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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Case of Mr. Pelham (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.

Due to circumstances outside our control, tragedy will not strike tonight. I’m dreadfully sorry, perhaps some other time.

– Hitchcock’s introduction; well, at least he apologises

The Case of Mister Pelham picked up the series’ first Emmy nomination, with Hitchcock himself nominated for outstanding direction. It’s not too hard to see why, as The Case of Mister Pelham is a wonderfully compelling piece of television, a psychological character study masquerading as a supernatural mystery. In many ways, it feels like the best episode of The Twilight Zone that was never an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s sharp, cleverly constructed, and features and astounding central performance from Tom Ewell as the eponymous Mister Pelham. What more could you want?

Looking back over many of these episodes, I’m astounded at the talent that Hitchcock was able to attract to the project, especially given that television was still relatively young at the time. While Tom Ewell was hardly ever a marquee name, he was still a hugely respected actor. His most iconic screen role had probably been as a supporting player in Adam’s Rib, and he had won a Tony Award two years before appearing in The Case of Mister Pelham.

The Case of Mister Pelham hinges on Ewell’s central performance as the accountant who feels like his life is slowly being usurped. As Hitchcock’s opening narration suggests, viewers were perhaps expecting something a tad more grounded and something vaguely more like a thriller than a psychological drama. It’s up to Ewell to get us to invest in this meek accountant who seems to be on the verge of a massive nervous breakdown, preoccupied with a mysterious doppelgänger who seems to want to consume his identity. And Ewell does a phenomenal job as a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Sure, the plot has elements of a mystery. Early on, it seems like uncovering the nature of this doppelgänger will be a driving point for the plot. Is this a sinister hoax? Is it a conman? Is it a prank by Pelham’s associates at his gentlemen’s club? However, it becomes quite clear that the episode actually has relatively little interest in the nature of Pelham’s double – the closest we get to an explanation is the assertion that there is “an agency more than human” at work here. Normally, that would feel like a cop-out, but the double isn’t the focus of the story here: Pelham himself is.

It is, for instance, amazing how meek Pelham is even when the core of his identity is under attack. When something moves in and tries to usurp his life, not only does Pelham avoid confrontation, he seems to move out of the way. When this creature begins to take everything that belongs to Pelham, our lead gradually gives up all of his identity rather than fight for it. When it causes a fuss at the gentlemen’s club, Pelham simply stops spending time there. When it starts wearing his clothes, Pelham buys himself a new wardrobe.

“I could vary my routine some,” he tells his psychiatrist. “Different hours, amusements, clothes, that sort of thing. Maybe buy a loud tie. I normally only wear this kind.” Not only does this supernatural entity succeed in assuming Pelham’s life, it manages to force Pelham out of it. It’s telling that Pelham changes so completely that he ceases to be the real Pelham to his friends and colleagues. “Would you ever see me in a tie like that?” the doppelgänger asks his manservant, at the point where Pelham loses absolutely everything and pretty much ceases to be Pelham in the eyes of anyone.

Hitchcock directs here, but his work is relatively unobtrusive. It is kind of cool to see the use of effective doubling in the fifties – to appreciate the special effects that allow the director to actually put two versions of Tom Ewell on screen at the same time. Still, the use of special effects not withstanding, Hitchcock mostly just lets Tom Ewell sell the story, and the veteran actor does a truly phenomenal job. It’s hard to imagine the episode working at all without Ewell in the lead role.

It’s all deeply compelling stuff, which I think really makes the best use of a half-hour anthology format, where you have a relatively limited amount of space in which to cover your ground. I’d argue that The Case of Mister Pelham stands as one of Hitchcock’s finest contributions to the series, but I don’t think I’d get too much by way of disagreement. Those looking to sample the director’s work on the show could certainly do a lot worse than checking out his first Emmy-nominated episode.

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 The Self-Styled Siren.

4 Responses

  1. This is a great, succinct analysis of the expertise Tom Ewell brought to this very scary episode, which I still remember after a zillion years. With many doppelganger stories, there’s usually a mutually beneficial agreement to change places, but here it’s like Pelham already doesn’t exist and is being phased out for a new, improved model. Thanks for participating in the blogathon, Darren!

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