The Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection boxed set packages up five established classics from 'The Master Of Suspense' in one handy boxed set, which is all well and good, but aside from the packaging it brings nothing new to the table. So basically, this is a reissue, which is fine for those who don't already have the movies in this set but probably irritating to collector's who might want the inserts but who likely already own the movies. Regardless, the set is what it is, so here's a look:
Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer named Jeff Jeffries who injures his leg while shooting a car race. As such, he's basically stuck in his Manhattan apartment until he heals and gets well enough to get back in the game. Without much else to occupy his time, Jeffries starts peering out his window, watching his neighbors as they go about their business - and then he spies what he thinks is a man killing his wife. Unable to get out of his apartment to investigate himself, he brings in some help from his model girlfriend Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) and a nurse named Stella (Thelma Ritter) to help uncover the truth about what he thinks he's seen.
An amazingly voyeuristic film, Rear Window does an excellent job of putting us right in there with Jeffries as he spots everything from 'Miss Lonelyheart' (Judith Evelyn) kicking her man out of her apartment and subsequently reacting to what she's just done to a certain resident scrubbing the walls of his apartment - something mundane that in Hitchcock's more than capable hands becomes something sinister indeed. When the camera cuts, it's to show us a character's reaction, and it's this rhythm that the film hits which inevitably pulls us in - action, then reaction, until the plot has got us hook, line and sinker and we know we're in it for the long haul.
Front and center in all of this is Stewart as Jeffries. As he adjusts to his temporary setback, we too are stuck with him and as such, we are basically forced to watch him slowly but surely begin to obsess over things. His interaction with his girlfriend, played with an interesting feistiness by the gorgeous Grace Kelly, is well played and Thelma Ritter is great as the nurse. Supporting work from none other than Raymond Burr and Wendell Corey round out the cast well, with Burr deserving a bit more credit than he usually seems to get whenever this picture is discussed. His part is an important one and he's very good in it.
Ultimately a movie that is just as interesting for what it did in terms of cinematic technique as it was for the story and the acting, Rear Window remains a fascinating movie and an incredibly well made picture that truly stands the test of time.
Hitchcock would cast Stewart again in Vertigo, this time as an acrophobic San Francisco detective named John Ferguson, or as his friends call him, Scottie. Now retired, Scottie is approached by an old friend of his named Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his beautiful blonde wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak) as he suspects that she may be very quickly losing her sanity and as such may wind up putting her own life in danger. Apparently she believes that she's possessed by the spirit of a dead relative, her great grandmother, a claim that Scottie takes with a grain of salt and initially he has no interest in the case - until he gets a look at Madeleine, at which point he can't help but agree to take it on.
As Scottie tails his subject, sure enough Gavin's suspicions turn out to be correct and he sees her throw herself into the bay. Soon he becomes increasingly obsessed with her, and things get even more unusual when he meets Judy Barton (Kim Novak again), a dead ringer for the woman he can't get out of his mind. Scottie tries to make Judy into Madeleine as his obsessions become all consuming.
A fascinating thriller that works in some clever supernatural trappings into a storyline that, on the surface at least, seems like a pretty conventional tale of mystery and murder, Vertigo is a very deliberately paced film that waits until about two thirds into the movie to really ramp things up - but until that point we're so interested in what's happening that we don't mind so much at all. With camerawork cleverly putting the viewer in the same sort of emotional distance to the film's events as the characters in the film, the picture pulls us in and likewise uses shadows and light to further play up the emotions being expressed in the film not always with words but with visuals.
The cast are excellent here, with Stewart giving one of the finest performances of his long and storied career in this film. He makes Scottie interesting, from the fear he has of heights based on something that happened to him while he was still on the force to his increasing obsession with the beautiful woman he can't let go of but really barely knew, he puts himself head first into the part and completely nails it. Novak is excellent two, giving her one of her characters an interesting distance and the other a very believable sense that she simply cannot control her actions. Of course, Novak is shot in typically beautiful and at times incredibly sexy set ups, she looks great here and the camera loves her, but her performance is just as intense as her smoldering good looks.
The whole thing boils to one of the greatest endings in movie history, a descent into darkness best seen and experienced rather than read about. It's a twist you don't see coming but one that somehow, once it's past, seems inevitable.
North By Northwest:
One of the best films in a filmography filled with excellent entries, North By Northwest is, as others have said, 'the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films.' An innocent man on the run, a foxy blonde, a tense atmosphere and scenes of gripping suspense make this a picture that holds up well even by today's standards, nothing about this film feels dated or antiquated in the least.
The movie tells the story of a man named Roger Thornhill (Carey Grant), a New York City advertising mogul who is kidnapped by a gang of spies who mistake him for a government agent. The spies, lead by Philip Vandamm (James Mason), believe him to be a CIA agent named George Kaplan and eventually he's fingered for a murder he didn't commit. In order to clear his name, Thornhill must find the real George Kaplan and prove that he is who he claims he is. Helped along the way by a beautiful blonde named Eve Kendall (Eva Saint Marie), Kaplan flees as a fugitive to try and find Kaplan in Chicago but of course, things don' t go as planned and soon Thornhill's very life is in jeopardy and he doesn't know who he can trust.
Directed with style and pitch-perfect pacing, North By Northwest also really makes excellent use of its fantastic screen play, which earned writer Ernest Lehman an Oscar Nomination in 1959 (sadly, it didn't win). The 'McGuffins' and red herrings scattered throughout the film really do a great job of keeping the audience on the edge of its seat, guessing whodunit and why as the picture plays out before us. Carey Grant's plays his typical everyman type with class, allowing us just enough sympathy to start pulling for him but not so much that we can't accept him the tougher side of what the roles calls for. With the role having become so iconic over the last fifty years, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the part although interesting enough James Stewart famously wanted the part while MGM wanted Gregory Peck to play the role. Supporting performances from James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, and sultry Eva Saint Marie are welcome additions to the film, and look for a young Martin Landau in an important role here as well.
The film builds beautifully to its conclusion and still has the power to surprise after all these years. The famous set pieces - the crop duster chase and the Mount Rushmore bit - are still impressive as are the unique opening credits sequence designed by Saul Bass. Of course, Bernard Herrmann's hefty instrumental score beautifully compliments the impressive cinematography and the script's (unintentional, according to its writer) themes of distrust and immorality of the era's political climate.
While Hitchcock would elaborate on some of his more obsessive recurring themes with more gusto in other movies, here in North By Northwest it just all comes together. The guy, the girl, the plot, the score, the twists, the turns and the excitement are all delivered flawlessly. It's rare that a film really deserves the 'masterpiece' title but this is one of those cases where a lesser award wouldn't be doing the picture justice. This is a rare film that is just as good as its reputation would have you believe, a film that holds up wonderfully to repeat viewings and that never fails in exciting viewers (or at least this viewer in particularly) every time it plays.
Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Psycho begins when a beautiful young woman named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) leaves town with the forty grand her boss gave her to deposit at the bank for him. Basically on the run and hoping to use the money to marry her beau, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), Marion runs into some foul weather and decides to shack up for the night at the Bates Motel, a fairly plain looking place alongside the old highway which has seen better days since the interstate went in a few years back. The only guest that night, Marion accepts the hospitality of the motel's quirky desk clerk, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who spends his time running back and forth between the motel and the family home located just up the hill where he tends to his aging mother.
When Marion doesn't come back to work, people start to wonder what's happened to her and where she's run off to. Eventually Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles) and a detective named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) start to retrace her steps, all of which lead to The Bates Motel and it's strange owners.
One of the most influential horror films ever made, Psycho would be often imitated but never duplicated. A film that, along with Bava's Blood And Black Lace, would lay the groundwork for the slasher craze to come with movie's like Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street, Hitchcock's picture isn't nearly as gratuitously bloody as the films that would follow in its wake. It is, however, a masterpiece of suspense and a film that is still as chilling as it must have been when it was made in 1960. Of course the film's score from Bernard Herrman and the picture's iconic shower scene are now so deeply ingrained in western pop culture that they've almost taken on a life of their own but aside from those qualities, which cannot be overlooked, the movie also benefits from some exceptionally tense and brooding camera work. The use of shadow and light in the black and white film is brilliant and Hitchcock's use of mirrors in the film does an amazing job of making the audience a willing voyeur in everything that plays out in the film.
Performance wise, Martin Balsam is fun as the tough detective but it's Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins who really steal the show here. Leigh, who is completely sexualized for us right from the opening minutes of the film, has that icy blonde coolness that the director was so intrigued with and which Perkins' character is also entranced by. Perkins may have been typecast to a very large degree after this picture hit box office gold but he really does nail the part and is perfect in the role not just for the way he delivers his lines but also for the body language he uses and the small, little character traits he gives to Norman to really flesh him out as a living, breathing person and not a big screen maniac.
When the beautiful daughter of a San Francisco newspaper man named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron) takes a liking to a man she meets in a pet store named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) she takes a drive to his small California home town to track him down. She finds his home and sneaks in to leave him a pair of Love Birds, and after he spots her zipping away in a boat he tracks her down. A strange way to get a man's attention to be sure, but evidently it worked - though oddly enough Melanie is attacked by a gull on her way back to shore. Melanie decides to stick around the small town of Bodega Bay a little while, so she rents a room for the local school teacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleashette), who just so happens to be an ex-flame of Mitch's.
Melanie goes over to Mitch's place for dinner the next day where she meets his widowed mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his much younger sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) - but the behavior of the birds in the area becomes increasingly hostile. Lydia discovers her neighbor has had his eyes pecked out, the school kids are attacked after class one day and outside the dinner things go haywire when the birds seemingly start attacking anyone at random and the townsfolk soon finds itself in very dire straits indeed, outnumbered and away from help.
Like a lot of Hitchcock movies, this one does take a little time to get going but there's something to be said for plot and character development, two areas in which this movie excels. We get to know Melanie well enough to want to know what's going to happen to her and we can't help but like the Brenner family as we get to learn their story too. Hitchcock's direction here is very assured and very controlled even in the effects heavy scenes in which scores and scores of birds attack, scenes which have gone down as rightfully iconic in the history of cinema. Equally chilling, possibly even more so, are the scenes where the birds don't attack and are instead standing there calm as can be and seemingly completely harmless. The film does a great job of contrasting those moments, which we see every day and never really bat an eye at, with the ferocity of the attack scenes which are still intense almost fifty years later.
Well acted by all involved, Hedron would work with Hitchcock again the next year on Marnie. The film remains a classic for pretty much any reason you can think of and it holds up incredibly well to repeat viewings where you'll more likely notice all the little touches Hitchcock puts in the film.
The five films in the set are presented in the following aspect ratios:
Rear Window: anamorphic 1.66.1 widescreen.
Vertigo: anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
North By Northwest: anamorphic 1.78.1 widescreen.
Psycho: anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
The Birds: anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen.
Overall the transfers are good, if a little out of date given recent high definition restorations having been done for the Blu-ray releases of North By Northwest and Psycho by Warner Brothers and Universal respectively. Colors generally look nice if a bit soft from time to time, the exception being the black and white Psycho, which also looks decent here and shows good contrast. Some minor compression artifacts can be spotted around the set if you really want to look for them but they don't take anything too drastic away from the experience. It would have been nice to see newer transfers here, but that didn't happen, these are recycled from the old single disc releases from years back.
The five films in the set are presented with the following audio options:
Rear Window: English and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono with options subtitles provided in English SDH and Spanish.
Vertigo: English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono with optional subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.
North By Northwest: English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, French language Dolby Digital Mono with optional subtitles in English SDH and French.
Psycho: English and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono with optional subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
The Birds: English and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono with optional subtitles in English SDH only.
As to the quality of the mixes, they're fine (even if there should have been an original English Mono track for North By Northwest). Dialogue is clean, clear and well balanced and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. The subtitles are easy to read and free of any obvious typos. Vertigo's 5.1 track sounds pretty good for an older remix, with the score spread out effectively in the rear channels and adding to the suspense a bit. Again, these are older mixes, recycled from previous releases, so more could have probably been done to improve on things in this department but all in all it sounds fine.
There are no new extra features in this set at all (in fact, a few of these movies have been re-released by Universal in special editions with more extra than are included here), save for the packaging, which is a handsome slipcase that holds a digipack which the discs fit inside of. It also contains a series of five postcards which contain theatrical poster art for the five movies in the set. As to the content of the discs, however, they are identical to previous DVD releases. Here's what you'll find inside:
Rear Window kicks off with a documentary entitled Rear Window Ethics, which is almost an hour's worth of stories and reminiscing from surviving cast and crewmembers which not only detail the history of the film but also discuss the themes so prevalent in the movie. After that, check out an interview with screenwriter John Michael Hayes in which he talks about writing the movie and shares some interesting experiences from this project. Rounding out the extras for this disc are some production notes, a still gallery, the original theatrical trailer for the feature and a re-release trailer narrated by James Stewart.
Vertigo's extras are again carried over from the previous DVD and include the featurette Obsessed with Vertigo which is quite interesting as it shows how Hitchcock was obsessed with so many of the details in this film. Featuring some interviews with surviving cast and crew members as well as details on the restoration that the film underwent, this is worth a watch. There is also a commentary track here with Associate Producer Herbert Coleman as well as Restoration Team Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz. It's a thorough talk that covers many of the themes explored in the film and which provides some interesting insight into what went into restoring the film and also includes some interesting anecdotes about the movie's history. Also included is a documentary about foreign censorship in regards to the film's ending, and a still gallery. Some Talent Bios, original and restoration theatrical trailers and some production notes round out the extras on this disc.
The extras for North By Northwest start off with a commentary track from the film's writer, Ernest Lehman, who shares some fascinating memories of what it was like to work with the Master of Suspense on one of his most iconic pictures. Carried over from the previous DVD release, this track doesn't move at a particularly rapid pace and suffers from a few too many gaps of silence but is definitely worth listening to because when Lehman does pipe up, which is more often than not, his memory is sharp and his stories well worth listening to. Aside from that, there's also an isolated musical score available as an alternate audio track.
Psycho kicks off its supplements with some interesting newsreel footage announcing the release of the film and discussing its infamous shower scene. There's also a collection of storyboards here showing how that scene was shot. Rounding out the extra are the original theatrical trailer, a couple of re-release trailers, a few different still galleries and some production notes.
The Birds contains Tippi Hedron's original screen test, which is cool to see, as well as two Universal newsreels - The Birds Is Coming and Suspense Story: The National Press Club Hears Hitchcock - both made to promote the film around the time of its release. Also included on the disc are storyboards and script text for an alternate ending that was never shot, a single deleted scene, the iconic trailer for the film hosted by Hitchcock, some production notes and a still gallery.
The Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection boxed set does a fine job of regurgitating extras and transfers from past releases without offering up much that hasn't been seen before outside of some nice packaging. However, for those who don't have these films and want to get in on them at a fair price, this set comes highly recommended basically on the strengths of the movies themselves rather than that of the release.
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.