Offbeat Blu-ray Review: In Cold Blood – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 781


Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: November 17th, 2015

Region: Region A

Length: 2:14:40

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 3731 kbps, 24-Bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 2.35:1

Bitrate: 24.50 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available in a DVD Edition. Sony has also released a different transfer of this film on Blu-ray.


“This was a director’s film, pure and simple… Richard Brooks is a film author. That’s a man who retains complete control of the whole film in his own hands and then takes full responsibility for the final product. He didn’t just direct this picture. He wrote it, cast it, produced it, fought for it, edited it and lived and slept with it for months. This is his film. I’m just some actor in it.” –Robert Blake (Interview with Roger Ebert, January 28, 1968)

There is no denying that Richard Brooks was the primary creative force on the set of In Cold Blood, but Blake’s statement doesn’t seem to take into account that the screenplay was built from Truman Capote’s pioneering text about a true horrendous crime.


This headline was buried in the back page of the September 15, 1959 issue of the New York Times. It probably wouldn’t have been printed at all if Clutter hadn’t been a former member of Eisenhower’s Federal Farm Credit Board. It probably didn’t do much to move the urbanites that usually read the New York Times, but Truman Capote saw that there was literary potential in it. His relentless investigation lead to a landmark novel entitled, In Cold Blood. It was Capote’s desire “to write a journalistic narrative that employed all the creative devices and techniques of fiction to tell a true story in a manner that would read precisely like a novel.”

Book Cover

This is the original dust jacket cover for Truman Capote’s landmark book.

“…I traveled to this small town in Kansas and started to investigate the crime and immediately faced innumerable difficulties. Remember, all the material was not just waiting out there for me, as some people seem to think. When I began, I was dealing with an unsolved murder and initially I got very little cooperation either from the Clutters’ relatives and neighbors or from the local police. I didn’t know from minute to minute what was going to happen with the case, so I simply drudged on, gathering material. In fact, I didn’t definitely decide that I was going to write the book until I had been working on it for more than a year. There were so many things that could have frustrated me; even after the two boys were arrested for the murder. What would have happened if, as was highly probable, they weren’t interested in what I was doing and refused to cooperate with me? Of course, I did win their confidence and we became very close, but I had no assurance of that at the outset. And then, as the years dragged on and the legal delays and complications multiplied, I still didn’t really know if I was going to be able to finish the book or even if there was any book there. After three years of work, I almost abandoned the whole project; I had become too emotionally involved and I couldn’t stand the constant morbidity of the situation. It was becoming for me a question of personal survival. But I forced myself to keep going and pushed through the whole damned thing. It’s a book that was written on the edge of my nerves. If I had ever known what I was going to have to endure over those six years—no matter what has happened since—I never would have started the book. It was too painful. Nothing is worth it.” –Truman Capote (Playboy, March 1968


This is the house where the Clutter family was tragically (and pointlessly) killed by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Richard Brooks rented the home at great expense so that he could shoot his film adaptation at the actual location.

Capote’s journey into the psyches of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock has been dramatized in two films (Capote and Infamous) with varying results, but Richard Brooks’ adaption of the Capote novel came first. Brooks was not content to simply dramatize the chilling events detailed in the book. He insisted on an almost documentary level of realism. The film was shot using the actual locations (including the Clutter’s house where the murders occurred). Some of the people involved were even portrayed by themselves. For example, Sadie Truitt and Myrtle Clare are featured in the film as themselves. Blake and Scott Wilson even look like the killers that they portray.

“…It’s as accurate a rendering of the book as I could have hoped, with the single exception that if it were done the way I would really have liked, it would have had to be at least nine hours long. As it stands, it runs about two hours; but those two hours are verbatim from the book and brilliantly done. I cooperated fully with Richard Brooks, who directed the film and did the screenplay, and we never had the slightest disagreement. The actors who play Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, by the way, turn in remarkable- performances. Even the physical resemblance is uncanny; when I first saw the boy selected to play Smith, it was as if Perry had come back from the grave.” –Truman Capote (Playboy, March 1968)

Capote in Clutter Living Room

Truman Capote stands in the Clutter’s living room.

This documentary-like fidelity to the actual events created an unusual atmosphere on set. Brenda Currin (Nancy Clutter), remembers that the murder scenes were shot over an entire week in almost total darkness.

“…When it came time to film the scene in Nancy’s bedroom, the room was so small that they had to take out the bed in order to get the camera in. As the camera was about to roll, Robert Blake, who had never said one word to me, started hurling these invectives at me. I’d never heard that kind of language. What came out of him was unbelievable, it was an absolute body blow, and I broke down and started to cry.

Just then, Richard Brooks said ‘Action!’ and Robert, in the most gentle voice imaginable said, ‘Do you like horses?’ It completely turned me upside down and all around, this duality that I had just experienced. Afterwards, I was a mess. I remember I went and sat in the mother’s room just to get myself together and he came in and sat down next to me and said, ‘You’re a nice actress.’ And from that point on we became really close, and that extended into the following year around the release of the film…” -Brenda Currin (Deep South Magazine)

Clutter House Bodies - See caption

The deceased members of the Clutter family are carried out of their home by authorities.

These slices of realism make In Cold Blood a rather difficult movie to discuss. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert stated that the film wasn’t actually a movie.

In Cold Blood is an eerie case. Not a movie. A case…

…This is not a work of the imagination, but a masterpiece of copying. Richard Brooks and Truman Capote brought technical skill to their tasks in recreating the murders, but imagination was not needed. All the events had already happened. And every detail of the film, from the physical appearance of the actors to the use of actual locations like the Clutter farmhouse, was chosen to make the film a literal copy of those events.

I do not object to this. Men have always learned about themselves by studying the things their fellows do. If mass murders of this sort are possible in American society (and many have been), then perhaps it is useful to see a thoughtful film about one of them.

And to the degree that In Cold Blood is an accurate, sensitive record of actual events, it succeeds overpoweringly. The actors, Robert Blake (Smith) and Scott Wilson (Hickock), are so good they pass beyond performances and almost into life. Many other performances also have the flat, every day, absolutely genuine ring of truth to them. At times one feels this is not a movie but a documentary that the events are taking place now.” –Roger Ebert (February 6, 1968)

It seems erroneous to claim that “imagination was not needed” to achieve the remarkable results that make Brooks’ adaptation so remarkable. The staging along with the stark black and white cinematography, the eerie ambience of the soundtrack, and countless other ingredients certainly required a deep reservoir of imagination. However, one must admit that any analysis of the film is impossible without considering the actual crime that it is based upon. It seems somewhat crass to discuss the film as if it were a normal movie. After all, the Clutters existed. Their lives were actually ended. We aren’t watching characters on the screen. We are watching a re-enactment of a tragic event.

Clutter Funeral -see caption

November 18, 1959: The Herbert Clutter family is loaded into hearses before the Garden City Methodist Church.

As with all tragedies, people find themselves questioning why such an event might occur. One of the criticisms directed towards Capote’s novel (and therefore towards the film adaptation) is that a reason is never given for the murders. However, both the book and the film touch on the reason that this tragic event took place.

“…Dr. Joseph Satten concentrated extensively on Perry Smith, and his conclusion was that the person Perry was murdering that night in a Kansas farmhouse was not Mr. Clutter but his own father. I agree. It also became quite clear from many of the things Perry told me over the years that this was his own evaluation of what had happened. The only murder of psychological importance in this case is the first one, because once it was committed, the others were imperative, but not in themselves psychologically motivated; they were automatic and almost incidental. So the why is quite clear: Perry identified Mr. Clutter, an authority figure, with the father he love-hated and he unleashed all his inner resentment in an act of violence. This was a pattern in Perry’s life; each time he tried to kill someone, that person was an obvious authority figure, a lather surrogate, for example, he told me many times about his attempt to murder a military policeman in Japan; he picked him up and then threw him over a bridge. In each instance, what triggered Perry’s violence was his own love-hate relationship with his father…

…I’m always surprised to read reviews of In Cold Blood that lament, ‘But Mr. Capote didn’t tell us why.’ Well, short of getting a baseball hat and clubbing you over the head with it, I don’t see how I could have made the point any more clearly.” –Truman Capote (Playboy, March 1968)

These things are at the very least implied in both the book and the film adaptation. Audiences and readers are responsible for connecting their own dots (just as they are in life). In any case, there is rarely a truly satisfactory reason for such tragic events.

Truman Capote with Richard Brooks

Truman Capote (the author of the novel) sits with Richard Brooks (the screenwriter and director).

The one curious diversion from the actual events might very well be the film’s only real flaw. Brooks went to great lengths to dramatize the actual events as faithfully as possible, so it seems especially odd that he would introduce Jensen (often referred to as “the reporter”). He seems to be included as an unfortunate device to editorialize certain events. If one wants to be charitable, it could be argued that he is a surrogate for Truman Capote. This trouble with this argument is that Capote actually went to great lengths to keep himself out of the book.

“The real demarcation between my book and anything that has gone before is that it contains a technical innovation that gives it both the reality and the atmosphere of a novel: and that device is that ‘I’ never once appear in the book. Never. Always before in this genre, the author has been faced with a technical problem of credibility: The reader wants to know how does the writer know this person said this to someone else, how does he know this background material? Now, previously the problem has always been solved by the narrator intruding himself into the scene: ‘I’ discovered this. ‘I’ saw that. ‘I’ overheard this. The first-person pronoun permeates the whole composition and it thus becomes a piece of straight surface journalism. It only moves horizontally throughout. But what I wanted to do was bring to journalism the technique of fiction, which moves both horizontally and vertically at the same time: horizontally on the narrative side and vertically by entering inside its characters. And that, of course, is what gives fiction its peculiar depth and impact. Now, in my effort to give journalism this vertical interior movement—and that was the whole purpose of my experiment—1 had to remove the narrator entirely. I had to make the book flow uninterruptedly from beginning to end, just like a novel, and thus the narrator never enters the picture and there is no interpretation of people and events. I wanted the story to exist completely in its own right; except for the selection of detail. I am totally absent from the development of the book, and the people are re-created as they are in life. That’s why I feel it’s not comparable with anything else in the history of journalism.” –Truman Capote (Playboy, March 1968)

This seems to be the most common complaint about the film. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect five-star review, but he couldn’t help but lodge a complaint about this additional character.

“Another of Brooks’ mistakes, I think, was his decision to write a liberal reporter into the script. This figure obviously represents Capote. He hangs around during the last half of the film, tells about Death Row, narrates the hangings and provides instant morals about capital punishment. He is useless and distracting. Brooks should either have used Capote himself or no one.” –Roger Ebert (February 6, 1968)

Luckily, this slight blemish is on the face of an otherwise perfect film, which is still as powerfully chilling as the day it was released.

One Sheet

The film’s Theatrical One Sheet was unique in that it featured the cold eyes of the actual Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.


The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The original artwork is brilliantly conceived and surpasses the film’s original one sheet artwork. One will see a similarity between the original novel’s cover art and Criterion’s simple and elegant film artwork. Most people should agree that it is quite appropriate. An added bonus is the wonderful fold out pamphlet featuring an essay by Chris Fujiwara.

The disc itself features the cold eyes of the real Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, and the interior of the case features the Clutter house. It is an extremely attractive presentation.

The disc’s menus are also appropriate and attractive (again using the book’s original dust jacket artwork as the basis for the artwork). It is an elegant menu that is quite easy to navigate.

 Menu 1

Criterion has again produced a first rate Blu-ray package.


Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s special 1080p, 24hz high-def presentation transfer was taken their 4K restoration sourced from the original negative and is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Detail is remarkably strong and proudly showcases textures and crisp lines. Black levels are beautifully rich and are representative of Conrad Hall’s remarkable black and white cinematography. There doesn’t seem to be any crushing as the contrast seems to be remarkably accurate as the grey levels blend beautifully. Film grain has happily been maintained, but is very fine and looks quite wonderful here. This is a solid improvement upon Sony’s Blu-ray release of the film (as might be expected from Criterion).


Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround remix of the film’s original elements appears to be in excellent shape. There weren’t any noticeable anomalies (such as hiss, pops, or dropouts), and the dialogue is always quite clear. There are a few moments in the film that sound somewhat flat, or perhaps they have been swallowed by the other sounds in the mix. I wouldn’t like to state whether or not this is an issue with the original source or the 5.1 re-mix. (I simply don’t know.) This isn’t a distracting problem, and one doubts if most people would even notice it.

The Quincy Jones score has been mixed into the surround speakers smoothly with amazing fidelity. In fact, it is so full and pristine that it might be responsible for the aforementioned moment of flat dialogue. This is a minor issue with what is overall a very satisfying audio mix. If a complaint can be made, it should be that the original mix wasn’t also included on the disc.


Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Cinéma Cinemas (1988): Interview with Richard Brooks – (18:25)

This excerpt from a 1988 episode of the French television series, Cinéma Cinemas is an interesting archival interview with Richard Brooks. As a matter of fact, it is probably the best supplement on a disc with many excellent supplements. Brooks talks candidly about the film, and his vision in a manner that is easily accessible to even the most casual viewers.

With Love from Truman (1966) – (29:06)

With Love from Truman is a 1966 documentary featuring novelist Truman Capote was directed by Albert and David Maysles. Capote discusses In Cold Blood and writing in general. This half hour documentary is both engaging and informative.

Today Show Segment featuring Truman Capote (1966) – (4:32)

This archival segment from a 1966 episode of The Today Show follows Truman Capote on a 1966 visit to Holcomb, Kansas, and features interviews with a few of the Holocomb’s important citizens. One particularly amusing moment showcases an elderly citizen tell Capote that she enjoyed the book, but that he needed to put more thought into the ending.

Barbara Walters Interviews Truman Capote (1967) – (9:46)

It was especially nice to see Barbara Walters interviewing Truman Capote about In Cold Blood. Both the film and the book are discussed here in this segment from a 1967 episode of The Today Show. It would be inaccurate to describe the interview as a probing interaction between Walters and Capote, but the surface discussion is reasonably informative (and always engaging).

Interview with Douglass K. Daniel – (16:59)

Douglass K. Daniel (writer) discusses Richard Brooks and his work as the film’s writer and director. This short study of Richard Brooks provides a context for the film that increases one’s ability to appreciate the work that Brooks put into In Cold Blood. It is a welcome addition to the disc.

Interview with John Bailey – (27:04)

John Bailey (cinematographer) discusses Conrad Hall’s work as the director of photography on In Cold Blood in impressive depth. After some introductory background information on Conrad Hall, Bailey provides an astute commentary on the film’s cinematography. This is a scholarly tour through Hall’s creative work on In Cold Blood, and it should increase the viewer’s appreciation of this classic film.

Interview Gary Giddins – (21:09)

Gary Giddins (film critic and jazz historian) discusses Quincy Jones’s music for In Cold Blood in this surprisingly comprehensive illustrated interview. This should increase one’s appreciation for the role that music and sound plays in this Brooks classic.

Interview with Bobbie O’Steen – (14:36)

Bobbie O’Steen (film historian) discusses the film’s editing in a certain amount of depth, and her insights always promote increased appreciation for the film in question.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:56)

The film’s Theatrical Trailer focuses on In Cold Blood’s documentary-like precision. Audiences are told that the film’s events are real and that the film is shot in the actual locations utilizing some of the actual people involved. There is a comparison between the real murderers and the actors that play them (they look very similar). It is an interesting way to sell a film, and it is nice to have this included here.


Final Words:

Criterion’s release of In Cold Blood is a near-perfect release of a film that is required viewing for cinemaphiles.



In Cold Blood is quite unlike an Alfred Hitchcock picture, but it does welcome a comparison with The Wrong Man (one of the master’s most underappreciated efforts). Both films are based on true stories and utilize the actual locations where the true events occurred. Each film is shot in stark black and white and features a jazzy score. While Hitchcock also utilizes sets for certain interiors, they are based upon the actual locations.


In Criterion’s essay about the film, Chris Fujiwara compared it with an altogether different Hitchcock classic.

“Incidentally, In Cold Blood recalls Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in certain aspects: random murder, a road-centered America, a small town overwhelmed by sensational crime. (Psycho too has a scene in a hardware store.)” –Chris Fujiwara (“Structuring the Real” – Criterion’s Liner Essay)


The Criterion Collection’s In Cold Blood page:

Blu-ray Review: Family Plot

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 03, 2013

Region: Region A

Length: 02:00:04

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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.

01 - Title

“I didn’t say, ‘I’d like to do a kidnapping film.’ What interested me about a story like Family Plot was that it was two sides of a triangle meeting at a certain point… That was the shape of the film, and the climax — the apex came when these two totally unrelated elements came together. And they came together just as the leading lady rings the front door bell of the house which contains a kidnapped bishop. And that’s what appealed to me was the structure of this story, and the kidnapping and all those elements were part of it but certainly no great inspiration to me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

It is interesting that Alfred Hitchcock would follow the dark and cynical Frenzy with the light and whimsical Family Plot. While it is true that there is a fair amount of cynicism in Family Plot, it is filtered through a rather optimistic lens. This is especially true when one compares it with Alfred Hitchcock’s source of inspiration for the film. The script was adapted from Victor Canning’s “The Rainbird Pattern,” but the differences between the novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film go far beyond any changes that were made to the plot (and there were many). The tone of the novel was dark and pessimistic about much more than the characters and situations described in Canning’s story. Practically every character is met with a bitter end. It was much more in keeping with the tone of Frenzy. One can only speculate as to the director’s reasoning behind turning the film into a light entertainment, but I believe that it indicates a level of hope possessed by the 76 year old Hitchcock… or perhaps I merely hope that this is what it represents.

Considering that his intention was to create a much lighter entertainment, it seems somewhat unusual that he should ask his former Frenzy collaborator to help him turn his ideas for his new project into a screenplay.

“After deciding on The Rainbird Pattern, the director offered the script assignment to Anthony Shaffer, who read the book but balked at ‘the sort of version that Hitch was describing – a sort of light, Noel Coward – Madame Arcati thing with Margaret Rutherford.’ … Shaffer agreed to think about it, but he had flashed the wrong signals, and Hitchcock phoned him a week later to say that his agent had made excessive demands. Shaffer felt Hitchcock was dissembling in order to avoid later confrontation over his approach.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Hitchcock rebounded from Shaffer with ease, and decided to contact a more appropriate collaborator: Ernest Lehman. It isn’t difficult to follow his train of thought. After all, Lehman had worked on North by Northwest with the director.

“I felt very comfortable being back with him. However, before long I realized that our relationship was quite different. Many years had passed. We had both had successes and failures. We were different people now.” –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

Despite the changes in both men, Alfred Hitchcock’s working method was very much the same as it had been while the two men were writing North by Northwest.

“The first forty-five minutes… are always warm up time, during which neither of you would dare commit the gross unpardonable sin of mentioning the work at hand. There are more attractive matters to be discussed first… How much more pleasurable [was this conversation], than to have to sit there, sometimes in terribly long silences, trying to devise ‘Hitchcockian’ methods of extricating fictional characters from the corners into which you painted them the day before.’ –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

It was usually Lehman that launched the conversation into writing-mode, and the men would trade ideas for whatever script problems that they were facing on that particular day (with Hitchcock having final say). When Lehman made suggestions of his own, it created a different kind of suspense for the writer.

“…You begin to talk, and he watches you, and he listens, and you watch him carefully, and you continue, and finally you’ve said it all. And then [Hitchcock] does one of several things. His face lights up with enthusiasm. Good sign. Or his face remains unchanged. Question mark. Or he says absolutely nothing about what you have just told him, and talks about another aspect of the picture. Pocket veto. Or he looks at you with great sympathy, and says, ‘But Ernie, that’s the way they do it in the movies.’” –Ernest Lehman (as quoted by Patrick McGilligan in “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” 2003)

Both men had rather robust egos. Lehman really didn’t like being subordinate to Alfred Hitchcock, and preferred to write things the way that he wanted to write them. However, when one writes with Hitchcock it is understood that they are there to write what he tells them to write.

“‘I found myself refusing to accept Hitch’s ideas (if I thought they were wrong),’ Lehman recalled later, ‘merely because those ideas were coming from a legendary figure.’ The writer had grown weary of Hitchcock overanalysing everything, and he simply wanted the go-ahead to finish. The silences between them grew longer, the disagreements awkward…

…Privately Hitchcock had decided that Lehman was ‘a very nervous and edgy sort of man’ who was deliberately giving him ‘a rather difficult time,’ as he complained in a letter to Michael Balcon in England. When he suffered a heart attack in September, Hitchcock went do far as to blame the episode (only half kiddingly, it seems) on the constant ‘nervous state’ induced by his arguments with Lehman.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Whether not the tense relationship between these two men actually had an impact on the final script is up for debate, but there it seems to have left its mark on the film’s infamous ending.

“…Again Lehman toyed from time to time with the idea of resigning, and was persuaded back, grumbling but still fascinated. He ended incredulous at all the agony which had gone into the creation of such a slight picture, and amazed that so little of it showed. Finally, his main difference of opinion with Hitchcock was over the ending, which Hitch eventually wrote himself and submitted to Lehman, listened to his objections (mainly that the medium is shown throughout to be a fake, so to suggest that maybe she has a touch of psychic power is disturbingly inconsistent), discussed his alternate solutions, and then went right ahead and used his own version.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Although, Hitchcock used the ending that he had written without Lehman, the writer’s issues were addressed in post-production.

“… [This] led to some redubbing in the New Year when the Hitchcock’s returned from their annual pilgrimage to St. Moritz. On a shot of Adamson’s back as he carries the drugged Blanche to captivity after she has tumbled to his true identity was dubbed a line referring to the diamond in the chandelier (not in the shooting script), which could just possibly explain away Blanche’s final revelation – maybe she was not completely unconscious at the time or heard the remark unawares. When Ernest Lehman saw the film he was unhappy with the line, and suggested something less contrived–sounding, while admitting that any line at this point was necessary contrivance. The line was re-dubbed using one of Lehman’s suggestions…” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Of course, writing Alfred Hitchcock’s “53rd feature” was the easy part (regardless of what the director might say in publicity interviews). The seventies were a challenging decade for the director, and both he and Alma suffered quite a few health related scares. He was in the midst of several of these scares while preparing Family Plot (which was entitled Deceit during the film’s production).

“…Hitch had a succession of health problems that put him in and out of the hospital for most of the autumn –first, he had a heart pacer fitted, which he delights to show with some gruesome details of the surgical process involved. Then, as a result of a bad reaction to the antibiotics he was given, he got colitis, and once over that he had a kidney stone removed…

…By December 1974, when I saw him again, the production was moving toward its final stages of preparedness. The script was pretty well fixed, for the moment (the final production script bears evidence of some intensive final polishing around the end of March and the beginning of April 1975, but nearly all in matters of detail)…” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Hitchcock’s health would have a large impact on how the film would be shot. The director had originally planned quite a bit of location shooting, but it became obvious to everyone that the production would have to be tied to the studio. Of course, there were a few noteworthy exceptions.

“…The image of Grace Cathedral remained for the Bishop’s kidnapping, and with it some other unobtrusively San Francisco locations for the houses of various characters. At one time Hitch even considered doing the cathedral sequence in the studio, on the principal that all he really needed was one column and the rest could be matted in. But he discovered that in the studio the sequence would cost $200,000, so he decided he might as well go on location, and while he was there himself shoot the other San Francisco exteriors, which had formerly been assigned to the second unit.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Special preparations were taken by the studio to ensure that Hitchcock could get around with relative ease. Thom Mount elaborated on some of the special measures that were taken to writer, Charlotte Chandler.

“…Mr. Hitchcock had a very hard time standing up for any lengthy period of time. Walking was not his strong suit by that time, so we took an old Cadillac convertible and a welding torch, and we cut the sides, and the back off of it, fitted a flat platform on the back of the Cadillac, and on that flat platform we put a chair for a cinematographer, as if it were a crane that was mounted on a hydraulic lift. Mr. Hitchcock would sit in the chair and move himself around in any direction and see in all directions. The Cadillac was moved all around the soundstage, even though they were interiors, just backing it into place, wherever it needed to be. And so Mr. Hitchcock could move around” –Thom Mount (as quoted by Charlotte Chandler in “It’s Only A Movie,” 2006)

"I never realized I would be working so hard at this age." –Alfred Hitchcock (Anniston Star, August 24, 1975)

“I never realized I would be working so hard at this age.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Anniston Star, August 24, 1975)

There were other issues to consider as well. Hitchcock took special care to go over his visual plans with his storyboard artist, Tom Wright. This was particularly true of the car “chase sequence,” because Hitchcock’s health issues would make it impossible to be present during some of the shooting of this particular sequence. It was necessary for the storyboards to be an exact replica of his vision, because the second unit would need them to follow Hitchcock’s design down to the last detail.

Even with these health issues as a handicap, the old master seemed sharp as a tack mentally. He even seemed maintain his equanimity while shooting the location footage at Grace Cathedral.

“The extras, as is the way with extras, want to act, to make the most of their few seconds [of] screen time with elaborate reactions, and dare to attempt discussion of motivation with the director… At one point, when the abduction of the Bishop is actually taking place, some extras at the back ask him to describe what is happening so that they will know how to react. ‘Can you see what’s happening?’ No. ‘Then there you are. You can’t see what’s happening, you just have a vague idea that something is. You don’t have to react beyond a slight show of curiosity.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Crowd scenes are always difficult, and to be able to direct a large number of people in a relatively short period of time takes more than just a small amount of mental stamina. This was always one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most accessible tools. Unfortunately, the production was not without a reasonable amount of stress, and there are certain problems that take more than mental prowess. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made.

“Shortly after the successful location shooting in San Francisco some unexpected troubles arose with the shooting, acknowledged in a brief press announcement dated 13 June which stated that the character portrayed by Roy Thinnes had ‘undergone a conceptual change calling for a new character concept’ to be played by William Devane… Stories vary as to what lay behind this change, which necessitated reshooting and put the film, up to then a few days ahead of schedule, rather behind. (It was originally scheduled to take fifty-eight days to shoot, and the budget envisaged was a modest three and a half million, of which Hitch wryly remarked, about $550,000 would go on fringe benefits of various kinds that never show on the screen.)” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

One of the stories as to the reason that Thinnes had been re-cast with Devane was published on June 18, 1975 in Variety (a source that isn’t always particularly accurate). According to Variety, “Alfred Hitchcock and Roy Thinnes disagreed on the interpretation of the young actor’s role in Deceit after a scene in San Francisco… Actor’s don’t tell Hitch; he tells them.” However, the Athens News Courier would quote Hitchcock giving a less dramatic reason for the actor’s replacement in an article published on June 1, 1976: “That came from miscasting on my part. He didn’t have a sinister quality.”

“…Given Hitch’s absolute and abiding horror of scenes and confrontations, it seems very unlikely that [a confrontation with Thinnes about the character] occurred, but rather that Hitch put into practice his often stated principal that if he found he was not getting what he wanted from an actor his natural way of dealing with the situation would be to pay the actor off and start again with someone else. A spectator did describe to me the nearest thing to a confrontation when Roy Thinnes cornered Hitch at his regular table at Chasens’ during one of his regular Thursday dinners to ask him in some distress, ‘why?’ Hitch, equally distressed, just kept saying, ‘but you were too nice for the role, too nice.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Luckily, Hitchcock was particularly fond of both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern. He allowed both actors a certain amount of freedom to interpret their characters, and his relationship with both of these actors was one of genuine affection based on mutual admiration and respect.

“I’ve made thirty films, and he’s the best director I’ve ever worked for. He’s also the most entertaining man, the best actor. He’s got style and personality, and he’s full of stories. Of course, people say he allows no freedom to actors. But there’s all the freedom in the world once you understand the ground rules. He explains what the shot is supposed to say and what you’re supposed to do. Then you give it! If you couldn’t do it, you wouldn’t be working for him in the first place. Nothing is left to chance except the actor’s improvisation. He’s concerned that the actor keep it fresh, alive, [and] new. He wants each shot to entertain him – then he knows the audience will be entertained.” – Bruce Dern (as quoted by Donald Spoto in “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,” 1976)

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed working with both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern.

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed working with both Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern.

When the picture wrapped on the 18th of August, the production was only thirteen days over schedule. Luckily, the title was changed from Deceit to Family Plot at some point during the film’s creation. The latter title was suggested by someone in Universal’s publicity department after Hitchcock had expressed his dissatisfaction with the original title. After making a market inquiry into the effectiveness of Deceit as a possible title, Hitchcock’s instinct was proven accurate. It didn’t seem to be an effective title for this particular film.

“I felt the word ‘Deceit’ suggested a bedroom farce. It suggested – It was rather a mild word. It didn’t carry any meaning with it. Pictorially, when one began to think about the word, ‘Deceit,’ there you had the woman in bed, the husband entering the bedroom, and the lover secreted behind the curtain… and that to me epitomized the word ‘Deceit.’ It wasn’t good, I didn’t think.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

Alfred Hitchcock never really recovered from his falling out with Bernard Herrmann, and it was rather late in the post production process when John Williams was finally asked to provide a score for the film.

“Mr. Hitchcock had his office here at Universal Studios. And so he apparently needed a composer for this Family Plot, and the executive those years in charge of music was a gentleman called Harry Garfield. So, it was Harry Garfield who recommended me as a newcomer, just having done Jaws, a very successful film, to Mr. Hitchcock. And I went to see him at his office, and we had lunch and had a chat and I left not knowing if he would engage me to do this or not. Then I got a call from Mr. Garfield the next day. It said, Hitchcock, yes, he would like you to do the score.” –John Williams (Plotting Family Plot)

The composer found the experience of working with Alfred Hitchcock instructive, and is valuable as evidence against the insane claim that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have an ear for music. He was in fact very aware of how different kinds of music altered a scene’s tone. He was also very aware of the effect that the absence of music could have upon the audience.

“I could tell you one little anecdote, also, about a scene in the film where we didn’t have a disagreement about where the music should play but a discussion. There was a room where the criminal had been, and the camera pans to the window, which is open. And the curtains blow in the breeze, and this reveal of the camera tells us the criminal has escaped.

But the orchestra was playing to drive the energy to people to go to discover where the criminal is. Driving, driving, driving… through the point where the camera goes through the door. And I continued the music when the camera panned to the window, playing it more. And he said, “You know, if you stop the music when the camera pans to the window, “the silence will tell us that it’s empty — he’s gone — more emphatically, more powerfully than any musical phrase.” And, of course, just the absence of music at that point… It was a wonderful lesson, really, in where to arrange the parts of the music in any film, which we call “spotting,” incidentally. That is to say, the spots are where the music is.” –John Williams (Plotting Family Plot)

Reporter: “What is the mandatory retirement age for a director in Hollywood?”  Hitchcock: “I would say, reel twelve.”  -Family Plot Press Conference, March 23rd, 1976)

Reporter: “What is the mandatory retirement age for a director in Hollywood?”
Hitchcock: “I would say, reel twelve.”
-Family Plot Press Conference (March 23rd, 1976)

When the film debuted on March 18, 1976 for a University of Sothern California preview audience, Hitchcock was quite happy with the student audience’s enthusiastic reaction. The director’s optimism cemented when Family Plot officially premièred opened at the benefit opening of ‘Filmex’ (Los Angeles International Film Festival) on March 21, 1976. The reaction here was also quite enthusiastic, and it looked like the director might have a hit on his hands.

Of course, an early review that was published in Variety on the December 31, 1975 had probably already spearheaded his optimum several months before the film was even released.

Family Plot is a dazzling achievement for Alfred Hitchcock masterfully controlling shifts from comedy to drama throughout a highly complex plot. Witty screenplay, transplanting Victor Canning’s British novel, The Rainbird Pattern, to a California setting, is a model of construction, and the cast is uniformly superb.

Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris are the couple who receive primary attention, a cabbie and a phony psychic trying to find the long-lost heir to the Rainbird fortune.

Dern is a more than slightly absurd figure, oddly appealing; Harris is sensational.

William Devane takes a high place in the roster of Hitchcockian rogues, while Karen Black, gives a deep resonance to her relationship with the mercurial Devane.” –Variety (December 31, 1975)

Vincent Canby also wrote an affectionate review for the New York Times, following the film’s release to the public.

“Not since To Catch a Thief and The Trouble with Harry has Alfred Hitchcock been in such benign good humor as he is in Family Plot, the old master’s 56th feature since he began directing films in 1922.

Family Plot, which opened at theaters all over town yesterday, is a witty, relaxed lark. It’s a movie to raise your spirits even as it dabbles in phony ones, especially those called forth by Blanche (Barbara Harris), a sweet, pretty, totally fraudulent Los Angeles medium, who nearly wrecks her vocal cords when possessed by a control whose voice sounds like Sidney Greenstreet’s.

But Family Plot isn’t about anything as esoteric as spiritualism and its sometimes wayward votaries. It’s about good, old-fashioned greed, or, how to work very, very hard in order to make your fortune illegally. It’s one of the many invigorating ironies of Family Plot that its con people are so obsessed by their criminal pursuits they never realize the easier way would probably be the lawful one. Then, of course, there would be no plot, and a high regard for plot is one of the distinguishing joys of both Hitchcock and this new film…

…Blanche and Lumley, merged, make a single bird-brain, but one whom heaven protects and fortune smiles on. As performed by Miss Harris and Mr. Dern, they are two of the most appealing would-be rascals that Hitchcock had even given us. For that matter so are Adamson and Fran (she has no last name, which leaves her matrimonial state in Old World, gentlemanly doubt). Though Adamson is portrayed as being perfectly willing to murder, when cornered, he never succeeds, and Fran is the kind of kidnapper who prepares gourmet meals for her involuntary guests. The four are extremely good company, like Hitchcock himself when, in an expansive, genial, storytelling mood, even his digressions have digressions, but always to the point of some higher entertainment truth.

Hitchcock aficionados may well miss signs of the director’s often overanalyzed pessimism. Family Plot is certainly Hitchcock’s most cheerful film in a long time, but it’s hardly innocent. One of the things that figure prominently in the plot, though it happens long before the film starts, is the story of a young man who, finding his stepparents boring, pours gasoline all over the house and incinerates the offending pair. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it continues the master’s franchise on the macabre.” –Vincent Canby (New York Times, April 10, 1976)

Roger Ebert was also positive in his statements about the film, giving it three out of four stars.

“Alfred Hitchcock has always preferred visuals to dialog, yet Family Plot opens on a talkative note. A medium, the slightly spaced-out Madame Blanche, is holding a séance with an eccentric old lady. They’re in the old lady’s parlor, surrounded by antiques and heirlooms and an abundance of deep shadows, and the old lady is involved in this incredibly complicated tale about events of years ago.

It appears that her late sister had an illegitimate child and, times being what they were, the child was given up for adoption. Then the sister died, and the child was lost track of, and now the old lady is afraid of dying and wants to make amends by willing her vast fortune to the child. Madame Blanche’s assignment: Find the missing nephew. He’d be almost 40 now.

If this were to be a routine story, the medium no doubt would recruit someone to play the missing nephew, and they’d share the vast fortune. But, no, this is a Hitchcock, so that would be far too simple. Madame Blanche does the unexpected thing: She sets out to find the nephew. And, as wonderfully played by Barbara Harris, she has such a sweet and simple faith in the possibility of everything that we almost think she’s right. She enlists the aid of her rather slow-witted boyfriend (Bruce Dern), a cabdriver and sometime actor. He’ll do the detective work, she’ll keep the old lady happy and they’ll share a $10,000 reward.

Now comes a nice touch. As Blanche and her boyfriend drive home in a cab, they almost run down a woman. They miss and drive on, but the camera follows the woman. She is, inevitably, the wife of none other than the missing nephew. And the two of them are involved in a series of kidnappings with precious jewels as the ransom.

The way Hitchcock cuts, just like that, from one pair to the other — cheerfully flaunting the coincidence – reminds me a little of Luis Bunuel’s recent The Phantom of Liberty. It’s as if both directors, now in their 70s and in total command of their styles, have decided to dispense with explanations from time to time: Why waste time making things tiresomely plausible when you can simply present them as accomplished?

Family Plot opens, as I’ve suggested, with a rather large amount of talking, but it’s necessary to lay out the elements of the story. Hitchcock has a deviously complicated tale to tell, and he’s going to tell it with labyrinthine detail, and he’s not going to cheat — so he wants to be sure we’re following him. It wouldn’t be playing fair with his meticulously constructed plot to describe very much of what happens, but there’s a real delight in watching him draw his two sets of characters closer and closer, until they meet in a conclusion that’s typical Hitchcock: simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.

But I can, I suppose, admire a scene or two. There’s a moment in a graveyard, for example, when a gravedigger appears almost from out of Hamlet to regard a suspicious tombstone with the investigating cabdriver. Another moment in the same cemetery, as the cabdriver and a newly made widow stalk each other on grass paths, with Hitchcock shooting from above to make them seem captives of a maze. And a scene in a cathedral that’s Hitchcock at his best: A bishop is kidnapped, and no one moves to interfere because… well, this is a church, after all.

As his kidnappers and jewel thieves, Hitchcock casts Karen Black and William Devane. She does a good job in a role that doesn’t give her much to do, but Devane, whom I hadn’t seen before, is inspired as the criminal mastermind and missing nephew. He has a kind of quiet, pleasant, sinister charm; he’s oily and smooth and ready to pounce. And his aura of evil contrasts nicely with Miss Harris and Dern, who have no idea what sorts of trouble they’re in.

Family Plot is, incredibly, Hitchcock’s 53rd film in a career that reaches back almost 50 years. And it’s a delight for two contradictory reasons: because it’s pure Hitchcock, with its meticulous construction and attention to detail, and because it’s something new for Hitchcock — a macabre comedy, essentially. He doesn’t go for shock here, or for violent effects, but for the gradual tightening of a narrative noose.

Everything’s laid out for us and made clear, we understand the situation we can see where events are leading… and then, in the last 30 minutes, he springs one concealed trap after another, allowing his story to fold in upon itself, to twist and turn, and scare and amuse us with its clockwork irony.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times, April 12, 1976)

Other reviews, such as the one published in the Independent Film Journal were also enthusiastic.

“For his 53rd film, Alfred Hitchcock has toned down the shock value and accentuated the humor in a deliciously complex comedy-suspense drama that will have audiences happily perched in the palm of its hand nearly every step of the way. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern sparkle as two innocent tricksters whose search for a missing heir suddenly parallels the path of a pair of professional kidnappers. Great fun and bound to be a great hit.

Don’t be too surprised if this year’s Easter Bunny is portlier than usual, complete with multiple chins, a proudly out-jutting belly and only a few wisps of grey hair remaining on his scalp. Chances are he’s shown up in the trademarked form of Alfred Hitchcock, beckoning audiences to Family Plot, a beautifully constructed, literately witty and thoroughly involving comedy suspense-drama crafted with the sure hands of a an impudent genius. Moving even further away from the shuddery sensibilities of his best-known films, Hitchcock seems to have approached his 53rd feature in a mellow and benign mood, spinning his complex web of suspense with a far greater accent on rich humor than on shock value, as if he didn’t want his audiences to feel even vaguely threatened or uncomfortable en route to their final catharsis. Stated simply, Family Plot promises those audiences one hell of a good time and should prove a rousing success at the box-office. The discomforting sense of menace may be missing, but in most respects Family Plot is still quintessential Hitchcock, a complex plot that begins as a tantalizing mystery, allows itself to be solved for the viewer relatively early on, and then shifts to pure suspense as its convoluted threads inexorably weave themselves together.

Beautifully scripted by Ernest Lehman from Victor Canning’s novel, The Rainbird Pattern, the film again taps that steady thematic vein that continually resurfaces in Hitchcock’s work: what happens when relatively innocent bystanders find themselves unwittingly—and dangerously—enmeshed in someone else’s criminal goings-on. In this case, the action cuts back and forth between two sets of protagonists, one of them greedy but basically innocent, the other coldly criminal, with both combinations destined to clash trajectories. The heroes of the piece, superbly played by Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris, are a beguiling pair of lower-echelon con artists contriving to track down the missing heir to a dowager’s fortune and hoping to earn a $10,000 finder’s fee for their trouble…

…More often than not, the intricate plot turns and quirks of character are far wittier and deliciously entertaining than they are tension-provoking, a fact that may momentarily disappoint serious Hitchophiles expecting artfully visualized set pieces like the shower stabbing in Psycho or the potato truck scene in Frenzy. But the story is definitely the thing, and even if a key scene in which Dern and Harris are pursued down the highway by a murderous car doesn’t sustain itself long enough to muster any great emotional payoff, there are more than enough ingenious twists and a firm enough overlay of suspense to keep viewers raptly entertained from beginning to end.

Brightening things considerably, and providing two of the most engaging characters ever to fill Hitchcock’s viewfinder, are Dern and Harris as a pair of good-hearted bumblers whose liveliness and emotional range firmly counters the kind of cool, cipher-like performances the director is noted for wanting from his actors. As their destined nemesis Devane checks in effectively as another suave but despicable Hitchcock villain, while Black, as his suddenly rebellious partner, conforms more closely to the cipher quality mentioned above. Strong support comes from Ed Lauter as Devane’s psychotically traditional henchman.

Technical credits, barring some of those curiously sloppy process shots Hitchcock seems to relish so much, are excellent, highlighted by a deliciously taunting score by John Williams. Piece by piece and in overall effect, Family Plot is as solid an entertainment as any audience—at any level—could ever hope for.” -S.K. (The Independent Film Journal, April 14, 1976)

Even Penelope Gilliatt’s review for The New Yorker was generous in its kindness towards Family Plot.

“With a kick on a cemetery headstone that has no body below (‘Fake! Fake!’ shouts the kicker), and a gentle, lethal plopping of brake fluid, the sound track of Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot firmly plants us in a world in which the hallowed is a hoax and the mechanically sophisticated is dangerous to treat as a plaything. Hitchcock has never made a strategically wittier film, or a fonder; and this in his seventy-seventh year.

The beginning reminds us that the Master has always wanted to direct, of all things, J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose; and, though he once cheerfully informed me that he has it in his studio agreement that he is not allowed to film the play, the wily old jackdaw has managed to smuggle a whit of Barrie’s fantasy into his new comedy-mystery. Mary Rose hears voices calling her from another world; at the beginning of Family Plot, when Barbara Harris, as a ravishingly pretty and constantly famished con-woman spiritualist named Blanche, is conducting a séance with a loaded old biddy named Miss Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), Blanche speaks in the voices of a woman and a man from the Great Beyond. The voices confirm Miss Rainbird’s guilt about having long ago covered up the illegitimate birth of an heir to the Rainbird fortune. Then Blanche, exhausted by her bogus insights, returns from the Other Side and gratefully accepts a drink. ‘A double shot of anything.’

Blanche works hard to make her wide-eyed living out of the dead. The offer of a reward of ten thousand dollars if she can find the missing heir is an amazing windfall. She generally manages frugally. Her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) drives a taxi. They exist on hamburger-munching and sex, both of which are perpetually being interrupted by twists in the Rainbird-heir mystery and by shift-work for the taxi company. The Bruce Dern character, called Lumley, puts up with deprivation better than his girl, whose temperament endearingly refutes generalities about women being too finely bred to have appetites. Blanche is a girl of simple longings whom fate keeps calorically and erotically ravenous.

Hitchcock has always thrived on making stories about couples. In Family Plot — written by Ernest Lehman, from an English novel by Victor Canning which has been transplanted to California — we see how his attitude toward casting has changed. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern occupy the places that would once have been held by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, or Kim Novak and James Stewart. The part of the glossy blonde (Karen Black) is now villainous, and the glossy blondness is a matter of a wig. Called Fran, she is in murderous collusion with a smooth diamond thief named Adamson (William Devane). Another couple. The two pairs are piercingly different. Blanche and Lumley adore each other, though they often seem about to throw lamps at each other; Fran and Adamson are partners in crime who cherish little love for each other and talk to each other with a formality that is eerily violent. There being no chivalry among thieves, Adamson unblinkingly sends Fran on dangerous missions by herself, for which she wears six-inch heels, black clothes, and the blond wig: at one’s first glimpse of her in this disguise she looks as if she might well be a man in drag. The music-hall sight is funnily linked to the way Blanche’s voice suddenly hits an air pocket and comes out as a baritone’s at the opening séance…

…[Hitchcock] often has a wryly amused view of women’s scares. I remember that he was once showing me his kitchen in Bel Air. Everything was spick-and-span. Not a cornflake visible. A desert for cockroaches. He opened a door, and icy air steamed out. The freezer locker: a whole room. I saw hams and sides of beef hanging from hooks like rich women’s fur coats in summer storage. Hitchcock courteously bowed me in first. I hesitated and looked back, imagining the door clanging shut behind me. He knew what I was thinking, and I knew that he knew. A Hitchcock scene was in our imaginations, and an equally Hitchcock flash of irrational fear had come to pass.

Each of his films has been full of moments of red-herring disquiet, but he has never laid such a bland set of ambushes as in Family Plot. The Master makes unsettling use of an oaken-looking woman in a jeweller’s shop, whom Blanche cheerfully asks if her sign is Leo; of a brick wall that comes open and then closes hermetically, causing steep claustrophobia; of a remote-control garage-door gadget; of a fragment of bishop’s red robe shut in the bottom of a car door in a garage, making one think of the gaudy socks of the unlosable corpse in The Trouble with Harry (1955); of an overhead shot of a weeping woman hurrying through a maze of paths in a cemetery, pursued by Bruce Dern; of a woman physician, a disgruntled old man in shirtsleeves, and identical-twin mechanics, who are successive false trails in Blanche’s chase; of a genteel chiming doorbell on the front door of the thieves’ house. Hitchcock’s ominous mechanical devices and his dark clues leading nowhere build up in us a farcical discomfiture. We are like oversensitive princesses troubled by peas under mattresses.

But Family Plot does not rest on the fostering of anxiety. Hitchcock allows himself a camaraderie with the audience which makes this film one of the saltiest and most endearing he has ever directed. It is typical of the picture that he should have the sagacity and technique to bring the terrifying car incident to such an un-troubling close. Only a very practiced poet of suspense could slacken the fear without seeming to cheat, and end the sequence without using calamity. With this picture, he shows us that he understands the secret of the arrow that leaves no wound and of the joke that leaves no scar. Sometimes in his career, Hitchcock has seemed to manipulate the audience; in this, his fifty-third film, he is our accomplice, turning his sense of play to our benefit. There is something particularly true-pitched in his use of the talent of Barbara Harris. She has never before seemed so fully used. The film finishes on her, as it begins. She goes mistily upstairs in pursuit of the enormous diamond that the villains have stolen. Lumley watches her. She seems to be in a trance. Maybe she has got supernatural powers, after all. She brings off a clairvoyant’s coup, though we know more than her lover, does. He is purely delighted by her. A Hitchcock film has seldom had a more pacific ending. –Penelope Gilliatt (The New Yorker, April 19, 1976)

Critics in Alfred Hitchcock’s native home seemed to also enjoy the film. One such example would be this rave review from The Times:

“Seventy-seven last Friday, Alfred Hitchcock has yielded to age none of his mastery as storyteller. He still possesses the supreme gift of suspense, in the sense of sustaining, at every moment, curiosity about what comes next. Because it’s played for light comedy going on farce, Family Plot risks being pigeon-holed as a frolic, a minor work in the old master’s canon. Time, I guess, may well accord it a central place. It has the geometric ingenuity of the later American work, along with the delight in quirky character that marked Hitchcock’s British period.

Derived from a novel by Victor Canning and scripted by Ernest Lehman, it maneuvers its plot into a symmetrical situation of two couples who are at once pursuing and pursued by each other. Barbara Harris (rather like a younger and funnier Shelley Winters) is a fake medium who with her accomplice (Bruce Dern), an out-of-work actor doing a little taxi-work, is after the reward for finding a long-lost heir. The heir (William Devane) has gone from bad to worse: having (as it emerges) incinerated his foster-parents, he is now leading a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, with his accomplice (Karen Black), and a kidnapper who trades his victims for desirable items of stock for his smart jewelry store. Naturally he mistrusts the intentions of the couple whom he discovers to be tailing him.

This plot is speedily established, with, elegant artifice. Driving away from the seance which has put them on the track of their quarry, Harris and Dern almost run down a sinister figure clad (by the veteran Hollywood designer and loyal Hitchcock collaborator Edith Head) all in black. The figure — Karen Black in a blonde wig — hurries on to the pick-up and then back to her accomplice, a villainous young man with a menacing glint in his teeth. The whole stage is set.

There are Hitchcock set-pieces like the Bishop kidnapped while officiating at a Mass or a chase at a funeral, along the maze-like paths of a graveyard, shot from above; jokey moments of fright like the Bishop’s red cassock leaking like blood from a car trunk; a very familiar Hitchcock nightmare when the nice couple are stranded on a bleak and lonely road, and the killer’s car draws slowly into view around the corner; clues delightedly planted like messages in a treasure hunt.

Yet what is most characteristic and charming in the film is a show-off relaxation, an easy demonstration of how it all should be done. Hitchcock this time builds a thriller without ever showing a killing (the only violent death is an accident, out of sight of the spectator); he makes the relationship of the two couples vibrantly, sexy without so much as showing a bed or a naked elbow. He gives a merry coup de grace to the convention of the car chase by reducing it to slapstick, with Harris clinging inconveniently around Dern’s neck as he struggles to control a brake-less car careering downhill, and finishing up with her foot in his face. It’s all a very jolly affair.” –The Times (August 20, 1976)

Admittedly, praise wasn’t universal. There were a few negative reviews. However, they seemed to be buried in the overwhelming approval of the majority… Well, the critical majority. Audiences seem to have been less enthusiastic.

Hitchcock had always taken pride in his box-office numbers, yet Family Plot was his least successful picture since The Trouble with Harry, another bent comedy to which the fifty-third Hitchcock bore a fleeting resemblance. Its number twenty-six box office ranking was an embarrassment, and to go out on top – with an audience winner – was one reason behind his seeming iron resolve to make yet one more film.” -Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Actually, the director’s resolve to make another film had less to do with the box-office reception of Family Plot, and more to do with his nature. Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker. He was happiest when working on a new project. The next project would have been called, The Short Night. Unfortunately, Alfred Hitchcock’s debilitating health forced him to abandon his work on this new venture.

...and we are left with a wink.  The Independent Film Journal published on April 14, 1976.

…and we are left with a wink.
The Independent Film Journal published on April 14, 1976.

So in the end, we are left with the wink that so infuriated Ernest Lehman. It doesn’t seem at all inappropriate that Alfred Hitchcock’s swansong should have such a conclusion. After all, Hitchcock had been winking at his audiences for fifty years.

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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. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

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:

1.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal should be incredibly embarrassed with this ridiculously awful 1080P AVC encoded transfer. This goes beyond ineptitude. It shows an obvious disrespect for the film, and for the consumer. Family Plot has never looked particularly wonderful on home video, but one always hopes that a studio will improve the quality of each subsequent release. Most of these issues are not inherent in the source print either. There might be a slight improvement in detail from the previous DVD releases, but it is nowhere near what one expects from a Blu-ray transfer. Texture has been scrubbed from the image by an excessive use of digital noise reduction, and there are many occasions when haloing is a problem. Darker scenes have been crushed, while colors and contrast are uneven. There is always an incredibly noisy layer of grain. Grain can be a very beautiful thing, and is part of the film aesthetic. However, this transfer seems to be exhibiting something that is completely unnatural for film grain. (I am certain that it is a transfer issue.) Finally, there is a bit of film damage that could have been easily fixed if Universal actually put forth a minimal amount of effort to bring this film to high definition. This is Universal’s worst transfer of an Alfred Hitchcock film. The only good news is that the resolution is superior to their DVD editions of the film.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It might not be nearly enough of a consolation to say that the sound transfer doesn’t suffer the same apathetic treatment by Universal. Their mono DTS-HD mix is perfectly acceptable, and exhibits clear dialogue, balanced effects, and a full score by John Williams. This is as good as anyone might expect from a mono mix.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

One wonders why the excellent press conference for Family Plot wasn’t included in the supplements. This ninety minute Q & A would have made up for some of the discs less successful attributes. However, the excellent supplements that were available on previous DVD releases of the film can be found here as well.

Plotting Family Plot (2001) – (SD) – (00:48:22)

Laurent Bouzereau’s “Plotting Family Plot” isn’t the best of his Hitchcock related documentaries, but it isn’t the worst either. It is superior to the fluff that is produced for most recent home video releases, and does manage to give viewers an authentic glimpse into the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s final film. The program even utilizes actual ‘behind the scenes’ footage from the film’s production to illustrate the various interviews with the film’s cast and crew. Participants include Patricia Hitchcock, Howard G. Kazanjian, Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black, Henry Bumstead, John Williams, and Hilton A. Green. It is essential viewing for fans.

Theatrical Trailers – (SD) – (00:03:18)

There are two theatrical trailers included, and both feature Alfred Hitchcock. The second of the two is probably the best, but it is nice to see both of them included on the disc (even if they are cropped to 4:3 ratio).

Storyboards: The Chase Scene – (SD)

This is basically a slide show of storyboards from the pre-visualization of the “chase sequence.” It is always nice to see storyboards included, but it would be preferable to see them here in high definition.

Production Photographs – (SD)

A slide show of production photographs are also included, and they round off the disc nicely.

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Final Words:

Family Plot is a pleasant farewell from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. It isn’t one of his best efforts, but it is difficult not to have a great time. The disc itself is another issue entirely. Universal needs to put more effort into some of their Blu-ray releases. This might be an upgrade from the DVD editions of the film, but the quality simply isn’t what one expects from a Blu-ray.

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Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Topaz

Topaz Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: November 05, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 143 min

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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.

Title Frame

“Well, to me, logic is dull… Of course, if you boil things down, everything must be logical… And there are complaints, consequently, about being too… you know, I’ve even heard some people say that doing a film like Topaz, which was a bestseller, and it deals with espionage during the [Cuban] missile crisis, where I’m not permitted, by the mere facts themselves, to deviate.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation – Channel 28, 1969)

There is a lot of talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s “creative decline.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a decline at all. It was a forced retreat. The director was still working under the tight reigns of Universal in 1969. The studio had set the director up in a cozy bungalow and had made him a very rich man. Unfortunately, they had also taken away his creative liberty and created an atmosphere that nurtured his creative decline (or what people perceive to be his creative decline). Their control of his creative ventures had driven his self confidence into exile.

Before the director made Torn Curtain, the studio had blocked one of the director’s dream projects; a new take on J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose. After shooting Torn Curtain, Hitchcock had become excited about re-inventing the Hitchcock picture. He called his new project Kaleidoscope. (The project was later called Frenzy. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the 1972 film.)

Kaleidoscope was to be shot on actual locations using natural light, a handheld camera, and unknown actors. The script was shocking and extremely controversial. Hitchcock usually allowed audiences to relate to a likeable protagonist, but this new project would focus on the exploits of an attractive but vulnerable serial killer. Unfortunately, the script’s explicit and unflinching violence disturbed the suits at Universal. In “Hitchcock Lost and Found,” Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr summed up the situation in a single paragraph.

“…This new freedom of technique and of sexual explicitness led Hitchcock, with the help primarily of [Benn] Levy, and later others, to develop plans for the New York sex-murderer story, sadly blocked by Universal, that were bolder than anything ultimately realized in the London Frenzy. His experience with Universal in some ways echoed his experience with BIP: all sweetness and light to start with, but then frustratingly restrictive.” – Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr (Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films)

Frankly, Hitchcock was at his best when he was allowed complete control over his projects. When one looks at his early years at British International Pictures (where he was reduced to making projects that were assigned to him) and compares them with his films made with Gaumont/Gainsborough (where he was allowed to choose his own projects, and have control over them), it becomes clear that Alfred Hitchcock worked best when he worked in absolute freedom. His years at Universal offer further proof of this when one compares them with his years at Paramount (where he was usually given creative control over his own output).

In any case, it was felt that the avant-garde project didn’t have any commercial potential, and Hitchcock was convinced that he should abandon the project. If this had happened ten years earlier, he would have probably made the film with his own money (as he did with Psycho). Unfortunately, he agreed to drop the project for a more commercial venture… but what commercial venture?

“The obvious answer would come from Universal: what properties did they own which might be turned to his purposes? A rummage through the books and plays they had acquired came up with nothing very promising except Leon Uris’s sprawling and complicated espionage novel, Topaz. It was not ideal, and his previous essay in espionage and Iron Curtain politics had not been too happy. But it was better than nothing, and Hitch set to work with a will. Uris himself was involved in writing the screenplay, but Hitch did not see how he could use this, and was forced to go into production with nothing like his usual preparation… He was already in London picking locations when he decided to throw out the script he had, and cabled Sam Taylor, who had written Vertigo for him…” -John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock)

Universal was to blame for pushing an unwritten project into production in order to finish in time for a September release. Samuel Taylor agreed to re-write the script, but it was still being prepared when the film went into production.

Topaz was not at all a typical Hitchcock production. We were writing scenes the night before filming, which Hitchcock didn’t like at all. The studio really put him in an awkward position.” –Samuel Taylor (as quoted in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

Filming certainly suffered from the rushed pre-production process, and the trouble would continue through post production. When test audiences hated the film’s original duel ending, Hitchcock shot an alternative ending that showed Jacques Granville boarding a plane to Moscow while André and Nicole Devereaux board a plane for Washington D.C. This ending raised a few eyebrows because Granville went unpunished, and it was felt that the French authorities would not accept this ending for a French release.

To prepare for trouble with the French authorities, Hitchcock prepared a third ending utilizing already shot footage that suggests that Granville goes home and commits suicide. The debate about which of the latter two endings should be used continued until it was finally decided to use different endings for different markets. However, production records suggest that Alfred Hitchcock preferred the Airport ending that shows Granville leaving for Moscow. He claimed that it was more true to life, and he even suggested hiding the suicide ending away so that it wouldn’t be used.

It is no wonder that Topaz is considered by many to be the director’s weakest American effort. The film was a box office failure, and failed to earn back its $4,000,000 budget. However, the film had some incredible moments that illustrate Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic brilliance (such as Juanita de Cordoba’s exquisite murder, and the excellent Pietà influenced post torture interrogation that lead to Juanita’s murder), and there were a number of critics that enjoyed Topaz.


Michelangelo’s “Pietà” was an obvious inspiration for a scene in “Topaz.”

This shot from

This shot from “Topaz” was obviously influenced by Michelangelo’s “Pietà.”

The review that was published in The Independent Film Journal was particularly kind.

“…The director is up to his old tricks, but they are still very good ones. An effective cast of mostly foreign players and a nicely complicated plot make the film thoroughly absorbing. Solid Box-office.

There will undoubtedly be those movie buffs who will argue that Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz is an echo chamber, [and] that everything in it has been done before by the master, and better. But after the malnutritious Marnie and Torn Curtain, it is a pleasure to find the director working with a densely plotted story-line. You have to keep on your toes during Topaz and that’s what makes it so enjoyable. The film is a thoroughly absorbing work, but an abrupt ending, meant probably to be ironic, has the effect of pulling the carpet out from under the viewer. As a commercial entry, the box office potential for Topaz is very strong; the Hitchcock name alone would be a crowd-puller, but this time he is also working with a pre-sold property; the Leon Uris novel his film was based on was an international best seller.

Topaz begins beautifully, and silently, with a sequence depicting a Russian KGB official, his wife and teenage daughter attempting to flee Copenhagen and defect to the Americans. They are trailed by Russian agents through a porcelain factory and the Den Permanente department store…

…Samuel Taylor’s screenplay has more than its share of cliché lines, but it also has its share of very amusing ones. It gets the characters on and off, and globe-trots efficiently enough, but two omissions are disturbing. We are never told just why Devereaux would risk everything for the American agent, and the arrival of Devereaux’s wife (Dany Robin) at the hide-out of Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli), suspected of being a member of the Topaz ring is a surprise, but an unexplained one.

In telling the complicated story, Hitchcock has supplied his usual touches. For a tortured woman’s inaudible whisper the camera rushes in to hear; Juanita’s murder is recorded by an overhead shot, and as her corpse collapses, the deep purple dress spreads out like blossoms of a flower; a seagull flying with an unusually large piece of bread in its beak giving away the fact there must be snooping picnickers nearby. Cameras glide up and down staircases, swoop onto mirrored reflections of the enemy’s face.

Seeing things rather than hearing them, has always been a favorite device of Hitchcock’s (Rear Window was practically devoted to it) and in Topaz it is again used. Instructions between Devereaux and his contact take place behind a florist’s refrigerator glass door; an important transaction at the Hotel Teresa is shown from across the street; and in a spacious conference room, the camera way up amidst the chandeliers, we watch as various consuls shift into groups, isolating themselves from the suspected traitor.

In the past Hitchcock has been hampered by casting his films with an eye toward box-office (Jane Wyman in Stage Fright, Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain, to name two), but in Topaz he has selected his players, mostly foreign actors, without using any “names.” The choices have been excellent ones, especially Frederick Stafford as Devereaux and the great looking Karin Dor as the doomed Juanita.” -The Independent Film Journal (December 9, 1969)

Vincent Canby went even further in his praise for the film. His review in the New York Times was titled, Topaz: Alfred Hitchcock at His Best.”

“It’s perfectly apparent from its opening sequence that no one except Alfred Hitchcock, the wise, round, supremely confident storyteller, is in charge of TopazTopaz, the code name for a Russian spy ring within the French Government, is the film adaptation of the Leon Uris novel, which itself was based on a real-life espionage scandal that kept both sides of the Atlantic busy in 1962.

Hitchcock sets his scene in a first act that dramatizes the defection of a high Soviet intelligence officer to C.I.A. officials in Copenhagen. The sequence, which lasts approximately 10 minutes and uses only a minimum of dialogue, is virtuoso Hitchcock, beginning with a dazzling, single-take pan shot outside the Soviet Embassy, then detailing the flight, pursuit through, among other things, a ceramics factory and the final safe arrival of the irritable Soviet official and his family aboard an American plane headed for Wiesbaden. The Russian’s only comment to the proud C.I.A. man: “We would have done it better.”

Topaz is not a conventional Hitchcock film. It’s rather too leisurely and the machinations of the plot rather too convoluted to be easily summed up in anything except a very loose sentence. Being pressed, I’d say that it’s about espionage as a kind of game, set in Washington, Havana and Paris at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, involving a number of dedicated people in acts of courage, sacrifice and death, after which the survivors find themselves pretty much where they started, except that they are older, tired and a little less capable of being happy.

Topaz is, however, quite pure Hitchcock, a movie of beautifully composed sequences, full of surface tensions, ironies, absurdities (some hungry seagulls blow the cover of two Allied agents), as well as of odd references to things such as Michaelangelo’s “Pieta,” only it’s not a Mother holding her dead Son, but a middle-aged Cuban wife holding her dead husband, after they’ve been tortured in a Castro prison.

Hitchcock, who can barely tolerate actors, has been especially self-indulgent in the casting of Topaz. The film has no one on the order of James Stewart or Cary Grant on which to depend, although it does use some fine character actors (Michel Piccoli, Phillipe Noiret) in small roles. Most of its performers are, if not entirely unknown, so completely subordinate to their roles that they seem, perhaps unfairly, quite forgettable…

…The people one remembers are those who are employed for the effect of their looks (John Vernon as a bearded Castro aide with brilliant blue eyes, Carlos Rivas as his bodyguard, a Cuban with remarkably red hair), or who are bequeathed vivid images by the narrative (Karin Dor as a beautiful anti-Castro Cuban who is shot for her efforts and collapses onto a marble floor, her body framed by the brilliant purple of her dress).

The star of Topaz is Hitchcock, who, except for his brief, signature appearance, remains just off-screen, manipulating our emotions as well as our memories of so many other Hitchcock films, including Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur and Torn Curtain, all inferior to Topaz. This is a movie of superb sequences that lead from a magnificent Virginia mansion to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, from an extraordinarily well-stocked Cuban hacienda to a small, claustrophobic, upstairs dining room in a Paris restaurant. Even architecture is important.

It’s also a movie of classic Hitchcock effects. Exposition may be gotten across by being presented either as gossip or as incidental, post-coital small talk. Conversations are often seen — but not heard — through glass doors. A Cuban government minister, staying at the Theresa, finds a misplaced state document being used as a hamburger napkin.

The film is so free of contemporary cinematic clichés, so reassuring in its choice of familiar espionage gadgetry (remote control cameras, Geiger counters), that it tends to look extremely conservative, politically. Topaz, however, is really above such things. It uses politics the way Hitchcock uses actors — for its own ends, without making any real commitments to it. Topaz is not only most entertaining. It is, like so many Hitchcock films, a cautionary fable by one of the most moral cynics of our time.” –Vincent Canby (New York Times, December 20, 1969)

Even Variety published a review that wasn’t completely negative (though it did seem to fall somewhere between the two extremes).

Topaz tends to move more solidly and less infectiously than many of Alfred Hitchcock’s best remembered [pictures]. Yet Hitchcock brings in a full quota of twists and tingling moments…” -Variety (December 31, 1968)

This praise is probably rather surprising to contemporary audiences and critics. Today, opinion tends to lean almost universally in the opposite direction. In fact, there were critics that were less than enthusiastic about Topaz upon the film’s release. As a matter of fact, John Russell Taylor (Alfred Hitchcock’s official biographer) wrote a review was especially negative.

“Hitchcock, like all major film directors, has made his share of bad films. But never, I think, one which was so generally flat, undistinguished, and lacking in any sign of positive interest or involvement on his part.” -John Russell Taylor (The Times, November 6, 1969)

Richard Corliss wrote a review that was more of a diatribe against auteur theory than an essay about the merits and weaknesses of Topaz. The article had a number of digressions (which have been omitted here) that reveal a certain bias against Hitchcock and the popular opinion that he is an auteur. When he finally gets around to discussing Topaz, it isn’t surprising to discover that his words usually aren’t very kind.

“…Hitchcock will often settle for a mediocre script and indifferent actors simply to play with the emotions of an audience. At his best, Hitchcock is very good — not great…

…Hitchcock, as Sarris has said of Nicholas Ray, “is not the greatest director who ever lived; nor is he a Hollywood hack.” He is neither the Shakespeare of film, as Sarris and Robin Wood state, nor its Shad-well, as Pauline Kael might want us to believe. And Topaz is neither the quintessence of Hitchcockian cinema, nor an aimless, repetitive exercise. Its delights and disappointments are more worthy of analysis than of hagiographies or captious dismissals. Topaz does lack, say, the cohesion and sustained suspense — and, frankly, the performances — of last year’s NBA Championship series between that aging but proud, quite Hawksian group, The Boston Celtics, and the Los Angeles Lakers, an aggressive, fiercely talented quintet of individuals. But the movie has moments — minutes, sequences — that snap with a special excitement that comes from the perfect convergence of character, situation, acting, camera placement and cutting…

…The technical side of the film is occasionally so dreadful — with mismatched movements and lighting, clumsily speeded-up motion for no reason except to get a bit of exposition over with more quickly, poor dubbing, peripatetic matte shots, too-long dissolves, unnecessary crescendos in the score — that Robin Wood should have a more difficult time than usual defending these inept process shots as Hitchcock’s jaundiced comment on the Industrial Age’s planned obsolescence…

…Not only does Topaz have too much operatic small talk, and not only does the opening aria — the smuggling of a Russian defector out of Denmark — seem needlessly distended, but the lead singer is about as capable in his role as Mrs. Miller would be in La Traviata. Frederick Stafford, an actor of indeterminate nationality and few movie credits (he starred in Andre Hunebelle’s OSS 117 — Mission for a Killer, released here in 1966), has what purports to be the leading role, that of a French intelligence agent stationed in Washington, with a branch office in Cuba. Stafford is terrible. He’s posey, wooden, smug, pausing over a brandy snifter like an early-talkie actor reading his lines into a hidden mike. In fact, Stafford’s badness is so consistent, almost stylized, that he is suggestive not of the individual bad actors one encounters in most movies, but of whole genres of bad actors… A good actor makes you feel he’s been inhabiting a character for years, and each nuance evokes a lifetime of experiences, choices and emotions. Stafford, and Dany Robin as his frigid wife, convey to the viewer nothing but the nervousness they feel in characters they don’t understand…

…Though Topaz is a leading man’s nightmare, it’s also a character actor’s dream. John Vernon, a powerful young Canadian actor (Point Blank, Justine, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here), is outstanding as a manic Castro aide. His black beard and marble-blue eyes first attract our attention, but Vernon keeps himself there by adding, to the Raf Vallone — “I am ze bool” hysteria of the role as written, an unusual amalgam of lust and tenderness for his mistress (who is really Stafford’s beloved, and a devoted anti-Communist), the heroic, warm, womanly Karin Dor. The scenes between Vernon and Dor are so superior to those with Stafford and Robin that you wonder how Hitchcock could have directed one feuding couple with extraordinary passion and tactile vividness, while letting a similar scene go memorably flat. The difference probably has as much to do with that felicitous congeries of situation and inspiration, of action and passion, of actor and character, as it does with any directorial epiphanies. Whatever the cause, these sequences in Dor’s villa are complex, human, and beautiful. They lead from Stafford’s idyll with his real love (who manages to spark this mannequin to real life), through Vernon’s discovery that Dor has betrayed him and her government — and it is a measure of Vernon’s and Hitchcock’s achievement that we can share the Castroite’s outrage and nearly tragic, cuckolded disillusionment — to her murder, photographed from above, her velvety violet dress filling the screen as she falls to the floor in a moving metaphor for the grace that informed her way of life and gives her final moral supremacy in their personal and political battle to the death. Throughout this whole middle section of the film, stereotypes become human beings, and Topaz comes vibrantly alive.

The final third of the film, in which Stafford discovers two Russian spies working in the French government, lacks the power and passion of the preceding encounter. Vernon and Dor are physical actors; Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret, who play the spies, are more intellectual, Piccoli in his suave assurance, Noiret in his Lorrean paranoia. The “confrontation” is in fact so oblique that it never really takes place. There is a luncheon for six, of whom two are spies. Hitchcock works over our suspicions through the use of supercilious glances and portentous camera angles, but the villains (the two charmers, of course) aren’t revealed until later, and Stafford never gets to tell them off. The movie just runs out, like a tube of toothpaste.

Part of Hitchcock’s problem is Leon Uris’s unwieldy book, based on a true spy story that is more coherent than the novel and more shocking than the movie… Topaz, a 400-page novel cluttered with insignificant (presumably documentary) detail and dramatically irrelevant characters, offered a challenge not only of condensation but of elaboration; and here, Hitchcock and scenarist Samuel Taylor (Sabrina, The Monte Carlo Story, Vertigo, Three on a Couch) have performed admirably. Situations and characters have been first simplified and then enriched. The Soviet defector (Per-Axel Arosenius) is thus allowed to suggest that the difference between himself and his interrogators is that he is a severe, aristocratic Russian and they are open-faced middle-class Americans. Roscoe Lee Browne is given a few marvelous, largely wordless scenes that strip his character of Uris’s idiosyncrasies the better to let Browne create him anew with smiles and gestures. And Michel Piccoli is allowed to be himself: concerned, decadent, so graceful that he obliterates questions of morality…

…Beneath the mythical Hitchcock who is the author of everything grand in his oeuvre is a partly creative, mostly collaborate craftsman who must rely on the crucial contributions of his co-workers. Topaz, inept and ineffable, poorly acted and well-acted, shoddily shot and exquisitely shot, mediocre and transcendent, should be kept in mind before we send “Hitchcock” to the Pantheon or to critical perdition.” -Richard Corliss (Film Quarterly, Spring 1970)

Topaz is one of this reviewer’s least favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s American films, but it is a film that seems to improve with each viewing. There are sequences that are undeniably brilliant. It would be a mistake to disregard the film entirely. However, I maintain that it would have been preferable to have Kaleidoscope take this film’s place in Hitchcock’s filmography.

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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. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

Topaz's Masterpiece 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.

 [Note: The extended 2 hour and 23 minute version of the film is featured here with the “airport ending.”]

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

 Universal’s VC-1 transfer exhibits excellent color resolution and impressive clarity. The sharp detail showcase the various textures accurately, and the grain structure remains consistent throughout the length of the film. Of course, the transfer does have a few flaws that keep it from being one of the better transfers in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. There is a fair amount of source noise at certain points throughout the picture, and there are a few instances when the color fluctuates. Luckily, the skin tones are almost always consistent and natural looking. As is usual with most of Universal’s color films, there is a fair amount of digital tampering performed on the image. There may be a few minor image halos at certain points in the film. Overall, the transfer is satisfactory.

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Sound Quality:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

 The two channel mono soundtrack is quite clean, and showcases clear dialogue without any distracting noise or anomalies to distract from one’s enjoyment. The film’s music and sound effects are also well rendered here. There is very little room for complaint here.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Topaz: An Appreciation – (SD) – (29 minutes)

Laurent Bouzereau again directs this “appreciation” of Topaz, but an objective “making of” documentary would have been preferable. While Leonard Maltin attempts to walk the viewer through a few of the film’s production problems, there isn’t enough information here to put it among Bouzereau’s other documentaries for Universal’s Hitchcock catalog (most of which are excellent). It is nice that an effort was made, even if it doesn’t completely satisfy.

It manages to be just useful enough to maintain our interest, but it is disappointing to not have a more comprehensive look at the film’s creation. Why do we not include any information about Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred Kaleidoscope project? Where are the interviews with the actors and crew? Were they not willing to participate? John Forsythe appeared in The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over. Why not question him about this film? These questions will have to go unanswered (just like our questions about Topaz).

Alternate Endings – (SD) – (6 minutes)

All three of the film’s endings are included here (“The Duel,” “The Suicide,” and “The Airport”) “The Duel” isn’t complete, and seems to be in poor condition. This is probably because it was never a part of any official release due to the negative comments at preview screenings. The other two endings were both released in various markets, and appear to be in fine condition. It is interesting to compare these three endings.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (3 minutes)

This theatrical trailer is an interesting artifact. It features Alfred Hitchcock, but lacks the level of wit that one sees in some of his other trailers. It is certainly good to see it included here.

Storyboards: The Mendozas (SD) – (12 minutes)

“The Mendozas” sequence storyboards are shown with video footage of the film so that fans can make comparisons. This should interest fans of storyboarding.

Production Photographs (SD) – (6 minutes)

This is a slideshow of movie posters, vintage ads, and production photos. It is nice to see that this carried over from the earlier DVD editions.

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Final Words:

Topaz isn’t one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better American films, but it is has moments of brilliance. Since the film seems to improve substantially with each viewing, fans will probably want to add it to their collection. Luckily, Universal’s Blu-ray transfer is a decent upgrade to the previous DVD editions of the film.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Jamaica Inn – 75th Anniversary Edition

75th Anniversary Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Cohen Film Collection

 Release Date: May 12, 2015

 Region: Region A

Length: 1:39:39

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English Mono LPCM (48 kHz / 2304 kbps / 24-bit)

 Subtitles: None

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.06 Mbps

Note: This release is also available in a DVD edition.

Maureen O'Hara had made two small film appearances before starring in the film, but this was the first film that she made using her famous stage name.

Maureen O’Hara had made two small film appearances before starring in the film, but this was the first film that she made using her famous stage name.

“…Since the contract with Selznick wasn’t due to start until April, 1939, I had time to make another British film, and that was Jamaica Inn… Laughton and Erich Pommer were associated on the production of that one. The novel, as you know, is by Daphne du Maurier, and the first script was written by Clemence Dane, who was a playwright of some note. Then Sidney Gilliat came in and we did the script together. Charles Laughton wanted his part built up, and so he brought in J.B. Priestley for additional dialogue…

Jamaica Inn was an absurd thing to undertake. If you examine the basic story, you will see that it’s a whodunit… All sorts of things happen in that tavern, which shelters scavengers and wreckers who not only seem to enjoy total immunity, but who are also kept thoroughly informed of the movements of ships in the area. Why? Because at the head of this gang of thugs is a highly respectable man – a justice of the peace, no less –who masterminds all of their operations.

It was completely absurd, because logically the judge should have entered the scene at the end of the picture. He should have carefully avoided the place and made sure he was never seen in the tavern. Therefore it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role of the justice of the peace. Realizing how incongruous it was, I was truly discouraged, but the contract had been signed. Finally, I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1967)

Hitchcock was a director that usually enjoyed a very comfortable level of creative freedom. He was considered Britain’s best film director, and was given a rare amount of control over his films. If Alfred Hitchcock’s lengthy monologue about Jamaica Inn seems overly negative, it is probably due to the unusual amount of control that Charles Laughton and Erich Pommer had over the production.

He elaborates about of Laughton’s interference later in the same interview.

 “When we started the picture [Laughton] asked me to show him only in close shots because he hadn’t figured out the manner of his walk. Ten days later he came in and said, ‘I’ve found it.’ It turned out that his step had been inspired by the beat of a little German waltz, and he whistled it for us as he waddled about the room. I can still remember how he did it… I don’t like to work that way.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1967)

Directing Jamaica Inn was probably good practice for the director, because his next film would be made for David O. Selznick. This film would be Rebecca, which was based on another novel by Daphne du Maurier. As a matter of fact, the author wasn’t particularly happy with Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn. She had to be convinced that Rebecca would be more faithful to her novel… but all of this seems to be a slight digression from the subject of this article.

The film certainly bears the mark of the master, but it isn’t a film that showcases his usual storytelling methods. Contemporary audiences might have the impression that Jamaica Inn was one of the director’s failures. This was not the case. As Hitchcock mentioned in his interview with François Truffaut, the film was quite a hit at the box office, and critical reception wasn’t particularly bad either.

Maurice Yacowar’s essay about Jamaica Inn (featured in Hitchcock’s British Films) claims that the film was poorly received, but when one looks at the actual reviews it becomes clear that the reception wasn’t particularly negative. There were certainly some negative reviews, but these were balanced by a large number of excellent reviews.

Variety was one of the first publications to sing the film’s praises.

“Superb direction, excellent casting, expressive playing and fine production offset an uneven screenplay to make Jamaica Inn a gripping version of the Daphne du Maurier novel. Since it’s frankly a blood-‘n’-thunder melodrama, the story makes no pretense at complete plausibility…

…Atmosphere of the seacoast and the moors is strikingly recreated and the action scenes have a headlong rush. Withal, there are frequent bits of brilliant camera treatment and injections of salty humor. It’s a typical Alfred Hitchcock direction job…” Variety (December 31, 1938)

The BFI Monthly Film Bulletin was equally enthusiastic, but disagreed with Variety’s claim that the film was “typical” of Hitchcock.

“…This lurid story of violence and brutality is lavishly staged. Its sinister atmosphere is set in the opening sequence of a wrecking. This is most effectively represented, and the lighting of the night scene is outstandingly good. There are few directorial touches which are characteristically Hitchcock, and on the whole he has sacrificed subtlety to spectacle. The crowd scenes are handled with his usual dexterity…

…The newcomer, Maureen O’Hara, is charming to look at and has a delightful voice and shows distinct promise as an actress.” – BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (May, 1939)

The Portsmouth Evening News went even further in their praise of the film.

“This picture has been made by Laughton’s independent film unit – in collaboration with Erich Pommer – which gave us that very disappointing The Vessel of Wrath: a film of face-pulling grimaces, and slow action. But this is vastly better, and I rank it among the best films I have seen so far this year.

Jamaica Inn is a melodrama, and first-class melodrama too…

…I should say at once that [Laughton] is excellent in this role. He captures the grand manner of the arrogant aristocrat magnificently, and now and again there comes into his eyes that trace of hereditary madness which finally sends him to his death… It is a fine performance…

…The film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who is so good at creating an atmosphere of suspense in his pictures (as in The Lady Vanishes). This is not a typical Hitchcock film, but the suspense is there time and time again… Be sure to see Jamaica Inn.” -Portsmouth Evening News (May 16, 1939)

The Aberdeen Journal praised both Laughton and Hitchcock in no uncertain terms.

“Two names commend at once this version of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the bad old Cornish wreckers — Charles Laughton and Alfred Hitchcock. Expectations are high and there is no disappointment. As the villainous squire who satisfies his taste for luxury by getting a band of ruffians to lure ships on to the Cornish rocks and then to plunder them, Mr. Laughton gives a characteristic performance. It is not, perhaps, original Laughton, but the actor straddles the scene and Mr. Hitchcock serves him particularly well in bringing out the ‘asides’ to detail which Mr. Laughton can do so well with the flicker of an eyelid or the wave of a wrist.

It is interesting to find Mr. Hitchcock directing a costume piece for a change. He produces terrific pace, which suits the bloodthirsty plot excellently, and he brings the best out of such fine supporting players as Marie Ney, Leslie Banks, Emlyn Williams, Robert Newton and Maureen O’Hara.” -Aberdeen Journal (October 3, 1939)

Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin also enjoyed Jamaica Inn, and felt that it had immense commercial appeal.

“Jamaica Inn offers choice entertainment for a variety of filmgoers. Superbly acted and magnificently directed, this picturization of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel builds suspense and interest from the very first sequence to the taut, action-packed and unusual climax. It combines the best features of English mystery-drama with American action. It packs an entertainment wallop your reviewer has rarely felt during his past few weeks of Hollywood previewing. There are the mystery and horror angles to attract the action fans. More discriminating patrons will be interested in the acting treat set up by Charles Laughton. Leslie Banks, Emlyn Williams and others in the hand-picked cast. Because it is an English production, no exhibitor should stamp it as a film of limited appeal. Jamaica Inn warrants every possible exploitation effort. It is first rate motion picture entertainment…

…Charles Laughton is virtually the whole show. Expertly he creates a fascinating madman whose insanity becomes more intense, more apparent as he comprehends his approaching doom. Leslie Banks is excellent as the crude tool in Laughton’s hands. Marie Ney impresses as his wife. Newcomer Maureen O’Hara is attractive and a capable young actress. Emlyn Williams etches another of his distinctive heavy characterizations. Supporting cast is uniformly good.

A past master at this sort of drama, Alfred Hitchcock’s direction attains its usual high standard.” -Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin (October 7, 1939)

Of course, there were a few critics that felt that the film wasn’t up to the usual Hitchcock standards. The Yorkshire Post published a particularly negative review.

“…That Mr. Hitchcock should be directing the picture gave promise of novel treatment. Yet Mr. Hitchcock’s technique, usually so refreshing even though he does not always take care to conceal the improbabilities in the story, never once came through in Jamaica Inn. Perhaps he was worried by the historical setting — his speciality is modern times — but oddly enough, there was none of that suspense which he can so expertly create. The film passed from shipwreck to smugglers’ inn, from squire’s mansion back, via smuggler’s inn, to the storm-lashed coast and a final night chase along the moonlit turnpike road.

Here, in fact, were all the right ingredients. Yet somehow one didn’t care a hoot what happened — and I think the reason, partly, was that not one of the characters was ever firmly planted as a real person: Mr. Laughton’s make-up was singularly grotesque, and I felt that behind it were not even the brains to direct one common smuggler, let alone a dozen.

It was understood that Sir Humphrey came of tainted stock, and that insanity would gradually present itself. And so it did — but not in that eerie, horrifying manner which lies well within Mr. Laughton’s range. Throughout he remained a merely ridiculous figure — even, his eventual suicide was rather absurd and provoked only titters.

Mr. Leslie Banks, as chief smuggler, blundered around and looked suitably dangerous; poor Miss Ney just suffered; Mr Robert Newton was a resourceful preventive officer, but in his dealings with Miss O’Hara spelt romance with a very small “r.” Miss O’Hara herself is sweet and pretty — but aren’t they all?

Most of the film has been shot in dim interiors — or else in shocking bad weather (with none of the grandeur of bad weather). This also contributed to the general gloom. I don’t think the sun shone once…” -F. A. R. (Yorkshire Post, May 10, 1939)

If scholars are under the impression that Jamaica Inn was poorly received, one reason might be a review that was published in The Times.

“Miss Daphne du Maurier’s story of wreckers on the Cornish coast, Jamaica Inn, which appears on the London screen this week, neither adds to nor greatly detracts from the reputations of Mr. Charles Laughton and Mr. Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Laughton’s playing is effective along familiar theatrical lines, and Mr. Hitchcock’s production is rather painstaking than inspired…

In the midst of a story which appears to have been made for schoolboys — the film is adapted from a novel by Miss Daphne du Maurier — there appears one curious and picturesque character, the character who is played by Mr. Charles Laughton… The wind blows nearly always, the nights seem to be very long and the scenes in daylight few, the waves are spectacular, and there is a great deal of fighting, riding, hiding, pursuit, and escape. In fact the director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, seems for the moment to have given up his method of slow and deliberate tension; it is a film of downright and in no way subtle action.

But the personage represented by Mr. Laughton is little more than conventionally picturesque; he is the squire who directs the wreckers, a fantastic and inordinate gentleman of the Regency period, megalomaniac, flighty, and uncontrollable. Even so it is apparently thought necessary to apologize for this curious figure by calling him, quite unnecessarily, a lunatic; Mr. Laughton makes him quite intelligible without going to such extremes and he gives a fascinating sketch of vanity run to seed and of the manners of a dandy changing in exile to hysterical flourishes. But it is surely a mistake to exaggerate the dandy’s accent until, as happens continually, he becomes inaudible in the theatre…” The Times (May 15, 1939)

Certain reviews seem to report both the positive and the negative elements in Jamaica Inn, and these moderate reviews are probably a fair representation of the film’s attributes. The review published in Harrison’s Reports is one such example.

“This British-made production will probably do good business, not because the picture itself merits it, but because of the popularity of Charles Laughton, the star, and of Alfred Hitchcock, the director; also because of the fame of the novel, which has been read widely. It is a lurid melodrama, centering around nefarious characters, who resort to the most villainous acts to gain their ends. The action is spotty: at times it is slow, but occasionally it becomes quite exciting, holding one in tense suspense. Laughton overacts a bit, but his performance is colorful and amusing; he dominates the picture. He is particularly good in the final scenes…” -Harrison’s Reports (September 30, 1939)

Frank S. Nugent was wise enough to sort out the reasons behind some of the more problematic elements of Jamaica Inn. He believed that the control that Laughton had over the production was detrimental to the final product. His review isn’t particularly positive, but it does find room for praise.

“Having set his own standards, Alfred Hitchcock must be judged by them; and, by them, his Jamaica Inn… is merely journeyman melodrama, good enough of its kind, but almost entirely devoid of those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor, the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize his best pictures. Without them, Hitchcock is still a good director, imaginative and cinema-wise, but with no more individuality than a dozen others in his field and subject, like them, to the risk of having a mere actor run away with the film.

That had never happened to Hitchcock before. His pictures always were his. But Jamaica Inn will not be remembered as a Hitchcock picture, but as a Charles Laughton picture. It bears the Laughton stamp as unmistakably as The Thirty-nine Steps bore Hitch’s. Perhaps that is the root of the evil, if it is an evil. For Hitch never faced a player his size before (and we’re not thinking only of gross tonnage). With two such stalwart individualists battling on a bare sound stage they might have come to a draw. But Laughton had more than weight on his side: he is co-owner of the producing firm, Mayflower Productions, and in the film he wears costume and a putty nose. No director can spot Mr. Laughton a putty nose and still hope to lead him by it.

With Laughton setting the pace then, which is jolly enough, though slower than Hitch would have ordered it, Jamaica Inn has become a pardonably free translation of Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic novel… Mr. Laughton’s relish of the squire—it was a clergyman in the novel, but no matter—is infectious. Conscious as we were that he was overplaying him unashamedly, there is that to Mr. Laughton’s ogling, lip-pursing, strutting, nostril-dilating style which makes the offense altogether endearing. We can’t recall when we’ve ever held a monster in such complete affection. But, of course, Mr. Laughton’s Laughton-ism has slowed things down. He is such a bulky man to get into motion. We had the impression, as the film rolled on, of Hitch rushing the action to his doorstep and then having to wait three or four minutes for Laughton to answer the bell. Actually, the wait must have told more on Hitch than it did on us.

There are other virtues. Maureen O’Hara, who is lovely, has played Mary Yellen well this side of ingénue hysteria, with charming naturalness and poise, with even a trace of self-control in her screams. Leslie Banks is capital as Joss Merlyn, the wrecker ringleader, with a fine crew of cutthroats around him—Emlyn Williams, Wylie Watson, Edwin Greenwood among them. Marie Ney as the girl’s aunt, Robert Newton as the undercover man, George Curzon as one of Sir Humphrey’s blanker friends are splendid in their degree. We enjoyed it all, Mr. Laughton most, but it doesn’t seem like Hitchcock.” – Frank S. Nugent (The New York Times, October 12, 1939)

The review that was published in Time magazine seems to have a similar viewpoint.

Jamaica Inn (Mayflower). Fans of director Alfred Hitchcock had a surprise in store for them when they got the wrappings off this Hitchcock picture. They found it was no Hitchcock but an authentic Laughton. Scarcely a shot in the whole picture revealed the famed British director’s old mastery of cunning camera, sly humour, [and] shrewd suspense. But Charles Laughton’s impersonation of a Nero-like Cornish squire who is the paranoiac brain behind a gang of land pirates was magnificent in the eye-rolling, head-cocking, lip-pursing, massively mincing Laughton style.

Jamaica Inn is the somewhat free rending of Daphne Du Maurier’s best-seller of the same name… People who like their melodrama raw and in big gulps get their fill. Those who would swap a third-rate Hitchcock any night for a first-rate Laughton get an even break…” -Time (October 30, 1939)

One wonders what Jamaica Inn might have been like if Alfred Hitchcock had more control over the project. It is impossible to know for sure, but one would assume that he would give the film a more subjective treatment. Contemporary critics tend to respond more negatively to the film, but it is important to understand that they are coming to the film with a much larger catalog of Hitchcock films in which to compare this early work. Hitchcock was already an established master of suspense in 1939, but he had yet to create most of his best films.

It is also important to remember that until now, only inferior prints and transfers of Jamaica Inn have been available. As a matter of fact, many of the American public domain DVD releases of the film are missing approximately 8 minutes of footage! One has to question whether or not these critics were watching decent prints.

This brings us around to this new restored version of Jamaica Inn. The Cohen Media Group partnered with the British Film Institute to undertake a full 4K digital restoration of Jamaica Inn that was based on the BFI’s original nitrate negatives. The resulting print premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (it played in the Cannes Classic section), and also screened at the New York Film Festival.

Charles Laughton was Alfred Hitchcock's biggest challenge during the production. How does one direct an actor when the actor is also the producer and has the final word?

Charles Laughton was Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest challenge during the production. How does one direct an actor when the actor is also the producer and has the final word?

The Presentation:

 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is protected by a clear Blu-ray case (similar to those used by Criterion) with film related graphics. Inside the case is a small booklet that features chapter stops and film credits. These pages are illustrated with photographs from the film.

menu1menu 2

menu 4menu 5

The animated menus utilize footage from the film with music from the film’s credits.

Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn

Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn

Picture Quality:

 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

 The Cohen Media Group and The British Film Institute deserve praise for their 4K digital restoration of Jamaica Inn. A lot of painstaking time and effort went into the restoration.

“…The original nitrate negatives were sourced from the BFI. These elements were then scanned at 4K resolution by RRsat utilizing the ArriScan to create a DPX file sequence. The film was suffering from shrinkage and warping and as such had to be scanned without pin registration…

…Once scanned, the 4K sequence required huge amounts of stabilization to combat the shrinkage. Image warping also needed to be electronically pinned as the images were effectively bouncing around the screen. The nature of these issues required multiple software fixes on a frame by frame basis before the dirt and scratch removal could begin. The density within the image also fluctuated creating a pulsing effect which again had to be mapped and removed digitally.

Once these pre-fix stages the technical team moved into traditional restoration utilizing multiple software packages including PFClean, AfterFX, MTI and Dark Energy to treat the dirt and scratches. Grain treatment was applied with a mind to keeping as close to the original [celluloid source].” –Park Circus (Jamaica Inn Restored, May 21, 2014)

Their efforts were certainly not in vain. This transfer is an absolute revelation. The ghastly DVD versions that so many public domain houses released can be promptly tossed into the garbage bins. In other words, this is much more than an upgrade in picture resolution.

The dual-layered disc allows for a high bitrate that showcases this new restoration to maximum effect. The image exhibits much better contrast than anyone might expect, and this adds clarity to an already detailed image. The nitrate source materials make for a very cinematic image with a slight layer of grain that reminds us that we are watching a movie that was shot on nitrate film without ever becoming distracting. Most should be happy that the team did not go crazy with DNR. Tears in the print, dirt, scratches, and other anomalies have been properly eradicated. There may be a few rare instances of such flaws, but they aren’t at all distracting and should go unnoticed by most viewers.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film before the restoration process.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

This is an example of a frame from the film after the restoration team fixed the image.

The full version of the film is happily represented here in a suburb black and white transfer that is free of any Chroma. Alfred Hitchcock fans have reason to rejoice.

Maureen O'Hara as Mary

Maureen O’Hara as Mary

Sound Quality:

 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

 The audio also required a great deal of restoration.

“…Hiss, crackle and pops were removed while the ‘noise’ from the original tracks was dramatically improved. The audio was digitized and then treated in the software domain in a completely non-destructive process.” –Park Circus (Jamaica Inn Restored, May 21, 2014)

The film’s audio track has been greatly improved by these efforts. It is quite clean for a film that is 75 years old, and the mono transfer seems to represent their work quite well. One can now experience Jamaica Inn without a wall of distracting hiss that seemed to haunt so many transfers of the film. Pops and crackling noises have also been greatly reduced (if not entirely obliterated). The opening music by Eric Fenby isn’t nearly as dynamic as it might be on a more recent release, but it is certainly within the realm of what one can reasonably expect from a 75 year old film.

Maureen O'Hara & Robert Newton didn't exactly set the very flammable nitrate film ablaze as love interests.

Maureen O’Hara & Robert Newton didn’t exactly set the very flammable nitrate film ablaze as love interests. However, Hitchcock does manage to hold our interest.

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature-length Commentary Track by Jeremy Arnold

Jeremy Arnold is an author and film historian that has written over 500 programming articles and film reviews for the TCM website. He also has a few books about various classic films to his credit. His commentary track is surprisingly good. It is quite informative without ever becoming overly dry. It maintains the viewer’s interest throughout the entire length of the film. It is well worth the audiences time.

Shipwrecked In A Studio: The Making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn(1080P) -(13:06)

This featurette is essentially a video essay by Donald Spoto. Spoto is the author of two of the more controversial biographies about Alfred Hitchcock. The liner notes list this program as a “video essay.” Actually, it is more of a laundry list of trivia delivered in a scholarly tone of voice. It is nice to have here, but it is vastly inferior to the excellent commentary track. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t particularly focus on the actual making of the film very much.

However, it seems somewhat ungrateful to criticize this featurette. It is much more than one might expect. After all, the film is 75 years old.

2014 Re-release Trailer – (1080P) – (1:28)

The restoration trailer is also included here.

Maureen O'Hara establishes herself as a feisty heroine in her first starring role.

Maureen O’Hara establishes herself as a feisty heroine in her first starring role.

Final Words:

Jamaica Inn isn’t one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, but it is both diverting and essential viewing for fans of the director. Not only is it the final film made by Alfred Hitchcock before starting a career in Hollywood, but it is also the screen debut of Maureen O’Hara (or at least her first appearance that was credited to “Maureen O’Hara”). Those who have not yet seen this new 4K restoration print of the film will want to do so immediately.

Yeah, I think we can safely say that this is an Alfred Hitchcock film.

I think we can safely say that this is an Alfred Hitchcock film,  even if  Laughton’s control of the project kept it from having his usual subjective treatment.

Review by: Devon Powell

Book Review: Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films


Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky

Release Date: March 6, 2015

“Our aim has been to examine successive stages of Hitchcock’s career in a level-headed way, finding out as much as possible about the material from his early years in the industry that still remains lost and providing solid data about a wider range of lost or neglected or otherwise problematic material…

…Most of our research has come to focus on three periods, the first parts of three successive decades: the apprenticeship of the early 1920s; the unstable period of the early 1930s, involving a response to the new technologies of synchronized sound and of primitive television; and the early 1940s, during which Hitchcock did a wide range of topical war-effort work on both sides of the Atlantic in the margins of his Hollywood features…” –Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr (Introduction)

While recent books and articles discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s work tend to focus on the production and philosophy of his iconic Hollywood-era films like Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock Lost and Found moves beyond these seminal works to explore forgotten, incomplete, lost, and recovered productions from all stages of his career, including his early years in Britain. Authors Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr highlight Hitchcock’s neglected works, including various films and television productions that supplement the critical attention already conferred on his feature films.

“We do not spend time on any of the landmark films like Rear Window or The Birds, or give a full account of Hitchcock’s career. We focus instead on periods and productions that have hitherto been obscure, in the belief that, given his iconic status, any new information on Hitchcock is likely to be of interest, and that it is precisely the obscure elements, and the periods of struggle, that are of crucial importance in helping us to get a fresher and fuller understanding of just how Hitchcock came to achieve his very special status in film history.” –Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr

They also explore the director’s career during World War II, when he continued making high-profile features while also committing himself to a number of short war-effort projects on both sides of the Atlantic. Focusing on a range of forgotten but fascinating projects spanning five decades, Hitchcock Lost and Found offers a new, fuller perspective on the filmmaker’s career and achievements.

This might seem to some fans to be of marginal interest. After all, most of these films haven’t been widely seen by contemporary audiences. However, this book isn’t simply a useful tool for the Hitchcock scholar; it is a fascinating text for anyone the least bit interested in detailed ‘behind the scenes’ information about this director’s fascinating career. The obscurity of most of the films discussed only adds interest to an already enjoyable subject.

The depth of Kerzoncuf and Barr’s research will surprise many Hitchcock enthusiasts. The knowledge that they provide goes much deeper than anyone might expect. There is detailed information from many documented sources to support the analysis of each film discussed in the book. This level of detail is rare even in texts about the director’s more popular work.

This detail is organized into four basic units: “Before The Pleasure Garden: 1920-1925,” “The Early 1930s,” “The War Years,” and “After the War.” The first of these units focuses on Alfred Hitchcock’s apprentice years in the industry as it details each of the films that Hitchcock worked on in some capacity. It analyzes what function Hitchcock served (or likely served) on each of the films, and discusses how the work might have influenced the director (or how Hitchcock might have influenced the work). This is really no small task, and one finds themselves almost immediately intrigued.

“The Early 1930s” might be this reviewer’s personal favorite unit. Here readers are guided through the torrid transitional era when British studios were scrambling to keep up with the new technological advancement of sound. Many of these films are reasonably well known (Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, Murder), but have elements that have gone missing. New discoveries are revealed that enhance ones understanding of how these films fit into the context of Hitchcock’s career. There is also a reasonably in-depth comparison of Murder to its German sister, Mary that should interest any serious Hitchcock fan. This particular unit corrects quite a lot of previously published misinformation, and adds quite a bit of detail to the general knowledge that has already been revealed about these films. Other films from this period have been neglected by scholars. For example, Elstree Calling is finally discussed in a comprehensive manner. Kerzoncuf and Barr use documented information to discuss Hitchcock’s role in the creation of this film. This segment is especially interesting, because Hitchcock was never particularly interested in commenting on this particular film.

“The War Years” is also enlightening in its discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s participation in the creation of a number of wartime propaganda efforts in the early 1940s. Many fans are already quite aware that the director made two French propaganda shorts for the British Ministry of Information (Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache), and both shorts are actually available on home video. However, these films were unavailable for a great many years, and a comprehensive study of the creation of these shorts has never been adequately achieved. Kerzoncuf and Barr remedy this by offering a wealth of documented knowledge that is supplemented by interviews. The most significant interview for this section was with Janique Joelle, who played a pivotal role in Bon Voyage. Joelle provides an extremely lucid and detailed account of working with the director on this short. It is one of the book’s many highlights, and is certain to delight fans and scholars alike. However, the book has much more ground to cover. The authors give an account of every known wartime project that the director worked on, including the abandoned documentary about the Nazi concentration camps (usually referred to as Memory of the Camps).

“After the War” concentrates on a number of forgotten productions that Alfred Hitchcock appeared in between 1959 and 1969. Two of these efforts were “public service” efforts, and Hitchcock’s participation was mainly to lend his bankable name and image to these productions as a form of charity. The most interesting of these was Tactic (1959). This live television program was essentially a public service announcement concerning cancer diagnosis. To reveal further information here would rob you of the enjoyable experience of reading the more detailed account that appears in this excellent new text.

Just when everyone thought that the subject of Alfred Hitchcock had been picked clean to the bone, we are offered this incredibly enlightening effort. Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr have given fans and scholars an incredible gift. Their original research and lucid writing makes for an enjoyable reading experience. Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films is extremely easy to recommend without any qualifiers.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Frenzy

"Frenzy" Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 3, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 1:55:45

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

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

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS (48 kHz / 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 29.91 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.

Title Screenshot

“If I can still put as much vitality into a movie as I’ve put into Frenzy, what’s the point of retiring? I used to be called the boy director, and I still am.” –Alfred Hitchcock (to Guy Flatley in an interview for The New York Times, June 18, 1972)

After a string of increasingly disappointing films (The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz), Alfred Hitchcock returned to London to make Frenzy. The result is a triumphant return to form. The film was loosely adapted from Arthur La Bern’s “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,” but Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Shaffer improved upon the source text. Luckily, the critics recognized the film’s merits and enthusiastically praised the film upon its release.

Variety’s review had only kind things to say about Frenzy, but one could hardly call their praise overwhelming.

“Armed with a superior script by Anthony Shaffer, an excellent cast, and a top technical crew, Alfred Hitchcock fashions a first-rate melodrama about an innocent man hunted by Scotland Yard for a series of sex-strangulation murders.

Working from Arthur La Bern’s novel, ‘Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,’ Shaffer develops a finely-structured screenplay. Jon Finch heads the cast as something of a loser who becomes trapped by circumstantial evidence in the sordid murders of several women… Hitchcock has used this basic dramatic situation before.” -Variety (December 31, 1971)

Roger Ebert gave Frenzy a perfect score, and an enthusiastic recommendation upon the film’s release.

““Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy is a return to old forms by the master of suspense, whose newer forms have pleased movie critics but not his public. This is the kind of thriller Hitchcock was making in the 1940s, filled with macabre details, incongruous humor, and the desperation of a man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

The only 1970s details are the violence and the nudity (both approached with a certain grisly abandon that has us imagining Psycho without the shower curtain). It’s almost as if Hitchcock, at seventy-three, was consciously attempting to do once again what he did better than anyone else. His films since Psycho (1960) struck out into unfamiliar territory and even got him involved in the Cold War (Torn Curtain) and the fringes of fantasy (The Birds). Here he’s back at his old stand…

…Hitchcock sets his action in the crowded back alleys of Covent Garden, where fruit and vegetable vendors rub shoulders with prostitutes, third-rate gangsters, bookies, and barmaids. A lot of the action takes place in a pub, and somehow Hitchcock gets more feeling for the location into his films than he usually does. With a lot of Hitchcock, you have the impression every frame has been meticulously prepared. This time, the smell and tide of humanity slops over. (There is even one tide in the movie which does a little slopping over humanity itself, but never mind.)

It’s delicious to watch Hitchcock using the camera. Not a shot is wasted, and there is one elaborate sequence in which the killer goes upstairs with his victim. The camera precedes them up the stairs, watches them go in a door, and then backs down the stairs, alone, and across the street to look at the outside of the house. This shot is not for a moment a gimmick; the melancholy of the withdrawing camera movement is one of the most touching effects in the film, despite the fact that no people inhabit it.

There’s a lot of humor, too, including two hilarious gourmet meals served to the Chief Inspector (Alec McCowen) by his wife (Vivien Merchant). There is suspense, and local color (‘It’s been too long since the Christie murders; a good colorful crime spree is good for tourism’) and, always, Hitchcock smacking his lips and rubbing his hands and delighting in his naughtiness.” -Roger Ebert (Chicago-Sun Times, January 01, 1972)

Jay Cocks & Gerald Clarke’s review of film for Time magazine was more reserved in its praise, but admitted that the film was “proof” that Alfred Hitchcock was still in “fine form.”

“In case there was any doubt, back in the dim days of Marnie and Topaz, Hitchcock is still in fine form. Frenzy is the dazzling proof. It is not at the level of his greatest work, but it is smooth and shrewd and dexterous, a reminder that anyone who makes a suspense film is still an apprentice to this old master.

Frenzy is the first film that Hitchcock has shot in England for more than 20 years. Like a prodigal at home again, he lets his camera roam lovingly across London—Tower Bridge to Covent Garden, Hyde Park to Scotland Yard…

… The film has some shaky motivation and more than a fair share of trickery, but Hitchcock is such a superb storyteller that few viewers will even notice till well after the final fadeout. What they will notice is the perversity of the film. In one mind-boggling sequence, [the murderer] tries to pry his diamond pin from the stiff fingers of the corpse that he has stashed inside a potato sack.

… There are also Hitchcock’s usual moments of high comedy, here involving Inspector Oxford and his wife, who is taking a course in gourmet cookery and assaults her husband’s stubbornly English palate with a selection of highly sauced dishes. It is an old joke that would have worn pretty thin but for the performances of Alec McCowen and Vivien Merchant, the most elegant comic acting seen in movies in a long while…” -Jay Cocks & Gerald Clarke (Time, June 19, 1972)

Vincent Canby’s June 22, 1972 review for the New York Times also praised Frenzy, but some readers may have raised an eyebrow when the critic listed Topaz as one of the director’s better post-Psycho films.

“Alfred Hitchcock will be 73 on August 13, but like Luis Bunuel, whom he otherwise resembles but slightly, his talent is only enriched by the advancing years that make most directors fearful and insecure. In the last 12 years he has given us, among other things, The Birds, Topaz (really a one-film anthology of Hitchcock work) and now Frenzy, which is his 55th film as a director since 1922.

Frenzy is Hitchcock in the dazzling, lucid form that is as much the meaning as the method of his films. For Hitchcock, the mastery of style and the perfection of technique are the expressions of a passion that might prompt other men to seek cancer cures, or to construct completely non-utilitarian towers out of pieces of broken glass and bottle tops.

Frenzy, which opened yesterday at the Palace, Murray Hill and other theaters, is a passionately entertaining film set in a London that, except for the color photography, seems not too different from the setting of his earliest pictures, including The Lodger.

Like that 1926 film about a Jack the Ripper, Frenzy has to do with a sex-crazed, homicidal maniac who, in this case, does away with his victims (all women) with a necktie around the throat…

…Hitchcock does it with a marvelously funny script by Anthony Shaffer, with a superb English cast that is largely unknown here, and with his gift for implicating the audience in the most outrageous acts, which, as often as not, have us identifying with the killer. In one agonizing sequence, we are put into the position of cheering on (well, almost) the maniac, who has only a few minutes in which to retrieve an identifiable tie-pin from the clenched fingers of his most recent victim.

Were Hitchcock less evident throughout the film, Frenzy would be as unbearable as it probably sounds when I report that the killer has to break the fingers of the corpse. Yet it is something more than just bearable because never for a minute does one feel the absence of the storyteller, raising his eyebrows in mock woe. That pressure is apparent in a spectacular, seemingly unbroken camera movement that takes us, with the camera, down the stairs of the killer’s apartment, out the front door, to a position across the street.

It is apparent in the way Hitchcock plays fast but not necessarily loose with film time, that is, in the way he indulges himself in exploring the details of a single murder, yet manages to cover the hero’s long court trial in approximately 90 seconds.

It is also there in the exposition delivered in counterpoint to a hilariously inedible, gourmet dinner, served up to the chief inspector (Alec McCowen) by his prescient wife (Vivien Merchant). She disputes the facts he has had to feed us, while cheerily feeding him pig’s feet he can’t eat. ‘Women’s intuition,’ she says cheerfully, ‘is worth more than laboratories. I don’t know why you don’t teach it in police colleges.’

For Frenzy, Hitchcock has assembled one of his best casts, including Finch, Barry Foster, Miss Merchant, McCowen, and particularly, Anna Massey (Raymond Massey’s daughter), who plays a remarkably sexy London barmaid without being especially beautiful.

‘We haven’t had a good sex murderer since Christie,’ says someone in the film of the necktie killer, and Frenzy is the first good movie about a sex murderer since Psycho.” -Vincent Canby (New York Times, June 22, 1972)

Canby reviewed the film again on July 2, 1972. It is difficult to understand why Canby felt that he needed to discuss the perceived lack of substance in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, but this seems to be the focus of this second review. It is interesting to note that Canby’s response to Frenzy is just as enthusiastic here as it was in his previous review.

“Alfred Hitchcock is enough to make one despair. After 50 years of directing films, he’s still not perfect. He refuses to be serious, at least in any easily recognizable way that might win him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award or the Irving Thalberg Award, or even an Oscar for directorial excellence. Take, for example, his new film, Frenzy…What does it tell us about the human condition, love, the third world, God, structural politics, environmental violence, justice, conscience, aspects of underdevelopment, discrimination, radical stupor, religious ecstasy, or conservative commitment? Practically nothing…

…Only in the broadest terms can Frenzy be described as being ‘about’ something. Like almost every Hitchcock film it’s about Hitchcock’s gloomy view of a large majority of mankind, and about his conviction that he can transform almost any story, no matter how trite, into an experience that has no exact emotional equivalent in any other form. In the kind of responses their films elicit, Bergman, Buñuel, Keaton, Chaplin, Truffaut and any number of other great directors belong as much to a literary as a film tradition. Hitchcock–more than any other director, perhaps–belongs to films and because he does, he tends to be either patronized (film, after all, is a lesser breed of art) or over-analyzed, with the result that his extraordinary technical skill, his mastery of purely visual communication, and his wit are asked to define more than he ever intended.

Frenzy, which is the best acted Hitchcock film since North by Northwest, spends a great deal of time in the company of its necktie murderer, a genial London fruit wholesaler, but it can’t be bothered as much with the whys (except for the fact that he seems devoted to his toothy mum), as with the hows: first he rapes then strangles. It is one of the oddities of the film that although Hitchcock treats us to one murder almost as brutal as the shower killing in Psycho, it isn’t particularly brutalizing, principally, I think, because the presence of Hitchcock, the tall story teller, is never missed for a moment. There he is, just off camera, wearing a woeful expression that seems to ask us what this naughty fellow is likely to do next.

Strangulations, rapes, close shaves, pursuit, the arrest of an innocent, amusing character bits–none of these things is especially meaningful except in Hitchcock, for whom method is meaning, and whose perfection of method involves an evident passion. Other directors make movies about passion. Hitchcock makes his with passion, which is why watching Frenzy is like riding a roller coaster in total darkness. You can never be quite sure when you’re going to start a terrifying new descent or take a sudden turn to the left or right. The agony is exquisite.” -Vincent Canby (New York Times, July 2, 1972)

John Russell Taylor’s review for The Times was also flattering.

“The very first scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s new film immediately makes one feel at home. This is Hitchcock, and this is Hitchcock’s London, where people say things like ” ‘’Ere, that there necktie killer isn’t half leading the police a dance’ while they watch a body being dragged from the Thames as an untimely illustration to a ministerial discourse on the happy freedom of our river from pollution. It is not, you may gather, quite the London we live in today, but where is the harm in that? After all, the world of Sabotage and The Man Who Knew Too Much was a far nicer, more settled background to nasty happenings, and the lightning alteration of mild and bitter has always been one of Hitchcock’s trump cards.

He has rarely done anything nastier on the screen than the first murder which breaks into the idyllic London summer. (So nasty indeed, that apparently our censors have excised a few details.) Until we got to that point, Anthony Shaffer’s script had been making heavy weather of some rather simple exposition, setting up the prime suspect ‘necktie killer’ and the real culprit, his best friend. But once on to the slow strangulation, the dilated eyes, the hand clutching in rain for the telephone, Hitchcock is home and dry. The sequence is a model, shot silent and indeed very much like a silent film (nudity apart, it could come out of Blackmail, and it really gets the film going with a bang.

Particularly since it is immediately followed by a classic piece of Hitchcock effrontery when he holds the camera still on the entrance to the building where the murder has taken place as the suspect leaves, the victim’s secretary arrives, and then — long, long pause, just to see how long the audience can be held breathless waiting for that inevitable scream to rend the air. These are perhaps obvious Hitchcock tricks; but if they are so obvious, why has no one else ever managed to do them so well? And not for want of trying, either.

But the best of the film is still to come; it is possible to guess what exactly about the subject tempted Hitchcock to it. First, surely, the marvelous sequence, obligatory for any Hitchcock anthology, in which the murderer, having put his latest victim in a sack of potatoes on a lorry in Covent Garden, realizes that she has about her the vital clue, an initial pin, and has to recover it while the lorry rumbles and sways along the Great North Road. The toes peeping delicately out from among the potatoes, the frantic scrabbles about the naked corpse, the ultimate crunching break of rigid fingers, one by one, and the splendid throwaway coda, with corpse and vegetables tumbled out casually under the wheels of a following police car, are the sort of things only a master can get away with, making us laugh and cringe at the same time.

Second of the temptations, presumably, for Hitchcock the gourmet, were the scenes between the inspector in charge of the case (Alec McCowen) and his wife (Vivien Merchant) as she tries out her lessons in gourmet cookery on her unfortunate husband, who would rather have sausages and mash, and is instead confronted with dead, fishy eyes and bread-sticks that crunch just like dead fingers as they break… Here Shaffer’s script is at its best; elsewhere it achieves a serious period quality which would be worrying if it did not fit in with the tone of the film as a whole — it somehow seems right that these characters, even if they pretend to live in the 1970s, should talk like regulars of Patrick Hamilton’s Midnight Bell.

I have not mentioned, though, one of the most astonishing moments in the film — indeed, in any Hitchcock film — and that, like the murder and the potato-sack sequence, achieved with no dialogue at all. Everything is set up for the murder of an innocent, good-hearted barmaid (Anna Massey). We see her fall into the trap of the murderer’s kindness, and go home with him. We are probably expecting another virtuoso killing. But instead the camera moves back from the entrance hall they have just left – and dollies very, very slowly away across the road, and across the market. As it does so the sounds of London, so far suppressed, come floating back, until finally sounds and picture fade. The effect is beautiful, poetic (yes, Hitchcock can be a poet when he wishes) and terrifying. A great director again making a film worthy of his great talents; the magic remains intact.” -John Russell Taylor (The Times, May 23, 1972)

Unfortunately, Taylor’s praise of the film inspired Arthur La Bern (author of the film’s source novel) to write a letter to the editor denouncing the film.

“Sir, I wish I could share John Russell Taylor’s enthusiasm for Hitchcock’s distasteful film, Frenzy (review, May 24). I endured 116 minutes of it at a press showing and it was, at least to me, a most painful experience.

I do speak with some authority on this subject. It so happens that I am the author of the novel, ‘Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,’ on which the film was based.

Mr. Hitchcock employed Mr. Shaffer to adapt my book for the screen, apparently because of the latter’s successful stage play, Sleuth.

The result on the screen is appalling. The dialogue is a curious amalgam of an old Aldwych farce, Dixon of Dock Green and that almost forgotten No Hiding Place. I would like to ask Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Shaffer what happened between book and script to the authentic London characters I created.

Finally: I wish to dissociate myself with Mr. Shaffer’s grotesque misrepresentation of Scotland Yard offices.” -Arthur La Bern (Letter to the Editor, The Times, May 29, 1972)

Having read “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square,” it is necessary to point out that his so-called “authentic London characters” were rather sloppily written cardboard cutouts. The characters in the film version are more developed than those in his book. One could actually ask Mr. La Bern what happened “to the authentic London characters [he] created” since they didn’t find their way to the pages of his novel.

William Johnson strongly disagreed with Arthur La Bern’s opinions about Frenzy, and his review Film Comment often took the opportunity to criticize the novel while praising Hitchcock’s film adaptation.

“Right from the start Frenzy communicates a sense of enjoyment, as if Hitchcock knew he was back on form again. To the sound of rousing Elgarian music, the camera glides down over the Thames as Tower Bridge opens to let it through. The prodigal son is returning, it seems, to pay homage to his native city. But the pomp and circumstance do not last long. As a speaker on the embankment outside the London Council offices declares that the Thames is now free of pollution, a girl’s corpse, naked except for a tie knotted firmly around her neck, comes floating along. ‘Another necktie murder!’ says a voice in the crowd, and the action is under way.

The film blends two of Hitchcock’s favorite and most successful themes. An innocent man, Dick Blaney (Jon Finch), is suspected of being a sex-killer when his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) become victims. He is blood-brother to the many threatened innocents in Hitchcock’s films, from Robert Donat in The 39 Steps to Cary Grant in North by Northwest. At the same time the real killer passes for a genial extrovert of the same breed as Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train.

These themes are no doubt what attracted Hitchcock to Arthur La Bern’s sour and sloppily-written book, which he and Anthony Shaffer have transformed into a taut, sure-footed film that moves compellingly from start to finish…

…Hitchcock’s collaborators seem to have shared his confidence and enthusiasm. There is an especially fine chemistry at work among Hitchcock, Shaffer, and the cast. Shaffer, author of the play (and screenplay) Sleuth, has an ear for rapid and witty dialogue that gives a lively edge to Hitchcock’s deliberate, let’s-make-quite-sure-the-audience-gets-it approach. Even more important, Shaffer injects life into the nondescript characters of the book, and the actors respond eagerly to their roles. Babs, for example, a fluffy bundle of working-class clichés in the book, becomes a girl of delightful spirit, and Anna Massey makes the most of her first good screen role since a very different study of a London sex-killer, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Hitchcock, in turn, gains dividends from her liveliness even after Babs dies, since it gives greater emotional impact to Rusk’s maltreatment of her body.

All the same, since Hitchcock takes prime responsibility for his films from their inception to final cut, it’s fair to see Frenzy as essentially his achievement – just as it was fair to see Torn Curtain and Topaz as his failures. Through his choice of collaborators, and through his influence on them, he obtains a broad family resemblance from film to film. Shatter’s dialogue echoes, even as it surpasses, John Michael Hayes’ work for Hitchcock in the mid-Fifties or the Frank Launder-Sidney Gilliatt script for The Lady Vanishes. Ron Goodwin’s music continues the Bernard Herrmann tradition of the Fifties and early Sixties, with a pulsing theme for strings that recalls the opening of Psycho and a poignant, sustained theme in 3⁄4 time similar to the romantic orchestral tides of Vertigo and Marnie – or, for that matter, to Richard Addinsell’s score for Under Capricorn. Cinematographer Gil Taylor has worked mainly in black-and-white, and the only other color films of his I have seen with London settings, Desmond Davis’ A Nice Girl Like Me, was keyed to rich, romantic effects quite unlike the clear warm pastels which predominate in Frenzy – as they do in most of the Hitchcock films photographed by Robert Burks. At the same time, the film undoubtedly benefits from Taylor’s long and varied experience of filming in London, from Seven Days to Noon through A Hard Days Night and Repulsion.

With Frenzy, Hitchcock seems to have been stimulated as never before by a return to his native city. The street-location scenes are deft and casual, with none of the self-conscious ‘local color’ found in, say, Blow Up or Sunday Bloody Sunday. Both in mood and in technique-especially the matching of colors and settings-they blend impeccably with the studio scenes. As a result, although the film quickly narrows its focus from the London panorama of the opening to the actions of a handful of characters, the sense of place persists…

…With Frenzy, the Covent Garden market background – only incidental in the book – sustains the tone of the whole film. Immediately after the corpse-in-Thames prelude, Blaney is seen losing his job in one Covent Garden pub and walking through the market to spend his last money on drinks in another. The settings – a market where farm produce is continually coming in and going out, pubs where people are continually coming in and going out – pick up the theme of shiftlessness and uncertainty and carry it like an ostinato throughout the film.

Some critics react to this kind of deeper appraisal of Hitchcock rather like a WCTU member faced with a glass of beer – as if it leads straight to delirium. In their view, taking Hitchcock seriously as a filmmaker means getting hopelessly high on allusions and profundities which don’t exist. Ironically, one of the allusions that can easily be read into Frenzy is a satire on those who read too much into it. When the Scotland Yard inspector’s wife proudly uncovers her ludicrous soupe de poissons instead of the plain fare her husband wants, she might be standing in for Hitchcock’s more fanciful interpreters. But the barb also cuts the other way. The inspector, who could go on wallowing forever in fried egg and sausage, is clearly too unadventurous in his tastes.

The skeptics’ case for rejecting anything but egg and sausage in Hitchcock can be summed up like this: The kind of subtlety and artistry that is often attributed to him is difficult for any filmmaker to achieve; it is certainly beyond the reach of one who deals in melodramatic plots and effects. The best way to answer this case and define my own particular claims for Hitchcock is to go straight to specifics. As Exhibit A for the defense, here is a scene from Frenzy which anyone who has seen the film should remember:

When [the murderer] takes Babs to his apartment, the camera picks them up inside the street entrance, moves ahead as they climb the stairs, and then pauses, panning with them until they arrive at Rusk’s door. ‘I don’t know whether I’ve ever told you, Babs,’ [he] says, ‘but you’re my type of woman’ – the same line he said to Brenda before attacking her. After the door closes behind them, the camera – still in the same continuous shot – backs slowly down the stairs, out of the front door and across the busy street, where it holds on Rusk’s curtained windows…

…It strengthens the bond between the drama (the first, interior part of the scene) and the setting (the exterior part).

It prepares the ground emotionally for the scene where Blaney comes to hide out at [the murderer’s] place, not knowing he’s the killer. The imprint of Babs’ going to her death adds an emotional overtone to the audience’s concern for Blaney.

The movement away from Babs, and the progression from silence to the bustle of the street, crystallize a sense of human aloneness…

…To the skeptics, he may seem only a jaded old pro. Because his films revolve around sex and murder, the morbid and the grotesque, nearly always provoking visceral responses in his viewers, it’s easy to judge Hitchcock himself in the light of these apparently Romantic traits; and an intense romantic should not enjoy a tongue-in-cheek public persona or lend his name to TV and paperback potboilers.

But Hitchcock is no romantic. Despite the sensational content of his films, he stands much closer to the classical tradition. Even when he puts personal experience into his films – his fear of policemen, or the detritus of his Jesuit schooling – he handles them with as much detachment as the cleaning up of the Thames or the state of the potato market. What distinguishes Hitchcock from most other commercial directors is his concern with shaping each film, above all else, into a satisfying object with an over-all balance and harmony of its own. He does not look for any easy way of doing this – via fantasy or abstraction – but accepts the challenge of wrestling with at least the semblance of real life.

In Frenzy the semblance is stronger than in most of his films – and so is the challenge. Here he has to assimilate more than settings into the shape of his drama. The characters, too, have a surface grittiness which could tear the fabric of a merely ‘well-made’ plot. It’s a long time since Hitchcock has featured a straight romantic hero, but none has been so morose and self-centered as Blaney. Most of the characters, in fact, reveal a similar chilly egoism, and the only two generous ones-Babs and Brenda – are disposed of very nastily indeed. Yet Hitchcock still succeeds in making his film into a satisfying and enjoyable object.

A craftsman who can bring off this kind of challenge is working at a high level of vigor and intensity. It is no longer far-fetched to suggest that Frenzy – which has a classical tightness of form, grips its audience, and revolves around characters [that] are indifferent to one another – can also crystallize the precariousness of the human condition.

This does not mean that Hitchcock is a conscious moralist. In his film making, he is as detached from messages as he is from his own past – and he remains unspoiled by critical adulation that might have lured another filmmaker into self-consciousness. In his own way, he has a ‘poet’s eye [which] Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven’; but it is the viewer’s eye which ends up ‘in a fine frenzy rolling.’ -William Johnson (Film Comment, December 16, 1972)

Albert Johnson can also be added to the list of pleased critics, and his review for Film Quarterly praised everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s direction to Ron Goodwin’s score.

“In the past decade, the most serious charge against the work of Alfred Hitchcock has been that of dullness, that absence of suspense in the simplest cinematic translation, that lack of surprise and malevolent wit that characterized the unforgettable twists of terror in Psycho

Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock’s latest film, is indeed triumphant in almost every way, and it is a cause for jubilation among those who admire suspense-thrillers. It is filmed in the London of today, but without the ‘trendy’ atmosphere of the Beatles-Twiggy mob. It is, rather nostalgically, the enduring, everyday London of Covent Garden, Tottenham Court Road and the Embankment — sunny London, really, where commonplaces of traffic, banalities and dignities of language and behavior can camouflage the activities of a savage rapist-strangler who compulsively snuffs out the lives of women by day or night. Armed only with a necktie, the murderer terrorizes the city, with nonchalant, incurable dementia.

What delights and chills the spectator is the splendid casting. Although Jon Finch’s introduction to American audiences was not entirely disappointing, his rather stilted Macbeth in the Polanski film does not prepare us for the ambiguous portrait of a maladjusted ex-RAF flyer named Richard Blaney. In this role, Finch is quite convincing as he trudges through what seems to be a thoroughly dead-end route to thwarted hopes and ultimate penury. …Once the suspense is established — the knowledge of Blaney’s penchant for uncontrolled violence — scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer and Hitchcock never release the tensions until the final sequence…

…Hitchcock’s underlying indictment against society in Frenzy is, it seems, the general tendency of people not to want to be involved in troubles of any kind. The camera reflects this dispassionate attitude in two notable moments: after the first murder, the camera remains on the street below. The victim’s body is discovered off-screen and we hear a scream. Two young girls, engrossed in conversation, stop for a second, then move on. The camera later follows the murderer and a prospective victim up the stairs of an apartment building and they enter a flat, the door closes, and in almost stealthy silence, the camera moves slowly down the stairs again and out into the loud noise and bustle of traffic. It is brilliantly discreet and chilling as well. The major character of non-involvement is exemplified by the cameo portrait of a hostile wife, Hetty Porter (Billie Whitelaw). Her husband tries to help Blaney hide from the police, out of their friendship during wartime, but Hetty’s unshakable mistrust is -persuasively presented, finally conquering her husband’s divided loyalties.

In fact, all of the characters seem real. Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s depiction of Blaney’s divorced wife is totally sympathetic and yet indicative of a certain willfulness and ambition that would alienate a man of Blaney’s disorganized temperament. Her beauty is in the glossy tradition of the Hitchcock blonde, but rather softened here to fit the middle-class milieu and one’s identification with the story. On the other hand, Anna Massey, as “Babs” Milligan, a barmaid who is in love with Blaney, is a superb, original creation, almost Dickensian in effect. She is completely without pretensions, sensible and although tough, just a bit guileless. Miss Massey succeeds in being the season’s most unlikely and lovable heroine, with a perky-bird earthiness all her own.

It would not be possible for Alfred Hitchcock to restrain his sense of humor, and in Frenzy, most of it is given to Alec McCowen as Inspector Oxford, who, in the course of investigation of the necktie murders, is encumbered in his home life by a wife who experiments with French cuisine. The sequences in which Mrs. Oxford (Vivien Merchant) serves outrageous dishes to her husband are not only filled with plot information (sometimes redundant), but most intriguingly, packed with some of the best facial expressions, subtle delivery of lines and superb comic timing to be found in Hitchcock since Radford and Wayne in The Lady Vanishes.

Hitchcock’s big scene in Frenzy involves the murderer’s frenetic effort to regain a damning piece of evidence from the fist of a corpse. Unfortunately, the corpse has been placed upside down in a sack of potatoes, and any effort to describe this sequence further is a futile gesture, for it is Hitchcock’s brilliance, his innate genius for this sort of suspense that will keep these moments alive forever. It is at the beginning of this sequence; however, that one’s attention is drawn to Ron Goodwin’s excellent score. The mordant melody takes on a slow waltz tempo as the murderer moves from the street to the flat — weaving with beautiful, sinuous calm before the moment of terrified remembrance… The theme has been heard earlier, dramatizing Blaney and his plight, but the sudden shift in musical mood at this point gives the film a depth of emotion that is an understated, sonorous enrichment of the audience’s responses to the murderer’s personality.

Frenzy, then, is Hitchcock’s return to the realm he commanded so long: the fears and excitement felt when viewing and hearing the stories of a diabolical narrator. Shaffer should work with Hitchcock again, and it is a pity that they are not collaborating on the film version of Sleuth. Two final delights in the film were recognizing a similarity to the ending of Dial M for Murder (the play, not the film) used here, with its uncomplicated, terse finale, and in the middle of the film, suddenly seeing Elsie Randolph as a wary hotel employee, casting a baleful eye at the hero, as if she were about to sing from one of her old musicals — ‘You’ve Got the Wrong Rhumba.'” –Albert Johnson (Film Quarterly, Autumn 1972)

François Truffaut’s review of the film was also flattering.

“In contemporary London, a sex maniac strangles women with a necktie. Fifteen minutes after the film begins, Hitchcock reveals the assassin’s identity (we had met him in the second scene). Another man, the focus of the story, is accused of the murders. He will be watched, pursued, arrested, and condemned. We will watch him for an hour and a half as he struggles to survive, like a fly caught in a spider’s web.

Frenzy is a combination of two kinds of movies: those where Hitchcock invites us to follow the assassin’s course: Shadow of a Doubt, Stage Fright, Dial M for Murder, Psycho … and those in which he describes the torments of an innocent person who is being persecuted: The Thirty-nine Steps, I Confess, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest. Frenzy is a kind of nightmare in which everyone recognizes himself: the murderer, the innocent man, the victims, the witnesses; a world in which every conversation, whether in a shop or a cafe, bears on the murders — a world made up of coincidences so rigorously ordered that they crisscross horizontally and vertically. Frenzy is like the design of crossword puzzle squares imposed on the theme of murder.

Hitchcock, who is six months older than Luis Bunuel (both are seventy-two), began his career in London, where he was born and where he made the first half of his films. In the forties he became an American citizen and a Hollywood filmmaker. For a long time, critical opinion has been divided between those who admire his American films — Rebecca, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Birds — and those who prefer his English films: The Thirty-nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Jamaica Inn.

Hitchcock’s fifty-second film, Frenzy, was a triumph at the Cannes Festival and reconciled both schools of critics, who acclaimed it unanimously, perhaps because it is the first film he’s made in Great Britain in twenty years. Hitchcock often says, ‘Some directors film slices of life, but I film slices of cake.’ Frenzy indeed looks like a cake, a ‘homemade’ cake by the septuagenarian gastronome who is still the ‘boy director’ of his London beginnings.

Everybody praised the performances of Jon Finch as the innocent man and of Barry Foster… I’d rather emphasize the high quality of the female acting. In Frenzy, for the first time Hitchcock turned away from glamorous and sophisticated heroines (of whom Grace Kelly remains the best example) toward everyday women. They are well chosen: Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Anna Massey, Vivien Merchant, and Billie Whitelaw, and they bring a new realism to Hitchcock’s work. The formidable ovation given Frenzy at the Cannes Festival redeems the contempt that greeted the presentations there of Notorious (1946), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1957) and The Birds (1963). Hitchcock’s triumph is one of style in recitative; here it has found its definitive form in a dizzying and poignant narration that never comes to rest, a breathless recitation in which the images follow one another as imperiously and harmoniously as the swift notes of the imperturbable musical score.

Hitchcock has long been judged by the flowers he places in the vase. Now we have at least realized that the flowers are always the same, and that his efforts are directed at the shape of the vase and its beauty. We come out of Frenzy saying to ourselves, ‘I can’t wait for Hitchcock’s fifty-third movie.’” -François Truffaut (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1973)

Unfortunately, praise for the film wasn’t quite unanimous. The National Organization of Women bestowed a ‘Keep Her in Her Place’ award upon Frenzy, and the subject matter led to controversy over the film’s brutal depiction of rape. Of course, the film’s dark humor only seemed to add fuel to the fire. One could make a strong argument that the women presented in the film were strong and intelligent women. They certainly weren’t submissive stereotypes. There are men in the world (like the murderer in Frenzy) who are threatened by this type of woman. They feel castrated by their success. Blaney might also fit into this category of men. Alfred Hitchcock has always been especially good at holding a mirror to the audience that seems to reflect the perverse aspects of human nature. Indeed, a horrible violence has been done to these women, and instead of seriously responding to these events minor characters are seen making off-color jokes about them. A barmaid is even seen laughing at such a joke. One can understand why the film raised a few eyebrows. However, this seems to be an accurate representation of human nature. People get a thrill out of gossiping, and joking about tragic events. Alfred Hitchcock even made a vague comment about this in an interview upon the film’s release.

“When some people present murder it seems to have a heavy cloud over it. …It seems to be a habit to handle it rather heavily. I don’t believe this really happens. In real life everyone seems to discuss it fairly cheerfully. It doesn’t make them metaphorically wear black. The first person to be forgotten is always the victim.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Times, January 11, 1971)

Whatever one’s opinion about this particular controversy, it must be said that the film is less misogynistic than the original novel. Hitchcock spares the viewer a number of especially troubling details. One example is the murderer’s twisted defilement of a certain corpse. In the novel, Babs suffers the post mortem indignity of having a potato shoved into a certain orifice. The film’s female characters are also more intelligent than the ones in the La Bern novel.

Perhaps the controversy cast a shadow on our current perception of Frenzy. Modern critics tend to overlook the film, or consider it with a certain amount of apathy. It is unfortunate that it doesn’t receive the respect that it deserves. It is probably the strongest film that the director made after Psycho was released in 1960. The performances are top-notch; it is a technical marvel, and a thrilling experience. The dark subject matter, and unlikable protagonist may turn certain viewers against the film, but others are sure to find these elements interesting.

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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. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork (as seen at the top of this article).

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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

Universal’s 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer isn’t their best transfer of a Hitchcock film, but it is far from their worst. The main issue with the transfer is occasionally over-zealous DNR, aliasing and occasional edge enhancement. Neither of these issues ever became distracting, but they were noticeable at times. Darker scenes occasionally have issues with skin tone, but skin appears to be accurate in most of the scenes. Crushing is also occasionally noticeable in some of the film’s darker moments.

These minor issues become less annoying once one considers the considerable detail, and excellent color exhibited in this transfer. The picture is extremely sharp, and blemishes and compression artifacts are never an issue. This is certainly an improvement on the DVD transfers of the film.

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Sound Quality:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Surprisingly, the two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix isn’t as good as one might expect. Nothing here seems to be properly prioritized. This never becomes distracting, but it does seem unfortunate that more care wasn’t put into the track.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Story of Frenzy – (SD) – (44:46)

Laurent Bouzereau introduces this surprisingly comprehensive documentary about the creation of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s darkest films. Anthony Shaffer, Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Anna Massey, Patricia Hitchcock, and Peter Bogdanovich are on hand to talk about the production. Alfred Hitchcock fans will be thrilled to have this included on the disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:55)

This trailer is in the same tradition as his trailers for Psycho and The Birds, and is a classic in its own right. Not content to simply show footage from the film, Alfred Hitchcock prefers to entertain the viewer as he promotes Frenzy.

Production Photographs – (SD) – (17:01)

This collection of posters, advertisements, stills, and ‘behind the scenes’ photos isn’t complete, but it is nice to see them included on the disk.

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Final Words:

Frenzy was an incredible return to form for Alfred Hitchcock in 1972, and it remains an extremely effective film today. This Blu-ray release isn’t perfect, but it is the best home video release of the film.

Review by: Devon Powell

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For more information about Frenzy, check out Raymond Foery’s excellent book, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece.”

Blu-ray Review: Torn Curtain

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Release Date: October 1, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 128 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

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.

Title screenshot

“I got the idea from the disappearance of the two British diplomats, Burgess and MacLean, who deserted their country and went to Russia. I said to myself, ‘“What did Mrs. MacLean think of the whole thing?’

So, you see, the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view, until we have the dramatic showdown between the young couple in the hotel room in Berlin. From here on I take Paul Newman’s point of view…Then, the last part of the film is the couple’s escape. As you see, the picture is clearly divided into three sections.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

When scholars and critics write about the perceived failures of Alfred Hitchcock’s final five features, they tend to blame the decrease in quality on Alfred Hitchcock’s ego. The director had been lionized by the French nouvelle vague as a serious artist in the proceeding years, and there is no doubt that Hitchcock took notice. Certain critics have suggested that this forced the director to alter his strategy. While the director did have an ego that rivaled the size of his corpulent figure, this particular reasoning is faulty. It does not take in to account the environment in which these films were made. Context is everything.

The director’s downfall was not his own ego (although, one must admit that this is probably the more interesting theory). Alfred Hitchcock’s creative decent was instead the lucrative contract that he entered into with Universal Studios in August of 1964. He signed away ownership of Shamley Productions (including the distribution rights to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), as well as the rights to the five Paramount films that belonged to the director. This made Alfred Hitchcock a very rich man, and the third largest shareholder in Universal Studios. This financial security came with a price. The incredible amount of creative freedom that the director enjoyed during his years at Paramount was greatly restricted. Lew Wasserman was much more than Alfred Hitchcock’s agent now. As the head of Universal and its corporate parent MCA, he was now his boss.

This brings us to Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain… or Alfred Hitchcock’s compromised production of Universal’s Torn Curtain.

Alfred Hitchcock had originally planned one of his dream projects; an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose. After completing Marnie, the director went to work with Jay Presson Allen on the screenplay. The film was originally intended to star ‘Tippi’ Hedren, but another actress would have likely been cast had the director been allowed to make the film. The trouble with the project was simply that it was a departure from what the suits of Universal considered a “Hitchcock film.”

Alfred Hitchcock discussed the film with enthusiasm in an interview for The Times in June of 1964 (a few months before his contract with Universal would kill the project). “I see it essentially as a horror story” claimed the director. The surviving drafts of the Mary Rose scripts suggest that the film was to be a mood piece that had more in common with Vertigo and Marnie than Hitchcock’s other work.

Universal preferred that the director focus on a project that was more in line with his classic spy films. This probably had something to do with the fact that James Bond thrillers were always good box office, and studio suits like to keep up with current trends. This would be the first of two productions that Hitchcock took on to satisfy Lew Wasserman and Universal (the other was Topaz).

Hitchcock had originally contacted Vladimir Nabokov requesting that he work with him on the screenplay for what would become Torn Curtain. Unfortunately, the two men were unable to synchronize their schedules. Alfred Hitchcock then reluctantly turned to Brian Moore to help him on the script. The writer eventually agreed to work with the director, but was never satisfied with the script.

Hitchcock was also disillusioned with the project, and eventually hired Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall in the hopes that they could save the script. Unfortunately, the script issues made for a chaotic production.

“We often found ourselves revising scenes only hours before they were to be shot… A messenger would be waiting to rush our latest rewrites across to the Torn Curtain sound stage, where they would be thrust into the hands of the actors even as Hitchcock lit them for the scene.” -Keith Waterhouse (as quoted in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light)

However, the problems inherent in Torn Curtain aren’t entirely script-related. As a matter of fact, many scholars agree that the script of Torn Curtain is actually quite strong.

The film would have been vastly improved by proper casting. Universal wanted Torn Curtain to be a return to the director’s glory days. This of course meant that Hitchcock would have to cast huge box-office stars. Hitchcock attempted to sign Cary Grant to the film, but Grant was unable to participate (and was planning retirement). This is just as well. The studio wasn’t at all interested in Cary Grant. Younger stars would bring a larger (and younger) audience to the theaters. Since Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were currently top box office attractions, they lobbied very hard for Hitchcock to cast both actors. Hitchcock wasn’t convinced that either actor was appropriate for the film, but eventually gave in to studio pressure. This resulted in a rather cold and distant relationship with both stars (especially Newman).

“Hitchcock took enormous exception to Newman’s detailed notes on the script and to the lengthy time the actor required to get into character.” –Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks)

It was also extremely costly to cast the actors. Andrews and Newman were paid more than Hitchcock had to spend on the rest of the production. This money could have been put to better use considering the fact that neither actor was appropriate for their roles.

Hitchcock’s contract with Universal even led to the end of one of Hitchcock’s most important creative relationships. Bernard Herrmann provided the score for every film that Hitchcock had made since The Trouble with Harry in 1955. (The composer was even hired as a sound consultant on The Birds, which didn’t have a score.) He was to continue this tradition with Torn Curtain.

Things were changing in the nineteen sixties. Films were marketed to teenagers, and these undeveloped minds needed to be appeased by the Hollywood factory. If younger audiences didn’t go to the cinema to see Hitchcock’s newest film, it would not be a financial success. Universal didn’t want an artistically appropriate score for Torn Curtain. They wanted a hit record that would interest these young minds and bring them into the cinemas. Herrmann’s scores were brilliant, but they weren’t commercial. The studio suits made their intentions clear to Hitchcock.

Lew Wasserman suggested that Hitchcock hire a younger composer to the film to deliver them the commercial score that Universal wanted. Alfred Hitchcock preferred to give Herrmann the chance to write such a score (hoping that the composer could pull off something that was both commercial and appropriate for the film).

Hitchcock wrote Herrmann a telegram on November 4, 1965 that elaborated on his intentions for the score.

“Dear Benny,

To follow up Peggy’s conversation with you let me say at first I am very anxious for you to do the music on Torn Curtain. I was extremely disappointed when I heard the score of Joy in the Morning. Not only did I find it conforming to the old pattern, but extremely reminiscent of the Marnie music. In fact, the theme was almost the same. Unfortunately for we artists, we do not have the freedom that we would like to have because we are catering to an audience and that is why you get your money and I get mine.

This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater. It is young, vigorous, and demanding. It is this fact that has been recognized by almost all of the European film makers where they have sought to introduce a beat and rhythm that is more in tune with the requirements of the aforementioned audience. This is why I am asking you to approach this problem with a receptive, and if possible, enthusiastic mind. If you cannot do this, then I am the loser. I have made up my mind that this approach to the music is extremely essential. I also have very definite ideas as to where the music should go in the picture and there is not too much.

So often have I been asked, for example, by Tiomkin to come and listen to a score, and when I express my disapproval, his hands were thrown up and with the cry of ‘but you can’t change anything now. It has all been orchestrated.’ It is this kind of frustration that I am rather tired of. By that, I mean getting music scored on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.

Another problem this music has got to be sketched in an advance because we have an urgent problem of meeting a tax date. We will not finish shooting until the middle of January at the earliest, and Technicolor requires the complete picture by February 1st.

Sincerely, Hitch” –Alfred Hitchcock (Telegram to Bernard Herrmann as presented in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

Herrmann’s response suggests that the composer was willing to accommodate Hitchcock’s request. However, one can also read the reply as tactful condescension.

“Delighted [to] compose [a] vigorous beat score for Torn Curtain. Always pleased [to] have your views regarding music for your film. Please send [the] script indicating where you desire music. [I] can then begin composing here. [I] will be ready [to] record [the] week after [the] final shooting date.

Good Luck. Bernard” – Bernard Herrmann (Telegram to Alfred Hitchcock as presented in Hitchcock’s Notebooks by Dan Auiler)

It isn’t terribly difficult to understand why Hitchcock might have been slightly frustrated with Herrmann when the score delivered was not what he requested. It is simply a shame that a good partnership was destroyed due to studio pressure. Herrmann was replaced with John Addison, and it is Addison’s music that is heard in the film. Herrmann felt that Universal was having a negative effect on Hitchcock’s creativity. The composer claimed that previous collaborations were always successful.

“…But he wasn’t then working for Universal. He became a different man. They made him very rich, and they recalled it to him. And I told Lew Wasserman he could go to hell. I do what I like to do… I said to Hitchcock, ‘What do you find in common with these hoodlums?’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Do they add to your artistic life?’ ‘No.’ ‘They drink your wine?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘That’s about all. What did they ever do? Made you rich? Well, I’m ashamed of you.’” -Bernard Herrmann (Interview with Royal S. Brown, August 1975)

Bernard Herrmann wasn’t the only collaborator that Alfred Hitchcock lost. Marnie marked the final film that Hitchcock made with two other very important collaborators. Robert Burks (cinematographer) had worked with the director on every film he made since Strangers on a Train in 1951 (with the exception of Psycho), and George Tomasini (editor) had worked on every Hitchcock film since Rear Window (with the exception of The Trouble with Harry).  Tomasini had passed away on November 22, 1964. Robert Burks passed away in a terrible house fire on May 11, 1968. It is not clear why Burks didn’t participate on Torn Curtain, but he has no 1966 credits to his name. The talents of both men were sorely missed by both Alfred Hitchcock and his audiences.

If Alfred Hitchcock’s ego was his downfall, it was because it had been deflated. Universal’s overwhelming control over his productions, and the lackluster reception of his most recent films took a toll on his self esteem. If he bowed to the studio’s interference, it was because he no longer had the strength to challenge it. His creative team was no longer with him. He was growing older, and becoming less popular. His confidence had been destroyed.

Of course, critics and audiences were disappointed by Torn Curtain. Reviews weren’t hostile, but certainly expressed an uneasy dissatisfaction. Variety set the tone with their review on December 31, 1965.

“…Writing, acting and direction make clear from the outset that Newman is loyal, although about one-third of [picture] passes before this is made explicit in dialog. This early telegraphing diminishes suspense.

Hitchcock freshens up his bag of tricks in a good potpourri which becomes a bit stale through a noticeable lack of zip and pacing.” -Variety (December 31, 1965)

Bosley Crowther was more specific in his criticism of the film for The New York Times.

“Alfred Hitchcock was saying to a reporter for The New York Times a few months back that he had never known a time when it was so difficult to get a skilled script writer in Hollywood. Evidently he was hinting, in his familiarly suave and subtle way, that the script for his new film, Torn Curtain, which he was shooting at the time, was something short of perfection — at least, not what he would have it be.

If that was his innuendo, he was absolutely right. For Torn Curtain, which opened yesterday at the DeMille, the 34th Street East and the Coronet, is a pathetically undistinguished spy picture, and the obvious reason is that the script is a collection of what Mr. Hitchcock most eschews — clichés…

…The idea is not insufficient for a fictitious spy film of the sort that Mr. Hitchcock has many times managed to make scamper and skip across the screen. The locale and circumstances should do for a characteristic lark. But here he is so badly burdened with a blah script by Brian Moore and a hero and a heroine (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews) who seem to miss the point, that he has come up with a film that plows through grimly, without any real surprises, suspense or fun.

Significant of something or other is the fact that the strongest episode — the most spontaneous and engaging — is the secret killing of a security guard who has trailed the hero to an East German farmhouse and discovered him making contact with a secret agent there. The frenzy with which Mr. Newman and a frightened farm woman, played with commendable spontaneity by Carolyn Conwell, go about slaughtering the fellow, who is harder to kill than Rasputin, and the deftness with which they dispatch him, are the most exciting details in the film.

There is also another episode which was probably expected to be uniquely amusing and moving, but, alas, it is so unsubtly don — so bluntly staged and archly acted — that it stands out like a sore, useless thumb. It is an episode in which the fleeing couple run afoul of a Polish countess, played by the little actress Lila Kedrova, who was so wonderful in Zorba the Greek, and are tediously importuned by her to help her get to America. It’s as though Mr. Hitchcock stopped his picture — stopped the chase, stopped everything — and gave the virtuoso Miss Kedrova a chance to do her stuff.

But at that she is more inventive, more expressive in this one little bit than Mr. Newman or Miss Andrews are throughout the film. They seem to have no sense whatsoever of the fancifulness of the piece, no ability or willingness to play it strictly with tongue in cheek. Mr. Newman goes at it really as though he meant to pick a German scientist’s brain, and Miss Andrews is like an English nanny who means to see that no harm comes to him…

…In these times, with James Bonds cutting capers and pallid spies coming in out of the cold, Mr. Hitchcock will have to give us something a good bit brighter to keep us amused.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times – July 28, 1966)

This review for The Times suggests that critics were slightly more receptive overseas. While disappointment is still palpable, criticism is cushioned by faint praise.

“…You see, the subject does seem – whichever way one looks at it – cut out for serious treatment, in black-and-white, with a lot of mystery and anguish… It is a nightmare situation which Mr. Hitchcock could so easily and so superbly treat nightmarishly a la The Wrong Man or Psycho. Instead, oddly, he has chosen to treat the whole thing as a lightweight adventure entertainment: the heroine’s mental agonies are rapidly soothed by some quick explanations on a studio hillside which looks like something out of the Ideal Homes garden section (no, of course, he is not a traitor — he is a spy), and then off we go on a very jolly battle of wits.

Once we adjust, and the film adjusts, this is very agreeable and expert. The couple’s adventures on the way out of Germany are handled in a straightforward suspense style, but then of that Mr. Hitchcock is a past master. …And it is certain that, at any rate, no one will be bored.

But still a slight feeling of dissatisfaction persists. There is too much careless plotting in the first half, and Mr. Hitchcock’s demonstration of how difficult it is in fact to kill someone misfires because the mistakes the would-be killers make are surely not those — equally damaging — that anyone in a similar situation really would make. And the stars, Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, are after all pretty wasted on pasteboard roles, since both are better as actors than as straight star personalities. All the same, the film remains great fun for most of its length, and it would be silly to let regret for what it might have been and is not blind us to the considerable advantages of what it actually is…” -The Times (August 10, 1966)

Torn Curtain isn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s best work, but it is certainly worth watching for the place that it occupies in his career.

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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

The Masterpiece Collection

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. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

collection page

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork (as seen at the top of this article).

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 of 5 MacGuffins

Since Universal’s Hitchcock Blu-rays rang from wonderful to horrible, it is difficult not to be apprehensive as a consumer. Luckily, their 1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks superior to all of the previous home video releases of Torn Curtain. The entire look of the transfer screams “celluloid” (which is a blessing). Detail is excellent and the image showcases textures and edges beautifully (even if the look of the film is somewhat soft). There are a few unfortunate issues with noise and other anomalies, but the intentionally subdued color palette is handled carefully here, and showcases accurate contrast and black levels. There may have been a few instances of slight color bleeding, but these were never distracting. Luckily any digital noise reduction seems to have been handled more carefully than on a few of the other Universal titles. This isn’t among the best transfers in the Universal Hitchcock catalog, but it is more than anyone can really expect.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Hitchcock’s sound design is as carefully constructed as his visuals, a proper audio presentation is essential. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix has been handled nicely here. The mix is clean and clear with well prioritized dialogue, and even the most subtle sound effects can be heard in the appropriate manner. John Addison’s music is given more room to breath because of the lossless quality of the track, which sets it apart from the DVD releases.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Torn Curtain Rising – (SD) – (32 minutes) –

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary for Torn Curtain is in a very different format than the documentaries for most of the other films in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. Instead of retrospective interviews from members of the cast and crew, Trev Broudy narrates the program, and relays information about the film’s production and reception to the audience. This narration is of course illustrated with clips from the film, production stills, and other related artifacts. The reason for this alternative approach is likely due to the fact that living members of the cast and crew were unable or unwilling to participate. This is certainly our loss because this format is less engaging. However, it is a lot better than nothing, and it is nice to have this included. There is quite a bit of interesting information here.

Scenes Scored by Bernard Herrmann – (SD) – (14 minutes) –

Fans of Bernard Herrmann will agree that this Blu-ray disc could have never been complete without this particular supplement. Audiences are given the opportunity to view a number of scenes with Alfred Hitchcock’s original score in tact (instead of John Addison’s music).

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (3 minutes) –

Universal’s trailer for Torn Curtain is not as clever as other Hitchcock trailers, but it is nice to have this marketing artifact included on the disc.

Production Photographs – (SD) –

This is a standard definition presentation of production stills, behind the scenes photographs, posters, and advertisements for the film. It is nice to have these included.

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Final Words:

Torn Curtain is recommended for all fans of Alfred Hitchcock. While this probably one of the director’s weakest American efforts, it still manages to pull off moments of absolute brilliance. Universal’s Blu-ray transfer is a definite upgrade from the previous DVD releases.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Materials

The Times (Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s Zest for the Cinema – June 24, 1964)

Variety Review (December 31, 1965)

Bosley Crowther (The New York Times – July 28, 1966)

The Times (Mr. Hitchcock’s Fiftieth Film – August 10, 1966)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks – 1999)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light – 2003)

Blu-ray Review: Marnie

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: September 03, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 2:10:30

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS (48 kHz / 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 33.99 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.


“This comes under the heading of rooting for the evildoer to succeed–because in all of us we have that eleventh commandment nagging us: ‘Thou shalt not be found out.’ The average person looking at someone doing evil or wrong wants the person to get away with it. There’s something that makes them say, ‘Look out! Look out! They’re coming!’ I think it’s the most amazing instinct-doesn’t matter how evil it is, you know. Can’t go as far as murder, but anything up to that point. The audience can’t bear the suspense of the person being discovered. ‘Hurry up! Quick! You’re going to be caught!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Before making The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock had purchased the film rights to Winston Graham’s novel, Marnie. He offered the title role to Princess Grace of Monaco, and she showed a great deal of interest in accepting the role. Joseph Stefano was recruited to work with Hitchcock on the treatment of Marnie. His early drafts were much different than the final product, and showed a lot of promise. Unfortunately, political interests in Monaco at the time forced Princess Grace to turn down the role (to both her and Alfred Hitchcock’s great disappointment).

Princess Grace wrote this letter to Hitchcock when it became clear that she would not be able to accept the role of Marnie.

Princess Grace wrote this letter to Hitchcock when it became clear that she would not be able to accept the role of Marnie.

This is the letter that Alfred Hitchcock wrote in response Princess Grace's letter.

This is the letter that Alfred Hitchcock wrote in response Princess Grace’s letter.

The loss of his leading actress altered Hitchcock’s plans for the film, and he decided to move ahead on another project instead. His next project ended up being The Birds. When it came time to focus on Marnie again, Stefano was busy working on The Outer Limits. This forced Hitchcock to work with Evan Hunter on a new treatment for Marnie (with ‘Tippi’ Hedren in mind for the difficult title role).

“We discussed Marnie on the sixty-mile ride to and from location [during the production of The Birds]. We discussed Marnie during lulls in the shooting, and during lunch, and during dinner every night. We discussed Marnie interminably.

There was one scene in the book that bothered me. ‘Which scene is that?’ Hitch asked. He knew which scene it was. ‘The scene where he rapes her on her wedding night.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ Hitch said. ‘That’ll be fine.’ I knew it wouldn’t.” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Despite his reservations, Hunter continued to do research in order to enhance the story. He even met with a psychologist in order to lend a level of authenticity and accuracy to his writing.

“…My session with the psychologist proved most rewarding. I now understand things happening in the book (Winston Graham was either using a case history, or else was intuitively correct) and can cope with our dear Marnie very well indeed. You will be interested to learn that our psychologist felt the ending we worked out – concerning Marnie’s trauma – was a more valid one than the one in the book. So it’s full speed ahead with our drunken sailor and our intervening mother and, oh, all sorts of Oedipal undertones and overtones.

I am picking up a book on screen memory this afternoon. I understand the phenomenon quite well in its simplest terms, but I want to go into it a little more deeply in case I decide to explain it to an audience at some point in the picture. In any case, I learned some exciting things which will provide us with a double twist on the trauma. I’m not anticipating any trouble at all…” –Evan Hunter (Letter to Hitchcock as related in Me and Hitch)

The screen memory concept was jettisoned later in favor of what Hunter later called “bargain-basement explanation of Marnie’s compulsive thievery and frigidity.” Apparently, Hunter wasn’t particularly adept at picking up on Hitchcock’s subtle implications that the rape scene would in fact remain in the film, and he continued to force the issue.

“I told him that I did not want to write that scene as he had outlined it. I told him we would lose all sympathy for the male lead if he rapes his own wife on their honeymoon. I told him we can see the girl isn’t being coy or modest, she’s terrified, she’s trembling, and the reasons for this come out in the later psychiatric sessions. I told him if the man really loved her he would take her in his arms and comfort her gently and tell her they’d work it out, don’t be frightened, everything will be alright. I told him that’s how I thought the scene should go.

Hitchcock held up is hands the way directors do when they’re framing a shot. Palms out, fingers together, thumbs extended and touching to form a perfect square. Moving his hands toward my face, like a camera coming in for a close shot, he said, ‘Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want the camera right on her face.’” –Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Hitchcock didn’t want the traditional sympathetic hero. He wanted his male lead to be as disturbed as his female lead. This is what makes the film interesting. Hitchcock’s attempt to shock Hunter was likely an attempt to drive home the fact that he wanted the rape included in the script. One wonders why Hunter continued to write two versions of the scene after Hitchcock’s intentions were made so abundantly clear. The writer would attempt to explain himself in a letter to the director that was included with the finished script.

“Dear Hitch,

Here is Marnie, which I believe has shaped up very well. There are a few things I would like to call your attention, however, since they are deviations from the story as we discussed it. I found that some of our story line simply would not work in the writing, and I adjusted the screenplay accordingly.

The major change I made concerns the honeymoon night. You will notice that there are two versions of this sequence in the script; one in white, one in yellow. The yellow version is the sequence as we discussed it, complete with the poolside scene and the rape. I wrote and rewrote and polished and re-polished this sequence, but something about it continued to disturb me. I finally wrote the white version – which is the version I would like to see in the film.

I know you are fond of the entire honeymoon sequence as we discussed it, Hitch, but let me tell you what I felt was wrong with it, and how I attempted to bring it into a truer perspective.

To begin with, Marnie’s attitude was misleading. We were asking an audience to believe that putting off Mark was on her mind from the top of the scene. This makes her frigidity a cold-blooded thing (no pun intended) rather than something she cannot help. She can respond to warmth and gentleness, she can except lovemaking – until it gets serious. Which brings us to a further examination; WHY DOES MARNIE MARRY HIM?

The answer is simple: she loves him. She may think she is marrying him to avoid the police, but she really does love him (as we bring out at the picture’s end). It is only her deep emotional disturbance that makes it impossible for her to accept his love.

I have, therefore, written a rather playful honeymoon night scene, showing Marnie in a gay and likable mood, a bit giggly (we have never seen her this way in the picture before), playing our entire Garrod’s exposition as a warm love scene, which I think works. It is only when Mark’s intentions get serious, only when his love-making reminds her of that night long ago that she panics and pulls away. Her retreat is a curious thing and the audience – for the first time – realizes that something is seriously wrong with this girl. The scene is frightening, and it also provides a springboard for the later scene in which Mark suggests psychiatric help. To me, it is believable and sound. The way we discussed it was implausibility bordering on the burlesque.

Which brings us to the second major change. In the yellow version, I have done the rape sequence as we discussed it. In the white version, I have eliminated it entirely. I firmly believe it is out of place in the story. Mark is not that kind of person; Marnie is obviously troubled, and realizes it. Stanley Kowalski might rape her, but not Mark Rutland. Mark would do exactly what we see him do later on – he would seek the help of a psychiatrist. And, without an out-of-character rape, there was no need for the poolside discussion. The entire honeymoon sequence now takes place on a single night.

Marnie’s panic is followed immediately by her suicide attempt. There is no long stage wait. I am convinced that the rape has no place in the sequence, Hitch, and I hope you will agree and throw away the yellow pages. I will be waiting to hear from you, and expecting to come west whenever you say…” –Evan Hunter (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock as relayed in Me and Hitch)

Obviously, this was Hunter’s death blow. Alfred Hitchcock responded to his letter on April 10, 1963.

“Dear Evan,

I have been through the script and feel there is still a lot of work to do on it. Unfortunately, I feel that I have gone stale on it and think it will have to be put aside for a little while until I can decide what to do about it. It may be it needs a fresh mind altogether, and this probably will have to be the next procedure.

I’m sorry I couldn’t give you any better news than this, but there it is; and as I said above, it is going to need a lot of work to get it into a condition that will satisfy me.

Kindest Regards, Alfred J. Hitchcock” –Alfred Hitchcock (as printed in Me and Hitch)

This particular letter raises the question as to whether the differences involving the rape sequence were the only issues that Hitchcock had with Hunter’s script. There were certainly a number of changes made to the story after he was replaced by Jay Presson Allen. Whatever the case, On April 15, Hunter graciously responded to Hitchcock’s letter by offering to address any issues at whatever date was convenient to Hitchcock.

“…Certainly any problems which may exist in the script can be remedied after discussion. And perhaps some of these will be found to be less grave than they now appear once the situation you mention, your temporary feeling of staleness toward the project, has been overcome.

I do completely agree that it would be a good idea to put the project aside until we can both return to it with fresh minds. I imagine this will be when you’ve completed promotional work on The Birds. But whenever you’re ready, I’ll do my utmost, as always, to stop work at once on other projects so that we may complete Marnie to our mutual satisfaction. It goes without saying that this project, in addition to any business considerations, has come to mean a great deal to me personally…” –Evan Hunter (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock as relayed in Me and Hitch)

Alfred Hitchcock had made up his mind. He would hire a new screenwriter. However, it is likely that the director didn’t intend to change the script quite as much as he ended up doing until after Jay Presson Allen was hired as the film’s third screenwriter.

“As late as April 1963, Hitchcock fully intended to use Hunter’s script – with the significant exception of his ‘honeymoon’ scene that omitted the ‘rape.’ Yet once he fired Hunter and moved on to Allen, he was obviously prepared to make a number of critical changes to the story as script development proceeded.” –Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

These changes included an expansion, and re-working of the character of Mark. It also included a change to the trauma that was the seed for Marnie’s psychological issues. A male rival for Mark (named Terry) was omitted, as was a psychologist. Diana Baker’s “Lil” was added as a rival for Marnie. Other small changes were also made. However, some elements of the script stayed the same.

“When Jay Presson Allen was hired to work on the project in June 1963, she was given a scene synopsis by Hitchcock that came directly from Hunter’s script, though she was never told that it came from a previous writer – as was also the case when Hunter was given a treatment for Marnie that he did not know was based on one by Joseph Stefano. Actual scenes from Hunter’s script, and verbatim dialogue appear in Allen’s screenplay.” –Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

Allen’s re-working of Mark’s character gave the script a different focus. Mark was now a more disturbing hero than the character in previous scripts. He is very much a hunter, and Marnie is his prey. This is even made obvious in the dialogue. These changes made the honeymoon ‘rape’ make more sense, and the dynamic between the two characters much more interesting (and perverse).

Marnie was universally panned by critics and audiences alike when it was unleashed upon the cinema going public. Variety’s poorly worded review wasn’t scathing, but obviously had little appreciation for the film.

Marnie is the character study of a thief and a liar, but what makes her tick remains clouded even after a climax reckoned to be shocking but somewhat missing its point…

…Hedren, undertaking role originally offered Grace Kelly for a resumption of her screen career, lends credence to a part never sympathetic. It’s a difficult assignment which she fulfills satisfactorily, although Hitchcock seldom permits her a change of pace which would have made her character more interesting. Connery handles himself convincingly, but here, again, greater interest would have resulted from greater facets of character as he attempts to explore femme’s unexplained past.” –Variety (December 31, 1963)

The Times actually published a review that seems more positive than negative, but it is not without the usual hint of condescension. For instance, the writer couldn’t help but take a few jab at the artificiality of the sets, and the implausibility of certain situations.

“The trouble with being so sensible as Mr. Alfred Hitchcock about the theory of film-making and such attendant problems as the proper use of actors and stars is that people are likely to start asking a lot of awkward questions when you seem not to be putting your eminently sound principles into practice.

The main difficulty with Marnie is that the story — which concerns a compulsive thief, with a psychologically mixed-up part — really calls either for a star, one of those great larger-than-life personalities who demand that we believe in them whatever the part they are playing, or for an expressive, resourceful actress. Miss ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Mr. Hitchcock’s discovery of The Birds, is good-looking and assured, but she is really neither a star nor an actress of much range; and consequently Mr. Hitchcock has to stop in his direction to some devices straight out of Griffith (the wild will-she-won’t-she cross-cutting and zooming in and out from the money in the climactic temptation scene, for instance) in order to convey somehow what, his central player patently should be conveying and is not.

Given this basic misfortune, though, the film manages remarkably well. To begin with, its story, based on a novel by Mr. Winston Graham, is gripping and very well told, without the imbalances and irrelevancies of The Birds. It is easy to see why the plot-outline should have taken Mr. Hitchcock’s fancy: it is essentially Spellbound turned inside out, with this time a male psychiatrist (amateur) fighting to save the female patient he loves, and once more a traumatic experience in childhood to be uncovered in the final settling of accounts. Moreover, the film has plenty of material for the nuttier French Hitchcock enthusiasts: a dash of amour fou in the hero’s obsessive devotion to a beloved he knows from the outset to be almost impossible; lots and lots about the crucial word which can set free (shades of Under Capricorn) and the exchange of culpability.

All in all a field-day for enthusiasts, in fact, and over two hours of very glossy entertainment for anyone else. As Marnie’s husband-cum-psychiatrist Mr. Sean Connery escapes quite effectively from the James Bond stereotype, and Miss Hedren has at least the right physical qualifications for her role. The surroundings in which the action takes place are, unexpectedly again after the hep-ness of Mr. Hitchcock’s recent work, almost prewar in their bland acceptance of studio-built exteriors — the set of the street in which Marnie’s mother lives is like something Trauner might have cooked up for Carné in the good old days — and Mr. Bernard Herrmann’s surging, emotional score and the straightforward, classily printed credits all convey the same reassuring image. So much so that even the film’s absurdities are rather endearing; perhaps after all it is not really so important to consider little details like why, if Marnie comes over all funny every time she see the colour red, she can apparently manage nevertheless to apply her own lipstick every day without a qualm. In this good old Hitchcock dream world cool acceptance of such things is all part of the game.” -The Times (July 09, 1964)

Eugene Archer’s review for the New York Times follows a similar pattern.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie is at once a fascinating study of a sexual relationship and the master’s most disappointing film in years…

…Certainly the material is there. In his ladylike heroine, who changes her hairdo every time she cracks a safe, Mr. Hitchcock has as provocative a character as he has ever created. When Sean Connery, playing a singularly open-minded employer, catches the angelic ‘Tippi’ Hedren with a suitcase full of company funds, he is naturally surprised — and interested.

The answers, when they come, are shocking and psychologically sound, as one might expect from the craftsman who offered the last word on modern American motherhood in Psycho. Mr. Hitchcock is not a man to let us down in the deeper regions of the filmic symbolism. His villain once again is Mama, but this time the director is making a comment on the Yankee Puritan hangover and the twisted society it leaves in its wake.

What he has to say about it is devastating. For Marnie, in her own warped self-analysis, is a liar, a thief, a tease — but still as chaste as ‘Mama said.’

Her obsessed lover who probes into this mystifying psyche does so less to cure her than to indulge in his own neuroses. When she accuses him of being pretty sick himself; the best reply he can muster is a wry, ‘I never said I was perfect.’

This Hitchcockian relationship, explored in sumptuous color, is reminiscent of such memorably maladjusted lovers as Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious or James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window. And there’s the rub.

Hitchcock has taken a pair of attractive and promising young players, Miss Hedren and Mr. Connery, and forced them into roles that cry for the talents of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Both work commendably and well — but their inexperience shows.

Why, one wonders, did the most reliable of the ‘big star’ directors — a man whose least consequential stories have always had the benefit of the most illustrious players — choose relative newcomers for such demanding assignments? Economy, perhaps? If so, Mr. Hitchcock must plead guilty to pound foolishness, for Marnie is a clear miss.

Nor is the casting — which extends to astonishingly inadequate acting in subordinate roles — its only problem. For once, the best technician in the business has faltered where he has always been strongest — in his style. Not only is Marnie burdened with the most glaringly fake cardboard backdrops since Salvador Dali designed the dream sequences for Spellbound, but the timing of key suspense scenes is sadly askew. Mr. Hitchcock has always been a trickster, but sleight of hand is spoiled when the magician lets the trickery show.

Curiously he has also settled for an inexplicably amateurish script, which reduces this potent material to instant psychiatry — complete with a flashback ‘explanation scene’ harking back to vintage Joan Crawford and enough character exposition to stagger the most dedicated genealogist. Poor Diane Baker, gratuitously inserted as a mystifying ‘menace,’ does nothing more than enunciate imitation Jean Kerr witticisms (‘I’m queer for liars’) while swirling about in Hollywood hostess gowns. At one point, just to make sure no one misunderstands Marnie’s problem, the script provides the title of her lover’s bedside reading matter – ‘Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female.’ Get it?

A strong suspicion arises that Mr. Hitchcock is taking himself too seriously — perhaps the result of listening to too many esoteric admirers. Granted that it’s still Hitchcock — and that’s a lot — dispensing with the best in acting, writing and even technique is sheer indulgence. When a director decides he’s so gifted that all he needs is himself, he’d better watch out.” -Eugene Archer (New York Times, July 23, 1964)

Today opinion is split between those that believe it is one of the director’s greatest achievements, and those that dislike the film. Those who fall into the latter category seem to feel that the film’s artifice is distracting. Audiences that adore the film believe that this artifice is appropriate (and part of the film’s language). However, popular opinion about the film seems to improve with each passing year.

Marnie was still looked upon as inferior when the director’s career was winding down during the seventies. Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky certainly weren’t kind to the film in their book of essays about Hitchcock’s output.

“Even if you excuse the cardboard sets that look like cardboard sets, even if you excuse the melodramatic camera angles, even if you excuse the film’s many other inadequacies – you are still left with Tippi Hedren.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Whatever one’s opinion, it is difficult not to be struck by the perverse romance, and by the fact that both Mark and Marnie are equally disturbed individuals. These elements make for an intriguing film, and the expressionism captivates one’s imagination. Marnie moves the audience in a manner that goes beyond intelligence. It is a purely emotional experience, but manages to stimulate ones intellect. This is a rare combination, and the film deserves attention (even it isn’t perfect).


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. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

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

Marnie MenuMarnie Menu 2Marnie Menu 2Marnie Menu 4

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer leaves much to be desired. This is a step up from the DVD because of the added resolution, and superior detail that it showcases. However, few will argue that the issues with this transfer make it questionable as to whether an upgrade is necessary if one already owns the DVD release. The texture of the film is rather grainy, which would be perfectly fine if the grain level was kept consistent. Colors also shift more than one might prefer (even if black levels are always attractive and seem to be accurate). The blemishes on Universal’s transfer might very well be a result of the source print, but it seems like a few digital anomalies popped up as well.

Screenshot 3

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix is superior to the picture transfer. There isn’t anything to criticize here. Dialogue is well prioritized, and Bernard Herrmann’s score is given more room to breathe here than on the compressed track included on the DVD releases. Noise is never an issue here either. The track will not give sound systems much of a workout, but it represents Marnie’s original sound mix with a certain amount of grace.

Screenshot 4

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Trouble with Marnie – (SD) – (58:26)

Laurent Bouzereau’s The Trouble with Marnie is an extremely comprehensive ‘behind the scenes’ look at the creation of one of Hitchcock’s most interesting works. It is one of the best documentaries available about the creation of a Hitchcock film. (Bouzereau’s documentaries on Psycho and The Birds are superior). The program includes interviews with ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Evan Hunter, Jay Presson Allen, Joseph Stefano, Louise Latham, Diane Baker, Robert F. Boyle, Hilton A. Green, Patricia Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, Robin Wood, Howard Smit, and Steven Smith. Each party relays their personal memories about the production, or adds critical insights about the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (4:44)

Marnie’s theatrical trailer features Alfred Hitchcock discussing the film in his trademark fashion. This isn’t the best trailer for a Hitchcock film, but it is certainly entertaining.

The Marnie Archives – (SD) – (9:01)

The Marnie Archives is essentially a still gallery featuring posters, stills, ‘behind the scenes’ photographs, and print advertisements.

Screenshot 5

Final Words:

Marnie is an essential film to study for anyone that wishes to understand the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It is really too bad that Universal give this classic film the respect that it deserves with this release.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Materials

Alfred Hitchcock Interview with Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Review (Variety, December 31, 1963)

Review (The Times, July 09, 1964)

Eugene Archer (New York Times, July 23, 1964)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch)

Tony Lee Moral (Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie)

Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Scripting Hitchcock)

For more information about Marnie, check out Tony Lee Moral’s excellent book, “Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie.”

Blu-ray Review: Saboteur

sab cover

 Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 07, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 109 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.36:1

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.


Saboteur was not successful to my mind, because I don’t think Cummings was right. He was too un-dramatic. He had what I call a ‘comedy face,’ and half the time you don’t believe the situations. Think of the difference between that and Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps… But what annoyed me most was the casting of the heavy, Otto Kruger. I had a concept: fascists in those days were middle-westerners, America-Firsters, and I wanted Harry Carey, western style, a rich rancher. His wife came to see me and she said, ‘I couldn’t let my husband play a role like that, when all the youth in America look up to him.’ So I couldn’t get him, and Kruger was all wrong. I also tried to get Barbara Stanwyck, but I had to take Priscilla Lane. I wanted Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper to lift the picture up.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

It is difficult not to agree with Hitchcock’s opinion that casting was one of the major faults with Saboteur. The same script shot with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck would have been an altogether different experience. The film is essentially an American re-imagining of The 39 Steps, but with more overt political undertones (or overtones).

According to Leonard J. Leff in Hitchcock & Selznick, story editor Val Lewton advised Selznick against making yet another “chase film.”

“…but while Selznick could have forced Hitchcock to choose a property from the studio hopper, he deferred to him on story selection. Hitchcock worked best when he enjoyed at least the illusion of control. Against Lewton’s advice and his own better judgment, Selznick gave Hitchcock permission to develop an original narrative about sabotage…

…Hitchcock, along with Joan Harrison and Michael Hogan, developed a treatment for the Selznick picture. Their tale about a California munitions worker falsely charged with sabotage resembled The 39 Steps; the hero’s search for the actual turncoat included a love interest, several humorous and suspenseful episodes, and the dynamiting of a new dam to be opened by the president of the United States.

Whether Hitchcock dazzle could camouflage routine mechanics seemed questionable. Selznick read the story, noted the brittle plot devices, then called the stenographers up to Santa Barbra. He advised Hitchcock to ‘try to get something instead of [a] dam being blown up. This is not very new for a picture catastrophe.’ He also impelled him to address the weak human dimension, the characters’ ‘heart and emotional relationships.’

The brevity and tone of the memoranda suggested that Selznick lacked the concentration for sustained work and perhaps intended to sell both director and treatment to the highest bidder…” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

While one cannot argue that there are flaws in the film’s construction, these flaws weren’t helped by the writers that Selznick chose to help Hitchcock fix these issues.

“…Selznick assigned John Houseman to supervise the development of the screenplay and young Peter Viertel to write it. Neither choice benefited Saboteur… One Selznick reader called [the script] synthetic and ‘loosely strung together,’ the work of ‘an inferior Hitchcock imitator.’ Never a Hitchcock fan, Val Lewton found it ‘the sort that every studio rejects after a cursory reading.’” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

Selznick was both unimpressed, and uninterested in making the film. However, he knew that he could make a nice profit by selling it to another studio. It was up to Alfred Hitchcock to sell the project if he wanted to make the film, and after being rejected by several studios (including Twentieth Century Fox and RKO), independent producer Frank Lloyd bought it. Hitchcock was glad to be away from Selznick, and Selznick was satisfied with his 300 percent profit. Apparently, it is quite lucrative to be a Hollywood talent-pimp.

“Hitchcock roared through the making of Saboteur. He exceeded the budget by only $3,000 and completed both script and principal photography in less than fifteen weeks, faster than any of his four American pictures to date…Yet to his chagrin; reviewers criticized Saboteur just as Selznick had months before… Harsh notices sent the director into a deep funk, his secretary recalled.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

Leff paints a slightly more negative critical reception than the film actually received. Most critics found plenty of things to admire in Saboteur, but laced their compliments with negative reservations. One could best describe reception of the film as “mixed.” On April 29, 1942, Variety wrote a review of the film that set the tone for reviews to come.

“All the typical Alfred Hitchcock cinematic wrinkles are present in his newest picture, Saboteur, which he has made on a Selznick loan out for Universal release. It is violently typical Hitchcock. It has the same basic elements of chase melodrama, the romantic couple beset by sinister forces they only partly see and dimly understand, the complicated plot, fantastic situations, colorful minor characters, sardonic comedy touches and sudden, wild climax. It’s expert and enormously effective. It’ll get rave reviews, play holdover engagements and clean up at the box-office.

As Hitchcock continues to turn out pictures his methods become increasingly familiar and recognizable. For he is a vivid stylist whose stamp is unmistakably on every film he makes. It doesn’t matter at what studio or with whom he works. If Hitchcock directs it, it’s a Hitchcock picture.

In a way, that’s a supreme compliment, for nearly every film he’s made in recent years, whether in England or Hollywood, has been an outstanding critical and box office success. Nevertheless, it indicates a lack of versatility, since all his pictures tend to be similar, not only in type of story, but in the technical tricks by which he gets his effects, in the unvarying expression of his creative personality.

Saboteur is a little too self-consciously Hitchcock. Its succession of incredible climaxes, its mounting tautness and suspense, its mood of terror and impending doom could have been achieved by no one else. That is a great tribute to a brilliant director. But it would be a greater tribute to a finer director if he didn’t let the spectator see the wheels go ’round, didn’t let him spot the tricks — and thus shatter the illusion, however momentarily…” -Variety (April 29, 1942)

Of course a great deal of criticism came from the pretentious plausibility seekers that have no appreciation for Hitchcock’s special kind of fantasy. Bosley Crowther was always such a critic, and his review for The New York Times followed suit (even if it was veiled in condescending praise).

“…To put it mildly, Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have really let themselves go. Melodramatic action is their forte, but they scoff at speed limits this trip. All the old master’s experience at milking thrills has been called upon. As a consequence—and according to Hitchcock custom—Saboteur is a swift, high-tension film which throws itself forward so rapidly that it permits slight opportunity for looking back. And it hurtles the holes and bumps which plague it with a speed that forcefully tries to cover them up.

In the style of some of his earlier British pictures, Mr. Hitchcock has filmed one long, relentless ‘chase’ in which an aircraft worker from a California plant races all the way across the country in vague pursuit of a hatchet-faced rat who attempted to set fire to the factory…

…So fast, indeed, is the action and so abundant the breathless events that one might forget, in the hubbub, that there is no logic in this wild-goose chase. Actually, there is no reason for the hero undertaking his mad pursuit, since the obvious and sensible method would be to have it conducted by the FBI. Consequently, one wonders—if one stops to wonder at all—why the hero is in such a dither as to his personal relations with the police, why—at any juncture—he shouldn’t hand the job over to the cops.

This possible intrusion of one’s reason might therefore tend to drain some of the harrowing tension from many of the tricky episodes. Particularly in the one sequence, where the hero and heroine seem to be coerced to silence at a party of innocent folk, one wonders why a word to a near-by general or admiral wouldn’t do to put an end to their peril. And how was a bomb ever set in the navy yard.

As usual, Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have contrived excuses. But their casual presentation of the FBI as a bunch of bungling dolts, their general disregard of authorized agents and their slur on the navy yard police somewhat vitiates the patriotic implications which they have tried to emphasize in the film. One gathers that the nation’s safety depends entirely on civilian amateurs.

It goes almost without saying that some of the ‘Hitchcock touches’ are exceedingly clever, withal. The sequence with the circus freaks is a bit of capital satire, and the smashing, conclusive adventure should terrify a steeplejack… Apparently Mr. Hitchcock has endeavored to imitate his own The 39 Steps. But the going is not so even. He trips too often in his headlong ascent.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May 8, 1942)

Readers might notice a pattern of reserved praise in the reviews of Saboteur. This pattern continues in a review published in The Times. Everything in the review expresses admiration, but this is only after announcing to the reader that Hitchcock is repeating himself.

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock does not attempt anything startlingly original in Saboteur. He is content to take the old counters in the game of sabotage, flight and pursuit, and his interest, and that of the audience, lies in the cinematic pattern he makes of them.

Mr. Hitchcock has always been at his best in his suggestion of suspense. His silences are charged with meaning, with the feeling that menace is crouching in the corner ready to spring, and he is never afraid of keeping his camera immobile and working on the audience’s feelings by his prolonged concentration on one significant detail. Here the seconds the camera spends recording the gradual spread of a tear in a coat are the most effective in the film and other incidents, the sudden ringing of a telephone in a deserted shack, for instance, help to keep the adventure moving imaginatively as well as dramatically…” -The Times (May, 28 1942)

Today Saboteur is seen as “second-tier” Hitchcock, and this reviewer is very much in agreement with this opinion. However, the film is not inferior because it is another “chase film.” There were a number of unfortunate handicaps placed upon the production, as Donald Spoto relates in his essay about the film.

“It’s hard to deny that there’s a certain flatness to this film; there are moments when it looks so cheap you may think it was stitched together by an admirer of Hitchcock. This is at least partially explained by film budget restrictions in early 1942… that economy was invoked by a number of cheap background shots, painted backdrops, miniatures, and rear projections.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Since the government placed budget and set constraints upon the production, a number of cheaper B-movie alternatives were used to get Saboteur over this hurdle. It is also likely that Selznick’s apathy towards the project in the production’s earliest stages damaged the script’s development. In fact, final analysis finds this reviewer disagreeing with Hitchcock’s claim that “the picture was overloaded with too many ideas.” The real issue was that these ideas were not developed and executed as well as some of his other features.

Screenshot: Robert Cummings as Barry Kane

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. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

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.

Screenshot: Otto Kruger

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Saboteur’s 1080p image transfer is one of the best offered in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. One might be alarmed at a bit of noise and film damage during the opening credits, but these issues disappear after this sequence. The rest of the film is beautifully rendered, and Joseph Valentine’s photography shines with fine detail that was never seen in DVD transfers of the film. While brightness occasionally fluctuates, this is inherent in the aged film prints. The transfer is only as good as the source prints, and this fluctuation is never distracting. Blacks are deep and inky, and enhance an image that already contains excellent contrast without losing any detail. Mid-range grays are perfectly gorgeous, and balance the image nicely. A fine layer of grain betrays the film’s celluloid source and provides a cinematic atmosphere. This is the best that the film has looked on home video.

Screenshot: Priscilla Lane

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This two-channel DTS-HD Mono track should please the purist, and impress audiophiles that respect fidelity to a film’s original soundtrack. Saboteur has never sounded as clean and clear as it does here. Distractions such as hiss never become an issue on this transfer, and dialogue is always intelligible. One can hear sounds that weren’t quite clear in DVD issues of the film. It is nice to see that the audio was given the same amount of respect that was afforded to the image.


Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Saboteur: A Closer Look – (SD) – (35 min)

This excellent documentary short directed by Laurent Bouzereau was originally included on Saboteur’s first DVD release. This was back in the day when special features offered audiences more than short pieces of fluff that do not amount to anything more than a waste of the viewer’s time.

The documentary offers the viewer a glimpse at the film’s production, relying heavily on two interview participants. The first of these participants is Norman Lloyd (actor), and the second is Robert Boyle. Patricia Hitchcock is also here as a secondary source to fill in a few holes, and archive footage of John Houseman allows him to make an appearance. This program isn’t quite as comprehensive as Bouzereau’s excellent feature length documentaries about Psycho and The Birds, but it is a significant look at the film that renders additional supplements almost gratuitous. It would be very difficult to add anything significant to what is relayed in this piece.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Saboteur’s trailer is actually rather interesting. While it is not as creative as those for Hitchcock’s later features, it is more than a mere series of clips from the film. Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) hosts the trailer in much the same manner that James Stewart hosts the trailer for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). It is very nice to have this included in the collection.

Storyboards – (SD) – (4 min)

Universal has also seen fit to provide viewers with a gallery of storyboard drawings for the Statue of Liberty sequence. This should delight fans and film students.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Sketches – (SD) – (1 min)

A selection of drawings and storyboards by Alfred Hitchcock were used to help Robert Boyle in the production design, and some of these are included on this disc. They make an excellent companion to the other storyboards included here.

Production Photographs – (SD) – (8 min)

This photo gallery includes movie posters, vintage ads, and production photos. These images are often a very interesting glimpse at the marketing of the film.


Final Words:

Saboteur is “second-tier” Hitchcock, but it is also first-rate entertainment. While casual fans may not wish to add this film to their collection, it should certainly be worth a rental for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. Those who do wish to add this Hitchcock film to their collection can rest easy in the knowledge that the disc exhibits an excellent picture and sound transfer.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Materials:

 Review (Variety, April 29, 1942)

Bosley Crowther Review (New York Times, May 8, 1942)

 Review (The Times, May, 28 1942)

Alfred Hitchcock Interview with Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

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

Book Review: Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System

91HZkQT8icLPublisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Release Date: September 11, 2014

“Rarely when authors talk about Hitchcock’s filmmaking team do they address the contributions of his actors. There is little or no serious attention paid to them or any in-depth study of their contributions to his films… While actors are often the focus of the gossip surrounding Hitchcock’s life, the contributions and performances given are rarely approached with any seriousness…

…The memorable statement on livestock is an ironic one considering just how many iconic performances by some of Hollywood’s greatest stars he directed.” –Lesley L.Coffin (Introduction to “Hitchcock’s Stars”)

Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System tackles a topic that is rarely discussed in any amount of detail. Coffin’s text attempts to shed new light on Hitchcock’s method of using actors (or “stars”) in interesting ways throughout his career in Hollywood. Each chapter covers a different film. The early British period is ignored entirely, instead focusing only on the director’s career in the Hollywood studio system (1940-1976). Each of the director’s films from this period is discussed, with the notable exceptions being Topaz and Frenzy.

Coffin claims that she excludes these films because they weren’t made in American studios, and were shot outside of America (using foreign actors). This leads us to one of the book’s major problems. Her claim that Torn Curtain was Hitchcock’s final film for Universal is simply incorrect. Topaz would have never been made if Universal had not urged Hitchcock to make the film (instead of the un-produced Kaleidoscope/Frenzy project). It was very much a “Hollywood” production. While there was indeed a great deal of location work; some of this location work was in America. A good deal of work was also done in the studio. Frenzy was also produced for Universal (though it was shot in London with a British cast and crew). There are many other factual errors in the book that mar the text. This issue usually stems from her chosen sources. However, at times Coffin uses conjecture presented as fact. This is rather unfortunate, because her writing is fluid and enjoyable.

Many of the interesting discoveries found within the text might very well be true, but they come from “gossip columns” and similar sources from the period. These columns are interesting, but often misleading. Studios often fed false information to columnists (such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons). This gave the studio free publicity, and allowed them to keep the actual details from the public. It was also common for these columnists to invent information when sources couldn’t give them anything to write about. This means that some of these interesting tidbits of information might or might not be true. Coffin never questions the validity of her sources (or attempts to back them up with a second source). This is a small complaint, but the unquestioning reader may be led astray by some of this information.

Coffin’s knowledge of Hitchcock seems to stem mostly from texts by Donald Spoto. Because she never questions the validity of these sources (despite the fact that some of her sources directly contradict Spoto), her thesis is led astray. There are times that her own preoccupations overwhelm a wealth of other information that is never addressed. This means that the reader never has an objective view of the subject being discussed. (To be fair, this approach is almost certainly intentional.)

There is a lot to like about Coffin’s text, and the book was a noble undertaking. It is a very enjoyable read, and it is certainly nice to see that this particular topic is finally receiving a book-length treatment. It simply falls short of being absolutely “essential.”

Review by: Devon Powell