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Exploring the Television Career of Alfred Hitchcock: Episode Two – Breakdown

We’re back with another episode of television directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Last time we took a look at the very first episode of the series, a gripping tale called “Revenge.” You can check out that piece to get an understanding of the Hitchcock formula’s first opportunity on the small screen as well as some of the early background on the series. As with the first episode’s discussion, spoilers about the episode will be mentioned.

“Breakdown” is the seventh episode of the first season of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and the second episode of the series that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock himself. The story is by Louis Pollock with the teleplay by Francis Cockrell and Louis Pollock. The episode stars Joseph Cotten as Callew, a ruthless movie producer. Playing a no good person for Hitchcock is nothing new for Cotten, having already played the villainous Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller SHADOW OF A DOUBT. Some interesting casting tidbits about this episode include a young Aaron Spelling and James Edwards, best know for his role in HOME OF THE BRAVE, but first came to my attention in 1956’s THE KILLING which was directed by my other favorite director, Stanley Kubrick as well as a role in 1962’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

“Breakdown” tells the story of movie producer Callew who scoffs at the crying of a longtime employee he just fired over the phone. Callew believes it’s absolutely weak of an individual to just have a breakdown of emotion. His colleagues are far more understanding, recognizing that the man let out all of his emotions at the moment to avoid bottling it up and causing damage to himself or others later. It’s surprisingly a progressive line of thinking for Hollywood types. The episode takes shape once Callew is out driving and crashes into a construction site. The resulting accident leaves the producer completely paralyzed. He is unable to move any part of his body. All that lets the viewer know he’s alive is his thoughts as he tries to do something to let others know he is not dead. After coming into contact with multiple people and eventually ending up at the morgue, Callew is about to be tagged as a dead body when his emotions finally breakdown (giving us the purpose of the title) and a tear runs down his face. This alerts the coroner that the man is not dead and there the episode ends.

So how does Hitchcock applies his cinematic tools of the trade to this episode of television? Well for starters, we look at his lead actor. Hitchcock enjoyed working with Cotten when he would be playing antagonistic characters so this role is certainly a continuation of the type of work they did during SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

A key trademark of the Hitchcockian style is the movement of the camera representing the eyes of the viewer. Making voyeurs of the audience. The episode “Breakdown” does something a little bit different. Typically either the camera is moving or the subject moving in the scene. However with Cotten’s character completely paralyzed we have no movement from the character at all. So what does Hitchcock do to create the tension? He has static shots of Cotten’s total stillness. All he has is his thoughts and we are trapped in that car with him and his thoughts. It also creates a stream of consciousness scenario which is something you do not see typically in a Hitchcock film. The director also succeeded in playing with the proximity of his shots, knowing when to cut to a close-up to show the uncomfortableness of being in the car with Callew or to a wide shot and see the man’s helplessness.

“Breakdown” is an episode all about visual language and Hitchcock excels using it to provide one very taut half-hour of television. One could only imagine what he could have done if this concept was expanded to a film.

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