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.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief is Alfred Hitchcock on vacation. If you are watching the works of the Master of Suspense, whether it’s Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, Rebecca and so forth, you have expectations to be on the edge of your seat. Although it has moments of suspense, We pretty much spend our time in the beautiful setting of the French Riviera with two beautiful leads or Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

This certainly the most playful film of his 50s run. For me the highlight is Grace Kelly’s performance. I thought it amazing how well Kelly and Hitchcock worked together. She always exuded a high class aura and Hitchcock manage to leverage that into 3 different performances in their films. In To Catch a Thief, Kelly is her most unleashed, feeling almost like a combination her characters Margot Wendice and Lisa Fremont from Dial M for Murder and Rear Window respectively. And talk about a sexy movie, the double entendres, the visuals of the fireworks scene. Hitchcock’s movie never steered away from sex and this film is dripping in it. 

Being released after Rear Window, you would expect an equal level of success, but after the heaviness and themes of Rear Window, don’t we all deserve a getaway to a gorgeous area with gorgeous people? 

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes is Alfred Hitchcock’s best film of his British era. It is an awesome cocktail of comedy, thrills and romance while simultaneously taking a peak at at British insularity.

This film could be seen as a predecessor to Hitchcock’s single setting films of the 40s and 50s. Although The Lady Vanishes does not take place in one exact location like Lifeboat, Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, it does manage to convey a sense of claustrophobia. The cast of characters start the film as cramped guests in a hotel and end up as cramped passengers on a train. 

This tightness results in a lurid intimacy that Hitchcock shows here. You have the duo of Charters and Caldicott who may or may not be gay. We know Hitchcock films do not have an issue peering into queerness. We’ll see this later in 1940’s Rebecca and 1948’s Rope. You have Mr. and “Mrs.” Todhunter, an adulterous couple. Then you have our protagonist, Iris Henderson, played wonderfully by Margaret Lockwood, first introduced with her friends in the hotel as she prepares to leave for her wedding to a rich man to further her societal status. Once she meets Michael Redgrave’s Gilbert, a courtship begins throughout the film that is dripping with sexual energy.

Hitchcock does an excellent job in getting the audience to care about the disappearance of the titular “lady,” Miss Froy by having May Whitty dominate her scenes and become a singular presence so that you feel her absence once it occurs. If we don’t feel ourselves missing Miss Froy, then it becomes difficult for us to feel for Iris as she searches for the woman and is not believed and doubted at every turn. Again, Hitchcock’s skill as a cinematic manipulator is top notch.

One area that differentiates The Lady Vanishes from subsequent Hitchcock films is its heroine. Lockwood’s Iris, while certainly initially aristocratic, is not the typical icy and damaged Hitchcockian woman. She does not operate from a point of despair like Marion Crane. She doesn’t have a tragic backstory like Marnie or is terrorized like Melanie from The Birds. She isn’t manipulated like Alica Huberman of Notorious. Iris’ actions are to simply get to the bottom of the vanishing of Miss Froy because it is the right thing to do. 

Iris’ determination eventually spreads through to the other characters who all initially refuse to become involved in the search, focusing on their own wants and desires, much like people tend to when they consider their class and status in life and that since they are secure, there is no need for them to stick their neck out for anyone. However, once things take a dark turn into the climatic shootout, and Charters is shot in the hand, the fantasy of the audience watching and the grim reality of the characters being watched, smash together to create a thrilling sequence where these characters who only cared for themselves, answer the call to do the right thing against a foreign fascists.

While Jamaica Inn would end up becoming the film that closes out Hitchcock’s time in Britain before he comes to America, The Lady Vanishes is his biggest achievement of that period. It bursts of youthful energy that may have not only been a goodbye to England, but officially to his own youth as he was about to turn 40. It almost is like a myth of a plucky young hero out to save the day. I can imagine with World War II on the horizon this was needed. Yet even with The Lady Vanishes being the close of an era, it is a clear indication of the future of Hitchcock’s filmography.