Before the boundary-pushing American Horror Story and Fargo emerged on the scene to redefine the anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock made his own significant contribution to this television genre. Anthology series were all the rage back in the early days of television, and after more than three decades of directing films, Hitchcock embraced this method of storytelling to tell mystery and thriller stories that were too short to be feature films.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired from 1955-1962 in a half-hour format, then was extended to a full hour from 1962-1965 and was renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The series was rebooted in the mid-1980s and ran for four seasons. Of the original 258 episodes, 17 were directed by Hitchcock himself. The series also featured well-known actors like Bette Davis, Vera Miles, Claude Rains, and Peter Lorre as well as early screen appearances of future stars like Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, and William Shatner.
The series is perhaps most famous for Hitchcock’s wry remarks that opened and closed each episode. Each segment was written by James Allardice and were filled with boundary-pushing dark humor. In an effort to uphold morality in the midst of macabre themes, the show’s sponsors insisted that for stories that ended with a person getting away with the crime, Hitchcock had to close the show by assuring the audience that the criminal was eventually caught.
Despite the moral pressure, Hitchcock and company still got away with a lot for the 1950s, when television contained primarily wholesome fare like Lassie and I Love Lucy. The series was ahead of its time in many ways, namely in its dark subject matter, cinematic style, compelling anti-heroes, and use of violence (usually off-screen); many of the episodes hold up incredibly well today. Additionally, the influence on Hitchcock’s films and vice-versa is unmistakable. Alfred Hitchcock Presents may not be jump-out-of-your-seat frightening, but showing the awful things ordinary people are capable of makes it truly chilling.
The entire series is available on DVD, but you can also catch Season 1 on Netflix and you can stream most of the episodes from Seasons 1-4 on Hulu for free.
Here are five of my favorite episodes, all directed by Hitchcock himself. Fear not: no spoilers here.
“Breakdown” (Season 1, Episode 7). Joseph Cotten (The Third Man) plays a cold-hearted businessman who believes that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. He gets in a car accident and wakes up completely paralyzed, and when help arrives, he is presumed dead because he is unable to speak or move a muscle. Suspense builds as the viewer hears his increasingly fearful thoughts as he tries to think of a way to show that he is alive before it’s too late. Streaming on Netflix.
“The Case of Mr. Pelham” (Season 1, Episode 10). Tom Ewell (The Seven Year Itch) stars as the title character who recounts to his doctor a series of mysterious incidents that have led him to believe he has a double who is purposely impersonating him. The premise of this episode almost makes it more suitable for The Twilight Zone, but Hitchcock adds his own sinister touch to Pelham’s predicament. By the end of the episode, you may be questioning your own sanity. Watch here.
“One More Mile to Go” (Season 2, Episode 28). In the middle of a heated quarrel, a husband (David Wayne) suddenly kills his wife, stuffs her in the car trunk, and drives off to dispose of the body. But there’s a hiccup in his plan when he is stopped by a cop who insists he fix his broken tail light. The first 10 minutes of this episode are proof that you don’t always need dialogue to tell a compelling story, and the sequence where the husband is driving on the highway could very well have inspired this scene from Psycho, released three years later in 1960. Watch here.
“The Perfect Crime” (Season 3, Episode 3). “Master of Menace” Vincent Price stars as an arrogant detective who prides himself on having a perfect record in his career and doesn’t take it too well when a visiting lawyer suggests that the detective made a huge mistake in one of his previous case. Price’s smarmy charm coupled with Hitchcock’s suspense and surprises are a treat to watch and will leave you wondering why this was the only time they worked together. Watch here.
“Arthur” (Season 5, Episode 1) Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate) stars as the title character, a sadistic chicken farmer who becomes a confirmed bachelor after his gold-digging girlfriend leaves him for another man. When that relationship doesn’t work out, she returns to Arthur in an attempt to win him back, but content in his bachelorhood, he kills her and finds a, um, creative way to dispose of her body. This episode is a paragon of the anthology’s tongue-in-cheek dark humor. Harvey gives a deliciously creepy performance as a man who relishes in his hubris, and Hitchcock’s closing comments are the icing on the cake. Watch here.
If you get hooked on this show like I have, check out these episodes next: “Revenge” (Season 1, Episode 1); “The Glass Eye” (Season 3, Episode 1); “The Mail Order Prophet” (Season 3, Episode 2); “Lamb to the Slaughter” (Season 3, Episode 28); “Man from the South” (Season 5, Episode 15)
First-time viewers, what are your reactions? Alfred Hitchcock Presents fans, which episodes do you recommend? Or are you Team Twilight Zone? Sound off in the comments.