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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Revenge (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.

Good evening. I’m Alfred Hitchcock, and tonight I’m presenting the first in a series of stories of suspense and mystery called – oddly enough – Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I shall not act in these stories, but will only make appearances, something in the nature of an accessory before and after the fact: to give the title to those of you who can’t read, and to tidy up afterwords for those who don’t understand the ending.

– Hitchcock lays down the rules

It’s interesting to look back at Hitchcock as a director who had an exceptional gift for working with material that might be derided as “trashy.” Certainly, if one divorces the subject matter from the director himself, a significant amount of his work can be seen as somewhat exploitative, inside genres that are traditionally dismissed by those more serious and elitist film commentators. (Indeed, one could argue that Psycho laid the foundation for the much-maligned “slasher” genre.) I’ve actually found this a significant appeal in examining Hitchcock’s work. Like many of the very best directors ever to work in film, he has a knack for elevating his subject matter beyond the expectations of the genre. I think that his anthology television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, is especially fascinating, because it illustrated the director taking an entire medium far more serious than many of his contemporaries.

Of course, these days, people would argue that television has truly evolved into a viable artistic medium. Oscar-winning directors like Martin Scorsese are willing to work in the medium as both producers and directors. It’s not uncommon to see actors traditionally identified as “film stars” headlining their own television shows – Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Angelica Huston, Kiefer Sutherland, Sean Bean, Glenn Close. Works like The Sopranos and The Wire have made it acceptable to consider television as a valid artform in its own right, rather than as mere disposable entertainment.

Hitchcock, it seems, was considerably ahead of the curve when it came to branding his own anthology series, delivering suspense and thrills to an audience with the British director’s wry wit. By this stage in his career, Hitchcock had already helmed a number of massive hits, and I can’t help but wonder what many of his contemporaries made of the director’s decision to expand into television. It was certainly very astute self-promotion, but it’s amazing to think how prescient it was. Indeed, the series even predated Rod Sterling’s other iconic American anthology series, The Twilight Zone.

The premise was simple – the twenty-five minute episodes would provide a vehicle for suspenseful short stories, and Hitchcock himself would put in an appearance at the beginning and the end to address the audience. The theme (‘Funeral March for a Marionette’) has become inextricably linked with Hitchcock in popular culture, and the opening sequence (featuring a crude five-stroke illustration of the director drawn by the man himself) has become something of a pop culture staple.

Of course, as a rule, Hitchcock himself only provided the continuity announcements for each episode. The writing and director chores where typically handled by others. Still, Hitchcock himself did direct 17 of the original 268 episodes, which represents a fairly significant contribution from a director who was also producing feature films at the same time. It seems fitting, then, that Hitchcock himself would direct Revenge, the opening story of the series, working from a script by Francis M. Cockrell, adapted from a story by Samuel Blas.

Somewhat disingenuously, our host promises “a sweet little story”, although Revenge is a bit more cynical. As befitting a show running twenty-five minutes, the core idea is relatively simple, as is the twist. Rather than focusing on the relatively straight-forward plot, the script focuses on the two lead characters, Carl and Elsa Spann. Illustrating Hitchcock’s eye for talent, the episode is headlined by Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles. Miles had signed a five-year contract with the director that would include starring in The Wrong Man and Psycho. Due to production delays (and her own pregnancy), she narrowly missed out on Vertigo, which the director had planned to showcase the young actress.

The script itself is a nice little noir tale about two newlyweds living in a mobile home along the Californian coast. As one might expect, we get a nice early conversation between the pair discussing the people who live around them. Displaying a somewhat shortsighted genre blindness, apparently unaware she’s in a Hitchcock production, Elsa tempts fate with her verdict, “In short, they’d be like most people everywhere: very nice.” When her husband disagrees, she insists, “You’re much too cynical. I can’t believe that your world is any more real than mine. And I know that mine is much the nicer.” Naturally, something terrible has to happen.

There are nice touches – in particular the revelation that Elsa is recovering from “a small breakdown.” When a neighbour comments on how healthy she looks, she replies, “I’m strong in the muscles, I trained as a dancer in the ballet.” It would appear that, between this and Black Swan, ballet is not a profession for the faint of heart, as Elsa confesses that the stress of her wedding and her debut contributed to her breakdown. Clearly without any sense of dramatic irony, Elsa remarks that it was a result of “too much happiness.” It goes without saying that the script ensures that this doesn’t remain a problem for too long.

The script itself is a passable little thriller with a nice little hook at the end. however, Hitchcock’s direction elevates the material dramatically. He manages to make a sequence with Elsa following a brutal attack seem surprisingly sinister given the standards of decency at work in television at the time. Using all manner of relatively subtle cues, from a crumpled flower in her hand, to the tight close-ups on her face and the lingering shots of her legs, Hitchcock creates a disturbingly uncomfortable atmosphere. He’s helped by Vera Miles’ superb performance. The undercurrents are potent – it really feels like Elsa was the victim of a very brutal assault, despite the limitations on what Hitchcock could or couldn’t show. (There is not, for example, any visible bruising.)

The rest of the episode also benefits from the director’s touch, as he employs tricks of the trade that will be familiar to casual fans. I especially appreciated his clever use of a mirror and shadows during Carl’s assault on the man he believes responsible for his wife’s assault. Indeed, even the smaller touches like Hitchcock’s low establishing shot, looking up at the caravan, add a touch of class to the rather sordid proceedings.

Hitchcock’s direction and his two leading actors elevate the material considerably. The caravan that the pair live in seems absurdly spacious, while the police in question seem especially attentive. They check back in on Elsa several times in one day, although maybe people just got better police service half a century ago. Maybe modern law enforcement has just dropped the ball a bit, I don’t know. Still, those are minor problems – Carl and Elsa are the focal points of the story, and Hitchcock and his two leads work well to keep the plot focused on them.

I also have to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Hitchcock’s opening and closing appearances. While he claims to just sum up what happens on screen, it’s very clear that he also adds material not covered in the thriller itself. Here he provides a nice epilogue for Carl, and ties in a nice moral to the story to ensure that the moral guardians don’t get too upset with him. “Naturally,” Hitchcock tells us after the fact, “Elsa’s husband was caught, indicted, tried, convicted, sentenced and served his debt to society for taking the law into his own hands. You see, crime does not pay. Not even on television. You must have a sponsor. Here is ours, after which I’ll return.”

Hitchcock himself conceded that such a post-script was “a necessary gesture to morality”, and I can respect that – even if it does over-simplify the episode a bit. After all, surely Carl living with his conscience would be punishment enough? Still, it doesn’t ruin an otherwise enjoyable half-hour of television, which is a nice touch. I also appreciated Hitchcock’s awareness of the economics of television, making repeated overt reference to the show’s sponsors with something of a wry chuckle. “Oh dear,” he feigns mock surprise at one point, “I see our actors won’t be ready for another sixty seconds. Thanks to our sponsors’ remarkable foresight, we have a message that will fit in here nicely.” What a convenient coincidence!

Okay, so perhaps his work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents isn’t the highlight of his career, but it does illustrate just how diverse Hitchcock was creatively, and also illustrates how far ahead of his time he happened to be. It shows that not only did Hitchcock have a knack for elevating genres that many would dismiss, but arguably even television itself, years before it became acceptable to accept it as a truly artistic medium.

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.

7 Responses

  1. Darren: Thank you for dipping into Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I have seen only a few episodes, but you make me want to see more.

    • It is well worth a look. I imported the DVD collections and while I’ll enver watch every episode, they’re not bad value if you can find them at the right price.

  2. Darren: I am a fan of this series as well as the humorous prologues and epilogues (you’d have to be dead not to like them). I don’t remember this particular show, but you give it the kind of attention it deserves and capture the flavor of the show. Thanks for being a part of the blogathon. Looking forward to more of your contributions.

  3. You do a great analysis of how Hitchcock applies his filmic techniques to the small screen. I remember when watching this show getting a queasy feeling as to what actually happened to Miles’ character; it seemed a case that she was probably raped, but censorship wouldn’t allow that to be verbalized. Therefore Hitch tells us in visual ways, which made it seem even more terrifying. And the use of irony that you point out, as a kind of double layer — Miles’ blind optimism contrasted with the realty of what happens to her — seems to have been a hallmark of this TV show as a whole. I’m also a big Ralph Meeker fan, so thanks for writing about this show!

    • Yep, I think it really pushed the limits of what you could get away with. It’s never explicitly stated – but it’s there, due to various associations (including the fact she was sunbathing before it happened). It very unnerving, and I think Hitchcock’s direction captures it perfectly – making it as unpleasant as possible without actually showing anything that would violate television morality policies.

  4. Only read this now, to my regret. Good stuff, only thing is I think you sell the episode short–it’s terrific, Hitchcock working expertly in the short form. Love the eerie silences, and the way Hitchcock ‘sliced up’ Vera Miles body while Meeker was laying her out on her bed. I saw that, and I thought: “that was very Hitchcockian.” Course I didn’t realize he directed it.

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