Burks. Much of the movie was shot on location in New York, including The Stork Club, the subway and a local jail. Bernard Herrmann’s score perfectly echoes the tone of the story, with subdued, jazzy themes that accentuate Balestrero’s brooding tension.

Although Hitchcock had long wished to work with Fonda, he makes an odd Hitchcock hero. He’s timid, and through much of the movie seems unable to take control of his fate. Yet he has a quiet strength that allows him to keep looking for a way out of his predicament. Vera Miles is a great match for him; she, too, seems powerless over the forces around her. Unlike her husband, she collapses under the pressures of their situation. The character develops similarly to the woman Miles portrayed in the very first episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Miles had been signed by Hitchcock to an exclusive contract; it was the first time the director had made such a move. The idea was that Hitchcock would be able to develop the actress to suit his needs as well as controlling what roles she would play, in the hope of avoiding situations like the ones he had previously encountered with Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly, where their personal lives ultimately kept them from working with Hitchcock. Of course, this Svengali-like level of control over another person was a pipe dream, and Hitchcock’s working relationship with Miles would not last long.

“The Wrong Man” is an underrated gem, partly inspired by the Italian cinema verité classic “Bicycle Thieves.” It portrays a man living a life of quiet desperation, already struggling when his world begins to fall apart.

Hitchcock himself played an important role in the film. Rather than his usual cheeky cameo or the humorous lead ins he’d been providing on television, the director appeared at the start of the film on a darkened stage, introducing the picture as a real-life drama as gripping as any work of fiction. In the trailer for the film, Hitchcock’s commentary on Manny Balestrero’s story goes on in greater detail:

Next, James Stewart stars in “Vertigo,” one of Hitchcock’s most psychologically challenging films.





Alfred Hitchcock’s Collaborators: John Michael Hayes

2 01 2011

By the mid-1950s, Alfred Hitchcock’s working relationship with his writers had become very complex. On some pictures, Hitchcock, a writer, and Hitch’s wife and confidant, Alma Reville, would meet for a series of story conferences to discuss the movie in development, often over long, elaborate dinners. Hitchcock would describe the story and his ideas on everything from character to costuming to camera angles. After several of these meetings, the first writer would create a detailed treatment that could run upwards of fifty pages.

A second writer would be brought in to break the treatment down into the first draft screenplay. After revisions, Hitchcock might bring in a third writer to add information about the camera angles and settings. If needed, a fourth writer might polish the script, as Dorothy Parker had on “Saboteur” in 1942.

In 1954, Hitchcock began a four-picture collaboration with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. These four movies — “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” — represent some of Hitchcock’s most intelligent stories, with sophisticated, believable characters.

Nearly twenty years younger than Hitchcock, Hayes had been born in Worcester, Massachusetts. After working as a reporter for the Associated Press, he paid his dues in Hollywood as a writer for radio comedies and dramas including “The Adventures of Sam Spade,” “My Favorite Husband” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” He quickly gained a reputation as a prolific writer of scripts that were sharp, funny and exciting.

After writing only a handful of films, Hayes was invited by Hitchcock to meet in regard to a possible collaboration on “Rear Window.” Over dinner, Hitchcock asked whether Hayes was familiar with his movies. Hayes, who had been a projectionist in the Army, had indeed seen many of Hitchcock’s pictures, some dozens of times. Hayes launched into a detailed critique of the director’s films; afterward, Hayes was surprised that Hitchcock had hired him. He later learned that Hitchcock could remember little about their conversation other than Hayes talking a lot, as he had come from a cocktail party where he had had several drinks.

Hayes began work on “Rear Window,” creating a seventy-five page treatment that was considered so good that Paramount gave out copies of it to staff writers for years thereafter as an example of how to write a treatment. In “Rear Window,” Hayes creates a dynamic between photographer L.B. Jeffries and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont that is subtle and believable. They not only have to solve the murder; they also must make their relationship work.

Hayes takes a similar approach in “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” There is the surface problem: John Robie must not only prove his innocence but must also emerge from his life of isolation to form a bond with Francie Stevens; Sam Marlowe and Jennifer Rogers need to find out how Harry died so they and their friends can rest easy and so they can be married; Dr. Ben McKenna and Jo Conway McKenna must rescue their son while reconciling the conflicts between their two careers. Hayes loads his dialogue with meaning; characters don’t merely talk but give us insights into their motivations, their fears and desires.

The breakneck pace of Hitchcock’s production schedule kept Hayes constantly busy; while one picture was shooting or in post-production, Hayes was working on the treatments and scripts for the next ones. The movies were released to strong reviews that called out Hayes’ intelligent scripts in particular, raising his profile. Hitchcock may have begrudged Hayes his accolades; Hitchcock felt he had taught Hayes much of his craft, and that the writer was not sufficiently grateful. Also, Hayes’ fees were rising, which could not have made Hitchcock happy, despite the fact that that it was their work together, and Hitchcock’s direction, that improved Hayes’ standing as a writer. Hayes also dared to tell Hitchcock that he did not think “The Wrong Man” was a particularly good subject for a film.

The issue that broke up this collaboration effort was more complicated than hurt feelings, though. To expedite work on “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Hitchcock brought in another writer, Angus McPhail, who had worked on the script to “Spellbound” and on Hitchcock’s wartime propaganda films. McPhail sat in on the story sessions, contributing, to Hayes’ mind, very little, then wrote up the notes in a cursory manner. When McPhail’s name appeared side by side with Hayes in the credits for the film, Hayes lodged a complaint with Paramount Studios. The issue went before a Writers’ Guild of America abritration board, which ultimately decided in favor of Hayes. Hitchcock took Hayes’ action as a betrayal, and the two never worked together again.

In the mid-1960s, while Hitchcock struggled with the script to “Torn Curtain,” those closest to the director urged him to contact Hayes. Hitchcock never did so; Hayes later said that had Hitchcock reached out to him, he would have been happy to work with the Master of Suspense again.

After “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Hayes continued writing in Hollywood, with credits including “Peyton Place,” “Butterfield 8,” “The Children’s Hour” and “Nevada Smith.” He continued to write and also teach writing, and was honored with the Writers’ Guild Screen Laurels Awards in his later years. Hayes died on November 19, 2008.

You can read more about Hayes and Hitchcock’s collaboration in Steven DeRosa’s excellent book “Writing with Hitchcock,” which you can order here.








%d bloggers like this: