Alfred Hitchcock, besides being quite probably a bit of a bastard, was a canny fellow when it came to film. It’s something he would transfer to the young medium of television in the 1950s. Beginning in October 1955 Alfred Hitchcock Presents would bring macabre mysteries and tense thrillers to TV screens. The intro is arguably more famous than the actual series itself, composed of a simple silhouette of the director the real man gradually fills before intoning “Good evening”. Hitchcock would present the episodes, adding commentary and making jokes at the expense of the show’s sponsors.
The series started at a punchy 25-minutes per episode and the first tale, Revenge, is directed by Hitchcock himself. Like a lot of anthology shows that would follow, there was usually a twist in each story as it came to a close. Revenge sets this template out as it follows Vera Miles’ Elsa, as she is apparently assaulted. Her husband, Carl (Ralph Meeker) is enraged and determines he will get his revenge on the attacker. When out driving with Elsa, she identifies the man who assaulted her and Carl exacts a brutal justice. But just how reliable is Elsa’s memory of events? And did those events even happen? Tales of violence and treachery like this opener, always with some sort of sting ending, a twist or turn that unbalanced the audience, were to follow across 267 episodes. At this stage, the series would return retooled and run for an hour and the show would be rechristened The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, running for a further three seasons and 93 episodes. It’s from this version that we’re going to focus on one episode and examine how it makes a companion piece to Psycho.
Annabel is the 7th episode of season one of Hour. It was based on the novel This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith (who wrote the Ripley series of books as well as thrillers like Strangers on a Train) although it only follows the basic initial beats of Highsmith’s story. Dean Stockwell plays David, a young chemist who shares an apartment with his friend Wes. Every weekend David goes up to a home in the country (he tells Wes it’s to see his father) where he calls Annabel (Susan Oliver), his former girlfriend, trying to persuade her to leave her new husband Gerald and come back to him. Sometime before, David had disappeared from his life leaving Annabel initially heartbroken. But she moved on and met Gerald and is now happy. Despite this, and perhaps because she retains some affection for David, Annabel tries to manage his attempts at contact with her, but it’s putting a strain on her relationship with Gerald. When David refuses to listen to Annabel’s request to leave her alone, and instead starts upping his campaign with expensive gifts, Gerald starts to lose any patience he might have had.
Meanwhile, Linda, a co-worker of David with a crush on him, unsuccessfully tries to ask him out. When a chance new piece of information comes her way that suggests David is not being entirely truthful about what he does at the weekends Linda’s curiosity is peaked. By this stage as an audience we’re also clear that David’s infatuation and pursuit of Annabel is not remotely healthy and his lies to her and the other people in his life don’t just mask a secret life, but instead a dangerous delusion. As the outside world threatens to bring down David’s fantasy of a future with Annabel, his grip on reality loosens even further and sets the stage for murder and tragedy.
Annabel is written by Psycho author Robert Bloch. However, it’s not only Bloch and Hitchcock that links this episode with Psycho and David with Norman Bates. There’s a deliberate echoing throughout, starting with Dean Stockwell. It gains a quiet power from Stockwell’s subtle performance. He plays David as unfailingly polite but insular, blankly bland, a softly-spoken, thin and wiry young man. As David becomes unhinged this rarely even changes. Oliver is the Hitchcock blonde you’d expect as the object of David’s unbalance affections. In many ways this small-screen riff on the elements that made Psycho a huge hit is less heightened and possibly more horrific than Bates’ murders. Janet Leigh’s brutal demise in the shower was not going to be reprised here, not only because the surprise would be expected but also because it would never pass censorship standards. As a result of this we know that things will not end well for Annabel. Nevertheless, the ending of the episode is strong stuff that has an impact still today. As a minor companion piece to Psycho it’s certainly interesting to consider how television approached the same material only a couple of years later. It’s another reminder that, even without the level of violence a film could call on, television could still be powerfully dark.
As an example of what anthology shows could achieve it’s an important one to focus on. It’s also worth comparing to something like Revenge. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour arguably managed the move to an hour length episode better than The Twilight Zone. Revenge is a fine start to the series but it’s evident of course from Annabel that the actors, writers and directors could do more complex, nuanced work with the longer running time. Both iterations of the series are worth checking out. The entire run of Presents and Hour are available on DVD in the UK from Fabulous Films in full season and series sets. There’s no extras with either sadly, but the shows themselves stand up and demonstrate Alfred Hitchcock’s television career is as deserving of attention as his movies.
Like some of the other popular anthologies, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would be resurrected, this time for four seasons from 1985-1989 (one on NBC, the following three on USA Network), comprising of 76 22-minute episodes and as before, featuring a huge list of guest actors, from famous faces to hey-I-know-them-from-something types. Unlike the original shows this version, though a minor success, has faded into obscurity. There’s a fair number of these episodes up on YouTube, occasionally complete but often chopped into parts, should you be interested.
Next up, we take a detour into The Twilight Zone.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Illustrated Guide to the Ten-Year Old Television Career of the Master of Suspense by John McCarty and Brian Kelleher (St Martins Press, 1985)
The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion by Martin Grams Jr and Patrik Wikstrom (Otr Publishing, 2001)