Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-89 revival)

 

 

The Series

Alfred Hitchcock Presents was originally a half-hour anthology series, hosted by the famous film director. In 1985 it was revived, with a colorised Hitchcock doing the introductions.

Bradbury Episodes

One script was produced from a Bradbury story.

 

 

Episode 23: "The Jar" (6 Apr 1986)
Directed by Tim Burton

This episode was scripted by Larry Wilson and Michael McDowell, based on Bradbury's November 1944 Weird Tales short story (collected in Dark Carnival and The October Country.)

 

Synopsis

Prologue: in the Second World War, a woman is pursued by a Nazi. Cornering her in a building, he suddenly gives up the chase when he sets eyes on a jar containing some mysterious object. Apparently hypnotised, he walks away - and she shoots him in the back.

Present day: Artist Knoll is suffering through another unsuccessful exhibition of his work. His wife is blatantly having an affair with another man. His life is a mess. He goes to a scrapyard and buys a 1938 car - last seen being driven by the Nazi in the prologue. Knoll break opens the engine, and is surprised to see a magical jar inside. (This despite the scrapyard owner saying that the car has just been in a ten-car wreck on the freeway.)

Knoll decides to incorporate the mysterious jar in his exhibition. It becomes enormously attractive, and turns around the fortunes of his show. Every piece in the exhibition (save the jar, which is NOT for sale) now sells. Knoll is a success.

Without warning, the curator/art agent Periwinkle attempts suicide. When Knoll asks why she did it, she blames it on the jar.

Knoll's wife breaks up with her lover, over an argument about the jar. She determines to empty the jar, but accidentally knocks it over. The contents spill. Knoll comes in and retrieves the object that was in the jar - from under the sofa where it landed. Knoll and wife physically fight over and with the object, pulling it apart and splattering it around the room. His wife attempts to stab the object with a knife. Knoll spies the knife on the floor, and eyes up his wife.

Cut to: Knoll's latest show. A triumph. As its centrepiece: a homage to the ex-wife who has deserted him. A sculpture incorporating the jar. Which contains an uncanny likeness of his wife's head...

 

Review

Wilson and McDowell probably believed they HAD to do something different with this story, since the original episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was a beloved and well remembered classic. So they have shifted the arena of the story to the art world. In itself, it's a neat idea. After all, in the gallery each viewer will see what they want in an abstract piece.

But there's a flaw here. The engaging thing about the original story (and the 1964 Hitchcock Hour adaptation by James Bridges) is that the jar is viscerally appealing. People don't know why they are drawn to it, but they are. In this new version, though, it is only the intellectual elite who get to see the jar. It is difficult to see what they - sophisticated viewers all - would see in the jar. Unless the story is played as a satire on the art world...which doesn't seem to be the case. The satire is without edge or bite.

In fact, there's more than just a flawed concept. The plotting is weak in the extreme. The Nazi backstory is arbitrary. Why couldn't the jar have come from somewhere else? (The answer is: it could easily have done so. The writers haven't tied their plot elements together into a theme.)

The adaptation also thoroughly overlooks or ignores the psychological truth of the original story. At least two of the characters in this story are not just drawn to the jar - and drawn to speculate about it - they are driven to action by the jar. It's no longer a story about what the mind can do when confronted with a mystery object. It's now a story about a jar with magical powers. A much weaker story.

Even then, the characters are not properly motivated. Not Periwinkle, who shows no sign of suicidal thoughts. Not Knoll, who for no reason goes to a junkyard; for no reason buys a 1938 car; and for no reason prizes open the engine. Sure, he could have good reason for doing all of these things, but no reasons are shown or implied.

There are a couple of good things about the episode. One is Paul Bartel as the magnificent slimy art critic. Another is the jar itself. Like the original TV jar, it is shown with clarity, and yet the object within remains elusive.

Tim Burton, directing this quite early in his Hollywood career (at this point he was known for Pee Wee's Big Adventure, and not much else) makes the most of the weird artworks in the episode, and stages the slapstick fight over the contents of the jar quite well. But there's not enough here to make the episode anything other than a pale homage to the source material.

 

Cast:
Knoll
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Griffin Dunne
Erica
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Fiona Lewis
Periwinkle
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Laraine Newman
Garson
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Stephen Shellen
Art critic
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Paul Bartel
Nazi
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Paul Werner
Texan
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Sunshine Parker
Texan's wife
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Eileen Barnett
Happy Kaufmann
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Peter D. Risch
Female art type
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Regina Richardson
Female fashion victim
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Susan Moore
Male fashion victim
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Nathan LeGrand
Person #1
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Roy Fegan
Person #2
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Leah Kates
Frail woman
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Lori Lynn Lively
Guest #1
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Jeffrey Steven Kramer

Information source:
Grams, M. Jr. & Wikstrom, P. (2001) The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, Maryland: OTR Publishing
Bradbury, R. (1994) Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara, CA: Joshua Odell

"The Jar "

The short story first appeared in Weird Tales in November 1944.

Its first book appearance was in Dark Carnival (1947).

Origins of
"The Jar"

In his essay "Run Fast, Stand Still, or The Thing At The Top Of The Stairs, or New Ghosts From Old Minds" (1986) Bradbury wrote that "The Jar" was

....the result of my being stunned at an encounter with a series of embryos on display in a carnival when I was twelve and again when I was fourteen. In those long-gone days of 1932 and 1934, we children knew nothing, of course, absolutely nothing about sex and procreation. So you can imagine how astounded I was when I prowled through a free carnival exhibit and saw all those fetuses of humans and cats and dogs, displayed in labeled jars. I was shocked by the look of the unborn dead, and the new mysteries of life they caused to rise up in my head later that night and all through the years. I never mentioned the jars and the formaldehyde fetuses to my parents. I knew I had stumbled on some truths which were better not discussed.

All of this surfaced, of course, when I wrote "The Jar," and the carnival and the fetal displays and all the old terrors poured out of my fingertips into my typewriter. The old mystery had finally found a resting place, in a story.

On the interview CD for the 2001 re-issue of Dark Carnival Bradbury specifically refers to an exhibit he saw in 1934 at Ocean Park (presumably Pacific Ocean Park, Santa Monica.

 

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Page updated 11 August, 2009