THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
One of the best trends in the short history of DVD has been the total flooding of the marketplace with Alfred Hitchcock releases. No other director crossed so many eras and helped make so many advances in film history in such a big way. From silents straight through to the Seventies, Hitchcock proved that the director can truly be the author of a film. He crafted his films from top to bottom, storyboarding all of the essential action ahead of time and planning every last detail, from his leading ladies' hair color to every aspect of the advertising and marketing.
The final word these days, however, rests with the company that releases the films and it seems that just about everyone has taken a stab at Hitch. Criterion (The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps), Universal (Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds), and Warner Brothers (Strangers on a Train, North By Northwest) have released fantastic discs and Anchor Bay (Notorious, Rebecca) has offered bare-bones presentations of some excellent prints. Some of the more low-rent houses like Laserlight have offered up acceptable versions of some of Hitchcock's earliest work. Now, in an effort to mimic the long matinee shows of the good old days, Whirlwind Media has combined 1932's Rich and Strange and 1939's Jamaica Inn onto one disc, throwing in a newsreel and a cartoon for some nostalgic matinee viewing.
Rich and Strange is indeed a strange effort from the young master. Henry Kendall and Joan Barry play Fred and Emily, a middle class couple who long for adventure. They conveniently inherit some money from a not-quite-dead uncle and are off on a cruise to the Far East. On the cruise each falls in love with someone else, leading to some uncomfortable nights, a big fight in Singapore, and eventually a reconciliation aboard a sinking steamer and a Chinese junk that accidentally rescues the hapless couple. While not a thriller in the style Hitchcock later defined, Rich and Strange is entertaining for how bold it was. The moral may be that wealth corrupts us and makes us lose sight of what's important, but the bluntness of the adulterous relationships is surprising given the age of the film. Hitchcock is already manipulating the audience, drawing a distinction between the sweet and tender romance Emily and her lover develop, and the more simplistic way Fred falls for a "princess" who's less than she pretends to be.
Some of the techniques are surprising as well. Coming soon after the adoption of sound as a standard filmic device, Rich and Strange retains some of the qualities of silents, like scene introductions via intertitles, long wordless sequences that allow the camera more mobility than bulky early sound cameras, and the juxtaposition of images to tells a story rather than exposition. Some other techniques on display, however, point to an experimental streak that Hitchcock would never abandon: jump-cuts, lens effects, and, my favorite, a menu whose words literally fly off the page. As always, Hitchcock's adeptness with the setting scene is extraordinary. Anyone who commutes via public transportation can understand Fred's feelings in the claustrophobic opening sequence.
Jamaica Inn is the final film in Hitchcock's amazing British career. It comes right between the beloved The Lady Vanishes and the Oscar-winning Rebecca. While not quite as good as either of those films, Jamaica Inn shows Hitchcock staging elaborate action scenes. The film opens with another ship wreck, this time shot with the sophistication of any of today's MTV-raised action directors, with the sea thrashing and the boat smashing on jagged rocks. Set in the 19th Century, Jamaica Inn concerns a cove of pirates luring ships to their doom and then murdering the crew and stealing their valuables. The film features some big names including Maureen O'Hara, in her screen debut, as a young woman who discovers the secrets of the Jamaica Inn and tries to bring them to light. Charles Laughton gives a typically overly-affected performance. Hitchcock stated that Laughton was not a true professional but his appearances always carry a strange quality that makes him fascinating to watch. His portrayal of the corrupt local magistrate is classic. Jamaica Inn may not have been one of Hitchcock's favorite films (Rich and Strange, however, was) but it is still interesting to watch, especially as it bridges the two major phases of his career: Britain and Hollywood.
The disc also includes a cute cartoon called Yodeling Yokels and a newsreel featuring footage from Germany's invasion of Poland, Lou Gerhig's famous "luckiest man" speech, and the Atlanta premiere of Gone With The Wind, which was released the same year as Jamaica Inn.
The picture quality of Rich and Strange, the older picture, far exceeds that of Jamaica Inn. After some initial dirt and scratches the sharp image develops a nice contrast, with rich blacks and greys. It may be cropped a bit too much but it's hard to tell. Jamaica Inn, on the other hand, has the yellowish tint of a poorly stored print. The image is blurry and a little dark. The print of Yodeling Yokels is terrible, cropped drastically and very blurry. The newsreel looks good, although the quality does vary a bit by sequence.
The mono audio track varies from film to film. Rich and Strange is not too bad, a bit tough to decipher at times, but acceptable, especially considering the film is nearly Seventy years old. Jamaica Inn, again, is not as good. Dialog is definitely difficult to understand. The box claims that the sound is Dolby Digital but there is no mistaking the age of the elements.
There are no Hitchcock related extras. There are, however, two feature films and two short subjects crammed on this disc for a retail price of under $20, so I guess the presentation is an extra in and of itself. The disc allows you to watch all of the films together without any interruption from menus, for full matinee feel.
Other Hitchcock reviews:
These films are not as central to the Hitchcock legend as, say, The 39 Steps or Psycho, so it's doubtful that we'll see deluxe versions from Criterion or Anchor Bay any time soon. While we await the release of Rear Window, however, they are definitely worth watching for anyone, whether they just discovered Hitchcock on DVD or have been fans all their lives.
The Trouble with Harry
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 2
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 3
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 4
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org