Here I was so looking forward to reviewing Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), the long running anthology series hosted (and, occasionally, directed) by the Master of Suspense himself, in a set of First Season DVDs being released today by Universal Studios Home Video.
Imagine, 39 half-hour shows, and on just three DVDs yet! I settled down to watch "Revenge," the very first of 266 episodes shot over seven successful seasons, this one starring Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly) and Vera Miles (Psycho, The Searchers), and directed by Hitchcock himself. Though I'd seen most of the Hitch-directed episodes, somehow this one had passed me by up to now.
But here I was, at last enjoying a gorgeous black and white transfer, without the annoying time-compression and myriad commercials that had marred cable television airings of the show in the 1980s and '90s. Yep, classic Hitchcock I note. First several minutes unspool almost entirely visually, with a minimum of dialogue. Clever man, that Hitchcock - first episode and within minutes he shows a couple in bed making out, and soon thereafter Vera Miles, still very young, sunbathing in what in 1955 constituted racy swimwear. Shrewd. Probably won its timeslot. Wait. Smoke in their trailer home. Where's Vera? Is she dead?
And then it happened.
My Sony DVD player jams. Can't read the DVD properly. Everything gets cubey. Image freezes. No sweat, I say. I'll just stick this in DVD player #2. Yes, everything fine again. For about 90 seconds. Desperate, I turned to DVD player #3. Universal's DVD really doesn't like that player. Won't even play up to the point where the other two players did. I have to pull the plug out of the wall before I can get the DVD out of the machine.
Three strikes, you're out.
Okay, so here's the deal. I don't expect every DVD ever manufactured to play in every DVD player devised by man. Similarly, I don't expect every one out there plunking down $39.98 SRP for Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be expected to have an unending supply of DVD players so that they can work their way through player after player to find one that'll play the discs properly. Note to Universal: most people make do with just one DVD player. A DVD from a major label should play on most machines without any problems.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. It's happened again and again to consumers buying Universal's "Monster Legacy" sets, and other titles where too much movie or too many TV shows are crammed onto double-sided DVD-18s. It happened to me in the middle of Black Friday, a film on the label's Bela Lugosi Collection, and again on Volume 3 of The Best of Abbott & Costello. A thousand minutes plus extras, plus subtitles plus several minutes of ads -- these, of course, play just fine -- is apparently more information than DVD technology was meant to comfortably handle.
Angry consumers, understandably peeved with this problem time and again, are venting all over the Internet, but to date Universal has been pretty unresponsive to the problem. If they want to respond here I'll happily amend this review.
Ultimately, once bitten, twice shy, so says the old adage. When one episode or movie is spoiled halfway through, it's no fun to skip over several minutes of unplayable footage (if you can skip over it; often you can't even do that)*, and then sit there, blood boiling, expecting it to freeze up again at any moment.
What's the point in making these movies and TV shows available if, part of the time, they're not playable? I don't have figures at my disposal, but based on my own, personal experiences and those of friends and of strangers I've read across the Internet, it seems reasonable to estimate that perhaps as many as 50% of these sets freeze up at least once. That's too much. Whatever happened to quality control? Surely Universal was aware of the problem early on, and unquestionably knows about it now. What are they going to do about it?
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as I remember it, is a good show. A boxed set with all 39 first season episodes is welcome. But in good conscience, after experiencing major jamming problems on three different players, after a history of similar problems with other Universal DVD-18s, this reviewer cannot advise consumers to "take a chance" on a product that very possibly won't work on their DVD player at home. No, good as Alfred Hitchcock Presents is, my advice is to Skip It.
*Episodes on these discs are without chapter stops, so skipping ahead isn't a viable option.
UPDATE: Angry Consumers Respond
DVD Talk Readers have responded to this review with an unusually high degree of commiseration. Here's what some of them are saying:
"I too have been burned once again. The first time with Universal was American Dreams....The second was on Emergency....I just got the Alfred Hitchcock set today and the second disc was a floater and scratched....It played fine until the fourth episode, "Shopping for Death," and 15 minutes into the show it froze, paused, skipped and locked up. When I got the disc out and put it back in it didn't even get through the universal logo without pixilating this time. Anyway, I am mad!"
"It's bad enough to have to speed through the Hammer Collection, the Legacy discs, the A&C Collections, etc, before it's too late to return them, often enough not enjoying the films at all, for fear of what might happen, unable to watch at one's leisure, but I will not do that with 39 episodes of a great series. I skipped the Lugosi and I'll skip this now -- either they can get it right or I'll just let it go. The anxiety is not worth it."
"I had the exact same problem with my set of Adam-12 DVDs that I got for my birthday. I emailed Universal about it, and cited the fact that Amazon.com readers had the exact same problem on the exact same episode -- and Universal sent me an email saying they hadn't heard of any problem and didn't bother to send me a replacement or anything. There's got to be someone in charge that people can complain directly to."
"[Your review] puts my frustration and disappointment with Universal's recent DVD-18 releases into perfect form....I was looking forward to this title, American Gothic, and The Munsters, but with this track record I'll spend my money elsewhere. What is even more interesting is that, according to others, Netflix has single sided DVD-9s of [other Universal titles]. How come consumers weren't given that choice?...Mad as hell and not taking it anymore."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.