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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Breakdown (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.

Breakdown is an interesting concept, but one that feels like it has been adapted into the wrong medium. Most of the story centres around an executive who survives a car crash, paralysed. We are treated to his inner monologue as various people come along and interact with him. Adapted by Francis M. Cockrell and Louis Pollock from the latter’s short story, I can’t help but feel the concept might have worked better as a radio play than in television. Still, the idea is solid, and Joseph Cotton gives a nice central performance. It just feels a bit clunky for a television adaptation.

Part of the problem is one of suspension of disbelief. Naturally, the camera lingers on our lead character’s face for an extended period, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that his car crash doesn’t look especially serious. In fact, it looks like the majority of the damage to the car was to the steering wheel of all things, snapping his neck and pinning him on the seat. (To be fair, we do see a cracked windshield later on.) Still, it seems like what Hitchcock could show of the carnage car crash itself was restricted – whether by the budget of the show or by standards of decency.

However, a far greater problem is one of telling, rather than showing. By its nature, an episode focused on the paralysed survivor of a car crash isn’t going to have too much action, but the character’s inner monologue feels more than a little overwrought and melodramatic at times. It wouldn’t be so bad, save that he keeps complaining about how silent it is. “It’s just that it’s so silent, I guess,” he observes, “and lonely.” Such comments mights have been more effective if the episode had wallowed a bit in the silence, creating an eerie atmosphere, rather than starting the voice-over almost as soon as any other character wanders off screen.

Still, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a powerful piece of television, just one that isn’t nearly as effective as it should be. It’s hard not to pity our lead character as he gets a somewhat cruel lesson in the way that the world works as various groups stumble across the crash. It’s heartbreaking each time he believes that help must be at hand, only to learn that this isn’t quite how Alfred Hitchcock Presents works. Like Elsa in Revenge, he seems to tempt fate by showing even a hint of optimism. “What are they doing?” he asks as bunch of looters prey on his car. “Why aren’t they helping me?” He seems unbelievably naive, which just makes it all the more tragic. “This is crazy,” he suggests. “I don’t get it.”

In fairness, the story makes some clever points about modern society, and how sterile and disconnected it has become. The idea that he could be left alone so long on the side of the road says a lot, and there’s a nice scene where two prisoners debate whether on not he’s still alive. One seems to regret that they don’t have a mirror to hold over his mouth. His inner monologue demands, “Why don’t you just feel my pulse?” It feels like a pretty damning commentary on how detached the modern world has become – where people will gleefully loot a ‘dead’ body for clothes but won’t touch it to check that there’s no pulse.

As an aside, I love how gleefully subversive Hitchcock is. He introduces the story with a moral it doesn’t really have. He suggests, in his introduction, that it should warn people about firing employees, when that has only a thematic connection to the main plot. It illustrates how cold and isolated our protagonist is, which comes back to bite him, but there’s no direct relation. Unless, of course, one believes that the car crash was a result of karma rather than bad judgment on the part of the executive.

More than that, I can’t help but think that Hitchcock skirts the sort of morality that he was forced to impose on many tales like this. Often, Hitchcock would close the episode with a little monologue explaining how the criminals in it had been caught and brought to justice, as a polite acknowledgment of convention morality. However, here, it’s implied that the crook who stripped the executive got away scot-free. The police arrested one prisoner who knew about the car, and I find it a bit difficult to believe that the guy in civilian clothes got caught faster than the one in the prison jumpsuit.

I do love Hitchcock’s wonderful introductions, that seem subtly mocking and more than a little wry. Discussing how the story has a moral that it really doesn’t seem to, he explains, “I think you will find it properly terrifying… but like the other plays of our series, it is more than mere entertainment. In each of our stories, we strive to teach a lesson or point a little moral. Advice like mother used to give, you know. Walk softly, but carry a big stick. Strike first and ask questions later. That sort of thing.” It’s hilarious, because those are the sorts of pragmatic morals that run contrary to the sort of virtues middle class America strove towards during the fifties.

Discussing the fact that the story was adapted from a short story, he remarks that he’s quite fond of thrillers. “I find them very relaxing. They take my mind off my work.” His deadpan delivery is absolutely hilarious, and I’m actually surprised that he restricted himself to cameo appearances. In what might be interpreted as a good-natured jab at those people who bemoan modern forms of entertainment as inherently inferior to classical forms (at the time, it would have been those decrying movies and television as inferior to theatre and books), Hitchcock even suggests that softcover books aren’t nearly as good as their predecessors.

“Of course,” he muses, “they can never replace hardcover books. They’re just good for reading. They make very poor doorstops.” I’ve always admired the fact that Hitchcock worked in genres that were easily dismissed as “trashy” by cultural elitists, as he really proved that any material can be elevated by the skill of a master. I’ve never believed that one should dismiss any work out of hand, and I’ve always possessed a tremendous respect for the way that Hitchcock could take inherently trashy subject matter and turn it into cinematic gold.

It helps, of course, that our host is charmingly self-deprecating. I wonder what the sponsors made of his rather tongue-in-cheek introductions to the advertisements that kept the show afloat? Here, he somewhat jokingly suggests that advertisement was the highlight of the show, better than the main production. “There, that really held you in suspense, didn’t it?” he asks us after a brief interlude. I can’t help but think that Hitchcock’s role as host was almost as crucial as the branding in keeping the show on the air.

Breakdown isn’t the director’s finest moment, nor is it the show’s best episode. It is, however, an interesting drama with a great central idea, even if I’m not sure that television was the ideal format for it back in 1955.

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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2 Responses

  1. You’re right. It would have been better on the radio.

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