6 times the Master of Suspense spun Roald Dahl stories on Alfred Hitchcock Presents
James Bond even plays a secret role in their collaborations.
Although Roald Dahl's biggest hits may be his children's books, fans of the writer know he had another side darker than the pit of his famous giant peach. In the 1970s, Dahl's horrifying short stories - published in top magazines like The New Yorker and Harper's Bazaar - came to TV through the British series Tales of the Unexpected, which Dahl himself created. But before that series was even a thought lurking in the prolific writer's twisted head, Alfred Hitchcock brought Dahl's chills to the small screen first.
On Alfred Hitchcock Presents, there are six episodes based on stories by Roald Dahl. These episodes were so important to Hitchcock that he directed four of the six himself. The first episode aired in 1958 in the Hitchcock series' third season, "Lamb to the Slaughter," and Hitchcock directed that, as well as the next two, "Dip in the Pool" and the particularly creepy "Poison." Hitchcock, of course, also directed the episode based on one of Dahl's most well-known stories, the deliciously vindinctive "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat."
The fourth Dahl story to be woven into Hitchcock's TV world was "Man from the South," directed by Norman Lloyd, the actor who came up in Orson Welles' theater company whom Hitchcock cast in his movies, then made producer of his famous series. The only other Dahl episode, "The Landlady," was directed by Paul Heinreid, the actor who played Victor Laszlo in Casablanca who later went on to direct TV and movies, including a thriller starring Bette Davis. These were some of Hitchcock's strongest collaborators, and he pulled them in to do justice to Dahl's quirky brand of horror that had so inspired the famous Master of Suspense.
Here, we look back on this meeting of the morose minds to celebrate the unique collision of Dahl and Hitchcock through stories they told that we enjoyed on one of TV's most enduringly sinister rides, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
1. The Landlady
What happens in the episode: A man (Dean Stockwell) accepts a job and moves to a new town known for rising crime, specifically burglaries. He finally finds a room in a house with a landlady (Patricia Collinge) who he assumes is senile. Soon, he quickly finds it odd he never sees any of the other tenants the landlady mentions live there.
Roald Dahl first published his short story “The Landlady” in The New Yorker in 1959. His version has a slightly different twist than the Hitchcock episode, perhaps because Hitchcock wanted more chills onscreen. Dahl himself edited his own story to change the ending on an impulse, too. This story represented Dahl’s only attempt at writing a ghost story – a goal he never achieved – and in the end, he couldn’t commit to his supernatural ending, so he shifted it to reveal a horrifying secret instead.
2. Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat
What happens in the episode: Mrs. Bixby has been lying to her dentist husband. She travels to Baltimore twice a month to visit a lover, not her elderly aunt. When her lover breaks things off in a note with a gifted fur coat, Mrs. Bixby wants to keep the coat and comes up with a scheme to do so without her husband getting too suspicious. When her plan fails, dark comedy ensues.
This Dahl gem first appeared in 1959 in the men’s magazine Nugget. It’s since been turned into intriguing episodes of television three times, by Hitchcock in 1960, featuring Audrey Meadows as Mrs. Bixby, then in 1965 Shelley Winters took the role on a lost episode of Thirty-Minute Theatre, and finally in 1979, the award-winning actress Julie Harris became the final Mrs. Brixby we saw on TV on Dahl’s British series Tales of the Unexpected.
3. Man from the South
What happens in the episode: Steve McQueen stars as a gambler who makes a foolish bet against Peter Lorre’s character Carlos. Carlos bets his new car that the gambler that he won’t be able to flick his cigarette lighter and get it to flame 10 times in a row. The gambler bets his pinky finger if he can’t. Guess who wins?
“Man from the South” is much older than the other stories we saw on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Dahl first published it in 1948, in that pioneering American magazine, Colliers. It was one of the episodes remade for the 1985 reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, this time with Scarface’s Steven Bauer as the gambler and John Huston as Carlos. The reboot episode also featured Hitchcock muses Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak, as well as Melanie Griffith.
What happens in the episode: A man turns over in bed to discover a venomous snake, curled up and sleeping ominously in his sheets.
“Poison” is another Roald Dahl story readers devoured first in the pages of Collier, published in 1950. It became a radio play before Hitchcock got behind the camera to direct it as an episode on his show in 1958. It’s one of Dahl’s most underrated eerie stories, with a creepy reveal that demonstrates sometimes what’s toxic are the poisonous ideas we allow to fester in our heads.
5. Dip in the Pool
What happens in the episode: A man on a cruise cannot resist his nature as a compulsive gambler to enter a betting pool. The bet: Who can guess how many miles the ship will go in the next 24 hours. The man tosses in his life’s saving because he believes he can cheat the bet, learning the ship has been slowed due to bad weather, but when the weather clears and the ship speeds up, he befriends an old woman on the deck, who he expects to call alarm, when he desperately decides to jump overboard to fix the bet.
This is another Dahl story torn from The New Yorker, published in 1952 and featured in a 1958 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, then again in a 1979 episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Its ending is the sort of pure macabre poetry you can only get from Dahl, where a man with a demented/irrational idea suffers death because he doesn’t realize [spoiler alert] that the casual onlooker he’s chosen as his would-be savior, in fact, has dementia.
6. Lamb to the Slaughter
What happens in the episode: A dedicated housewife loses her mind when her police chief husband announces he’s leaving her. She murders him with a leg of lamb, then when the police, all friends of her husband, arrive to investigate his untimely death, she lies. Unable to find the murder weapon, the police dine on the leg of lamb dinner the lovely housewife has prepared.
This is the most humorous Dahl-Hitchcock collaboration, and it was also the first to air in 1958. It was a story famously rejected by The New Yorker, then scooped up by Harper’s Bazaar in 1953, but here’s something that’s even cooler than that silly snub. The creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming, is the one who came up with the idea, and Dahl penned it based on his suggestion.