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Alfred Hitchcock
The Masterpiece Collection

Alfred Hitchcock The Masterpiece Collection
Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot
Street Date October 4, 2005

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Universal has put out a monster box ('disc set' doesn't do it justice) of every Alfred Hitchcock film in its collection - the Universal releases of the 1940s when he was on loan-out from David O. Selznick, his post - 1960 color Universal library, and the glossy 50s Paramount Technicolor features that eventually reverted back to Hitchcock. The films of the last group were out of circulation for most of the 1970s, finally to be reissued -- re-premiered, actually -- in 1983.

All of these titles have seen the light of DVD before and quite a few DVD fans bought some or all of them. Vertigo and Psycho were released before the main group, before Universal had committed to the concept of 16:9 transfers; with the new versions on this release, both of these titles are now on Region 1 DVD in enhanced widescreen for the first time. According to the advertising claims, all of the other titles are digitally remastered as well. After watching the set, I'm not sure how meaningful that statement is.

The word on the street for this box set is excitement tainted with a little bit of consumer exasperation. Many ardent Hitchcock addicts were keen for better reissues of Vertigo and Psycho but have expressed dismay at learning that to get them they have to plunk down a discounted $85 or $90 and double up on titles they already have. That's the entire point of marketing, of course; it's been five years since the last Hitchcock dip, and now Universal is savoring a last bath in the golden DVD pool before HD comes -- when they'll presumably be able to trot out the same treasures in High Definition.

We all know this feeling -- Savant frequently gives a stare at his row of brand-new, untouched James Bond VHS tapes from 1997, all wrapped in a special cellophane container. They stand as further proof of the need to stop collecting media for collecting's sake and buy only what we actually want to enjoy now.

On the other hand, I know how badly I wanted a copy of Vertigo with a color picture better than anything yet seen on home video. Universal and the Hitchcock estate are holding a mighty fine hand of cards with this set.

The deluxe packaging combines a fancy box with Universal's rather prodigious ability to pack mass quantities of discs into a minimum space. With the box opened we find four folding disc holders and one mostly decorative booklet; four of the holders have four discs each, and the last has three - that's fourteen features and one 'bonus disc.' The high-toned box (or, as the Uni ad puts it, "Ultra-premium velvet packaging") will doubtlessly attract as a holiday gift; the only reasonable room for complaint is that one needs to be sober and have both hands free in a well-lit room to deal with the clever overlapping disc-holders - one wrong move and a pricey DVD might go skittering across the floor.

Savant has already reviewed five of the titles from the previous marketing onslaught of early 2001, and on those will concentrate mainly on the new transfers. The extras appear to be the same as on the original discs. One particularly commendable aspect is that the English subtitles extend to almost all of the extras, making the full complement of special edition extras accessible by hard of hearing people.

These titles happen to be the first five chronologically (almost), so let's get into it. The first five titles LINK to the older reviews:

Saboteur  2/18/01 ... looked fine on the old disc but a quick peek at this pressing reveals an image that's sharper and cleaner, with more dramatic contrast.

Shadow of a Doubt  2/18/01 ... is Savant's favorite of the early Universal Hitchcocks and looks much better, less contrasty and with a lot of dirt missing (or erased) from the titles. Frequent fine scratches and digs are mostly gone as well, and the film has a more silvery look overall. The extra Spanish audio track appears to have been jettisoned. Although their design is similar, the menu cards on all the discs have been redone. The old opening promo montage by Collage has been removed; it was a good thing repeated too often to be appreciated.

Rope  2/18/01 ... This one has some of the identical dirt in the main title, but the image and color are crisper and brighter, with skin tones a little more realistic (but not by much, as this picture always looked as if the actors had been made up out of paint cans). There are still fluctuations in some color values, minor flaws that can be traced back to the 57 tear-old Technicolor masters.

Rear Window  2/27/01 ... the first film in the collection to be presented in Widescreen - 1:66, as was the previous transfer. Robert A. Harris and James Katz restored this title and reported great difficulty with the surviving elements - the original Savant review contains a frank appraisal of the printing history of the film courteously provided by Mr. Harris. The previous transfer was good and Savant has a hard time finding any differences - even the grain seems the same. One interior with a handsome close-up of James Stewart seems a bit grainier, but then Grace Kelly's entrance scene appears to be both smoother, and with better color, than the earlier disc. All of these slight differences could have occurred in the authoring and publishing stage. In this case, perhaps 'All digitally remastered' doesn't mean 'since the last release.'

The Man Who Knew Too Much  2/18/01. Here's an odd situation. The first good news is that the new transfer reinstates the Paramount VistaVision logo; on the older disc we heard the VistaVision fanfare behind a replacement Universal logo! But although the new transfer is a tiny bit brighter, the encoding is not good. Faces, objects and smaller details that were reasonably sharp in the first disc are blobby and broken up here. This is the first disc where I'd say the old pressing is much better, and what went wrong is a mystery. The hard cut from the titles to the first scene, that Savant thought looked odd on the first disc, is still there.

The rest of the titles have more substantial reviews, but my quality notes won't be directly comparative except for Vertigo and Psycho. I saw most of the other original release discs on borrowed DVDs. Yes, Hollywood, purchasers of DVDs sometimes lend them out to friends, depriving studios of rightful income!

The Trouble With Harry
1955 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 99 min.
Starring John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, Jerry Mathers
Cinematography Robert Burks
Art Direction John B. Goodman, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Alma Macrorie
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by John Michael Hayes from a book by Jack Trevor Story

The Trouble With Harry approximates Hitchcock's morbid sense of humor and is the closest America's come to reproducing the feel of an English Ealing comedy. It's a black farce, but a gentle one with a muted sense of humor. If one happens to be in a receptive mood the rather foolish antics of an unflappable group of Vermonters become charming. Everyone has a bright personality, a fairly sharp wit and behaves in a highly stylized manner. A dead body popping up in their midst becomes a source of annoyance, curiosity and endless macabre discussion, but it's never anything to get rattled about.

Hitchcock has fun scuttling murder mystery expectations by having his deadpan characters react to Harry's corpse in maddeningly eccentric ways, according to their personalities. Edmund Gwenn's guilty old coot assumes he's shot him. Instead of being traumatized, little Jerry Mathers (yes, from Leave it to Beaver is simply curious. Shirley MacLaine's widowed housewife knows Harry and is glad he's dead, but doesn't bother her head about the problem. John Forsythe's idealistic artist sketches the corpse and debates what should be done with it with studied objectivity.

The story is sort of a Shaggy Dog tale (Hitchcock loved to mislead his audience) about a body that gets buried and dug up again several times in the course of a day and evening. If it has a point, it's that life belongs to the living and the dead shouldn't be allowed to spoil their plans; the entire picture plays out in an idyllic countryside setting resembling a Hallmark Card illustration. It would be a trifle if it were not for the presence of fine actors usually given dull supporting roles - Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick and Mildred Dunnock all shine. The colorless John Forsythe is unusually appealing, and in her first role Shirley MacLaine is subdued and delightful. This must be Hitchcock's idea of heaven ... naughty but nice people talking in quiet, civilized tones and winking at one another through dry wit. The script gets a little naughty too, what with Forsythe and Gwenn joking in the abstract about the 'unopened doors' of Mildred Natwick's widow, and MacLaine telling Forsythe about the dead body: "For all I care you can stuff him... and mount him behind glass."

Savant hasn't seen the first DVD of this title and so can only say that this disc looks splendid. The detailed autumn leaves don't clog up and the colors are as pretty as a picture, so to speak. Bernard Herrmann's fine score, which helps the film maintain its darkly mischievous tone, sounds great - and plays mainly in the clear between dialogue scenes. It was his first for the director.

The docu on this one has the screenwriter and associate producer recall Hitch's personality. Pat Hitchcock offers "Huh?" nuggets about things like a cookbook her mother brought back for her from Vermont. We also hear again the story of how MacLaine got her big break because she was understudying a sick Carol Haney in The Pajama Game on Broadway when the The Trouble With Harry people were scouting for a fresh new face. They certainly got one - she's adorable.

1958 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 128 min.
Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
Cinematography Robert Burks
Production Design Henry Bumstead
Film Editor George Tomasini
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor from a book by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

We're told that Vertigo laid an egg on its initial release, but it's Savant's pick for Hitchcock's most moving picture. Part of this is personal nostalgia, how and when one saw it, and the fact that it was out of circulation and unavailable for the better part of a decade. Hitchcock has been criticized as a cinema-phile who wanted audience adulation but was mostly concerned with extending his filmic grammar and syntax - to many, a picture like Rope can seem an empty exercise in technique. Vertigo is cinematic magic at the service of an intensely romantic mystery. Hitchcock goes to delirious lengths -- in several instances beyond narrative credibility -- to tell a fundamentally sick tale of obsession that seems to have personal significance for the often-aloof director. It's no accident that the original writers were French roman noir experts specializing in twisted tales - Boileau and Narcejac are responsible for the original story of Eyes without a Face as well.

These days it seems love stories have to be given an aberrant angle, but Vertigo came out when the majority of screen relationships were completely conventional. Stewart's Scotty Ferguson falls in love with a fantasy incarnated by Kim Novak's mysterious siren. Poor Barbara Bel Geddes can't compete - Scotty drops her flat after she tries to puncture Scotty's mania. Scotty is sort of a necrophile - he's in love with a woman he believes is possessed by the ghostly spirit of a literal Llorona, an abandoned madwoman who searches for her lost child. Scotty knows how sick he is and doesn't care ... he's on a personal journey to wherever the mania takes him.

Vertigo has Bernard Herrman's most intense love music, which completely takes over in the film's many dialogue-free passages. Hitchcock bends plausibility and even allows his vortex of passion to warp the visuals. Novak's Madeleine/Judy appears half-dissolved in a shaft of greenish light, and Scotty discovers that by recreating a simulation of lost woman, he can mentally transport himself to a different time and place. The movie evokes the surreal eroticism of Peter Ibbetson as well as a goodly slice of Val Lewton. To be wholly consumed by desire is risky business -- nobody can be expected to understand our private lusts. Men will choose fantasy over the reality every time, and the most mature man may be mortified when his irrational dreams don't come true.

Vertigo is immediately improved through its 16:9 enhanced transfer. I found the colors good and he picture rich. The color and brightness of old IB Technicolor prints are still burned into my retinas and this DVD is a good approximation of how the film looked. The bit rate is more than adequate, even in the hazy graveyard scene that never before has looked acceptable on home video.

Ah yes, the audio. Savant doesn't want to join in the web ranting about the remix. The Vertigo restoration has been the target of sniping for some time. As it turns out, they had to because no useable mag film sources of the final original mix could be found. The remix has some slightly head-scratching differences but not as many as I expected. The Foley and Effects tracks had to be built from scratch -- and a gunshot in the opening rooftop chase fantasy has a 1990s Dolby crack! that the original did not. However, in the abovementioned graveyard scene, the shuffling of Scotty's feet are almost identical to what's in the original track. I remember reading outraged critics who claimed that the footsteps weren't originally audible.

Universal has put a 2.0 mono of the original mix on this disc, so that purists and those who don't care for the remix will have a choice. They can also do spot comparisons as Savant did. The mono is from an optical track source (said to be from a print) and is no beauty. But it is at least as good as what was on the old laserdisc.

1960 / B&W / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 109 min.
Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
Cinematography John L. Russell
Art Direction Robert Clatworthy, Joseph Hurley
Film Editor George Tomasini
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by Joseph Stefano from a book by Robert Bloch

One of the most talked about and written-up films of all time, Psycho began as Hitchcock's personal challenge from to himself. Cheap horror pix were cleaning up at the box office, even a series by a director who made personal appearances in his own trailers and used carnival-style audience participation gimmicks. Hitch would show them all up by making a class horror film with as tight a budget as the independents, but with a difference - it would deliver real shocks and scares instead of mild haunted-house thrills.

In Psycho Hitch saw an opportunity to upset apple carts all over Hollywood. Robert Bloch's gruesome story was a true-life horror that nobody in their right mind would consider filming. It had lust, madness, implied incest, matricide and mutilation -- all in a small California town where everybody thinks they know everyone else's secrets, and the second-most dangerous killer is an old biddy who wants to make sure her rats won't suffer when she poisons them. The story structure knocked audiences for a loop, killing off the main character just as we were getting used to her and making the rest of the movie a nervous game of hide and seek. We expect to see a knife-wielding killer grandma burst from any corner of the screen at any time, while a second potential victim sets herself up as cleaver bait as she walks into harm's way: "I can handle a sick old woman."

Anthony Perkins redefined who could be a mad killer in movies made from this point forward --- anybody at all. The biggest clue to finding a psycho killer turns out to be that he behaves normally - perhaps too normally. While putting his audience through the ringer, Joseph Stefano's script indulges in an unbroken line of morbid humor. Delivered by the disarmingly sincere and personable Norman Bates, the macabre quips have a creepy air of calculation -- the offhand remarks of a demented man who has his 'normal guy' act down pat.

When Hitchcock wants to send us up the walls, he give us a montage murder, splintering a stabbing death into dozens of short cuts that fool us into thinking we're seeing content taboo for 1960 - real stabs (no) and real nudity (well, sort of). The sequence ends like a horrible joke, with death staring back at us inert and glassy-eyed. The camera executes some amazing maneuvers here -- again, for 1960 -- that communicate far better than words. We seem to be flushed down the shower drain with Marion Crane's lifeblood.

Modern audiences who couldn't see Psycho in a theater just can't know the impact it had when new. Marion's sister searches the death house, seeing odd statuary and a creepy depression in a bed ... and then looks at Norman's room with its pitiful stuffed toys. An unhappy rabbit is the limit of despair. She opens a journal and reacts to what's written inside --- we never see but our imaginations jump to vile possibilities.

Hitchcock realized that he'd frequently miscalculated with his exposition by assuming that the mass audience he coveted could follow all of his complicated plots. Frequently having gone over an audience's head with new idea or a shrewd plot twist, by the late fifties he was building "Hitch for Dummies" scenes into all of his pictures. In Vertigo Kim Novak crudely writes a confession and then destroys it unsent, to establish facts that the audience should be able to figure out for itself. It didn't help. Perhaps that why Leo G. Carroll shows up to redundantly recap the whole plot, twice in North by NorthWest. In Psycho Simon Oakland gives a minutes-long explanation of split personality dynamics that sounds like it was borrowed from Dead of Night. The conclusion is saved by a creepy stare-down with madness that can give any viewer a chill.

The previous flat letterboxed flat DVD of Psycho was a major disappointment, as it just didn't blow up well on a big monitor and had suspicious framing as well. This reissue is appropriately enhanced, but seems altogether far too grainy. The grain is the digital-grain-on-film-grain kind that's difficult to account for. It just isn't very satisfactory when one remembers the film's careful grayscale and delicate textures - the rainy night, the daylight glare, the dusty rooms with the faded wallpaper - in the theater I was reminded of how grandma's house in Henderson, Nevada smelled. We don't get anything like that here.

The Birds
1963 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 119 min.
Starring Rod Taylor, 'Tippi' Hedren, Susanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright
Cinematography Robert Burks
Production Design Robert Boyle
Film Editor George Tomasini
Written by Evan Hunter from a short story by Daphne du Maurier

Francois Truffaut began interviewing Alfred Hitchcock for his career book not long after the enormous success of Psycho, one of the by-products of which was the critical elevation of Hitchcock to new heights of genius. A big part of the upsurge in artistic European films was the deification of names like Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman, while over in America, Hitchcock was the most vital and active of the classic era directors still working - Hawks, Wyler, Stevens, Ford. Many critics suddenly expected directors to be god-like artists, making difficult-to-understand masterpieces with hidden meanings.

Hitchcock's next film would seem to be a response to the deep-dish critical acclaim. The Birds is a weighty study of modern anxieties in the guise of an apocalyptic science fiction film. The unexplainable happens - birds rise up to attack mankind - and fragile humans have to do some fast emotional adjusting.

The critic to read about Hitchcock as a deep dish genius is Robin Wood, in his book Hitchcock's Films. He nailed the poetic meanings of all the big titles way back in the 1960s, and I still re-read him for pleasure. For The Birds Wood came up with a theory about Complacency coupled with the simple but ultimately staggering idea that the bird attacks represent the tensions between the characters. Hitchcock and Hunter suggest that Life is an anxious struggle for peace and security. When the rug gets pulled out from under our daily lives, to shatter our relationships and deprive us of the beliefs and safeguards that we feel protect us, anxiety results. Anxiety in 1963 always gets traced right back to the Atom Bomb, but The Birds is more universal in its view. Chaos never erupts from an expected direction, as several hundred thousand Louisianans have learned. Beautiful as it may be, the world is capable of dealing out merciless destruction and ruin that have nothing to do with moral merit.

The Birds is the ultimate Shaggy Dog story, a gripper that doesn't resolve itself. It's a business-as-usual tale that toys with audience expectations. We follow self-possessed, slightly snooty model Melanie Daniels around for the better part of half an hour wondering if Richard Deacon will lunge at her in a hallway, or if the two lovebirds in her sports car will suddenly transform into monsters. Surely Hitchcock sat through L'avventura amused to find himself wondering when something was going to happen, and realized that his carry-over reputation from The Birds (and a particularly provocative set of TV ads) would keep his audience in suspense almost indefinitely, without anything actually happening.

Hitchcock eventually splatters the screen with a barrage of special effects of mass bird attacks that are still kinetic wonders -- although I'm sure CGI people will immediately notice that rooms full of sparrows don't throw enough shadows, etc. He surprises us by following one 'highlight' bird attack almost immediately with another even more ferocious one. There are masterful suspense scenes where we experience the dread of investigating strange rooms -- those broken teacups, all in a row -- capped by real gore. Of all the later Hitchcock movies, The Birds is one that's really compromised on a small screen. There are many extremely wide shots where the scope of empty spaces is important. The masterful soundtrack needs full concentration, as there is no conventional movie score to tell us how to react. Certain kinds of viewers will be pulled deeper into this thriller than any of the others.

Perhaps viewers are ready again to see the film's performances for what they are, rich readings of normal people under stress, revealing themselves and reaching out to each other. Hitchcock encourages many readings. The attacks do begin with Melanie's brash intrusion, bringing La Dolce Vita with her from that Roman fountain she jumped into (with Antonioni?). Maybe she is a witch. The stunning 'God's Eye View' at the beginning of the town attack implies that the birds are divine plague sent against us. Just like horror characters arguing about vampires, the citizens communicate poorly and are too immersed in their private affairs, to rally effectively against the threat. The birds kill innocent Annie and try to keep Melanie from joining the family as well. The admittance of the lovebirds into the getaway car can be explained, but remains one of the film's thematic mysteries.

The Birds was the first Hitchcock film Savant saw in a theater - by himself at age eleven. I was traumatized and fascinated at the same time. When the film ended so abruptly, I remember (perhaps falsely) an image of the car going much further down the road, and only a small Universal logo appearing up in the corner of the shot - there was no 'The End' card. It's the first movie at which I just sat staring at closed curtains for a couple of minutes, trying to remember who I was beyond a completely unnerved kid. When I stepped out into downtown San Bernardino, the whole world seemed to have changed. Just the kind of result that gave Hitchcock nights of satisfied sleep, no doubt.

The Birds looks fine on this pressing (I no longer have the older disc, I think it was borrowed). Color and widescreen framing are superb, and we follow Hitchcock's careful sense of territory in the town of Bodega Bay. The specially processed electronic audio rack is particularly interesting to study -- little expressionistic hints of sound sneak in here and there, and it's quite unnerving. I think Jonathan Demme must have studied this when he put a low, barely audible hum under some scenes in The Silence of the Lambs. Laurent Bouzereau's docu extras are particularly good for this title, mainly because there are so many clips to show, of incomplete effects and Tippi Hedren's screen test. She seems to have been chosen for the express reason that she projected only a surface and no deeper personality; Hitchcock could use montage to create her performance.

The film's worst idea: The three 'still' shots of Melanie reacting to the gasoline explosion. We aren't quite worked up enough by that part of the scene to feel as 'frozen' as she is... she's a blatant attempt to make Eisenstein's rising Lion statues from Battleship Potemkin work in a modern narrative context.

1964 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 130 min.
Starring Sean Connery, 'Tippi' Hedren, Diane Baker, Louise Latham, Mariette Hartley
Cinematography Robert Burks
Production Design Robert Boyle
Film Editors George Tomasini
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by Jay Presson Allen from a book by Winston Graham

Marnie is the Hitchcock movie where everything begins to slip. He still has the collaboration of his cameraman Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini and composer Bernard Herrmann but the story is a trite throwback to 1940s faux-psychology. Spellbound was saved by its star chemistry, but Sean Connery and 'Tippi' Hedren never really click as screen lovers. Marnie's childhood trauma is just too pat and the whole business of being sent into shock by the color red equally foolish. This kind of movie requires acting skill and Hedren isn't up to the task.

Robin Wood was able to find plenty of riches in the visual details. The 'alligator purse' that rather crudely represents Marnie's frigidity and hostility to men comes off as misogynistic in the extreme. But there's a certain sympathetic poetry on the otherwise abortive honeymoon cruise, when a lot of bad theatrics finish with a telling pan to a round ship's porthole window. How many women find themselves the sexual property of men they have no feeling for?

The excellent supporting cast, with sly Diane Baker commenting from the sides, comes to very little. We don't believe that Sean Connery -- looking his 007 best -- is an American businessman any more than we buy the much-discussed terrible paintings that place Marnie's mom's house within 50 paces of a docked freighter. Savant realized that auteurists were trying too hard when I read defenses of Marnie -- Robin Wood's included -- that claimed Hitch wanted the matte paintings to look artificial - they represent his knowledge that the instant-cure ending is a false one. Oh, honestly ...

The artificiality extends to the reels of rear screen work, especially the jarringly unconvincing horseback scenes. Faced with tight budgets, a few other classic-era directors got tired of using all their energy to maintain a level of visual realism and opted to move their films toward minimalist basics. Hitchcock just skimps on the detail work.

Partial redemption comes with Bernard Herrmann's score. It's pitched at high drama and does wonders at giving the picture a semblance of shape and purpose. Marnie is easily re-watched just to follow the music, even when the movie seems a waste of time.

Marnie also looks fine on this new pressing. I believe I remember seeing more dirt in the main titles on the previous disc. Note that the new transfer shows how the titles were optically manufactured - as each new page turns, the previous title remains as a faint shadow on the white paper, and then pops off. The transfer process must see something in the density of the optical that isn't noticeable in an ordinary print.

The audio is 2.0 mono. The accompanying docu doesn't touch on the Spoto theory that Hitchcock rushed Marnie to a sloppy finish because he became disinterested when 'Tippi' didn't respond to his romantic overtures. Those wild aspersions aside, after so many years of carefully honed films we're willing to believe something serious must have happened to break Hitchcock's concentration.

Torn Curtain
1966 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 128 min.
Starring Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Lila Kedrova
Cinematography John F. Warren
Production Design Hein Heckroth
Film Editor Bud Hoffman
Original Music John Addison
Written by Brian Moore

Marnie shows Hitchcock slipping, but Torn Curtain is a complete disaster. Only a top director like Hitch could entice actors like Connery, Newman and Andrews and for each working with the Master of Suspense was a career tripping stone. Paul Newman and Julie Andrews have almost no chemistry in an almost ridiculously silly story about a false defector stealing some needed rocket science from East Germany. The entire third act of the movie is a boring bus ride that only serves to make us realize that our stars never left Universal city. Uninspired location work with doubles dampens hopes for excitement. Much of the film takes place in front of process screens or in sloppy matte paintings.

Poor Ms. Andrews is made to look like a simp, finally ecstatic that her boyfriend scientist isn't a traitorous defector, but an incompetent spy. The movie is immature compared to Fritz Lang's similar Cloak and Dagger and much less entertaining than Paul Newman's similar The Prize, an earlier Hitchcock rip-off by Mark Robson that's no prizewinner either. East Germans are either sinister spies or foolish 'freedom fighters,' with the ridiculous false bus trip a budgetarily expeditious way to transport the characters across Germany on a short shooting schedule.

It's clear that Hitchcock was engaged only by his murder scene, which is particularly interesting in that the security man Gromek is almost the film's only character to be given a personality -- even Newman has to coast through with his one-man, one-secret role. After that, one must watch carefully to find anything even resembling a Hitchcock 'touch' -- like Tamara Toumanova spinning her head and stopping to stare at Newman with every turn. She's much better as the ballet dancer in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; all she's given to do here is be yet another vicious East German shouting for the polizei to arrest our hero.

Torn Curtain is a particularly dull Cold War thriller with exposition that constantly bogs down the forward momentum, explaining how people get from one place to another. When a nosy cab driver informs on Newman, we see every step of the process, a very un-Hitchcock exercise in literalism. Structurally, the picture is a bust -- Lila Kedrova's cloying would-be émigré seems to be inserted into the final scenes in a desperate attempt to liven things up.

All the more frustrating that Torn Curtain should look so good on this new pressing. The rear projections and matte paintings don't stick out half as badly as they used to and the widescreen framing makes some scenes actually look attractive. John Addison's score adds little; Savant remembers purchasing a collector's record of Herrmann's unused tracks back in the late 1970s. One of the extras syncs some of them up with appropriate parts of the movie and they sound fine. I imagine the no-compliments, no-thanks Hitchcock and the volcanic Herrmann had a real blowup over this. They may never have spoken again. A short narrated non-docu has little to say about the film but that it was Hitch's first without his steady cameraman and editor for over a decade, and that it made money anyway. Its critical reputation is near zilch except with auteurist diehards.

1969 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / min.
Starring Frederick Stafford, John Forsythe, Dany Robin, Karin Dor, John Vernon, Michel Piccoli, Phillipe Noiret, Claude Jade
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Production Design Henry Bumstead
Film Editor William H. Ziegler
Original Music Maurice Jarre
Written by Samuel Taylorfrom a book by Leon Uris

Topaz sees Hitchcock going with a no-star cast (even John Forsythe puts his name at the bottom of the cast list) for a numbingly literal espionage story. An excellent cast of Frenchmen (Phillipe Noiret, Michel Piccoli) are stuck emoting in English. Someone is always explaining what happened in the scene that came before, what they are doing now and what they're going to do in the next scene - this has to be Hitchcock's most talky picture yet that didn't start as a stage play.

Once again Hitchcock travels the world, but this time he actually shoots in Paris. The language barrier prohibits anything like believability, and lead character Frederick Stafford is uncommonly stiff as a French spymaster doing favors for the Americans. In a situation duplicated from Notorious he plays Cary Grant to German actress Karin Dor's (You Only Live Twice) Ingrid Bergman as she beds John Vernon's Claude Rains. Two more in-jokes to earlier Hitch pix are a man who escapes a hotel by dropping onto an awning (Foreign Correspondent) and a pair of telltale seagulls (guess). Savant spotted several more, but nobody jumped up and asked "What is Topaz?" of a music hall performer who felt compelled to give an answer.

Topaz is even more of a Cold War picture than was Torn Curtain. John Vernon -- that's Dean Wormer from Animal House -- is an aide to Fidel Castro, and in a recreation of Fidel's stay in a Harlem hotel while addressing the United Nations, Cubans are portrayed as complete pigs and revolutionaries as cheap thugs. All we learn about Cuba is that it's a police state torturing and murdering (take your pick) innocent patriots or traitorous spies. Vernon's secretary is open to a cheap bribe from Roscoe Lee Browne, a Harlem florist/agent who gives the movies' only refreshing performance.

There are about twenty exciting seconds in Topaz; a scuffle here and there and one breathtaking shot in which a woman's dress spreads out like a bloodstain as she is lowered, dead, to the floor. The rest is dramatically inert, with John Stafford (a star of many French James Bond wanna-be thrillers (OSS 117; Agent 505) that haven't been seen in decades) mixing espionage with his personal love life. The action is diffused over too many characters, and the movie doesn't as much move to its conclusion as simply end without an ending.

Topaz looks fine on Universal's new DVD. The opening Moscow May Day parade is a stock shot and was always that grainy. Interestingly, some angles on John Vernon and Karin Dor attending a Castro rally in Havana are very well matched with news film for grain and color. Maurice Jarre's fine score is used sparingly.

The best part of the disc is seeing the movie's other two alternate endings. The one used on the disc is said to be one of the alternates; the original movie ended with choice #3, an even more unsatisfactory finish that looks as if it were cobbled together from an outtake, with a freeze-frame and gunshot added.

Instead of a docu on Topaz we're given Leonard Maltin's passionate defense of Hitchcock as if asking for leniency from a court -- He gave us twenty years of amazing American work, your honor, so he has to be forgiven some of his later films! It's a good argument, but it doesn't make Topaz any more satisfying. Favorite unnecessary conversation: Michel Piccoli shows another man a photo of himself and Frederick Stafford and his wife Dany Robin, when all three of them were resistance fighters. That Stafford is married to Robin is already firmly established. Piccoli says that after the war, everyone wondered which man Robin would marry. Then he adds, completely unnecessarily, "She married him." Topaz has lines like that every sixty seconds.

1972 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 116 min.
Starring John Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Billie Whitelaw, Anna Massey, Vivien Merchant
Cinematography Gilbert Taylor
Production Design Syd Cain
Film Editor John Jympson
Original Music Ron Goodwin
Written by Anthony Shaffer from a book by Arthur La Bern

Frenzy was quite a bounce-back movie for Hitchcock, working again in England and seemingly enjoying doing a film about a murder spree with plenty of garrotings and gargling tongues. The narrative hangs together better than anything since The Birds and Hitchcock is clearly heavily engaged in his intricate camerawork and tight plotting.

Hitch may have been re-invigorated by the sudden explosion of nudity and violence on the screen, as if someone took him by the arm, showed him The Bird with The Crystal Plumage and The Devils and said he could now do whatever he wanted. Just when his peers were calling it quits or turning out Old Man's Movies, Hitchcock gathered a lot of attention for the last time.

The film is as cold-blooded as Hitchcock ever got, with ugly sex rape murders in unpleasant close-up and a brutal attitude toward its cast of would-be victims. Anna Massey survived Michael Powell's Peeping Tom only to be treated like a sack of potatoes and dumped nude onto a highway from the back of a truck. Charming. Our hero Jon Finch had just finished playing a ruthlessly savage MacBeth for Roman Polanski and isn't an attractive person here either. The fact that he's innocent of the infamous necktie murders seems beside the point -- we don't identify with him so the usual "man on the run" thrills just aren't there.

Frenzy does have plenty of tension, and it's much more intense than anything Hitch did in his declining years, from Marnie to Family Plot. Anthony Shaffer's screenplay is tight. The only really flat aspect is the film's attempts at humor, especially the food jokes that just sit there.

Thanks to the ton of publicity generated for the big 1972 release, Laurent Bouzereau's docu (he appears briefly on the banks of the Thames) has plenty of on-set film to show, with Hitchcock looking hale, hearty and eager to be a bad little boy with his mischievous movie murders.

Family Plot
1976 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 120 min.
Starring Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, William Devane
Cinematography Leonard J. South
Production Design Henry Bumstead
Film Editor J. Terry Williams
Original Music John Williams
Written by Ernest Lehman from a book by Victor Canning

Family Plot is Hitchcock's final film and a decidedly mixed bag. Depending on a heavily plotted and rather lightweight script by Ernest Lehman (of North by NorthWest), it has plenty of charming moments provided mostly by Barbara Harris' personable psychic. She and her cabbie boyfriend Bruce Dern have cooked up a scheme to make $10,000 by finding a lost heir, not realizing that their target (William Devane) is the mastermind behind a number of slick kidnap-ransom crimes. It's engaging as far as it goes; the actors are allowed to stretch a bit within the narrow parameters of the story and the movie finishes in the plus column ... barely.

The problems with the film are totally unnecessary. Devane and Karen Black's 'brilliant, perfect' crimes are like something out of an episode of Batman, with hidden identities and getaway schemes that couldn't possibly work. And Hitchcock is again far too literal in his storytelling. Devane and Black kidnap a Bishop right out of his own church, a fairly nice nod to the old British period, when Hitch would joke about groups of people being so stupid they'd do things like applaud a man being taken away in handcuffs. But the kidnappers ruin everything by discussing why the Bishop's congregation didn't react to the crime unfolding right in front of their eyes. It's as if Hitchcock were stricken by 'explain-it-itis', the fear that audiences will no longer connect with things they see happening right in front of their faces.

The DVD has a very good Laurent Bouzereau docu in which we're told that Hitchcock was so physically limited, the one action scene involving a runaway car was done by a second unit. The blue screen views of Harris and Dern flipping out in the brakeless car are intercut with a speeding POV shot, which doesn't work particularly well. It might have, if poor Ms. Harris wasn't directed to act like a nut case in a Three Stooges comedy.

Since Family Plot doesn't build to any spectacular climaxes, what's left are some amusing plot hi-jinks as amateur sleuths Harris and Dern stumble into the path of the slick professionals. The film is engaging and passable but since we always expect something exceptional from Hitchcock, we're bound to be disappointed. Savant saw the film at its 1976 Filmex premiere in Century City, with an audience that was distinctly underwhelmed. That's the curse of making half a century's worth of riveting movies ... one is expected to keep it up forever.

The transfer looks fine, and Savant couldn't see any big changes between this and the earlier disc. John Williams' slightly eerie music for the 'spiritual' opening and closing gets the film off to a fine start, and helps leave us with a smile.

The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection helps round out the empty slots in his filmography, with the enhanced, double-tracked Vertigo being the obvious standout. The fancy box is aimed at big Christmas gift sales, while more focused film fans probably would have preferred to see more careful encoding of some of the films -- or perhaps a needed restoration for Psycho? The packaging is clever but imperfect; I've already dog-eared the corner of one of the folding disc holders trying to get it back into the fancy box. Fudge.

The super-duper Bonus Disc starts off with a fifteen-minute excerpt from the AFI Achievement awards dinner for Hitch, that sticks with the testimony of a big stars Ingrid Bergman and James Stewart). Our director stares at host George Stevens Jr. like an uncomfortable toad ... besides drumming up the usual hoorahs for the AFI, the piece plays like a party for a man who just wants to get it over with. But then Hitchcock gives forth with a charming speech that makes it all seem worthwhile. Note: Correspondent "B" has written to tell me that Hitchcock's speech was pre-recorded before the banquet ... ! (10.08.05)

Masters of Cinema is a pleasant interview from a little earlier in Hitch's career. He seems particularly animated, perhaps because one of his interviewers is Pia Lindstrom, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and a cool blonde who chuckles at his every sly comment. The longform docus that belong with The Birds and Psycho are also here, perhaps to open up the feature discs for a better encoding.

A monster box set for fourteen Alfred Hitchcock DVDs? It's the trend, of course, and retail outlets surely approve of the idea of pricey gift sets difficult to convert into rental items. Considering how economical some mass sets are, it's still an undeniably good thing for consumers on a cost-per-title basis. When I run back to the library for a movie to see, I'm usually more inclined to want to reach for a single disc that I can yank off the shelf and pop in the player, without turning on the house lights to face a Chinese Box puzzle to get to the goods -- Now, which disc folder is that in? I'm also not the kind of DVD collector who needs to smoke a pipe while proudly pulling down a fancy box container for my assembled guests to admire. "Here's a choice item, very rare. Only 740,000 were ever made!"

For DVD purchasers with only a few of its titles 2005's Masterpiece Collection is a great buy but the rest of us Hitchcock fanatics will have to appraise our DVD buying habit to decide whether this is the right choice. Universal probably isn't going to be bringing these out as single standard NTSC discs soon -- as I said above, the studios are already planning their HD marketing strategies.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Saboteur rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Shadow of a Doubt rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent --
Sound: Very Good

Rope rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Rear Window rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent

The Trouble with Harry rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
The Man Who Knew Too Much rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Fair
Sound: Excellent

Vertigo rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent Choice given of 1990's remix or 1958 original mono
Psycho rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good --
Sound: Excellent

The Birds rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Marnie rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

Torn Curtain rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Topaz rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

Frenzy rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Family Plot rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

Supplements: 36-page book (just photos, posters, credits and a few notes). Fourteen documentaries and nine featurettes, including: The Story of Frenzy; Plotting Family Plot; The Trouble With Harry Isn't Over; The Making of The Man Who Knew Too Much; Obsessed with Vertigo; Newsreel Footage: The Release of Psycho; Saboteur: A Closer Look; Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock's Favorite Film; Rope Unleashed; Rear Window Ethics: An Original Documentary; The Birds Is Coming; The Trouble with Marnie; Torn Curtain Rising; Topaz: An Appreciation by Leonard Maltin; Storyboards, Production photographs, Trailers. Bonus Disc: AFI Salute to Alfred Hitchcock; Masters of Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock; All About The Birds; The Making of Psycho
Packaging: fifteen discs in four card and plastic folders in 'velvet' display box.
Reviewed: September 5, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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