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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Hidden Thing (Review)

As part of the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, I’ll be taking a look at his celebrated anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. 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. I thought it might be worth taking a look at an episode from a director other than Hitchcock.

The Hidden Thing is a bit of a strange little episode. It has a strong central theme, even if it is a little blunt about it. It also has an interesting set-up, playing off a sense of unjust randomness. However, it never really ties all of its ideas together, finishing on a rather bland and – inappropriately enough – forgettable ending. In many ways, it seems like the ending to The Hidden Thing is a twist that just fell apart and, rather than enhancing the surrounding story, ultimately detracted from the episode.

In some ways, The Hidden Thing harks back to the pilot for the series, Revenge. Both episodes feel somewhat thematically linked. They both follow a young couple who are deeply in love and in a state of pure bliss. Of course, this being Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the universe itself conspires to fix that unfortunate turn of events. A random act of brutality leaves the husband trying to make sense of it all, while the law proves entirely incapable of bringing the offending party to justice. “We can’t find him without you help,” the cops tell our lead here. And, rather than trying to get past that trauma, our lead instead fixates on it, to an unhealthy degree.

Revenge is a much stronger story, for several reasons. For one thing, we are far more invested in the young newlyweds there than we are with the chirpy soon-to-be-wed kids here. Part of that is down to how much time we spend with them, but also because Elsa and Carl had more developed back stories than Laura and Dana. It’s a small thing, given how the narrative is singlemindedly fixated on destroying their happiness, but it is important nevertheless.

The other advantage that Revenge has is the twist ending. Sure, it’s not exactly a complete surprise – anybody with any real experience of noir will probably see it coming a mile away – but it’s still clever and it still works in context. While The Hidden Thing just has a revelation that… well, it’s a revelation, I suppose. It doesn’t really change anything. In fact, it just makes explicit something that was very clearly implied earlier in the episode. You know you’re in trouble when I can imagine two more effective twist endings, even if they are a tad easier to predict. At least they’d make more sense.

Still, these two very significant problems aside, there’s actually a lot of interest here, even if none of it quite gels. Robert Stevens’ direction is well served by the story – a journey into memory, so to speak – and he gets the opportunity to use all sorts of interesting visual compositions. In particular, he creates an effective hit-and-run accident while showing absolutely nothing, probably to keep with standards of decency at the time. Even small scenes, like Dana conversing with John Hurley are framed in relatively interesting ways.

The ideas at the heart of the story are good, even if the script does lean on them a little heavily. Like Revenge, there’s a sense of random tragedy here, rendering our central characters completely helpless. It’s not malice, but arbitrary misfortune. “Why did this have to happen to us?” Dana asks, and there’s no easy answer to his question. However, the script suggests that it isn’t the random tragedy that defines us, so much as how we deal with it.

“Dana, I don’t know how to say this to you exactly, but you’re not special,” his mother tells him. “You’re no different from anyone else. And unhappiness and tragedy come to all of us sometime.” We all face these sorts of problems, but not all of us are strong enough to overcome them. Like Carl in Revenge, Dana fixates on the idea of retribution rather than recovery. He is preoccupied with revenging himself upon that anonymous hit-and-run driver. “He’s a murderer,” he tells his mother. She asks, “Don’t you suppose he knows that? Can’t you imagine, wherever he is, what he’s feeling?” Dana simply responds, “It’s not enough.”

So when John Hurley shows up with the promise of assistance, Dana doesn’t question the deal. “Does it matter what my reasons are?” John Hurley asks. “If I can do this for you, what difference does it make?” Hurley could be Satan himself and Dana would still make that deal, so narrowly is he focused on the idea of retribution. As in so many noir works, revenge makes fools of us all. Dana hasn’t thought it through, he’s still reacting to his pain rather than thinking clearly.

And Hurley’s method takes its toll. The metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, but – to an extent – it works. In order to recall the license plate number, Dana is going to have to live through the whole incident again. Hurley instructs him, “You’ll relive it, moment by moment, right up until the moment you saw the license plate.” As the ‘catch’ dawns on him, Dana observes, “If I wanna remember that number, I’m gonna have to watch Laura die again.” He’s going to have to wallow in that grief and keep playing it over in his mind – rather than actively trying to move past that pain towards something better. Dana is literally going to live in the past. Even if it is a bit of blunt metaphor, it is still a little clever, and I give it that.

Still, it all feels a bit insubstantial. Perhaps it’s because we never really know Laura enough to care about her, or perhaps it’s because the ending just strikes a bum note. While the episode’s themes are strong, it’s middle-section isn’t constructed nearly strongly enough to carry it across the finishing line. The result is an interesting episode that doesn’t end well, resulting in a story that is strangely forgettable.

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.

Read the rest of today’s thoroughly awesome Hitchcock articles over at This Island Rod.

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