Many of Alfred Hitchcock's early films have fallen into the public domain and as such, like many so called public domain titles, they've been released and re-released multiple times by shady budget labels that can't be bothered to restore the films properly or put any effort into their releases. Lion's Gate, working with re-mastered versions of five of Hitchcock's early movies from Studio Canal, has compiled the first official DVD release of some of this material in the North American market proving that a quality transfer can make all the difference in the world. While some of this material is considered lesser Hitchcock, seeing them presented properly dose at least allow fans the chance to re-evaluate these movies and to appreciate the atmosphere and the tone that the director infused even his lesser known titles with.
The Ring (1927):
Jack Saunders (Carl Brisson) is a boxer who is known by his nickname, 'One Round' for his tendency to take down all comers in one round. He works the carnival circuit, challenging anyone who wants to take a shot at him. He's in love with a woman named Mabel (Lillian Hall Davis), who sells tickets at the carnival, but unfortunately, so is another boxer, an Australian fighter named Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Corby and his manager, James Ware (Forrester Harvey), don't tell Jack or the carnival barker that Corby is actually a champion in his homeland, instead they let him get into the ring with Jack who manages to go four rounds with Corby before he's knocked out.
When the fight is over, Jack is given the chance to train with Corby, which his own trainer encourages him to do. What Jack doesn't realize is that Corby has been getting closer and closer to Mabel behind his back. Regardless, Jack and Mabel soon go ahead with their wedding plans, but it isn't long before Jack starts to realize something is wrong. After all, his new wife seems far more interested in spending time with Corby than with him, and finally Jack confronts the other man. Jack decides to get in the ring and fight for Mabel, but he'll have to take out a few lower-rung opponents before getting his shot at Corby. He finally gets his chance to go one on one with Corby again and he wins the fight but when he goes home to enjoy his victory he finds that his wife isn't there waiting for him like he'd hoped...
While the somewhat predictable nature of the film keeps The Ring from being as suspenseful as it could have been, it's not a bad movie at all. The performances, which are silent obviously and communicated through body language and intertitles, are interesting to watch and you can definitely see Hitchcock sowing the seeds of things to come with the lighting and the use of shadows in the picture. The treatment of blacks in the movie might make some uncomfortable, and this film does reflect the time in which it was made, but there's enough here to make it worth a look for Hitchcock fans. Lion's Gate's packaging states this one is from 1928 though the title card clearly says 1927 on it. The match at the film's conclusion is quite well edited and considerably more tense than you might expect it to be.
The Manxman (1929):
The second silent film in this set (and the last one that the director would make) follows a fisherman named Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson) who lives on the Isle Of Man (hence the title). He's in love with a gorgeous woman named Kate Creegan (Anny Ondra) but unfortunately her father, Caesar (Randle Ayrton), doesn't consider him marriage material for his daughter as he just doesn't make enough money for his liking. What Pete isn't aware of is that his best friend, Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen), has also got his eyes on the pretty young blonde object of Pete's affections and seeing as Philip is a lawyer with a very strong future ahead of him, he might just stand a shot at appeasing her father's demands.
Pete decides that he's going to go off and work on a ship in order to earn some money and hopefully earn Caesar's approval and while he's gone, Philip and Kate fill their empty time by spending it with one another. They soon find out that Pete has been killed on the ship, and with this news, they decide to start seeing one another. This gets complicated for the two lovebirds when it turns out that Pete hasn't been killed after all – they learn this the hard way when he shows up back at home, and their fling soon ends. Pete convinces Kate's parents that he is marriage material after all and soon the two are wed and it doesn't take long at all before Kate finds herself pregnant. Unfortunately, Kate just can't get her mind off of Philip and after their child is born, she leaves the infant with Pete so that she can go be with Philip. But whose baby is it that she's left Pete to care for and what will happen to Philip's legal career if news of this scandal gets out?
The Manxman isn't the type of film that Hitchcock is known for. There are no murders, it's very low on suspense and it plays out as more of a soap opera than anything else. That being said, it's well made even if you can figure out where it's going fairly early on. The photography is excellent and if the ending doesn't come as the shocker that the director probably intended it to be, at least getting there is an enjoyable if unremarkable ride. The courtroom scene climax is handled exceptionally well, however, with some interesting camera work and it brings the film to a satisfactorily dramatic conclusion. Again, Lion's Gate's packaging states that this one was from 1930 though the title card says 1929.
The third film in the set follows Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a famous actor who served on the jury in the trial of an actress named Diana Baring (Norah Baring) who was found guilty of murdering another actress who worked in her touring company after she's found near the body shortly after the deed has been done. Upon her conviction she is sentenced to death, and this causes Menier to rethink his decision. When he starts to think that maybe she's not guilty beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt, he decides to take it upon himself to find out who the real murderer was so that he can clear her name and get her off of death row. Menier's guilt is compounded by the fact that he had previously rejected her for a part and instead recommended that she join the very touring company that got her into trouble in the first place so that she might gain some much needed experience.
Menier enlists the aid of Ted and Doucie Markham (played by Edward Chapman and Phyllis Konstam), the theater's manager and his wife, and the three of them head to the small town where the killing took place so that they can hopefully uncover some evidence and solve the case. After doing some digging they find out that a strange police officer was seen around the scene of the crime but they're not sure if it was a real cop or an actor with a costume on. A cigarette case provides a second clue and Menier decides to head to Baring's cell and try to get some information from her. She's unusually reluctant to help the man who is trying to save her life, and Menier soon comes to the conclusion that she's hiding something. She does, however, accidentally let Menier know that the cigarette case belongs to, and Menier starts to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
While Murder! is an important film from a historical perspective, it's also pretty slow. This was Hitchcock's third film to be made with sound and as such, the director was still experimenting with the technology and not all of these experiments work. That said, there are some really interesting moments in this movie, particularly in relation to Hitchcock's use of the theater as the location for his murder. The film, like most of his pictures, it very nicely shot and also quite well lit, and the performances are decent if a bit unremarkable. It's also interesting how Hitchcock's film allows the Menier character to ponder the case in his head, which we hear via narration, while he's shaving. It's also interesting to note that this film contains a common Hitchcockian plot in that it revolves around someone trying to prove the innocence of a person wrongly convicted for murder. When the real killer is finally revealed, it's done with a bit of flair and the motives given for the murder are reasonably interesting. In the end, Murder! is worth seeing more for its innovations than for its actual story but despite some slow bits it isn't as plodding it is often accused of being and the final scene in the circus is quite interesting.
The Skin Game (1931):
Another early Hitchcock film that's much more of a drama than a suspense picture, The Skin Game tells the story of John Hillcrist (C.V. France) and his wife Amy (Helen Haye) who own a nice home out in the English countryside. The family living next to them, the Jackmans, sell their farmland to an industrialist named Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn) who decides that he's going to use the land to build a factory on. Hornblower promptly kicks the Jackmans off of his land, negating the verbal agreement that he'd made, and begins planning his development of the area.
The Hillcrists are obviously not at all impressed with the idea of a massive smoke-belching factory going up right beside their quaint little home and so they bring their lawyer, Dawker (Edward Chapman), in to help. The Hillcrists dig up some dirt on Chloe (Phyliss Constam), Hornblower's daughter in law, and Amy is intent on using this information to sway Mr. Hornblower's decision. John, on the other hand, is more considerate and takes into account the fact that his own daughter, Jill (Jill Esmund), is rather sweet on Hornblower's youngest son Rolf (Frank Lawton). Regardless, Amy Hillcrist sets about trying to force Hornblower into selling back the land with some underhanded help from the family attorney, caring not for the consequences their actions might have.
A decent melodrama, The Skin Game ends on a rather down note which makes the interplay between the two sides involved in the conflict all the more interesting. Again, the picture is really well shot with plenty of loving care lavished upon the very striking Phyliss Constam who looks absolutely perfect, almost obsessively so, in every shot she appears in. Gwenn is quite good as the overtly capitalist Hornblower and the kinder Hillcrist character played by C. V. France makes an interesting contrast to his less considerate portrayal. The highlight of the film is the auction scene, which is very tightly edited and which makes use of some really interesting camera work to heighten tension and build the conflict between the two opposing sides. The film also plays up the moral questions that the story presents to the audience, and rather than casting obvious fingers at who is right and who is wrong, instead opts to let us make up our own minds.
Rich And Strange (1931):
The final film in the set is, again, more of a traditional drama than a mystery or suspense film but a few interesting Hitchcockian touches and an interesting script make it worth a look even for those who don't normally appreciate love stories.
Fred Hill (Henry Kendall) and his pretty, wide-eyed wife Emily (Joan Barry) have been married for a few years now and they're starting to get bored with their lives. Fred's job doesn't offer any solace, as he's an accountant and as such is stuck in a routine and he's also cursed with a long commute to and from the office each day. One day, things change for them when they receive a letter (we presume it tells them that they've received an inheritance) and they decide to board a cruise ship and head to France. Along the way, Fred gets very seasick. From there they check out some theater shows and drink a lot, squandering their money as if it were going out of style. They take another cruise, this time to the Asia, and again, Fred gets very seasick.
With her husband more or less stuck in their cabin dealing with his illness, Emily wanders around the boat and eventually catches the eye of the captain, Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont). It doesn't take long for Emily and Gordon to start kissing, though soon enough Fred comes across some medicine for his sickness and he too starts wandering around the boat where he meets a princess (Betty Amann). Fred, following in his wife's footsteps, strikes up a relationship with her and before the cruise comes to an end, both Fred and Emily are fed up with one another and ready to end their marriage to run off with their respective new flames. Soon, after hearing the truth about this supposed Princess, however, Emily has a change of heart but it might be too little too late...
A really unusual film in terms of pacing and plotting, Rich And Strange is really just strange. It takes a while before it gets to deal with the infidelity issues that the Hill's collectively face and when it all ends, you're left wondering what the point of it all was (though there are some obvious darkly humorous touches in here, showing that Hitchcock was at least trying).
The five films in this collection were all shot to be shown fullframe and so the 4x3 aspect ratio that they're presented in here looks correct. The transfers for this set have been sourced from the Studio Canal re-mastered editions and as such, they look pretty nice and they certainly trump prior budget and public domain DVD releases of these films. While there is a bit of print damage here and there as well as some scenes which look fairly grainy, for films that are over seventy-five years old these movies look much better than you'd probably think. Contrast looks nice and accurate and there is a lot more fine detail present in the picture than has been seen previously. There are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts nor is there any evidence of heavy edge enhancement. There's a bit of shimmer here and there and there are a few spots where the image flickers but aside from that, all five films look really nice in these restored transfers. Thankfully there don't appear to be any PAL conversion issues here and the transfers all look to be properly flagged for progressive scan playback.
The first two films in the set, The Ring and The Manxman, are silent but they're presented here with a musical score over top in nice Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks. The other three features are all 'talkies' and they're presented here in their original English language mixes in Dolby Digital Mono format. Optional subtitles are available across the board in English and Spanish and closed captioning for the hearing impaired is provided for the features in English only.
The musical scores, which accompany the two silent films, sound quite nice, while the films shot with sound also fare quite well. There is a bit of flatness to some of the dialogue here and there but for the most part everything comes through cleanly and clearly and there aren't any big problems with the background hiss that has plagued budget releases of these titles on DVD so far.
The only extra, aside from menus and chapter stops on each disc and for each feature, is a featurette entitled Pure Cinema: The Birth Of Hitchcock Style. Clocking in at roughly fifteen-minutes in length, this documentary covers Alfred Hitchcock's early and formative years in the film industry. It covers his relationship with Alma Reville, his wife, and how they worked together with various writers and how his style as a director developed fairly quickly. There are some interesting, if brief, interviews in here including spots with Professor Drew Casper, Peter Bogdonavich, film historian Steve Haberman and Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, that serve to flesh out some of the points made with plenty of clips from the films discussed used to give things some visual flare. While it certainly would have been nice to get some commentary tracks or maybe a longer featurette to accompany the five feature films in this collection, this short documentary does add some value to the set.
The films are spread across three DVDs which are housed inside a sturdy case made up to look like a notebook. This 'notebook case' in turn fits inside a slipcase, which contains a pictures of Hitchcock's grim visage on the front. Interestingly enough, the menus for this set are presented in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen.
While Hitchcock would go on to make better films than the five contained in this collection, there's no denying the importance of his early work and it's interesting to see how he got his start. Lion's Gate has done a nice job bringing the re-mastered versions of these films to DVD in North American and while the extras are lacking, the documentary is a nice touch. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.