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Old 03-08-2023, 01:52 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Ordinary Tales of Mystery and Suspense: Hitchcock v Dahl, or USA v UK


Ordinary Tales of Mystery and Suspense

Quite recently I began watching the old series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and I’ve been pretty much floored by the quality of the stories. Given that there’s no science fiction/speculative fiction element in this show, that the writers have to base their work firmly in the real world, and that all explanations and twists have to be believable and explainable with respect to the then-current trends, the writing is, generally, quite superb. Of course there are duff ones, but when is that not the case with an anthology? Overall though most have been as good as some of the better Twilight Zones.

So my original idea was just to feature, explore and write about them, but then I thought, how much better if I could compare them to something else? But what? No point in trying to put them up against the great science fiction anthologies such as The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt or the aforementioned Twilight Zone, less sense in going Black Mirror or anything like that on them. No, I needed an anthology series that was quite similar in tone and writing, but, you know, different.

And then I had it.

Across the water, there was a ready-made competitor in Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Now, certainly there are important differences between the two shows. One is that all the stories in his series are written by the presenter, or based on his work, whereas in AHP the master of suspense, being a director and not a writer, only introduces them and gives the series its pedigree and gravitas by association. His quirky humour notwithstanding, Hitchcock fulfils, not even a Rod Serling role, as Serling created and also wrote much of The Twilight Zone, but more just a figure to as such guide you to your seat, then leave you to it. None of the stories in his series are attributable in any way to the great man, nor is he involved in any of them, other than as director on some, even in (at least so far) his famous penchant for cameos. Haven’t seen it yet and I don’t think I will.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents used a stable of different writers - you’ll see the same ones crop up from time to time - and an often revolving cast of actors, and of course, being from the 1950s, his show is all in black and white while Dahl’s is in glorious colour, not that that should or will impact on the stories. But in another way the two shows are quite similar. Both endeavour to squeeze their tale into about thirty minutes or so, both try to teach a lesson or moral, and of course both have invariably a twist at the end. I’m not that totally familiar with TOTU, so I can’t say much more about it, but one thing that does make it a worthy competitor to Hitchcock’s show is that it ran for nine seasons, whereas his ran for ten. I don’t see any other British anthology show that extended over a period as long as that, and still fulfills all other criteria I require.

But this will of course not be a case of Hitchcock v Dahl: that would be unfair. As I say, Hitchcock is merely the host, and has no hand in writing the stories, whereas the Englishman does both. No, this will be, quite simply, an exploration of which, despite the time difference, is better: English or American suspense drama? Who does it better, who gets their message across and whose stories make more sense? Whose stories, indeed, are or could be still relevant today? Tales of the Unexpected is a younger show than Alfred Hitchcock Presents, true, but in reality there’s only about twenty years between them, so Dahl’s tales can still be seen as somewhat dated. Of course, he has also had his stories turned into movies which are being shown today, so perhaps more relevant, but we’ll see.

Each episode, then, will be reviewed in order, first one from Alfred Hitchcck Presents and then one from Tales of the Unexpected, after which each will be dissected and then rated, and we’ll see who gets the highest score. No doubt this will not - or should not - be a whitewash for one or the other: some Dahl tales may be better than those presented by Hitchcock, and vice versa, so it may swing first one way, and then the other. At the end of each season we will see who is in the ascendancy, and if this continues into the next, and so on.

Feel free to comment, debate, suggest or even watch along with me should you wish to. The stories are certainly worth watching, and hey, your country’s pride may be at stake! Or, you know, just sit back and let me do all the work. It’s fine either way. If I can get videos of episodes I’ll post them, if not you’ll have to do with my synopses.

All right then, let’s get this show on the road.
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Old 03-08-2023, 02:00 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Series: Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Season: 1
Episode: “Revenge”
Original transmission date: October 2 1955
Writer(s): Samuel Blas (teleplay by Francis Cockrel)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Dramatis Personae:
Main:
Carl, a business executive
Elsa, his wife, a ballerina recovering from a nervous breakdown after overwork.
Supporting
Mrs. Ferguson, an older, more mature maternal type figure, a neighbour.
Ancillary
Doctor (unnamed)
Sergeant, investigating the alleged crime
Lieutenant
Two uniformed cops
Two other neighbours
Unnamed man in hotel whom Carl kills, mistakenly believing him to be the intruder
Maid, in hotel above
Concierge, same

Starring: Ralph Meeker, Vera Miles
Themes: Terror, isolation, revenge, pursuit
Setting: Caravan park (possibly Connecticut, going by the car licence plate)
Rating: A-

Hitchcock’s intro:
“Good evening. I am Alfred Hitchcock, and tonight I am presenting the first in a series of stories of mystery and suspense called, oddly enough, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I shall not act in these stories, but only make appearances, something in the nature of an accessory before and after the fact. To give the title to those of you who can’t read, and to tidy up afterwards for those who don’t understand the ending. Tonight’s playlet is really a sweet little story. It is called “Revenge”

Elsa, a ballerina who has suffered something of a nervous breakdown, has moved to a caravan park with her husband Carl, in order to get away from the city and recover. Strange idea: it’s not like people just bring their caravans, stay there for a bit and move on; one of the neighbours has a picket fence built around her caravan, so clearly she’s been there for a while, and intends staying. At any rate, Carl goes off to work and leaves her on her own, but Mrs. Ferguson, the neighbour, comes over to spend time with her and keep her company. That evening Carl arrives back from the office to find her cowering in the caravan; she tells him she was attacked by an intruder, but Mrs. Ferguson was away so didn’t see or hear anything.

The cops are unable to find any clues, other than a vague description given to them from another neighbour of a man in a grey suit, and the doctor advises Carl to take his wife away tomorrow, away from the scene of the trauma she has just experienced. Take her to a hotel, he suggests, and Carl does just that. On the way there though Elsa suddenly points out the man she believes to be the intruder. Carl, furious, has been growling all day what he would do to the guy if he caught him, and now he has his chance.

He stops the car, shadows the man till he sees him go into a hotel, then goes into his room and hits him on the head with a hook, presumably killing him. Sneaking back out of the hotel, he rejoins his wife and they drive off. A little further down the road, she again screams “That’s him! That’s the man!” And Carl realises he’s made a terrible mistake as he hears the wail of sirens behind him.

Hitchcock’s outro: “Well, they were a pathetic couple. We had intended to call that one Death of a Salesman but a protest from certain quarters. Naturally Elsa’s husband was caught, indicted, tried, convicted, sentenced, and paid his debt to society for taking the law into his own hands. You see, crime doesn’t pay, not even on television. You must have a sponsor. Here is ours.”

Problems, problems!

I find a lot of holes in the plot, and as you all know I’m good at that. There are some pretty scarlet fish here though. When Carl finds his wife she’s clutching a flower. This is made out to be very significant but comes to nothing, so what was the point? It’s never mentioned again. Other than possibly an indicator that she made up/dreamed the whole thing and never left the garden, I don’t get it.

When Elsa goes to sunbathe outside the caravan, Mrs. Ferguson, looking at her long legs and shapely body, evince what is, to me anyway, a very clear look of disapproval, yet again this does not come to anything. She also compliments her on her figure, so you’re kind of led into the idea that maybe she might be a lesbian, but of course for 1955 that would never do. Still, again, I don’t get it. What was the writer trying to convey here, if indeed anything?

Elsa tells her husband the intruder killed her. Wait, what? Yeah, that’s what she says, in a very emotional, over-acting type of voice, in a swoon; she says the man killed her. Carl doesn’t even question this, telling her she’s still alive. If this were The Twilight Zone or whatever, I could see that leading to a revelation, but not here.

When Carl goes after the man Elsa has pointed out as being her alleged attacker, he kills him without a word. He makes no check, does not challenge the guy, nothing, just wades in. On the word of his clearly distraught wife, who is already suffering from the effects of what appears to have been a nervous breakdown. Can he really trust her judgement? Shouldn’t he at least have questioned the man before clonking him over the head?

Carl says his wife has been “badly beaten”, but there are no bruises, cuts - no evidence of physical violence at all that I can see, and the doctor later says she’s okay physically. So why does Carl make such a deal about her being beaten?

The Resolution

Clever enough. It’s hard to see where this is going initially, but when Carl pursues the guy into his room and then kills him, it’s pretty easy to see he’s got the wrong man and that his wife is basically a nervous basketcase.

The Moral

Ask questions first, before you shoot. Or in this case, hit over the head. Make very sure you have the culprit and don’t just take the word of the victim.

Themes

Isolation is one here. Elsa feels bored, left alone in the caravan and recovering from a nervous breakdown. She doesn’t know anyone really (though she tells her husband they’re all very nice, we only see one person she knows) and probably wishes she was back in the city. She’s far from home and nervous, and it’s easy to see how she might have imagined the whole episode - or even invented it, to get the attention she feels she craves from her husband, though in fairness it’s not as if he’s ignoring her. But she seems a little clingy.

Revenge, duh, as Elsa pushes her husband to take vengeance on someone - anyone, as long as she can get her own back through him. Whether she purposely misidentifies the guy on the street, thinks it’s him or just makes a complete mistake is left an open question, but surely even she must realise she’s in error when she supposedly again sees him, this time a different man? Carl is more than ready to take revenge for his wife’s alleged attack, probably blaming himself for having left her alone.

Madness, or perhaps a slight paranoia, too, as Elsa either imagines the attack or blocks the details from her mind. After all, she admits she supposedly saw the intruder, and if a neighbour can give a description, albeit a poor and vague one, to the cops, why can she not do the same? Was there any attacker? Was this “guy in a grey suit” a purely innocent visitor who never went near her?

And isn’t that…?

Vera Miles
Hitchcock would of course be expected to bring some of his people with him, and so we find that Elsa here finds lasting fame as Lila in the classic movie that all but made his name, 1960’s Psycho. She reprised the role in the 1983 sequel, Psycho II. Interestingly for us, she also starred in the Twilight Zone episode (also screened in 1960) “Mirror Image”, and four years later the Outer Limits episode “The Form of Things Unknown.” Other than that, she found herself in an episode here, an episode there of the usual drama series around at the time - Ironside, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Mannix, Bonanza, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, that kind of thing - and various TV movies.

Questions, and Sometimes, Answers

If his wife had identified the so-called assailant, why did Carl not just call the cops instead of going in playing vigilante? Are we to assume this was in his nature? Didn’t seem like it. He had a decent job, had never (so far as we were told) been in trouble with the law, and had been cooperating with that law as the cops investigated the assault on his wife. So why go all Charles Bronson all of a sudden? I mean, I know he was angry, but angry enough to kill? Didn’t he respect the rule of law? And the guy hadn’t raped or hurt his wife, just scared her. Even had he been the right guy, did he deserve to die for that?

By Any Other Name?
Here I will ask the question, was the title of the episode appropriate? Did it reflect the events in the story, or did it confuse me? Would another have been better? If so, what would I suggest? If the title is good and apt, and describes the story, it gets a GREEN rating, if not it will be RED. In the event of it being all right but not really explanatory, maybe an ORANGE, though I will try to stick to the main two if I can.

This one is pretty simple: revenge is the motive, whether for an imagined assault or not, and “Revenge” is the title.

So this is a solid GREEN.


The Times they are a Changin’

Maybe not, but I still find it odd that a married couple sleep in separate beds, especially one who are still in love, but that’s what happens here. Carl awakes in his own bed and goes to kiss his wife, who is in hers. Maybe that’s something to do with her breakdown?

Parallels

In the next-to-final scene I think you can see Hitchcock trying out the technique he would perfect for the shower scene in his most famous movie, when Carl attacks the unknown guy from behind in his room. It seems quite similar in tone, if not actual content.

The WOW Factor
This reflects how well, or badly, the episode ended. Did it blow me away? Was it a disappointment? Was it predictable or did it come out of left field? Did it leave too many questions unanswered? Was it just not at all satisfying? The factors run from RED, for totally blew me away, through ORANGE for had some surprises to YELLOW for was able to work it out relatively easy, all the way down to GREEN for a really awful ending which either made no sense or left me shrugging.

This one is an ORANGE.

Misogyny Index
I think this is pretty straight-forward and needs little explanation. How is the woman or women treated in the story? Are they made out to be the villain? ARE they the villain? Is there an underlying strain of misogyny in the story? Or is it a case of celebrating or affirming the female character(s)? The Index goes from Negative, self-explanatory really - no bad press for the female characters; they may in fact be the heroine and seen as such, good treatment in the story, not just eyecandy etc - through Mild, where there may be some sexist tropes, remarks or whatever, to Strong, where the woman is put down in the story or made to look bad, all the way up to Severe, which is where they’re seen as the bad guy, got all they deserved or at least deserve no sympathy.

In this case I think we have to call this one Severe. Elsa is portrayed as neurotic to the point where she possibly imagines, or at least mistakes another person for her attacker, with no real regard for the consequences. She’s also drawn in very basic sketch lines - a sexy, pretty, compliant wife who loves her husband, but though she has a career it has been taken away from her by overwork (the subtext I think here being that the writer believes women should not work and are not able to be independent of their men) and who spends her time doing vacuous, housewifey things like baking cakes and sunbathing. In the end, she causes her husband to be arrested, not even prepared to do the deed herself, but using her man.

Character Study
This is an extension of Dramatis Personae, in which I give quick sketch outlines of the characters. Mostly the main ones, though if there are any supporting ones I think need to be dealt with I will include them. Each character will be given a score from 1 to 10, where 1 is they made a really bad impression on me, I hated them and 10 is obviously I really liked them and was rooting for them.

Carl (no surname given): I find his character very one-dimensional and flat, in a way this kind of fitting in with the almost mechanical, dreamlike way he commits the murder. He’s a standard office worker, doing some nondescript job and married to a pretty woman who has problems. There’s nothing though really that stands out about him and he’s all but a cardboard cut-out, right up to the end. Even when he kills the other guy, you can’t really see much in him; it’s not like he goes mad or anything - he just seems to do it as if it’s a task he has to carry out, and emotionally he hardly seems affected.
Score: 4

Elsa: A pretty vacuous woman, again not much to speak about here. The idea of her having had a nervous breakdown makes her a little more interesting, as does her odd contention to her husband that the “intruder” has killed her (never explained why she says this, or why he doesn’t contradict/reassure her) but in effect both she and her husband are quite dull figures with little to write about on either of them. Could be any couple really.
Score: 3

Mrs. Ferguson: There are depths I think unexplored in this supporting character. She gives the impression both of disapproving of Elsa sunbathing and of being jealous, perhaps even covetous of her slim body. I personally feel that in the look she gives Elsa when she undresses to sunbathe, looking from her long slim legs up, there’s a hint of latent lesbianism at play here. Of course, in the 1950s that would never fly, so maybe it was a subtext put in by the writer for those who could recognise it to see, but not remarked upon, or maybe it’s just my imagination. Either way, Ferguson represents a definite surrogate mother figure for Elsa, which, if the lesbianism thing is real and not just in my head, makes it somewhat more disturbing.
Score: 5

Total Character Score: 12


Personal Notes: Okay, we are talking 1955 and I know for a fact it won’t always be the case, as I’ve seen all of season one and some of season two at the time of writing, but it’s still a little disappointing and indeed disquieting that the “bad guy”, as it were, in this first episode is the woman. She’s made out either to be crazy or nasty, looking for revenge for an assault which may or may not have happened, and she doesn’t care who that revenge is taken upon. I suppose it ties in with the fifties view of women in general as being weak, a little hysterical and often manipulative, and of course you can’t blame Hitchcock, as he had nothing to do with the writing, but it is sad that this old stereotype rears its head as our first example of the series.

The ambiguity in the story works well. Did Elsa even see an intruder? Was there one, or is it all in her mind? The fact that she’s had a breakdown would tend to push you in the direction of the latter, not to mention the lack of any evidence of anyone breaking in, nor anything stolen, so far as the cops report. Elsa’s calm, almost detached “That’s him” when she sees the man she identifies as her alleged attacker lends further weight to this being all made up. She doesn’t go hysterical, scream and point, drag at the wheel, hit her husband on the shoulder, demand he stops. She’s very almost unemotional about it. Even when she “recovers” from her “assault”, there are no tears, no panic, no hysteria: she’s almost like a woman in a dream. So on the balance of evidence presented, I personally would say this never happened. But then again, maybe her already fragile mind just snapped at the thought of reliving the ordeal, and she’s totally doolally now.
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