That’s what should be depicted in the line-drawing profile he steps into in the famous opening to his long-running Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series: not his chin, but the profile of his enormous balls. For whatever occult forces or inner demons the show’s characters may face week to week, Mr. Hitchcock selects for himself an adversary far more powerful: the network sponsors.
Most hosted television shows, then and now, want little to do with the commercial breaks. When the appointed time comes, the host will say something vague like, “We have to take a quick break,” or may even reverentially introduce a “word from or sponsors.”
Not Hitch. In Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the old rascal actually draws attention to the commercial interruptions, adroitly making them the barn-wide target of his trenchant satire. Here are Hitchcock and writer James B. Allardice at work in the first three episodes, evidencing the aforementioned grande cajones.
Episode #1, “Revenge”
“Revenge” airs on something called the Columbia Broadcasting System on October 2nd, 1955. As Hitchcock introduces the “playlet” to follow (Hardworking Airplane Mechanic and His Wife, an Unraveling Sex Kitten, Try to Escape Her Insanity in a Claustrophobic Steel Trailer), he pretends to be suddenly distracted by a signal he receives from an assistant off-camera. “Oh dear,” he apologizes, explaining the situation to the audience. “I see the actors won’t be ready for another sixty seconds. However, thanks to our sponsors’ remarkable foresight, we have a message that will fit in here nicely.” A wry smile forms on his face as he bows deferentially, leaving us in the care of his sponsors. The screen blackens, signaling the first commercial.
Cute acknowledgments of the mechanics of the financials are one thing, but attributing the qualities of boorishness and even criminality to those involved in the financials is satire rather more pointed.
“We had intended to call that one ‘Death of a Salesman,’ but there were protests from certain quarters,” Hitchcock says playfully after a break. This joke not only acknowledges head-on the flak and heat sponsors can put on programs that they believe hurt their products’ brand. It also expresses some amusement about the thought of them being rattled by a title that reminds them of their own mortality, carries a not-very-well-concealed death wish and implies they would be offended because they are too boorish to recognize the literary allusion of the title. Triple word score!
Later, Mr. Hitchcock half-heartedly assures the audience that the drama’s evil characters will be brought to justice, before having a bit of fun–literally–at the expense of the era’s “Mad Men”: “Crime does not pay…not even on television. You must have a sponsor!”
Does he mean that justice is such a cosmic absolute that even the fantasies flickering on television are not outside its purview? Or is it that television, with vast sums of money at stake and desperate men all clambering for it, is a place we might just expect crime to pay after all? If the remark is ambiguous, it is an ambiguity Mr. Hitchcock and his writer might easily have dispatched if they’d cared to.
Once the commercials have done their thing, the bare shot of Hitchcock against a white backdrop returns. He stares glumly into the camera and deadpans, “That was well put. In fact, after hearing that there is nothing more I wish to add, so, good night until next week.”
Episode #2, “Premonition”
In “Premonition” (Everyone in Everytown has Changed, and the Crusader Is Actually the Killer), Hitchcock intones, “I defy you to guess the nature of Kim Stanger’s premonition, although we shall give you numerous clues in the prologue, which we now present immediately.” Commercial.
What’s so bad about referring to the commercial break as “the prologue,” you ask? Well, it’s not exactly libel, I admit, but it is disruptive. By ironically stitching the commercial to the drama, as if they are sections of the same formal artwork, Hitchcock emphasizes the fact that one has nothing to do with the other: except as the uneasy (and sometimes hostile) bedfellows of commercial American entertainment.
To end the show, Mr. Hitchcock appears with his arms bundled around himself as if he is cold, a surprised expression on his face. Still, a conspiratorial glimmer lights his eyes. “[As] England’s sun slowly sinks behind the coroner’s office, we take leave of mysterious, far-off Sheridan Falls, land of enchantment, and as the night breeze carries our craft away from its beautiful wooded shores…” Hitchcock’s shoulders are gradually dropping during this, and his expression relaxing as if he is slowly warming up, “…we leave them now, we slowly turn our eyes back to the charms of television advertising, and the lyrical chant of our sponsors’ message.” Hitchcock pauses for deep, sumptuous gasps throughout this last part, as if relishing the salutary effects of the “lyrical chant” already.
Imagine hearing some cloying car jingle after this, well, lyrical segue! It is more than the advertisers deserve, and Hitchcock knows it.
Episode #3, “Triggers in Leash”
The third episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Plain-talking Widow Overcomes Two Gunfighters’ Murderous Pride with Hotcakes and a Peculiarly American Christianity Where the Almighty Is Indeed Almighty but Could Use Just a Little Help Now and Then from a Clever Old Lass) opens with Hitchcock uncertainly loading a revolver in silence. Revolvers figure prominently in the coming “western,” he explains. “The cast is a very small one and threatens to become smaller with every passing moment.” The lead characters, it turns out, have vowed to kill each other on sight. But, Hitchcock continues, “I am sure there are some of you who don’t want to see them do that, so I suggest instead that you listen to our sponsor’s message.” The commercial is not paying the bills of the show and padding the pockets of CBS, no! It is ministering to the tender consciences of the pure souls in the television audience by granting an interval in which they may compose/gird themselves before the coming bloodshed.
Introducing the last break of this show, our host summons the commercials in the traditional way: “And now, let us hear a word or two from our sponsor.” His eyes crowd together in disbelief as he reflects on the veracity of the boiler plate language he has just uttered. “‘A word or two’? Or three or four, five, six, seven..” The screen fades to black as he counts, and the commercials are presented. When the commercials are over, Mr. Hitchcock is still counting: “Five hundred-eleven, five-hundred-twelve…” Seeing the audience has returned, and that the sponsors have handed back control, Hitchcock bats his eyes off screen as if to an invisible automobile mogul, and says to him with a gentle, sarcastic bow, “Thank you, sir!”
Winning the Never-ending War
I am watching these episodes on Hulu Plus, a paid Web streaming video service which yet inflicts on its subscribers un-skippable commercial advertising (or as Mr. Hitchcock might say, “furnishes bonus material at no additional charge”). Seeing modern commercials appear right on cue, just where the host says they will be, only magnifies the prescience and power of Hitch’s surly protests. Many of the products advertised did not even exist when Mr. Hitchcock taped his monologues, and yet he appears victorious exactly because his old foes have disappeared, and new adversaries have arisen to compete for viewers’ hearts and minds. Mr. Hitchcock knows about the sponsors, but they display no such awareness of him, and so he convincingly claims the field of battle. The impression is not that he is being interrupted by the commercial messages, but that he is orchestrating the entire affair, just as he has for almost six decades now.
In Conclusion and Fairness
It would be a simplification of Hitchcock’s art to imply that there aren’t many other things at work in these monologues, of course. For instance, there is also comic relief, experimentation with the narrative conventions of television storytelling, and a droll interrogation of many more subjects than the business of television advertising. But it is refreshing to see in a black-and-white program such conspicuous irreverence towards a sponsor. It stands in stark contrast to television today, where even alleged iconoclast Howard Stern is all too happy to drink the Snapple.