Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Alfred Hitchock Presents (1955 - 1962) * * *

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS was an anthology TV series hosted by Alfred Hitchcock. It premiered on CBS October 2, 1955 and ran until June 1, 1962. The series featured dramas, thrillers, mysteries, comedy, terror, and the macabre, usually with twisted endings. Time magazine named it one of "The 100 Best TV Shows of all time". When it premiered, Hitchcock had been directing films for over three decades, and his show was an instant hit. Every Sunday at 9:30 p.m., the series began with the familiar theme of Charles Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette" as Hitchcock himself appears in silhouette from the right edge of the screen and then walks to center screen to eclipse the caricature. The drawing was the work of Hitchcock himself. He then almost always says "Good evening."

The weekly "play" opened and closed with the series' most popular feature: Hitchcock delivered sardonic introductions and epilogues to each week's episode, written by James Allardyce, and frequently taking polite pot-shots at CBS sponsors, or skirting around broadcast standards, which demanded that no crime could go unpunished. Hitchcock humorously explained how the show's killers and criminals were brought to justice--though always with a nod and a wink to the viewer. He told TV Guide that his reassurances were "a necessary gesture to morality." When the stories appear to end with evil triumphant, the situation is always resolved following the last commercial. Hitchcock returns to explain, in his deadpan way, what silly mistake or chance occurrence had finally done the villain in. He closed the show in much the same way as it opened but mainly to tie up loose ends rather than joke.

Alfred Hitchcock: (he arrives for his introduction dressed in a safari outfit and pith helmet) Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to darkest Hollywood. Night brings a stillness to the jungle. It is so quiet, you can hear a name drop. The savage beasts have already begun gathering at the water holes to quench their thirst. Now one should be especially alert. The vicious table-hopper is on the prowl, and the spotted back-biter may lurk behind a potted palm. To take me through this most savage of lands, I have hired a native guide. (He snaps his fingers. An old man joins him, wearing a billboard sign that reads, "Maps of the Movie Stars' Homes--For Sale".)

At least two versions of the introductions and epilogues were shot for every episode. A version intended for the American audience would often spoof a recent popular commercial or poke fun at the sponsor, leading into the commercial. An alternative version for European audiences would instead include jokes at the expense of Americans in general. For later seasons, opening remarks were also filmed with Hitchcock speaking in French and German for the show's international presentations, reflecting his real-life fluency in both languages.

Many talented writers contributed teleplays, both original and adapted, that maintained a high standard of excellence. Hitchcock directed four of the first season's 39 episodes, including the premiere episode "Revenge" and the season highlight "Breakdown", with Joseph Cotten as a car-accident victim, paralyzed and motionless, who's nearly left for dead. It's a perfect example of visual and narrative economy, executed with a master's touch. The fourth episode, "Don't Come Back Alive", is also a popular favorite, with the kind of sinister twist that became a series trademark. Robert Stevenson directed the majority of the remaining episodes with similar skill, serving tightly plotted tales by such literary greats as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy L. Sayers, and John Collier.

Adding to the series' prestige was a weekly roster of new and seasoned stars, with appearances by: Cloris Leachman, Darren McGavin, Everett Sloane, Peter Lawford, Charles Bronson, Barry Fitzgerald, John Cassavetes, Joanne Woodward, Thelma Ritter, Ed Asner, Mary Astor, Roscoe Ates, Gene Barry, Ed Begley, Jack Cassidy, Dabney Coleman, Joseph Cotten, Bob Crane, Hume Cronyn, Robert Culp, Bette Davis, Francis De Sales, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, John Forsythe, Anne Francis, Cedric Hardwicke, Lou Jacobi, Carolyn Jones, Don Keefer, Brian Keith, Jack Klugman, Peter Lorre, Dayton Lummis, E. G. Marshall, Walter Matthau, Steve McQueen, Tyler McVey, Joyce Meadows, Vera Miles, Vic Morrow, Jeanette Nolan, James Philbrook, Judson Pratt, Vincent Price, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Jessica Tandy, Dick Van Dyke, Dennis Weaver, Joanne Woodward and Fay Wray. Actors appearing in the most episodes include Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock's daughter), Dick York, Robert Horton, John Williams, Robert H. Harris, Claude Rains, Barbara Baxley, Ray Teal, Percy Helton, Mildred Dunnock and Alan Napier.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS was originally 30 minutes long, and aired weekly at 9:30 on CBS on Sunday nights from 1955 to 1960, and then at 8:30 on NBC on Tuesday nights from 1960 to 1962. The series expanded to 60 minutes in 1962 and was retitled THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. It lasted for three seasons, September 1962 to June 1965, adding another 93 episodes to the 270 already produced for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. It was broadcast on CBS from 1962 to 1964, and on NBC from 1964 to 1965. The last new episode aired on June 26, 1965, but the series continued to be popular in syndication for decades.

Hitchcock himself only directed 17 of the episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and only one of the hour-long episodes, "I Saw the Whole Thing" with John Forsythe. His show paved the way for THRILLER, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and other series that maximized the anthology format's storytelling potential. In 1985, NBC aired a new TV movie based on the series, combining newly-filmed stories with colorized footage of Hitchcock from the original series for introductions. The movie was a huge ratings success, and sparked a brief revival of the anthology series genre that included a new version of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and others. THE NEW ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS series debuted in the fall of 1985, five years after Hitchcock's death, and retained the same format as the movie: newly filmed stories, a mixture of original works and updated remakes of original series episodes, with colorized introductions by Hitchcock. The new series lasted only two seasons before NBC cancelled it, but in 1987 it was produced for two more years by USA Cable Network, which is now co-owned with NBC under NBC Universal.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released the first three seasons of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS on DVD. The first season was released on October 4, 2005, the second season on October 17, 2006, and the third on October 9, 2007. They are also available on Hulu, the iTunes Store, and on NBC's website. Packed onto three double-sided DVDs, these 39 episodes per season hold up quite well despite not being "restored". Some prints show the wear and tear of syndication, but they look and sound surprisingly good, although audio compression will cause many viewers to turn up the volume. Extras are very limited. There are written episode summaries, and the 15 minute bonus featurette, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Look Back" is perfunctory at best. However, it's good to see new anecdotal interviews with producer/director/actor Norman Lloyd, assistant director Hilton Green, and Hitchcock's daughter Pat (a frequent performer on these episodes), who survived to see the popular series benefit from the archival convenience of DVD.

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