Question: I know most of the world remembers Alfred Hitchcock as a master filmmaker, but I've always been a big fan of his TV show, too. Recently a friend was telling me he just put his name on it and didn't really work on it much. True or false? (Please say false!) Thank you. Nicole B., Greensboro, N.C.
Televisionary: That depends on your definition of the word "work," Nicole. Let's face it: If you do any job long enough it becomes toil, but I guarantee you the people who performed the day-to-day functions on Alfred Hitchcock Presents during its initial 1955-65 run on CBS and NBC would have told you that they were the ones doing the heavy lifting. Matter of fact, one of the major players did just that. "He contributes nothing except script supervision," Hitchcock protégée and series producer Joan Harrison flatly told TV Guide in 1964, noting that she hired all the writers and directors and handled the casting to boot. "I worked in three Hitchcock shows, but never for Hitchcock," an anonymous actress added. "He never turned up on the set."
And that was true, production-wise. For the most part, Hitchcock was only directly involved via the bumpers he filmed to introduce and wrap up his dark tales, shooting eight or so of those segments at once. However, it's not quite fair to assume he was phoning it in entirely when he was, in essence, a walking brand who created the atmosphere of his show and had final say over the stories that were used. "I do insist on approval of all the writers' scripts," Hitchcock said. "I read every last one and make whatever suggestions I can think of.... Miss Harrison does the casting, yes, and [executive producer] Norman Lloyd. I try to put out fatherly words of advice, without trying to what's the word? usurp their position."
It's interesting that for once Hitchcock was accused of not taking enough control of his TV project, considering that most of the barbs he absorbed were for being too demanding and egotistical. One critic called him "a cynical, self-absorbed, even sadistic technician devoid of pity and perception." The Master might have quibbled with the wording, but he didn't apologize for his high standards. "I dislike conflict, but I won't sacrifice my creative principles," he told TV Guide in 1965. "I draw the line at my work. If anything stands in its way, then there's difficulty. I loathe people who give less than their full effort. That's deceit. How can you do creative work with that undercutting? I cut such people off."
It was that insistence on quality that kept AHP on a solid ratings footing during much of its run and, moreover, drilled some of the show's more famous stories and infamous endings into the audience's psyche. Ask a relative or friend who was of viewing age at the time and I guarantee you they can tell you, for example, about the story of the woman who clubbed her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then served it for dinner to the cops who were trying to find the "blunt object" used to kill the man. It was wonderfully macabre stuff and daring for a medium that nearly always insists the good guys win in the end. (Granted, Hitchcock would invariably use his bumper to describe how the evil-doer came to a bad end, but that often didn't balance things entirely.)
All of which was part of Hitchcock's genius for darkness. He took you to the edge of the abyss, usually with a smirk "In our shows, the undertaker laughs," he proudly noted but he never pushed you over it. At worst, he led you. "I deal with the fine line," he said. "A man walks down the street and falls into a manhole. This is funny. Cruelty, you see, is funny. But if the camera follows the man down into the manhole itself and sees him lying there in agony with a broken back, then it ceases to be funny. The art of provoking laughter from tragedy lies in knowing the precise location of the fine dividing line."Over the course of the show, though, Hitchcock found himself crossing a dividing line of his own one tripped over by more than a few creators forced to deal with the requirements of the suits. "In television, you are playing to a very selective audience," he said, somewhat naively, in 1957. "I have been given more latitude in television than I ever had in motion pictures. It is paradoxical, of course, but the movie people hedge you in with all sorts of artistic restrictions." Now, plenty of TV writers celebrate the clout and money they could never garner in the film world, but few praise TV executives for being more open-minded than their big-screen counterparts. And at the end of his run, Hitchcock, who expended a lot of energy sticking it to his nettlesome sponsors, was noticably more cynical about the small screen.
"We must be philosophical about this," The Master said in 1965 after NBC declined to renew his show. "As we all know, TV is a great juggernaut and we're all nuts and bolts attached to it. Sometimes the nuts and bolts fall off."