Appellate Judge Tom Becker learned the hard way that writing reviews can be...murder!
Alfred Hitchcock directed only a handful of episodes of his classic '50s TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but he was on hand every week to offer a witty introduction and take a few jabs at his sponsors. Hitchcock was already such a brand, that even though he had less creative input on the series than people might have imagined, people still tuned in for the Hitchcockian experience that the series promised. They were not disappointed. The show deftly blended drama, comedy, suspense, occasional bits of the supernatural, and a healthy helping of murder, serving it with style, wit, and a satisfying twist at the end.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran seven seasons, turning out 270 half-hour episodes. After that, it expanded to 60 minutes and ran another three seasons as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. All 36 half-hour episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Four are included in this set.
Let's get this out of the way up front: this is a great series, and these episodes are terrifically entertaining. Even the weakest ones are nothing less than great fun.
The production values are simple but strong, with some very good camerawork. A few of these episodes were shot by John L. Russell, who was responsible for Psycho. Music is generally stock but well used, except of course for the series' recognizable theme, "Funeral March of a Marionette."
The acting and directing are just wonderful. "Big" names like Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Mary Astor, Roger Moore, Franchot Tone, and Steve McQueen do great work here, as do lesser names like John McGiver, Phyllis Thaxter, Ralph Meeker, and Robert Horton. The great Barbara Bel Geddes gives a remarkable turn as a frightened newlywed in "The Morning of the Bride," a program that must have been shocking when it first ran, though is less so for audiences familiar with some of Hitchcock's later work. Gary Merrill, at the time unhappily married to Davis, appears twice this season (though not with her), offering two very different but still sinister stand-out performances.
The real star is the writing. Clever and literate, these are perfectly transferred short stories. There is very little excess or padding, and no unnecessarily "jazzy" touches. Each episode has its twist, but unlike some shows, the twists here are organic; they never feel tacked on or convoluted. The endings serve all that has gone before, instead of the other way around. There's no sense of slogging through a 25-minute set-up just to get to a lame punchline.
What's surprising is how well the comedy episodes play. Usually, dramatic anthologies fall flat when they try to veer into comical territory—witness the decidedly unamusing results when The Twilight Zone gave us "Mr. Bevis," "Cavender Is Coming," or "Showdown with Rance McGrew," which suffered from heavy-handed slapstick and gags that fell flat. On AHP, the humor—present in most episodes—is generally more sophisticated, heavily infused with irony. We also get the occasional in-joke: In "Cheap Is Cheap," a man looking to have is wife killed is appalled at the price of a professional hit. He's advised by the hitman to do it himself and then mentions a TV show he saw in which "a real cute dame clobbered her old man over the head with a leg of lamb," a reference to the AHP classic, "Lamb to the Slaughter."
Among the better episodes here are the uncomfortably tense, Hitchcock-directed "Poison;" "The Crooked Road," which features top-notch work from a young Walter Matthau; "Tea Time," which gives us an outstanding turn by Margaret Leighton and a truly clever twist; "The Diamond Necklace," which is Claude Rains' show from start to finish; "The Waxwork," a genuinely creepy haunted wax museum thriller; "The Impossible Dream," which finds acting fireworks in the performances of Astor and Tone; and "The Human Interest Story," with a young Steve McQueen already showing off star power in a tricky but well executed script. Davis' turn in "Out There—Darkness" is exceptional, the kind of larger-than-life performance usually reserved for the screen, full of nuances and small moments; she's so compelling that you barely notice that the story doesn't really hold up.
The shows are actually in pretty good shape. There's a bit of print damage here and there, and some episodes look a bit rough, but for 50-year-old television programs that haven't been "gloriously remastered," these are pretty clean. Audio is a standard mono track, and there are English subtitles. The lone extra, "Fasten Your Seatbelt: The Thrilling Art of Alfred Hitchcock," is a six-minute-plus look at the Master of Suspense through the eyes of some contemporary directors, including John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, and Eli Roth. This seems to have been put together from the interviews shot for the special editions of Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window released in 2008.
What a treat to have these episodes on DVD. Suspenseful, funny, and compelling, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Four is another great example of the "Golden Age" of television.
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