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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Back For Christmas (Review)

As part of the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, I’ll be taking a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s contributions to his celebrated anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I’ll be looking at some of the episodes of the classic show that he directed. The “For the Love of Film” blogathon this year is raising money to keep one of Hitchcock’s earlier works, The White Shadow (which he wrote, edited, designed and assistant-directed), available on-line and streaming for free. It’s a very worthwhile cause and you can donate here.

Shrunken heads are a hobby of mine. Collecting them, of course, not making them. It takes too long to make one. First, you must wait until the original owner of the head dies. I haven’t the patience for that. As you have no doubt already guessed, tonight’s story has nothing whatsoever to do with shrunken heads. It is called ‘Back for Christmas’.

- Hitchcock’s introduction. No, really.

It’s amazing how much variety Hitchcock managed to bring to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After all, Revenge was a straight-up noir tale and The Case of Mister Pelham was an existential mystery. Back For Christmas is Hitchcock doing wonderfully dark comedy, to the point where the surrealist introduction above perfectly sets the tone. It’s also an episode that will probably add fuel to the “Alfred Hitchcock was a misogynist” debate.

Hitchcock has always been something of a controversial figure when it came to women. That ground has been covered by film writers with far more experience than myself. “Hitchcock’s women are outwardly immaculate, but full of treachery and weakness,” Bidisha writes in The Guardian. “But, hurrah, he doesn’t kill them all. He just teaches them a thoroughly good lesson.” Discussing the treatment of his actresses, USA Today suggests, “He pecked away at their insecurities, whispered filthy remarks right before they faced the camera and forced them to do countless takes of physically demanding scenes.” There are apocryphal tales about Hitchcock boasting at dinner parties about being able to strangle a woman with one arm.

I’m not sure quite how much weight to give these assertions, as I lack the in-depth behind-the-scenes knowledge to properly comment. However, Back For Christmas won’t put any of those rumours to rest. Played as a black comedy, Back For Christmas is the story of a henpecked husband who finally has enough of his shrewish wife and decides to kill her while absconding to the United States. And it is played for wonderfully grim laughs.

Hell, Hitchcock even opens the episode with a healthy dose of good old fashioned sexism. Examining a shrunken head for no reason other than because shrunken heads are cool, he greets his audience. “Oh, good evening ladies and gentlemen especially the ladies. Now you see what might happen if you fall asleep under the dryer.” It is one step away from a ‘kitchen’ joke, but I’ll chalk it up to values dissonance. Maybe. Still, I do like the fact that Hitchcock’s introductions seem to have less-and-less to do with the content of the show. In Breakdown, he offered a moral that simply wasn’t there, and here the only connection his introduction has to the show in question is that he says the words in the title.

Still, if you can get past the potentially disturbing subtext, which feels overwhelming if you’ve read enough commentary on Hitchcock’s women, the episode itself is darkly hilarious. Most of this is down to John Williams’ central performance, but Hitchcock himself actually does some rather wonderful and quite sinister sight gags.The director proves to have, as one might expect, a very dark sense of humour.

For example, there’s the sequence where the director makes his lead character’s intentions explicit. Rather than counting on dialogue or his introduction to explain it, he uses this rather wonderful tracking shot as we view the length of the hole our lead is digging… and then pan up to his wife. It’s not subtle, but it is a very clever way of getting the point across. Francis M. Cockrell once again provides an efficient adaptation of John Collier’s story, bristling with dry wit. As his wife wonders about his plans to excavate the entire cellar, our lead replies,  “As a matter of fact, I think I’ve done about all that’s necessary for the moment.” He’s even measured her.

Okay, so there’s nothing especially inventive about the script, or the relationship. He’s a henpecked husband and she’s a bossy shrew. When he meekly tells her that this dinner isn’t his favourite, she curtly informs him, “Of course it is.” Asking him to talk to the help about the way they’ve been trimming the hedge, she makes an executive decision for the couple. “We don’t like it at all.” Both are fairly shallow stereotypes, but its John Williams’ leading performance that carries the story, along with Hitchcock’s darkly comic direction.

Williams actually makes us almost pity this calculating scheming murderer. No matter how unsympathetic his wife may be (and she’s not that bad), it’s quite difficult to make us feel sorry for a premeditated murderer. However, there’s just something so pathetic about how he can’t even get properly cleaned up afterwards. When the bathroom sink won’t run, Williams mutters, exasperated, “She turned it off. She turned it off at the main.” Don’t you just hate it when your spouse makes their murder inconvenient?

Another nice moment sees him attempt to lure her down to the basement to do the deed, while she is trying to call him upstairs to help with some last minute chores. “Must it be done this moment?” he impatiently inquires, trying desperately to avoid a household chore. There’s something hilarious about the notion a murderer who so desperately wants to avoid housework that they’ll eagerly try to murder their spouse… and even more darkly hilarious that he still gives in.

Williams worked with Hitchcock on Dial M For Murder, and he does remarkable work here – he crafts a character who is very pitiable, but who also has a remarkably sinister side to him. It creates a strange situation where we immediately dislike the character, and yet feel almost sorry for him.We never truly root or him, and yet we’re never so disgusted that we aren’t engaged with the story. It’s a tough tightrope for an actor to walk, and Williams does it remarkably well.

It is, after all, hard to convince us to invest in a character who has perfectly engineered the murder of his wife, right down to carefully setting up a story that would explain his wife’s mysterious disappearance to her friends. There are moments when our lead reveals himself to be quite an angry and bitter old man – suddenly snapping at his wife because she won’t stand in the right spot above her own grave, for example – and Williams gives these moments the necessary edge.

Back For Christmas won’t work for all viewers. It is, very much a product of its time, with a rather stereotypical portrayal of a hen-packed marriage. On the other hand, Hitchcock seems to be having quite a bit of fun directing, and John Williams makes a wonderful lead. It’s not the most original screenplay, but it has a nice little twist in the end that is properly set up. It’s not essential Hitchcock, and I imagine it’ll probably just add fuels to various discussions about the director’s attitude towards women, but it is a reasonably produced comedy for the time.

Read the rest of our contributions to the “For the Love of Film” Alfred Hitchcock blogothon, all episodes from Alfred Hitchcock Presents:

Hey, hope you enjoyed the article. It’s just one of a series of articles we’re running this week to celebrate Alfred Hitchcock and raise money to make The White Shadow available streaming on-line for free. It’s a very worthy cause and you can donate here. Or you can click the link below.

You can find today’s selection of thoroughly awesome Hitchcock posts at The Self-Styled Siren.

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2 Responses

  1. I found myself liking John Williams’ portrayal of the murderer here much more than in the original Collier story, where’s the emphasis is on the cold-blooded calculation. Hitchcock added the humorous bits, such as Williams’ exasperation at having to do a final chore, or the water being turned off. You can see this kind of humor in his movies, such as the moment when the car containing Marion’s body stops sinking in the swamp (cut to Anthony Perkins’ worried face; do we worry with him?), or when Robert Walker drops the cigarette lighter in a sewer on the way to planting it at the scene of the crime (and he JUST can’t quite reach it; “damn!” everyone in the audience must be saying at that point). Just Hitch’s way of getting us to see the murderer’s POV!

    • I did love that aspect of it. I think Williams is awesome. I’ve been obviously digging into my Hitchcock back catalogue for this blogothon, and Williams keeps turning up, with the sort of skill and grace that can’t help but impress. (He’s also remarkably versitile as an actor compare this character to his role in Banquo’s Chair – they seem like very different people.)

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