(CBS) “We held services over an empty coffin. There’s no body in the grave.” For those of us who love the chilly thrill of a well-told mystery, the classic series Alfred Hitchcock Presents is without peer. Week after week – starting in 1955 – it presented “situation tragedies” to the viewing public, hosted by the Master of Suspense himself.
In the host segments, Hitchcock comes across as a soft-spoken man with a wicked wit and a macabre view of the world. He cracks jokes to lighten the somber mood of the stories he's presenting, but the jokes are often darker than the stories themselves. Holding up a pistol, Hitchcock murmurs, “This is for the man who has everything. It's to help you take some of it away from him.” At the end of one episode, he reassures the viewer, “You will be relieved to hear that Diana and Basil's story ended happily: they did NOT get married.”
If this type of comedy seems a bit subversive for network television in the '50s, it probably was. Hitchcock most likely got away with it because the persona he'd created for himself – the loveable Gothic gentleman with an eye for the darker side of human nature – was expected to explore the seedy underbelly of accepted society. His gallows humor was given more leeway than most because it was rooted in the grand tradition of the court jester, or “licensed fool”: a man who tells the ugly truth about things, but never has to answer for it because everyone agrees that he serves an important social function.
The stories themselves serve a similar function; like Hitchcock's films, they remind us that life can be cruel, unfair, random, and grim. There's a certain comfort in that – if not in the knowledge of it, then in the fact that someone's willing to point it out. It feels good to see tormented people in desperate situations. It makes your own life seem less dire.
If Hitchcock's “little plays” do anything, they confirm the cliché that there really are no new stories out there. Every story's been told before, just in a different tone or a different context. Watch the first few episodes, and you'll see the plots of many recent thrillers like Shutter Island, Unknown, and Red Eye played out before your eyes, but half a century earlier. Hitchcock is quick to point out that his versions are based on other even older tales.
Then there's the sense of history brought on by watching the black-and-white images themselves. They're as crisp and textured as any classic film of the era, with beautiful lighting and extravagant sets and clothing. If you're a cinephile, the cast list is truly stunning. Over the show's ten year run – during which it migrated from CBS to NBC and became The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – many a stellar name appeared in the credits. Here are just a few: Ed Asner, Charles Bronson, Art Carney, John Cassavetes, Bette Davis, Bruce Dern, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall, Denholm Elliott, Peter Falk, John Forsythe, Anne Francis, Jack Klugman, Peter Lawford, Christopher Lee, Cloris Leachman, Peter Lorre, Walter Matthau, Lee Majors, Jayne Mansfield, Steve McQueen, Roger Moore, Vic Morrow, Leslie Nielsen, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Dean Stockwell, Jessica Tandy, Rip Torn, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Vaughn, Joanne Woodward, Fay Wray, Dick York, and Claude Rains.
Like reading tales by Poe, Alfred Hitchcock Presents conjures up a dark mode of vision which can make the most innocent of daily scenes appear fraught with peril and haunted by shadows. Someone's always playing a deadly game, attempting to serve their own selfish ends, and our privilege is to watch and guess at the outcome. Hitchcock takes delight in these intricate puzzles, daring us to solve them before the story draws to a close. His delight is contagious.
Why We Like It: tightly-plotted thrillers, star-studded cast, intricate puzzles, dark humor.