First and Last: How Alfred Hitchcock Presents Challenged TV Standards

Tristan Ettleman
10 min readNov 20, 2023

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The third installment features ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, created by Alfred Hitchcock. The show ran for seven seasons from 1955 to 1962 across 268 episodes, with the first being “Revenge” and the last being “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

By 1955, Alfred Hitchcock had made a Hollywood career of challenging American censors on film. In retrospect, he was still to make some of his greatest and most groundbreaking movies, but with the new field of television growing increasingly viable and Hitchcock being the enterprising, brand-conscious director he was, the Master of Suspense ventured into the new medium with ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

Comparing the first and last episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, as an anthology series, is not as fruitful as comparing a serialized show or even episodic series with some kind of continuity, central characters, and premises as I’ve done already. But in revisiting “Revenge” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the strengths of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS’ long run became even more apparent to me, especially since its premiere and finale are some of the best of the many episodes it has to offer.

Hitchcock directed PRESENTS’ first episode “Revenge,” a circumstance that would only be replicated 17 more times in the show’s life and beyond; more on that in a minute. This does not include the last, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” directed by Josef Leytes. But as series associate producer, frequent Hitchcock film collaborator, and sometime PRESENTS actor and director Norman Lloyd put it, he and lead producer Joan Harrison would bring every story, screenplay, and rough cut to the great man himself. After a screening with Hitch, a “good” would mean he liked it and a “thank you” meant he didn’t, which wouldn’t halt the broadcast of the episode, but would let Lloyd, as far as he put it, know where the show stood.

A number of sources proclaim ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS as the first of its kind: a suspenseful anthology show that foreshadowed standout series like THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959–1964). While the quality of the darkness and macabre nature of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS had some kind of formative influence on a show like Rod Serling’s or like THRILLER (1960–1962, hosted by Boris Karloff), the truth is that a number of suspense radio shows and TV series tapped into a similar anthology market…including one literally called SUSPENSE (1942–1962 on radio, 1949–1954 on television). There is no doubt, however, that the name of Hitchcock was able to attract a new level of cinematic standards. ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, at a time when TV was anathema to movie stars and directors, either attracted old hitmakers or gave boosts to future big names. The cast list of a number of episodes reflect this, from Claude Rains to Charles Bronson, and men and women behind the camera solidify it, from Arthur Hiller to Robert Altman, from Ida Lupino to William Friedkin.*

*A caveat on Friedkin: ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS is often combined with the re-contextualized run time of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR in 1962, which ran for three seasons until 1965. Considered here is “just” the seven seasons of PRESENTS and its 25-minute premieres and finales before the beginning of what we would now consider a “sequel series.” The Friedkin Connection is that he directed the final, 93rd episode of the HOUR, “Off Season.” Hitchcock would only direct one of the extended episodes.

In any event, Hitchcock and his TV collaborators obviously set out to challenge the even more strict moral standards of broadcasters and sponsors. Every episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS opened and closed with the director’s ironic, morbid, and/or self-deprecating monologues and gags. The outros were in theory less fun, as they almost always clarified that “crime doesn’t pay,” even as the very text of the teleplay often did not end things with true retribution for the divergent and delinquent transgressions of its characters. But the genius of the show is that Hitchcock would explain what “really” happened to the perpetrators of the episode’s crime even as he took the piss out of the sponsors and, if not literally, metaphorically winked at the audience that this disclaimer was purely mandated.

This dynamic was at play for many, many episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, which like THE TWILIGHT ZONE, always had some ironic or morbid twist, and unlike THE TWILIGHT ZONE, never truly delved into sci-fi or fantasy. Even episodes that seemed to play with such concepts would reveal, SCOOBY-DOO-like (1969–1970), that there was some other kind of mundane scheme involved all along. But the very first episode of PRESENTS, “Revenge,” did actually include in its diegesis a cautionary tale, one that was chillingly felt and not delivered through Hitchcock’s wry postscript.

“Revenge” is, at least at first, a kind of “right-wing” horror tale, as John Carpenter would describe it, by which I mean danger comes from the outgroup. Think home invasion stories, as compared to the left-wing horror of insider terror (it’s kind of a blend, but think of Carpenter’s own THEY LIVE [1988]). Newly-weds engineer Carl (Ralph Meeker) and recovering ballerina Elsa (Vera Miles) are living in a quaint little California trailer park with Frances Bavier, of future Aunt Bee of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (1960–1968) fame, as a next door neighbor. We learn that Elsa’s condition is entirely mental and her nervous breakdown necessitated their move. This is important as we discover just how unreliable of a “narrator” she is.

Carl goes off to work and returns to find his wife, who had previously been sunbathing in a bikini, unconscious in the trailer with her cakes burning in the oven. She utters that “he killed her,” and finally shares that a man in a gray suit with a carnation in his button pin attacked her. We hear Carl say that she was badly beaten, but there is no visual representation of this statement; perhaps a time Hitch couldn’t beat the sponsors. In spite of her statement, Elsa survives and essentially exists in a catatonic state for the rest of the episode. Steeling himself to take matters into his own hands, Carl drives around town with Elsa until she points out a man in a gray suit and says “that’s him.” Carl follows him into his hotel room, beats him to death with a wrench, then heads back onto the road down the coast with his wife. Things seem resolved, until with a brilliant bit of acting, Miles as Elsa says “that’s him” while seeing an unrelated man in a gray suit. Meeker, in a similarly brilliant display, stares resolutely ahead as police sirens sound.

There are a few important elements to pick out of this plot synopsis. First, Hitchcock builds the suspense beautifully. The first third or so of the episode proceeds without a, ahem, hitch, as the wholesome relationship between Carl and Elsa is painted and Mrs. Fergusen (Bavier) is a cheering presence. Once the procedural elements of what exactly happened are dealt with, with Miles delivering some admittedly over-the-top hysteria and detectives coming and going, “Revenge” kicks back into high gear. The dead eyes of Meeker are a perfect complement to his matter-of-fact yet violent actions. And since it’s Hitchcock, everything is photographed beautifully. “Revenge” isn’t quite up to his filmic standards, but as a premiere for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, it reinforced the possibility for cinematic television in an era of live-to-tape “movies of the week” and other anthology shows.

Most importantly to my earlier comments about the nature of the show in general, the actual story of “Revenge” does end with a cautionary element: the aforementioned police sirens in the distance. Sure, it seems a little convenient that Carl was tracked down so quickly on the road, but at least the constructed world of the script, outside of Hitchcock’s comments, sticks to a final message, or at the very least, a true conclusion. In any event, Hitchcock does reinforce that one should not take the law into one’s own hands, which was communicated effectively enough by the story’s conclusion. The episode’s right-wing element, as I alluded to earlier, comes through in its propagation of the idea that a random stranger is the greatest danger to one’s life, and not someone one knows much more intimately, which is much more likely. But its ending, based in whether the incident really happened at all, complicates this reading. “Revenge” is a good little thriller, that’s for sure.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS’ finale, is a bit less well-constructed visually but is perhaps the better episode. In between the nearly seven years of these installments, however, episodes “The Glass Eye” (the most possibly supernatural episode of the show, involving a ventriloquist and his dummy) and the Hitchcock-directed “Lamb to the Slaughter” (a delightfully gruesome premise that can be recalled, not unlike with THE TWILIGHT ZONE, with a “remember that one when…”) stand out as the best. Somehow, though, even more so than the truer repulsion of “Lamb to the Slaughter,” TV censors could not stand what would have been the network’s (NBC’s) seventh season finale.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was not initially aired as the 39th episode of season seven but was brought into rotation in syndication later, which made it eligible for public domain quite early. Due to its intended placement and original production era, I’ve still considered it the finale to the whole of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. I admit that’s to the show’s benefit, as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is indeed one of its best episodes.

In it, a magician played by David J. Stewart (a personal character actor favorite of mine from this era of television) discovers young man Hugo (Brandon deWilde) starving on the cold ground of a circus “backlot.” I admit a particular bias to circus and carnival stories, especially those that bend the setting into something macabre, but what proceeds is also just an example of delicious poetic irony. DeWilde delivers a truly great performance as a character with a touch of something “off.” Compared to the “insane” character performances of the day, his is exceedingly naturalistic and realistic.

The childlike behavior of this adult man comes into conflict with the adulterous ways of Sadini’s (Stewart’s) wife Irene (Diana Dors), who is of course sleeping around with high-wire artist George (Larry Kert). Hugo is at first not able to comprehend that Sadini’s saw act, which “cuts” Irene in half, is a trick, especially since when he awoke he mistook the former for the devil and the latter for an angel. In a not-so-subtle development, it’s revealed Sadini is really the one who has Hugo’s best interests at heart, as Irene manipulates the escapee from a group home to murder Sadini by convincing Hugo the trickster really is Satan.

When Hugo learns from George that Irene was disingenuous and has gone too far (after already murdering his benefactor), he ends up knocking out the magician’s wife/assistant and does the saw “trick” on her…whether he truly realizes what he’s doing or not is up to the audience’s imagination. But Irene’s scream makes clear her ultimate fate.

Hitchcock does cut in after “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s” end to assure risk-averse sponsors and viewers that Hugo was arrested and justly punished. But the glee with which Hugo takes the “power” of Sadini (which lies in his prop wand, a myth propagated by Irene herself) and uses it upon his former angel is the lasting image of the episode. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” fits more neatly into the right-wing horror quadrant (can you tell Carpenter’s philosophy on the subject has rewired my brain?), since Hugo was a stranger who needed help, but the story implies that acting on that led to Sadini’s own death. But something about the circus setting and outlandish circumstances of Irene’s death speaks to something more mystical, even as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” very clearly disproves the idea of any kind of real magic within its world. It’s a great tale of kindness, betrayal, and true untreated mental illness; as I see it, deWilde plays Hugo with a special kind of sympathy rather than the rote “creepiness” of a “disturbed” character.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS certainly settled into a groove of murderous and adulterous husbands/wives, embezzlement coverups, and the like over its long run. But its imaginative plunges into morbidity and twisted psychologies make it stand as one of the most remarkable series of its age. Just over its life (only PRESENTS, not even including HOUR), Hitchcock also made VERTIGO (1958), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and PSYCHO (1960). In between these masterworks, he just so happened to preside over and direct a few episodes that compromised the cinematic suspense as little as possible to make truly compelling television that advanced the medium. ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS is full of stories worth studying and enjoying not only for a fan of its titular host, producer, and director, but also anybody interested in foundational TV aesthetics and good ol’ macabre stories, with “Revenge” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” serving as incredible bookends demonstrating the show’s relatively consistent quality.

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