Friday, October 16, 2015

Hitchcock Was the Master of Suspense, Even on TV

"Which one's gonna be the killer? Which one gets the rope around his neck?"

Maggie (Ellen Corby)

As I have observed on this blog before, visitors to can rate episodes of their favorite TV programs, but the folks who run the site have changed it over the years. There once was a time when the top–rated episodes for a TV series were listed in descending order — so you could see which ones the viewers (at least, the ones who visited the site) thought were or had been the series' best. That certainly was an interesting feature, especially when you were looking at the page for a series that had been very popular in its day.

You can still rate episodes, and the website still tells you what the overall rating is for an episode. It may take a little while, but you can compare the rating of that episode to the ratings of other episodes and get a pretty fair idea of how other viewers feel about the episode in comparison to others.

And the ratings for the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that first aired on this date in 1955 — "Triggers in Leash" — really surprised me. It was the third of 39 episodes in the series' first season — yet it was rated higher than only eight. That puts it around the bottom one–fifth in that first season, and I am at a loss to explain that.

OK, I'll grant you that it wasn't a great episode. But the ending did have the trademark Hitchcock twist.

And it featured a couple of actors who were not particularly well known at the time but became well known in the years that followed their appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents — Ellen Corby, who won three Emmy Awards for her portrayal of John–Boy Walton's grandmother on The Waltons, and Darren McGavin, who found fame as TV's Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the grumpy father in the movie "A Christmas Story."

I guess the folks who rate episodes at rated the episode so poorly because it was set in the West, and, while some of Hitchcock's movies may have been set in the West, it was the modern West, and cowboys and horses were seldom, if ever, seen. In fact, in his intro to the episode, Hitchcock confessed that "There isn't a horse to be seen. We intended to get horses, but they couldn't remember the lines."

When one thinks of Hitchcock, one doesn't think of cowboys and Indians. Perhaps that is why the viewers have given the episode such a low rating. It didn't seem like a plausible combination.

I thought the episode reinforced Hitchcock's reputation as a master of suspense, no matter the century, no matter the sub–genre.

It was about a couple of men who got into an argument over a hand of poker, and their fight escalated to a gun duel at an eatery in the country. Corby ran the eatery, a plain sort of place, just a one–room cabin, really, with a few tables and chairs and the stove all within view of each other.

The whole drama was played out in that one room.

At first, Corby tried to get between McGavin and Gene Barry, but she soon gave up and began to use psychology, suggesting that both would die, one in the gunfight and the other would be convicted of murder and executed.

That made the two pause — and they decided to have a truce and sit down and have some ham and eggs.

Corby pleaded with them not to go through with the duel.

But she didn't persuade them. Instead, they agreed not to shoot until the bird in the cuckoo clock stuck his neck out to announce that it was high noon.

So they stood up and faced each other, realizing that the clock would strike noon in a few minutes.

As the fateful moment drew near, Corby made a move for the mantel, saying that she wanted to protect the crucifix from any stray bullets.

There was less than a minute to go before the clock would strike noon — but the clock had stopped.

Corby insisted that she didn't touch the clock, that the "hand of God" stopped the clock to keep the two gunslingers from shooting it out. Chastened, the two gunmen left together.

As the audience soon found out, the crucifix had been used to keep the mantel from tilting. The clock wouldn't run unless it was on a level surface. When Corby removed the crucifix, the surface ceased to be level, and the clock stopped.

That was Hitch's twist ending.

I thought it was done well. I didn't anticipate the ending although all the clues were there. And Hitchcock made the clock a character in the episode, frequently showing it in the background but never drawing attention to it until the very end.

Yep, I thought it deserved better than the rating it gets at