Posted November 5, 2012 by Edward Boff in Films
 
 

The Alfred Hitchcock Collection


By Edward Boff – “Good Eve-erning” With over fifty films, many commonly held up as all-time classics

By Edward Boff

“Good Eve-erning” With over fifty films, many commonly
held up as all-time classics, and a well remembered TV series under his belt,
it’s no wonder that Alfred Hitchcock has been one of, if not the, most
influential filmmaker of the 20th century.
Now, for Universal’s 100th anniversary, when there are two
biopics of him on the way and during a special re-release run organised by the
BFI, the studios’ released all the films of his they have the rights to onto
Blu-ray in a bumper box set. Let’s
take a look at this selection that shows why he’s commonly called the Master of
Suspense…

Saboteur

Hitchcock’s first film for Universal was this 1942 WW2 propaganda piece. A factory worker (Robert Cummings) is framed for sabotage and goes on the run to find
the real men responsible. The
basic plot outline is in many ways almost a trans-Atlantic remake of The 39 Steps and the melodramatic
message about America and being ever vigilante for her safety isn’t exactly
subtle. But we can see many of Alfred’s mastery of building tension and
humorous touches here, such as in one scene of the hero finding sanctuary while
trying to hide his handcuffs. It
builds to a thrilling climax atop the Statue of Liberty; this use of an
American landmark and the film’s chase format would later turn up again in North-by-Northwest. Bonus points also
should be given for the villains of the piece being very fleshed out characters
and not the usual sneering Nazi stereotypes that such wartime fare would become
over populated with. 3/5

Shadow of a Doubt

This is said to be Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite of his own works and one of the
first times he would delve into the psychology of his antagonist. Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) is delighted that her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) has come to stay with
her and the family but he’s soon acting odd, like he’s got something to
hide. But whatever it is can’t be
that bad… can it? This one
doesn’t have the same sort of thrill a minute pacing of other Hitchcock films,
it’s far more of a character study.
However, when you have a character arc as tragic as that of Young
Charlie, a menacing presence such as Uncle Charlie and two excellent leads at
work in those roles, that’s not a bad thing! It may seem more than a bit slow to a modern audience but
the moral dilemmas towards the end, with a situation that has no easy solution,
makes for compelling viewing. 4/5

Rope

The first film Hitchcock shot in Technicolor, this is notable for the
unusual technique of having the story take place in real time and shot to look
like one continuous take. Two young
men (John Dall
and Farley Granger), based on
a very Nietzschean worldview, commit the murder of a friend for the sheer
thrill of it. Confident they won’t
get caught, they hold a dinner party right on top of the body’s hiding
place. However, an old teacher of
theirs (James Stewart
; the first
of four films with Hitchcock) suspects something’s amiss… Based on a stage play, Rope
shows the director truly in his
stride, with a lot of very deliberate choices to maximise the tension. Many peoples’ estimates on how well the
“one take” approach works varies but it rarely gets in the way of the
story, which does grab one’s attention from the word go (almost literally the
first thing we see after the credits is the murder itself!). Also many have suggested it has an
interesting homosexual subtext, which to dare to have in the background in the
Hays Code days was quite a bold move.
However you view these points it’s still a neat thriller with strong
performances that has influenced more than a few other works over the years (Psychoville
had a whole
episode as a tribute!). 5/5

Rear Window:

Now we’re into the truly legendary
stuff! Photographer Jeffries
(James Stewart again!) is trapped in his flat with a broken leg, spending his
time watching his neighbours. Thing
is, he soon comes to believe from his observations that one of them (Raymond Burr) may have murdered his
wife. All shot in one elaborate
set to ensure perfect control over light and visibility, voyeurism and spying
are the themes here. In many ways,
it asks questions about the act of watching films, namely the concept of
viewing other, potentially more interesting lives “safely” at a
distance, where we can look and feel but not get involved. This is why the final act of the film,
as the characters we’ve previously seen inside the flat, and those outside the
titular window, start interacting it is so thrilling, as it shows Jeffries’
personal “fourth wall” being broken! That’s just one reason why this thriller is not only considered
one of Hitchcock’s best but why it’s been parodied and paid tribute to so many
times (such as the recent, erm, “homage” Disturbia) that the name itself is a trope to describe the
concept! 5/5

The Trouble with Harry:

Hitchcock didn’t just do thrillers you know; he also made this charming (if a
little dark) comedy, which was unfortunately at the time a flop at the US Box
Office, probably because audiences weren’t expecting something like this from him. The titular Harry, as the film opens,
is dead. Unfortunately, his body
causes quite a few concerns for members of a small Vermont town, as many assume
they killed him, and aren’t sure how to deal with it. This one has “charm” running all the way through
it, with a tone on par to the best of Ealing Studios. The cast, from veteran Edmund
Gwenn
to Shirley MacLaine in her
screen debut, all bring to life a very deadpan and witty script with some great
running jokes. It’s also one of
the best Hitchcock films to sit back and look at; the Autumn- sorry, Fall-time
woodlands look gorgeous in old school Technicolor. 4/5

The Man Who Knew Too
Much:

This one’s a direct remake of
Hitchcock’s own 1934 film, and the Master himself said he preferred this
version. A couple (Doris Day and James Stewart yet again)
on holiday in Marrakesh, end up getting a dying spy’s last message, about an
imminent assassination in London.
But soon after another message comes for them; tell anyone about it, and
their son dies! Another more slow
burn tension piece with a globetrotting element; going from Morocco to
England. It’s not Hitchcock’s
best, but it does have a truly stand out sequence towards the end at the Royal
Albert Hall, which cleverly uses and showcases his frequent collaborator,
composer Bernard Hermann. Also on music, of special note is the
song “Qué Será, Será” (“Whatever will be, will be”) that
was written especially for Doris Day here. 3/5

Vertigo:

In a recent Sight and Sound poll, this surpassed Citizen Kane for the title of
“Greatest Movie Ever Made”.
It’s hard to argue with that; from the Saul Bass opening with Bernard Herrmann’s incredible score, you
know immediately you’re in for something special! San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson
(James Stewart for the last time!) has left the force, after an incident that’s
left him with extreme acrophobia.
But an old friend has called him in to play detective once more; he says
his wife’s behaviour is odd, almost like one possessed… So begins an
incredible mind-game of a story, both for Scottie and the audience. There’s so much to discuss; from
Stewart and Kim Novak‘s chemistry,
to the ongoing themes of identity and obsession with the past, to the amazing
twists and turns the plot takes!
This truly is Hitchcock’s magnum opus and a landmark in motion picture
history. Its legacy extends to
technical matters too; this film popularised the Dolly Zoom camera move,
sometimes simply called the Vertigo Effect. Honestly, the whole set’s worth the price just for this one
alone! 5/5

Psycho:

No
matter how good all the others mentioned here are (especially Vertigo!), this is the one Hitchcock will
always be remembered for. One of few
incursions into outright horror and a micro-budgeted affair done with the team
from his TV series, it’s gone on to lay the foundations of an entire sub-genre!
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), in a moment of desperation and temptation, steals
some money from her employers. But
her plans for it are thoroughly derailed after stopping at the Bates
Motel…

The
main problem Psycho has is nothing
to do with the film itself. The
fact is, after 50 years, the two big surprises that shocked audiences back in
the day are public knowledge; hell, the DVD has one of them on the cover! So even if you know where it’s going,
does it still hold up? Absolutely. It’s a fascinating storyline, has huge
amounts of atmosphere, Bernard Herrmann’s most imitated score, and a legendary
performance by Anthony Perkins that
(for better or worse) would define his career from then on. Even the few missteps in the final act
(including a ridiculously anticlimactic epilogue explaining the entire back
story in an info-dump) can be forgiven for one of the most chilling final
scenes and shots of a film, ever.
This well deserves to be a milestone film and not just for it featuring
the first toilet flushing on screen in an American film! (True story) 5/5

The Birds:

Another trip into more horrific
territory, The Birds was also
another way that terror was dragged out of the realm of the gothic and firmly
into the real here and now. As it
starts out, it looks like socialite Melanie Daniels’ (Tippi Hedren) trip to see lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in small town Bodega Bay is
more the stuff of screwball comedy. But soon the increasing threat of birds
turning against humanity invades that story, emphasising the sheer
inexplicability and shock of what’s happening. Hitchcock uses every trick to build the tension and
anticipation of their attacks, including elaborate sound design and use of
their calls, to establish them even in various quiet scenes as ever
present. To also have a major
studio film that ends on such a near apocalyptic note (in a finale that’s more
than a little similar to that of Night
of the Living Dead
) at the time this was made, only Hitch could’ve got away
with that. Inspiring many others
over the years, from the sublime to the ridiculous (as in the recently infamous
Birdemic), The Birds, though it takes its time to get going, is a true ever-growing
nightmare of an experience. 5/5

Marnie:

Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) has a number of issues in her life, the most
serious of which is a kleptomaniacal streak. Her next target however is businessman Mark Rutland (Sean Connery
), who not
only proves to be more than a match for her but may also lead her to discover
long buried home truths. This is
kind of a tough one to look at. On
the one hand, the psychological and openly Freudian aspects of the study of
Marnie’s character are well ahead of their time. On the other, when you get down to it, this is a film with
two pretty unlikeable lead characters.
Marnie, despite what’s revealed as a sympathetic back story, is a
compulsively lying, manipulative thief, while Rutland is pretty much a sexual
bully for a lot of the story. In
terms of gender politics, this one has aged really badly and the slow pace
doesn’t help matters. Good ideas
here and there but it’s a bit of a chore to sit through. 2/5

Torn Curtain:

Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) is concerned about her
fiancée Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul
Newman
). Sure his latest
project didn’t go well but is defecting over to East Berlin really a reasonable
response? Or is there something
else going on… Having gone from
WWII to the Cold War, Hitchcock shows a fine flair for this kind of espionage
drama (fun fact; he was first choice to direct From Russia with Love!).
There are lots of tension sequences that have Alfred’s fingerprints all
over them, especially once it becomes clear what Armstrong’s really doing there. One stand-out moment is a fight scene
that shows how surprisingly hard it can be to kill someone in a hurry! The one main problem is the leads;
they’re not bad, just kind of miscast and don’t have the sort of chemistry
really needed for their story arc.
3/5

Topaz:

Taking place in the events leading
up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, this follows French agent Andre Deveraux (Frederick Stafford) with his
involvement with the Americans in gathering the intelligence… and how it
leads to the discovery of a Soviet spy ring. This one, while it does have an intriguing storyline, and shows
the very cut throat world of Cold War espionage, does have its problems. Apparently, the script was still being
written during filming, which would explain quite a lot. The story is a huge, sprawling thing,
with the ending, when you look back on the beginning, may have you going
“wait; how the heck did we get from there to here?”. Also, many of the subplots, such as the
last hour’s take on Tinker Tailor
Soldier Spy
a few year’s early, could have been expanded into whole plots
on their own merits and be a bit more satisfactory. Despite this, it has interesting characters, good acting,
and if you love this kind of proper spy story, it’s well worth a look. 3/5

Frenzy:

Hitch’s back in Blighty for this
seedy London-based serial killer thriller. Richard Blaney (Jon
Finch
), is not having a good time of it; he’s lost his job, missed out
winning big on the horses… and now the Police think he’s the sex murderer
that’s been terrorizing the city!
This is reason this box-set’s got an 18 rating, this definitely has
Hitchcock pushing the envelope in a lot of ways, including an early,
particularly disturbing, even by today’s standards, rape and murder scene. That said, there are several times the
film uses quiet to full effect, and there are typically darkly comic touches,
including an extended sequence where the murderer realises he’s made a major
mistake after hiding the latest victim.
This isn’t for the faint of heart but it does have great use of London
locations and a witty script from Anthony
“The Wicker Man” Shaffer
.
4/5

Family Plot:

Hitchcock’s final film would be this comedic thriller about two criminal
couples; one petty and one not-so petty.
Phony Psychic Blanche (Barbara Harris
) and long
suffering boyfriend George (Bruce Dern
) are
looking for a lost heir to a fortune by decidedly non-spiritual means. Jewel thieves and kidnappers Fran (Karen Black
) and Arthur
(William Devane
) have made
a career out of fooling the FBI and others. How they all meet is an example of what can be termed
“car crash plotting”.
You can sort of see that they will all collide, you’re just not sure
when or who’ll be alive and in what shape by the end but you can’t look
away. It’s not Hitchcock’s most visually
impressive, nor is it a grand send off to such a long and distinguished
career. However, it is definitely
a very well crafted little thriller that’s worth a watch for strong
performances and clever dialogue (some ad-libbed by the cast!). 3/5

The Blu-Ray Edition

All the films in
this set truly benefit from the step-up to high-definition, if only for it
making the “Where’s Wally”-esque task of spotting the director’s
cameos in the films easier. Most
of the films look fine, though with some unavoidable grain, given their age
(oddly, it’s the most recent one, Family Plot, that has the worst grain
problems). Rope is probably the one that
looks the most… erm, Ropey, but that’s mainly down to the early three-strip
Technicolor source material than the remastering process. Vertigo’s picture quality in particular
must be praised, although that’s partially because it’s a 70mm film that
already received a hefty restoration job in the 90s. Also, this release means that we finally have The Birds
and Marnie over here in their proper aspect ratios, as the previous region
2 DVD releases were in pan-&-scan.

There’s
a real wealth of special features, from retrospectives involving many great
filmmakers, commentaries, documentaries, featurettes from the time and (really
good!) episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents! The actual box-set of the limited edition version is the
final and perhaps most impressive selling point. It comes with lots of hard copy supplementary materials like
art cards, sketches of costumes and set floor plans (like those of the Bates’
house and the tower from Vertigo), and copies of Hitchcock’s own
correspondence. It’s all set in a large
bound hardback book the discs fit into, which may make this the first coffee
table edition Blu-Ray set.

Hitchcock
is seen as a legend within the industry for extremely good reason. Not only have so many of his films have
had massive impacts, entering the pop culture effortlessly, they, for the most
part, have withstood the test of time.
Some may seem a bit overlong or padded to a modern audience, but what
works well in these really works
well. If you love these films
already, there’s more than enough in this set to justify the upgrade. If you haven’t and truly enjoy cinema,
you have no excuse for not picking this set up. The last word shall go to Alfred himself; “A lot of movies
are about life, mine are like a slice of cake”.


Edward Boff