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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Lamb to the Slaughter (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.

It’s amazing to think of the talent involved in some of these Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. Obviously the director himself was the host and directed seventeen episodes, but he also had a star-studded cast on hand for a great many installments. That said, there was just much talent behind the camera. Robert Altman, Sydney Pollack and William Friedkin were among the other directors to work on the series, and author Roald Dahl contributed some episodes as well. Dahl contributed the much-loved Man From The South, featuring Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen, but he also offered this wonderful little murder tale about an especially inventive killing.

Lamb to the Slaughter is a relatively light tale. It is the story of how Mary Maloney attempts to get away with the murder of her husband, with a rather ingenious twist to it. So ingenious, in fact, that another character in another episode (Cheap is Cheap) would actually acknowledge it as a very clever method of dispatching somebody, were you so inclined. Indeed, Hitchcock doesn’t have much to do except film Dahl’s script, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a wonderfully enjoyable little tale.

Hitchcock’s lead here is Barbara Bel Geddes. She would be familiar to an entire (later) generation for he role in the soap opera Dallas. Hitchcock enthusiasts will note that, like many of the leads in the episodes he directed, she also worked with the director. Geddes appeared in Vertigo. She does an absolutely wonderful job here as the devoted housewife who finally has enough of her deadbeat husband, making us feel completely sympathetic towards her even as she manages to skilfully evade justice.

Geddes plays Maloney as a woman who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. When her husband demands a divorce, with the news that he is seeing another woman, Maloney just stands there and soaks it in for a moment. Eventually she opts to continue as usual, perhaps because she doesn’t know exactly how to respond to his declaration of intent. “I’ll get your supper, darling,” she says. “I couldn’t let you go without getting you something to eat.” It’s very hard not to pity her.

It helps that her husband is a complete douche, to the point where the audience seems quite on-side with her eventual response to his behaviour. He announces that he is cheating on her, and intends to leave her, while she’s pregnant. He promises there will be money to take care of her – but not too much, you understand. It seems quite possible the only reason he thinks she should keep the child is because he just can’t be bothered.

You know he’s a horrible human being when his co-workers openly discuss his flaws over his still-warm dead body. One of the investigating officers inquires if the police chief could have been killed by a woman. “You know as well as I do that our friend here used to fool around quite a bit,” one tells  the other. It’s hard not to understand why Mary lashed out like she did, and to hope that she might get away with it.

In fairness, while the bulk of the episode is carried by a combination of Geddes and the rather interesting method of execution, Hitchcock still manages to wrangle a decent amount of suspense out of his set-up. For example, Maloney seems like a ticking time bomb from the moment her husband announces his plans, and there’s a nice bit towards the end when the police come tangibly close to deducing the murder weapon, literally discussing its merits. “This must have been a big one,” one muses, after literally holding the murder weapon in his hand.

Even the epilogue seems to tease us with the possibility that Maloney might have gotten away with it. “Well, that’s the way the old meatball bounces,” Hitchcock observes, which was a far cry from the harsh ‘crime doesn’t pay’ morality that the series frequently imposed. Although, apparently just to be safe, we are hastily told that she was punished for another crime. “As for old Mary Maloney, she would have gone scot-free if she hadn’t tried to do in her husband the same way.” Of course, Hitchcock reduces it to a wry joke rather than a solemn announcement, adding to the slyly subversive feel of the show.

It’s easy to see how the episode picked up so many Emmy nominations. Roald Dahl himself earned a nomination for writing it, and Hitchcock picked up a second nomination for his direction on the show. It really is a rather exemplary example of what the show was capable of when all the elements came together in just the right way.

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 Ferdy on Films.

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6 Responses

  1. This is one of my favorite episodes. It’s an example of why that show was so great.

    • It is awesome. Dahl is just a great storyteller.

      • Right! If you haven’t read his “adult” stories (as opposed to his children’s lit like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) I highly suggest it. He has one story about a vegetarian raised in the mountains who makes his first trip to the big city and discovers the joy of meat. Let’s just say it has a memorable ending!

  2. I really like your blog some amazing film reviews on it and possibly one of the best at what it does I have yet to come across online, I have featured you as my blog of the week on my own blog. keep the reviews coming http://cbrohanmultimedia.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/blog-of-the-week-4/

  3. The final shot of the episode, which pulls in to a smiling Bell Geddes, is eerily similar to the shot of Tony Perkins at the end of PSYCHO.

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