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Blu-Ray Review: Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection

Fifteen (mostly) classic films make this spectacular Blu-ray boxed set one of the best around.


They call Alfred Hitchcock “The Master” for a reason. His career spanned over five decades and spawned dozens of classic films, and that’s no exaggeration. Hitchcock was the kind of master storyteller we get once a generation (if we’re lucky), and was talented and prolific in equal measure. Practically any Hitchcock film is a master class in “how to do it right,” but until now, most of his films had failed to make the transition to high-definition. Universal has fixed that with their updated, high-definition release of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, which includes 15 of Hitchcock’s films, fourteen of which rank among his very best work, even though certain highlights – Notorious, Rebecca and Spellbound among them – are not included, but only because they’re owned by different studios.  

If you have a film lover in your life, this is what you’re getting them for Christmas. Even if they have the previous DVD edition, many of the high-definition transfers are mindblowing, even for less acclaimed works like The Trouble with Harry and Frenzy. And every film has at least one solid behind the scenes documentary about the production, with some of the higher profile pictures – Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho – packed to the gills with special content, either because they've been released on Blu-ray before as standalone discs or because those individual releases are doubtless coming soon.

Need a primer? Sure you do. So let’s review every single film in the now-available Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray set, from the established classics, to the quirky experiments, to the only genuinely crappy Hitchcock movie I have ever seen. Which one’s the disappointment? Read on and find out.
 

Saboteur (1942)

On the surface, Saboteur looks like the kind of “wrong man” movie Alfred Hitchcock made over and over again. Under the surface… well, that’s exactly what it is, but don’t write Saboteur off as subpar Hitchcock. It’s a fascinating depiction of World War II-era America from the outsider’s perspective, in more ways than one. The director was still a recent transplant to these shores, and seemed to view this country as a crazy quilt of unique individual perspectives, and the journey of Robert Cummings from coast to coast, on the run after being wrongly accused of sabotaging a munitions plant, introduces him to the elite, the working class, the isolated freethinkers and even the freaks – as in, folks in a sideshow – as a comic overview of the personality of a nation. (Famed rebel, poet, critic and quip-master Dorothy Parker co-wrote the screenplay.) The finale, with Cummings desperately hanging on to the real saboteur, and possibly the only man who can clear his name, as the villain hangs perilously off the torch of the Statue of Liberty is still one of Hitchcock’s most iconic images.

Saboteur looks fantastic – as, again, do most of the films in this boxed set – and holds the test of time better than some of Hitchcock’s more famous films. If you haven’t seen it, or remember it as a subpar version of North by Northwest (as indeed some do), this is a perfect time to revisit this wonderful thriller.

 

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt has gained popularity over the years, partly due to Hitchcock’s claim that of all his films, this is one of his favorites. It’s also one of the oddest. The plot is a classic suspense set-up: Teresa Wright stars as a teenaged girl, bored with her ordinary American existence, who gets more excitement than she bargained for when her uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, comes to town. Tragically, she comes to suspect that her most beloved family member is also a serial killer, and in order to protect her family’s ignorant happiness carries on a battle of wits (and eventually death traps) with her uncle, right under their noses. Cotten is a marvelous villain, and Hitchcock films it beautifully, but Shadow of a Doubt has some curious conceits – like an implied psychic connection between the hero and villain – that makes it stand out as an odd, but ultimately very effective addition to his canon.

Shadow of a Doubt looks better than it’s ever looked before on home video, but may have the weakest transfer on this set, showcasing a few shots with some leftover damage but overall still impressing with its renewed clarity. It’s a classic, but its weird psychological and psychosexual subtexts may be off-putting for casual fans of the master.

 

Rope (1948)

Rope would be a mere gimmick movie if it didn’t have such a rich screenplay. The film, based on a play by Patrick Hamilton (Gaslight), consists of only ten camera shots, edited to imply a single, unedited take. (Cameras only held about ten minutes of footage back in 1948.) The showmanship is daring, even if Hitchcock’s attempts at seamless editing are obvious today – he usually pushes into the back of someone’s shirt, and for no particular reason, to hide the cut – but the story’s strong enough to work on its own merits. John Dall and Farley Granger play young aristocrats, based loosely on Leopold and Loeb, who murder one of their friends and then invite the rest of their social circle – including the victim’s fiancé and father – over for a party just minutes later, setting up the hors d’oeuvres on top of the chest containing his fresh corpse. James Stewart plays their old schoolteacher, who unwittingly gave them the idea and gradually intuits what’s really going on.

Rope would be more effective if the gimmick actually related to the story or its themes, but it’s an impressive acting showcase and a crackerjack suspense story, and the high-definition transfer looks very impressive indeed. Some write the film off as one of Hitchcock’s little cinematic experiments, but even if that’s true, it’s a largely successful one.



Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window, in my humble opinion, is Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, and therefore, by extension, one of the best movies ever made. First, it’s a wonderful story. James Stewart plays a photographer temporarily confined to a wheelchair who spends his lazy days spying on his neighbors out the window, one of whom (Raymond Burr) appears to have just killed his wife. As the circumstantial evidence mounts, so does Stewart’s determination to find tangible proof of the crime, but he’s forced to watch impotently from his apartment as his debutante girlfriend Grace Kelly puts herself in harm’s way for him. The film’s many suspense sequences will have you giving standing ovations by yourself in your living room, but the real meat of the movie is Hitchcock’s use of James Stewart’s voyeurism as a dissection of the audience themselves, who project their own interests and insecurities upon every film, just as Stewart sees in each of his neighbors parallels to his own relationship woes with Grace Kelly.

Universal clearly made Rear Window a priority, as the remarkable transfer and relatively vast array of special features shows. The film remains one of Hitchcock’s most timeless movies, and damn it, I still say it’s better than Vertigo. But we’ll get to that.

 

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Trouble with Harry used to be considered “lesser Hitchcock,” and although the film is most definitely (and strangely) compelling, it’s easy to see why. Most Hitchcock movies are at least semi-serious thrillers about the anxiety that comes from murder and mayhem. The Trouble with Harry is about an entire town of people who are curiously blasé about a corpse, named Harry, who suddenly pops up on the outskirts of their little hamlet. They each have their reasons, and the plot eventually twists and turns enough that Harry is buried and then dug up four times over the course of the film, but that particular irony is the driving force of the movie, and makes The Trouble with Harry feel like a bit of a trifle.

But it’s a fascinating trifle, often very funny and always extremely weird – like a Coen Bros. movie that popped up decades before anyone was ready for it – and the transfer is surprisingly eye-popping for a film that’s not usually considered one of Hitchcock’s best. The Trouble with Harry looks like it was shot yesterday, and that’s no exaggeration. Impeccably gorgeous, and one of the best transfers in the entire set. Many people are likely to discover The Trouble with Harry for the first time thanks to this collection, and they’re in for a very unexpected treat.

 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock revisited many of his favorite themes and story tropes over his over 50-year career, but The Man Who Knew Too Much was the first and only time he properly remade one of his own movies. The newer version of the original 1934 thriller stars James Stewart and Doris Day as a married couple on vacation in Morocco who accidentally become embroiled in a globetrotting assassination plot. Stewart and Day are a somewhat awkward romantic pairing, but they do sell the notion of a “normal” couple struggling to keep their wits about them after their son has been kidnapped. It’s a slower paced film than usual for Hitchcock, but a few key set pieces – including a dazzling suspense sequence at a Bernard Hermann concert (Hermann plays himself) that plays like a silent thriller unto itself – still make it stand out among the other, better films Hitchcock made along similar lines.

I’m not the biggest fan of the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much, but it’s not a bad film by any stretch. It looks nice and all, but isn’t the highlight of this set by a long shot.

 

Vertigo (1958)

I’ve needed to revisit Vertigo since it became the new “Best Movie Ever Made” last summer in the vaunted Sight & Sound poll, and this was the perfect opportunity. While I certainly respected the film, it never cracked my top five favorite Hitchcock movies, and after watching it again, I can confidently say that it still doesn’t. It is, however, one of the director’s most daring, troubling and beautifully shot films. James Stewart stars as a recently retired police detective with a paralyzing fear of heights. He’s hired as a private investigator by an old college friend (Tom Helmore) who suspects that his wife, played by Kim Novak, is being possessed by the ghost of her grandmother, who committed suicide at an early age and might inspire her to do the same. It’s an odd set-up, and that oddness is compounded by the fact that the story seems to end halfway through the film and then… keeps going, into a terrifying psychological study of obsession after Stewart finds a woman who… Oh, but that would be telling.

Vertigo dares to go in unexpected dramatic directions, and tackle themes of obsession and relationship dominance that seem to mirror Hitchcock’s own, famous and often creepy obsessions with transforming his (often strikingly physically similar) leading ladies into whatever he wanted them to be. As a result, it’s probably his darkest movie, but the psychological horror seems to dominate the actual storyline, which plays like little more than an excuse to get the players in place to enact the ultimate subconscious nightmare. That’s a thin criticism, but also why I still prefer Rear Window, a film whose narrative and subtextual content feel more perfectly married than this.

Whether you think it’s the best film ever made, just a damned good movie or even utterly weird and impenetrable, Vertigo gets the star treatment on this set, and with good cause.


 

North by Northwest (1959)

Hitchcock followed the uncomfortably intense Vertigo with North by Northwest, one of the best thrillers ever made, and his only collaboration with Cary Grant (of which there were many) that makes an appearance in this collection. It also seems to be the exact same disc that was released individually before this, but that’s okay, since that disc was incredible and, along with The Trouble with Harry, Psycho and Frenzy, boasts one of the best transfers in this set.

By the time North by Northwest came out, Hitchcock had done the “wrongly accused man on the run” storyline so many times that he felt free to get really cute with the concept. Cary Grant stars as a suave but otherwise normal New Yorker who gets confused with a secret agent named “George Kaplan,” and is unable to convince the supervillain James Mason that he’s got the wrong guy. Soon he’s framed for murder and on the run across the country, getting chased down by biplanes and crawling across the face of Mount Rushmore in a frantic attempt to clear his name, find the real George Kaplan and woo the impossibly sexy Eva Marie Saint, who is not just along for the ride. Both Hitchcock and Grant approach North by Northwest with a wink and a smile, but never at the cost of the film’s ample suspense. By God, this is great filmmaking.

But what does North by Northwest mean? Not a damned thing, just like the title. It’s just one of the most entertaining movies ever made, subtext be damned, and still puts most Hollywood blockbusters to shame.

 

Psycho (1960)

It’s been said, and I am not about to argue the point, that there are only two eras in the history of cinema: before Psycho, and after Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock, who helped define so many of the genre tropes we still use today, utterly annihilated them in this adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel, bringing overt sexuality, graphic violence and a complete disregard for storytelling structure into the mainstream for the first time. The result was a roaring success: a terrifying and expertly crafted thriller about a woman (Janet Leigh) on the run with $40,000 who wanders into another movie altogether when she stops off at the Bates Motel, and gets carved up in the shower by the homicidal mother of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). A few elements of Psycho seem a little clunky by today’s standards, particularly a long-winded explanation of the criminal’s motives in the finale (something that was surely more necessary back in the early 1960s than it is today, decades after Hitchcock cemented the serial killer tropes we now all take for granted), but the overall effect is almost as shocking as it was when Psycho debuted. Almost.

Like North by Northwest, Psycho appears to be the exact same disc that was issued as a standalone before, but that disc was absolutely incredible and is still a highlight of this set.

 

The Birds (1963)

Hitchcock’s follow-up to Psycho was another straight-up horror movie that experimented with the genre, and while it didn’t have quite the same impact (what could?), it’s still a creepy film by anyone’s standards. Tippi Hedren stars as an impish socialite who follows an unwitting love interest, played by Rod Taylor (who looks uncannily like famed porn star Evan Stone), back to his isolated family home in Bodega Bay, where the birds have started acting… strange. What begins as a light romance gradually transforms into a terrifying horror story in which all the birds in Bodega Bay, and eventually beyond, begin attacking mankind without warning, every once in a while stopping for no discernable reason before the terror resumes in ever-escalating earnest.

The deliberate pacing of The Birds is, at turns, either a little slow or impossibly suspenseful, and Hitchcock’s choice to never actually explain the sudden shift in the food chain, along with his decisions not to incorporate a musical score and to end the film before anything has been resolved, creates a sense of unease rarely paralleled. But what is The Birds actually about? So much of the first half of the film focuses on issues of maternity and feminine romantic attraction that it feels like the movie is going somewhere with it, but it amounts to very little once the birds actually attack. Perhaps that’s the point… to screw with all the critics looking for deeper meaning in world with no easy answers.

The Birds isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Psycho, and not quite as involving as some of Hitchcock’s other thrillers, but it’s a unique film in a career otherwise filled with consistent – and consistently effective – stylistic choices. This Blu-ray treats it with the respect it deserves.

 

Marnie (1964)

Popular critical theory states that Alfred Hitchcock’s career was all downhill after The Birds (and some would even say after Psycho), and while it’s true that none of his later movies achieved the iconic status of his most famous films, most of them are still exceptional on their own merits, except one (but we’ll get to that one). Marnie was considered a critical failure on its initial release, but looking back on it now, it appears that Hitchcock was attempting to marry the complex psychology of Vertigo with a story that actually warranted that kind of subconscious examination. He was largely successful. Tippi Hedren stars as the title character, a compulsive career thief whose latest mark, Sean Connery, catches her in the act and decides not to call the police. Instead, he decides to marry her and solve the mystery of her criminal compulsions whether she likes it or not.

Marnie is well acted, gorgeously shot, and effectively milks suspense from its intimate reinterpretation of traditional suspense tropes (unlike Notorious, the husband knows he’s marrying someone with ulterior motives beforehand), but the film suffers from themes that feel backward in a modern context. Connery marries Hedren in order to change her, and there’s something vaguely (and in one instance, outright) degrading about the way his “love” for Hedren manifests in condescension and total control. He wants to free Marnie from her psychosis by robbing her of her freedom, which plays as ugly as it sounds but, in context of the time period, is at least fascinating to watch.

 



Torn Curtain (1966)

I had never seen Torn Curtain before this set came out (a statement I can say for every film I’m reviewing after The Birds, actually), but I was pleasantly surprised by what an engaging thriller it is. Paul Newman stars as an American scientist who defects behind the “Iron Curtain,” much to the shock of his fiancé, Julie Andrews, who follows him to East Germany in the hopes that it isn’t true. Of course it’s not true – Newman only defected to infiltrate the enemy’s science department and extract valuable secrets – but he never has enough time alone with Andrews to reveal the truth, and Andrews effectively sells the emotional tumult that ensues.

That’s a fantastic set-up and, for the most part, Torn Curtain works. The sense of betrayal is tangible, and the sense of frustration at hiding your good nature from the woman your love is equally heartfelt. The film contains several sequences that rank among Hitchcock’s best, including an almost impossibly long murder of an enemy agent (illustrating, for once, just how hard it is to actually kill someone), and a second act set piece on board a bus that I won’t ruin, because was utterly thrilled by it. The movie’s a little dry at times, but Torn Curtain is a welcome and underrated addition to Hitchcock’s oeuvre that deserves a second look. And it looks absolutely great (I seem to be saying that a lot, don’t I?).

 

Topaz (1969)

Topaz sucks.

Yeah, I said it, and I’ll say it again. Topaz sucks. There are isolated moments of interest here and there, but they’re hidden in an unfocused narrative full of non-characters working towards a vague goal that shifts so often over the course of the movie that it’s hard to follow. It starts well, with a high-ranking Russian official risking everything to defect to America, but then the story shuffles vaguely from character to character, never lingering long enough on any of them to develop a real rooting interest, and removing any sense of propulsion from the narrative. The story mostly focuses on a French diplomat (Frederick Stafford) who’s enlisted by an American intelligence agency to investigate Russia’s attempts to arm Cuba with nuclear weapons, which was obviously topical in the 1960s, but the only time Topaz gets interesting is when the film digresses to mini-set pieces with the supporting cast, who often get more out of a single scene than the supposed star does out of the entire movie.

Alfred Hitchcock was clearly trying something here, but not every experiment yields effective results. Topaz plays like an attempt to tell a realistic spy story, but in the process neglects to establish enough emotional melodrama to drive the story forward. I couldn’t care less about any of the main characters in Topaz, and the supporting characters I did care about are all written out of the film after a couple scenes. Topaz has its fans, but I am not one of them. It’s a total bore, and the transfer didn’t really wow me either.

 

Frenzy (1972)

Now that that’s over, back to the good stuff: Alfred Hitchcock returned to his roots with Frenzy, a film – like his early silent success, The Lodger – about a serial killer wandering the streets of London and a man unjustly accused of being that maniac. But Frenzy, moreso than Topaz, marries Hitchcock’s existing enthusiasms with a then-modern milieu: it’s such a gorgeous thriller, and so unexpectedly violent (with quite a bit of actual nudity, too), that it plays like an early Dario Argento film… although it’s probably more accurate to say that Dario Argento’s films play a lot like Frenzy.

The film stars Jon Finch as an anger-prone ladies man whose ex-wife is murdered by a well-publicized serial killer, and who becomes the prime suspect due to a series of unfortunate accidents. Unlike most “wrong man” movies, it’s easy to see how Finch could be accused of murder; he utterly feels dangerous throughout the entire film, and for a fair portion of the story feels like a plausible suspect himself. Hitchcock is clearly engaged by Frenzy, and seems completely liberated by the increasingly acceptable levels of violence and disturbing psychology that followed Psycho, ramping them up once again to great effect. The film contains some exceptional suspense sequences, a fair amount of Hitchcock’s trademarked quirky humor and a tone that makes it feel like one of his most dangerous films. And the transfer is exceptional. Although I like the next film (Hitchcock’s last) quite a bit, Frenzy may very well be his final classic, whether my fellow critics agree on that or not.

 

Family Plot (1976)

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film is a lighthearted little thriller about a phony psychic, played by Barbara Harris, who uses her “gifts” – i.e. her con artist boyfriend, Bruce Dern – to track down the missing heir to a multimillion-dollar fortune. What she doesn’t realize is that the heir, William Devane, doesn’t want to be found, having faked his own death years prior and settled into a life of elaborate crime with his girlfriend, Karen Black. Devane spends most of the film trying to evade and kill Harris and Dern, unaware that they don’t want to arrest or blackmail him, but instead give him millions of dollars. That quirky premise, along with the fantastic chemistry between both shady couples, makes Family Plot feel like Hitchcock’s version of a Thin Man movie, and that’s a very good thing. It amounts to little beyond a tightly wound diversion, but is brimming with personality and boasts a handful of fantastic ideas that make it a fine, if not altogether fitting, capper to one of the most impressive careers any director has ever had. And yes, it looks great. They all do, damn it.


Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray:


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