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Exploring the Television Career of Alfred Hitchcock: Episode One – Revenge

The films of Alfred Hitchcock are certainly frequent subject here on DeaconsDen. I’ve written about a few of the Master of Suspense’s works. These include PSYCHO, MARNIE, DIAL M FOR MURDER, REAR WINDOW, THE LADY VANISHES, SUSPICION, THE BIRDS, FRENZY, TOPAZ AND ROPE. I have always found Hitchcock’s work to be extremely entertaining and due to the size of his filmography, we have a significant amount of material to review and analyze. One area I wanted to dive into more is Hitchcock’s television filmography.

By the 1950s, Hitchcock had now directed films in four different decades. He had directed 43 films. He had proven to be an extremely popular director who had achieved a level of stardom nearly on the level as the actors he directed in his films. With the rise of television in delivering stories to audiences, it would only make sense that Hitchcock would make the leap to television. To aid him in this new endeavor, Hitchcock would enlist Joan Harrison who wrote for Hitchcock during the late 1930s and into the 1940s on films such as REBECCA, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SUSPICION and SABOTEUR. Harrison would take on the role of producer and oversee the acquisition of the writers and directors that would work on the weekly anthology series to be titled, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

Over the ten year period that ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and its renamed THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR was on the air, Hitchcock himself would sit in the director chair for 18 episodes. Here, I will take the time to provide some level of analysis of each episode and see if Alfred Hitchcock’s film direction and television direction overlap and if he had a mastery of suspense on the small screen as comparable as he did on the silver screen. I have to mention that there will be spoilers of these episodes. To begin, we will look at the premiere episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, titled “Revenge.”

“Revenge” is the first episode of the first season and the first episode of the series that Alfred Hitchcock directed. The story was written by Samuel Bias with a teleplay by Francis Cockrell. The episode stars Ralph Meeker and a regular Hitchcock player in Vera Miles.

The episode is the story of the Spann’s. Former ballerina Elsa (Miles), and her engineer husband Carl. Elsa has recently gone through a mental breakdown and is recovering at their trailer park home. We are treated to some opening shots of a serene town. We see the beach and some other trailers to give us the impression of an average coastal town. Hitchcock always liked to have his features open with something calm and peaceful. Consider the opening of ROPE with its upbeat look at the neighborhood before taking us into the horror of that one apartment. You can also consider PSYCHO with the shots of Phoenix. He want to establish something that will be upended during the course of the story. This introduction of the serene allows for the ensuing drama to feel more potent.

As stated earlier, Elsa has been recovering from a breakdown. After Carl leaves for work, he has their neighbor Mrs. Ferguson check on Elsa during the day. Even as their conversation goes on, you still feel there’s a shoe to drop, however all is well. Things go as normal and we are eventually shown a scene with Elsa sunbathing outside in her swimsuit. Hitchcock’s camera acts as both our eyes and the eyes of the neighbor. Hitchcock always played around with things sexual and I got the impression that he might be signaling that Mrs. Ferguson may have another interest in Elsa. This doesn’t play a role in the rest of the episode, but I thought it was an interesting observation since the camera certainly makes sure we see and admire Vera Miles in a swimsuit.

Later, Carl returns home and sees the trailer a mess and something burning in the oven. Once he finds Elsa she tells her husband about an attack by a man and how he almost killed her. Carl takes his wife for a drive, considering her state of mind. While out Elsa points out a man walking and identifies him as the man who attacked her. Carl pulls over and grabs a wrench from under the seat. Here is another moment of Hitchcock’s suspense building as he tightens the shot on Carl’s hands moving from the steering wheel to underneath the seat. It may be on screen, but the director manages to make us feel the metal in his hands. Following the man to his hotel room, Carl kills the man. Even for television this scene has quite the feeling of brutality with nothing shown but Carl’s shadow and the long swings he takes to bash the man.

Back in the car, Carl and Elsa continue driving. On their way home, Elsa points out the man that attacked her. There, Carl has the immediate realization that his wife is not in a good state of mind and that he has killed an innocent man while we hear the police in the background and the episode ends.

For “Revenge,” Hitchcock manages to bring over some of his cinematic language. For instance he knows when not to cut. He knows for the drama he is attempting to build or the emotions he wants to convey, we have to linger on things as along as possible. For instance an early scene of romance between Elsa and Carl gives a lengthy shot of them kissing. Another example is the close up of Elsa’s face when she is explaining to Carl what happened to her. This intensified the horror that Elsa has gone through.

I wanted to touch on the character of Elsa for a moment. I found her an interesting character when you consider the Hitchcockian woman. Typically, a woman in a Hitchcock film is one who is put through the wringer. For example, Grace Kelly in DIAL M FOR MURDER is accused of murder and nearly executed. In REAR WINDOW , she is the one who has to put herself in danger to go to Thorwald’s home. Tippi Hendren’s character of Melanie in THE BIRDS is traumatized by the end and in MARNIE that traumatization is part of the character. And of course we must mention Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane from PSYCHO. Other examples include Joan Fontaine’s characters in both REBECCA and SUSPICION. Hitchcock’s women get put through it. Miles’ Elsa at the start of the episode, appears to have already gone through it. She’s recovering now. One could see her as the “survivor” of a Hitchcock film. We never know what caused her breakdown, but I can imagine what would the future be like for someone like Melanie Daniels or Lisa Fremont after their ordeals. As an episode, “Revenge” feels like it asks the question of how does Hitchcock’s style affect his characters?

As an episode and piece of suspense, “Revenge” is a great start to this anthology series. The episode is flush with Hitchcockian trademarks and features an interesting character that feels like the aftermath of going through a Hitchcock film.

Next Episode: Breakdown.

One response to “Exploring the Television Career of Alfred Hitchcock: Episode One – Revenge”

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