Saturday, July 7, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock Presents : “Bang! You’re Dead”


Season 7, Episode 2

Original Airdate: October 17, 1962

Writer: Harold Swanton (teleplay), Margery Vosper (story)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Joan Harrison
Cast: Bill Mumy, Steve Dunne, Biff Elliott, Lucy Prentiss

Though “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” often toyed with tone and allowed Hitchcock’s trademark dark humor to infect its best episodes, “Bang! You’re Dead” represents the darkest, most blatantly suspenseful the series ever became. There is nary a joke or wink at the audience to be found – just tension building on established tension until it becomes almost unbearable.

The premise alone is enough to stand up the hairs on the back of your neck. A young boy (Bill Mumy, who also sent everyone to the cornfield in the classic “The Twilight Zone” episode "It's A Good Life") gets ahold of a real gun and, thinking it is a toy, loads it and heads into town for a good old fashioned shoot ‘em up.

Logic immediately argues that the kid won’t actually kill anyone. After all, this is an television episode from 1962…and did I mention it’s a kid? But you immediately begin questioning yourself as soon as the episode begins. Like every other episode of the series, Hitchcock appears and makes a joke or two of introduction. But then, surprisingly, he becomes very solemn and serious. He states the following:


“Despite the fact that this has been introduced with my usual flippancy, it concerns a very serious subject. I would be doing it a disservice if I led you to regard it lightly.”
Uh oh. What are you trying to tell us, Hitch?

Richie (Mumy) is the child in question. His uncle (Steve Dunne) has just returned home from Africa with a wooden tribal mask (the African mask represents a metaphor for their alleged “savagery” (“I had to sleep with a gun under my pillow every night,” the uncle says) contrasted with America’s young generation’s obsession with killing one another) and vague promises of a “present” for Richie. The boy is told to unpack his uncle’s suitcases and finds a swell looking gun right next to a box of bullets. Richie shoves a bunch of bullets in his pocket, exchanges his plastic gun for the real one and starts pointing it at people.
Hitchcock directed the episode, and in the early moments when Richie first has the gun, Hitchcock frames his shots so that we are behind the child, looking over his shoulder. In essence, we have become the boy. Since we have already been thrown by Hitchcock’s seriousness in his introduction, we also wonder about the pacing of the story. Realistically, the gun could go off at any point and the rest of the episode could involve the aftermath. In other words, the tension is palpable from the moment Richie puts the first bullet in the gun.
If that wasn’t enough tension, the episode’s writer, Harold Swanton, employs an ingenious way to keep upping the stakes as the episode progresses. At first, Richie only puts one bullet in the gun, and every time he gets ready to fire he spins the chamber. Yup, it turns into a sick variation on Russian Roulette. And every now and then Richie will add another bullet. And another. Until the gun is completely loaded.

We have a classic example of Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table.” In a conversation with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock beautifully explained the difference between surprise and suspense thusly:


“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’

“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that, whenever possible, the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

Here, the child is the bomb.

I’m surprised that, considering the circumstances, Hitchcock is as restrained as he is concerning false alarms. There’s only one moment where we think the gun has gone off when it has not – when a car backfires in a supermarket parking lot.
By the time Richie returns home, his parents and uncle have left to frantically search for him. The only person there is the housekeeper, who arrived too late to know Richie has a (now fully-loaded) gun. Richie wants her to play. She’s busy. And we, as viewers, sense that the half-hour is almost up. Something has to go down soon.

Hitchcock moves the camera back to the boy’s perspective as he aims at the housekeeper. The moment is intentionally evocative of the climax of his film “Spellbound,” where the villain pointed his gun at Ingrid Bergman before committing suicide (if you watch the video, note the one frame of red used in the black-and-white film to represent the villain’s death. Awesome, right?), and works here even better. The gun finally goes off and misses the maid by just a few inches, but the fact that the kid is no longer going to be playing with guns is little comfort.

“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” is usually mentioned in the same breath as “The Twilight Zone” and “Thriller” as one of the best anthologies ever created, but that is mostly on the strength of the episodes Hitchcock personally directed (usually three or four a season). The truth is that the quality and tone of the show varied greatly from episode to episode (yes, that’s a given with anthologies, but it’s even more pronounced than usual here), with many episodes seeming twice their length and containing storylines so light they barely exist. For example, one episode hinged entirely on a woman getting trapped in a hotel room with a sleeping man. Yes, that’s all. The most well-regarded episode seems to be “Lamb to the Slaughter,” where Barbara Bel Geddes kills her husband with a leg of lamb then bakes it for the police who are investigating. But for me, the best episodes are the ones that go for the jugular from the get-go, like this episode or “Breakdown,” where Joseph Cotton is mistaken for dead after a traffic accident.

“Bang! You’re Dead” represents an excellent example of how to keep suspense going incessantly for an entire episode. I can’t think of another episode of television that manipulated me with its suspense and kept me on the edge of my seat like this.

“Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Seven” is (shockingly) not yet available on DVD. However, it is available on Youtube for your viewing pleasure.

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