10 Facts About Alfred Hitchcock Presents

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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.

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Wa Wa Wee Wa: The Origin of Borat's Favorite Catchphrase

Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

When Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was released in 2006, a new audience was exposed to Borat Sagdiyev, a “journalist” portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen who had made frequent appearances on the comedian’s Da Ali G Show.

Soon, in our country there was problem: People mimicked Borat’s catchphrases, "very nice" and “wa wa wee wa,” incessantly. The latter phrase was used to denote surprise or happiness on Borat’s part. While some may have assumed it was made up, it turns out that it actually means something.

Wa wa wee wa is Hebrew, which Cohen speaks throughout the film and which helped make Borat a hit in Israel. (Cohen is himself Jewish.) It was taken from an Israeli comedy show and is the equivalent of the word wow. Reportedly, the expression was popular among Israelis, and they appreciated Cohen’s use of it.

The original Borat also sees Cohen singing a popular Hebrew folk song, “Koom Bachur Atzel,” or “get up lazy boy,” among other Hebrew mentions. It remains to be seen how much of it he’ll be speaking in the sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It premieres on Amazon Prime Friday, October 23.

[h/t The Los Angeles Times]