Thursday, October 30, 2014

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

It seems possible that Sir Alfred Hitchcock is the most physically recognisable director of all time. Many might not be able to identify Frank Capra or Cecil B. DeMille, or even more recent directors such as Martin Scorese or Steven Spielberg, but they know Alfred Hitchcock when they see him. There can be no doubt that much of this is due to Mr. Hitchcock's cameos in his films and his occasional appearances in the trailers for his movies (the trailers for North by Northwest and Psycho being prime examples). That having been said, much of the reason that Alfred Hitchcock remains so immediately recognisable is that he was the host of his own show, the long running suspense anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

It was Alfred Hitchcock's former agent and then president of MCA, Inc. Lew Wasserman, who came up with the idea of bringing the director to television in early 1955. When Mr. Wasserman brought up the idea to Mr. Hitchcock that spring, the director initially appeared reluctant to do such a series. Fortunately, he ultimately agreed to do it. To produce Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Mr. Hitchcock formed Shamley Productions (named for his summer home). The show would be made at MCA's television division, Revue Studios. While Alfred Hitchcock would serve as the show's executive producer, Mr. Hitchcock hired his former assistant, Joan Harrison, to serve as the show's line producer. Miss Harrison had written several screenplays (many for Alfred Hitchcock) and produced several films as well. Later, in 1957, Alfred Hitchcock's friend, actor Norman Lloyd, would be brought on board as an associate producer on the show. MCA sold the show to CBS and the sponsor Bristol-Meyers on the basis that Alfred Hitchcock would serve as the programme's host and would also direct the occasional episode, as well as serving as its executive producer.

As the host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Mr. Hitchcock would appear at the beginning of each episode. His introductions, written by James Allardice, were tongue in cheek and often involved black humour and almost always ribbing the sponsors. Mr. Hitchock also appeared at the close of each episode, in which he would humorously explain the comeuppance that the perpetrators of any crimes in the episode might have received. While Alfred Hitchcock's introductions and closings might be humorous, the episodes of the show varied from black humour to deadly serious.

The episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran nearly the entire gamut of the suspense genre. In "Don't Come Back Alive" an elderly couple plots to cheat the insurance company out of money by faking the wife's disappearance. In "Arthur" a chicken farmer resorts to drastic measures when his former fiancée returns to him; the episode starred Laurence Harvey, Hazel Court, and Patrick Macnee. In "The Motive" two friends conclude that the perfect crime is one without a motive, and decide to prove their conclusion. In "De Mortuis" two men become convinced their friend has killed his cheating wife. The murder of spouses was a popular subject on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Indeed, what may be its most famous episode dealt with the subject. In "Lamb to the Slaughter" a wife murders her husband with a rack of lamb after she learns he is leaving her, then feeds it to the investigating police officers. The episode was based on the story by Roald Dahl and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It starred Barbara Bel Geddes as the murderous wife and Harold Stone as the detective on the case.

While most Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes were straightforward mysteries and thrillers, it occasionally ventured into the realms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. In the first season's "Whodunit," an angel gives a murdered man the chance to relive the last few hours of his life in hopes of catching whoever killed him. The first season also featured an adaptation of Michael Arlen's ghost story "The Gentleman From America". In the third season's "Mail Order Prophet," a mail clerk begins receiving letters from the near future. In the fourth season's "Human Interest Story" a man claiming to be from Mars warns of an impending invasion from Mars. One horror episode was so horrifying that it would not air until the series entered syndication. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was written by Robert Bloch and based on his own story. It starred  Brandon deWilde, Diana Dors, and  David J. Stewart. Meant to be the finale to the show's seventh season (and its final season as a half hour show), "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was deemed "too gruesome" by Alfred Hitchcock Presents' sponsor Revlon and it did not air during the show's network run.

As might be expected from a show coming from the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was very much a "prestige' show. Throughout its run the programme adapted the works of such writers as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Burke, Roald Dahl, Dorothy L. Sayers, Cornell Woolrich, and John Wyndham. Alfred Hitchcock himself directed a total of 18 episodes out of the 318 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents/The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Alfred Hitchcock Presents won Emmy Awards for Best Editing of a Television Film (in 1956 for the episode "Breakdown") and Best Direction (for Robert Stevens's direction of the episode "Half Hour or Less"), and the show was nominated for several more. In its time on the air it also won a Director's Guild of America award, a Golden Globe (for Best TV show), and the Venice Film Festival TV Prize for the episode "Man From the South.

Not only was Alfred Hitchcock Presents a highly respected show, but it was also highly successful, outliving many of its contemporary anthology shows. Debuting on CBS on 2 October 1955, it ran on CBS until it switched to NBC in 1960. In 1962 it returned to CBS with an expanded hour long format and a new title, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. When The Alfred Hitchcock Hour went off the air in 1965, it was not because it was no longer popular, but because Alfred Hitchcock had decided to end the show due to his own advancing age and the health issues that came with it. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ended its initial run on 26 June 1965.

In 1985 NBC revived the show as The New Alfred Presents. The show aired colourised versions of Alfred Hitchcock's introductions and featured a mixture of adaptations of the original series' episodes and original episodes. While The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents was cancelled after one season by NBC, it would run for three more on the cable channel the USA Network. The original series can still be seen in syndication to this day (ME-TV recently ran The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). The first six seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents have been released on DVD, with the seventh season forthcoming. All three seasons of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour are available on DVD.

Ultimately it seems possible that Alfred Hitchcock Presents could be the most successful American anthology series of all time. Counting the combined runs of both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the show ran for a total of ten seasons. It has continued to be seen in syndication ever since. In fact, when many people picture Alfred Hitchcock in their heads, it is most likely as the television host with a macabre sense of humour. Alfred Hitchcock might have achieved immortality as a movie director, but it seems he achieved memorability as a television host.

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