Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Lamb to the Slaughter
Alfred Hitchcock Presents is an American television anthology series hosted by Alfred Hitchcock. The series featured dramas, thrillers, and mysteries. By the premiere of the show on October 2, 1955, Hitchcock had been directing films for over three decades. Time magazine named Alfred Hitchcock Presents one of “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME.”
Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE (13 August 1899 – 29 April 1980)was an English film director and producer. He pioneered many techniques in the suspense and psychological thriller genres. After a successful career in British cinema in both silent films and early talkies, billed as England’s best director, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood.
Over a career spanning more than half a century, Hitchcock fashioned for himself a distinctive and recognisable directorial style. He pioneered the use of a camera made to move in a way that mimics a person’s gaze, forcing viewers to engage in a form of voyeurism. He framed shots to maximise anxiety, fear, or empathy, and used innovative film editing. His stories frequently feature fugitives on the run from the law alongside “icy blonde” female characters. Many of Hitchcock’s films have twist endings and thrilling plots featuring depictions of violence, murder, and crime, although many of the mysteries function as decoys or “MacGuffins” meant only to serve thematic elements in the film and the psychological examinations of the characters. Hitchcock’s films also borrow many themes from psychoanalysis and feature strong sexual undertones. Through his cameo appearances in his own films, interviews, film trailers, and the television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he became a cultural icon.
Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature films in a career spanning six decades. Often regarded as the greatest British filmmaker, he came first in a 2007 poll of film critics in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, which said: “Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else.” The magazine MovieMaker has described him as the most influential filmmaker of all time, and he is widely regarded as one of cinema’s most significant artists.
In Hollywood, the suspense and the gallows humour that had become Hitchcock’s trademark in film continued to appear in his productions. The working arrangements with Selznick were less than optimal. Selznick suffered from perennial money problems, and Hitchcock was often displeased with Selznick’s creative control over his films. In a later interview, Hitchcock summarised the working relationship thus:
[Selznick] was the Big Producer. [ . . . ] Producer was king, The most flattering thing Mr. Selznick ever said about me — and it shows you the amount of control — he said I was the “only director” he’d “trust with a film.”
Selznick loaned Hitchcock to the larger studios more often than producing Hitchcock’s films himself. In addition, Selznick, as well as fellow independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, made only a few films each year, so he did not always have projects for Hitchcock to direct. Goldwyn had also negotiated with Hitchcock on a possible contract, only to be outbid by Selznick. Hitchcock was quickly impressed with the superior resources of the American studios compared to the financial restrictions he had frequently encountered in England.
With the prestigious Selznick picture Rebecca in 1940, Hitchcock made his first American movie, set in England and based on a novel by English author Daphne du Maurier. The film starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. This Gothic melodramaexplores the fears of a naïve young bride who enters a great English country home and must adapt to the extreme formality and coldness she finds there. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940. The statuette was given to Selznick, as the film’s producer. The film did not win the Best Director award for Hitchcock.
There were additional problems between Selznick and Hitchcock. Selznick was known to impose very restrictive rules upon Hitchcock, forcing him to shoot the film as Selznick wanted. At the same time, Selznick complained about Hitchcock’s “goddamn jigsaw cutting”, which meant that the producer did not have nearly the leeway to create his own film as he liked, but had to follow Hitchcock’s vision of the finished product. Rebecca was the fourth longest of Hitchcock’s films, at 130 minutes, exceeded only by The Paradine Case (132 minutes), North by Northwest (136 minutes), and Topaz (142 minutes).
Hitchcock’s second American film, the European-set thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940), based on Vincent Sheean‘s Personal History and produced by Walter Wanger, was nominated for Best Picture that year. Hitchcock and many other English nationals felt uneasy living and working in Hollywood while their home country was at war, so his concern resulted in the making of the film that supported the British war effort. The movie was filmed in the first year of the Second World War and was inspired by the rapidly changing events in Europe, as fictionally covered by an American newspaper reporter portrayed by Joel McCrea. The film mixed actual footage of European scenes and scenes filmed on a Hollywood back lot. In compliance with Hollywood’s Production Code censorship, the film avoided direct references to Germany and Germans.
Hitchcock’s films during the 1940s were diverse, ranging from the romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) to the courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1947) to the dark and disturbing film noir Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
In September 1940, the Hitchcocks purchased the 200-acre (0.81 km2) Cornwall Ranch, located near Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The ranch became the primary residence of the Hitchcocks for the rest of their lives, although they kept their Bel Air home. Suspicion (1941) marked Hitchcock’s first film as a producer as well as director. Hitchcock used the north coast of Santa Cruz, California, for the English coastline sequence. This film was to be actor Cary Grant‘s first time working with Hitchcock, and it was one of the few times that Grant would be cast in a sinister role. Joan Fontaine won Best Actress Oscar and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for her “outstanding performance in Suspicion“. “Grant plays an irresponsible husband whose actions raise suspicion and anxiety in his wife (Fontaine).” In what critics regard as a classic scene, Hitchcock uses a light bulb to illuminate what might be a fatal glass of milk that Grant is bringing to his wife. In the book the movie is based on (Before the Fact by Francis Iles), the Grant character is a killer, but Hitchcock and the studio felt Grant’s image would be tarnished by that ending. Though a homicide would have suited him better, as he stated to François Truffaut, Hitchcock settled for an ambiguous finale.
Saboteur (1942) was the first of two films that Hitchcock made for Universal, a studio where he would continue his career during his later years. Hitchcock was forced to use Universal contract players Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, both known for their work in comedies and light dramas. Breaking with Hollywood conventions of the time, Hitchcock did extensive location filming, especially in New York City, and depicted a confrontation between a suspected saboteur (Cummings) and a real saboteur (Norman Lloyd) atop the Statue of Liberty. That year he also directed Have You Heard?, a photographic dramatisation of the dangers of rumours during wartime, for Life magazine.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock’s personal favourite of all his films and the second of the early Universal films, was about young Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright), who suspects her beloved uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) of being a serial murderer. Critics have said that in its use of overlapping characters, dialogue, and closeups it has provided a generation of film theorists with psychoanalytic potential, including Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek. Hitchcock again filmed extensively on location, this time in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa, during the summer of 1942. The director showcased his own personal fascination with crime and criminals when he had two of his characters discuss various ways of killing people, to the obvious annoyance of Charlotte.
Working at 20th Century Fox, Hitchcock adapted a script of John Steinbeck‘s that chronicled the experiences of the survivors of a German U-boat attack in the film Lifeboat (1944). The action sequences were shot in a small boat in the studio water tank. The locale also posed problems for Hitchcock’s traditional cameo appearance. That was solved by having Hitchcock’s image appear in a newspaper that William Bendix is reading in the boat, showing the director in a before-and-after advertisement for “Reduco-Obesity Slayer.”
While at Fox, Hitchcock seriously considered directing the film version of A. J. Cronin‘s novel about a Catholic priest in China, The Keys of the Kingdom, but the plans for this fell through. John M. Stahl ended up directing the 1944 film, which was produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starred Gregory Peck, among other luminaries.
Returning to England for an extended visit in late 1943 and early 1944, Hitchcock made two short films for the Ministry of Information, Bon Voyage and Aventure malgache. Made for the Free French, these were the only films Hitchcock made in the French language, and “feature typical Hitchcockian touches.” In the 1990s, the two films were shown by Turner Classic Moviesand released on home video.
In 1945, Hitchcock served as “treatment advisor” (in effect, a film editor) for a Holocaust documentary produced by the British Army. The film, which recorded the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, remained unreleased until 1985, when it was completed by PBS Frontline and distributed under the title Memory of the Camps.
Hitchcock worked for Selznick again when he directed Spellbound (1945), which explored psychoanalysis and featured a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí. Gregory Peck plays amnesiac Dr. Anthony Edwardes under the treatment of analyst Dr. Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), who falls in love with him while trying to unlock his repressed past. The dream sequence as it actually appears in the film is considerably shorter than was originally envisioned, which was to be several minutes long, because it proved to be too disturbing for the audience. Two point-of-view shots were achieved by constructing a large wooden hand (which would appear to belong to the character whose point of view the camera took) and out-sized props for it to hold: a bucket-sized glass of milk and a large wooden gun. For added novelty and impact, the climactic gunshot was hand-coloured red on (some copies of) the black-and-white film. Some of the original musical score by Miklós Rózsa (which makes use of the theremin) was later adapted by the composer into a concert piano concerto.
Grant and Bergman in Notorious (1946)
Notorious (1946) followed Spellbound. According to Hitchcock, in his book-length interview with François Truffaut, Selznick sold the director, the two stars (Grant and Bergman) and the screenplay (by Ben Hecht) to RKO Radio Pictures as a “package” for $500,000 due to cost overruns on Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946). Notorious starred Hitchcock regulars Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, and features a plot about Nazis, uranium, and South America. It was a huge box office success and has remained one of Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films. His use of uranium as a plot device led to Hitchcock’s being briefly under FBI surveillance. McGilligan writes that Hitchcock consulted Dr. Robert Millikan of Caltech about the development of an atomic bomb. Selznick complained that the notion was “science fiction”, only to be confronted by the news stories of the detonation of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945.
After completing his final film for Selznick, The Paradine Case (a courtroom drama that critics found lost momentum because it apparently ran too long and exhausted its resource of ideas), Hitchcock filmed his first colour film, Rope (1948). Here Hitchcock experimented with marshaling suspense in a confined environment, as he had done earlier with Lifeboat (1943). Appearing to have been shot entirely in a single take, Rope (1948) was actually shot in 10 takes ranging from four and a half to 10 minutes each; a 10-minute length of film being the maximum a camera’s film magazine could hold at the time. Some transitions between reels were hidden by having a dark object fill the entire screen for a moment. Hitchcock used those points to hide the cut, and began the next take with the camera in the same place. Featuring James Stewart in the leading role, Rope was the first of four films Stewart would make with Hitchcock. It was based on the Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s. Somehow Hitchcock’s cameraman managed to move the bulky, heavy Technicolor camera quickly around the set as it followed the continuous action of the long takes.
Under Capricorn (1949), set in nineteenth-century Australia, also used the short-lived technique of long takes, but to a more limited extent. He again used Technicolor in this production, then returned to black-and-white films for several years. For Rope and Under Capricorn, Hitchcock formed a production company with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures, which became inactive after these two unsuccessful pictures. Hitchcock continued to produce his own films for the rest of his life.