Offbeat Blu-ray Review: The 400 Blows – The Criterion Collection

(Spine # 5)

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Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: 08/Apr/ 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 1:40:02

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: Uncompressed French Mono

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 2.34:1

Bitrate: 38.83 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes a DVD disc. Criterion released the film as a Blu-ray only release in 2009 and the title is available on DVD as well.

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“I had made The 400 Blows in a state of anxiety, because I was afraid that the film would never be released and that, if it did come out, people would say, ‘After having insulted everyone as a critic, Truffaut should have stayed home!’” –François Truffaut

François Truffaut’s book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock is the text on which all other writings about the director revolve. This might sound unfair to the countless contributions of other writers to the study of Hitchcock’s work, but it would be very difficult to dispute this claim. By the time Truffaut began his series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock in the fall of 1962, he had already directed three feature films (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and Jules and Jim).

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Les quatre cents coups (more commonly known as The 400 Blows in English speaking territories) was Truffaut’s debut feature film. It helped establish the French New Wave and was met with an amazing amount of critical praise upon its release. By all accounts, the director was rather surprised at the success of these early New Wave films.

“I don’t know if there was actually a plan behind the New Wave, but as far as I was concerned, it never occurred to me to revolutionize the cinema or to express myself differently from previous filmmakers. I always thought that the cinema was just fine, except for the fact that it lacked sincerity. I’d do the same thing others were doing, but better.” –François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

The sincerity that Truffaut was able to capture in The 400 Blows is one of the film’s major triumphs and what sets it apart from other films that focused on childhood. Truffaut had recently finished a short film that centered on children and was not completely happy with the finished product. As a matter of fact, The 400 Blows was originally intended as one in a series of shorts focusing on children.

“My first real film, in 1957, was Les MistonsThe Mischief Makers in English. It had the advantage of telling a story, which was not common practice for short films in those days! It also gave me the opportunity to start working with actors…

…I saw it as the first of a series of sketches. It was easier at the time, and would be even now, to find money for three or four different short films than to find enough financial support for a feature film. So I planned to do a series of sketches with the common thread of childhood. I had five or six stories from which I could choose. I started with Les Mistons because it was the easiest to shoot.

When it was finished, I wasn’t completely satisfied because the film was a little too literary. Let me explain: Les Mistons is the story of five children who spy on young lovers. And I noticed, in directing these children; that they had no interest in the girl, who was played by Gérard Blain’s wife, Bernadette Lafont; the boys weren’t jealous of Blain himself, either. So I had them do contrived things to make them appear jealous, and later this annoyed me. I told myself that I’d film with children again, but next time I would have them be truer to life and use as little fiction as possible…

… When I was shooting Les Mistons, The 400 Blows already existed in my mind in the form of a short film, which was titled Antoine Runs Away

… I was disappointed by Les Mistons, or at least by its brevity. You see, I had come to reject the sort of film made up of several skits or sketches. So I preferred to leave Les Mistons as a short and to take my chances with a full-length film by spinning out the story of Antoine Runs Away. Of the five or six stories I had already outlined, this was my favorite, and it became The 400 Blows.

Antoine Runs Away was a twenty-minute sketch about a boy who plays hooky and, having no note to hand in as an excuse, makes up the story that his mother has died. His lie having been discovered, he does not dare go home and spends the night outdoors. I decided to develop this story with the help of Marcel Moussy, at the time a television writer whose shows for a program called If It Was You were very realistic and very successful. They always dealt with family or social problems. Moussy and I added to the beginning and the end of Antoine’s story until it became a kind of chronicle of a boy’s thirteenth year—of the awkward early teenaged years.

In fact, The 400 Blows became a rather pessimistic film. I can’t really say what the theme is—there is none, perhaps—but one central idea was to depict early adolescence as a difficult time of passage and not to fall into the usual nostalgia about “the good old days,” the salad days of youth – because, for me in any event, childhood is a series of painful memories. Now, when I feel blue, I tell myself, ‘I’m an adult. I do as I please’ and that cheers me up right away. But then, childhood seemed like such a hard phase of life; you’re not allowed to make any mistakes. Making a mistake is a crime: you break a plate by mistake and it’s a real offense. That was my approach in The 400 Blows, using a relatively flexible script to leave room for improvisation, mostly provided by the actors. I was very happy in this respect with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, who was quite different from the original character I had imagined.”–François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

Truffaut was not afraid to change his original conception in order to enhance the film’s authenticity and believed that casting Léaud improved his vision.

“I didn’t like the idea of finding a kid on the street and asking his parents, ‘Would you let him make a movie with me?’ For this first feature film of mine about children, I wanted the children to be willing — both the children and their parents. So I used the ad to get them to come to a studio near the Champs-Elysées, where I was doing 16-mm screen tests every Thursday. I saw a number of boys, one of whom was Jean-Pierre Léaud. He was more interesting than all the rest, more intense, more frantic even. He really, really wanted the part, and I think that touched me. I could feel during the shoot that the story improved, that the film became better than the screenplay, thanks to him.” – François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

The screenplay itself was already built around the idea of presenting events honestly from a child’s perspective. As a matter of fact, the project was a personal one for Truffaut.

“All I can say is that nothing in it is invented. What didn’t happen to me personally – happened to people I know – to boys my age and even to people that I had read about in the papers. Nothing in The 400 Blows is pure fiction, then, but neither is the film a wholly autobiographical work…

…As for my method of writing, I started making “script sheets” when I began work on The 400 Blows. School: various gags at school. Home: some gags at home. Street: a few gags in the street. I think everyone works in this way, at least on some films. You certainly do it for comedies, and you can even do it for dramas. And this material, in my case, was often based on memories. I realized that you can really exercise your memory where the past is concerned. I had found a class photo, for example, one in the classic pose with all the pupils lined up. The first time I looked at that picture, I could remember the names of only two friends. But by looking at it for an hour each morning over a period of several days, I remembered all my classmates’ names, their parents’ jobs, and where everybody lived.

It was around this time that I met Moussy and asked him if he’d like to work with me on the script of The 400 Blows. Since I myself had played hooky quite a bit, all of Antoine’s problems with fake notes, forged signatures, bad report cards—all of these I knew by heart, of course. The movies to which we truants went started at around ten in the morning; there were several theaters in Paris that opened at such an early hour. And their clientele was made up almost exclusively of schoolchildren! But you couldn’t go with your schoolbag, because it would make you look suspicious. So we hid our bags behind the door of the theater. Two of these movie houses faced each other: the Cinéac-Italiens and the New York. Each morning around nine-forty-five, there would be fifty or sixty children waiting outside to get in. And the first theater to open would get all the business because we were anxious to hide. We felt awfully exposed out there in the middle of all that.” –François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

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While shooting the picture, the director occasionally found himself unsure how to approach a scene.

“…Antoine, who told the teacher that his mother had died to avoid having to hand in a note for his absence, and who is found out in the afternoon when his mother comes to the school—decides never to return home. And after school, he talks with his young friend about his plans. This was quite difficult dialogue to do because it wasn’t natural. These words weren’t something a child would normally say; I’m very realistic, and such moments, as originally written, went against the—or my—grain. It was hard, therefore, to find the right stance with which to direct Jean-Pierre Léaud in this scene. For some reason, the situation reminded me of a scene in The Human Beast, where Jean Gabin, as Jacques Lantier, returns at the very end of the movie. He comes back to his locomotive the morning after killing Simone Simon’s character and he has to explain to the other conductor, played by Julien Carette, that he killed this woman. Renoir directed Gabin marvelously here, precisely by using the hallmark of his cinematic style: its utter casualness or offhandedness. Gabin says, ‘It’s horrible. I killed her. I loved her. I’ll never see her again. I’ll never be by her side.’ He said all this very softly, very simply. And I used my memory of Gabin’s performance to direct Léaud, who did his own scene exactly like Gabin’s.

That was a tough scene. It was easier to coach Léaud in the scene where he goes to school without a note after a three-day absence and decides to say his mother died. In this instance there wasn’t any question of someone’s directorial influence on me but only of my own directorial instinct. We don’t know that Antoine has decided to tell this lie, only that he’ll say something big. Of course, he could use a number of ways to say his mother had died. He could be shifty or sad or whatever. I decided the boy should give the impression that he doesn’t want to tell the lie. That he doesn’t dare say it but that the teacher pushes him to do so. The teacher asks, ‘Where’s your note?’ and the child replies, ‘It’s my mother, sir.’ The teacher inquires, ‘Your mother? What about her?’ It’s only because the teacher badgers him that Antoine suddenly decides to fight back and say, ‘She’s dead!’ I told Léaud, ‘You say, ‘She’s dead!’ but you think in your head, ‘She’s dead! What do you say to that?’ He doesn’t say this but he thinks it, and that gives him the exact look and tone of voice I wanted—even the upturned head. There’s a lie you can use only once!

Let me give you another example, returning once again to the issue of directorial influence—this time of someone other than Renoir. If in The 400 Blows, I had filmed the father coming to the classroom and slapping his son after the boy returned to school and said his mother was dead, then I’d have had problems editing because I would have wanted fast action here and could have gotten that only with a lot of cutting. But the rest of the film was just a matter of capturing a lot of situations without an excessive amount of cutting. So I knew I’d have to create the drama in this scene within the frame itself, with little or no cutting, and I thought of Alfred Hitchcock. Otherwise I had no point of reference; I had no idea how to edit the scene in order to create the intensity I wanted. I knew now that I had to show the headmaster, then there’s a knock on the door, the boy senses it’s about him, and next you see the mother. I told the actress Claire Maurier that, instead of scanning the classroom for her son, as might be natural since she had never been to the school before, she was to look right away in the direction of Antoine’s desk. I knew that this would create the dramatic effect I was looking for, and not the reality of her searching for her son’s face amidst a sea of other young faces.” –François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

One of the most discussed scenes in the film is so-called interview scene (a scene where Antoine is interviewed by a psychologist). The scene was shot in an unorthodox manner in order to achieve a greater sense of realism.

“The scene had to be improvised. I began by filming a 16mm version in which I asked Léaud questions, and he replied spontaneously. When we reached this scene in the actual shooting, I decided that what we were getting was inferior to my 16mm trial, which had been so fresh. To regain that freshness, I adopted a peculiar method of working. I told everyone to leave the set except Léaud and the cameraman. Then I read out the scripted psychologist’s questions, asking Léaud to answer on the spot with whatever came into his mind. During post-synchronization, I had my questions read over by the actress who played the psychologist. However, since I wanted a woman with a very soft voice, who by this time was very pregnant and therefore reluctant to be filmed, I had only her voice but not her person, so you hear and don’t see her… Since when I originally filmed the scene, I had banished the script girl and clapper boy from the set, I had no one to mark the precise moments of cutting and thus had to use the relatively imprecise dissolve to mark all connections between the pieces of Léaud ‘s response that I decided to retain.” –François Truffaut (Encountering Directors, September 1 and 3, 1970)

The recorded sound contributed to the scene in other ways as well.

The 400 Blows was shot almost entirely without sound. It was dubbed afterwards, except for one scene, where the psychologist questions Antoine. If this scene got so much notice, it’s not just because Léaud’s performance was so realistic; it’s also because this was the only scene we shot with live sound. The shooting of such a scene, as you might guess, is heavily influenced by television. Although I believe TV is misguided when it attempts to compete with the cinema by trying to handle poetry or fantasy, it’s in its element when it questions someone and lets him explain himself. This scene from The 400 Blows was definitely done with television in mind… Aside from this scene with the psychologist, the dubbing worked rather well, because children are easily dubbed, and Jean-Pierre Léaud is dubbed so well you can’t tell. With the parents in the film, the post-synchronization is not so good.” –François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

Also contributing to the films aura of reality is the location work.

“…We filmed in real locations. We found a tiny apartment on Rue Caulaincourt in Paris, but I was afraid that my cameraman, Henri Decaë, wouldn’t want to film there. I showed it to him and he nonetheless accepted, knowing the numerous problems he would face. For example, when we wanted to show the father, the mother, and the boy around the dinner table, Decaë had to sit on the windowsill, on the sixth floor, with the whole crew waiting outside on the stairs. Things like that happened all the time. I don’t like studios, I have to say; I overwhelmingly prefer to shoot on location.” – François Truffaut (Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran)

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Truffaut’s fondness for location work is in harmony with his tendency to embrace what many might consider problems. He was able to turn problems into artistic statements. The poignant final freeze frame that ends this classic has been discussed at length by countless scholars and critics, but it was surprisingly a matter of necessity.

“The final freeze was an accident. I told Léaud to look into the camera. He did, but quickly turned his eyes away. Since I wanted that brief look he gave me the moment before he turned, I had no choice but to hold on it: hence the freeze.” – François Truffaut (Encountering Directors, September 1 and 3, 1970)

There have been many interpretations of the shot, but everyone seems to acknowledge its power. This effect ends the film on an extremely powerful note and cements the moment in the viewer’s heart and mind.

The entire film works on a very human level and critics and audiences alike have lauded Truffaut’s debut since it was released in 1959. Bosley Crowther’s review was typical of the praise that the film received.

“Let it be noted without contention that the crest of the flow of recent films from the ‘new wave’ of young French directors hit these shores yesterday with the arrival at the Fine Arts Theatre of The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) of Françcois Truffaut.

Not since the 1952 arrival of René Clement’s Forbidden Games, with which this extraordinary little picture of M. Truffaut most interestingly compares, have we had from France a cinema that so brilliantly and strikingly reveals the explosion of a fresh creative talent in the directorial field.

Amazingly, this vigorous effort is the first feature film of M. Truffaut, who had previously been (of all things!) the movie critic for a French magazine. (A short film of his, The Mischief Makers, was shown here at the Little Carnegie some months back.) But, for all his professional inexperience and his youthfulness (27 years), M. Truffaut has here turned out a picture that might be termed a small masterpiece.

The striking distinctions of it are the clarity and honesty with which it presents a moving story of the troubles of a 12-year-old boy. Where previous films on similar subjects have been fatted and fictionalized with all sorts of adult misconceptions and sentimentalities, this is a smashingly convincing demonstration on the level of the boy—cool, firm and realistic, without a false note or a trace of goo.

And yet, in its frank examination of the life of this tough Parisian kid as he moves through the lonely stages of disintegration at home and at school, it offers an overwhelming insight into the emotional confusion of the lad and a truly heartbreaking awareness of his unspoken agonies.

It is said that this film, which M. Truffaut has written, directed and produced, is autobiographical. That may well explain the feeling of intimate occurrence that is packed into all its candid scenes. From the introductory sequence, which takes the viewer in an automobile through middle-class quarters of Paris in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, while a curiously rollicking yet plaintive musical score is played, one gets a profound impression of being personally involved—a hard-by observer, if not participant, in the small joys and sorrows of the boy.

Because of the stunningly literal and factual camera style of M. Truffaut, as well as his clear and sympathetic understanding of the matter he explores, one feels close enough to the parents to cry out to them their cruel mistakes or to shake an obtuse and dull schoolteacher into an awareness of the wrong he does bright boys.

Eagerness makes us want to tell you of countless charming things in this film, little bits of un-pushed communication that spin a fine web of sympathy—little things that tell you volumes about the tough, courageous nature of the boy, his rugged, sometimes ruthless, self-possession and his poignant naïveté. They are subtle, often droll. Also we would like to note a lot about the pathos of the parents and the social incompetence of the kind of school that is here represented and is obviously hated and condemned by M. Truffaut.

But space prohibits expansion, other than to say that the compound is not only moving but also tremendously meaningful. When the lad finally says of his parents, ‘They didn’t always tell the truth,’ there is spoken the most profound summation of the problem of the wayward child today.

Words cannot state simply how fine is Jean-Pierre Léaud in the role of the boy — how implacably deadpanned yet expressive, how apparently relaxed yet tense, how beautifully positive in his movement, like a pint-sized Jean Gabin. Out of this brand new youngster, M. Truffaut has elicited a performance that will live as a delightful, provoking and heartbreaking monument to a boy…

…Here is a picture that encourages an exciting refreshment of faith in films.” –The New York Times (November 17, 1959)

One cannot help but notice Crowther’s comparison of Jean-Pierre Léaud with Jean Gabin (since the director directed the young actor based on one of Gabin’s performances). All of the performances in the film were applauded in the media. The few criticisms that the film received seemed to be related to the technical aspects of the production and these were tempered with enthusiasm for nearly every other aspect of the film.

Critical opinion hasn’t waned over the years. Roger Ebert even included the film in his list of “Great Movies.”

“Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) is one of the most intensely touching stories ever made about a young adolescent. Inspired by Truffaut’s own early life, it shows a resourceful boy growing up in Paris and apparently dashing headlong into a life of crime. Adults see him as a troublemaker. We are allowed to share some of his private moments, as when he lights a candle before a little shrine to Balzac in his bedroom. The film’s famous final shot, a zoom in to a freeze frame, shows him looking directly into the camera. He has just run away from a house of detention, and is on the beach, caught between land and water, between past and future. It is the first time he has seen the sea…

…Little is done in the film for pure effect. Everything adds to the impact of the final shot…” –Chicago Sun Times (August 8, 1999)

Like many of Ebert’s reviews, most of the text is devoted to a synopsis of the film’s story. His five star rating offers the clearest statement of his feelings towards the classic. Sometimes it is enough to say that a film is essential and leave it at that.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray and DVD discs are housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The iconic artwork that decorates the case should please any cinema enthusiast. An added bonus is the wonderful fold out pamphlet featuring photos from the film and an essay by Annette Insdorf. The animated menus are equally attractive and feature the young Antoine running away from reform school.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s 1080p transfer is simply beautiful. Blu-ray discs have the ability to make black and white films look truly amazing and this disc provides adequate proof of this. Blacks are rich and whites are clean and natural here, and contrast levels seem to be perfect. Clarity and detail are impressive and showcase textures that have not been seen on previous home video formats. There seems to be little to no perceivable DNR manipulation present, which means that Criterion’s restoration efforts were meticulously handled. There is a layer of grain that beautifully mirrors its celluloid source while providing a more cinematic experience. This seems to accurately reflect the film’s source elements and the problems one might find in the transfer are likely evident in the source.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The uncompressed French Mono track is impressive and seems to have benefited from Criterion’s restoration efforts. Dialogue is consistently clear and the music sounds full and clear with little to no distortion. The included English subtitles seem to provide a good translation of the French dialogue. There is very little here to complain about.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Brian Stonehill

In this highly informative commentary, Brian Stonehill discusses the film from a number of angles, including the cultural impact that the film had upon its release and where the film stands in the context of his career. The film is somewhat dry and scholarly, which should please some and disappoint others. However, those who listen will be rewarded.

Audio Commentary by Robert Lachenay

Robert Lachenay’s commentary is more personal and anecdotal in nature. While Lachenay speaks in his native language, English subtitles are available for those of us who need them. The more personal approach makes for an entertaining track that is rich in information and will increase the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of this classic film.

Rare Audition Footage of Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick Auffay, and Richard Kanayan – (6:24) – (HD)

Criterion has including some priceless 16mm audition footage. This is not only valuable as an entertaining curiosity, but has the added value of shedding light on Truffaut’s approach to choosing his actors.

Newsreel Footage of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Cannes – (5:51) – (HD)

This highly enjoyable footage of Léaud enjoying the spotlight at Cannes gives viewers a glimpse of how well the film was received.

Cineastes de Notre Temps (1965) – (22:27) – (HD)

Truffaut, Léaud, Remy Albert, and Claude de Givray discuss Truffaut and his success, often focusing on The 400 Blows. The program was produced for French television and includes English subtitles. This relatively brief program is rich in information and is a welcome and valuable addition to the disc.

Cinépanorama Interview – (6:51) – (HD)

François Truffaut answers questions about The 400 Blows after the film was awarded by the New York Film Critics. The interview is quite brief but offers some interesting information. It is a nice companion piece to the Cineastes de Notre Temps program.

Theatrical Trailer – (3:47)

This Theatrical Trailer is interesting mostly because it is a trailer for a foreign film and this sets it apart from other trailers. It is a welcome addition to this wonderful set.

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Final Words:

The 400 Blows is one of the cinema’s essential classics and Criterion has given the film a release worthy of the title. The sound and picture transfers are both wonderful and the supplementary material is illuminating and enjoyable. Who could ask for anything more?

Review by: Devon Powell

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Additional Note:

François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock actually discussed The 400 Blows during their legendary interview, but this part of the conversation was not included in the published book. The audio from this part of their conversation can be heard here (skip to 11.37):

https://soundcloud.com/filmdetail/autour-des-400-coups-north-by?in=filmdetail/sets/the-hitchock-truffaut-tapes

The Criterion Collection’s The 400 Blows  page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/151-the-400-blows

Blu-ray Review: Rope

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 04/Jun/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:20:48

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.35:1

Bitrate: 32 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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“…I abandoned pure cinema in an effort to make the stage play mobile. With a flowing camera, the film played in its own time. There were no dissolves [and] no time-lapses in it. It was continuous action and I thought it also ought to have a continuous flow of camera narrative as well. I think it was an error technically, because one abandoned pure cinema for it. But when you take a stage play in one room, it is very hard to cut it up.” –Alfred Hitchcock

One cannot blame Alfred Hitchcock for feeling experimental after being under contract to David O. Selznick. The director had already established a production company with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures in anticipation of his emancipation from Selznick. Rope ended up being the first of two films made for Transatlantic before the company was dissolved.

In a Popular Photography article that was published in November of 1948, the director explains his reasoning behind shooting the film in long uninterrupted takes:

“A long time ago I said that I would like to film in two hours a fictional story that actually happens in two hours. I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses — a picture in which the camera never stops.

In Rope I got my wish. It was a picture unlike any other I’ve ever directed. True, I had experimented with a roving camera in isolated sequences in such films as Spellbound, Notorious, and The Paradine Case. But until Rope came along, I had been unable to give full rein to my notion that a camera could photograph one complete reel at a time, gobbling up 11 pages of dialogue on each shot, devouring action like a giant steam shovel.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

These uninterrupted takes are the focus of a lot of debate and is the primary focus of nearly everything that is written about the film (and for good reason). It was a first in cinema. An accomplished director was essentially risking his future success in order to advance his art and his understanding of cinema (even if he did not realize it). The production wouldn’t be an easy one. Even the subject matter was risky! The script needed special handling in order to get the unusual content past the censors.

To help him adapt Patrick Hamilton’s play into a usable screenplay (where the action is moved from London to New York City), the director chose his friend Hume Cronym. Changes were made from the original play. For example, the theatrical tickets that provided an essential clue in the play were omitted in favor of initials in a hat that does not fit Rupert’s head. Characters from the play were also omitted (or traded in for new characters) and names were changed. Once a treatment was written, Hitchcock was ready to work on the screenplay:

“Broadway playwright Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay, the first time a scenario was written without time lapses. Laurents’ scenes were unnumbered and there was almost no camera direction, merely indications of the changing camera position at major points throughout the story.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Laurents would combine dialogue from the play with his own dialogue. His script handled the subtext of homosexuality extremely carefully in order to appease the censors. However, the censors would not be Hitchcock’s largest obstacle. His new method of shooting would require a set that would accommodate his huge Technicolor camera.

Set Drawing

Surprisingly, the apartment itself was the least of his worries. The New York skyline that can be seen from the apartment window also created challenges, and these challenges only stimulated the director’s excitement for the project.

…The most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama — an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs requiring 150 transformers.

On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue, the locale of the play. And since all the major action of Rope takes place in the living room of this apartment, with the spectators constantly viewing the background, it was impossible to use process shots or a backdrop. Both would have been too flat. We had to remember the core of the arc of view. So we had to employ the scale cyclorama and devise a “light organ” that not only would light the miniature and its panorama of buildings, but also could give us changing sky and cloud effects varying from sunset to dark — all seen from the apartment — to denote the passing of time…

…That electrician who sat high on a parallel behind the camera manipulating the light organ controlled the lighting of the miniature like an artist at a console. He could illuminate an entire building or just one window at a time. He could, at the exact and rehearsed line of dialogue which gave him his cue, flood the Manhattan skyline with light from 200 miniature neon signs. By the time the picture went from the setting of the sun in the first reel to the hour of total darkness in the final denouement, the man at the light organ had played a nocturnal Manhattan symphony in light…”  -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Some of the director’s lighting issues were solved by a surprising source:

“There was one rather knotty problem that Jimmy Stewart, recalling his experiences in the Air Force, helped us solve. In the final moments of the story when the body is discovered and the killers are trapped, the apartment living room is flooded at intervals by great pulsations of light from a huge neon “Storage” sign just outside the window. I wanted the effect to add dramatic tension, much like the increasing crescendos of an orchestra at the climax of a symphony.

But for a while our electrical experts were stumped. They knew that in order to get enough light into the room during the sign’s pulsations, huge arc lights would have to be hooked up on a special parallel with the actual sign – then synchronized. Then Stewart thought of the bomb release switch used in heavy bombers during the war. This switch controlled electrically the split second intervals during which bombs were dropped over the target. So we bought a bomb release at a war surplus store, adjusted it to synchronize the alternate flashing of the neon “Storage” sign with the opening and closing of these shutters on the three huge floodlights, and got exactly the effect we wanted.

Those 200 miniature neon signs in the New York skyline cyclorama helped me solve a little problem of my own. It’s traditional, with me at least, that I appear fleetingly in every one of my pictures. But Rope, with a cast of only nine people who never leave the apartment, looked like the end of the Hitchcock tradition. There was just no way that I could get into the act.

Then someone came up with a solution. The result? The Hitchcock countenance will appear in a neon ‘Reduco’ sign on the side of a miniature building!” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Hitchcock Posing with Rope's Clouds

Even the clouds that were seen through the window managed to create problems:

“Searching for what I demanded in a natural-seeming sky, I rejected the two routine methods of getting clouds. We could have painted them on the cyclorama, or we could have projected the clouds on the backdrop by means of painted lantern slides. But we did neither. I wanted the clouds to look like clouds even from ten feet away.

It was Fred Ahern, our production manager, who found the solution to the puzzle. Ahern came up with the perfect light-reflecting substance — spun glass. (Cotton wouldn’t do because it soaks up and deadens light.) Five hundred pounds of spun glass were woven by scenic artists into chicken wire molds. Then actual clouds were photographed in all kinds of weather. We discovered that clouds are never the same even when the weather is constant, and it makes no difference what shape they are. Finally we decided on the cumulus or storm cloud, because it is white and fleecy before it turns gray and formidable. Every possible shaped cloud was created out of spun glass: wispy and full; fragile and menacing, circular and long.

Rope shows eight complete cloud changes during its nine reels. (The spun glass clouds were hung on standards and on overhead wires behind the buildings in the cyclorama – then slightly varied after each reel.) As a final check on our meteorology, we asked Dr. Dinsmore Alter of the famed Griffith Observatory for his opinion…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

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The set for the apartment itself was so unusual that Look’s review of the film included a diagram of the apartment set:

“Naturally, in rolling a camera back and forth in a three-room apartment for 10 minutes without a halt (from living room to kitchen and back) we had to have a collapsible apartment. Actually, the basic element was the series of wild walls. (“Wild” is a term used to designate moveable or detachable flats.) In Rope the walls were quite literally wild. They rolled on overhead tracks heavily greased with Vaseline to soundproof the skids. A separate crew stood by to roll each wall at a given cue, admitting the camera when the actors had gone through the door. When the players returned in the same shot, the wall closed and the Technicolor camera dollied back to pick up a new angle during the split second needed to make the room solid again.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Obviously, the shooting required an unbelievable amount of planning. There were many technical considerations to consider before production could commence. Hitchcock usually preferred the 50mm lens, but Rope required a different approach:

“Joe Valentine and I decided that one lens — a 35 mm — would give us all the coverage we needed, since it would be impossible to change lenses because of the continuous camera movement. Paul Hill, our Technicolor consultant, solved the problem of parallax, successfully modifying the camera for close-ups so that we could move in close enough to shoot the inside of a man’s hat and the label on a hatband. And instead of following the camera with a mike boom, which would have created an insurmountable problem, we decided that the simplest solution was not to follow it. Instead, we set up four separate booms and two additional microphones up high. Operated by six sound men, these mikes picked up dialogue anywhere the camera wandered within the three-room apartment.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Despite this new method of recording the dialogue, getting usable sound was one of the more difficult aspects of the production. James Stewart elaborated about the sound issues in an interview with Donald Spoto:

“We had a lot of rehearsal, but the noise of the moving walls was a problem, and so we had to do the whole thing over again for sound, with just the microphones, like a radio play. The dialogue track was then added later.” –James Stewart (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock)

In addition to the dialogue, Hitchcock was able to achieve an incredibly realistic ambience that featured the life of New York’s street life in the distance. This also posed a challenge for the director:

“I made them put a microphone six stories high and I gathered a group of people below on the sidewalk and had them talk about the shots. As for the police siren, they told me they had one in the sound library. I asked them, ‘How are you going to give the impression of distance?’ and they answered, ‘We’ll make it soft at first, and then we’ll bring it up loud.” But, I didn’t want it done that way. I made them get an ambulance with a siren. We placed the microphone at the studio gate and sent the ambulance two miles away and that’s the way we made the soundtrack.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Music was also handled in an unusual manner. David Buttolph was the unaccredited composer of music heard in the film’s opening and closing credits, but only diegetic music is heard throughout the rest of the film. Therefore, we only hear music when Philip (Farley Granger) is seen playing Poulenc’s Perpetual Motion on the piano. One might notice that the title of the piece of music is rather revealing. The camera and the characters are almost always in motion, as are the minds of the two murderers and their guests.

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None of these challenges seem to compare to the obvious challenge of actually shooting the film. In order for all of these elements to come together, actors and crew members would have to do their jobs perfectly for ten minute stretches. This required an extended rehearsal period:

“Instead of reading the script through once or twice, the cast spent two weeks walking through the action from the beginning to the end, much like a stage play. Remember we weren’t shooting just a line at a time, nor shifting our camera setup after a one-minute take. There were ten to eleven pages of dialogue on each shot. Actually, for the camera rehearsals we used no stand-ins as such. The stars themselves acted as puppets for the camera. After the camera movement rehearsals there were intensive dress rehearsals, when everyone’s job, from script supervisor to prop man, was coordinated… The maximum number of takes on any single reel was six and the minimum was three.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

The rehearsals were apparently not a cure all for human imperfection because Hitchcock was given a glimpse of what he was up against in the very first take:

“…I was so scared that something would go wrong that I couldn’t even look during the first take. For eight minutes of consecutive shooting everything went smoothly. Then the camera panned around as the two killers walked back toward the chest, and there, right in camera focus, was an electrician standing by the window! So the first take was ruined.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This isn’t surprising. The obstacles that the cast and crew faced seemed almost infinite. There were so many little things that could go wrong at any moment:

“…In the studio, the stage (actually a stage within a stage, made noiseless by constructing a special floor one and one-half inch above the regular one, soundproofed with layers of Celotex and carpet) was marked with numbered circles. These indicated where each specific camera stop had to be made, and when. Each camera movement — and there were as many as 30 separate ones — had its predetermined focus. Because of this the crew men operating the camera had to hit the floor markings exactly on cue and without deviations. The entire floor plan was laid out in foot squares so that in the event of retakes we could go back to the exact spot.

For the actual take the door markings were removed and plotted on a board. Holding the cue board the script supervisor signaled the camera crew on every movement during the 10-minute take. It was like one of those fabulous “Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance” triple plays. To cue each separate camera movement (and everything had to be done in utter silence) the script supervisor would check his cue board – then nod to a crew man on his left who held a long bamboo pointer. This crew man placed the end of the pointer on a predetermined spot on the floor. His action triggered Morris Rosen, the head grip, who dollied the camera to the new position, while the focus puller on the camera crane, watching his own cue sheet, simultaneously changed the focus on the camera lens…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

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The camera wasn’t the only inanimate object that had to be in nearly constant motion in order to accommodate Hitchcock’s revolutionary new shooting method:

“Every piece of furniture on the stage — every table, chair, plate, dish, and drinking glass — had to be moved on cue just like the wooden chest. Once, while the characters in the play were eating a buffet supper, Joan Chandler, who played the feminine lead, had to put her wine glass down on a table. But the table was gone. Joan merely put the glass down where the table should have been, one of the crouching prop men (unseen by the camera, of course) raised his hand and Joan’s glass found a resting place in it. Another time an actor had to reach for a plate off the unseen table. Again a prop man moved in, handed the actor a plate, and the action went on. It really was uncanny.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

This particular challenge was especially difficult for Dick Hogan (the actor who played David):

“…This chest with the body inside of it was always in the center of the living room — so far as the audience is aware.

Yet, actually every time the camera crossed the room the chest had to be rolled off stage just in advance of the camera crane. (We couldn’t stop to make new camera setups.) Moving the chest was the assignment of the four prop men crouched on their hands and knees beneath the camera. Not only did they have to move the chest aside on cue but they also had to get it back into the scene again as the camera returned.

And all the time the young actor who played the strangled youth had to remain inside the chest! Since there were no time lapses or camera cuts in the usual scene, he was inside the chest for a full ten minutes, the shooting of 950 feet of film. After the third take, this actor began to get, well, a little tired. ‘I hope to God they get it on this take,’ he said fervently. ‘Those ten minutes seem like ten hours.’” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Hogan had it much easier than the rest of the cast. He only had to be in that trunk for one reel. The rest of the cast had to flawlessly say their lines and hit their marks for ten minutes with walls and furniture moving at random all around them. James Stewart was extremely uncomfortable with this new shooting. As a matter of fact, the process was so stressful that the actor was unable to sleep at night:

“Stewart, of course, claimed that Rope was the toughest job an actor ever had. And I agreed with him. He told me that he wasn’t sleeping nights. ‘What this means,’ Jimmy said, ‘is that if the rest of the cast is perfect and I fluff a line at, say 895 feet, it becomes the colossal fluff in screen history. The only way it can be reshot is to do the whole scene over again.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s exactly why I picked you for the lead.’

As it was, Stewart had to hang around the set 18 days before making a bona fide entrance for the rolling camera. It was the final dress rehearsal for Reel 3 in which Jimmy makes an entrance while Farley Granger is playing the piano. The piano stopped and silence ensued, as all eyes went to Stewart. He just made it into the room and was ready to open his mouth. ‘Just a minute,’ I said. ‘I’d like you to make your entrance differently.’

Jimmy punched the air in a defeated gesture. ‘Hey, look,’ he complained, ‘I’ve waited three weeks for this!’” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

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Of course, the films huge Technicolor cameras didn’t make the process any easier:

“Technicolor helped but it wasn’t the star of the picture. Rope, incidentally, is the first time I’ve ever directed a Technicolor picture. I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key. In Rope, sets and costumes are neutralized so that there are no glaring contrasts. The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

If Hitchcock decided to make the film in color in order to give himself another new challenge to overcome, he succeeded admirably:

“Towards the last four or five reels, in other words, by sunset, I realized that the orange in the sun was far too strong, and on account of that we did the last five reels all over again…The cameraman on Rope [Joseph Valentine] simply said to himself, ‘Well, it’s just another sunset.’ Obviously, he hadn’t looked at one in a long time, if ever at all, and what he did was completely unacceptable; it was like a lurid postcard… After four or five days the cameraman went off ‘sick.’ So I wound up with a Technicolor consultant, and he completed the job with the help of the chief electrician.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

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Obviously, there was little editing to be done on the film once the re-shoots were complete. The completed film is made up of eleven shots (if one includes the opening credits).

The following is a list of shot lengths:

Shot #1 (Opening Credits) – 02:30

Shot #2 – 09:34

Shot #3 – 07:51

Shot #4 – 07:18

Shot #5 – 07:08

Shot #6 – 09:57

Shot #7 – 07:33

Shot #8 – 07:46

Shot #9 – 10:06

Shot #10 – 04:37

Shot #11 – 05:38

One can see that the common belief that all of the shots were ten minutes long is quite untrue. It is also untrue that the director masked every cut by having someone or something pass in front of the camera. The projectors of the era only held two magazines of film at a time. It was necessary to include a traditional cut on every other reel. This reviewer feels that these traditional cuts are less noticeable than those that are masked. For better or worse, the film was finished and all the director could do at this point was hope for success. A lot was riding on the film. Transatlantic Pictures and the director’s ego were in jeopardy.

Alfred Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that the film was well received, but a look at the major reviews written at the time of release tells a slightly different story. To say that reviews were mixed is being charitable.

Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception nicely:

“The fondness of Alfred Hitchcock for cinematic tours de force is admirable evidence of the agility and aggressiveness of his mind. But it is also a disposition which sometimes leads him to stick out his neck and place it, professionally speaking, in positions of evident peril. It is in such a delicate position that his neck now appears to be lodged as the consequence of his having stretched it in his new film, an item called ‘Rope…’

…The novelty of the picture is not in the drama itself, it being a plainly deliberate and rather thin exercise in suspense, but merely in the method which Mr. Hitchcock has used to stretch the intended tension for the length of the little stunt. And, with due regard for his daring (and for that of Transatlantic Films), one must bluntly observe that the method is neither effective nor does it appear that it could be.

For apart from the tedium of waiting or someone to open that chest and discover the hidden body which the hosts have tucked away for the sake of a thrill, the unpunctuated flow of image becomes quite monotonous. And the effort of application to a story of meager range becomes intense. The physical limitation of the camera to one approach compels it to stay as an eavesdropper on lots of dialogue and lots of business that are dull. And the yarn, by the nature of its writing, is largely action-less…

…Also — and this may be simply a matter of personal taste – the emphasis on the macabre in this small story is frightfully intense. And it seems to this public observer that time could be better spent than by watching a waspish cocktail party in a room with a closely present corpse, placed there by a couple of young men who have killed for a thrill and nothing more…

… The use of Technicolor makes for realism in contrasting hues, but maybe the mood of this story would have come over better in black-and-white.

At all events, the picture takes on a dull tone as it goes and finally ends in a fizzle which is forecast almost from the start.” –New York Times (August 17, 1948)

The only point that this reviewer tends to agree with is that the film might have been better served by black and white photography. One assumes that the film was shot in color in order to enhance the effect of the lighting (such as the sunset outside of the window that caused so many problems during the production). Many of the major publications wrote similar reviews, but the film was able to make a minor profit. Unfortunately, the profit was not so great that it altered the opinions of John Q. Public and the film was perceived by many to be a failure. This is likely the reason that Hitchcock was so critical of the film and his methods during his 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut:

“I undertook Rope as a stunt; that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it…When I look back; I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Truffaut recognized Hitchcock’s tendency to dismiss the projects that he perceived as failures and disagreed with the director’s dismissal of his experiment:

I don’t agree that Rope should be dismissed as a foolish experiment, particularly when you look at it in the context of your whole career: a director is tempted by the dream of linking all of a film’s components into a single, continuous action.  In this sense, it’s a positive step in your evolution.” -Francois Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

I agree with Truffaut. Scholarly opinion seems to be split today, but one feels that Rope cannot be discounted as ‘nonsensical.’ A look at the director’s work will show that the two films made for Transatlantic served the director well. Hitchcock’s style evolved because of his approach to these films. Rope is perhaps just as essential to the development of Hitchcock’s style as his move from Britain to America.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

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The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

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The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

While Universal’s 1080p transfer is certainly disappointing, it is a major improvement on previous home video releases of the film. Much of the film plays in medium or full shots, so the film benefits greatly from the added resolution. The 35mm photography is sometimes soft, but detail is often impressive in closer shots. The muted color pallet sometimes looks as if it isn’t properly represented, but this never becomes an obvious issue. There is occasional haloing and film damage is noticeable at times, but these issues are never distracting. One doubts that the film will ever look any better a home video format without a substantial amount of money being thrown into a restoration. The transfer looks much better than it has on any DVD release and fans will likely feel that it is worth upgrading to this disc.

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Sound Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The included two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix isn’t perfect either. Voices sometimes sound quite thin and the music tends to sound a bit muted at times. These issues never become a major problem, and dialogue is always clear and intelligible. There is little to no audible hiss to speak of either. The track will probably suit the requirements of most casual consumers.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Rope Unleashed – (SD) – (32 min)

Any documentary on the making of Rope is certain to be interesting. Hume Cronyn discusses adapting the play into a treatment with Hitchcock, and screenwriter Arthur Laurents discusses his work on the screenplay, as well as the rather risque subtext of homosexuality in the film. This is an extremely informative documentary and its only flaw seems to be that there isn’t more information included about the unusual method that Hitchcock employed to shoot the film.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This gallery offers promotional stills, posters, behind the scenes photographs, and lobby cards.

Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Rope has an extremely interesting trailer that uses very little footage from the film. Instead, we see a glimpse of David and Janet before the former’s tragic death. James Stewart then addresses the audience as he discusses the case.

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Final Words:

Fans of the master of suspense and students of cinema should not be without this film in their collection. The importance of the film makes up for the slightly disappointing transfer (which is an improvement over previous home video releases).

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

(Spine #969)

Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: 18/Feb/2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono LPCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 Kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes 2 disc DVD set. Warner Brothers has also given the film a DVD release. However, this Criterion edition is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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“I had offered Gary Cooper the Joel McCrea part in Foreign Correspondent. I had a terrible job casting the thriller-suspense films in America, because over here this kind of story was looked on as second-rate. In England, they’re part of the literature, and I had no trouble casting Donat or anybody else there. Here I ran into it all the time until Cary, who’s really English. Afterward, Cooper said, “Well, I should have done that, shouldn’t I?” Of course I don’t think it was Cooper himself. I think the people around him advised him against it.” – Alfred Hitchcock

It isn’t surprising that Alfred Hitchcock decided to make a film that contained anti-neutrality sentiment. Shortly after his voyage to America; London was bombed and Hitchcock worried about the safety his family. He even tried to convince his Mother to join him in America.

David O. Selznick was famous for loaning out his contracted talent for a hefty profit and decided to do so when Walter Wanger requested the services of his star director. Wanger had bought the rights to Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History and he wanted Hitchcock to bring the book to the screen. Hitchcock used only the basic idea of the book and constructed an original screenplay (with Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, and Charles Bennett) that can really only claim to be inspired by Sheean’s memoir.

The resulting production can only be described as “extravagant.”

“With Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock hoped to advance his American career. When Selznick loaned him to Walter Wanger in late November 1939, both producers apparently contemplated a twelve week schedule. Hitchcock consistently exaggerated his speed and may well have promised to develop the script in only three or four weeks [and] shoot it in eight or nine. A lax supervisor, Wanger gave the reins to Hitchcock and let the production take its course. Three months later, the screenplay remained unfinished and pre-production expenses had begun to soar. According to press releases, nearly six hundred craftsmen and technicians worked on Foreign Correspondent, many of them building the enormous sets. Hitchcock supervised construction of a three-story windmill, an Amsterdam city square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station. A replica of the Clipper ran $47,000, and the director’s subtle lighting effects required a special relay system from the cameraman to the gaffer. By June 1940, costs approached a reported 1.5 million and would finally tower over those of Rebecca.

‘As soon as I was working for someone I wasn’t under contract to,’ Hitchcock later said, ‘the supervision was lessened.’ Selznick understood the consequences. Although Hitchcock’s assignment to Wanger ultimately lasted thirty weeks and brought his employer a $54,000 gross profit, Selznick grew concerned about the picture’s long schedule. United Artists had accused Wanger of inadequately controlling his operation and broken with him; through ‘improper supervision,’ Dan O’Shea told Selznick, Wanger had now made Hitchcock appear ‘an exceedingly slow director.’ Production manager Ray Klune confirmed the point: Hollywood had begun to gossip that the quality of Foreign Correspondent only barely justified its cost. As Selznick realized, unchecked extravagance would make Hitchcock difficult to handle and even more difficult to lend.

Hitchcock returned from Wanger with a fresh taste of independence…”

– Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood)

Hitchcock’s extravagance paid off for Wanger, even if it was a thorn in Selznick’s side. Audiences and critics both raved about the film. Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception:

“They say that the current heroes of Americans, young and old, are the foreign correspondents, those dashing chaps who presumably hop all over Europe, Asia, Africa and points between, hobnobbing with influential persons, catching wars on the wing and rushing madly every few minutes to cable home the latest hot news. If such is the case, then Walter Wanger’s own special Foreign Correspondent, which arrived at the Rivoli last night, should be the particular favorite of a great many wonder-eyed folk. For into it Director Alfred Hitchcock, whose unmistakable stamp the picture bears, has packed about as much romantic action, melodramatic hullabaloo, comical diversion and illusion of momentous consequence as the liveliest imagination could conceive.

Never, we venture to suspect, has there been an American news scout abroad who got himself so fantastically involved in international monkey-shines as does Mr. Hitchcock’s bewitched and bewildered Joel McCrea. And never, we know for a fact, has Mr. Hitchcock let his flip fancy roam with such wild and reckless abandon as he does in the present case. Instead of a young reporter covering Europe methodically for his sheet, Mr. Hitchcock is giving us a picture of Europe—or, at least, a small but extremely sinister sub-sector of same—doing its most devious best to cover and destroy Mr. McCrea. And although this does not abuse the romantic conception of a correspondent’s career it does make for some oddly exciting and highly improbable shenanigans.

Improbable? Well, after all, no one expects probability in a Hitchcock picture. The secret of the fellow’s success is his command of the least expected [and] his use of the explosive surprise which often verges upon the absurd. Usually he manages to keep things moving with such fascinating rapidity that he never goes over the edge, but this time he comes perilously close. With the news-hawk hopelessly entangled in a monstrous spy plot, beyond his control or even his comprehension; with Mr. Hitchcock trotting out some rather obvious old tricks of suspense and diabolically piling on the trouble, the patron is likely to suspect that his leg is being deliberately pulled. Even Mr. McCrea, in a desperate moment, yelps helplessly, ‘The one thing everybody forgets is that I’m a reporter!’

Obviously, it is unfair to reveal the plot of a Hitchcock picture. So the most we can tell you about this one is that it casts a young police reporter, sent to Europe in August, 1939, because his publisher believes ‘a crime is hatching over there,’ right bang in the middle of a big ‘fifth column’ plot in London; sets him legging after a kidnapped Dutch statesman and in turn brings the Nazi agents down on him. There is much flesh-creepy business, much genuinely comical by-play and a generous interlarding of romance. And it reaches a fantastic climax on the wing of a shell-wrecked transatlantic plane in mid-ocean. Some story!

No one but Hitchcock would dare to whip up a picture like this and for those who can take their sensationalism without batting a skeptical eye it should be high-geared entertainment. The cast is uniformly good, especially in the minor roles, and some of the photographic sequences are excellent—especially one in an old Dutch windmill. Only Robert Benchley, who plays a broken-down bowler-and-cane type of London correspondent, tends too heavily toward travesty—just a shade too heavily. And that is the lone inclination which Foreign Correspondent could most becomingly do without.” – The New York Times (August 28, 1940)

His derogatory commentary about Robert Benchley’s performance seems unfair and does not extend to most of the other reviews written on the film.

One wonders what Selznick thought when he heard about the film’s various Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, and Special Effects). The film would be in direct competition with Rebecca (which was produced by Selznick)! Whatever his reaction may have been, it was soon remedied when Rebecca took home the golden statue.

While many of the propaganda films from this era have aged awkwardly, Hitchcock’s thriller still manages to engage modern audiences. Donald Spoto shares this opinion and elaborates:

“…Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent has best withstood the years, and even after just one viewing, the picture clearly reveals concerns beyond its concluding propaganda statement (tacked on by producer Walter Wanger). Charles Bennett’s and Joan Harrison’s screenplay is adventurous and entertaining, and the brilliant production design by William Cameron Menzies made for a film of astonishing visual complexity. In its meticulous structure, its disarming humor and its multi-leveled humanity, Foreign Correspondent remains without a doubt a Hitchcock Masterwork.” –The Art of Alfred Hitchcock

Foreign Correspondent is not as well known as other Hitchcock films, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and contains some amazing sequences that stand amongst director’s most iconic set pieces.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has always packaged their discs in an attractive manner, but this release is one of their most beautiful presentations to date. The box features a spectacular cover illustration designed by Patrick Leger (and designed by F. Ron Miller). A booklet is also included and features an essay by James Naremore that is entitled “The Windmills of War.”

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The menus are attractive and are in the same style as other Criterion titles and features music and ambiance from the film.

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Everything about this release is presented with an elegance that is sure to delight cinemaphiles. This is by far the best presentation that any Hitchcock film has ever received on Blu-ray (so far).

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Foreign Correspondent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37.1. On widescreen televisions black bars will appear on the left and right hand sides of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices warps, and jitter were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s meticulous work on this transfer has paid off. To say that this 1080P transfer is a step above the previous Warner Brothers release (available on DVD) is a bit of an understatement. Much of the damage evident in the older release has miraculously disappeared and there is more information on all four sides of the frame due to the accurate 1:37.1 aspect ratio. The picture clarity is superb and contrast is beautifully rendered. One notices details and textures that haven’t been evident on any previous home video format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” –The Criterion Collection

The sound quality has also been notably improved over the previous Warner Brothers release of the film. The disc’s uncompressed Mono mix sounds extremely clean and one must strain to hear a slight amount of hiss, which is really the only freckle on the face of this track.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and the resulting interview is one of the most entertaining and informative television interviews with the director that this reviewer has ever seen. It is nice to finally see it featured on home video.

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Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

Special effects expert, Craig Barron provides an extremely in-depth analysis of the special features included in the film. Viewers are not only told but are also shown how the various effects were achieved.

Hollywood Propaganda and World War II – (25:19)

Mark Harris discusses the background of propaganda films and elaborates on the political atmosphere that surrounded their creation. He also gives a rather detailed account of the origins and production of Foreign Correspondent. It is a very compelling addition to the disc and should delight fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

This trailer for Foreign Correspondent is one of the more interesting trailers from the era.

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

One of the more interesting and unusual items on this disc is this1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Alfred Hitchcock. Life explained the essay in a short letter to their readers:

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

“From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.

Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.” –Life Magazine

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

This is an extremely interesting addition to the disc that adds an incredible amount of value.

1946 Radio Adaptation of Foreign Correspondent – (25:07)

Joseph Cotton stars in this interesting radio adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. The story has been gutted like a fish and restructured to accommodate the much shorter length of the radio program, but this is an interesting companion piece to the film.

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Final Words:

Criterion deserves to be thanked and congratulated for their wonderful efforts. This release goes beyond offering a great transfer of a great film. It also contains one of the most impressive supplemental packages available on any Hitchcock related Blu-ray release. The included 2-disc DVD set is also a very welcome addition to this package.

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27692-foreign-correspondent

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The Trouble with Harry

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 02/Jul/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 99 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (24bit, 48kHz)

Alternate Audio: 2.0 French Mono DTS (24bit, 48 kHz)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: This title has had at least two DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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“I didn’t change [the novel] very much. To my taste, the humor is quite rich. One of the best lines is when old Edmund Gwenn is dragging the body along for the first time and a woman comes up to him on the hill and says, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?” To me that’s terribly funny; that’s the spirit of the whole story. I’ve always been interested in establishing a contrast, in going against the traditional and in breaking away from clichés. With Harry, I took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it into the sunshine. It’s if I set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood in the clear water. These contrasts establish a counterpoint; they elevate the commonplace in life to a higher level.”  – Alfred Hitchcock

The Trouble With Harry was a very troubled production. Hitchcock decided to shoot the film on location, but the weather never cooperated and the acoustics in the gymnasium (where the sets were built) created unusable sound. The problems seemed to elevate when an overhead bracket supporting the enormous VistaVision camera broke and it came crashing down, nearly crushing the director. The camera merely swiped Hitchcock’s shoulder, but one of the crew members was injured in the incident. When the  production fell behind schedule, Hitchcock was forced to move his production back to the more predictable confines of the Hollywood studio.

However, the production wasn’t completely cursed. The film gods were smiling on Hitchcock when it came time to cast the picture. The casting of Shirley MacLaine seems to have been divine providence:

“…I would learn to dance and eventually become a chorus girl and understudy to Carol Haney in the Broadway musical, The Pajama Game…

Unknown to me, there were two men in the audience of that Pajama Game performance that would change my life forever; Hal Wallis (the Hollywood producer who discovered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), and Doc Ericson (a representative for the legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock).

Here I was – a nineteen year old chorus girl, with no acting experience, [and] Hitchcock put me in a room with Mildred Natwick, Edmund Gwenn and John Forsythe. These were the premiere actors on Broadway and now were my co-stars. We were together during the first reading and having no previous experience, I just read it instinctively. When we were finished, Hitch, in his quirky sense of humor, said, ‘You have the guts of a bank robber.’ Because of Hitch’s reputation, I knew I had the job!

I was scared, but curious, and yearned for the learning experience as I joined the film crew in Vermont. I have fond memories of all the cast. In the beginning John Forsythe tolerated me as an amateur, but then realized I had an instinct for acting and started to appreciate this gift. I learned so much from all of them.

Hitchcock was a connoisseur of food and had great knowledge in this area. We shot in Vermont because the hotel we stayed in, The Lodge, was famous for the best food in Stowe, Vermont. He liked the leaves of Vermont, but he really appreciated the food. There was always plenty on the set and I ate all of it because it was free. In my days as a chorus girl I hadn’t had much to eat. I existed on graham crackers and peanut butter. When I began the picture I was svelte and lithe, but by the time I buried Harry for the last time, the head of the studio called me… I think the word was blimp.

Hitch had a mind-tease code that kept you alert. One morning he came waddling toward me, eyes twinkling, roly-poly stomach well out in the lead.

‘Pleasant period following death.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Genuine chopper, old girl, genuine chopper.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘And after your first line – dog’s feet.’

Finally, Hitch explained his version of cockney rhyming slang:

Good mourning. (Pleasant period following death)

Real-Axe. (Genuine chopper)

After you start your first line, paws. (Dog’s feet)

What a mind. I have the greatest appreciation for this mystery-meister who gave me the freedom of artistic expression, to seek and learn from some of the best. Hitch, wherever you are, I love you and will see you again…” -Shirley MacLaine

A star was born. MacLaine went on to be one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading ladies, but never appeared in another Hitchcock film. However, the production also marked the beginning of the director’s working relationship with Bernard Herrmann and the composer would go on to score all of the director’s films through Marnie. Music scholar, Robert Barnett, called the composer’s score a milestone in his career:

“It was his first Hitchcock outing. The music itself (or elements of it) may be familiar under another title. When Herrmann was in the studio for Phase Four Decca in 1968 he fashioned a concert piece from it and called it ‘A Portrait of Hitch.’ He did this because he felt that this music reflected Hitch’s dry and diabolic sense of humor…

…The orchestral specification is modest: double wind, four horns, harp and strings. As was his usual custom he uses the orchestra in smaller groupings selecting a color from his palette to match mood and image.

The music he wrote for the film exposes veins and arteries of winning freshness. Not one of the forty tracks is poor or misjudged. Herrmann gives every sign of having been totally immersed in lyricism and of enjoying every moment of it…” -The Bernard Herrmann Society

Unfortunately, the film wasn’t very successful at the box office. Alfred Hitchcock speculated that the film was improperly marketed to the public.

“I think The Trouble with Harry needed special handling. It wouldn’t have failed commercially if the people in the distribution organization had known what to do with the picture; but it got into the assembly line and that was that.”  – Alfred Hitchcock

This might very well be the case. In an article about Jerry Pickman (a publicist at Paramount), Pickman admits that he didn’t think that the studio would be able to market the film.

“Hitchcock wanted to make a picture called The Trouble with Harry. He had a little girl named Shirley MacLaine– ‘I never heard of her,’ said the studio head–and an old man, Edmund Gwenn, and it was going to cost $800,000. We all shook our heads, the answer was no. Well, every morning I would have the studio send me a capsule of all the announcements they made to the press. They would give me a summary, and the next morning I see they announced The Trouble with Harry. I was a little annoyed but I wasn’t going to go down and challenge the president of the company…

… Balaban walked in, had his lunch, and as he walked around he said, ‘Is something bothering you? You didn’t say hello to me.’ I said, ‘I’m annoyed, Barney. Why did we have the meeting yesterday? We decided not to make the picture and the studio wired this morning saying we’re going ahead with it. If you changed it, why didn’t you tell us?’ He said, ‘I was too embarrassed. After we all said no, the studio head called back and said, ‘Barney, I can’t tell Hitchcock no, because he gave us To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. I haven’t got the courage to say no to him, so I told him we were going to make the picture.’ And that’s how the picture was made. That was how the company was run.” -Jerry Pickman

It has been written that The Trouble with Harry nearly ruined Hitchcock’s career, but this is not the case at all. It is more accurate to say that the film was simply ignored. Critical reception wasn’t particularly complimentary, but it certainly wasn’t hostile. Bosley Crowther’s review was typical of the critical reception towards the film:

“…It is not a particularly witty or clever script that John Michael Hayes has put together from a novel by Jack Trevor Story, nor does Mr. Hitchcock’s direction make it spin. The pace is leisurely, almost sluggish, and the humor frequently is strained. The whimsy inclines to be pretentious, such as Miss Natwick’s cheery reply to Mr. Gwenn’s expressed hope that her father’s death was peaceful: “He was caught in a threshing machine.” Or again, when the two are out exhuming the freshly buried corpse, she says, ‘After we’ve dug him up, we’ll go back to my place and I’ll make you some hot chocolate.’” – The New York Times (October 18, 1955)

Today, this seems like an unfair analysis. A recent review published in The Guardian labeled the film a “masterpiece.” I disagree with this statement, but the film is certainly on par with other comedies of the period and better than most of them. It stands out as a decidedly unusual film in the director’s canon and has earned the admiration that it now receives from cinemaphiles.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

collection page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080P transfer of The Trouble with Harry is really surprisingly beautiful. Robert Burks’ autumn landscapes are vivid and accurate and viewers will see detail and clarity never before observed on any previous home video format. Contrast is perfectly rendered with deep black levels and the source print is nearly immaculate. While grain is certainly apparent, this is inherent in the film’s celluloid source and contributes to a more cinematic experience. It is actually rather difficult to find something to complain about.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

I suppose that some might complain about the lack of a 5.1 mix, but the 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio is accurate and a vast improvement over those included on previous home video releases. There is no perceptible hiss present and the track seems to be free from other annoying signs of age as well. Dialogue is consistent and always intelligible and Bernard Herrmann’s music has more room to breath due to the lossless nature of this track. For one to expect anything better than this seems rather unreasonable.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

All of the supplementary materials from the DVD releases have been ported over to this Blu-ray disc.

The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over - (SD) – (32 minutes)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary on the making of The Trouble With Harry is a delightful look into the making of this often overlooked film. John Forsythe, John Michael Hayes, Herbert Coleman, Patricia Hitchcock, and Steven Smith (Bernard Herrmann’s Biographer) discuss the production.

Production Photographs - (SD)

This photo gallery plays by itself as a sort of slide show, but there is the option of skipping to the next photo.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

The trouble with the “Theatrical Trailer” on this disc is that it is not an actual Trailer. It is merely a promo for the VHS release of the film. This is a shame. It would have been interesting to see how Paramount chose to market this unique film.

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Final Words:

The Trouble with Harry has been given an amazing Blu-ray release. I would recommend adding it to your collection.

 Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Shadow of a Doubt

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 04/Jun/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:47:49

Video: 1080P (VC-1, 23.976fps)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (24bit, 48 kHz)

Alternate Audio: 2.0 French Mono DTS (24bit, 48 kHz, 768 Kbps)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.33:1 (1440×1080)

Bitrate: 32 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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Shadow of a Doubt was a most satisfying picture for me – one of my favorite films -because for once there was time to get characters into it. It was the blending of character and thriller at the same time. That’s very hard to do.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Shadow of a Doubt was very successful upon its release, and its reputation is still solid today. It received mostly positive reviews upon its release, though some reviews were mixed. For example, Bosley Crowther had a somewhat mixed reaction to the film:

“…Yes, the way Mr. Hitchcock folds suggestions very casually into the furrows of his film, the way he can make a torn newspaper or the sharpened inflection of a person’s voice send ticklish roots down to the subsoil of a customer’s anxiety, is a wondrous, invariable accomplishment. And the mental anguish he can thereby create, apparently in the minds of his characters but actually in the psyche of you, is of championship proportions and—being hokum, anyhow— a sheer delight.

But when Mr. Hitchcock and/or his writers start weaving allegories in his films or, worse still, neglect to spring surprises after the ground has apparently been prepared, the consequence is something less than cheering. And that is the principal fault—or rather, the sole disappointment—in “Shadow of a Doubt.” For this one suggests tremendous promise when a sinister character—a gentleman called Uncle Charlie—goes to visit with relatives, a typical American family, in a quiet California town. The atmosphere is charged with electricity when the daughter of the family, Uncle Charlie’s namesake, begins to grow strangely suspicious of this moody, cryptic guest in the house. And the story seems loaded for fireworks and a beautiful explosion of surprise when the scared girl discovers that Uncle Charlie is really a murderer of rich, fat widows, wanted back East.

But from that point on the story takes a decidedly anticlimactic dip and becomes just a competent exercise in keeping a tightrope taut. It also becomes a bit too specious in making a moralistic show of the warmth of an American community toward an unsuspected rascal in its midst. We won’t violate tradition to tell you how the story ends, but we will say that the moral is either anti-social or, at best, obscure. When Uncle Charlie’s niece concludes quite cynically that the world is a horrible place and the young detective with whom she has romanced answers, “Some times it needs a lot of watching; seems to go crazy, every now and then, like Uncle Charlie,” the bathos is enough to knock you down.

However, there is sufficient sheer excitement and refreshing atmosphere in the film to compensate in large measure for its few disappointing faults. Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville have drawn a graphic and affectionate outline of a small-town American family which an excellent cast has brought to life and Mr. Hitchcock has manifest completely in his naturalistic style…

…The flavor and “feel” of a small town has been beautifully impressed in this film by the simple expedient of shooting most of it in Santa Rosa, Calif., which leads to the obvious observation that the story should be as reliable as the sets.” – The New York Times (January 13, 1943)

One notices immediately that even this mixed review finds a lot to admirer about this gem. It probably didn’t surprise Mr. Crowther when Shadow of a Doubt became a tremendous success at the box office.

While many successful films eventually drift into obscurity, Shadow of a Doubt’s reputation has only improved with time. In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto wrote:

“No doubt about it, this is Hitchcock’s first great American masterwork, one of his timeless, endlessly rich moral thrillers… Shadow of a Doubt is a model of the kind of moviemaking that is gripping, first-rate entertainment and much more: it is also a network of important themes and ideas. If to be called “great” a work must have great concerns. Then by any standard this film qualifies.” – The Art of Alfred Hitchcock

Other critics agree. For example, Roger Ebert included it in his list of great movies:

“…Much of the film’s effect comes from its visuals. Hitchcock was a master of the classical Hollywood compositional style. It is possible to recognize one of his films after a minute or so entirely because of the camera placement. He used well-known camera language just a little more elegantly. See here how he zooms slowly into faces to show dawning recognition or fear. Watch him use tilt shots to show us things that are not as they should be. He uses contrasting lighted and shadowed areas within the frame to make moral statements, sometimes in anticipation before they are indicated. I found while teaching several of his films with the shot-by-shot stop-action technique, that not a single shot violates compositional theory…” – Chicago-Sun Times

Shadow of a Doubt has earned its praise and its status as a classic.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

collection page

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

menu1

menu4

menu2

menu3

Overall, this is an extremely attractive presentation and there is very little room for rational criticism.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080P transfer should pleasantly surprise viewers. While picture is sometimes slightly softer than what one might expect, it seems to accurately represent the film’s source. There is a nice layer of grain that seems consistent with the film’s celluloid origins and adds to the overall cinematic experience. Contrast is beautifully handled and exhibit rich blacks and beautiful grays. Detail is surprising for a film of this age and the image seems to be free of any distracting DNR or edge enhancement. There is the occasional bit of print damage, but what can one expect from a film of this vintage?

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Sound Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The lossless mono mix included on the disc might show its age, but seems to accurately represent the film’s source elements. Dialogue is always clear and the music benefits from this lossless transfer (though there are moments when Tiomkin’s score suffers in clarity).

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film – (SD) – (35 min)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary on the making of this classic film contains many anecdotes from the production of the film and is packed with quite a bit of information. Teresa Wright, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Hitchcock, Robert F. Boyle, and Peter Bogdanovich contribute to the wealth of “behind the scenes” information provided here. Fans should be thrilled to see it ported over for this Blu-ray release.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Vintage trailers are always amusing to watch, and this one is typical of what one expects from a trailer of this period. However, one suspects that this trailer was actually used to promote one of the film’s re-releases.

Production Drawings – (SD)

This is a collection of Production drawings by Robert Boyle, who served as the film’s art director. Cinemaphiles should enjoy seeing these sketches.

Production Photographs – (SD)

A collection of photos from the set of Shadow of a Doubt is also included.

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Final Words:

Shadow of a Doubt is one of the director’s best achievements and Universal’s much improved transfer of Shadow of a Doubt makes this Blu-ray release an essential purchase.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The Lady Vanishes – The Criterion Collection

(Spine #3)

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Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: 06/Dec/2011

Region: Region A

Length: 01:20:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 23.976fps, 26.4GB)

Main Audio: English Mono (PCM 1.0, 48kHz, 1152kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 35Mbps

Notes: This release is also available in the DVD format.

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“It is a very light film… The story is inspired by that legend of an Englishwoman who went with her daughter to the Palace Hotel in Paris in the 1880′s, at the time of the Great Exposition. The woman was taken sick and they sent the girl across Paris to get some medicine, in a horse-vehicle, so it took about four hours, and when she came back she asked, “How’s my mother?” “What mother?” “My mother… She’s here, she’s in her room. Room 22.” They go up there. Different room, different wallpaper, everything. And the payoff of the whole story is, so the legend goes, that the woman had Bubonic plague and they daren’t let anybody know she died, otherwise all of Paris would have emptied. That was the original situation and pictures like Lady Vanishes were all variations on it.”       – Alfred Hitchcock

The Lady Vanishes won the director a New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Director and helped pave the way for his American career. It was also a phenomenal critical success in both Britain and America. A review by Frank S. Nugent for The New York Times encapsulates the critical opinion of the period perfectly:

“Just in under the wire to challenge for a place on the year’s best ten is The Lady Vanishes (at the Globe), latest of the melodramatic classics made by England’s greatest director, Alfred Hitchcock. If it were not so brilliant a melodrama, we should class it as a brilliant comedy. Seeing it imposes a double, a blessedly double, strain: when your sides are not aching from laughter your brain is throbbing in its attempts to outguess the director. Hitch occasionally relents with his rib-tickling, but his professional honor would not brook your catching up with his plot…

…We cannot conceal our admiration over the manner in which Mr. Hitchcock and his staff have pieced it together. There isn’t an incident, be it as trivial as an old woman’s chatter about her favorite brand of tea, that hasn’t a pertinent bearing on the plot. Everything that happens is a clue. And, having given you fair warning, we still defy you to outguess that rotund spider, Hitch. The man is diabolical; his film is devilishly clever.

His casts are always neglected by reviewers, which isn’t fair, especially since he has so perfect a one here. Honors belong, of course, to his priceless cricketers, Caldicott and Charters—or Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford—whose running temperature about “how England is doing” makes the most hilarious running gag of the year. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as the puzzled young woman and her ally are just the sort of pleasant, intelligent young people we should expect to find going through a casual Hitchcock gesture to boy-meets-girl.

The others are equally right—Dame May Whitty as the surprising Miss Froy, Paul Lukas as the specialist, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers—in fact, all the others. Did we say The Lady Vanishes was challenging the best ten? Let’s amend it: the bid has been accepted.” (December 26, 1938)

A few days later, a review in Variety sited Alfred Hitchcock’s direction as the sole reason that the film succeeds so admirably:

The story [from The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White] is sometimes eerie and eventually melodramatic, but it’s all so well done as to make for intense interest. It flits from one set of characters to another and becomes slightly difficult to follow, but finally all joins up.

This film, minus the deft and artistic handling of the director, Alfred Hitchcock, despite its cast and photography, would not stand up for Grade A candidacy.” (December 31, 1938)

The film stands up against many of the American films of that same year. For example, Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director) shows its age more than Hitchcock’s British effort (even if some of the early model work does seem antiquated today).

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The Presentation: 

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has earned a reputation for classy packaging and The Lady Vanishes easily validates this reputation. The disk is contained in a clear shell with amazing cover artwork.

TLV Back Cover

An elegant chapter menu that clearly lists the discs 26 chapters is included and can be seen when one opens the case. Better yet, Criterion has included a gorgeous 24 page booklet that features two worthwhile essays by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr. This book is gorgeously illustrated with photography from the film. The final pages of the booklet include interesting information about the transfer, production credits, and thank various people who made the release possible.

The animated menus are nice and in the Criterion style. They employ audio of a train in motion and are really quite attractive.

menu1

It is a very nice presentation and I can find no complaints whatsoever.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Lady Vanishes is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This high-definition transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s efforts have paid off. The meticulous handling of their digital restoration should be admired. The Lady Vanishes has never looked more beautiful than it does on this release. Those who have seen any of the shoddy public domain releases will consider the transfer a minor miracle. Criterion has earned praise in nearly every area imaginable. Contrast is lovely, detail is surprisingly stunning, and print damage is minimal. There is the occasional blemish evident, but these are never distracting and are relatively few in number.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation” –The Criterion Collection

The disc’s lossless audio track is also much improved by Criterion’s efforts. There is little to no perceivable hiss and dropouts seem to be non existent. I do not recall hearing any pops or any other major issues with the track. The music is sometimes flat and the dialogue is sometimes muffled, but I feel that these issues are evident in the source and one cannot blame Criterion.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Commentary Track with Bruce Eder - (AC3 1.0, 192kbps)

Bruce Eder’s scholarly commentary covers a wide range of territory. He contributes background information about the talent, anecdotes about the production, and a healthy dose of film theory. One also learns about the socio-political climate at the time of the production and how the film comments on these issues.

Mystery Train (A visual essay by Leonard Leff) – (1080I) – (00:23:59)

Leonard Leff’s “visual essay,” is filled with interesting information and insights about this important film and its production. The information is illustrated with related still photographs, artwork, and footage from the film.

Excerpt from Truffaut/Hitchcock Interviews - (00:10:06)

People who have read Truffaut’s book length interview will find this audio interview familiar. Helen G. Scott’s interpretation of both the questions and the answers can become tiresome, but the conversation itself is extremely interesting. The audio plays over a montage of stills and footage from the film, which increases ones enjoyment of the interesting information being presented.

Crook’s Tour – (01:20:59) – [1080P (AVC, 23.976fps, 10.3GB)]

Crooks Tour is a feature-length film starring Charters and Caldicott that was released in 1941.

The characters became so popular after The Lady Vanishes that they were included in Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich in 1940, John Baxter’s Crooks Tour in 1941, and they even made cameo appearances in Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder’s Millions Like Us in 1943.

Crooks Tour is the only film that focused on Charters and Caldicott as protagonists and was based on a popular radio serial by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. It obviously never approaches the brilliance of The Lady Vanishes, but the film does hold historical interest and works nicely as a supplement to the main feature.

Photo Gallery

A gallery of Posters, lobby cards, and “behind the scenes” photographs from The Lady Vanishes completes the list of worthwhile supplements included on the disc.

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Final Words:

The Lady Vanishes is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s essential British films and Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray release belongs on every cinemaphile’s shelf.

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The Criterion Collection’s The Lady Vanishes  page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/358-the-lady-vanishes

Reviewed by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 06/Aug/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 02:00:18

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 23.976fps)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD (24bit, 48 kHz)

Alternate Audio: 2.0 French DTS (24bit, 48 kHz, 448 Kbps)

Subtitles: English & Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 32 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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 “Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” –Alfred Hitchcock

The main focus of argument concerning this film seems to be whether or not his 1934 British original is superior to this 1956 American remake. Critics and scholars seem to be split on this issue. Donald Spoto seems to prefer the 1956 remake:

“Even a single viewing of each supports the director’s own estimation. Where Man 1 had an easy wit and a kind of grimy nonchalance, Man 2 is everywhere a richer film – not only in technical execution, but also in the complexity of its characters and themes and, most of all, in the depth and directness of its emotion. The fourth and final collaboration with the gifted screenwriter John Michael Hayes, this is one of Hitchcock’s masterworks, impeccably photographed by Robert Burks, with a brilliant Bernard Herrmann score and flawless performances from principals and the supporting players. It also seems to this writer Hitchcock’s warmest film – lacking a major wicked character or situation, and really full of love.” – The Art of Alfred Hitchcock

Patrick Humphries’ opinion is in direct opposition:

“Hitchcock is on record as preferring the later version, citing among other reasons the subtle humor, Bernard Herrmann’s orchestration, the placing of the shots and James Stewart’s performance. It is difficult to imagine just how Hitchcock could prefer the remake. While the 1934 version may be occasionally stilted, the 1956 version is flaccid and overlong. The technical improvements do not compensate for the overall dreariness of the later film, which at times seems like a clumsy parody of Hitchcock; the fight in the taxidermist’s shop, for example, is designed as a set piece divertissement but it comes across as contrived, irrelevant and humorless…

…While the majority of Hitchcock films allow the audience to suspend their disbelief, blissfully unconcerned with the actual mechanics of the MacGuffin, the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much contains more jarring notes than even the most credulous audience can accept…” – The Films of Alfred Hitchcock

Critics arguing both sides usually call upon the same evidence to argue their opinions and in the end no one from either side seems to offer a definitive argument. It is impossible to say which film is the better version because of the simple fact that each film has its own set of strengths and weaknesses (and the weaknesses in both films are directly related to their strengths).

A more interesting debate would perhaps be whether or not Angus MacPhail deserved a screen credit for his work on the film. The disagreement over this issue resulted in the end of Hitchcock’s working relationship with Hayes.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

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The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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Overall, Universal provides a very nice presentation that should satisfy almost everyone.

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Picture Quality:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

The 1080P transfer is a pretty disappointing. While it features a much more detailed picture than any of the previous home video releases, color pulsing seems to be an issue here. Colors also appear pretty dull throughout the film, but a comparison with the previous DVD of the film shows that this transfer is an improvement over that release. The image on the previous DVD version of TMWKTM looked a bit jaundiced (featuring an unattractive yellow hue). There are quite a few blemishes on the print (such as scratches and grime), but these issues never really became distracting.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 2.0 DTS-HD audio track is clean and seems to accurately represent the film’s source materials. The film’s music sounds much better than one would expect a 2.0 Mono mix to sound and dialogue is always clear. This might not compete with more modern 5.1 tracks, but this mix certainly represents the audio as it was intended to be heard.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Making of The Man Who Knew Too Much - (SD) – (34 min)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary is both informative and entertaining. This one might not be as comprehensive as some of the others, but it is much more than the usual fluff included on so many discs. As a matter of fact, this piece is quite in depth and even discusses the original British film. Fans should be thrilled to see it ported over for this Blu-ray release.

Production Photographs (SD) – (4 min)

A gallery of Posters (from both the original version and this 1956 remake), lobby cards, and “behind the scenes” photographs from the film plays in a slide show presentation.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD)

This theatrical trailer is actually quite interesting. It is different from many other trailers of the period and features James Stewart narrating.

Re-Release Trailer – (SD)

This re-release trailer features narration from James Stewart about the re-release of Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, Rope, and Rear Window. It is surprisingly interesting

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Final Words:

This disc’s transfer is a bit of a disappointment, but it is still quite a step up from the DVD transfers.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Spellbound

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Distributor: MGM Home Entertainment / 20th Century Fox

Release Date: 24/Jan/2012

Region: Region Free

Length: 118 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 37.87 Mbps)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48kHz, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 37.87 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available on DVD. It was released individually and as part of The Premiere Collection boxed set (both with different cover art).

SET -Front

This Blu-ray title is also available as part of a three film set entitled, The Classic Collection. This set has different cover artwork.

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“Selznick thought I only wanted Dali for publicity purposes. That wasn’t true. I felt that if I was going to have dream sequences, they should be vivid. I didn’t think that we should resort to the old-fashioned blurry effect that they got by putting vaseline around the lens. What I really wanted to do, and they wouldn’t do it because of the expense, was to have the dream sequences shot on the back lot in bright sunshine, so they would have to stop-down the camera to such a degree that the pictures would have been needle-sharp, as contrast to the rest of the picture, which was slightly diffused because that was the cameraman’s particular style. But I used Dali for his draftmanship and the infinity which he introduces into his subject.” –Alfred Hitchcock

While the dream elements of the film are certainly memorable (despite being edited down to almost nothing by Selznick), it is probably the on-screen romance between Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck that attracted most viewers upon the film’s release. Modern critics seem to agree that the film is uneven and that the psychological theories the film is based upon are both dated and overly simplistic. That said, it certainly represented psychoanalytical theories of the era and there was a consultant on the set to make sure that the psychology in the film was more or less accurate. (The consultant was Selznick’s own psychoanalyst, Dr. May Romm.)  It seems unfair to judge the film on its somewhat archaic theories when the theories were relatively new at the time of the film’s release.

Spellbound was warmly received by critics. For example, Bosley Crowther wrote:

“This writer has had little traffic with practitioners of psychiatry or with the twilight abstractions of their science, so we are no in a position to say whether Ingrid Bergman, who plays one in her latest film, Spellbound, is typical of such professionals or whether the methods she employs would yield results. But this we can say with due authority: if all psychiatrists are as fruitful as hers are to Gregory Peck, who plays a victim of amnesia in this fine film which came to the Astor yesterday — then psychiatry deserves such popularity as this picture most certainly will enjoy.

For Miss Bergman and her brand of treatment, so beautifully demonstrated here, is a guaranteed cure for what ails you, just as much as it is for Mr. Peck. It consists of her winning personality, softly but insistently suffused throughout a story of deep emotional content of her ardent sincerity, her lustrous looks and her easy ability to toss off glibly a line of talk upon which most girls would choke…

…This story, we say, has relation to all the faith-healing films ever made, but the manner and quality of its telling is extraordinarily fine. The script, which was based on the novel of Francis Beeding, The House of Dr. Edwardes, was prepared by Ben Hecht and the director was Alfred Hitchcock, the old master of dramatic suspense. So the firm texture of the narration, the flow of continuity and dialogue, the shock of the unexpected, the scope of image — all are happily here.

But, in this particular instance, Mr. Hecht and Mr. Hitchcock have done more. They have fashioned a moving love story with the elements of melodramatic use. More than a literal “chase” takes place here — more than a run from the police. A “chase” of even more suspenseful moment is made through the mind of a man. And in this strange and indeterminate area the pursuer — and, partially, the pursued — is the girl with whom the victim is mutually in love. Mr. Hitchcock has used some startling images to symbolize the content of dreams — images designed by Salvador Dali. But his real success is in creating the illusion of love…

…Not to be speechless about it, David O. Selznick has a rare film in Spellbound.”
– The New York Times (November 2, 1945)

Spellbound went on to receive quite a few Academy Award nominations (including nominations for Best Picture and Best Director), and won the Oscar for Miklós Rózsa’s innovative score. It is indeed interesting to see how many of Hitchcock’s films that were attacked by critics upon their release are now considered classics (or even masterpieces), while many films that were once praised have fallen from grace.

Perhaps Spellbound isn’t among Hitchcock’s best work, but it is certainly solid entertainment.

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The Presentation:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is contained in the standard Blu-ray case with reasonably attractive cover art. It is nothing earth-shattering, but the artwork is more attractive than MGM’s DVD release of the same title.

There is no menu on the disc. To access the special features or change the audio settings, one must do so while the film is already playing. This is rather bothersome and extremely inconvenient. Some people might not mind this issue, but this film deserves a much better presentation.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This is certainly the best that Spellbound has looked on home video, but one cannot help but be slightly disappointed with this 1080p transfer. There is a fair amount of print damage, shadows are often a bit dull, and there are a few occasions of troublesome edge enhancement. Fortunately, none of these problems ever become distracting. As a matter of fact, the picture exhibits wonderful clarity and remarkable contrast. Grain levels also seem accurate for a film of this vintage.

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Sound Quality:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

The Mono DTS-HD track is also less than impressive. There seems to be a very slight layer of hiss throughout the length of the track and there is also an occasional pop or crackle. These flaws are never distracting and it is perhaps unfair to expect anything better. Milkos Rosza’s score sometimes swallows dialogue, but this issue is obviously source related and should not be held against the actual transfer.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Commentary with Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg

Schatz and Berg’s discussion is both enthusiastic and lively. Their commentary often focuses on the structure of the film, but covers other territory as well. The downside of the track is that they also provide the occasional false statement (such as mistaking Saboteur for Sabotage).

Running With Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dali – (SD) – (21:25)

This short documentary focuses on Salvador Dali’s contribution to Spellbound. The dream sequence is discussed at length and experts also touch upon the artist’s background.

Guilt by Association: Psychoanalyzing Spellbound – (SD) – (19:39)

Instead of focusing on the making of the film, this documentary touches upon the influence of psychoanalysis upon the production. Experts discuss some of the reasons that this subject matter made its way to the screen during this particular time. It should provide viewers with information that will enrich their enjoyment and understanding of the film.

A Cinderella Story: Rhonda Fleming – (SD) – (10:10)

Rhonda Fleming discusses how she was discovered and cast in Spellbound. She also discusses some of her more recent charity projects.

Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock – (15:22)

This is a brief excerpt of Hitchcock’s interview with Peter Bogdanovich. The audio plays over a blank black screen. Hitchcock is always interesting and this excerpt is no exception.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:07)

The Theatrical Trailer for Spellbound is included and is more interesting than many trailers from this period.

1948 Radio Version of Spellbound Directed by Alfred Hitchcock – (59:47)

This radio play is interesting, but it has nothing on the actual film. The beginning of this feature includes a list of credits and then the audio plays over a blank black screen.

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Final Words:

Spellbound is not considered one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better efforts, but it is quite charming and certainly worth including in your collection. If MGM’s Blu-ray release isn’t perfect, it is at least an improvement on previous home video transfers.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Rebecca

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Distributor: MGM Home Entertainment / 20th Century Fox

Release Date: 24/Jan/2012

Region: Region Free

Length: 131 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 37.39 Mbps)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 37.39 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available on DVD. It was released individually and as part of The Premiere Collection boxed set (both with different cover art).

SET -Front

This Blu-ray title is also available as part of a three film set entitled, The Classic Collection. This set has different cover artwork.

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“Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really. The story is old fashioned; there was a whole school of feminine literature at the period, and though I’m not against it, the fact is the story is lacking in humor.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Most of the contemporary critics and scholars tend to agree that the film belongs more to Selznick than to the director. In, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto writes:

“Hitchcock’s first American film won David O. Selznick the Oscar as producer of the best film of 1940. In fact, it’s more a Selznick film than it is Hitchcock. Depending on your mood, it’s either impossibly dated, woefully prolix as well as comically overstated every step of its long way – or it’s deliciously entertaining, the kind of gothic romantic hokum they don’t make anymore. Or both…”

While this is certainly a valid opinion, it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that Hitchcock’s fingerprints can be found throughout the length of the film. Hitchcock was even interested in purchasing the rights to Daphne du Maurier’s source novel while he was still working in England, but the cost was prohibitive. Something about the material must have appealed to Hitchcock’s sensibilities considering the fact that the film contains elements that would appear again in Hitchcock’s later work.

It is my personal belief that what works in the film seems to belong more to Hitchcock than to Selznick. This may be an oversimplification, but Selznick’s insistence on fidelity created a more literary melodrama that is indeed more “prolix” than is typical of a director who prefers to tell his stories visually. Another unfortunate side effect of Selznick’s meddling is the sometimes overwrought and syrupy score by the talented Franz Waxman. Selznick obviously didn’t trust Hitchcock’s wonderful visuals to make their point and musical punctuation overwhelms what might have been poignant subtleties. The production values also seem to belong to Selznick. Rebecca has a gloss that is tonally different than even the glossiest of Hitchcock’s later films. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will depend on the viewer.

Rebecca is required viewing and marks an extremely important benchmark in not only Hitchcock’s career, but also his artistic evolution. The stormy production created by a thunderous clashing of two giant egos resulted in more than a great film. It resulted in the creative growth of an already brilliant director.

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The Presentation:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is contained in the standard Blu-ray case with reasonably attractive cover art. It is nothing earth-shattering, but the artwork is more attractive than MGM’s DVD release of the same title.

There is no menu on the disc. To access the special features or change the audio settings, one must do so while the film is already playing. This is rather bothersome and terribly inconvenient. Some people might not mind this issue, but this film deserves a much better presentation.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 1080P transfer looks surprisingly accurate on almost every level. Contrast is lovely with admirable shadow details. Black levels are fairly rich and accurate as well. The transfer also seems to maintain the film’s natural layer of grain which enhances the cinematic look of this classic. The picture is very often quite soft, but this was the trend of the day and the look served David O. Selznick’s sensibilities. There is also occasional dirt and scratches on the source print that keep this transfer from being perfectly pristine. However, these issues are never distracting.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 24-bit 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio track serves the film well and seems to accurately represent the intentions of the filmmakers. The now antiquated soundtrack seems to be free of the hiss and pops that one comes to expect with older films. The lossless mono mix is certainly the strongest track that Rebecca has ever been given on home video.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Commentary by Richard Schickel

Mr. Schickel’s commentary is rather sparse and he seems to be rather bored as he mumbles through this particular track. He does not say very much and what he does say usually isn’t rich with information (although there are a few minor exceptions).

The Making of Rebecca (SD) – (28:08)

Film historians discuss the uneasy relationship between David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock during the making of the film. It offers more generalized “behind the scenes” information than many of the more comprehensive documentaries of its kind, but there is enough information to make the viewing experience rich and rewarding. This is probably the best supplemental feature on the disc.

The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier – (SD) – (19:02)

This is an extremely interesting look at the author of the film’s source novel. While one cannot claim that this featurette is particularly comprehensive, it does provide enough information to increase one’s understanding and appreciation of Rebecca.

Screen Tests – (SD) – (9:07)

While it is nice to have a few of the screen tests made during the casting period of Rebecca, it is disappointing to note that there are many screen tests that are simply not included here. The Criterion Collection’s amazing 2 disc DVD release of Rebecca included quite a few tests that are not included on the MGM releases. Criterion saw fit to include test footage of 5 different actresses (Margaret Sullavan, Vivien Leigh, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, and Joan Fontaine).

MGM includes some of the footage from Margaret Sullavan’s test and one of Vivien Leigh’s screen tests (which includes Laurence Olivier). There is quite a bit of footage of both of these actresses included on the Criterion release that is not included on this disc. I must admit to being a little disappointed by this.

However, the footage that MGM has seen fit to include is extremely interesting and enlightening.

Hitchcock Audio Interview with François Truffaut – (9:15)

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. This audio-only feature plays over a blank black screen.

Hitchcock Audio Interview with Peter Bogdanovich – (4:20)

This is a brief excerpt of Hitchcock’s interview with Peter Bogdanovich. Hitchcock is always interesting and this is no exception. Again, the audio plays over a blank black screen. The interview is not as great (or as comprehensive) as Truffaut’s, but it is always nice to listen to Hitchcock as he discusses his films.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:22)

This trailer seems to be a re-release trailer for the film instead of the one used for its original release. It is always nice to see vintage trailers included on a disc and this is no exception.

Isolated Music and Effects Track

This feature allows audiences to experience the film with only the music and sound effects.

1938 Orson Welles Radio Play – (59:35)

1941 Cecil B. DeMille Radio Play – (58:31)

1950 Radio Play (w. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) – (1:00:22)

These radio plays are interesting, but they have nothing on the actual film. The beginnings of these programs include a list of credits and then the audio plays over a blank black screen.

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Final Words: 

Fans will want to hold on to their Criterion discs for the wealth of supplements included on that release, but they should also welcome the two short documentaries that are provided on this disc. This Blu-ray release is a substantial upgrade from previous releases in terms of picture and sound quality and earns an easy recommendation.

Review by: Devon Powell

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock

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Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Release Date: 12/March/2013

Region: A

Length: 01:38:20

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 32 Mbps)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

5.1 French Dolby Digital

5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 2.40:1

Notes: Includes a DVD, UltraViolet, and iTunes Digital copy. This title is also available on DVD as a separate release.

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“It was really based on Stephen Rebello’s book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, which is one of the most authoritative, if not the most authoritative, stories of the making of any film. Clearly there are elements of the film that are stylized, but there are also large parts—particularly Hitch’s fights with the motion-picture production code—which happened and have been documented in detail. It’s a true story with elements that have been dramatized for the film, but I think audiences are intelligent. They understand that. We’re not making a documentary. We made a film in the spirit of Hitchcock.” –Sacha Gervasi

The major criticism of Hitchcock seems to be that it is not true to the actual events surrounding the shooting of Psycho. It is evident from the film’s first scene that this particular film has other goals. It is meant to be a fun tribute to the director and not a serious look at the man and his working methods.

Stephen Rebello’s excellent book (Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho) offers Hitchcock fans an amazing amount of detailed information on the production of Psycho. In many ways, it makes sense for audiences to expect the same detailed content in a movie that claims to be based on this book. It should be said that it is obvious to intelligent individuals that certain human elements had to be added in order to make an enjoyable film from the book. The real issue should be whether or not the elements added were effective.

One of the major issues that critics seemed to have with the film involves the conflict between the director and his long-time wife and collaborator, Alma. Focusing on this relationship actually works on a number of levels. This was a logical point of departure for the script. It is interesting to see the subtle hints that she is feeling unappreciated.

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The subplot concerning Whitfield Cook is somewhat questionable from a dramatic standpoint, but its inclusion does seem to have been based on certain possible real-life events. While Alfred Hitchcock was overseas shooting Under Capricorn, Alma left early for America to work on a script with Whitfield Cook (it seems likely that this script was for Stage Fright).

“Mrs. Hitchcock and Whitfield Cook had begun to meet for lunch and dinner at restaurants which, if not quite obscure or out of the way, nonetheless fell outside the regular beat of Hollywood columnists. For the next three weeks, she and her co-writer enjoyed quiet get-togethers at the Ready Room and LaRue’s, discussing the script they were developing…

…After Alma came home from England, she appears to have seized the opportunity of her family’s absence to open her heart to cook. On the evidence of his journal, she said some thing to him on September 20 [1948] that took him by astonished surprise. If she told him of her feelings, he would have been astonished indeed, for according to his journal he spent as much time with men as with women.

Over the next week, meeting purportedly to discuss the script they were collaborating on, Mrs. Hitchcock continued talking. Although there may be other explanations, a fair reading of cook’s journal suggests that she was pressing her case for a different relationship. Cook sincerely liked Alma; he liked her enormously. But he must have been torn. He counted himself a friend to Hitchcock, and wouldn’t want to jeopardize that friendship, nor the work relationship they shared…

…It appears that, on October, 1, after a cozy dinner at a restaurant, they began making love, probably at Bellagio Road. According to Cook’s journal, their sexual foray was ‘complicated by an overseas call.’ A Hitchcockian scene: it must have been the husband himself, phoning at the most vulnerable, dangerous, inopportune time. Probably nothing was confessed; and it was perfectly normal for Cook to be keeping Alma company.

Whatever happened, though, must have reinforced Cook’s better instincts. Over the next week, the two saw each other constantly. They went to restaurants, and to dinner at Constance Collier’s. They drove to Santa Barbra for steaks at Talk of the Town. It appears from Cook’s journals that Alma wept during one of their meetings, perhaps bereft over her friend trying to distance himself. Whether she ever broached the idea of lovemaking again is unclear. But the two intensified their pace on the script, and Mrs. Hitchcock and Cook were inseparable for months to come.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock – A Life in Darkness and Light)

Of course, this occurred a decade before Hitchcock began work on Psycho. Whitfield Cook’s novel, Taxi to Dubrovnik, was not published until the 1980s.

Changing the timing of real-life events isn’t uncommon when one is adapting a book or real-life events into a screenplay. Sometimes it is necessary in order to simplify a narrative. However, one wonders if Alma’s feelings would have been just as easily (and more subtly) dramatized without this subplot. In any case, it is certainly admirable that the film gives Alma Reville her due.

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Another often criticized element of the film is the scenes between the director and Ed Gein. In the film, Hitchcock has frequent imaginary conversations with Gein that suggest that the director is becoming unbalanced. The truth is that there is not any evidence to suggest that the director was unbalanced during the shooting of Psycho. This element of the story is obviously a device made up by the filmmakers in order to intensify the drama. The problem here is that this device takes the viewer out of the movie, which goes against its purpose.

The final criticism of the film is rather unfair to the filmmakers in many ways. The complaint is that the film simply doesn’t recreate the many ‘behind the scenes’ moments that Rebello’s book describes so very well. The crew was denied the right to use certain iconic sets from the film and was not able recreate footage from Psycho. A more reasonable complaint might be that the filmmakers altered certain events (such as the shooting of the shower scene) in order to imply that the director had become unhinged. The nude model (that might have created a few memorable moments in the film) and other interesting moments from the shooting of the scene are nowhere to be found in the film. These are traded for an uneven (but creatively edited) scene in which Hitchcock becomes unhinged.

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It is unfortunate that critics come to these kinds of films with predetermined expectations.

A film should be judged on its own terms and not on what a particular viewer might prefer the film to be. Judged as a work of fiction, the film is incredibly entertaining and an engaging wink to Hitchcock fans.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray and DVD discs are housed in a standard Blu-ray case with reasonably attractive artwork and case is housed in a slipcover with the same cover artwork.

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The animated menus employ footage from the film supported by Danny Elfman’s score.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The AVC MPEG-4 transfer is as beautiful as one might expect from a modern film. The ‘film’ was shot in 5k on Red Epic digital cameras and the picture is relatively immaculate. The film seems to be free of nasty compression artifacts, edge enhancement, and DNR. There is some occasional source noise that never becomes distracting and is hardly noticeable. Obviously print damage and dirt isn’t a possible issue on such source elements. Colors are nicely rendered and detail is incredibly crisp as well. The transfer seems to represent its source elements quite admirably.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc’s lossless 5.1 DTS-MA mix serves the film admirably and is a strong (if subtle) track with clear and well prioritized dialogue, with Danny Elfman’s score presented in a wonderfully dynamic presentation. Sound effects are effectively rendered as well. Rear channels also have nice presence and effectively enhance the listening experience. This is a solid track that should please audiences.

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Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary with Sacha Gervais and Stephen Rebello

This commentary track will be an interesting and engaging experience for anyone who enjoyed the film. Some might hope for a more detailed discussion about the specific choices made in the adaptation of the film, but most will be satisfied with the general discussion that this track offers listeners.

Deleted Scene – (HD) – (1:42)

This deleted scene includes an introduction by the director explaining why it was written and why it wasn’t used. The scene itself wouldn’t have really added anything to the final film, but it is always interesting to scenes that were cut from a film.

Obsessed with Hitchcock – (HD) – (29:09)

This ‘making of’ documentary is the most comprehensive feature on the disc. It briefly covers most aspects of production and will delight fans of the film. 

Becoming the Master: Hopkins to Hitchcock – (HD) – (12:28)

This feature should have been a part of the ‘making of’ feature included on the disc, but stands alone as an interesting and informative featurette.

Sacha Gervasi’s Behind-the-Scenes Cell Phone Footage – (HD) – (13:31)

It is always nice to see behind the scenes footage, but ones enjoyment is slightly marred by the fact that the footage was shot vertically.

The Story – (HD) – (3:41)

The Cast – (HD) – (4:25)

Hitch and Alma – (HD) – (3:15)

These 3 featurettes come very close to EPK promo territory. Fans of the film will welcome them, but they do not offer much in the way of substantial information.

Danny Elfman Maestro – (HD) – (2:16)

This is essentially several clips of the recording sessions of Danny Elfman’s score.

Remembering Hitchcock – (HD) – (4:44)

Several former Hitchcock associates discuss the film and the man that they knew. Among the more interesting of those interviewed are Jerry Mathers, Veronica Cartwright, and Hilton Green. This was an interesting featurette, but didn’t offer much in the way of actual information.

Hitchcock Cell Phone PSA – (HD) – (0:41)

This is a theatrical spot that theaters played before a film in order to remind them to turn their cell phones off and not to text during the movie. It had the added benefit of promoting the upcoming release of Hitchcock. It is rather an amusing addition to the disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (HD)

The original trailer for the film is also included here.

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Final Words:

Hitchcock might not be a factual account of the creation of Psycho, but it does manage to be a charming entertainment for anyone willing to enjoy it on its own terms. After all, “it’s only a movie.”

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Review by: Devon Powell