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The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

They’re in black and white, which was once an economical production medium. They’re shot on 35mm film. Most were made on a strict six-day schedule. They were shot almost entirely at Universal City. The series started out as a half hour show in 1955, and then switched to an hour format in 1962, ending its run in 1965. Each episode was shot like a feature film, in “single camera” format, rather than in sitcom format, and production values — especially story lines and guest stars — to say nothing of the physical execution of each segment were exceptionally high.

As an anthology series, there were no continuing characters; it was an entirely new show every week. Hitchcock’s own input into the series was minimal, but he directed a few episodes of the series, and watching the Universal TV crew work, he was inspired by their speed and efficiency to shoot his groundbreaking film Psycho there, breaking away from the slower crews at Paramount, where he had spent the 1950s. All in all, 363 episodes were shot over a ten year period.

An enormous number of exceptionally talented actors, writers and directors contributed to the series, including actors Ed Asner, Mary Astor, Roscoe Ates, Gene Barry, Ed Begley, Charles Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy, Dabney Coleman, Joseph Cotten, Bob Crane, Hume Cronyn, Robert Culp, Bette Davis, Francis De Sales, Bruce Dern, Brandon De Wilde, Angie Dickinson, Diana Dors, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, John Forsythe, Anne Francis, Edmund Gwenn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Herbert, Lou Jacobi, Joyce Jameson, Carolyn Jones, Don Keefer, Brian Keith, Jack Klugman, Peter Lawford, Christopher Lee, Cloris Leachman, Peter Lorre, Dayton Lummis, E. G. Marshall, Walter Matthau, Darren McGavin, John McGiver, Lee Majors, Steve McQueen, Tyler McVey, Joyce Meadows, Vera Miles, Vic Morrow, Robert Newton, George Peppard, James Philbrook, Sydney Pollack, Judson Pratt, Vincent Price, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Henry Silva, Barbara Steele, Jan Sterling, Dean Stockwell, Jessica Tandy, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Waring, Dennis Weaver, Joanne Woodward, Fay Wray, and Keenan Wynn.

It’s an elegant, intelligent, well designed series, the like of which we will never see on television again. Black and white has vanished as a production medium, along with the artistic values that went with it. Film has also vanished, leaving everything to be shot with a slick, artificial digital sheen. The violence quotient has been upped so that gruesome rapes and murders are now commonplace on shows such as Law and Order SVU and the CSI series; it seems that plot, acting, and nuance have been left behind. Let’s raise a glass, then, to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of the most innovative and artistically ambitious television series ever produced — on a budget, on a schedule, on an assembly line, even — but with style, elegance, and wit, down to Hitchcock’s droll introductions and commercial break announcements, which the director performed himself.

Terence Fisher

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Christopher Lee as Dracula in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958)

“Do I believe in the supernatural? Oh yes, certainly. I can’t believe, I can’t accept that you die and that’s the end. Physically maybe it is a fact. But there’s something about the mind that’s more than that.”

Terence Fisher is the director who brought the modern horror film to life, with his Hammer Films classics Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), which were simultaneously more faithful to their source material, and also, as the image above aptly demonstrates, far more brutal in their execution.

I am admire Fisher deeply, and consider him, in a way, the John Ford of England, working within the mythos of the British Gothic tradition, in the same way that Ford embraced the American Western. I wrote a book about Fisher a long time back, which remains the only full-length study of his work as a director, now unfortunately out of print: “The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher,” which makes this case in detail.

Fisher took his work as a horror director absolutely seriously; his films depict a deeply Christian struggle between good and evil, in which good inevitably wins, but only after a prolonged and difficult struggle, which is articulated perhaps most fully in his late film The Devil’s Bride (1968).

Here’s more on Fisher, and if you have the time and inclination, you should seek out his major films and view them. He is, without any doubt, the person who brought the horror film back to life after Universal had abandoned the classic monsters in the late 1940s, in an entirely new form.

The Skull

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Patrick Wymark and Peter Cushing contemplate The Skull

Those who are in the mood for an atmospheric and intelligent horror film could do much worse than checking out The Skull, a 1965 horror film directed by Freddie Francis from a script by Robert Bloch, based on his short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.”

Recently released in an immaculate DVD in both regular and Blu-ray formats, in its original Techniscope / Technicolor aspect ratio, and boasting a cast that includes Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green and Jill Bennett, with music by avant-garde symphonic composer Elisabeth Lutyens, The Skull is perhaps Francis’ masterpiece as a director, and if you haven’t seen it — well, what are you waiting for?

Those who are looking for gore will be disappointed, but those who can appreciate an intelligent and superbly photographed film — the last 30 minutes are absolutely wordless, consisting only of a series of ever more ominous images as the skull takes possession of those who would trifle with it — recall the best of Val Lewton’s 1940s films, and remain as arresting and evocative as when they were first presented on the screen.

Here’s the trailer for the film.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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