Alfred Hitchcock’s Two TV Rarities

23 02 2011

Besides seventeen episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and one episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” Hitch directed just two other television programs. The first, which was shown on September 30, 1957, was from the new series “Suspicion,” and like the “Suspense” radio series of the previous decade, Hitchcock directed its first episode, and in fact served as executive producer.

The hour-long story is called “Four O’Clock,” based on a story by Cornell Woolrich and starring E.G. Marshall as Paul, a clock and watch repairman who owns a small shop in a middle American town. Paul is a tightly wound man who has a reputation as being brusque but very good at his job. As the episode begins, we see him methodically working on an alarm clock: wiring it in some strange way, plugging it in, and using it to detonate a small charge.

His thoughts tell us that he’s planning something – he suspects something to do with his wife. Going home that evening, he sees bits of evidence that someone else has been in the house, and he decides that it’s a man. His wife is having an affair, and now he’s ready to kill them both by blowing up the house. His observations have told him that the man, whoever he is, comes by the house every afternoon – so Paul is going to set the bomb to go off at four o’clock.

The next night, Paul tries to give his wife a chance to confess, but she admits that she “had a good time” that afternoon, Paul can’t believe how calm she is. The next day, he slips into his basement during the day and sets up the bomb – but when he hears a noise from upstairs, he discovers that he’s being robbed. The thieves catch him, then gag him and tie him to a pipe in the basement where he can see the clock as it ticks down to the explosion. (As a side note, one of the thieves in Paul’s house is played by a young Harry Dean Stanton.)

Paul tries to get loose, but can’t; he also fails when he tries to break the ropes by rubbing them against the pipes. Upstairs, he hears his wife and a man, but listening closely, he realizes that it’s her brother. She’s been hiding him because he’s ex-convict, and she hasn’t worked up what to say to Paul about him coming to live with them. Paul tries to get their attention, but he can’t make enough noise, and soon, they decide to go to his shop to meet him.

Time continues to tick down, and Paul grows more and more frantic. He’s unable to get the attention of the gasman, and a small boy who peeks into the window is too small to explain to his mother that the man in the basement is in trouble. His thoughts scream that he’ll do anything to be free and safe. As Paul struggles and four o’clock grows closer, the ticking of the clock gets louder and louder and his heart pounds harder and harder.

We cut away to the outside of the house, where a crowd has gathered. In the basement, doctors are fitting Paul with a straightjacket as he mumbles to wife that he doesn’t mind if she takes a lover, only, he begs her, “Don’t leave me… don’t forget about me.” A copy trips over the power cord that’s connected to the timebomb, pulling it out of the wall. He looks at the setup and asks Paul’s wife if she could turn on a light so he can see whatever it is, and she says no, she can’t, because she blew a fuse in the basement that morning.

In this story that recalls Hitchcock’s 1936 movie “Sabotage,” it’s no surprise that the master of suspense keeps viewers on the edge of their seats as four o’clock gets closer and closer. There’s an absurdity in the situation, too, as Paul realizes how foolish his predicament is and pleads with anything and everything, even the clock itself, for help.

On April 5, 1960, the series “Ford Startime” broadcast Alfred Hitchcock’s one and only color TV episode: called “Incident at a Corner,” it starred Vera Miles and George Peppard and was set in another non-descript American town. The show begins outside a school, as an elderly crossing guard attempts to stop an oncoming car. The driver blows past his stop sign and parks, and a woman, Mrs. Tally, gets out. She’s late for a meeting at the school, but the crossing guard says that he has to report her to the police for not stopping. She is furious at this and berates him as a teacher listens to what’s going on.

Hitchcock pulls a mini “Rashomon” here, showing the scene over and over from several angles, and it’s in the final replay of the scene that we see another car nearby. A woman gets out of that car, hiding her face and rushing into a house, while her companion, an older man, watches Mrs. Tally yell at the crossing guard. Once both are inside, we hear the woman tell her companion that she knows that crossing guard, and that he’s going to give her away if she recognizes her. The man, played by Jack Albertson, reassures her, saying he’ll take care of the crossing guard.

Later, we see Vera Miles, playing Miss Medwick, granddaughter of the crossing guard. She’s tutoring a young man in math, but after receiving a phone call he abruptly leaves. Medwick’s fiance, played by George Peppard, joins the family to celebrate the old crossing guard’s birthday, but the party is interrupted by someone from school who has stopped by to tell old Mr. Medwick that he can’t be a crossing guard any more, because he’s been accused of getting too close to the little girls.

The story begins to examine the nature of rumor mongering, as the Medwick family begins to argue about how – and if – they should fight these rumors. On the one hand, it seems like there’s no real way to fight back, as they are only rumors. On the other, Peppard (not sure of his character’s name) insists that they have to clear the old man’s name if he’s going to continue living in their town.

Peppard and Miss Medwick take it upon themselves to talk to the school’s principal and the head of the PTA, who had received an accusatory note calling Mr. Medwick a vicious old man. They then interview the teacher who had witnessed the incident, and who reported that Mrs. Tally had called Medwick “a vicious old man.” But when they confront, she haughtily refuses to admit any wrongdoing, although they’re sure that she wrote the note in the first place.

After visiting the other teacher again and learning that Mrs. Tally had never called Mr. Medwick vicious – she actually called him officious – they are at a dead end, until Mr. Medwick remembers the other car that had been nearby. They find the house and knock on the door, and Medwick does indeed recognize the woman inside: She’s from his hometown, and had been an underage “burlesque” performer years before. She had been afraid that he would start rumors about her, but now that it’s all out in the open, Medwick promises to keep her secret.

“Incident at a Corner” doesn’t bear many of Hitchcock’s typical hallmarks, although it does have an air of creeping dread. The most memorable moments are the various versions of the opening and the moment when, after he’s just been fired and accused of being a child molester, Medwick gloomily opens his front door as his family sings “Happy Birthday” to him. George Peppard is a particularly seething angry young man, although, of course, he’s wearing a suit and tie throughout.


100 Moments with Alfred Hitchcock Part 1

28 09 2010

Recently, Roger Ebert posted his list of “100 Great Moments in the Movies” on his Chicago Sun-Times blog. After counting how many of those movies I’d seen (58!) I thought it would be fun to do something like it for our own Mr. Hitchcock. Since I’m only up to 1947 in his long career, I thought I’d split the list and post the first half now.

Here, then, are the first 50 of 100 Moments with Alfred Hitchcock, with annotations below:

  1. A cad is haunted by visions of a dead girl in “The Pleasure Garden.”
  2. A young woman’s silent scream opens Hitchcock’s first great movie, “The Lodger.”
  3. The Lodger (Ivor Novello) arrives at his new home, startling his landlady.
  4. An angry mob tries to kill the Lodger.
  5. Amateur boxer “One-Round” Jack Saunder is beaten by boxing champ Bob Corby in “The Ring”
  6. Ivor Novello rides down an escalator as he falls from grace in “Downhill”
  7. Farmer Sweetland makes a list of potential new brides in “The Farmer’s Wife.”
  8. A young divorcee gives herself up to the press after being humiliated in court at the end of “Easy Virtue.”
  9. A detective watches his quarry through the stem of a glass in “Champagne.”
  10. Hitchcock brings the Isle of Man to life in “The Manxman.”
  11. Hitchcock teases actress Anny Ondra in the sound test for “Blackmail.”
  12. A woman is forced to kill her attacker in “Blackmail.”
  13. The blackmailer is chased through the British Museum in “Blackmail.
  14. A back-alley speech about Ireland’s freedom is disrupted by gunfire in “Juno and The Paycock.”
  15. A cross-dressing killer leaps from the high-wire to his death in “Murder!”
  16. At an auction in “The Skin Game,” nouveau riche Edmund Gwenn outbids wealthy aristocrats.
  17. A young couple books passage home on a tramp steamer after an unsuccessful cruise, only to nearly die when the ship begins to sink in “Rich and Strange.”
  18. Hitchcock revisits his German expressionist roots with “Number 17.”
  19. Johann Strauss outshines his father when he conducts “The Blue Danube Waltz” in “Waltzes from Vienna.”
  20. Peter Lorre’s surprisingly charming terrorist in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
  21. Richard Hannay tries to hide from the police by kissing an unwilling fellow traveller in “The 39 Steps.” Unwilling fellow traveller immediately gives him up to the authorities.
  22. “Am I right, sir?” With his dying breath, Mr. Memory reveals the secret of “The 39 Steps.”
  23. Peter Lorre shoves the wrong man — a suspected spy — off a cliff to his death in “Secret Agent.”
  24. A saboteur is killed by his former comrades in the explosive finale to “Sabotage.”
  25. The spectacular tracking shot that takes viewers from an overhead view of a hotel lobby across a crowded dance floor and into the eyes of a killer in “Young and Innocent.”
  26. The rush to secure rooms in a crowded hotel lobby at the start of “The Lady Vanishes.”
  27. The young lovers of “The Lady Vanishes” enter the Foreign Office to find old Mrs. Froy alive and well after all.
  28. Charles Laughton climbs a ship’s mast, then throws himself to his death to avoid capture in “Jamaica Inn.”
  29. Joan Fontaine opens “Rebecca” with the line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again…”
  30. Mrs. Danvers drives Joan Fontaine half crazy while describing her late mistress in “Rebecca.”
  31. Mrs. Danvers refuses to leave her late mistress’s room as Manderly burns to the ground in “Rebecca.”
  32. An American reporter in Holland chases an assassin through an umbrella toting crowd, then hops into a car and continues the chase into the windmill-dotted countryside.
  33. “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” grill each other over breakfast, leading to a break in their marriage.
  34. John Aysgarth charms — and is charmed by — Lina McLaidlaw at the start of “Suspicion.”
  35. Lina imagines Aysgarth killing his best friend in “Suspicion.”
  36. Aysgarth brings his ailing wife a frightening looking glass of milk in “Suspicion.”
  37. Barry Kane and Patricia Martin encounter a troupe of circus freaks in “Saboteur.”
  38. A fifth columnist plummets to his death from the Statue of Liberty in “Saboteur.”
  39. Mr. Newton and Herbert discuss the best way to kill one another over a family dinner in “Shadow of a Doubt.”
  40. Uncle Charlie, “the Merry Widow Murderer,” momentarily thinks he’s off the hook in “Shadow of a Doubt.” Bounding up the stairs to get ready for dinner, he turns to see his niece framed in a doorway, still certain that he is a killer.
  41. A young pilot realizes that his naivete may have helped the enemy in “Bon Voyage.”
  42. Although imprisoned, a French Resistance leader struggles to secure escape for his friends in “Aventure Malgache.”
  43. Walter Slezak is hauled into the “Lifeboat,” only to mutter “danke schein,” revealing to his fellow passengers that he’s German.
  44. Slezak’s character, now revealed to be the captain of the U-boat that sunk his fellow survivor’s ship, exhibits what seems to be super-human stamina, rowing his fellow survivors toward a German ship.
  45. As Gregory Peck kisses Ingrid Bergman for the first time in “Spellbound,” a series of doors open, symbolizing Bergman’s icy doctor’s sexual awakening.
  46. Gregory Peck breaks through to the traumatic childhood memory of accidentally killing his brother in a shocking, silent moment of “Spellbound.”
  47. Hitchcock outfoxes the censors by having Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant kiss briefly and repeatedly in “Notorious.”
  48. “Oh Dev, they’re poisoning me.” Devlin finds Alicia half-dead at the hands of her own husband in “Notorious.”
  49. Devlin leaves Alicia’s husband to his ruthless comrades at the end of “Notorious.
  50. Mrs. Paradine tells her lawyer, Gregory Peck, that she despises him even though he’s won her freedom in “The Paradine Case.”

Alfred Hitchcock Reveals a Dark “Suspicion”

17 08 2010

“You might say Suspicion was the second English picture I made in Hollywood: the actors, the atmosphere, and the novel on which it’s based were all British.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“Suspicion,” Alfred Hitchcock’s second picture of 1941, marked the beginning of his very fruitful collaboration with one of the greatest actors of the last century, Cary Grant. The film also stars Joan Fontaine, returning in a role that is in many ways like her role in “Rebecca.” In fact, “Suspicion” is rather like a modernized version of “Rebecca.” At it’s heart, it’s about a woman who is too timid to take control of her own life, and too paranoid to resist her own dark imaginings.

Fontaine won an Academy Award in 1942 for her work in “Suspicion.” As good as she is, though, Grant may be even better. He plays John Aysgarth, a ne’er-do-well, gambler, thief and cad. His performance runs the gamut from charming to sullen, from light-hearted to desperate. The film revolves around Fontaine’s character, Lina McLaidlaw, who is introduced as mousy and retiring. She has never had a relationship with a man, and this attracts her to Aysgarth: The idea of a woman who has no expectations appeals to him, for reasons that become apparent after they are married.

Hitchcock foreshadows the drama to come, as Aysgarth appears to manhandle his future wife.

Despite appearances, despite his role in upper class society, Aysgarth has no money — a fact that Lina did not realize at the outset of the film, when they are getting to know one another. They return from their honeymoon to a new house in the English countryside, replete with servants, but as they settle in, Lina learns the truth when John talks of ducking his debts. She’s stunned, but he reveals that he has a job offer — one he did not intend to take before seeing how upset she is with the idea that he has no money.

Aysgarth upsets Lina further when he sells the heirloom chairs given to them by her parents to settle a gambling debt, although he claims he had no idea she would care. Aysgarth’s old friend Beaky (played by Nigel Bruce) arrives for a visit, and immediately tells Lina stories about Aysgarth’s past that he hopes would amuse her, but instead fills her with dread.

Aysgarth’s job doesn’t last long, and Lina learns through a chance meeting that he had been fired weeks earlier after stealing 2,000 pounds. Beaky goads him into talking about what happened with the money, expecting to hear a good yarn, but Lina’s obvious discomfort keeps Aysgarth from telling much of a story.

After Lina’s father dies, leaving them little money and an imposing portrait,

Aysgarth convinces Beaky to invest in a scheme he has to buy and develop property. Lina worries that Aysgarth is going to lose Beaky’s money, and advises him against investing. Aysgarth is furious with his wife for interfering, and over a game of “Anagrams” (it looks like an early form of “Scrabble”) she has a vision of Aysgarth killing Beaky.

Soon, Aysgarth sets out for London while Beaky goes to Paris to withdraw his money for the investment. Two policemen — inept, as usual in a Hitchcock film — arrive to tell Lina that Beaky died while in Paris. She suspects that her husband may have done it, but does not betray him to the police.

At a dinner with friends, one a mystery novelist, the other a coroner, Aysgarth continues to evoke feelings of paranoia in his wife when he talks blithely about murder. Lina collapses, and Aysgarth brings her home, then serves her a glass of milk which she is too afraid to drink. She announces that she is going to visit her mother, and Aysgarth insists on driving her there, but his reckless driving along a cliff road nearly kills them both. They pull over, and Aysgarth demands to know why she’s been acting so strangely. It is only then that Lina realizes that he, too, is under a great strain. He resolves to pay his debts, even if it means going to prison, and together, they drive back home, united by their determination to see their difficulties through.

“Suspicion” was based on the 1932 novel “Before the Fact,” in which Aysgarth really is a killer. But that was too much for the board of censors, who insisted that the star of the movie had to be a good guy. The script’s ending was changed so that Aysgarth was not a killer, but an irresponsible person considering suicide as a way out of his problems. It is left to Fontaine, at the movie’s finale, to do the heavy lifting of explaining everything — Aysgarth’s motivations, his mysterious disappearances, even his plan to kill himself. It’s an exposition heavy moment in an otherwise fleet footed movie, and that ending reminds me of the coda to “Psycho,” in which the psychiatrist explains Norman Bates’ psychosis.

In fact, Aysgarth continually keeps Lina in the dark, refusing to confide in her or explain his actions. This, combined with her very limited knowledge of men, helps stoke her paranoia.

Cary Grant would work with Hitchcock again in another three films; “Suspicion” also features Dame Mae Whitty, Sir Cecil Hardwick and Leo G. Carroll. Nigel Bruce, best known as Sherlock Homes’ sidekick, Watson, is a lot of fun as the dim-but-trusting Beaky.

“Suspicion” also features more of Hitchcock’s arresting images and camera work, including the fantastic moment in which Aysgarth brings a glass of milk up a dark flight of stairs to his wife — the milk was illuminated from within by a tiny lightbulb. The sequence in which Lina imagines that Aysgarth is out to kill Beaky is similarly striking, as it superimposes their struggling figures onto a photograph of the cliffside land Aysgarth wants to develop.

Earlier this year, it was announced that Will Smith was developing a remake of “Suspicion.” Whether it can measure up to the original – or reinstate the novel’s ending, in which the male lead really is a killer – remains to be seen.

Next, we’ll look at a tale of World War II that echoes an earlier Hitchcock film: “Saboteur.”

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