When people speak of Hitchcock, they usually refer to the Master of Suspense’s movies. No one sings the praises of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the TV show he hosted from 1955-1962. If Hitch’s cinematic work cemented his legendary director status, his portly silhouette beamed into millions of households every week made him a celebrity. Before Rod Serling submitted Twilight Zones “for your approval,” and the Crypt Keeper bloodied up HBO, Hitch presented the types of twisted tales you’d expect from him. Like Serling’s masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had a famous opening sequence. As Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette” played, Hitch would step, in silhouette, into his outline drawn on the screen. It was simple, yet mysterious, and more than a little creepy.
At the movie theater, Hitch let his camera do the talking for him, revealing his macabre sense of humor and morbidly perfect comic timing. On TV, with far less screen time and budget, Hitch did the talking himself. “Good eeeeve-ning,” he would always begin before buttering us up for the night’s deviltry. He would tell us about tales of suspense and “murrrr-der” written and directed by people like Arthur Hiller, Charles Beaumont, Ida Lupino, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch; and seemed genuinely pissed off that he had to stop for commercials. “And now…a word from our…SPON-surrrrr,” he would say disapprovingly. His mock disdain (or was it real?) made for some funny comments at the expense of his benefactors.
Those benefactors were horrified at the outcomes of some of the episodes on AHP. Sometimes people got away with their crimes, which did not sit easy with the censors either. So, Hitch would show up at the end of those episodes to tell us that the authorities eventually caught up with the villains. He never sounded convincing, which made me wonder if the 50’s audiences caught on.
The most famous example of “getting away with murrrrr-der” is “Lamb to the Slaughter”, a third season episode directed by Hitch himself, starring Miss Ellie herself, Barbara Bel Geddes. Filmed the same year she appeared in Vertigo, “Lamb” spins a tale of “murrrr-der” written by Willy Wonka creator Roald Dahl. Seems Miss Ellie is far from pleased with her police officer husband’s request for a divorce, so she puts a big dent in his brain casing with a frozen leg of lamb. When the police arrive, they spend all day looking for the murder weapon. During a break in the search, (SPOILER ALERT) Bel Geddes offers the officers a bite to eat. As they chow down on leg of lamb, one of them says of the murder weapon, “For all we know, it could be right under our noses.”
It’s hard to imagine another director so willingly embodying the feel of his work. When Hitch showed up, in his movies and as TV host, his appearance alone was shorthand. Polanski and Scorsese have made memorable appearances in their movies, but it would be terrifying to have them hosting a show. “Tonight, kitty cats, we have a tale about a nosy guy,” Polanski might have said. Robert Altman, who helmed two episodes the same season as “Lamb,” would have been interesting, however: “Whatever, people. Look, I’m Bob Altman, and though I love the characters in tonight’s episode, they’re real shitheads, you know?”
Hitchcock seemed so delighted to introduce his ghoulish tales that one often wondered what would happen if he took a role in one of them. Friz Freleng and the Looney Tunes provide an answer of sorts in the 1961 Tweety and Sylvester cartoon, “The Last Hungry Cat.” Hitchcock, in the guise of a silhouetted bear, bids us “Good Evening” and invites us to a tale of “murrrrr-der” with a twist. Sylvester attempts to eat Tweety, but is knocked unconscious while Tweety escapes. When he comes to, and finds feathers in his mouth, he assumes the deed has been done. We know that Sylvester hasn’t succeeded, but it doesn’t stop the Hitch Bear from torturing him with accusatory voice over. His dialogue is priceless: “Sardines and milk wouldn’t have done it for you,” he says slowly. “You had to go commit murder.”
Coinciding with Sylvester’s story is a police manhunt for “The Cat.” Sylvester thinks it is he, and runs home in a panic. “You got away from the law,” says Hitch Bear, “I’ll bet you wish you could get away from your conscience!”
“Hungry Cat’s” plot is a twisty variation on Hitch’s Innocent Man Wrongly Accused movies. Sylvester is wrongly accused, but he thinks he’s guilty; in order to get a good episode of his show, the Hitch Bear is willing to allow him to believe it, tormenting him the way his namesake director did Cary Grant from the director’s chair.
As Sylvester becomes more guiltily unhinged with each taunt, Hitch Bear goes in for the kill. “Why don’t you give…yourself up…and accept…the consequences?” he asks Sylvester, who replies, “Yeth, I’ll give mythelf up! I’ll throw mythelf upon the merthy of the court!” Eventually, Sylvester finds out that Tweety is not only alive, but also still quite delicious and irresistible.
At the end of the cartoon, Hitch Bear quotes Shakespeare, “conscience makes cowards of us all,” and is then hit in the head with a brick thrown by Sylvester. In a macabre touch Hitchcock himself would have loved, the outline of the silhouette retains the Pete Puma-style knot after Hitch Bear leaves.
In 1985, NBC brought back Alfred Hitchcock Presents, using colorized versions of Hitch’s old intros stapled to remakes of the originals. The only one I remember was a jarring episode with Season Hubley, but I believe the folks at NBC were smart enough to leave Miss Ellie and her little lamb off the remakes list.