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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Mrs. Bixby & The Colonel’s Coat (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.

As has been our custom, we shall present homy little stories of an unusual nature. We shall continue to give the little man, or woman, his due. When crime is occasionally dealt with, it will be crime as practiced by ordinary people, like the fellow next door. I think that, by Spring, a large number of you will be thinking of moving.

– Hitchcock’s introduction

Mrs. Bixby & The Colonel’s Coat is, in effect, one joke. It’s a single joke extended over a half-an-hour, with a punchline appearing mere minutes before the end credits. While that might make the episode feel a little insubstantial, it is a Roald Dahl joke, which means that it is never boring. The set-up, the characters and the world around them is a wonderfully fascinating and darkly comic place. It’s no wonder that Dahl and Hitchcock seemed to work together so well. I suspect that they shared a similar sense of humour.

Indeed, even Hitchcock’s opening and closing monologues seem more comedic than usual, as he introduces a new season. Watching these episodes, I’m amazed at the stuff that he manages to get away with, especially when it comes to dealing with the sponsors. Those companies are, after all, paying for the show that he is producing, so one might imagine that he’d be at least respectful of them. Instead, there’s something deeply amusing about watching Hitchcock be very wry and sarcastic in the way that he deals with such inserts.

Here, he acknowledges that some of his past behaviour might have been out of line, toying with the fourth wall and the audience’s expectations. “There is one aspect of this programme which has changed,” he solemnly informs us. “If you have tuned in to hear me make snide remarks about an innocent sponsor, you are doomed to disappointment. I’m proud to say, I have resolved my antagonisms and have become completely sponsor oriented.” Just in case anybody at home might be taking him seriously, a cartoon halo appears over his head.

“I have met our new sponsor and find him to be agreeable, charming, witty, honest, sincere, intelligent, dependable, trustworthy, loyal, brave, clean and reverent. Tonight’s show is entitled ‘Mrs. Bixby And The Colonel’s Coat’, but first, unfortunately, we have one of those…” The halo disappears, prompting Hitchcock to quickly change his tune. “… But first fortunately, we have one of those intelligent, amusing, dignified, provocative, brilliantly conceived, but painfully short commercials.” I honestly don’t think that Hitchcock’s monologues get enough love. Yes, some of them are quite silly, but there’s also a very clever aspect to the way that Hitchcock seems to be subtly mocking everyone from the moral guardians to the show’s sponsors. Here, he’s being somewhat less than subtle about it, but it’s still awesome.

The show itself is relatively straightforward. It’s a Roald Dahl script, so it’s certainly compelling. I grew up reading the author’s children’s stories, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to follow his dark sense of humour into his more adult work. Dahl is a phenomenal author, and one of those wonderfully entertaining writers who always has something of interest to author. Even his most mundane work still has a bit of a sparkle to it.

So Mrs. Bixby & The Colonel’s Coat isn’t the most adventurous of Dahl’s contributions to the series. It is effectively all set up for that wonderful closing shot, which is certainly one of the better twists in the series. Don’t get me wrong, the episode doesn’t just spin its wheels for the half-hour leading up to that closing twist, butMrs. Bixby & The Colonel’s Coat doesn’t exactly move at a breakneck pace. It feels like more of a leisurely stroll through the lives of a bunch of vaguely unlikable people.

It’s interesting that Dahl writes much more convincing banter between a married couple than many of the earlier writers on the series. While Elsa and Carl in Revenge and Dana and Laura in The Hidden Thing might have seemed a little too saccharine to be real, Mr. and Mrs. Bixby actually interact like a couple who have been together a long time. I know that their relationship isn’t intended to be as intense as any of those other examples, but their dialogue seems much more real. I especially like Mrs. Bixby’s response to her husband’s plea to stay home. “Now Fred,” she remarks, “if I were home, you’d just go bowling.”

And while Dahl’s characters seem more real, it’s also clear that the author doesn’t like any of them very much, and doesn’t want us to like them either. A remarkable element of Dahl’s writing, at least to me, was always the way that he wrote unlikable characters. If Dahl wanted you to hate a character, he could make you despise them in the most economic way possible. In Mrs. Bixby & The Colonel’s Coat, it’s quite evident that Dahl wants you to hate just about all the main characters, but he does it in a manner that doesn’t feel exceptionally manipulative.

It’s the combination of small things. It’s not the infidelity itself that leads us to dislike Fred’s wife. Given how disinterested he seems to be, it’s almost understandable. It’s the fact that she has been having an affair for eight years right under his nose. Somehow the fact that she makes him a nice lunch before she runs off to sleep with another man makes it worse. It’s as if she’s trying to assuage her guilt by keeping him fed in potato chips.

Not that her lover comes across as an exceptionally nice gentleman either. “A wonderful thing happened,” he declares as he prepares to abandon her as well. “A neighbour of mine died.” There’s something remarkably detestable about how the pair resolve their relationship as well. He seems to bribe her with a coat made of “wild Labrador mink”, which is almost as sleazy as the fact that she’s happily bought off. On opening the gift, she seems more convinced about the price of it than any sentimental value. “It must have cost at least five thousand dollars!”

Not that Fred himself is exactly an innocent victim in all this. He is clearly preoccupied with everything except her – from his dental practice to the measuring device he picked up for his alcohol. When she claims to have found a pawn ticket, he effectively confiscates it off her, but does so in the most demeaning way possible. When she asks for it back, he asserts his power in the relationship, mockingly teasing her, “You don’t have fifty dollars, do you dear? So how can you redeem it?”

It’s all wonderful character work, and it works in such a way that we aren’t so sympathetic to any character that we can’t laugh at the ending, but not so unsympathetic that we’re completely disengaged. Even the central set-up for the finale – Mrs. Bixby’s attempt to explain where she got that expensive coat – is very cleverly plotted, displaying the sort of ingenuity that Dahl often brought to his work in any medium.

Given the nature of the show as a single extended gag, Hitchcock’s direction isn’t intrusive. He seems happy enough to just film Dahl’s script in a relatively straightforward manner. There isn’t any suspense to be had, or any tension to really draw out. It’s not bad by any means, but it just feels almost pedestrian. Which, to be fair, is perfectly reasonable. Dahl’s script is arguably the bigger attraction here than Hitchcock’s direction.

Mrs. Bixby & The Colonel’s Coat is a single joke stretched over twenty-five minutes. That might seem like a bit much, but Dahl and Hitchcock are very good at telling jokes. The story, while lacking a bit of substance, never feels too light or too ready to escape. It’s hardly essential Hitchcock, but it is solidly entertaining.

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.

2 Responses

  1. I read the link as “Mrs. Bixby & The Colonel’s Goat.” I had an entirely different image of what the story might be about. I can imagine that Roald Dahl and Hitchcock would have hit it off.

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