Hitchcock on television


Twenty previously undiscovered Alfred Hitchcock films were recently unearthed in a vault in California.
.Okay, it’s not true, but I challenge anybody to come up with a statement likely to cause a greater degree of child-like excitement within the international film-going community.
Hitchcock remains the most popular filmmaker in history, the master that needs no introduction, no hard sell, no special handling. You can still make real money with Hitchcock films, on DVD and reissues; they can still attract real audiences on television. His popularity is reinforced by his high critical standing (you’re not just enjoying yourselves watching Psycho: you’re absorbing cinematic art) and his high critical standing is reinforced by his popularity (you’re not just absorbing cinematic art watching Psycho: you’re enjoying yourselves).
It is happy coincidence that in addition to its visceral effectiveness as cinema his work also offers limitless potential for interpretation and reinterpretation, ensuring its survival within an airless academic community ever on the lookout for something fun to watch. (They don’t really want to sit through Derek Jarman films any more than the rest of us.) Scholars are splitting into camps; there are specialists in Hitchcock’s British films, in his American films, in single films only.
Where pre-video accounts of his work focused breathlessly on their emotional impact to the first, second or third-time viewer, most modern discussions adopt a more cerebral tone that speaks of considerable reacquaintance with the material. Whole books have been written about Psycho alone. His wartime shorts Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage (both 1944) have been recently released on DVD (for the second time) with a fanfare scarcely commensurate with their value as artefacts, Hitchcock movies, or anything else.
Running tandem with this has been the systematic redeeming of his critical or commercial failures. It seems incredible now to recall that there was a time when I was driven to frustration by the fact that Rope, his best film, never received a good word in print. Marnie, Torn Curtain and Frenzy have likewise all been recalled from oblivion, and who today remembers that that is pretty much where Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds started out, critically speaking.
Every Hitchcock fan has their favourite ‘underrated one’. (Now that everyone knows Rope is a classic I’ll opt for Jamaica Inn, but Under Capricorn, I suspect, will be the next to make the trip across.)
So whatever the nature of our personal involvement with Hitchcock’s films, be we students, lecturers, writers or just people who like good thrillers, it would be good news for all of us if there were somehow a whole bunch of new ones.
But in a sense there is: that outrageous claim I made at the head of this article is almost true. They’ve never actually been lost or forgotten about, but few recall with much more than indulgent fondness the twenty short films Hitchcock made for American television in the fifties and sixties.
Why should this be? Everyone knows about Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with its jaunty theme tune (Gounod’s Funeral March of the Marionettes) and Hitchcock’s jokey on-screen introductions and sign-offs.
The latter, in particular, are frequently recalled both for their originality and their importance in helping cement his popular image. But the fact that he actually directed twenty of them is taken curiously for granted. Most critical studies rush through them, treat all the films in the series as a lump, at best noting that the few Hitchcock made personally do have a distinctive flavour, but letting it go at that.
Truffaut’s groundbreaking study scarcely mentions them at all, other than in Hitchcock’s own observation that Psycho was made by “a television unit” and “under the same conditions as a television show”. He doesn’t even say ‘my’ unit or ‘my’ show.
He made three a year between 1955 and ’59 (as well as To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo and North By Northwest), two each in ’60 and ’61 (as well as Psycho) and one in ’63 (as well as The Birds), mostly for his own show but in a couple of cases for other anthology series (NBC’s Suspicion and Ford Star Time).
This makes the years ’55-’63 clearly the most concentratedly productive of his professional life – in itself a good reason for taking the tv work seriously. (“I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well-charged,” he says to Truffaut of his work in this period.)
Television at this time was still basically close-up theatre, a simple affair of interiors and the most basic exterior sets, medium shots and talking heads, no special effects, no experimental camerawork. Rather than revolt and die of hubris, Hitchcock wisely challenged himself to sculpt something original of the same clay, resolving to make every basic set-up and close-up a striking image, angling and lighting each with variety and invention. (As such they should hold a special appeal for those ascetics among us who on the whole prefer the understated quality and freshness of the British Hitchcock, as opposed to the Hollywood pro for whom the constant recycling of a small handful of themes - or commercial failure if he dared step away from them - led him to seek diversion in technical precocity and self-set logistic challenges.)
True, with intros and sponsor’s messages removed they only run about twenty-three minutes each, (with the exception of three of the later ones, made to fit a one-hour slot) and they were of course made quickly and without the long process of script gestation that Hitchcock favoured and in which most of his best ideas were formed. As a result, the tv work sticks to the format and plots of the short stories on which they are based (by Roald Dahl, John Collier and others) with a respectful fidelity never accorded his literary sources at the movies.
But on the other hand, they certainly don’t conform to the distancing norms of hazy, videotaped fifties television. They are shot on film, with a higher budget and longer shooting schedules than most tv anthology series of the time. Indeed, what they look most like - what they sometimes in fact look an almost eerily hell-of-a-lot like - is Psycho.
This is no accident – Psycho and all twenty tv films were Shamley Productions, the company Hitchcock set up to make the series (named nostalgically after Shamley Green, near Guildford, where he had bought a cottage shortly before the birth of his daughter Patricia), and filmed at Universal’s Revue TV studios (which is how the iconic set of a film made by Hitchcock’s own company and distributed by Paramount ended up a key attraction on the Universal Studios tour).
Psycho itself was a conscious experiment in shooting a feature film using television techniques, a television crew and a comparatively modest budget (of $850,000). Either it's just a feature-length episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or the other episodes of Presents he directed are short films. They are good enough, and certainly interesting enough, to warrant the term.
Hitchcock shot the tv films spontaneously and without excessive preparation, certainly without extensive storyboarding, concentrating instead on what he deemed the three or four key images and letting the rest fall into place around them.
Faces familiar from Hitchcock’s work both past and future make up the casts, among them Joseph Cotten, Vera Miles, Cedric Hardwicke, John Williams, Barbara Bel Geddes, Doreen Lang, Claude Rains and John Forsythe.
The majority share the same basic structure. Hitchcock seems to cut each script into thirds, aiming to achieve a different mood and pace in each. The first third, starting either abruptly or with deceptive languor, sets up the premise and introduces the (usually few) characters as quickly and economically as possible in simple (though always elegant) set-ups.
The mid-section establishes the plot and themes, usually through dialogue, the idea being to convey information in a manner as interesting as possible without actually distracting the audience from the who did whats and whens.
The final stage differs from that of most Hitchcock movies (but, again, not from Psycho) in that it usually builds to a macabre twist, the final line or image played as sick punchline to a grim shaggy dog story.
That they often leave the villains unpunished is tidied up, insincerely but presumably to the sponsor’s satisfaction, in Hitchcock’s outros, but if we think of these films (correctly) as separate from the other elements in the programme then clearly Hitchcock is here exercising a creative freedom officially denied him by both television and cinema censorship at the time. As a result, moments such as the end of The Perfect Crime (1958), in which criminologist Vincent Price, his professional pride irked at discovering he had helped sentence an innocent man to death, stuffs his informant into an oven and turns him into a vase, are the closest thing in Hitchcock’s work to spending an off-the-record evening with the man as he regales you with anecdotes and black jokes.
Most famous of all, perhaps, is Barbara Bel Geddes in Lamb to the Slaughter (1958), killing her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then serving it to the officers investigating the crime as they ponder the question of what and where the murder weapon might be. Charlotte Chandler, in her book It’s Only a Movie, recalls Hitchcock telling her years later that the leg of lamb was “the most perfect murder weapon of my entire career”.
These are classic Hitchcock moments and should be remembered as such.
Not all the tv films are of a uniformly high standard. A few go astray through misjudgement: the trick ending of Banquo’s Chair (1959) glibly renders the work Hitchcock’s only supernatural film, while Mr Blanchard’s Secret (1956) rewrites Rear Window as deliberate anti-climax: the neighbour has not murdered his wife after all. Oh, well. Good for her, I guess.
The best ones are usually the simplest. Revenge (1955) is a cruel joke about a woman (Vera Miles) who is raped by an unseen assailant in the caravan park where she is living; later in the car with her husband she sees the man in the street, the husband follows and kills him, then when he sets off again the wife identifies another man, then another, then another.
Revenge, clearly conforming to the three-part structure outlined above, gives a clear insight into Hitchcock’s working methods on tv. The first third is a relaxed, straightforward evocation of a sticky afternoon in a trailer park (with Miles more luminously photographed and conforming to Hitchcock’s sexual ideal than on any other occasion during the five years he had her under contract). The arrival of the husband after the unseen attack jerks Hitchcock from this erotic stupor and the change of gear is conveyed by the switch to a more intense, staccato rhythm, a patchwork of angled close-ups and jagged cuts, with no soundtrack beyond the gentle, ominous ticking of a bedside clock. The last act - the pursuit, murder and final revelation – is the first to take place outside of the claustrophobic central location and to introduce movement; it contains Hitchcock’s other big set piece, the fatal assault upon the innocent man, with Psycho again evoked in its motel setting and waist-level shots of the husband stalking his quarry, a spanner behind his back. The killing itself is shown in short cuts and conveyed through shadows and inferred violence: the Psycho template filtered through the regulations of tv censorship.
Transference of guilt is as common a theme in these films as in the features, and a number of them invite us to share the uneasy kind of identification we feel for Marnie or Norman.
Wet Saturday (1956) uses this trope not as icing but as the cake itself; with Cedric Hardwicke, never quite alienating us as he switches from anguished father to cynical rationalist to cold-blooded villain, as a staid patriarch finding himself in deeper and deeper water as he attempts to cover up a murder committed by his unstable daughter. The ending is perhaps the most overtly censor-baiting of all the tv films, as the family, after many close shaves, successfully get away with murder. (Hitchcock’s rush to claim otherwise in his direct-to-camera send-off may have satisfied the regulations board, but I doubt it actually convinced them.)
The murder itself has already happened before the film begins, and the film relies entirely on the exploitation of the audience’s sense of empathy for its effects. Apart from an extended sequence showing the father’s attempt to eradicate the physical evidence (seemingly something of a preoccupation of Hitchcock’s around this time and always filmed as methodically and meticulously as the activity itself) the film is shot in a single set and relies almost entirely upon dialogue to build and maintain tension. In this respect it is reminiscent of both Rope and Dial M For Murder from each of which it borrows one of its main players, Hardwicke and John Williams, cast effectively against type as bully and weakling respectively.
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Hitchcock contractee Vera Miles appeared in The Wrong Man and Psycho, but her finest work for Hitchcock preceded both: in Revenge (1955)

When the world fully catches up with these films, I strongly suspect that One More Mile To Go (1957) will be recognised as the best and most confidently Hitchcockian of the whole bunch. It seems beyond question that Hitchcock consciously borrowed many of its effects when preparing Psycho, but the film’s excellence is by no means attributable solely to the many uncanny similarities to the later film. In fact, it could be the most single-minded exercise in pure style of all his films, a bravura demonstration of the puppet-master’s art, a model of orchestrated tension, construction and assembly.
We start with a murder viewed through a window: we see a violent argument between man and wife but cannot hear what they are arguing about; the camera only joins them inside after the husband (David Wayne, often a pleasant light comedian in Adam’s Rib and similar) has dealt the fatal blow with a bent poker. (In fact there is not a word of dialogue until half way through the film.)
For the next few minutes he is Norman Bates: he stares at his bloody hands, wraps the body in sheeting and dumps it in the back of his car. Then he is Marion Crane; the camera, staring through the windscreen, scrutinises his facial expressions as he drives his car through the night, process shots of a nocturnal highway in the window behind.
A highway policeman flags him down to tell him he has a defective rear light; he peers through the side window and asks to see Wayne’s license. (More Psycho as he tries to take it from his bag without revealing the bloody cuffs on his shirt.)
The policeman insists he goes to a nearby gas station to have the light fixed; he reluctantly agrees and begins a nervous conversation with the attendant about being in a hurry. The policeman pulls up at the moment it is discovered that the bulb does not work. Positing a loose connection he suggests opening the boot, but Wayne claims to have not brought the key. The policeman fetches a crowbar shaped identically to the murder weapon and is just about to burst open the boot when the light begins to work.
Wayne hastily drives away, but soon realises the cop is again following him. When he eventually stops he discovers that this is simply because he has forgotten his change, but as the two men talk it is discovered that the light has again gone out. The policeman tells him to follow him to the station, where the force mechanic will open the boot for him. As Wayne drives impotently to certain discovery, we see what neither man can see: that the bulb has once again flickered back to life.
As this précis shows, the film is incredibly similar to Psycho in its ambiance, set-ups, style and even dialogue. It is also incredibly simple as a narrative. It relies for its suspense upon our sharing the anguish of a killer we have no reason whatever to root for, his despair as the boot is almost opened and his relief when the moment of discovery is temporarily averted. We are even invited to share his (and Hitchcock’s) fear of the police: this is not run of the mill American television of the nineteen-fifties. It is absolutely and unquestionably a Hitchcock classic fit to share the table with his cinema films.
So it is at the very least odd that these films continue to receive such little critical scrutiny. While scholars rack their brains to find something interesting and exonerative to say about even the fluffiest and least successful of the features, there really is a world of entertainment, virtuosity and elastic subtext awaiting serious attention in these twenty fascinating little films.
And to think we knew they were there all the time.