Friday, October 02, 2015

'A Sweet Little Story' About Rape and Revenge

As I have observed here several times, my mother was a fan of Alfred Hitchcock's work, and it was through her that I was introduced to many of his movies; they remain among my favorites today as do Hitchcock movies I discovered on my own. That's the thing about awakening someone's interest in something. Once that genie is out of the bottle, you can't control it.

I also discovered the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, which made its debut on this date in 1955, through her — which is rather odd, I suppose, since, as I have also mentioned here before, my family didn't have a TV until I was in elementary school — and that was many years after this date in 1955!

And it was actually several years after we got our first TV — when we were visiting my grandparents in Dallas — that my mother noticed in the paper that reruns of episodes from that series were being shown on one of the local channels after the late news. She suggested that we watch, and I have vivid memories of popping some popcorn and sitting on the couch with Mom to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents every evening while we were in Dallas. It became a regular ritual every time we were in town — until the channel stopped showing the reruns, for whatever reason.

I have watched the series since that time, of course — sometimes with Mom, most of the time not — and I know I saw the debut episode, "Revenge," but I can't recall if it was one I saw with Mom or not. One of the things I miss the most about Mom is how we would discuss movies and TV episodes that we had seen; if we watched "Revenge" together, I'm sure we would have discussed it, if only because its theme was so unusual for the mid–1950s.

The story was about a man who sought revenge for the rape of his emotionally fragile wife, played by 26–year–old Vera Miles. Miles went on to appear in some Hitchcock movies, most notably "Psycho," and was often said to be Hitchcock's next Grace Kelly, but I'm not sure that ever happened.

Anyway, in his droll manner, Hitchcock appeared at the beginning of each TV episode to briefly give the viewer an idea — albeit a sarcastic one — what to expect. In his intro to his new series, Hitchcock called the episode a "sweet little story." I'm sure that would be regarded as terribly politically incorrect today because it suggests an insensitivity to women even though that was just Hitchcock's manner — to treat violent subject matter as a "sweet little story."

Was Hitchcock a sexist? I don't know. I do know that he always managed to have beautiful women in his movies, and his movies sometimes featured sexual overtones. When you get right down to it, I think you have to take the things he said as tongue in cheek — inside jokes, if you will. I don't think he intended to be flippant about violent acts like rape.

Frances Bavier, in her pre–Andy Griffith Show days, played a neighbor in the trailer park where the newlyweds lived who promised to look in on Miles while her young husband was at work — and she did. Miles had suffered a breakdown, and the couple had moved to California for her health. When Bavier left her, she was about to do some sun bathing.

When the husband returned with bags of groceries, he found their trailer filled with smoke from a cake in the oven that had burned, then he found his wife virtually catatonic on the bedroom floor. Haltingly, she told her story. A man had come to the door and demanded money. When she refused, he overpowered her and choked her. "And then he killed me," she said. She never said she was raped. I suppose that was too graphic for network TV in the '50s.

And her husband only ever said she had been beaten.

But it was about rape. And as time passed and the investigators took no one into custody, the husband persuaded his wife to help him find the man who had assaulted her, never telling her what he intended to do — and she never asked. But she went along with him and pointed out a man to her husband. "It's him," she insisted.

So the husband bludgeoned the man with a wrench. The audience never actually saw the assault, only the shadow of the husband raising his arm, truly a Hitchcockian technique, but it struck me as odd when I saw the episode for the first time that, even though the husband had to be up close to the man when he hit him with the wrench, and blood must surely have been flowing from the repeated blows, the husband's clothes showed no traces of blood, not even the spatter you would expect to see from being close to such a wound when it happened.

The husband returned to the car and suggested they drive to a nearby town along the coast. When they did, as they were driving along, Miles suddenly saw someone on the sidewalk and exclaimed, "That's him!"

It was the kind of twist ending that Hitchcock loved — although it seemed to me at the time and still seems to me that it's a rather obvious one that needs the buildup only a movie can provide. In the shorter space of half an hour, a twist ending has to really be a gut punch to be effective. I didn't think the ending was a gut punch. I thought it was predictable, given what the audience had seen.

But I thought the performances were good, and, as always, a Hitchcock tale delivered for the viewer. Sometimes, though, the viewer had to be a truly devoted Hitchcock fan — like my mother — to appreciate what was delivered.