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The Telegraph (19/Nov/2005) - DVD review: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

(c) Telegraph (19/Nov/2005)

DVDs of the week: Alfred Hitchcock Presents...

Alfred Hitchcock Presents - PG, Universal, 6 discs, £34.50

Half a century ago, the face of television changed. A jaunty, lugubrious, catchy theme tune introduced a very simple, sketchy line-drawing of a fat head in profile. Then a man's shadowy silhouette slid over to fit the profile snugly.

When the lights came up, American audiences were confronted by a balding, besuited, middle-aged, mostly unsmiling Englishman. He would perform introductions and epilogues of great drollery and poker-faced self-possession to some murderous or darkly comic tale of life's little ironies.

In the first show, on October 2, 1955, Alfred Hitchcock described his choric role as "something in the nature of an accessory before and after the fact". What followed, Revenge, one of the three half-hour stories he directed in the first 39-episode series, shows how far he was prepared to go.

It begins in a sunny California trailer park, with a young couple, played by Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly) and Vera Miles (The Wrong Man). The wife, an ex-ballet dancer, has suffered a mysterious breakdown back East, and they've relocated so she can recover.

Their relationship as seen over breakfast seems, nonetheless, normal - except that the muscular, confident husband wakes his beautiful spouse with the phrase "Hey, worthless!" - and she remarks, "I have nothing ahead of me all day long", as he leaves her sunbathing.

When he returns from work, though, their caravan's full of smoke from the oven, the radio's blaring, she's on the bed. Her eyes, when she comes to, are blankly staring (in large, unsettling close-up): she tells how a man came in, forced her into the bedroom - "And then he killed me." It's a thrillingly strange moment, both ingeniously evading prime-time censorship and conveying that something terrible has happened to this young woman's mind as well as (probably) her body.

The husband is righteously enraged. "If ever I find him, I'll kill him!" he says, and she replies eagerly, "Yes! Yes!" The police find no leads.

Taken for a therapeutic drive, suddenly she cries: "There he is! That's him!" The husband stops the car, follows the man up to a hotel room, and beats him to death. Back in the car, he drives on. But a few miles further on, she is suddenly excited again: "There he is! That's him! That's him!"

Without giving any more away, it's agonising - and the economical delicacy with which their marriage has been sketched makes this twist of the knife particularly telling.

But Hitchcock immediately reappears, lightening the tone. "You see," he intones, "crime does not pay, not even on television. You must have a sponsor."

In future series (the show ran till 1965), Hitchcock, as well as ensuring high standards week by week, would direct splendid jeux d'esprit like the Roald Dahl story Lamb to the Slaughter and tragic, Jamesian sketches of wasted lives such as The Crystal Trench, about a faithful woman whose fiancé emerges, many years after his death, from the glacier into which he fell - only for her to make a crushing discovery.

But already in this first series he is experimenting, and at several moments one senses the continuities between these tight little shows and the masterpiece Psycho (1960), in which he worked with his TV crew, including cinematographer John L Russell.

Breakdown, with Joseph Cotten, in which an unpleasantly ruthless businessman is paralysed in a car crash and spends a night in the morgue, is a well-nigh Beckettian vision of doom, shot in grotesque close-ups and with a desperate inner monologue that anticipates the chilling voice at the end of Psycho.