Tuesday, July 20, 2010

DVD Review: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One

(Released: 2005 by Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

Another Looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia
It boasts one of the most famous openings in television history. The classical piece “Funeral March of a Marionette” plays, as the drawn outline of a rotund man fades into view. A dark silhouette, fitting the outlined profile, slowly walks into frame, matching it contour for contour. The camera pans over to our host, who greets us with a simultaneously familiar and chilling: “Good Eve-ven-ing!”

It is ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, one of those underappreciated television gems that has become more a part of our culture than most folks realize. AHP continues to demonstrate its brilliance through the courtesy of DVD, the first such collection is the subject of this review.

Renowned director Alfred Hitchcock both introduces and offers a coda to each of his weekly tales of mystery, suspense, and usually murder – the grizzly detail of which often seems to surpass the perceived norms of 1950s TV. Mr. Hitchcock employs top-notch actors, writers and directors for his television “plays” (as he calls them) and sometimes directs certain choice episodes himself.

So much a staple of our popular culture did this program – and its host – become that it was often lovingly parodied in the media of its time. Hanna-Barbera Productions created not one but TWO Hitchcock parody characters: Alfy Gator, an alligator sophisticate and gourmet out to ingest little duck Yakky Doodle, and the memorable one-shot “Alvin Brickrock” on The Flintstones.

The latter did Hitchcock to a “T”, right through the coda that leaves one with the impression that Brickrock actually got away with murder.

The “plays” themselves are fun to watch, and deliver the best suspense the era had to offer. But Alfred Hitchcock really puts them “over the top” with the innovative ways he leads into and out of the stories – and introduces commercial messages.

Sample this typical Hitchcock introduction, taken from the episode: “A Bullet for Baldwin”. (We open with Hitchcock seated at a desk.)

Good Eve-ven-ing! I hope you’ll excuse me if I appear a trifle excited, but I’ve just come into possession of a cure for insomnia. [He produces FIVE BULLETS and stands them up on the desk, neatly in a row.] It comes in capsule form. For best results, they must be taken internally. [He produces a GUN.] Here is the handy applicator.
It is an amazingly simple device. An idiot can operate it – and, indeed, many do. These objects play an important part in tonight’s tale. It is called ‘A Bullet for Baldwin’.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.

Disc One: In what I hope is strictly my own experience, The Adventure of Disc One is one of those quirky happenings that Mr. Hitchcock would no doubt appreciate. Episode Four “Don’t Come Back Alive” froze little more than halfway through. It would then skip forward a bit and resume without incident. This happened in exactly the same way on multiple players.

Amazon was excellent in quickly delivering a duplicate of the set, and leaving me a generous amount of time to return the original defective one.

My first impulse was to immediately play “Don’t Come Back Alive” to see what I missed. To my surprise, the same flaw manifested itself – only EARLIER in the episode – and skipped to a LATER POINT before resuming!

Now, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the “freeze” perfectly coincided with a commercial break fade-out (making the fade-out just seem longer than usual, and the flaw somehow “neater”). I considered keeping this one, and sending back the original – even though I was missing more of the episode.

Then, I found an ADDITIONAL such flaw on the SAME DISC in Episode # 5 “Into Thin Air” – which just happens to be one of the best of the set! So, I flurry-watched every episode of the ORIGINAL SET, and sent back the replacement – which, sadly, was more flawed than the original.

Apparently, I was not alone in such difficulty, as THIS REVIEW from DVD TALK reveals.

Chapter Skipping: In short, there is none. At any point in an episode, pressing “Forward Chapter Skip” will take you past the end of the episode and back to the menu. Compare with a comparable half-hour show like TWILIGHT ZONE, which will have three chapters per episode, and one each for “Rod Serling’s Next Week Preview”, and End Credits. But, the worst is yet to come, in the form of…

Spoilers and Inaccuracies: When selecting “Play” for each episode, an “Episode Summary” screen appears, offering a description of the story before allowing the “Play” option. This is a nice idea, but for two quibbles. These summaries – all too often, alas – either give away the endings… or are inaccurate in describing the story. WARNING: Do not read this material until AFTER viewing the episode in question.

One of these gives away the ending to the best mystery story of the set! How could Universal’s quality control allow this?! A major detriment to the enjoyment of this fine set.

The Players: A stellar list of names, often appearing multiple times over the season: (In order of first appearance) Ralph Meeker, Vera Miles, John Forsythe, Cloris Leachman, Warren Stevens, Percy Helton, Ellen Corby, Gene Barry, Darren McGavin, Robert Emhardt, Patricia Hitchcock, Alan Napier, Elisha Cook Jr., Joseph Cotton, Everett Sloane, Olan Soule, Peter Lawford, John Williams, Robert F. Simon, Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Space, Carolyn Jones, John Qualen, Sebastian Cabot, John Cassavetes, Jo Van Fleet, Robert H, Harris, (A special cameo by Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories # 177 SEE THIS POST), Michael Ansara, Robert Foulk, Cyril Delevanti, Claude Rains, Charles Bronson, Werner Klemperer and John Banner (In the same episode!), Sean McClory, Claude Akins, Estelle Winwood, Amanda Blake, Lorne Greene, Biff McGuire, Alan Hewitt, Frank Gorshin (very brief cameo), Harry Townes, Skip Homeier, and Joanne Woodward. With Paul Frees in an uncredited role as a radio announcer in the final episode.

How’s THAT for a cast list!
The Episodes: 39 glorious episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, from the 1955-1956 television season! Highlights include:

“Revenge”: The series premiere, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Never take the law into your own hands!

“Triggers in Leash”: A tense confrontation between western gunfighters Gene Barry and Darren McGavin breaks out – over breakfast!

“Into Thin Air”: Alfie’s daughter, Pat Hitchcock, stars as a frightened young British woman whose mother disappears during a stopover in Paris. Mother disappears without a trace – and everyone denies having ever seen her. Hitchcock acknowledges the familial connection at episode’s end: “Oh, incidentally, I thought the little leading lady was rather good… didn’t you!”

“Don’t Come Back Alive”: Yes, the one with the “skip” in it. A scheming older man almost gets away with murdering his wife. Wonderful ending moment!

“Breakdown”: Hitchcock directs Joseph Cotton in what may be one of the most incredible dramatic television presentations of the era! Paralyzed, pinned in an auto wreck, and unable to speak, Cotton is presumed dead by all who encounter him! His frantic thoughts, communicated only to the audience, prove otherwise. Unforgettable!

“A Bullet for Baldwin”: A meek office clerk shoots and kills the boss (Sebastian Cabot) that fired him. The next day, the boss is back at his desk, with no one the wiser.

“The Older Sister”: The “real” story of Lizzie Borden. Did she REALLY “take an axe, etc…”?

“Whodunit”: An angel (formerly a pompous old mystery writer) requests that he relive his last hours on Earth, to learn who murdered him. Naturally, he gets more than he bargained for.

“Never Again” The unexpected can happen when you drink! So, don’t drink!

“The Gentleman from America” Two nearly bankrupt Britishers bet a bragging wealthy American that he can’t (…wait for it) spend the night in an old haunted house! How many times, and in how many different ways, was this plot done! Well done here, though!

“The Belfry”: A murderer hides in the bell tower of an old schoolhouse, waiting for the moment to kill the teacher who spurned his affections.

“The Creeper”: Second best episode after “Breakdown”! Young blonde women in a New York City neighborhood are being murdered by a killer dubbed “The Creeper”. Our story focuses on a housewife’s efforts to cope with the situation. A SUPERB mystery that presents at least five suspects in its 25 minutes of play.

BEWARE: The “Episode Summary” that displays before the episode plays GIVES AWAY THE IDENTITY OF THE KILLER!!! You are warned to just blow past this display before watching “The Creeper”!

Oh, and don’t look this one up on IMDB either. They give it away, too!

Extra Features: “ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: A Look Back”, a 14:44 documentary on the series and Alfred Hitchcock.

I love this set and its contents… BUT, while the CONS do not outweigh the PROS, they are too severe to ignore. Again, I hope I am more-or-less alone in my experiences with disc flaws, but I doubt it.

Give it a try… but, like any character in one of Hitchcock’s television plays, be wary!


Anonymous said...

Did you ever get a DVD set that did not have skipping/freezing issues?

Joe Torcivia said...

No. After getting a second one that had even worse skipping, I decided to keep the first one (sending the second one back) and cut my losses.

Reading that other review, combined with my own experiences, left me thinking the odds would be against me to try further.

Hitchcock would likely have had some dry, humorous comment on it all.

All subsequent season sets have been without issue, I’m pleased to say.