Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Volume 4 (1961)
Universal Home Video
The show with the famous silhouette and great theme comes to DVD from Universal in "Alfred Hitchcock Presents Volume 4, " a collection of five half-hour episodes on one disc. An addition to the "Alfred Hitchcock Collection, " the disc proves a great assortment of some of the great auteur’s efforts on the small screen.
The first episode on this disc, and perhaps an outside influence on "Chicken Run," is the story of "Arthur." No this isn’t about Dudley Moore or the famous King and his knights, but instead centers around a rather snooty New Zealand poultry farmer (Laurence Harvey) who harbors a slight dislike for the fiancée (Hazel Court) who left him for a richer man. A year later when Arthur’s chickens prove to be a recipe for financial success, the ex-fiancée shows up with a thinly veiled desire to rekindle old flames. Arthur, seeing right through this and of no desire to alter his adored bachelor lifestyle, does the only thing a Hitchcock chicken farmer could ever do: murder the woman. The question is can he get away with it when the cops come snooping, or is perhaps Arthur too cocky for his own good? While the suspense is somewhat short of a nail-biter, "Arthur" succeeds in being a very unique character study and soars with the charisma of Harvey’s performance. The guy just has a great face, voice, and posture and while I never would expect a chicken farmer to wear a tie and a lab coat or schedule chess games among friends, I couldn’t help but getting caught up in this character’s world.
The second vignette is the cold love story of "The Crystal Trench." An English mountain climber (James Donald) has the difficult task of telling a young woman (Patricia Owens) that her husband has died from exhaustion atop a Swiss peak. Efforts to bring the body down prove treacherous and result in the body being frozen inside a glacier. As time goes by, the Englishman finds himself falling in love with the widow who cannot find closure until she can see the body of her husband one last time. When the glacier breaks forty years later, the sight of her husband’s body brings the wife an unexpected surprise, and brings the Englishman doubt he will ever win the love of this woman. Although the idea of seeing Hitchcock climb a mountain is altogether hysterical, as is suggested by his opening presentation of the short, "The Crystal Trench" seems to be a story that was written around a surprise ending. The problem is, that what’s written isn’t that interesting and never really establishes a sound pace after we meet the widow. Therefore, when the surprise ending comes around it just kind of makes you shrug your shoulders and wonder what’s the point. Some nice scenic shots and decent performers, but nothing really to sink your teeth into.
Next up is "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat." This short tells the story of Mrs. Bixby (AudreyMeadows) a smart and shallow wife of a New York dentist (Les Tremayne) who is having an affair with an extremely wealthy man (Stephen Chase) in Baltimore. When this man suddenly becomes more interested in auctioning horses than cheating on another man’s wife, he sends her off to New York with a farewell note and a more than satisfactory gift of a mink fur coat. The gift, of course, comes as a double edged sword as Mrs. Bixby goes to some length to devise a plot to bring it home with her without raising an eyebrow from her unsuspecting dentist. Sound rather bland? Well, honestly it is. Fortunately, the wife does get her just desserts but it’s not too exciting getting her there. The highlight here is Hitchcock’s opening and closing ribbing of the show’s sponsors.
The fourth episode is called "The Horseplayer" and boasts the talent of Claude Rains, whom Hitchcock directed in "Notorious," a role that won Rains an Oscar nomination. Here, Rains plays the pastor of a rickety old church that is in desperate need of a new roof. The church gets some welcome relief from a new guest, a Mr. Sheridan (Ed Garnder) who has been frequently leaving sizeable donations in the offering plate. When the pastor approaches this man to thank him for his contributions, he discovers the man has come to church only to pray for the horses he has been betting on in the races. To Mr. Sheridan’s fortunate surprise, his horses have come up winners, so he continues to come to church in order to keep his streak alive. The pastor is at first disappointed by the reasons this man has come to the church, yet can’t pretend to not appreciate his contributions. When Mr. Sheridan goes as far as to suggest he place a bet for the Pastor, this religious man is torn between his moral devotions and his desire to simply mend a few leaks. While this may seems to have a suspense factor of zero, "The Horseplayer" is actually a terrific short film. The performances of Rains and Gardner are outstanding and the tugs of morality and conscience offer some nice twists and a story that has more depth and complexity than the others on the disc. A very good little film.
The final episode is called "Bang! You’re Dead" and packs a wallop of suspense (finally) in the half-hour slot. The story revolves around little six-year-old Jackie (Billy Mumy) who just loves to play cowboy and war with his friends, only his plastic gun looks so fake that they’ve teased him and banished him from their games. Jackie’s Uncle (Steve Dunne) visits the family after an extended stay in Africa and promises Jackie that he has brought the boy a surprise. Unable to wait for his gift, Jackie rambles through his Uncle’s suitcase to find a very real gun and live ammunition. Jackie, of course, thinks this is his surprise and goes off to play and roam the local supermarket with his brand new gun. It doesn’t take Jackie’s Uncle long to realize a terrible switch has been made and he races off along with Jackie’s parents to find the boy before tragedy strikes. The premise of "Bang! You’re Dead" is as simple as it gets, but Hitchcock flexes his directorial muscles here stretching out a nice little film, milking the "boy meets gun" idea for all it’s worth. Whether intentional or not, this episode has the feel of a Leave it To Beaver type family, with the Beav getting a handgun instead of a dog. The contrast of images works perfectly and it was easy to get caught up in waiting for the gun to go off. It was also very interesting to see Hitchcock’s closing speech at the end of the episode, expressing his wish that parents would learn from the show the importance of keeping weapons out of reach from children. This was 1961. Sadly, the message still speaks volumes in today’s society, forty years later.
Universal has presented all five episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents Volume 4" in the original <$PS,full frame> composition (1.33:1). Overall the quality was surprisingly good and I was only disappointed with the first episode, "Arthur." This was the oldest episode on this disc, and the difference of image is striking. Grain level is very high with a lot of noise over anything that is particularly bright, such as Hitchcock’s face in his segments. The rest of the episodes are free from this grain, but also have some digital noise issues in the stripes of the window blinds and the tweed jacket of one of the actors. These moments are isolated, however, as most of the image is clear and clean, with very few blemishes on the print.
Audio is presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono and sounds fairly good. While the "Arthur" episode showed its age visually, there was no real difference in the soundtracks between the five films. Dialogue is clear and had minimal distortion when mixed with the louder moments of the score. Since these are forty-year-old episodes, don’t expect audible fireworks here but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the sound either.
Sadly, but somewhat understandably, there are no special features to speak of on this disc. Since Universal has seen fit to provide ample amount of bonuses on all their other Hitchcock releases, I’ll forgive them for the bare bones disc, yet it would’ve been interesting to see some TV spots for the show or perhaps some stills or simple production notes. All in all, this is a pretty good DVD with three out of the five episodes being quite enjoyable. In particular, I’d advise watching "The Horseplayer" to see Claude Rains’ standout performance. You have to applaud Hitchcock for succeeding on both the small and big screens and this volume of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" is a nice display of part of that success.