So, what do you get when you combine Hitchcock at the height of his popularity with American audiences and arguably at the height of his creativity in the mid 1950s – with the early emerging medium of television? You get an anthology series of Hitchcock-themed plotlines, mostly featuring suspense stories built around murder plots, cleverly executed, and with a twist/surprise O. Henry ending as a signature. Bookend each story with Hitchcock himself offering some narrative gallows humor & insults towards the sponsor, and you have a wonderful formula for a great show.
1950s television was a true golden age for dramatic anthology series, as the new medium went through a shake-out period of sorts figuring out which forms of genre programming truly had legs for the mass audience. Some formats, such as the multi-camera sitcom as pioneered by Desi Arnaz, became amazingly successful formats for hit TV series for decades to come, along with variations on the lawyer/doctor/cop single camera dramas. While the western genre ruled the airwaves in the late 1950s, its all but disappeared from prime time schedules now. Prime time game shows, hurt by the Van Doren/21 scandal of the ’50s made a big comeback by 1999 due to spiraling production costs of scripted series, but attempts to bring back the dramatic anthology in its assorted forms have usually failed. There’s really nothing on the air these days that evokes the high-brow nature of a Playhouse 90 or Goodyear Television Playhouse that served as AAA ball for people like Paddy Chayefsky, Sidney Lumet or Robert Altman. Audiences used to watching isolated stories & casts each week were primed for a thematic series of such plays – whether scifi/horror like Twilight Zone, Thriller or Outer Limits, or mystery/suspense like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Most often, revival attempts for the anthology genre were sci-fi/horror themed series, playing off the consistent popularity of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, a show that constantly reruns on cable outfits and gets regular July 4th or other holiday marathon airings. But later attempts to recapture the Zone magic, either in short lived series such as The Darkroom or the moderately successful Twilight Zone syndicated series, have never entered the TV pantheon of must-see items where Serling’s original creation occupies a permanent spot. (Though the network version of the Twilight Zone revival, which ran on CBS in the mid-80s, often produced some excellent episodes.) Even star-director and star-actor powered attempts like Amazing Stories and Tales From The Crypt are, at best, uneven.
But then there’s the original AH Presents, which airs five nights a week on Antenna TV, the place where Tribune gets to build library equity by running all sorts of old stuff it owns. Nearly all the episodes are currently available online as well, on imdb and elsewhere. The series is definitely worth watching and has many more good episodes than clunkers – I’d argue it has a better batting average than Twilight Zone in that regard, especially since Serling had the tendency to get preachy a lot of the time. Even though AH tends to repeat a lot of the same plot motifs (I’ve lost count of how many episodes feature arsenic murders with dead wives buried in the basement – has anyone ever excavated under Hitchcock’s house?), there are enough twists to keep things fresh.
Hitchcock directed 17 episodes of AH Presents and 1 episode of its follow-up Alfred Hitchcock Hour. (And much like Twilight Zone, the show lost some quality when expanding to an hour, although there are great episodes to be found.) While some of the Hitch-directed episodes are some of the best of the series, like “Lamb To The Slaughter,” there’s really little difference in direction between them & other episodes directed by the rest of the series’ stable, which usually meant Robert Stevens, Paul Henreid, Herschel Daugherty, John Brahm and sometimes Robert Altman or Arthur Hiller. The only episodes where the direction calls some attention to itself, unusual for ’50s TV, would be “One More Mile To Go,” a good’un with David Wayne trying to dump the body of the wife he murdered from his car trunk with an annoying motorcycle cop constantly riding him about a busted taillight. We get no dialogue at all for nearly the first half of the episode, something fairly innovative for the 1950s. In “Breakdown,” Joseph Cotten’s catatonic car accident victim, narrating his own fears as he’s taken to the morgue and readied for autopsy while still alive, also stands apart from the landscape of its contemporary television dramas.
Another fun thing about watching this show is to see who turns up on it – there are assorted stars of the period, many of whom worked with Hitchcock in film, like Claude Rains, John Williams, Vera Miles, Joseph Cotten or Wendell Corey. There’s always the fun of watching the then-young soon-to-be stars in early television work, whenever William Shatner, Robert Redford, James Caan, Walter Matthau or the like turn up. And for old trivia-heads like me, there’s the constant spottings of “oh, THAT guy!” character actors who constantly pop up, like Robert Emhardt or Percy Helton or Royal Dano or John Fiedler or Russell Collins and so on.
Little by little, the series is being released on DVD as well. In addition to the episodes I’ve already mentioned, without any spoilers, other favorites of mine are:
“Don’t Come Back Alive” – where an insurance scam goes very badly
“Portrait of Jocelyn” – a sly twist on the old movie “Laura” where a portrait of an old flame uncovers some well-kept secrets
“Decoy” – another noirish episode with a patsy trying to work his way out from being set up
“The Better Bargain” – I think I like this one simply because it features Henry Silva as (you guessed it) a mob hit man
“Crackpot” – Robert Emhardt at his redneck-creepy-psycho best
“The Manacled” – a great 2 character drama with William Redfield & Gary Merrill as prisoner & cop on a train, trying to out-mindfuck each other
“The Dangerous People” – another great mostly 2 character piece about two men alone in a train station, each thinking the other is an escaped psychopath
“The Glass Eye” – ah, William Shatner as narrator! And the story, while a bit predictable since it deals with a ventriloquist, is still fun.
“The Motive” – William Redfield, again, as the instigator of a “Rope”-like attempt at a perfect murder
“The Foghorn” – Barbara Bel Geddes in a sad romantic tale with a wonderful twist at the end
“Man With A Problem” – Gary Merrill as a would-be suicide being talked down by a cop. I still remember seeing this one for the first time back in high school and being totally surprised by the ending
“Tea Time” – what starts out as a wonderfully upperclass elegant cat fight between two women over a philandering husband turns many plot twists as it goes along
“Your Witness” – Brian Keith as a shyster lawyer, with another wonderful O Henry ending
“Human Interest Story” – Steve McQueen as a newspaper reporter sent to interview a guy in a bar claiming to be a Martian. Remember… this isn’t Twilight Zone…
“Dry Run” – Robert Vaughn as a hitman & Walter Matthau as his target
“Man From The South” – You didn’t think I’d forget this one, did you? Peter Lorre betting Steve McQueen a sports car if he can relight his cigarette lighter ten times in a row, otherwise, a finger gets chopped off. Remade for the 1980s revival of the Hitchcock series, although a better remake is to be found in the old Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected series.
“Incident in a Small Jail” – John Fiedler as traveling salesmen thrown into a small town jail alongside a target of a lynch mob. This one was remade very well with Ned Beatty for the 1980s revival.
“A Woman’s Help” – A henpecked husband plots to poison his wife along with a young maid. Another one with a wonderful twist at the end.
“Coming Home” – another great punchline ending
“The Woman Who Wanted To Live” – Escaped con Charles Bronson carjacks a woman, and while you know how it will wind up, it gets there in an interesting way.
“The Matched Pearl” – and another great punchline ending
“Most Likely To Succeed” – a comical entry with Howard Morris & Jack Carter as college buddies whose lives went in different directions
And from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, my faves:
“An Out For Oscar” – I think I like this one because of its cast – Henry Silva as thug/enforcer (again) but with Larry Storch as his patsy/victim bank teller who is forced to take part in an eleborae robbery scheme. John Marley, David White and Alan Napier also turn up!
“The Dark Pool” – a woman is tormented by guilt due to her drowned child with a blackmail scheme
“The Jar” – a wonderfully creepy adaptation of a wonderfully creepy Ray Bradbury story with George “Goober” Lindsay as the creepiest of all!
“Final Escape” – this would have worked better as a half-hour, but it’s still good, with Edd “Kookie” Byrnes plotting a prison break.
“Ten Minutes From Now” – Donnelly “Dutch from Soap” Rhodes as a mad bomber, with a nice twist at the end
“Return of Verge Likens” – Robert Emhardt as redneck again, this time the target of revenge by Peter Fonda in a slow story that redeems itself with a wonderful payoff at the end
“Misadventure” – assorted con games & twists and turns in this one, with seemingly crazy meter reader Barry Nelson conning Lola Albright
“Consider Her Ways” – probably the closest the series got to Twilight Zone-esque material, with Barbara Barrie finding herself in a futuristic all-female post apocalyptic world, and then returning to the present to warn everyone – very well done and very 12 Monkeys-ish. From a John Wyndham story.
“An Unlocked Window” – overly long & remade very well in shorter time for the ’80s revival, but still very effective
There are numerous other episodes certainly worth watching, I only recapped the ones I remember most fondly – but overall, the series is worth your while if you haven’t gone through them already. While Antenna TV runs the half hours, the hourlongs are available online, and despite their relatively poorer batting average versus the half hours, are still worth a look.