The New Old: The Master of Suspense

November 12, 2012

I’m not sure who made the decision, but apparently 2012 is the year of Alfred Hitchcock. HBO just aired a film starring Toby Jones as a perverted goblin version of the great director in The Girl, while Anthony Hopkins has his own make-up prosthetics enhanced Oscar bait version on the way in the appropriately titled Hitchcock. Not to be outdone, Universal clearly heard about all the impending Hitchcock hype, noticed they had the rights to a massive collection of the director’s back catalogue, and whipped up this frankly beautiful 15-disc set dedicated to the one and only Master Of Suspense. Given that Hitch made over 50 features in his long career, the set can’t exactly be declared definitive (for one thing, his entire British career is ignored). However, Universal did include a pretty solid overview of the director’s Hollywood output, featuring classics from his earliest days in Hollywood stretching all the way to his final works. If you’ve never sampled any Hitchcock before, this box is an ideal place to start, featuring most of his iconic classics and showing off everything the filmmaker did so well. It would be easy to bitch about what was and wasn’t included, but with a box set this good, it doesn’t seem right to complain. Getting this much HD Hitchcock at once is enough to makes even the most shriveled film geek’s heart flutter back to life.

The set starts with three of Hitch’s earliest Hollywood thrillers, made shortly after the man flew across the pond. First up is Sabateur, a wartime thriller about a wrongfully accused man (the director’s favorite set up), specifically a weapons factory employee who is chased across the country following a suspicious explosion. The scale isn’t quite as large as what Hitchcock would be able to whip up a decade later, but Sabateur is one of the director’s more underrated early efforts. It’s a consistently thrilling adventure with some incredible stunts and set pieces (the finale on the statue of liberty is worth a pass through the film alone).

Next is one of the filmmaker’s more subtle efforts and his personal favorite, Shadow of a Doubt. Written by Our Town’s Thronton Wilder, the film is an almost Lynchian portrayal of the evils hidden behind the white picket fences of suburbia. It’s about an idyllic family who discover their favorite uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton in possibly his best role) is actually a serial killer. The character-driven film allows Hitch to take the slow-burn approach to suspense, while delivering one of his most layered narratives in arguably his first masterpiece.

The final early-Hitch project is his first color production Rope. The director and most critics tend to dismiss it as an empty gimmick picture because of Hitch’s decision to shoot the entire project in long takes. That’s fair enough, this isn’t a particularly deep effort from the filmmaker (especially following Shadow Of A Doubt), however it ignores the fact that the movie is a tight, claustrophobic gem about a psychotic duo (loosely based of Leopold and Loeb) who murder as a hobby and won’t let that new past time get in the way of a dinner party. Hitch’s show-off long take technique works surprisingly well and the whole thing is an impressive director-driven experiment that the old Hollywood system wasn’t supposed to allow.

From there, the set jumps to Hitchcock’s golden period of the 50s, when he was a weekly TV star thanks to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the posters for his films flaunted his name over the stars. Rear Window comes next and the tale of a wheelchair bound Jimmy Stewart being a creep for spying on his neighbors until he discovers a murder is one of Hitchcock’s true masterpieces. There’s really nothing I can say that would add anything to the endless amount of critical praise the film has received since being released in 1954, so all I’ll mention is that if you somehow are lucky enough to stumble onto this set without ever having seen a Hitchcock movie, that’s the place to start. It represents everything he does well from the suspense to the humor to the twisted portrayals of movie stars he occasionally liked to dabble in. Plus, Grace Kelly in that movie…my god…I’m another awkward fat man who fully understands Hitchcock’s obsession with that princess.

Next up is one of Hitch’s most underappreciated and bizarre movies, The Trouble With Harry. It’s a dark comedy pretty well devoid of the master’s usual set pieces. Instead, the film finds gentle laughs in how the eccentrics in a small American town react with an eerie calm and good humor to the discovery of a corpse. The film is not an underrated masterpiece (the concept is never quite as amusing in practice as Hitch clearly found it in theory), but it is a worthwhile oddity for fans of the director to rediscover. Just don’t rush to play that disc from the set. The last entry from Hitchcock’s early 50s heyday is the Hollywood blockbuster remake of his early British hit The Man Who Knew Too Much. Neither version is the best film the director made by a mile, but the remake is an entirely amusing Technicolor suspense romp with well-employed star wattage and a classic climax. Sure, the narrative can drag, but it’s still one of the most purely enjoyable films in the box.

From there, the box set unleashes one of the greatest consecutive four movie streaks any filmmaker ever produced. It starts with Vertigo, a film that has gone from being Hitchcock’s most underrated feature when it bombed at the box office to being his most overrated effort after topping Sight and Sound’s recent pole of the greatest films in history. Vertigo isn’t the best film ever made, nor is it even Hitch’s best effort. However, the dreamlike perverse fantasy is by far his most unconventional Hollywood effort and a fascinating exploration of the director’s obsessions. It’s easy to see why critics are in love with Vertigo and Jimmy Stewart plays one of the most twisted and disturbed heroes in a classic Hollywood movie. However, the central murder plot is a little absurd even by Hitchcock standards and it lacks the unrelenting suspense drive of his other classics. Vertigo is still a masterpiece, it just doesn’t quite live up to its considerable reputation.

That slow-burn approach vanished in the director’s follow up North By Northwest, which sees Cary Grant framed for murder in the UN and forced to run from the authorities across the US, before dangling out of a few presidents’ noses in a Mount Rushmore climax. The movie is essentially meaningless, but it’s also way too damn much fun. You could argue that Hitchcock created the summer blockbuster in North By Northwest based on the scale, the incredible action scenes (especially the cornfield), the self-conscious movie star casting, and the comedic tone that runs from start to finish. Hitchcock doesn’t normally get credited with creating action movies, but after a quick double bill of Sabateur and North By Northwest, it’s impossible to deny his impact on the genre.

On genre Hitch is credited with influencing is horror and the last two films of his peak run pulled the genre kicking and screaming out of its cheesy B-movie origins.  Psycho almost belongs in a class on it’s own amongst Hitchcock pictures as a brilliantly constructed piece of audience manipulation and misdirection that still works on the few viewers who haven’t had the secrets spoiled by decades of pop culture references. Hitch essentially took the horror genre away from big rubber monsters and into the delightful land of serial killers and Psycho has easily aged the best of all of his films (especially since the Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake has now mercifully faded from memory).

His equally iconic follow up The Birds also replaced monsters with a far more relatable threat and most chillingly he denied his audience any sort of rhyme or reason for the feather-bound attacks. While some of the special effects have lost their luster over the years, The Birds still packs a punch thanks to the director’s masterful scare tactics and the surprisingly effective decision to have the entire film play without a score. Psycho and The Birds collectively created the modern horror film and to this day justifiably remain Hitchcock’s most recognizable and beloved features. They also represented the peak of his career before it all went downhill.

Well, maybe that’s unfair. First came Marnie, a film he developed at the same time as The Birds that also starred Tippi Hendren as a compulsive thief with an irrational fear of being touched by men (including a Bond-era Sean Connery). Marnie is Hitch’s last great movie, a perverse character study not too far removed from Vertigo. However, it also shows the director starting to slip with some painfully obvious Freudian psychology and a few overly gimmicky techniques (like the flashing red frames) that don’t work nearly as well as intended in the more serious minded adult thriller. The movie has deservingly been reevaluated as one of Hitch’s major final works in recent years, but don’t believe the hype that it’s his best movie either. That’s just silly talk. It’s a step down from the ridiculously impressive streak of Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, but also far better than the films to follow.

The set wraps up with four mildly disappointing Hitchcock efforts made in the final days of his career while still a Universal contract player. Torn Curtain and Topaz are mediocre efforts from a director trying and failing to adapt to the new cinematic climate of the 60s by taking on new stars (Paul Newman! Julie Andrews!) and themes (government cover ups! Cold War politics!) that just don’t fit comfortably within the Hitchcock formula. His final two movies Frenzy and Family Plot are normally dismissed just as quickly, but are well worth a look for fans. They were both made in the 70s and are very much the work of a director past his prime struggling to play catch up with the new generation of thrill-makers. They feel like 50s movies in a 70s setting, but there is an undeniable charm in seeing Hitch trot out his bag of tricks one last time. Frenzy updates his suspense/scare tactics to a 70s setting with a serial killer/rapist, while Family Plot is an all-star suspense/comedy romp with Hitch winking at the audience through the likes of Karen Black and Bruce Dern. Neither movie is a masterpiece, but it’s nice to see that Hitch still had some jolt and charm left by the time he was a 70-year-old filmmaking veteran. Consider those two fluffy features a well-deserved victory lap.

So that’s the collection of movies and it’s quite a hefty package with far more classics than stinkers. The technical presentation is just as strong as you’d hope for a prestige movie package like this. All of the movies feature freshly tuned lossless audio mixes that provide new levels of clarity, which help out a Hitchcock movie considerably since he always paid special attention to the use of sound and also like to hire composer Bernard Hermann to give his audience’s ear drums a workout.

The video transfers on the other hand vary in quality from mind-boggling to passable. Sabateur and Shadow of a Doubt kick things off with gorgeous black and white transfers that are amongst the best of their kind. Rope and Rear Window are a little soft in comparison; however, that might be more the result of the limitations of early Technicolor than the transfers themselves and the vibrant colors on display make the movies glow better than ever before. Those transfers are soundly trumped by the stunning visuals offered by The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, and especially Vertigo. All of these films were shot in VistaVision, which was essentially 70mm before such a thing existed. As a result they have a depth, clarity, and vibrancy to the color images that was never possible to accurately represent on DVD. Based on the added detail and clarity, the films look like they were shot yesterday, while still retaining the pastel color stylization of early Hollywood films. They are simply stunning to watch and your eyeballs will thank you for the privilege. Vertigo was clearly given the most lavish overhaul of the VistaVision features and looks the best, but all of these titles deserve a spin on Blu-ray just to make your eyes drool (some call it crying, I know better). Given that they are his most famous creations, it’s not too surprising to notice that Psycho and The Birds have been issued stunning technical upgrades as well. Granted, the new transfers make Psycho’s budget limitations and The Birds’ weakest effects sequences more apparent than ever, but that doesn’t stop them from being two of the finest vintage film presentations available on Blu-ray, full stop. Marnie has the first muddled HD presentation on the set, with some scenes appearing gorgeous and others looking barely better than DVD. Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot all have mediocre transfers or worse, but given that they are lesser films in the Hitchcock cannon, that’s not particularly irritating. They still look better than they ever did on DVD and it’s not like you’ll be racing to watch those titles anyways.

When it comes to special features, the 15-disc set has only a single freshly produced extra to offer and it’s a fairly useless 14-minute documentary on The Birds’ impact on the horror genre. Now at this point I should get angry, but that’s really not necessary. You see, Universal has been cranking out special editions of Hitchcock movies since the beginnings on the DVD format and all of those goodies are collected here. What that means is that every disc has at least a 30-minute documentary about the making of the film, with the most famous titles boasting feature length docs and additional Hichcock appreciation featurettes with celebrity Hitchcock fans like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, and Guillermo Del Toro. It might be frustrating that Universal didn’t produce anything new for the set, but there must be somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 hours worth of special features on this set and how much extra material do you really need? Besides, most of these documentaries feature interviews with folks involved with the films who have passed on over the last decade, so it wouldn’t have even been possible to make making of docs this insightful now. Throw in hilarious Hitchcock-hosted trailers for every film, some pretty hard-bound packaging, and 58-page book of Hitchcock facts (including a guide to spotting the Hitchcock cameo in all 15 films) and you’ve got everything you could possibly want to see or know about these 15 Hitchcock classics in one place. Universal have really outdone themselves here, topping their fantastic recent Universal Monsters box to produce easily the best vintage movie Blu-ray set currently on the market. There’s so much to enjoy here and no old school filmmaker who deserves the treatment more than Hitchcock. Once both the biopics disappear into instant obscurity, this sweet sweet box set will still be around to prove 2012 did at least one thing right for the most famous director who ever lived. If you’re a Hitchcock fan, you have to own this thing. If you’ve never heard of the guy, buy it anyways. You’re about to have some real fun.

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