50 Years Ago This Week – Alfred Hitchcock’s Last “Hour”
On May 10, 1965, “Off Season” the last episode of season three of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was broadcast on NBC. Not what you would call “must-see-TV,” nevertheless, for a number of reasons the fairly routine, thinly-motivated, and at times only tenuously credible drama effectively holds one’s attention throughout. The first few minutes offer a strong and artfully done night-for-night suspense sequence culminating in a shoot-out, and from there a well-turned civics-lecture about the imperatives and responsibilities inherent to the use of force by the police that remains distressingly relevant to this day. Also notable are the episode’s echoes of Psycho—certainly fitting for the venue. “Off Season” not only reprises the same writer (Robert Bloch) and leading player (John Gavin) as Hitchcock’s classic film, it also features a sleepy off-road motel maintained by an odd proprietor who speaks of an unseen female companion, and who is easily imagined as the somewhat-less-troubled second cousin of Norman Bates. And the story has a pretty decent twist at the end.
But what makes the telecast something more than middling entertainment is that it was also a modest marker of generational ships passing in the night. “Off Season” was the final episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and brought to a close Hitchcock’s ten year run as a fixture on television, starting with Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which first aired in 1955). And it coincided with the beginning of the end—the closing and difficult phase of Hitchcock’s career. In the preceding forty years, Hitchcock had directed an astonishing fifty films—not counting two wartime shorts made in support of the French Resistance and eighteen episodes of his TV series. And of those fifty, at least ten were masterpieces. But over the next fifteen years, he would only make four more films.
Heading in the opposite direction was the director of “Off Season,” the then-unknown William Friedkin, not quite thirty and taking on his third television assignment. Friedkin would become famous for directing the horror-blockbuster The Exorcist in 1973, but it was his run of films before that which established him as a notable figure in the New Hollywood—including the groundbreaking Boys in the Band (1970) and The French Connection (1971). Connection in particular boasts some serious seventies chops: a morally ambiguous fable of nasty cops and charismatic crooks shot on gritty New York streets (the calling-card of cinematographer Owen Roizman) and featuring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Friedkin would reunite with Scheider to make Sorcerer, his ill-fated remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear—like many seventies directors, Friedkin’s cinematic tastes ran deeply European.
Ironically, as the whiz kids of the New Hollywood were in awe of the Nouvelle Vague, the enfants terribles of the French New Wave revered Hitchcock. And the appreciation was mutual: In 1968 Hitchcock shot forty minutes of test-footage for a film tentatively called Kaleidoscope, with a freewheeling style, location shooting, natural light, and a cast of young unknowns (Nouvelle-Hitch?) But it didn’t look like a Hitchcock film, and he couldn’t get backing for the project. The American New Wave, apparently, would be reserved for a new generation.