10 Facts About Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Good evening. Before Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone presented cautionary tales of arrogant people behaving badly and getting their comeuppance, there was Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The 10-season anthology series debuted in 1955 on CBS and featured sharp crime tales culled from short mystery and suspense fiction. While Hitchcock directed only a handful of episodes, he introduced each one: Those morbidly amusing host segments helped the filmmaker behind Psycho and The Birds become an iconic figure in pop culture. Prior to the series, Hitchcock estimated that he received a dozen fan letters every week. Afterward, it was several hundred.

You can find the first four seasons on Hulu or the first seven in syndication on the MeTV channel, but a complete collection may require some DVD hunting and a region-free player. Some seasons were only released on home video overseas. While you build your library, check out some intriguing facts about the series, including its little-known connection with The Twilight Zone and why one episode was deemed too intense to air on 1960s network television.

1. Alfred Hitchcock shot different host segments for American and international audiences.

Although Alfred Hitchcock Presents was an anthology series with a rotating cast, it maintained continuity for the audience by keeping the director front and center for introductory segments. In these dryly witty sequences written by Hitchcock collaborator James Allardice, Hitchcock helps set up the episode’s premise and often addresses the audience directly, regularly making derogatory comments about the need to cut to commercials. (In one segment leading into a story involving medicine, he braces the audience to prepare for an ad break, a “one-minute anesthetic.”) For international audiences who couldn’t see American product advertising, however, Hitchcock instead used alternate footage that eliminated the sponsorship jabs and instead poked fun at Americans.

Why would sponsors put up with his barbs? Alfred Hitchcock Presents drew consistently high ratings, delivering plenty of eyeballs to their products.  

2. Hitchcock drew his own silhouette.

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The title sequence of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was an exercise in simplicity. A silhouette of the robust director appears, accompanied by a selection from composer Charles Gounod’s 1872 instrumental “Funeral March of a Marionette.” Hitchcock then steps into his side profile portrait, which dissolves into the introduction. Hitchcock drew the silhouette himself.

3. Hitchcock's direct involvement in the series was very limited.

In style and substance, Alfred Hitchcock Presents shares a lot in common with Hitchcock’s films, particularly the scheming characters with murder on the mind in 1948's Rope and 1951's Strangers on a Train. Despite the Hitchcock aesthetic, his direct involvement in the show was limited. Because he was so busy with his movie career, he was convinced by MCA executive Lew Wasserman that lending his name and likeness to the series would not take up much of his time. Producers and frequent Hitchcock collaborators Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd handled most of the production chores, though Hitchcock did direct 17 episodes over the course of the series. The director later said his supervision of the show extended to delivering “fatherly words of advice without trying to usurp their position.”

Viewers, however, seemed to infer he wrote and directed much of what they saw, sending fan letters to the director stating as much. While his effort was not as significant as they believed, it proved to be lucrative. Hitchcock drew a reported $129,000 per episode from CBS and sponsor Bristol-Myers. 

4. But Hitchcock did have some hard and fast rules for the show to follow.

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When Alfred Hitchcock Presents was about to go into production, Hitchcock decided that its tone of darkly comic and suspenseful narratives could be maintained with a simple set of guidelines for researchers looking for short stories to adapt. The stories, Hitchcock wrote, “should definitely be of the suspense, or thriller type” with a climax that “should have a ‘twist’ almost to the point of a shock in either the last line or the last situation.” 

5. It could have been titled Henry Slesar Presents.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents drew primarily from published short stories it optioned from writers. One such author, Henry Slesar, was a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, the monthly short story collection that had the director’s endorsement. When producer Norman Lloyd realized the prolific Slesar and three other authors had a story in the magazine every month, he invited all four of them out to California for a meeting about writing teleplays based on their stories. According to Lloyd, only Slesar showed up. This was because the other three writers were all his pseudonyms. Slesar ended up writing 55 scripts for the series, the most of any contributor.

6. censors forced the show to state that crime doesn’t pay.

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In the myriad murder plots that populated Alfred Hitchcock Presents, killers would often get away with their deed by the end of the episode. In one memorable segment, “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a woman batters her abusive husband with a frozen leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to the police officers looking into his disappearance. These macabre conclusions didn’t sit well with censors, who pushed Hitchcock to deliver a spoken-word coda at the end explaining how she—and other criminals—were ultimately brought to justice. In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” he explains that the woman tried a similar attack on her second husband. Unfortunately, the lamb had already defrosted.

7. A famous episode inspired a morbid playground game.

In “Man From the South,” based on a short story by Roald Dahl, a man (Steve McQueen) low on funds decides to wager he can open his lighter 10 times without fail. Because he has no money, the compulsive gambler (Peter Lorre) making the bet insists that McQueen risk his pinky finger instead. The 1960 episode led to a playground activity played by children called the “Zippo game” where they attempted to light the flame 10 times. They did not, however, wager their fingers.

8. One episode was deemed too gruesome to air.

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While none of the criminal deeds depicted in Alfred Hitchcock Presents were explicit, one episode in season 7 written by Psycho author Robert Bloch inferred something so disturbing that it was kept off the air by NBC. (Spoilers follow.) In "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," a boy who dreams of becoming a magician is coerced into murdering his stage idol by the performer’s cheating spouse. She convinces him to do it by telling the boy—who is none too quick of mind—that he will absorb her husband's “powers” once the deed is done. He believes it, and proceeds to saw her in half despite not having much of an idea about how the illusion is actually supposed to work. At the conclusion, Hitchcock makes a characteristically grim observation that the scheming widow must be “beside herself.” The episode later ran in syndication.

9. It adapted the same story used in an episode of The twilight Zone.

In writer Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a confederate in the Civil War is captured by the Union and faces execution, only to escape and be reunited with his wife. Owing to its suitably twist ending, Alfred Hitchcock Presents adapted the story for its fifth season in 1959. The story was then adapted into a short, virtually silent French film in 1962 that became the only episode of The Twilight Zone produced outside of the oversight of the show. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s Cayuga Productions paid $20,000 for the rights to air it as part of the show’s final season in 1964. In addition to being the only story adapted for both series, the French version managed to pull off the near-impossible trick of winning both an Oscar and Emmy.

10. Ultimately, there was too much of a good thing.

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In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock Presents expanded to an hour-long format. Hitchcock was pleased with the decision, saying it “gives time for a full story” and that episodes could be culled from novels, not just short stories. Retitled The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, it aired for three seasons before NBC, which had taken over airing of the program, pulled the plug. The primary problem was the increased production costs, but fans of the series were also sensing a loss of the suspense and urgency that had been threaded throughout the shorter episodes. Hitchcock himself directed only one of the hour-long episodes before the show was retired. He uttered his final “goodnight” on May 10, 1965.

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

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The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

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2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

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With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

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3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

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Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

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4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

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This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

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5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

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In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

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6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

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7. In Cold Blood; $10

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Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

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8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

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This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

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10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

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How It's a Wonderful Life Went From Box Office Dud to Accidental Christmas Tradition

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life is sacred in the holiday movie pantheon. It's not as quotable as A Christmas Story (1983) or as lyrical as 1966's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, but the story of George Bailey has a universal message behind it that endures more than 70 years later. Though the movie is the quintessential Christmas tale today, when it was first released in 1946, audiences and critics were lukewarm toward the picture, resulting in a box office disappointment that killed Capra's nascent production company, Liberty Films. In a strange twist, decades after it was first released, an unlikely clerical screw-up managed to turn It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmastime staple we know today.

In the 1930s, Capra became a magnet for Academy Awards, directing movies like the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). After Pearl Harbor, Capra knew he could contribute something to the war effort, so he took a post in Washington overseeing the development of U.S. propaganda films for the government—most notably the award-winning Why We Fight series of documentaries.

Upon returning from Washington in 1945, Capra—along with other wartime directors William Wyler and George Stevens—helped finance Liberty Films, an independent production company poised to give filmmakers the one thing they all dreamed of: freedom. The company's first film would be an adaption of a short story titled "The Greatest Gift," which would also appear in Good Housekeeping under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born," and would be adapted for the screen as It's a Wonderful Life. It's one of the few movies Capra also received a screenwriting credit for, and with a proposed budget of $2 million, it was a huge gamble for Liberty.

Something akin to a nightmare

In the book Five Came Back, writer Mark Harris describes It's a Wonderful Life's production process as something akin to a nightmare. Script rewrites, a bloated shooting schedule, and an ever-changing crew cost the studio nearly all of the original $2 million budget—well before filming was even wrapped. The spending became such a concern for Capra's partners at Liberty that George Stevens remarked, "Why the hell couldn't it be springtime?" when he saw how much it cost the production to produce fake snow for shots. Capra bet Liberty's future on audiences looking for some comforting nostalgia after the war, but he was about to see firsthand just how much the world had changed since he came back.

The original plan was to release It's a Wonderful Life in January 1947, after the Oscar deadlines, but when RKO—the film's distributor—needed a movie to release in time for Christmas, Capra's project was the easy solution. It opened just weeks after William Wyler's major studio film The Best Years of Our Lives, a hard-hitting drama about a U.S. soldier coming home after the war to pick up his life again. The two films couldn't be any more different, and the reviews reflected that.

Even at nearly three hours long, The Best Years of Our Lives was an absolute hit with critics and at the box office, recouping its budget multiple times over. It's a Wonderful Life, with its inflated budget and saccharine tale touting old-timey values, was met with a whimper, making only an estimated $3.3 million against a $3.7 million budget. Wyler beat Capra in every way: reviews, box office, and awards. The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while It's a Wonderful Life received only a lone technical award—ironically for the fake snow Stevens loathed.

Liberty Films had borrowed more than $1.5 million to make the film, and with such a disappointing box office return, the production company was soon sold off to Paramount. Capra only directed five feature films afterwards, none of which ever reached the heights of his pre-war work. As unlikely as it seems today, It's a Wonderful Life was seen as a flat disappointment destined for anonymity—until a clerical error changed its fate.

A Wonderful free-for-all

In 1974, the movie entered the public domain after the film's copyright holder simply forgot to file for a renewal. This meant that TV stations everywhere could play It's a Wonderful Life all day and all night and not have to pay a cent for it. Networks aren't necessarily shy about exploiting free Christmas content, and the film's reemergence on television gave Capra's story new life. While a post-World War II crowd may have rejected the movie's sentiment, subsequent generations seem to revel in the opportunity to visit the nostalgic whimsy of it all.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra once told The Wall Street Journal about the film's revival. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud ... but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Legalities rewrote the history of It's a Wonderful Life yet again in 1993. The Supreme Court's previous ruling in Stewart v. Abend established a precedent that allowed the film's original copyright owner—Republic Pictures—to regain its ownership of the movie. The ruling claimed that since Republic owned the copyright on the original short story which the movie was based on, and the score for the film, they, in essence, still owned the movie. So what was once a near barrage of networks airing It's a Wonderful Life has since been pared down to just one: NBC.

The network paid for exclusive rights to air the movie, which is why you'll only see It's a Wonderful Life on TV once or twice during the holidays. But the movie's modern appeal exists because of that scarcity. The film that killed a production company 70 years ago is now an annual television event and part of countless family traditions around the globe. It turns out Capra always knew what audiences wanted, he just needed to wait for the right clerical error to prove it.

This story has been updated for 2020.