As desecrations of old masters go, NBC's Sunday night movie "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" isn't as hackle-raising as either the 1978 remake of "The 39 Steps" or the more recent and more impudent "Psycho II," unauthorized sequel to Hitch's nastiest masterpiece.
Then, too, Hitchcock was nothing if not a commercial director, and one with a celebrated sense of the whimsically macabre. Too much esthetic indignation about the work of profiteering ripper-offers would thus be misplaced. Hitch would not approve of NBC's movie, but he probably wouldn't give a damn either.
The film, at 9 tomorrow night on Channel 4, is four wholly inadequate remakes in one: a quartet of episodes from the stylish Hitchcock anthology series that aired from 1955 to 1965. It's also, in a way, the premiere of a series. As part of a recycling bender that will see "Perry Mason," "The Twilight Zone" and other old shows in new clothes, NBC will air "Hitchcock" as a "new" series on Sunday nights next fall.
NBC is on a roll in the ratings, but let's not mistake the network's programming for inspiration or its programmers for innovators.
Although he was on-camera host for every episode, Hitchcock directed only 20 "Presentses." One of these, "Bang, You're Dead," is the third of Sunday night's remakes. It's the story of a loaded gun that falls into the hand of a child who thinks it's a toy, and it was one of the few Hitchcocks to opt for preachiness over facetiousness. In an absolute paroxysm of creativity, the remakers changed the sex of the child from boy to girl.
"Bang" has a moral that was not intended: never, unless you are droolingly mad with self-confidence, try to direct any piece of material that has already been directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The film begins with "Incident in a Small Jail," a twist-ended downer about a possibly homicidal hitchhiker and the traveling salesman (Ned Beatty) who is mistaken for him. The second is "Man From the South," based on a Roald Dahl short story about an eccentric gambling coot (John Huston in a role first played by Peter Lorre) who strikes a grisly bargain with a wastrel at the end of his rope (Steven Bauer replacing Steve McQueen).
Since this story was already remade, and only a few years ago, for the unjustly neglected British series "Tales of the Unexpected," it's a poor choice for inclusion in the NBC film, and this version is particularly terrible. The narrative is jangled, and the characters don't reverberate. John Huston is unconvincing and Bauer should sue the director for giving him so many "Huh?" shots.
Tippi Hedren, who appeared in "The Birds," and Kim Novak, the costar of "Vertigo," both have tiny roles in this segment. Hedren was interviewed by Jane Pauley on the "Today" show yesterday but was asked no tough questions about all those published rumors of Hitchcock's having made advances toward her on the set. The "Today" show likes to go very easy on guests who are plugging NBC product. Ooooh, are they low.
The last of the four, "An Unlocked Window," is the most traditionally horrific. It involves a strangler on the loose, a thunderstorm, a terrified nurse (the very proficient Annette O'Toole) and the window of the title. Here the trick ending is wearily predictable and the scare tactics primitive. Kids who've seen "Halloween" will probably find "Unlocked Window" quaint.
To lend an artificial aura of authenticity to this endeavor, Universal has retrieved from the vaults some of the old introductions Hitchcock did for the shows and put them through the computer colorizer, which has in its capriciousness ascribed to Hitchcock's face a plastic peachy patina, not the parlor pallor one would expect. With this touch, the grave-robbing aspects become all too literal, but Hitchcock's appearances are the best part of the show.
Only a very small percentage of the viewing audience NBC is courting will care that the original Hitchcocks were infinitely superior. They will compare this program not to the Hitchcock shows but to other programs now on the air; and in that arena, this movie holds its own, and thensome. Anyone seriously interested in Hitchcock's television career can consult a diligent and comprehensive new book on the subject: "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," by John McCarty and Brian Kelleher, published by St. Martin's Press.
Not only is nothing in NBC's movie as enjoyably Hitchcockian as the book's plot summaries and memorabilia, but the book has more life to it as well.