With this second-season box set of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment releases the second installment of one of the greatest television series of all time - with absolutely wonderful picture quality and totally botched-up editing that seems almost to destroy the experience. At least, that's what I thought at first.
One of the troubling things about Universal's first two box sets (another is on its way, covering the third season) is that Alfred Hitchcock's introductions and postscripts aren't the ones we've come to know and love after more than 40 years of syndicated re-runs. Because it's not just the wicked and subversive stories that make this series one of the high-water marks of television. It's also Alfred Hitchcock's presence as host, with his droll delivery, his apparent delight in murder, and his obvious distaste for being interrupted by commercials.
For those of us who love this show, Universal's first box set was a mixed bag. We'd been waiting for it since like, forever. The technical process of the remastering had been accomplished beautifully. But the product was presented on a type of disk (double-sided, double-density) that played poorly in most DVD machines. And even worse, Alfred Hitchcock's introductions and postscripts were edited so badly that many of them seemed incoherent. (A few of the shows were exactly as they aired originally - they even contained a title card indicating that the show was "Brought to you by Bromo-Seltzer," which was deleted when the show went into syndication - but most of the shows appeared to be edited, and not very skillfully, either.) Wherever Hitchcock made a snide comment about his sponsor, the footage was snipped, and even if you hadn't been a fan, you would have noticed something was missing. Most of Hitchcock's appearances on these disks seemed like a joke without a punchline. It was hard to understand why Universal would commit such an atrocity. Did some scissors-happy gnome in Hollywood think we'd be confused if Hitchcock made funny remarks about the upcoming commercial, if the DVD didn't contain the commercial?
I was so dismayed by that first-season set that when the second was released, I delayed a year before buying a copy. Judging by the angry comments I saw on this forum, I could see that this second-season set had the same problem.
But now that I've finally bought the set and I've started watching these disks, I think I finally understand what happened. It's the strangest thing: Universal, without explanation, has decided to give us the BRITISH version of the show.
One thing few people know is that Hitchcock filmed multiple introductions for each program - one for American audiences, one for the British, and one for the French (or so I've read). In the second-season box set, the introductions and postscripts are decidedly different than the ones that we saw in America. A few of them are edited from the American versions, but most of them do not appear to have been edited, and these follow a much different format than the ones that aired in the states. If you watch closely, you'll see that there is no place where a commercial might have been inserted. At the same time, the content is decidedly un-American.
I'll offer a couple of examples. One of the clearest clues comes in the introduction to the episode, "Nightmare in 4-D." Hitchcock's comments begin,
"Good evening. Tonight's play is entitled 'Nightmare in 4-D.' It will be presented in only two dimensions, however. We could present it in 3-D. In fact, we did in America, but the viewers kept getting involved, and during one of the more violent scenes we lost half our audience. We wouldn't want that to happen here."
In another program, we find a clue that is even more telling. In the postscript to the episode "Crackpot," we see Hitchcock standing in what he describes as an impregnable "sealed chamber." Suddenly, from behind him, someone pounds on the wall with a sledgehammer and knocks a hole in the plaster. "I knew it," Hitchcock says. "It's the I.T.A. It's futile to try to escape. We shall be back with another play. Don't you try to escape."
This had me scratching my head -- it's a reference that means absolutely nothing to me, and I'm sure it means nothing to anyone in this country. But after a little searching on the Internet, I found out what Hitchcock must have meant. He must have been referring to Britain's Independent Television Authority, a commercial network that started operation two years before this particular episode was shown.
Suddenly everything makes sense, and since Universal hasn't bothered answering customer emails, and its DVD packaging contains no information about the source of the shows, let me outline a scenario that might explain it all. In Britain, Hitchcock's show must have been presented on the BBC, which didn't carry commercials - and so all those snide remarks about the sponsor wouldn't have made any sense. In the first season, these references were crudely deleted, along with the fade-to-black points where commercials might have been inserted. (Perhaps the series hadn't been picked up in Britain at the time the first-season episodes were filmed.) But for the second season, Hitchcock filmed additional introductions and postscripts for the British market, a vast improvement over the previous season. If I'm right about this, I suppose these DVDs are a little more authentic than I thought before. My outrage has been subdued.
But is the British version the right version to be presenting in a "definitive" collection of the series? Absolutely not.
It's an American show. Always was, always will be. It aired first on American networks. The American version is the most complete. After 40 years of re-runs, we EXPECT Hitchcock to say nasty things about the upcoming commercial, and when he doesn't, we feel cheated. Heck, it wasn't so long ago that these shows were running every day on cable TV. It's not as if the American shows have been lost - we've been watching them all along. This British format just doesn't feel right. Even if the editing was done 50 years ago, many of the butchered introductions and postscripts don't make sense; at best, they don't flow very well. And the ones specially-filmed for the British audience don't strike me as interesting as the ones we saw over here. (Perhaps they might be included on future releases as a "Bonus Feature.")
I hope Universal did the right thing and used the American version of the show in its Season Three box set. We'll know when it comes out next month. At least Universal got one thing right in this second release - it abandoned the double-sided disks. The standard-type disks in this set appear to play perfectly. (I probably should make a technical point here as well, to avoid confusion -- this might be the British version of the show, but there are none of the problems associated with PAL to NTSC transfers, because the show was produced on film in the first place.)
Look, this is one of the best TV series ever. The stories are classics, and there's a style to this show we rarely see today, emphasizing character rather than action or cinematography. The original packaging was absolutely brilliant, with those witty Hitchcock bits at the beginning and end of each program. The sheer number of these shows is absolutely staggering - there were some 260 episodes of the half-hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and another three seasons of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. I can't wait to buy them all. I guess this is my way of saying that the way this show is presented - it matters.
Those Brits didn't know what they were missing.