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Boston Globe (01/Feb/1985) - Return of a Perfect Fiend



Return of a Perfect Fiend


Tonight at 8, to the accompaniment of Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," the shadow will once again meld with the cartoon profile. The camera will then focus on Anglo-America's most unlikely artist as he delivers the half-cheerful, half-mournful salutation, "Good evening."

The utterly sophisticated gentleman will then, as he did with so many of his actors, cast himself against form and engage in the most utterly unsophisticated activity. At about 8:03, he will talk about his fictional acting school, a takeoff of the Method school of acting (for which he had no use whatsoever). He'll mention that he told one of his pupils, a Mr. Blackwood, that in order to play the part of a captain of industry, "We suggested he think of himself as an elephant." To show how successful his school has been, he will walk over to a pachyderm, which will unceremoniously nuzzle up to the unnuzzlable film director. "Mr. Blackwood! Mr. Blackwood, please! Stop it, Mr. Blackwood!"

He will then take a droll gibe at the sponsor ("Now, for the thumbscrews and the rack. Endure it, please, and I'll be back.") After the commercials, ominous incidental music will accompany the credits, which introduce John Newland ("One Step Beyond") as the director, Robert Bloch ("Psycho") as the writer and an impossibly young Robert Duvall as the Brando-Deanish star of "Bad Actor," who it seems has a madness to his Method.

It will not be the best of the 18 episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," on WSBK-TV, Ch. 38, will air between 8 tonight and 5 a.m. tomorrow, but it will admirably set the tone for the evening's festival.

Aside from the black wit in the monologue and in the episode itself, it will show how Hitchcock's television work was of a time, with its references to beatniks, but never, unlike other television programs between 1955 and 1965, locked in time.

It will show the ability of Hitchcock and his two producers, Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd (Dr. Auschlander of "St. Elsewhere"), to spot major, undiscovered talent. And it will show Hitchcock's fascination with the dark side of human behavior, featuring an amorality that, in Hitchcock's hands, is invariably more intriguing than the moral.

It's that lack of a clearly defined moral center to Hitchcock's universe that, along with his awesome cinematic skills, ultimately distinguishes Hitchcock as an artist, perhaps the only real artist American television has ever known.

It certainly distinguishes him from Rod Serling, whose "Twilight Zone" was the other major anthology series of that era. Even with the most entertaining material, Serling could never resist the opportunity to sermonize, often to the detriment, if not the destruction, of the story. Even with the most serious material, Hitchcock could never resist the opportunity to entertain.

Hitchcock's artistic reputation will always lie primarily in his feature films. "Vertigo" remains one of the greatest movies ever made, and there are about a dozen not far behind.

There is, however, a difference between feature films and television, and no other director realized that better than Hitchcock. He directed 17 half-hours, six of which are included tonight. (The best of them — "Breakdown" with Joseph Cotten — isn't included tonight but will be seen when Ch. 38 starts showing them weekly at 11 p.m. Saturdays, before "Twilight Zone." That schedule begins tomorrow night.)

Hitchcock's feature films are sprawling, event-oriented, passion-filled treasures of modern terror that rely in part on the collective gasp of the audience. ("North By Northwest," for example, is a much weaker film on television than in theaters.)

His television films, by contrast, are usually confined to one setting and centered on one event. Most often, they're dispassionate gems that leave more of a shiver than a big chill. As Pauline Kael has written, it is almost impossible to strike terror into a person whose phone has just rung or whose cat has just jumped onto his or her lap.

The first of tonight's Hitchcock-directed episodes, "The Case of Mr. Pelham" (8:30), casts the perfectly normal Tom Ewell as a business executive whose double seems to be taking over his life. Like most of his television films, it's full of those nervous chuckles that so symbolize Hitchcock's standing as a master of black comedy. There's no way that Pelham can convince his acquaintances that his double is an impostor, because there's nothing to Pelham's life that casts him apart as a unique human being. And when he tries to break out of his own routinization, it's his undoing.

See it as a comment on Eisenhower-era conformity, on the insecurity of modern identity or as a pleasant, mindless chill. It's good stuff.

Hitchcock seemed obsessed by domestic violence, much more so on television than in his films. Part of that, no doubt, is a reflection of pre-sexual revolution times when people entered into, and found it more difficult to break out of, loveless marriages. Murder must have seemed an attractive alternative, if only in one's fantasies.

The most famous of these, "Lamb To The Slaughter," airs at 9. A policeman comes home and tells his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) that he's leaving her. She, a paragon of domesticity, reacts by saying, "I'll get you your supper . . . You'll feel better when you've had something to eat," whereupon she walks over to the freezer, takes out a leg of lamb and clubs him into never-never land. Curiously, "Lamb" doesn't play as well as its fame would suggest. Everything leads up to the punch line, and if you remember the punch line, the show loses quite a bit of its effectiveness.

David Wayne is Barbara Bel Geddes in reverse in "One More Mile To Go" at midnight, but this one is considerably more interesting cinematically. There's no discernible dialog for about 10 minutes as Wayne bashes in wifey's head, stuffs her in the trunk and drives away to find a suitable burial ground. He's pursued by a motorcycle cop — a preview of Mort Mills in "Psycho" — who has a fetish about Wayne's broken taillight. It seems that this corpse, like the one in the potato truck of "Frenzy," finds rigor mortis pretty invigorating.

Producers of social issue films should take a look at "Bang! You're Dead" at 12:30 a.m. Sir Alfred apparently was none too thrilled with the proliferation of handguns in the United States and made this little message film in response. After a 5-year-old's friends make fun of his toy gun, he finds a real revolver in his uncle's suitcase and goes out on the suburban town ready to shoot down whatever bad guys get in his way. Hitchcock makes it clear in his opening and closing monologues that there is nothing at all funny about the matter, but that doesn't stop him from concocting a thoroughly enjoyable and suspenseful little drama.

"The Crystal Trench," at 2:30, is one of the more unusual efforts for Hitchcock, who comes across as unbearably romantic for most of this episode. But all that romanticism is turned deliciously on its head in the final scene with an ending as startling and terrifying in its anti-romantic implications as the ending of Henry James' "Beast in the Jungle."

The last of tonight's Hitchcocks, "Poison," doesn't come until 4:30, and except for his playful use of light and shadow, it isn't particularly memorable.

Not that it's bad or not worth setting the VCR for. Hitchcock's half-hours, even the ones he didn't direct, were almost always indelibly crafted mood pieces, if nothing else. Among the directors and writers who worked on the program were Robert Altman, Norman Lloyd, Roald Dahl, John Brahm, Sydney Pollack, William Friedkin, Ray Bradbury, Garson Kanin, John Cheever and the team of Richard Levinson and William Link. Among tonight's actors are Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen (9:30), Charles Bronson (10), William Shatner (11:30), Norman Lloyd (2), Robert Redford (3), Peter Falk (3:30) and Bette Davis (4).

One of tonight's episodes, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (1 a.m.), in which Diana Dors convinces a retarded Brandon De Wilde that she's married to the devil, was censored by CBS. It was rarely necessary for Hitchcock to be censored; his malevolence was always in the best of taste. To paraphrase one of his closing monologues: "No bullets, no stains, no splatter. We use only the purest subject matter."


Just as 1984 marked a revival of interest in Alfred Hitchcock's theatrical films, 1985 will see Hitchcock all over the small screen. The half-hours will be on at 11 p.m. Saturdays on Ch. 38 starting tomorrow night and at 8 p.m. on Ch. 11 in New Hampshire, although Ch. 11 is pre-empting it tomorrow night. Hitchcock's hourlong episodes are on the USA cable network at 6 p.m. Sundays as well as various times Saturdays (10 p.m. tomorrow night). NBC is remaking four episodes with Hitchcock's original introductions as a TV-movie scheduled for the spring. The Movie Channel will begin showing last year's five re-releases ("Vertigo," "Rear Window," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Rope" and "The Trouble With Harry") in April. Ch. 38 will show five other films in February, and Chs. 25 and 56 have several Hitchcocks in their libraries. Ch. 56 will inherit the re-releases when its exclusivity with The Movie Channel runs out.