Sunday, January 19, 2014

TC Television Review: The Top Five Episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, by Amber Doll Diaz. Ep. 5 - 'The Jar'

A Review of “The Jar”, Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
Amber Doll Diaz

Episode title - “The Jar
Director – Norman Lloyd
Series - The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
Broadcast date - 14 February 1964
Teleplay by - James Bridges
Based on - “The Jar” by Ray Bradbury
First print appearance - Weird Tales November 1944

Good Evening. Within the first five minutes of this popular installment of Alfred Hitchcock Hour entitled “The Jar”, you will suppose you are witnessing an account which merely pries at the mystery of a grim sideshow extraordinaire. Instead, it assumes a much more psychosomatic cast as it chronicles the nightmarish realities of a simple country life unexamined, a marriage not infallible, and the death of innocence. Originally penned by Ray Bradbury, and featured in Weird Tales in November of 1944, “The Jar” was later reprinted in Hitchcock’s anthology Fear and Trembling in October 1963. Without surprise, the episode garnered teleplay writer James Bridges an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Adapted Drama the same year. Lacking the win, “The Jar” regardless remains stellar in its effectiveness, certainly rivaling even the best of The Twilight Zone, a deservedly decorated feat all on its own.

Charlie Hill, played by Pat Buttram, is a discontented jellyfish of a Southerner who seems Faustian in his willingness to bargain for his deep rooted desires. Craving the admiration of his peers and the reigniting of his perforated marriage to the attractive but vain and insolent Thedy, Charlie makes an unusual purchase while visiting the carnival near his home. A sign there reads, “The Magic Jar... What Is It?” and thus he happens upon a standard mason jar, filled with inky water, which houses a strange amorphous creature. The glossy, seemingly tentacled, unearthly-eyed being within is indiscernible, captivating all who come into contact with it- including the viewer. Charlie convinces the sideshow barker to sell it to him for twelve dollars.

Many of the townsfolk and neighbors Charlie shares his simple life with are entranced, and flock to his home by nightfall to have a fellowship centered on guessing what exactly is in the jar. In an interesting plot point, each citizen gazes into its ghoulish waters and begin to vent while projecting their own personal misfortunes, fears and sorrows upon the jar. For a time it is something therapeutic for all who attend, especially Charlie, who is grateful and relishes his find, but not for the jealous and disgusted Thedy, who fumes in a corner.

This disturbing, atmospheric episode featured a fairly impressive cast, with Collin Wilcox (1935-2009) playing Thedy, the cunning, self-involved young wife of Charlie Hill, and who very deservedly becomes the episode’s “center of attention”. Collin Wilcox is remembered largely by fans of the iconic The Twilight Zone episode “The Number 12 Looks Just Like You”, but instantly recognized by myself as the young actress who portrayed Mayella Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). A truly convincing and capable actress, and by golly, she sure did have a knack for playing conniving southern tarts!

Much like the backwoods low-life social commentary of Stephen King’s first novel Salem’s Lot, "The Jar" affords viewers a glimpse into the existence of darkness in prosaic men. Evil often goes hand-in-hand with banality, be it a lifestyle or mindset. Charlie and Thedy lead lives of such uneducated mundanity and longing, which ultimately drives them hellwards. Fans of Hitchcock seeking their noir fix will delight in the star-crossed pair’s mutual internal corruption as well as the deep disillusionment Charlie feels – a function of his lowly communal standing.

“The Jar” is a masterwork of character development, but mostly where it doesn't really count. It seems the more minor townspeople were given further reflective monologues than the three leads, including a cringe-worthy scene in which a character sinks in quicksand while a slave-like farm hand drones on and on about what he believes the innards of the jar to be, rather than assisting the victim at hand. I am certain this was meant to be an attempt at generating suspense, but it more irritated than captured me. Not to impugn his work too harshly, but perhaps if Hitchcock had directed in place of Norman Lloyd, (a fantasy, I know, with only 17 out of 268 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes directed by him, and but one Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode: “I Saw The Whole Thing” starring John Forsythe) this scene might have properly intensified the overall tension.

On a side note, happily I have found through research that the actual jar prop remains perfectly intact (albeit dusty) and never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting upon a collector’s nightstand. In my estimation, Bradbury's original short story is a crowning achievement of psychological horror, and supersedes this adaptation in terms of excellence as more than a matter of principle. I remain spellbound by his nebulously twisted imagery and often philosophical ability to describe a physical object of horror. However “The Jar”, when re-published in his 1955 collection The October Country was tossed to and fro by contemporary reviewers. The critical reception of the story was polarized when articulated by Carlos Baker for the New York Times, who harshly cataloged Bradbury as “a gifted writer making a play for the designation of the poor man's Poe…” and with Time Magazine calling him “the arrived monster-monger” and “fit replacement for August Derleth, eldritch statesman of the well-informed witchlover”. Typically I’d begin to lead you astray, Reader, with my absolute opinion on the silly matter of “replacements” for August Derleth, but for you I shall leave that door ajar.

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