Blu-ray Review: The 39 Steps – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 56

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA

Release Date: June 26, 2012

Region: Region A

Length: 01:26:45

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

Notes: Criterion also released a DVD edition of this title. There are probably a few public domain discs that are available, but these should be avoided (the quality is terrible).

Title

“What I liked about Thirty-Nine Steps were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity… If I did The Thirty-Nine Steps again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another, and with such rapidity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

The film moves so rapidly that it is actually rather difficult to discuss The 39 Steps in the same manner that one might discuss other Hitchcock films. The film seems void of any real substance after a mere casual viewing. However, the film has more going on than many critics believe. Even Hitchcock’s MacGuffin isn’t as empty as people often claim. Mark Glancy discusses this in “The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide” while providing a context for both the film, and its MacGuffin.

“One key of updating the story was to change the object of the spies’ pursuit. In the novel, The Black Stone seeks the plans for the disposition of the British fleet in the event of war, which was a matter of great strategic importance in 1914. In the interwar years, however, the significance of naval power steadily waned, particularly in the minds of the general public. The next war, it was predicted, would be fought in the air, and the country with the greatest air force would be capable of a quick and decisive victory. It was assumed that the war would begin with a surprise attack from the air, and that this would result in the mass slaughter of civilians. Thus, in the film the spies seek the plans for a silent airplane engine rather than naval plans. This was not only timely and topical in 1935, but also a pointed reference to Germany. When the screenplay was written in the autumn of 1934, Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for nearly two years, and the Nazis already had achieved a significant degree of infamy… Winston Churchill warned from the backbenches that Germany was developing its own air force at a faster rate. At a time when radar did not yet exist, this seemed a catastrophic scenario. Indeed, the concept of the silent airplane engine lends further credence to an already often heard yet very disturbing phrase of the times, ‘the bomber will always get through.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The pending war was an unspoken character of the film, and this plays into one of the underlying themes. Hitchcock has always challenged people’s tendency towards complacency, and in The 39 Steps, this actually takes on a political meaning that is an extension of the subject matter introduced by the film’s MacGuffin.

“…At nearly every stop on Hannay’s cross-country journey we find complacency and venality. It is a vision of a country without confidence, unity or purpose.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

While Hitchcock is never politically explicit, there does seem to be a lot going on under the surface of what is otherwise an extremely enjoyable chase film. Hitchcock was working for Gaumont-British Studios, which was the most prestigious studio in Britain at the time. Michael Balcon had brought Alfred Hitchcock to the studio at a low point in his career, but he gave the director freedom to choose and develop his projects in any manner that he saw fit. This freedom paid off for both the studio and Alfred Hitchcock.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was a modest hit, but the studio squandered most of its potential by putting it on the second half of a double bill. The film’s B-movie status was the result of C.M. Woolf, the film’s distributor (but this is another story). Fortunately, the production breathed life into Hitchcock’s creative mojo.

“…When The Man Who Knew Too Much was completed in October, 1934, they thought of adapting Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’ (the second of the Richard Hannay Stories) next. ‘Greenmantle’ involved adventures that were spread across all of Europe and into the Middle East, though, and so it was probably considered too expensive to mount. Hitchcock later said that The Thirty-Nine Steps was chosen instead because it was a ‘smaller subject.’ It certainly proved to be a subject that could be quickly made. Work on the script began in November 1934, filming began two months later and the film was released in June 1935.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Hitchcock often claimed Buchan had “a strong influence” on his work, but this didn’t mean that he had any undue reverence for the source material.

“I had been wanting to turn John Buchan’s novel into a film for over fifteen years. I first read the book round about 1919 or 1920, a long time before I started my directing career. I said that if I ever became a director I would make a picture of it. It was, therefore, on my suggestion that Gaumont-British decided to make the film so many years later. I hadn’t read the book in the meantime. When I did so, with an eye to turning it into a film, I received a shock. I had learned a lot about filmmaking in the fifteen odd years that had elapsed. Though I could still see the reason for my first enthusiasm—the book was full of action—I found that the story as it stood was not in the least suitable for screening.

So many of the scenes, which were convincing enough in print, would have looked unbelievable on the screen—as, for instance, when Hannay saw a motor car approaching; realized that he would be captured if it reached him and he were spotted; saw some stone-breakers, and in a minute or two had disguised himself as one of these workmen. Dressed up in Buchan’s powerful art of description you could believe that in the book; but you wouldn’t if you saw it in a picture. The novel had Hannay running away from spies. For screen purposes I deemed it better to have him escaping from the police and searching for the spies so that he could clear his own name.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s chief collaborator on the film was Charles Bennett (if one ignores Alma, which is usually the case), and he shared Hitchcock’s opinion of Buchan’s original novel.

“…So at Hitch’s request, I joined GB in 1933 and began dramatizing John Buchan’s book, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” No easy task, as it wasn’t really a filmable story. The story contained just one good basic plot point—the double chase—an innocent man accused of murder, on the run with both the police and the ‘heavies’ out to get him. But the book lacked incident, it hadn’t a woman in it—neither the Madeline Carroll character nor Peggy Ashcroft’s character as the crofter’s wife. And practically every twist of events was based on an unlikely coincidence. By the end of my work on it, the entire construction was mine, with a lot of wonderful dialogue written by Ian Hay, a British playwright who later became the director of public relations at the British War Office.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Hitchcock’s tendency to gloss over the input of his writers pales in comparison with Bennett’s attempts at hogging credit.

“…In those early days the allocation of credits was up to the producer, and things got awfully messed up when a ‘name’ writer who had done practically nothing got the main credit—whereas the guy who really had done the job but was less well known got practically nothing. Along this line, Alma Hitchcock received credits she did not deserve.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

This is complete nonsense. The script was a collaborative effort, both Alfred and Alma Hitchcock deserve an equal amount of credit. We admit that the contributions of Charles Bennett have been overlooked, but to claim that Alma’s credit was undeserved is ridiculous. The truth is that she deserved more credit than she received. Ivor Montagu’s recollections were probably more accurate.

“The story conferences were a feast of fancy and dialectic, a mixture of composing crosswords and solving them, both laced with humour. We would sit around his flat. Sometimes Alma would be there, sometimes the scenario editor Angus MacPhail… The unfolding was elaborated with suggestions from all of us; everything was welcomed if not always agreed. In the end the scripts were by consensus; the only special privilege their credited authors had was to write them down. The scenes were of course finalized by Hitchcock and his verbal texts then duplicated from the writers’ notes. [Michael Balcon] never interfered. He simply created the conditions and confidence for us to work.” –Ivor Montagu (Sight and Sound, Working With Hitchcock, 1980)

During his infamous interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock elaborated on the process while giving an especially amusing account as to the origins of the Crofter sequence.

“…The method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need another short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Anyway, despite my admiration for John Buchan, there are several things in the picture that are not in the book. For instance, the scene I the film in which Robert Donat spends the night with the farmer and his wife was inspired by an old story about a South African Boer, a black-bearded ma, very austere, with a very young, sex-starved wife. On his birthday she kills a chicken and bakes a chicken pie. It’s a very stormy night and she hopes that her husband will be pleased with her surprise. All she gets for her pains is an angry husband, who berates her for killing the chicken without his permission. Hence, a grim birthday celebration. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and there stands a handsome stranger who has lost his way and requests a night’s hospitality. The woman invites him to sit down and offers him some food, but the farmer, feeling he’s eating too much, stops him and says, ‘Hold on, there. This has got to last us the rest of the week.’

The woman is hungrily eyeing the stranger, wondering how she can get to bed with him. The husband suggests that they put him out in the barn, but the woman objects. Finally, the three of them go to sleep in the great big bed, with the farmer in the middle. The woman is trying to find some way to get rid of her husband, and finally, hearing a noise, she wakes him, saying, ‘I think the chickens are out of the coop.” The husband goes out to the yard, and the woman shakes the stranger awake, saying, ‘Come on. Now’s your chance.’ So the stranger gets out of bed and quickly gulps down the rest of the chicken pie.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Interestingly, the writing team borrowed inspiration from real life as well. One example was a throwback to the days when Hitchcock would attend London’s music halls:

“There was also another interesting character in the film, Mr. Memory. He’s based on a true-life music-hall personality called Datas. The audience would ask him questions about major events, like: ‘when did the Titanic sink?’ and he would give the correct answer…

…The whole idea is that the man is doomed by his sense of duty. Mr. Memory knows what the thirty-nine steps are, and when he is asked the question, he is compelled to give the answer. The schoolteacher in The Birds dies for the same reason.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Michael Balcon was impressed with the resulting script, and gave the film priority status at Gaumont-British. This would be evidenced by the film’s casting. Originally, the part of Pamela was given to Jane Baxter. She was offered £500 to perform in the film, but this never came to pass. Instead, it was decided that they should cast a much more popular actress in the role. Madeline Carroll suited the film’s needs perfectly, and her £5,000 salary was well worth the bite that it took out of the film’s final £58,449 budget.

It is strange how very well Madeleine fitted into the part. I had heard a lot about her as a tall, cold, blonde beauty, dignified and all that. Not exactly… The real type for a boisterous role or where intense activity would give little chance for draping herself round the furniture and what not. You see, I had seldom seen her on the screen, because I very rarely take a busman’s holiday. I knew only her photographs. Calm and serene barely describes them! They were certainly beautiful, but so very cold. My word, they would almost chill a refrigerator! …

…Why is it that actors and actresses are almost invariably cast exactly to type? In her case her obvious good looks had nearly been her downfall. It is very hard with merely the material of good looks to create a character, especially when they are completely devitalized by absence of action…

…After meeting her, I made up my mind to present her to the public as her natural self. You see what I mean? In The 39 Steps the public is seeing a Madeleine Carroll who has no time to be calm and serene. She is far too busy racing over moors, rushing up and down embankments, and scrambling over rocks.”–Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Norah Baring, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Madeline Carroll

Madeline Carroll is considered by many to be the prototypical “Hitchcock Blonde.” Others give this honor to Anny Ondra.

Carroll’s appearance along with Robert Donat made the international success of the film possible. These two stars gave the film an A-picture respectability that Hitchcock had never enjoyed on an international level prior to this production.

“I could not have wished for a better Hannay than Robert Donat. One of the chief reasons for his success—in addition, of course, to his natural looks, charm, and personality—is the good theatrical training he has behind him. He is blazingly ambitious but difficult to satisfy. He is a queer combination of determination and uncertainty. He is determined to do only pictures that satisfy him. He will be enthusiastic about an idea, then suddenly discard it completely. These are qualities of temperament that only a great actor like Donat can enjoy.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Certain members of the film’s supporting cast are also noteworthy. This is especially true of Peggy Ashcroft’s portrayal of the crofter’s wife. Ashcroft’s name would have carried a certain amount of weight in England at the time (especially to anyone that attended the theatre). Hitchcock often made it a point to mention her in his articles and interviews with the press while promoting the film.

“I should like to mention Peggy Ashcroft’s appearance as the crofter’s wife in The 39 Steps. It was brief but significant, especially when you consider that this was only her second film role. I am convinced that this delightful Juliet of John Gielgud’s Romeo and Juliet has a brilliant career in front of her. The greatest thing about her is her extreme simplicity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s status as a practical joker has long been a favorite subject of anyone interested in his films, and his reported antics during the production of The 39 Steps are certainly noteworthy. Robert Donat recalled an infamous incident that has long been discussed and written about.

“On our first morning at the studio, immediately after being introduced, we were shackled in a pair of handcuffs, each have one hand imprisoned, and commenced to act a scene. Such a start was not exactly helpful in establishing relations, we thought, and these feelings were not lessened when, at the conclusion of the scene, ‘Hitch’ lost the key of the handcuffs! For nearly an hour Madeleine and I shared this enforced companionship, while the hunt for the key was sustained. There was nothing else to do, so we talked of our mutual friends, of our ambitions, and of film matters generally. Gradually our reserve thawed as we exchange experiences. When ‘Hitch’ saw that we were getting along famously, he extract the ‘missing’ key from his waistcoat pocket, released us, and said, with a satisfied grin, ‘Now that you two know each other we can go ahead.’ Had it not been for Hitchcock’s little ruse, Madeleine and I would probably have taken quite a time to ‘get together’ — to the detriment of our work in the interim.-Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

There was method in this madness. Hitchcock’s behavior was his sly way of getting a particular kind of performance from his actors. Of course, this is less interesting than blaming a penchant for sadistic behavior 9or some sort of malicious chauvinism), but it makes much more sense. This is especially true when one considers that Donat was probably subjected to more pranks than Carol.

“It was in that picture, too, that I pulled [another] gag on Donat. He complained that the waterfall scene had ruined his clothes. The ruining of actors’ clothes and the demand that the company should replace them is a long standing bone which actors and directors pick amiably enough during production.

When Robert demanded a new suit, I gave him one out of my own pocket. I sent round for a 14s. Child’s suit from a neighborhood cheap store…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Of course, this particular prank seems to be an attempt at humbling what Hitchcock must have considered an overly haughty temperament. Whatever the case, these things are purposely often blown out of proportion for publicity purposes. It is a fact that Gaumont-British used exaggerated versions of these in their publicity materials for the film. It is difficult to know just which version of these stories to believe (if any).

Actually, it seems that the publicity machine worked overtime during the release of The 39 Steps.

“Gaumont-British was confident that The 39 Steps would be a great box-office success in Britain. Michael Balcon, eager to raise the profile of Gaumont-British as a production company, urged that the company’s name should be featured prominently in the advertising, on the grounds that ‘it may be a long time before we have another chance like this.’ In the week of the film’s release, four consecutive pages of advertisements were taken out in the British trade paper Kinematograph Weekly. One page was usual for a new film, two indicated an important release, but a four page spread signaled a cinematic event. Perhaps most telling, The 39 Steps was booked to run at the New Gallery Theatre for a full five weeks. The New Gallery had 1,400 seats, and films tended to spend no more than two or three weeks in such a large venue, but even the five-week engagement proved to be an underestimation of the film’s popularity. Fueled by enthusiastic reviews, The 39 Steps was still going strong at the end of its fifth week. The New Gallery had another booking and so The 39 Steps moved to the similarly capacious Marble Arch Pavillion, where it lasted no fewer than eight weeks… It had spent sixteen weeks in some of the West End’s largest venues, a record surpassed that year only by the Hollywood epic, Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

At the time, it was usual for important releases to be shown first in London’s West End, and have an exclusive run at advanced admission prices, before being released anywhere else. Hence, The 39 Steps didn’t play anywhere apart from the West End until the autumn of 1935 when it began to make its way around Britain. It then followed the standard release pattern of playing first in major cities and in regional capitols such as Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Cardiff, and then moving on to smaller cities, provincial towns and local theatres.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The film was a sensation. It received the same enthusiasm everywhere that it was shown in Britain (and it was shown nearly everywhere). It was also a sensation in Canada, and brought respectable business in the United States and other territories. As a matter of fact, the film is responsible for building Hitchcock’s positive reputation in Hollywood.

Of course, the film’s critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. C. A. Lejeune’s review in The Observer is a prime example. She was especially enthusiastic about Robert Donat’s star potential.

“Mr. Donat, who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order … He strikes … an easy confident humour that has always been regarded as the perquisite of the American male star. For the first time on our screen we have the British equivalent of a Clark Gable or a Ronald Colman, playing in a purely national idiom. Mr. Donat, himself, I fancy, is hardly conscious of it, which is all to the good. Mr. Hitchcock is certainly conscious of it, and exploits his new star material with all the easy confidence of a local Van Dyke or Capra.” – C. A. Lejeune (The Observer as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Sydney Carroll’s review in the Sunday Times preferred to focus his praise on Alfred Hitchcock.

“Every film of real quality bears the unforgettable stamp of its creator. Individuality is a rare and precious thing. In moving pictures it is exceptionally hard to discover. When it is there, however, it usually assumes a force and distinction unmistakably attributable to its director, and to its director alone. In The 39 Steps, the identity and mind of Alfred Hitchcock are continuously discernible, in fact supreme. Hitchcock is a genius.” –Sydney Carroll (Sunday Times as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Variety published another positive review that spoke generally about the film.

“Gaumont has a zippy, punchy, romantic melodrama in The 39 Steps. Story is by John Buchan. It’s melodrama and at times far-fetched and improbable, but the story twists and spins artfully from one high-powered sequence to another while the entertainment holds like steel cable from start to finish…

…It’s a creamy role for Donat and his performance, ranging from humor to horror, reveals acting ability behind that good-looking facade. Teamed with Madeleine Carroll, who enters the footage importantly only toward the latter quarter section of the film, the romance is given a light touch which nicely colors an international spy chase.” -Variety (December 31, 1934)

The review published in The Times was written with the same pretentious pomposity that one might expect from the publication, but it remains overwhelmingly positive.

“Readers may not find it easy to relate the Richard Hannay they knew in the novel to the humorous happy-go-lucky adventurer who goes by the same name in this film, but they are bound to condone the freedom of an adaptation which has produced such excellent results.

Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of the story gives us a first rate film of adventure edged with comedy; what in the theatre would be called a ‘comedy thriller.’ Its climax verges upon ingenuity of the kind that we resent, but by the time that it has been reached we have been much too, well entertained to think of resenting it. For the greater part of the film the ingenuity never fails to justify itself pictorially, and Mr. Robert Donat, who plays the amateur hunter of spies, and Miss Madeleine Carroll, as his unwilling companion in misfortune, know how to get the last ounce of excitement from an adventure approached humorously.

The sequence, in which Hannay shelters the woman spy in his London flat and falls under suspicion of having murdered her, is perhaps a little chilly in its conventionality, but once the double chase has begun, once the police get on Hannay’s track, and he gets on the track of the master spy, Mr. Hitchcock takes and keeps a firm and highly individual grip of the story. The camera makes extraordinarily effective play with the police search of the Scotch express and with Hannay’s escape among the girders of the Forth Bridge. In the Highlands it turns to account not only the rocks and waterfalls but the stillness of the hill recesses, and the episode of the avaricious crofter and his romantic wife, skilfully presented by Mr. John Laurie and Miss Peggy Ashcroft, is a genuine point of rest which enhances the excitement of the chase. Mr. Godfrey Tearle gives us the politeness and the ruthlessness of the chief spy; Mr. Frank Cellier the self-satisfaction of the sheriff who is too clever to perceive the truth when it is told to him; and Mr. Wylie Watson the comically mechanical make-up of the music hall memorizer through whom the Air Ministry’s secrets are passed to the head of the Thirty-Nine Steps.” -The Times (June 06, 1935)

This incredibly positive review published in Harrison’s Reports gave Hitchcock a compliment that he rarely received when it used the word “logically.”

“Very good entertainment. It is a combination murder mystery-spy melodrama, with fast melodramatic action, comedy and romance throughout; it holds the attention well, keeping the spectator in suspense. The plot is worked out logically with a particularly ingenious ending in which the villain is trapped. The thrills are engendered by the many attempts the hero makes to escape from the police, who were trying to arrest him for a murder he had not committed. Besides being exciting these situations provoke comedy because of the means the hero uses to gain his freedom. Equally exciting and amusing are the situations in which the heroine is handcuffed to the hero and is forced to do his bidding. The production and acting are goo…

…Because of the murder it is unsuitable for children or adolescents. It is very good adult entertainment.” -Harrison’s Reports (June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald’s review for the New York Times is a virtual love letter to Alfred Hitchcock.

“Alfred Hitchcock, the gifted English screen director, has made one of the fascinating pictures of the year in The Thirty-nine Steps, his new film at the Roxy Theatre. If the work has any single rival as the most original, literate and entertaining melodrama of 1935, then it must be The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is also out of Hitchcock’s workshop. A master of shock and suspense, of cold horror and slyly incongruous wit, he uses his camera the way a painter uses his brush, stylizing history and giving it values which the scenarists could hardly have suspected. By comparison with the sinister delicacy and urbane understatement of The Thirty-nine Steps, the best of our melodramas seem crude and brawling.

If you can imagine Anatole France writing a detective story you will have some notion of the artistry that Hitchcock brings to this screen version of John Buchan’s novel. Like The Man Who Knew Too Much, the photoplay immerses a quite normal human being in an incredible dilemma where his life is suddenly at stake and his enemies are mysterious, cruel and disparate… Hitchcock describes the remarkable chain of events in Hannay’s flight across England and Scotland with a blend of unexpected comedy and breathless terror that is strikingly effective.

Perhaps the identifying hallmark of his method is apparent absence of accent in the climaxes, which are upon the spectator like a slap in the face before he has set himself for the blow. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay’s apartment, the icy ferocity of the man with the missing finger when he casually shoots Hannay, or the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, the action progresses through seeming indifference to whip-like revelations. There is a subtle feeling of menace on the screen all the time in Hitchcock’s low-slung, angled use of the camera. But the participants, both Hannay and his pursuers, move with a repressed excitement that adds significance to every detail of their behavior.

Robert Donat as the suavely desperate hero of the adventure is excellent both in the comic and the tragic phases of his plight. The lovely Madeleine Carroll, who begins by betraying him and believes his story when it is almost too late, is charming and skillful. All the players preserve that sureness of mood and that understanding of the director’s intention which distinguished The Man Who Knew Too Much. There are especially fine performances by John Laurie as the treacherous Scot who harbors the fugitive, Peggy Ashcroft as his sympathetic wife, Godfrey Tearle as the man with the missing finger, and Wylie Watson as the memory expert of the music halls, who proves to be the hub of the mystery.” -Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Time magazine’s review added its voice to the chorus of praise as well.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Gaumont-British) neatly converts its essential implausibility into an asset by stressing the difficulties which confront its hero when he tries to tell outsiders about the predicament he is in. A young Canadian named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), he finds himself one evening, as the result of nothing more daring than a visit to a London music hall, entertaining in his flat a girl who tells him that she is a counter-espionage agent protecting England from an international ring which is selling the secrets of the Air Ministry and that she has just committed a murder. Hannay considers this nonsense until the next morning, when he finds his guest dying with a knife in her back. Thus assured of her veracity, he constitutes himself heir to her quest and with the meagre information she has given him sets out to solve the riddle of the Thirty-Nine Steps.

Harried by the police, who suspect him of murdering the counterspy, by the members of the ring, who soon find out that he is on their trail, and by a charming young lady (Madeleine Carroll) whom he picks up in the course of a wild night on the Scottish moors, Hannay plunges through a series of hairbreadth escapes and escapades, some of them horrifying, some of them extraordinarily funny. The funniest, possibly, is the one in which, mistaken at a political meeting for the speaker of the evening, he makes himself the hero of the occasion by an address composed of foolish generalities. The most exciting is that which brings the story back to its starting point in the music hall, where a final pistol shot punctures the mystery permanently.

In the last two years, by making a specialty of melodrama, the English cinema industry sometimes appears to have taken its motto from the words of a song popular in the U.S. a year ago. ‘Here Come the British with a Bang, Bang.’ The Thirty-Nine Steps is the most effective demonstration to date of Director Alfred Hitchcock’s method of artful understatement and its success, which has already been sensational abroad, should be a lesson to his Hollywood imitators. The film is an adaptation of a novel written 20 years ago by John Buchan, now Lord Tweedsmuir, who next month will go to Canada as that Dominion’s Governor-General (TIME, Aug. 19). This high-placed connection made it possible for the British film industry to improve notably upon Hollywood methods of ballyhoo. The premiere of The Thirty-Nine Steps in London was preceded, not by a mere broadcast, but by a Gaumont-British banquet at which the guests of honour were Lord Tweedsmuir, Home Secretary Sir John Simon, Minister for Air Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister and their ladies.” –Time (Sept. 23, 1935)

It is easy for contemporary audiences to forget that The 39 Steps was the benchmark from which future Hitchcock films were judged for many years. (This lasted well into the director’s American career.) Today, it is too often ignored in favor of the director’s American work. This is unfortunate, because it is impossible to accurately examine Hitchcock’s creative evolution without examining his British thrillers.

Screenshot 2

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The film related artwork isn’t among Criterion’s best designs, but it is reasonably attractive.

Fans of the film will be especially pleased to find an illustrated booklet featuring an essay entitled “Thirty-Nine Steps to Happiness” by David Cairns and information about the film’s transfer.

The disc’s menus utilize the iconic image of Hannay silencing Pamela under a bridge, and the film’s score accompanies the image.

menu1

It is an elegant menu that is quite easy to navigate.

Screenshot 3.jpg

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s booklet details their high definition transfer in more depth than any review might hope to discuss it:

“This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35m fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.”

The result is an image that is less than perfect, but superior to other transfers of the film by quite some margin (at least to those available in North America). Criterion’s decision to place the film on a dual-layer disc has resulted into a film with less compression than one might expect with most Blu-ray releases. There is a nice layer of film grain lending an organic quality to the image that one expects from films made during this era. Detail is reasonably impressive and contrast is beautifully rendered as well. This may not be Criterion’s best image transfer, but it is much better than the film has received elsewhere.

Screenshot 4.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

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

The result is a relatively clean sound transfer that features clear dialogue that isn’t buried beneath layers of noise and hiss. It is a rare moment when extremely light hiss makes itself heard, and these moments never become distracting. The dynamic range is rather limited, but this is to be expected with films of this era. There aren’t many (if any) distortions at the high end, nor are there any annoying dropouts to distract from one’s enjoyment of the film.

Screenshot 5.jpg

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

This scholarly commentary by Marian Keane was featured on Criterion’s 1998 Criterion DVD of the film, so those who owned this edition of the film will know what to expect. Some of her theoretical insights sometimes seem a bit overreaching, and her delivery is certainly on the dry side. One wonder’s if her insights might have been more digestible in the video essay format. However, the track is quite informative and Keane’s discussion is rather articulate. Hitchcock fans should find the track well worth their time.

Hitchcock: The Early Years – (1080I) – (24:07)

This slightly dry British documentary covers Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-war career (or what is more often referred to as his British period). It features interviews with John Kennedy Melling (crime historian), Charles Barr (film historian/scholar), Hugh Stewart (film editor, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Teddy Joseph (third assistant director, Sabotage), Roy Ward Baker (second assistant director, The Lady Vanishes), and is narrated by David Bond. The bulk of this short retrospective is made up of clips from the director’s British filmography.

Those who have not yet discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s early British work should find this particular piece fascinating and informative, but those who have already familiarized themselves with these films might hope for something a bit more comprehensive.

Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock – (1080I) – (40:14)

Mike Scott’s excellent interview was produced in 1966 for British television. The original edited program has been lost, but the raw footage has been compiled and presented here. Many will consider this to be the highlight of the disc’s supplemental offerings. Any interview with Hitchcock is an amusing and educational experience, and this particular interview is no exception. The director discusses various areas of his career, but it is especially interesting to hear him talk about his early days in the British film industry.

The Borders of the Possible – (1080I) – (23:59)

Leonard Leff’s visual essay is an illustrated look at this adaptation of John Buchan’s famous novel and the development of Alfred Hitchcock’s style. The program is enhanced by extracts from the director’s interview with François Truffaut, film stills, artwork, and footage from The 39 Steps.

Excerpt from Truffaut/Hitchcock Interviews – (1080P) – (22:16)

Those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview will find this audio interview familiar. Helen G. Scott’s interpretation of both the questions and the answers might become tiresome for certain listeners, but the conversation itself is extremely interesting. This is a historical conversation between two cinematic giants, and most cinemaphiles will find it fascinating. A photo of the two great filmmakers (taken at the time of the interview) fills the screen throughout the length of this audio feature.

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

Oscar Friedrich Werndorff’s production sketches for the film are presented here along with production photographs in slide show form. One can compare the original drawings with the finished sets.

Lux Radio Theatre Presents “The 39 Steps” – (59:52)

Lux Radio Theatre’s 1937 audio production of The 39 Steps starred Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the leading roles. This adaptation borrowed ore heavily from the film than from Buchan’s original novel. It is interesting to hear other actors in the roles made famous by Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll.

Screenshot 6

Final Words:

Those who have read “The Catcher in the Rye” will remember that this film was Phoebe Caulfield’s favorite film:

“Her favorite is The 39 Steps, though, with Robert Donat. She knows the whole goddam movie by heart, because I’ve taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up to this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he’s running away from the cops and all, Phoebe’ll say right out loud in the movie–right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it–“Can you eat the herring?” She knows all the talk by heart. And when this professor in the picture, that’s really a German spy, sticks up his little finger with part of the middle joint missing, to show Robert Donat, old Phoebe beats him to it–she holds up her little finger at me in the dark, right in front of my face.” J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

It must be said that this ten year old has fabulous taste. There is so much to love here, and if J.D Salinger recommends the film, why shouldn’t we? It is such a fun ride, and Criterion’s Blu-ray release gives us plenty of supplemental material to enhance our experience.

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/234-the-39-steps

Bridge.jpg

Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

Norah Baring (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Ivor Montagu (Working With Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide, January 01, 2002)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett, May 02, 2014)

Blu-ray Review: Suspicion

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor:  Warner Bros.  

Release Date: April 12, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 1:39:24

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4 AVC)

Main Audio: Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

Mono French Dolby Digital

Mono Spanish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.36:1

Notes: A DVD edition of this film is also available.

Title

Alfred Hitchcock had difficulty coming up with a suitable title for the film and was never happy with “Suspicion.” He considered it “cheap and dull,” and he proposed “Johnnie” in desperation after the studio forced the final title upon him.

“I put a light right inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous. Cary Grant’s walking up the stairs and everyone’s at­tention had to be focused on that glass.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

While Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed discussing this particular lighting effect, his disappointment with Suspicion was always more than a little evident when he spoke about it in interviews. He thought the film “too glossy” and felt that it was compromised by the suits at RKO. While the director’s unfortunate habit of adopting the overall critical opinion about his work often leads scholarship astray, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. After all, the critical consensus was rather positive. The film even earned three Academy Awards nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Joan Fontaine), and Best Score (Franz Waxman), and Joan Fontaine took home the Oscar for Best Actress. In light of this information, it seems safe to assume that his disappointment is the result of creative compromise.

The reasons behind Suspicion’s troubled production are quite complex, but it is important to understand the studio climate that produced the film.

“At the eleventh hour, Edington, who had become a scapegoat for RKO’s downward spiral, was fired by studio president George Schaefer. Dan Winkler was also discharged, and with that the two men who had signed Hitchcock [and gave the director his creative freedom] were gone. Then, against all common sense, Schaefer hired none other than the lord high censor of the Production Code, Joseph Breen, as RKO’s temporary production boss. If Hitchcock had ever hoped to release ‘Before the Fact’ with an ending that faintly resembled the original, that hope now vanished.”Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

 It is difficult to imagine how any film made under these circumstances could achieve the enormous success that Suspicion proved to achieve, but it is worth questioning whether or not the film was admired because of its resemblance to Rebecca (which also enjoyed an overwhelmingly successful release). Both films starred Joan Fontaine in similar roles, and both films were what Hitchcock called “British films made in Hollywood.” 

“…The actors, the atmosphere, and the novel on which it’s based were all British. The screenwriter was Samson Raphaelson, who’d worked on the early talking pictures of Ernst Lubitsch.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966) 

Of course, Raphaelson came into the picture rather late in the process. Alfred Hitchcock had already been working out the story details with Alma Hitchcock and Joan Harrison. These two invaluable collaborators “batted ideas back and forth with Hitchcock” until the threesome had worked out a treatment outline for the film. Most of the story details were already in place before Raphaelson came aboard (which was often the case with Hitchcock’s screenwriters).

Of course, Raphaelson usually told a very different story.

“Raphaelson recalled that the Reville-Harrison treatment as incomplete, with ‘dummy’ dialogue, and rather ‘long-winded’ at that. Its main accomplishment was in pairing down the book’s characters and subplots. (In the novel, both the cad of a husband and the wife-victim have extra lovers, who would eventually be excised as a sop to censors.) Right off, Raphaelson told Hitchcock that the treatment ‘didn’t agree at all with the way I would get at it [the film],’ and asked if he could try his own ideas, adding, ‘If you don’t like what I write, we’ll fight it out.’ To his surprise, Hitchcock—almost matter-of-factly—said yes.

‘That story broke more easily for me than anything I have ever written,’ Raphaelson reflected years later. ‘Everything I brought to him [Hitchcock], he’d read instantly and it was fine.”Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

It is really no wonder that the story broke so easily, because he used the treatment that had already been completed. It probably isn’t fair to say that Raphaelson is lying, but he is liberally glossing over the contributions of other participants. He certainly made contributions (especially regarding the dialogue), but the shape of the film had already been worked out—or most of it had already been worked out. The team had trouble with the ending from the get-go. Besides, evidence suggests that Hitchcock was more than just a little involved with the writing of the screenplay.

It would be ridiculous to go through the treatments and the various screenplay drafts in an attempt to assign credit for each individual contribution, but looking at these documents do indicate that Raphaelson’s memories were self-serving. (Unless the writer was suffering from senility.) In fact, the team had a few other sources to inspire and guide them, and these sources are rarely given any attention.

“Hitchcock and his writing team appear to have drawn upon a pair of scripts written for RKO in 1939 and 1940 by screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Boris Ingster, and the novelist, Nathanael West. RKO had targeted Ingster and West’s 1940 script for an abandoned production featuring Laurence Olivier…The Ingster/West script, which received Code approval in 1940, differs from Hitchcock’s film in one crucial way. Attempting to follow the events of Before the Fact as closely as possible, these writers employed a frame story in which Lina stands trial for Johnnie’s murder; her testimony reveals that she murdered Johnny in self-defense. Her testimony structures the flashback narrative of the film which she illuminates with voice-over narration, outlining her suspicion and itemizing Johnnie’s crimes. This approach allowed the writers to keep Johnnie as a murderer, staying faithful to what they must have felt was the central thrust of Iles’ novel, and to appease the censors by having him killed off at the end.

This difference notwithstanding, several elements of the Ingster/West script—now published in the Library of America collection of West’s writings—informed Hitchcock and his writers. In particular, two different elements appear to have provided the inspiration for one of Suspicion’s early crucial scenes. In the opening scene of Lina’s trial, her prosecutor addresses the jury and demands that Lina be convicted of murder. Hearing his pronouncement, Lina ‘swallows, barely resisting the desire to touch her throat with her hands.’ This gesture, meant to foreshadow Johnnie’s later attempt to poison her, explicitly connects him to physical violence and strangulation. Such violence, absent in Before the Fact, is manifest in Suspicion in the scene in which Johnnie and Lina skip church. This scene, which sets up the ambiguity that permeates the film, forces us to ask whether Johnnie is a violent murderer or whether Lina has simply misread his behavior. Further, the scene structures its ambiguity through an open long shot in which Johnnie appears to be trying to strangle Lina. As a result, his later references to Lina’s ‘ucipital mapilary’ become difficult to decode, as they may refer to either romantic or violent desire.

The church-skipping scene itself, absent from the novel, stems from the Ingster/West script, in which Johnnie whisks Lina away from church for an impromptu picnic. The picnic over, he rises to take her home: ‘he pulls her up, then abruptly, before she can even suspect what he is going to do, he holds her tightly and kisses her [as] she struggles to free herself.’ As he continues, ‘her struggles grow less and he pulls her to him a second time and kisses her while she struggles to free herself,’ though ‘soon she isn’t struggling at all.’ The suggestiveness of this scene was clearly absorbed into Suspicion, but the influence of the early treatments on Hitchcock and his writers ends there.” –Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

It is unfortunate that these unproduced early screenplays didn’t suggest an appropriate ending for Suspicion. Hitchcock and his team were fighting both studio and audience expectations, and they were at a loss for an ending that would satisfy both. The problem plagued Hitchcock into the film’s post-production.

Alfred Hitchcock believed that this problem was exacerbated by his casting choices. Suspicion marked the beginning of one of the director’s most important professional relationships. It was his first film with Cary Grant, and the actor shined in the role of Johnny Aysgarth. The part was different from the roles that Grant usually played, but he was able to display another layer to his persona. 

“Calling attention to the fact that Johnnie is essentially a dangerous version of the Grant persona suggests that the master of playing the carefree playboy hides a sinister motive behind his light comedy—an individual whose charms kept him hiding in plain sight. The role would be a balancing act for Grant, for if that threat did not exist, the film would be without any suspense whatsoever and becomes a directionless melodrama. But if Johnnie is too dangerous and suspicious, Lina’s attraction to him is called into question and [this] destroys the audience’s alliance to her. It was a daring request for Hitchcock to make of the giant star, especially considering the approach Grant takes with the role; rather than playing Johnnie as a significantly different character, his performance is not that different from how he plays so many of his comic characters.” –Lesley L Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014) 

In other words, Hitchcock wasn’t casting against type at all. He was casting a light on the darker qualities that are hidden in the shadows of that “type.” This is one of the most interesting aspects of Suspicion, and the power of this layer of the film was diluted somewhat by the film’s ending. This fact didn’t escape the actor’s attention. Grant agreed with his director about the new ending and later lamented, “We were told later that the audience simply refused to accept [Johnny] as a murderer. In the new version, the film just stops—without the proper ending.”

The two men worked well together. In fact, the director probably gave more of his attention to his leading man than he did to Joan Fontaine.  

“Although principal photography began pleasantly enough on February 10, a coolness developed between the two stars and between Fontaine and Hitchcock; having put the actress through what she called his ‘finishing school,’ Hitchcock probably gave her less attention on Suspicion than he had on Rebecca.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

This lack of attention so bothered the actress that she complained to RKO’s production offices. The suits were already worried about the production (it was going over schedule), and Fontaine’s complaints only fueled their anxiety.

“…In April 1941 an inter-departmental memo observed brusquely: ‘Hitchcock does not appear to be giving as close attention to this picture as he should be—we have good cause to worry about the quality of this production. As a matter of fact, Fontaine has indicated that Hitchcock has not been so exacting in his requirements of her—as he was on Rebecca.’” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

All of these issues lead to a post-production period that was fraught with creative interference. The studio’s fingers couldn’t stay out of the proverbial pie.

“Principal photography on Suspicion resumed, with RKO determined to speed up the post-production to curb interest charges. Hitchcock blew up, ‘I have never in my puff heard of an important picture being delivered one month after completion of its shooting,’ he wrote [Harry] Edington. ‘Please, Harry, please, tell me this is only a joke so I may resume work on the picture with a feeling of reassurance that it is not going to be sabotaged; otherwise, how can I possibly dream of enthusiastically listening to RKO’s suggestion that I make another picture here.’ When Hitchcock at last completed Principal Photography and briefly traveled east on vacation, producer Sol Lesser trimmed all hints of murder from Suspicion, reducing the running time to fifty-five minutes.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

The director often commented on this atrocious fifty-five minute cut of the film.

…I remember the head of RKO returned from New York and said, with a big grin on his face, ‘Oh, you should see what’s been done to your film Suspicion.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Wait and see.’ It was now only 55 minutes long. They had gone through the film in my absence and taken out every scene that indicated the possibility that Cary Grant was a murderer. So there was no film existing at all. That was ridiculous. Nevertheless, I had to compromise on the end.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Bryan Forbes at the National Film Theatre, October 03, 1969)

Here again, we seem to stumble upon the problematic ending. This compromised ending is what keeps Suspicion off the list of Hitchcock’s great films, and the director was “not too pleased” with the ending that he was forced to use. His original idea for the film’s ending was very different from the one that ended the final film.

“What I wanted to do was that the wife was aware that she was going to be murdered by her husband, so she wrote a letter to her mother saying that she was very much in love with him, she didn’t want live anymore, she was going to be killed but society should be protected. She therefore brings up this fatal glass of milk, drinks it and before she does she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to mother?’ Then she drinks the milk and dies. You then have just one final scene of a cheerful Cary Grant going to the mailbox and posting the letter. But this was never permitted because of the basic error in casting.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Bryan Forbes at the National Film Theatre, October 03, 1969)

Before the Fact” ended similarly but didn’t include an incriminating letter:

“…On the third day of her illness Johnnie came into her bedroom to see her, in the middle of the morning. He was carrying a glass of milk-and-soda on a little tray. Lina turned her head on the pillows and smiled at him. Johnnie stood just inside the door, looking at her. His face worked. The smile faded from Lina’s lips. A single stab, like an electric shock, ran through her whole body. She knew, beyond a doubt, that the moment had come. ‘Monkeyface, I – I’ve brought you this.’

In an instant Lina’s mind had mechanically reviewed the situation,  and found it safe. Johnnie had not been silly. People did die of influenza. She jerked  herself up on one elbow in bed. She must be quick: quick to act, before she could think, and be afraid. The thin silk nightgown slipped down over her shoulder. ‘Give it me.’ But Johnnie hesitated. There were tears in his eyes, just as Lina had foreseen. She stretched out her hand. ‘Give it me, Johnnie.’ Johnnie sidled up towards the bed.

Lina snatched  the glass and drained it. It tasted quite ordinary. Could she have made a mistake, after all? But Johnnie was looking down at her in a way which showed that she had made no mistake. She wiped her lips carefully on her handkerchief and lifted her face to Johnnie. ‘Kiss me, Johnnie.’ Johnnie was staring at her now with an expression of absolute horror. It was as if he had not realized at all what he was doing until he had done it. “Kiss me!” She locked her arms round his neck and held him, for a few seconds, strained against her. ‘Now go, darling.’

‘Monkeyface,  I—I…’

‘Go, darling.’ She did not want Johnnie to see her die. Johnnie went. Lina listened to       his slow, shambling footsteps going down the stairs, so unlike Johnnie’s usual brisk tread. The tears came into her own eyes. Johnnie would miss her terribly. He had gone into the Morning room. He would stay there, waiting. Lina could hardly believe she was going to die. After she had lived so vividly. After she had liked life, in spite of what it had brought her, so much. What would death be like? She was not exactly frightened of it. But … But it did seem a pity that she had to die.

A tear trickled slowly down her cheek onto the pillow. It did seem a pity that she had to die, when she would have liked so much to live.” Anthony Berkeley as Francis Iles (Before the Fact, 1932)

Before The Fact - First Edition

This is the First Edition hardback cover for “Before the Fact” by Francis Iles.

Hitchcock’s preferred ending seems to relate directly to the novel’s climax, but his addition of the letter is an especially Hitchcockian touch. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of documented evidence that this ending was ever shot, and certain scholars feel that Hitchcock never gave it any serious consideration. However, it seems highly likely that the studio simply nixed the ending before it had the chance to be officially committed to paper. After all, there is ample evidence in the body of the film that his preferred ending was strongly considered. Steven DeRosa is one of several scholars to comment on the film’s mail motif.

“In spite of the lack of script material for an ‘incriminating letter’ ending, there is much evidence in the finished film to support Hitchcock’s statements that this was his preferred ending. Such an ending is consistent with—and would have completed—a major theme in the existing picture.

In the opening sequence, it is a postage stamp which Johnnie borrows from Lina that ultimately brings them together. Using the stamp to pay his fare, Johnnie remarks to the annoyance of the conductor, ‘Write to your mother!’ Thus, foreshadowing the ending of Lina’s incriminating letter to her mother. At crucial moments in the film letters are sent and received. When Lina elopes with Johnnie, the excuse that she gives her parents when she goes out is that she is going to the post office.

The theme of ‘letters’ is carried forward in the game of anagrams that Lina plays with Beaky. At the moment when Lina decides she will leave Johnnie, she writes a letter to him, ultimately tearing it up (an action that would be repeated by both Judy Barton in Vertigo and Melanie Daniels in The Birds). Johnnie then enters with a telegram containing news of his father-in-law’s death. Later, Lina’s suspicions mount when Johnnie hides a letter he’s received from an insurance company. Finally, Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance dropping a letter into a mailbox.

Also telling are several suggested titles contained in a memo from producer Harry Edington to RKO executive Peter Lieber, dated December 10, 1940, which include: Letter from a Dead Lady, A Letter to Mail, Posthumously Yours, Forever Yours, Yours to Remember, and Your Loving Widow — all suggestive of the ‘incriminating letter’ ending…” Steven DeRosa (writingwithhitchcock.com)

Besides this preferred ending to the film, there is ample evidence of two other endings.

“The first two or three drafts of the screenplay even go so far as to have the husband, exonerated, go off into the RAF to atone. (‘Only yesterday he fought off ten German fighters—downed three of them himself, disabled one, and chased the rest of them halfway across the Channel.’)”John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

This ending as scripted is rather unsatisfying. It seems to kowtow to the studio and censors more than necessary. One wonders if this ending was ever seriously considered by Hitchcock. It seems possible that it was scripted in this manner in an effort to curb interference from the Hays office. However, this is merely conjecture.

The infamous “preview ending” was quite a bit different but proved unsatisfactory to audiences.

“In the June 1941 test screenings, the film ended with Lina drinking the milk, then realizing it is not poisoned. Discovering that Johnnie is on the verge of poisoning himself, she halts his suicide plan and fields his pleas for forgiveness for being a cad (and realizes he is no murderer), and they make up. In comment cards, a number of audience members found Lina’s drinking of the milk to lack credibility. One respondent best summed up the sentiment: ‘You violated the first principal [sic] of every human—preservation of life at any cost. … What sane woman would act that way?’” –Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

One might ask this particular respondent the following questions: “Why are you so certain that Lina is a sane woman? Can she not have weak moments? Do people not give up trying? Have you never heard of suicide?” After all, this viewer said nothing of Cary Grant’s plan to end his life. Is this not a double standard of some kind? However, Alfred Hitchcock responded differently to this particular response.

“Hitchcock raised the point himself just after Suspicion’s release, telling the New York Herald Tribune, ‘It seemed logical to me that she would drink it and put him to the test. If he didn’t, fine and good; her suspicions would clear away and we’d have our happy ending. We shot that finish. … Trial audiences booed it, and I don’t blame them [because it contained dull exposition]. They pronounced the girl stupid to willingly drink her possible destruction. With that dictum, I personally do not agree.’ The director speaks directly to the novel’s primary inquiry. Before the Fact’s heroine is a seemingly sane woman who does in fact ‘act that way.’” –Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

One highly doubts that this ending would have been particularly satisfying, but it couldn’t be any worse than what became the film’s final ending.

“Added to the script on July 18, 1941, the present ending emerged after several months of revisions, all directed at re-working Samson Raphaelson’s ending… All of the endings tried and abandoned for Suspicion revolve around the poisoned milk, and lead to Johnny’s confession of his wrongdoings—he may not have been a murderer, but he was certainly a gambler and an embezzler—and also, in some way, to the renewal of the couple’s romance. With all these endings rejected, and with Hitchcock forced to reconstruct the film after it was dismantled in his absence by an overzealous RKO executive, the director added the present ending to the shooting script, well after principal photography had been completed. Importantly, as written, the ending contains a line of dialogue that disappeared during filming or editing and that significantly alters how the ending is interpreted. In the shooting script, after Lina has pleaded with Johnnie to return home and help rebuild their marriage, Johnnie states outright, ‘No, Lina. We’re saying goodbye.’ The film cuts to the final shot of their car driving away, with Lina moving closer to Johnnie. In the ending of the film, Johnnie simply says, ‘No, Lina, no,’ and, as they drive off, he wraps his arm around her, suggesting the possibility that he has accepted her request. The two endings are drastically different despite these small changes. In the script, Johnnie appears to confirm his criminal behavior and his inability to change, and Lina’s final gesture appears as one last, misguided attempt to bring her and Johnnie together. In the film, however, Johnnie’s dismissal of Lina is irresolute, and his final gesture suggests, both simultaneously and contradictorily, his desire to renew his romance with Lina, and the continuation of his malevolent intentions.” –Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

This ending feels as if it has been tacked on as an after-thought (and such is the case). Of course, there are those that disagree. Interestingly, François Truffaut defended the film’s ending during his infamous interview with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962.

“I’ve read the novel and I liked it, but the screen­play’s just as good. It is not a compromise; it’s actually a different story. The film version, showing a woman who believes her husband is a killer, is less farfetched than the novel, which is about a woman who accepts the fact that her husband is a murderer. It seems to me that the film, in terms of its psychological values, has an edge over the novel because it allows for subtler nuances in the characterizations. One might even say that Hollywood’s unwritten laws and taboos helped to purify Suspicion by de-dramatizing it, in contrast with routine screen adaptations, which tend to magnify the melodramatic elements. I’m not saying that the picture is superior to the novel, but I do feel that a novel that followed the story line of your screenplay might have made a better book than ‘Before the Fact.’”François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Truffaut may have a point, but many of the film’s positive reviews couldn’t help but mention the ending with a degree of regret. Film Bulletin hinted at this in their early trade review: 

“This does not match Alfred Hitchcock’s superb Rebecca, but it is another taut, suspenseful film drama from the famed director. It has some slow spots and the story carries on beyond its natural ending in an effort to squeeze out a bit more suspense, but the sheer cleverness of the masterful Hitchcock keeps the spectator rapt in his megaphone magic. There are the same elements in this show that made box-office successes of pictures like Rebecca and A Woman’s Face. It is not ‘pleasant’ entertainment, but it is fascinating and completely diverting. The presence of Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in the cast assures a fast start for Suspicion in all situations and grosses should maintain a high level with the support of favorable word-of-mouth…” Film Bulletin (October 04, 1941)

Bosley Crowther’s criticisms were padded with a generally positive response to the film, but it is worth noting that his largest complaint is targeted at the film’s compromised ending.

“If Alfred Hitchcock were not the fine film director that he is, the chances are better than even that he would be a distinguished light at the (legal) bar. For very few lawyers are gifted with the special ability which is his to put a case together in the most innocent but subtle way, to plant prima facie evidence without arousing the slightest alarm and then suddenly to muster his assumptions and drive home a staggering attack. Mr. Hitchcock is probably the most artful sophist working for the films — and anyone who doesn’t’ think so should see Suspicion at the Music Hall.

True, we should incidentally warn you that this is not Mr. Hitchcock at his best, for the clerical staff which helped him prepare his brief for this case did not provide too much in the way of material. Those highly intriguing complications which have featured some of his previous master works are lacking in this instance. Rather Mr. Hitchcock is compelled to construct his attack around a straight psychological progression: a shy, deeply sensitive English girl marries a charming rakehell in maiden innocence, and then, through accumulated evidence, begins to suspect him of dark and foul deeds, suspects of murdering two dear people and finally of having designs upon herself.

Clearly, Mr. Hitchcock’s problem is to give this simple story great consequence—to build, out of slight suggestions and vague, uncertain thoughts, a mounting tower of suspicion which looms forbiddingly. And this he does magnificently with his customary casualness. And early remark dropped by the girl’s father to the effect that her intended is a cheat, a scene in which the husband acts strangely indifferent to a friend when the latter is seized with a heart attack, a little squabble over a slight untruth — all are directed by Mr. Hitchcock so that they seem inconsequential at the time but still with a sinister undertone which grows as the tension mounts.

Much of his purpose is accomplished through the performance of Joan Fontaine, it must be said, and she, as well as Mr. Hitchcock, deserves unstinted praise. This young lady has unquestionably become one of the finest actresses on the screen, and one of the most beautiful, too; and her development in this picture of a fear-tortured character is fluid and compelling all the way. Cary Grant as the husband is provokingly irresponsible, boyishly gay and also oddly mysterious, as the role properly demands; and Nigel Bruce, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Leo G. Carroll are fine in minor roles.

One must remark that the ending is not up to Mr. Hitchcock’s usual style, and the general atmosphere of the picture is far less genuine than he previously has wrought. But still he has managed to bring through a tense and exciting tale, a psychological thriller which is packed with lively suspense and a picture that entertains you from beginning to — well, almost the end.” –Bosley Crowther (New York Times, November 21, 1941)

The response across the ocean didn’t digress from this pattern, as this review published in The Times indicates:

“It is easy to understand the appeal that such a novel as Mr. Francis Iles’s ‘Before the Fact,’ on which this film is based would have for a director of Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s particular talents. Mr. Hitchcock delights in building up suspense, in suggesting, by touches which have all the subtlety of the seemingly careless, that things are not quite what they seem, in creating an atmosphere of suspicion…

…Up to the last few minutes Mr. Hitchcock follows the book faithfully, and his methods — sudden, uneasy silences, an effective, if a little crude, use of shadow, some cleverly taken close-ups — enhance the drama, but he then suddenly and unforgivably reverses all the points he has been at such pains to make, and kills the psychological significance of the story by clearing Johnnie of all suspicion and providing a happy end. A sad finish to a film which, so long as it keeps to the book, is absorbing…” -The Times (December 04, 1941)

Hollywood Magazines 4 Star review also found the film’s single fault in the film’s ending.

Suspicion is a gripping, compelling film. Alfred Hitchcock again proves himself a superb master of direction and production. Joan Fontaine, in her second big screen role, surpasses even her brilliant work in Rebecca… Miss Fontaine’s acting, as her terrifying suspicions mount, is superb.

The mood and shading of character are unequalled by any of Hitchcock’s previous films. Cary Grant is convincing in his unsympathetic role. If the film has a fault, it lies in the ending, which is anticlimactic after the high-pitched suspense and excitement of the entire film.” -Hollywood Magazine (February 1942)

Of course, there were a few reviews that refrained from criticizing the denouement. Variety’s review is one such example:

“Alfred Hitchcock’s trademarked cinematic development of suspenseful drama, through mental emotions of the story principals, is vividly displayed in Suspicion, a class production [from the novel ‘Before the Fact’ by Francis Iles] provided with excellence in direction, acting, and mounting…” –Variety (December 31, 1941)

A review published in Harrison’s Reports even seemed to praise the films finale:

“Brilliantly directed and acted with skill by a group of expert performers, this drama should prove thrilling fare for adults, particularly of the class trade. Even though the story is unpleasant, and the character portrayed by Cary Grant unsympathetic, so interesting is the plot development that one’s attention is held to the end. The credit for this is owed to a great extent to Alfred Hitchcock, who again shows his mastery at directing thrillers. The closing scenes, in which the heroine, thinking that her husband was about to kill her, tries to jump from a speeding car, are so tensely exciting that one is left trembling at the conclusion.” -Harrison’s Reports (September 27, 1941)

The success of the film brought RKO over half a million in profits after the accounting was complete, and the film’s critical success reinforced Hitchcock’s reputation. After all is said and done, Suspicion is a highly engaging film with some brilliant performances. It isn’t a masterwork, but it is an enjoyable way to spend ninety-nine minutes.

SS1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. This seems to be the same artwork utilized for the film’s original one sheet. It really looks quite fabulous! The one sheet artwork is almost always superior to what is used for home movie releases, and it is nice to see that Warner Archives didn’t make this mistake.

The menu utilizes this same artwork and it is accompanied by an excerpt from Franz Waxman’s score.

Menu

Most would agree that it is quite elegant and easy to navigate.

SS2

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Archives offers another nice transfer with this release. If there are flaws in the image, they seem to stem from Harry Stradling’s “glossy” soft focus cinematography. Detail is limited by the aesthetics, but this Blu-ray release does offer a level of detail that has gone unseen on previous DVD editions of the film. The transfer seems to embrace he film’s original celluloid source, as there is a nice fine layer of grain present throughout the film. However, the grain structure is never erratic or distracting to the viewer. Contrast is nicely rendered here and blacks are always deep without noticeably crushing any details.

SS3

Sound Quality:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

The Mono DTS-HD Master Audio is a nice rendering of the film’s sound elements, but these elements are marginally problematic in that the music seems a bit boxed in by the recording methods of the era, and dialogue sometimes seems a bit thin. However, one cannot expect the transfer to be any better than the film’s original source elements. There aren’t any distracting anomalies here, and none of these minor flaws are ever distracting.

SS4

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

 “Before the Fact: Suspicious Hitchcock” – (SD) – (21:33)

Those with a familiarity with Laurent Bouzereau’s  comprehensive documentaries for Universal’s Hitchcock catalog might find themselves disappointed with this program. Film historians and scholars (Bill Krohn, Robert Osborne, Richard Schickel, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Franklin, and Christopher Husted) discuss the film and its place in Hitchcock’s filmography while giving a few details about the production. Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter) and John W. Waxman (Franz Waxman’s son) are also on board to discuss their father’s work on the film. It is an interesting piece that could more properly be called an appreciation of the film. Fans will be grateful to have it included here.

Theatrical Trailer – (01:37)

This trailer for Suspicion has seen better days. Both the picture and the sound have been marred by time. There even seems to be footage missing from this one. However, it is really nice to see it included. Fontaine’s Lina addresses the audience and tells audiences about her suspicions as we see clips from the film.

SS5

Final Words:

Suspicion isn’t the perfect Hitchcock thriller, but it is always engaging and boasts incredible performances across the board. Cary Grant’s first performance for Alfred Hitchcock is at once amusing and menacing. This Blu-ray release is the perfect way to watch the film at home and earns an enthusiastic recommendation.

Review by: Devon Powell

SS6

Source Material:

Francis Iles [aka Anthony Berkeley Cox] (Before the Fact, 1932)

Staff Writer (Filmdom’s Only Feminine Writing Team Specializes in Thrillers, Syracuse Herald Journal, July, 10 1941)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, September 27, 1941)

Staff Writer (Film Bulletin, October 04, 1941)

Bosley Crowther (New York Times, November 21, 1941)

Staff Writer (The Times, December 04, 1941)

Staff Writer (Variety, December, 31, 1941)

Staff Writer (Hollywood Magazine, February 1942)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Charles Higham & Roy Moseley (Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, 1989)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Steven DeRosa (writingwithhitchcock.com)

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

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Bicycle Thieves – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 374 

BD Box Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA) 

Release Date: March 29, 2016 

Region: Region A

Length: 1:29:27

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: Italian Mono LPCM (48kHz, 24-Bit)

Alternate Audio: English Dolby Digital Audio (48 kHz, 192 Kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.96 Mbps

Notes: Criterion has also released a DVD edition of this title.

title

“My aim, I have said, was to reintroduce the dramatic into quotidian situations, the marvelous in a little news item, even in the smallest news item, considered by most people throwaway material.” -Vittorio De Sica

The story of Bicycle Thieves probably wouldn’t be printed in any major newspaper if it had happened in real life. Editors would consider it “throwaway material.” After all, newspapers tend to give facts void of any real emotion. Journalists rarely get into the really interesting aspects of their stories. The humanity is hidden somewhere between the words, but we fail to grasp it because it isn’t made concrete. These human elements must be inferred by the sensitive reader. This is where cinema can be superior. Humanity can be found in every single action that a character does (or doesn’t do) on the screen. Even a look or expression can contain limitless drama. The true strength of neo-realist masterpieces like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is in the simplicity of the story. Audiences aren’t wasting their attention on complex plot detail, and this frees them to absorb the humanity inherent in every character.

Bicycle Thieves is a textbook example of neo-realism. It is the simplest of stories but contains complex human emotions. A synopsis of the story wouldn’t hint at the raw emotion and brutal honesty that overwhelms nearly every frame. The film was perhaps too honest for the Italian public, because it wasn’t particularly successful in its home country. However, the rest of the world certainly took notice. American critics were unanimous in their praise of Bicycle Thieves, and the film won the Academy Award in 1949 for the Best Foreign Language Film. This is certainly ample evidence to suggest that Hollywood was paying attention.

Vittorio De Sica

Vittorio De Sica while shooting “Bicycle Thieves” on location:  “We sought to redeem our guilt… We strove to look ourselves in the eyes and tell ourselves the truth, to discover who we really were, and to seek salvation.” -Vittorio De Sica

What is especially surprising is the effect that it had on Alfred Hitchcock. The director had a nasty habit of making slightly disparaging remarks about neo-realism to the press, but this was simply a ruse that he used in order to explain the difference between the kind of films that he made and the new trend of realism that invaded many Hollywood productions after the success of Italy’s neo-realistic efforts. (This trend was extended after the later success of the French New Wave).

Charles Thomas Samuels once interviewed Hitchcock and in an attempt to make a point about how other cinematic methods could also be quite effective, he used Bicycle Thieves (a.k.a. The Bicycle Thief) as an example. Hitchcock evaded the argument.

“You’ve got to remember that The Bicycle Thief wasn’t a success with the Italian audience… We have a home in Northern California, and in the period of The Bicycle Thief, we happened to have an Italian couple working for us who spoke not one word of English. One day my wife and I took the mother and her daughter into San Francisco, where my wife and the girl had to do some shopping. Since I didn’t know what to do with Mrs. Chiesa, I decided to take her to see The Bicycle Thief. It was an Italian movie, I thought it might interest her. There was a knot of about twenty people in the theater—it was a road show, I remember, at the Geary—and we watched the film. Do you know, she only gave one exclamation the whole time: when the father cuffed the little boy. So when we got outside, I asked her how she’d liked it. She said, ‘Okay. But why didn’t he borrow a bicycle?’ Of course, she demolished the whole thing. So I said, ‘Mrs. Chiesa, what films do you like’ ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘I like a Betty Grable musical.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Encountering Directors, an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, 1972)

This anecdote is misleading. It suggests that Hitchcock wasn’t fond of the film, when this was far from the case. One will notice that he substitutes his housekeeper’s opinion for his own. This is because his opinion would have allowed Samuels to make his point, because Hitchcock was actually quite impressed by the film. Patrick McGilligan commented on this in his biography of the director.

“In interviews, Hitchcock sometimes disparaged what he (and some critics) called ‘kitchen sink’ neorealism, telling the press that he and his Italian housekeeper watched Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief in San Francisco one day, and that his housekeeper was half bored by the masterpiece. He didn’t always describe his own reaction, but he was impressed by the film, and once told the New York Times that The Bicycle Thief was a perfect double chase—physical and psychological. Hitchcock’s love for Italy was genuine; and he kept up with the postwar cinema there…” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

In fact, it was Hitchcock’s admiration for Italian neo-realism (particularly Bicycle Thieves) that inspired him to make The Wrong Man—a down to earth film about real people whose lives derail because of a false accusation. He also had planned to make a few other films inspired by Italian neo-realism (and perhaps the French New Wave) in the 1960s. Unfortunately, but these projects never made it into production.

It isn’t any wonder that Bicycle Thieves was a source of inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock. It has been a source of inspiration for countless directors since the film’s 1948 Italian release. What else can anyone expect from what is one of the few undisputed masterpieces of world cinema? De Sica’s masterpiece stands as one of the best films ever produced. The socio-political issues surrounding the story might be dated, but the basic truths in Bicycle Thieves will never go out of date. Critics still rave about the film, scholars still study it, and audiences are still moved by Antonio’s struggle to provide for his family and Bruno’s coming of age as he discovers hard truths about life.

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 Stars

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The film related artwork isn’t quite as fabulous as one might expect from Criterion, but it is rather attractive.

Fans of the film will be especially pleased to find an illustrated book featuring an essay by Godfrey Cheshire and reminiscences by Vittorio De Sica and his collaborators. This booklet is actually special enough to set this release apart from most Blu-ray titles.

Menu

The disc’s menus are also appropriate, attractive, elegant, and quite easy to navigate.

Screenshot 3

Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion’s is a 4K digital restoration is presented at a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (which is higher and wider than most releases), which represents an uncropped version of De Sica’s masterpiece. The transfer was also presented at a higher bitrate (34.96 Mbps) than many Blu-ray releases. The image is absolutely stunning with a filmic texture that should please purists. Like so many Criterion transfers, this release reminds us just how gorgeous a black and white image can look on Blu-ray. Details are crisp and clear with an attractive and rich contrast that beautifully displays every shade of grey in between.

Screenshot 5

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

The Italian Mono LPCM audio sounds as good as anyone has any right to expect and doesn’t have as many of the distracting flaws that are usually evident in films of this age. Those who aren’t familiar with Italian neorealist cinema might find fault with some of the film’s quirky dubbing techniques, but frankly this reviewer doesn’t remember any noteworthy dubbing issues. The soundtrack was well done by the filmmakers involved, and was lovingly restored by our friends at Criterion. There doesn’t seem to be any valid reason to nitpick.

An English Dolby Digital audio track is also included, but has not received the same loving restoration from Criterion. However, the track holds up pretty well (though it showcases a few flaws that the Italian track doesn’t).

Screenshot 6

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 Stars

*All Italian Language Documentaries include English Subtitles*

Working with De Sica(22:43)

Utilizing contemporary interviews with Suso Cecchi D’Amico (screenwriter – Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan), Enzo Staiola (actor – Bruno in Bicycle Thieves), and Callisto Cosulich (film scholar), this documentary is both informative and entertaining. These participants discuss De Sica and his work on the film. Staiola’s stories are particularly engaging when he discusses how he was cast in the film.

Cesare Zavattini – (55:42)

This 2003 documentary about screenwriter and longtime Vittorio De Sica collaborator, Cesare Zavattini, was directed by Carlo Lizzani. Many sources are interviewed for this informative look at Zavattini’s cinematic achievements (Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Umberto D, and others). It will add exponentially to the viewer’s appreciation of Bicycle Thieves, as well as their understanding on neorealism.

Life as It Is – (39:57)

This documentary featuring scholar, Mark Shiel, discuss the origins and qualities of Italian Neorealism and the seven films that Shiel believes are central to the movement. (Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti are all represented here.) His detailed explanation is usually pointed back to Bicycle Thieves without doing any disservice to the other films in question. This is an interesting and informative look at Italian cinema.

Each of these programs are excellent and add a wealth of value to this excellent Blu-ray release.

Screenshot 4

Final Words:

Bicycle Thieves is without a doubt one of the best films ever produced, and its influence can still be felt today. De Sica’s masterpiece is an absolutely essential film that belongs in everyone’s collection, and Criterion’s Blu-ray is the best way to experience the film outside of a theater.

Still 3.jpg

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s Bicycle Thieves page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/210-bicycle-thieves

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Carol

Carol Cover

Distributor: Starz / Anchor Bay 

Release Date: March 15, 2016 

Region: Region A

Length: 118 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4 AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: A DVD edition of this film is also available.

“Our friendship wasn’t really about her work at that point in my budding career as a dramatist. She was so disappointed in all of the adaptations she had seen of her work, even great work, like Strangers on a Train. There was wistfulness about, ‘Gee, maybe when you grow up, and you’re able to do something, maybe you could see about doing a good one.’ It was vague and she would direct me to, actually, four or five of her other books which she was very keen on seeing done well. ‘The Price of Salt’, or ‘Carol’, as it had been re-titled by then, wasn’t on the list.” Phyllis Nagy (Film School Rejects, January 06, 2016)

Alfred Hitchcock fans will remember the name Patricia Highsmith. The director adapted her first novel into one of his most celebrated films: Strangers on a Train. Highsmith’s controversial follow-up was entitled, “The Price of Salt,” and was published under a pseudonym due to the controversial nature of the book’s subject matter.

The Price of Salt - 1st edition

This is the First Edition Hardback cover of “The Price of Salt.” Due to the controversial subject matter, the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” was used at the request of her publisher.

Carol follows two women from very different backgrounds who find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York. As conventional norms of the time challenge their undeniable attraction, an honest story emerges to reveal the resilience of the heart in the face of change. A young woman in her 20s, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a clerk working in a Manhattan department store and dreaming of a more fulfilling life when she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage. As an immediate connection sparks between them, the innocence of their first encounter dims and their connection deepens. While Carol breaks free from the confines of marriage, her husband (Kyle Chandler) begins to question her competence as a mother as her involvement with Therese and close relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) come to light.

Highsmith fortunately had the opportunity to write about her trailblazing novel when it was re-published under her own name and re-titled Carol in 1990. Her memoirs about the novel are rather enlightening:

“…I had just finished ‘Strangers on a Train,’ but it wasn’t to be published until 1949. Christmas was approaching, I was vaguely depressed and also short of money, and to earn some I took a job as salesgirl in a big department store in Manhattan during the period known as the Christmas rush, which lasts about a month. I think I lasted two and a half weeks.

The store assigned me to the toy section, in my case the doll counter… One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted towards the doll counter with a look of uncertainty – should she buy a doll or something else? – And I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand.

Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light. With the same thoughtful air, she purchased a doll, one of two or three I had shown her, and I wrote her name and address on the receipt, because the doll was to be delivered to an adjacent state. It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.

As usual, I went home after work to my apartment, where I lived alone. That evening I wrote out an idea, a plot, [and] a story about the blondish and elegant woman in the fur coat. I wrote some eight pages in longhand in my then-current notebook or cahier. This was the entire story of ‘The Price of Salt.’ It flowed from my pen as if from nowhere – beginning, middle and end. It took me about two hours, perhaps less…

…I did not immediately start writing the book. I prefer to let ideas simmer for weeks. And, too, when ‘Strangers on a Train’ was published and shortly afterwards sold to Alfred Hitchcock, who wished to make a film of it, my publishers and also my agent were saying, ‘Write another book of the same type, so you’ll strengthen your reputation as…’ As what? ‘Strangers on a Train’ had been published as ‘A Harper Novel of Suspense’ by Harper & Bros, as the house was then called, so overnight I had become a ‘suspense’ writer, though ‘Strangers’ in my mind was not categorised, and was simply a novel with an interesting story.

If I were to write a novel about a lesbian relationship, would I then be labelled a lesbian-book writer? That was a possibility, even though I might never be inspired to write another such book in my life. So I decided to offer the book under another name. By 1951, I had written it. I could not push it into the background for 10 months and write something else, simply because for commercial reasons it might have been wise to write another ‘suspense’ book.

Harper & Bros rejected ‘The Price of Salt,’ so I was obliged to find another American publisher – to my regret, as I much dislike changing publishers. ‘The Price of Salt’ had some serious and respectable reviews when it appeared in hardcover in 1952. But the real success came a year later with the paperback edition, which sold nearly a million copies and was certainly read by more. The fan letters came in addressed to Claire Morgan, care of the paperback house. I remember receiving envelopes of 10 and 15 letters a couple of times a week and for months on end. A lot of them I answered, but I could not answer them all without a form letter, which I never arranged.

My young protagonist Therese may appear a shrinking violet in my book, but those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.

The appeal of ‘The Price of Salt’ was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.

Many of the letters that came to me carried such messages as ‘Yours is the first book like this with a happy ending! We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.’ Others said, ‘Thank you for writing such a story. It is a little like my own story…’ And, ‘I am 18 and I live in a small town. I feel lonely because I can’t talk to anyone…’ Sometimes I wrote a letter suggesting that the writer go to a larger town where there would be a chance to meet more people. As I remember, there were as many letters from men as from women, which I considered a good omen for my book. This turned out to be true. The letters trickled in for years.” -Patricia Highsmith (Afterward to “Carol,” 1989)

Patricia Highsmith

Phyllis Nagy enjoyed a friendship with Patricia Highsmith (author of “The Price of Salt”), and  she used the writer as a basis for her screenplay interpretation of Therese.

The book’s happy (or hopeful) ending was adopted for the film adaptation, and it is this element that sets Carol apart from other films about homosexuality. Todd Haynes directs Phillis Nagy’s screenplay with a level of subtlety and sensitivity that is rarely seen in films of this nature.

“I didn’t know that he would do the film because it’s the first thing he hasn’t written, and I know what that’s like. You might think you can’t, or you don’t want to, or you want to take it in a completely different direction. So I think we were all thrilled, no one more than me, when we spoke and realized that we were simpatico in very important ways. Todd encouraged me to take things that I had always thought were good for it but which had been changed over the years in various polishes for various people.

We went back to something approaching the early draft, which was smarter for having 18 years of experience. So that was great. Todd spoke to me about his love of framing devices and, in particular, Brief Encounter, and so I added that. We talked about a few other things. It was a very good, fruitful, easy process and I think probably easier than he thought it might be from some of his prior experiences.” Phyllis Nagy (Deadline, December 29, 2015)

Grace Kelly - Rear Window

According to Nagy, Carol’s character was expanded from the ghost-like fantasy in Highsmith’s novel using Grace Kelly’s character in “Rear Window” as a template. (“Reading from top to bottom,” that character’s name is Lisa… Carol… Fremont.)

The collaboration was more than simply enjoyable, it was also an enormous critical success. Living up to its groundbreaking source material, the film premiered to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival—and won the festivals’ Queer Palm award. Since this auspicious debut, it has continued to collect both adoration and accolades. The Academy Awards honored the film with six nominations (including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design). The film also garnered five Golden Globe® nominations—the most of any film this year—including Best Motion Picture, Drama, alongside nominations for both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama. Blanchett and Mara also received Screen Actors Guild nominations for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively. Other awards and nominations include: nine BAFTA nominations; six Spirit Award nominations; four wins from the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography; nine Critics’ Choice nominations, and over 125 Top Ten lists.

Carol - Halfsheet Ad

The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected by a standard Blu-ray case with the film’s one sheet art, which is attractive (if not particularly impressive).

The menus utilize footage from the film accompanied by Carter Burwell’s original score. They are at once attractive and easy to navigate.

ca1_3079r_alt_lg.jpg

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Edward Lachman’s Oscar nominated Super 16 mm cinematography is represented with a respectable amount of accuracy here. The transfer showcases the film’s grain pattern without allowing the grain to become irregular or distracting. Colors are accurately represented, as are the contrast and brightness levels. Best of all, there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable digital anomalies to distract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.

90_54c-3-_lg.jpg

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The English DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive. The mix seems to pull the viewer into the world in subtle ways, and subtly is a rare commodity. Dialogue, ambience, sound effects, and music seem to be well prioritized at all times. This is a solid sound mix, and one would be hard pressed to find any reason for complaint.

Carol Still 3

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Q & A with Cast and Filmmakers – (29:25)

These excerpts from various cast and crew Q & A sessions is surprisingly interesting and informative. Instead of short clips of various interview statements padded with an overuse of footage from the actual film, viewers can listen to the cast and crew discuss the film and its creation. Fans of the film  should be happy to have this included here.

“Behind the Scenes” Featurette Gallery – (35:56)

While most of these featurettes don’t have a lot in the way of comprehensive “behind the scenes” information, viewers might find some of the commentary interesting. There is also some “behind the scenes” footage of the cast and crew shooting the film. There are eight featurettes in all:

Cate Blanchett as ‘Carol Aird’ – (04:02)

Rooney Mara as ‘Therese Belivet’ – (04:39)

Todd Haynes (Director) – (04:45)

Phillis Nagy (Screenwriter) – (04:58)

Edward Lachman (Cinematographer) – (04:56)

Sandy Powell (Costume Design) – (03:41)

Judy Becker (Production Design) – (04:03)

Carter Burwell (Original Score) – (04:53)

Carol Still 4

Final Words:

Carol is a sensitive and engaging adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s follow-up to Strangers on a Train, but the film is worth seeing for other reasons. It has an elegant and graceful simplicity that is rare in contemporary cinema. It easily earns a recommendation.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: I Confess

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: February 16, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 01:34:27

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

2.0 French Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Castellano) Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Latino) Dolby Digital

2.0 Polish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish (Castellano), Spanish (Latino), Czech, Polish

Ratio: 1.37:1

Notes: This title was previously released (and is still available) in a DVD edition.

Title

“I feel that both I Confess and The Wrong Man suffer from a lack of humor. The only question then is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject. It seems to me that some of my British films were too light and some of my American films were too heavy handed, but it’s the most difficult thing in the world to get just the right dosage. It’s only after the film is done that one can judge that properly.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

I Confess does lack the humor that is usually present in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but this seems appropriate for the subject matter. It is based on what François Truffaut called “a very mediocre play” by Paul Anthelme entitled, “Nos Deux Consciences” (Our Two Consciences). It was a rather obscure play that was written in 1902, but it had elements that interested Hitchcock despite any dramatic weaknesses inherent in the property. Louis Verneuil was responsible for bringing the play to the director’s attention.

“Verneuil came along with this play, and I guess he must have done a good sales job, because I bought it! Now, when I buy a story, that doesn’t mean I’m taking on the theme as well. They tell me the story, and if I feel the subject is suitable and the situation lends itself to what I want, the theme of the film will be worked out later on.” –Alfred Hitchcock(Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

The film was originally planned as a Transatlantic release before the production company crumbled. However, Warner Brothers bought the property from the company for Hitchcock to direct. A number of writers were courted to collaborate with Hitchcock—including Graham Greene (who couldn’t have been less interested). It seems that Victor Peers and Lesley Storm made a few early contributions to the scenario (though some of this was obviously tossed). Peers wrote a letter to Sidney Bernstein that discussed the trouble they were having with the script:

“Dear Sidney, We met last night—Hitch, Lesley Storm, Peggy Singer, and myself. Before Lesley Storm’s arrival, I sensed that Hitch wasn’t too happy with the story line, which is enclosed here. He did not care for the first scene at the Grandford home and the scene of the priest going to Malotte’s home is apparently out of the question from the Catholic point of view.

Lesley Storm, however, argued her point so well that Hitch was obviously most interested and suddenly turned to me and said that he would like her to return with him to CA and to work with him on the actual scenario…

…From my angle, Storm appears to be getting hold on the story and thinking constructively and, in clarifying the characterization, for example, she thinks that in their youth it is Ruth who is much more in love with Michel than he with her. He leans toward priesthood and it is because she is afraid that she may lose him that she gives herself to him in an effort to keep him.

It is the parents, of course, who destroy this plan.

This idea of characterization impressed Hitchcock very much indeed. The position then is that Storm will wait until the end of this week for word from you as to whether 1) she continues and 2) she goes to America.

Hitch is certainly very low in spirit… Moreover, he has been working continuously and late hours and undoubtedly needs a rest…” –Victor Peers (Letter to Sidney Bernstein – as reprinted in “Hitchcock’s Notebooks” by Dan Auiler)

It seems that Storm was discharged because she was uncommunicative with her collaborators. Hitchcock and Bernstein were left waiting to hear word from her after one of their script meetings. Storm was to work on the changes discussed in the meeting, and return a revised treatment. Weeks passed without any word from her.

Paul Vincent Carroll also worked on the project for a short time before Hitchcock finally commissioned George Tabori to collaborate with him. He got along quite well with Hitchcock during their collaboration, and the resulting screenplay seemed to satisfy both Hitchcock and Tabori. The script was a lot darker than the final film, and it had a number of controversial elements that were just begging to be eradicated by someone—be it the studio or the Catholic Legion of Decency. The screenplay ended with Father Logan being hanged for Keller’s crime (and only after his death was his innocence established). What’s more, the backstory involved an illegitimate child that Father Logan doesn’t know about! As anyone can guess, censorship won the day. Somehow, though, Tabori was bemused when changes had to be made. Actually, Hitchcock scholarship seems equally bemused. It seems that there are various opinions as to who censored the film.

Some scholars believe that the Catholic Church was responsible for the changes:

“…There was a hitch when Catholic authorities saw George Tabori’s original script and stopped all use of their churches in the city, because in the original draft Clift’s character was found guilty. Rather than fight the Catholic fathers, Hitchcock instructed Tabori to alter his script. Tabori later recalled, ‘I felt betrayed. I walked out in the middle of a story conference with the excuse of having to take a leak, went straight for the airport, to New York City, and never came back.’ Unworried, Hitchcock simply commissioned William Archibald to alter the script to his satisfaction.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

This version of events doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility, but there are those who insist that Warner Brothers was responsible for the alterations to the script:

“Bernstein took the lead in talks with religious authorities, seeking their approval; and surprisingly the Canadian Church found I Confess profoundly catholic—for the priest, in spite of his illegitimate child and execution, was greatly ennobled by the script. The Transatlantic partners wisely employed a local priest with a doctorate in theology, Father La Couline bridged the discussions with the Church, reading the script to authenticate the ecclesiastical reality and recommending trims to avoid censorship.

It was Warner Bros. that finally rebelled. For years Hitchcock had staved off the studio’s nervousness, hoping somehow to slip his ideas onto the screen. But as the midsummer start of filming loomed, Hitchcock was forced to circulate the latest script by Tabori, and studio officials were shocked to discover that the wrong-man priest still had an illegitimate child in the story—and still was destined to be executed at the end of the film. In late April, the studio put its foot down: it couldn’t produce such a film, which was bound to provoke an overwhelming outcry in America.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Some combination of both of these stories is probably true. Either way, it is certainly clear that Hitchcock was forced to change the script (and the director was probably even more disappointed than Tabori). This change altered what was originally a perfect allegory, although the similarities to the story of Christ are still quite obvious in the final film.

Archibald would be the final writer to work on the film, but there is ample evidence to suggest that Alma Hitchcock worked on the script along with the famed director and his writing team. In the end credit was given to Tabori and Archibald for the compromised final version of the screenplay. Of course, the script was simply one of many compromises concerning I Confess that would be forced upon Hitchcock before production commenced. One of the largest compromises concerned the casting of an actress to portray Ruth Grandfort. Jennifer Jones was discussed and the idea tossed before Hitchcock settled on his choice—and his choice wasn’t Anne Baxter.

Anne Baxter Publicity Photograph for I CONFESS

This is a publicity photograph of Anne Baxter that was used to promote “I CONFESS.” The actress was not Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred choice.

“I didn’t want Anne Baxter to play the feminine lead; I wanted Anita Bjork, who had played Miss Julie, However, Warner Brothers decided against her, sent Anita Bjork back to her fiords, and I was informed by a phone call that Anne Baxter had been assigned to the picture. I met her for the first time a week before the shooting, in a dining room of Quebec’s Hôtel Château Frontenac. When you compare Anita Bjork and Anne Baxter, wouldn’t you say that was a pretty awkward substitution?” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

The reason for Bjork’s dismissal is that she showed up with her lover and illegitimate child, and Warner Brothers didn’t want a scandal on their hands. (The Ingrid Bergman – Roberto Rossellini scandal was fresh in Hollywood’s mind.) Whatever one might think about Anne Baxter’s performance, we will agree that she doesn’t have quite the same qualities as Anita Bjork. It is difficult to believe that she is a part of Quebec society. Perhaps Hitchcock’s disappointment was palpable, because Baxter seemed to feel somewhat rejected by what she considered the director’s apathetic treatment of her. The director dyed the actress’s hair blonde and altered Bjork’s wardrobe to fit Baxter, but he was unable to turn her into a convincing Quebecer.

Anita Bjork (originally cast)

Alfred Hitchcock had originally cast Anita Bjork as his female lead. She was replaced, because Warner Brothers feared a scandal.

Many actors were discussed as being suitable to play the role of the tortured Father Logan (including James Stewart and Laurence Olivier), but it is difficult to picture anyone other than Montgomery Clift in this particular role. Of course, the process of actually working with Clift was not without its problems. The actor had many personal demons and a habit of trying to drown them in a bottle (or with narcotics). His neurosis were certainly problematic on the set of I Confess, and his particular working methods were at odds with Hitchcock’s.

“…Hitchcock had problems communicating with Montgomery Clift, who was then at the apogee of his career and steeped in the Method school of acting which was just manifesting itself in Hollywood… After Brando, Clift and James Dean were the foremost exponents of the method, which primarily meant that the actor got inside his character, and concentrated on motivation and background to deliver a fully rounded portrayal of the person, not just as the camera caught him for a specific scene, but where he had come from, where he was going, what impelled him to be there – the very antithesis of Hitchcock’s methods. Clift’s biographer, Robert LaGuardia, wrote that Hitchcock ‘simply couldn’t understand the fanatical intensity of Monty. He complained constantly about ‘all that preparation … Over and Over, Hitch had to stop and explain to Monty why, at the end of a certain scene he had to look up at a church or suddenly turn around. He wasn’t used to having to explain to his actors that he intended to edit in a shot of a clanging bell or some such event.’ The contrast between actor and director manifested itself early in the shooting, when blue-eyed Clift insisted on wearing brown contact lenses because the script stated that Father Logan’s eyes were brown. Hitchcock found this totally incomprehensible, not least because I Confess was shot in black and white.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

I Confess - Montgomery Clift and the Method

Montgomery Clift’s method acting sometimes conflicted with Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic style. The actor had trouble looking up so that Hitchcock could cut to his perspective during this series of shots.

Hitchcock’s efforts certainly weren’t in vain. Clift really adored the script—the original script that ended in the Father Logan’s unjust execution. He began preparing for the role with enthusiasm and spent a week doing research in a monastery before filming. Unfortunately, he was less enthusiastic about the changes that had been made to the script when he arrived in New York for his camera tests. He was at least in agreement with his director on this issue (not that it did either one of them any good).

There were other minor issues concerning Montgomery Clift that perturbed Hitchcock, but none that caused the director any real aggravation.

“Clift had his drama coach, Mira Rostova, close by at all times; she had been made part of his contract, and was umbilically attached to his performance. Rostova rehearsed with the sensitive actor daily, and then stood just out of sight whenever cameras rolled. Clift waited for her nod of approval, not Hitchcock’s, before moving on. [Karl] Malden thought that Rostova’s presence created ‘a deep division and tension’ on the set, a gulf between the star and the director—but if so it remained a largely unspoken gulf. Hitchcock left Clift and Rostova alone… If anything, Hitchcock was extraordinarily patient, exceptionally polite, as he went about collecting his shots and angles.

The director realized that, if anything, Rostova helped the production by soothing Clift’s wounded psyche. Although Hitchcock dubbed her the ‘little pigeon,’ he treated the drama coach with elaborate courtesy, and made a point of including her in the cast dinners he hosted at the Château Frontenac in August and September, and later at Bellagio road.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Chances are that Rostova’s presence was a larger thorn in Malden’s side than in Hitchcock’s. The actor felt that Clift and his coach were somehow conspiring against him. It is impossible to know whether or not this is the case, but the two friends had a cooler relationship on the set that was usual. Perhaps this is “the method” at play once again. After all, their characters were against one another in the film. In any case, Clift’s performance is extraordinary (even if several critics denigrated his performance upon the film’s release).

He seemed to embody the character of Father Logan. He is an actor that always seems to be hiding secret emotional wounds, and this characteristic was particularly appropriate for this role. Clift’s priest quietly carries his burden with a grace and dignity that should endear him to audiences. Truffaut pointed out that Father Logan is constantly in forward motion. This motion is part of the film’s design and illustrates visually the character’s integrity. It is impossible to think of any other actor pulling this off quite as effectively.

Hitchcock was always one to fill the frame with rich detail, but this fact has never been more evident that it is when one watches I Confess. Hitchcock even explained to one of the extras precisely how he wanted her to eat an apple in an angry mob scene. This is a detail that might very well be missed by casual viewers, but these small details were important to Hitchcock. Of course, most of the visuals fit a particularly interesting design that is often discussed by scholars.

The Apple Eater

Alfred Hitchcock showed the “apple eater” exactly how he wanted her to eat the apple.

“The film is rich in religious imagery. In one shot the camera catches Father Logan walking tormented past a Church, the camera placed high above one of the Stations of the Cross, as if making the point that Father Logan too is undertaking his own journey to Calvary. The film’s opening shot is an elliptically angled view of a looming church, darkly brooding and sinister. Clift’s lonely inner struggle to sacrifice himself rather than his beliefs is contrasted with the killer’s pathetic need to confess, as if by telling of his sin his guilt will be absolved.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Stations of the Cross

One wonders if Humphries is mistaking Quebec’s ‘Le Château Frontenac’ for a church. If he is, this doesn’t lead one astray. The city’s churches do loom large over the film. However, none of Hitchcock’s “religious imagery” is merely imagery. It is symbolism. Let us use the same example that Humphries uses of Father Logan walking tormented past a church as he is seen through a statue of Christ carrying his cross to his own crucifixion. Isn’t Father Logan carrying his own cross to his own crucifixion—and for the very same reasons (the burden of sins that aren’t their own)! He could very well die for someone else’s sin. This is a direct parallel to the story of Christ.

If this isn’t enough, Hitchcock uses another image during the trial sequence. Father Logan is being questioned by the prosecution, and a large crucifix hangs on conspicuously on the wall above him as he is shot in profile. This reminds audiences what might potentially happen to Logan, while reminding Logan about his own beliefs. It is an effective shot. The crucifix seems to be a weight on top of the priest throughout the entire rest of the sequence.

Crucifix & Father Logan at the Trial

Another particularly interesting bit of religious imagery occurs at the very beginning of the film. We see a man exit a building in a priest’s cassock before walking down an alley. Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks do interesting things with composition and lighting. The scene is lit in such a way that the man’s silhouette forms a cross. This is interesting enough, but the man also casts a long shadow in the shape of an inverted cross. This tells the audience that the man is pretending to be a Holy man of God, but that his real nature is perhaps malicious. The man turns out to be Otto Keller (the film’s murderer).

Cross Image in shadow

There are many such examples in the film. When one considers the film as an allegory that mirrors Christ’s crucifixion, it becomes clear why Alfred Hitchcock and George Tabori fought for the original ending. However, many scholars and critics believe that the film’s final ending is even more appropriate. Patrick McGilligan seems to side with these critics.

I Confess smolders without ever catching fire. Hitchcock is most comfortable with the secondary characters (the Brian Aherne scenes are especially playful), the brooding Quebec City and Catholic atmosphere, [and] the dreamlike flashback. (These silent interludes, depicting the idyllic prewar romance between the priest and his girlfriend, seem almost to achieve the kind of hyperrealism Hitchcock had wanted from Salvador Dalí for Spellbound.) Perhaps the best part of I Confess is the Hitchcockian ending—‘which is liturgically and thematically right (transference of guilt healed by confession),’ in Bill Krohn’s words—although it was virtually imposed by the studio as an alternative to hanging the priest.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Unfortunately, the film was released to somewhat disenchanted reviews. Warner Brothers made a small profit off of the film, but it was not the success that many other Hitchcock had been. Hitchcock later believed that making the film was a mistake.

“…Aside from the public, there were many of the critics who apparently felt that for a priest to guard a secret at the risk of his own life was absurd… If the basic idea is not acceptable to the public, it compromises the whole picture. And this brings up another generalization: To put a situation into a film because you yourself can vouch for its authenticity, either because you’ve experienced it or because you’ve heard of it, simply isn’t good enough. You may feel sure of yourself because you can always say, ‘This is true, [and] I’ve seen it.’ You can argue as much as you like, but the public and critics still won’t accept it… That’s the trouble with I Confess. We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice himself for such a thing.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

One shouldn’t take Hitchcock’s opinion on this particular matter as gospel. This reviewer isn’t Catholic and understood and admired the priest’s resolve regardless. It is difficult to say whether or not this was a valid argument. However, it should be said that the director was selling himself short when he went on to tell Truffaut that the film “comes under the heading of an old-fashioned plot.If anything, I Confess was years ahead of its time. One could imagine the likes of Martin Scorsese tackling just such a subject.

The critics didn’t care for the film upon its release. Variety’s staff critic did manage to summon some positive remarks about the film, but led in criticizing the film for its lack of the director’s trademark suspense.

“An interesting plot premise holds out considerable promise for this Alfred Hitchcock production, but I Confess is short of the suspense one would expect. Hitchcock used the actual streets and buildings of picturesque Quebec to film the Paul Anthelme play on which the screenplay is based…

…While Hitchcock short-changes on the expected round of suspense for which he is noted, he does bring out a number of topflight performances and gives the picture an interesting polish that is documentary at times. Clift’s ability to project mood with restrained strength is a high spot of the film, and he is believable as the young priest. Physically, he doesn’t have as mature an appearance as the role opposite Baxter calls for, but otherwise, his work is flawless.” –Variety (December 31, 1952)

Other critics were less kind to I Confess. It is evident that Bosley Crowther was too wrapped up in his personal expectations about what an Alfred Hitchcock should be to appreciate the dark story that the director had to offer. His review in the New York Times betrays a shallow mind that is nearly incapable of forward thinking. His review attacks everything from the script to Montgomery Clift’s wonderful performance. I suppose that the actor’s subtleties were lost on critics in 1953.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s famous talent for brewing a mood of fine suspense with clever direction and cutting is spent on a nigh suspense-less script in I Confess, his latest picture for Warners… And even though moments in the picture do have some tension and power, and the whole thing is scrupulously acted by a tightly professional cast, the consequence is an entertainment that tends to drag, sag and generally grow dull. It is not the sort of entertainment that one hopefully expects of ‘Hitch.’

The trouble, of course, is that the audience is told near the start of the film that the hero is not guilty of the murder with which he is subsequently charged. The murderer, we know, is a fellow who confesses his act right away to the irreproachable hero, a Roman Catholic priest. And the issue is in the dilemma of the priest, when suspicion falls on him and he is unable to clear himself in a jiffy because he is bound to silence by what is known as ‘the seal of the confessional.’

This makes for a nervous situation that George Tabori and William Archibald have prolonged through a considerable amount of incidental plotting in their obviously padded script. They have ominously piled against their hero so much heavy circumstantial evidence that it seems he can never get around it and avoid the penalty of loyalty to a creed. But only the most credulous patron will be worried for very long that the hero will not be delivered from his dilemma by some saving grace. And this realization well unburdens the situation of any real suspense… In short, the plotting of the story through its long middle section is dull.

Finally, the off-beat possibility of making something of the anguish of the priest in this unhappy situation is not only missed in the script but it is barely realized and suggested in the performance of Montgomery Clift. Under Mr. Hitchcock’s direction, Mr. Clift rather walks through the role with a slightly bewildered expression and a monotonously taciturn air. He seems neither tormented nor frightened—nor, for that matter, really to care.

As the matronly lady of the old romance, Anne Baxter gives an eloquent show of feeling sorry for herself and breathing heavily, but the ease with which she abandons both and resumes a dutiful attitude toward her husband (Roger Dann) is a bit disheartening. Karl Maiden as a stubborn detective, Brian Aherne as a prosecutor, O. E. Hasse as the twitching murderer and Dolly Haas as his wife are all good.

And, of course, Mr. Hitchcock does manage to inject little glints of imagery and invent little twists of construction that give the film the smooth, neat glitter of his style. Shot on location in Quebec, it has a certain atmospheric flavor, too. But it never gets up and goes places. It just ambles and drones along. Bosley Crowther (New York Times, March 23, 1953)

Well, we will admit that Mr. Crowther should know quite a bit about ambling and droning along if his reviews are any indication. This particular reviewer has never cared for him, so it is probably better to keep my commentary to myself. It would be highly biased. In any case, the film was met with similar criticisms in Hitchcock’s native London.

This film is directed by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock and it lacks two things normally connected with his name and work -first, that moment when he springs a surprise on the audience, a respectable man, as it were, suddenly rounding on a friend with a drawn revolver, and, secondly, the careful building up of suspense. Suspense, in a measure, there certainly is, and Mr. Hitchcock loses no time in making it clear what form it will take, but it is suspense without its mainspring…

…The wisdom of introducing, a sacred subject into a ‘thriller’ is dubious, and the film seems conscious of disturbance and disharmony at the centre of balance. A conventional chase through a luxury hotel is an admission of the failure of the original idea to survive intact, and never does Mr. Clift suggest a man in any touch with the things of the spirit…” –The Times (April 20, 1953)

Opinion hadn’t changed a great deal when Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky wrote The Films of Alfred Hitchcock in 1976. Instead of reanalyzing the film for a new generation, Harris and Lasky adopted Alfred Hitchcock’s apathetic attitude towards the film.

“The screenplay adaptation was somber and lacked the subtle humor found in most Hitchcock films. The result is that the story is both frustrating and tedious… Of course, the entire premise upon which the film rests is that a priest’s first obligation is to God and the holy vows of the church. It is precisely this concept that annoyed non-Catholic viewers. ‘Why wouldn’t he just speak up to save his life?’ is the question.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

One can wrap their minds around the director’s attitude towards the film. After all, it doesn’t represent his original vision. It is sometimes difficult for an artist to see beyond his own compromises. Actually, the film was further compromised in Quebec after the film was released. The Legion of Decency slapped it with a rating of ‘Morally Objectionable for Adults’ despite the fact that the Catholic press raved about the film. As a result, Quebec’s Censor Bureau insisted on cutting three minutes out of Anne Baxter’s flashback story. These little aggravations tend to add up in one’s mind. It probably became quite difficult for Hitchcock to look at I Confess in the proper perspective.

In the end, I Confess is another dark and deliberately paced Hitchcock offering. While it isn’t perhaps at the same level as other underappreciated works (such as The Wrong Man), it’s probably even more fascinating. It is certainly rich in subtext and one’s experience is enhanced exponentially with each viewing.

Confession - Father Logan 2

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. This artwork seems to utilize vintage promotional material (though it isn’t the same artwork used for the film’s original one sheet). It really looks quite fabulous!

The menu utilizes the same art that is on the cover, and it is accompanied by an excerpt from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score.

Menu

All of this makes for a presentation that is much better than what one usually expects with home video releases (especially for older catalogue titles).

Confession - Otto Keller

Picture Quality: 

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins 

This is an incredibly gorgeous transfer of I Confess. Fine detail that went unseen in the previous DVD release of the film can now be admired in all its intended glory. Contrast is also wonderfully rich with deep blacks that never seem to crush detail. The film has a noir-esque quality that demands well rendered blacks with a sharp rendering of all the shades of gray that lies in between the lightest and darkest areas of the frame. It is nice to see that the transfer doesn’t disappoint on this issue. There is a healthy layer of grain that betrays the film’s celluloid source, but many film buffs will see this as a good thing. It is certainly preferable to overzealous DNR. There doesn’t seem to be any distracting digital anomalies that could be distracting to the viewer. This is a truly lovely transfer.

Otto Confesses to Alma

Sound Quality: 

4 of 5 MacGuffins 

The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is surprisingly clean for a film released in 1953. Dialogue is consistently crisp and clear, and this is married with well rendered ambience and intelligible sound effects. This is important, because Alfred Hitchcock uses sound in very interesting ways. The sounds are realistic and draw viewers into the film. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is given adequate room to breathe for a 2.0 mix, but one must qualify this statement to indicate that one must consider when the film was shot. This isn’t the sort of dynamic track that one might expect to find on a Blu-ray release of a contemporary film. It is simply a faithful rendering of the film’s source elements.

Anne Baxter as Ruth

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Hitchcock’s Confession: A Look at ‘I Confess’ – (SD) – (20:39)

Laurent Bouzereau provides another quasi “making of” documentary that provides more commentary than actual “making of” information (although one can see a small amount of rare color “behind the scenes” footage of the cast and crew shooting the dream sequence). Pat Hitchcock even shares some brief memories about visiting the production in Quebec. However, this is really more of an appreciation of the film that slowly turns into a love letter to the late Montgomery Clift. Jack Larson (a friend of Clift’s) shares information about his friend’s experiences on the film as the other participants celebrate his performance. It is always engaging and certainly appreciated, and the generalized critical commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, Bill Krohn, Richard Schickel, and Robert Osborne might enrich the casual viewer’s appreciation of the film. It is certainly worth the viewer’s time.

Gala Canadian Premiere for ‘I Confess’ – (SD) – (00:56)

Warner Brothers also includes a vintage newsreel about the Canadian premiere of the film. One can see Alfred Hitchcock and Anne Baxter arriving at two different premieres. It is obviously a piece of vintage promotional fluff, but the vintage nature of the piece makes this a rather interesting addition to the disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:47)

The trailer is also happily included on the disc. This is a rather typical example of trailers from this era, but many will be interested to see how the marketing department attempted to sell this film to audiences.

Father Logan

Final Words:

I Confess is for audiences with a predilection for dark allegorical mood pieces. While it isn’t a typical Hitchcock offering, it is well worth one’s time. Warner Brother’s new Blu-ray release is the perfect way to view the film on one’s home entertainment system.

Review by: Devon Powell

Father Logan - Otto Keller's Final Confession

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1952)

Bosley Crowther (New York Times, March 23, 1953)

Staff Writer (The Times, April 20, 1953)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Michael Haley (The Hitchcock Album, 1981)

Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

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

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

Blu-ray Review: The Wrong Man

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: January 26, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 01:45:20

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

2.0 French Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Castellano) Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Latino) Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish (Castellano), Spanish (Latino), Czech, Polish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 32.91 Mbps

Notes: This title was previously released and is still available in a DVD edition.

Title

“On about 5:30 on the evening of last Jan. 14 a 43-year old nightclub musician named Balestrero mounted the steps of his home, a modest stucco two-family house at 41-30 73rd St. in Queens, a borough of the City of New York, and took out h. is key. As he did so, he heard a hail from across the dark street: ‘Hey, Chris!’ Balestrero turned curiously. His first name was Christopher, but he is known to his family and friends as ‘Manny,’ a shortening of his middle name Emanuel. Three men came up to him out of the murky shadows of a winter evening. They said they were police officers and showed him badges clipped to wallets.

Balestrero, experiencing a little quiver of uneasiness, asked what they wanted. The detectives ordered him to come to the 110th precinct station. They were polite, firm and uninformative. Balestrero became alarmed… His conscience was clear, and the detectives were polite, but their inexorable manner was frightening.

Without even going in to tell his wife that he had returned from an afternoon visit with his mother in Union City, N.J., Balestrero accompanied the three detectives to the precinct station, and then on a tour of a dozen Queens liquor and drug stores and delicatessens. At each stop, the routine was the same. Balestrero was instructed to go into the store and walk to the counter and back under the scrutiny of the proprietor. As they drove between stores, the detectives talked with Balestrero of inconsequential things like television programs. They assured him that if he had done nothing he had nothing to fear.

On their return to the station the detectives told him what it was all about… Up to this point the train of events had the somnambulistic quality of a bad dream. Now it became a nightmare.” –Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

It is easy to picture the portly director with a twinkle in his eyes as he read Brean’s text. As a matter of fact, one might mistake these paragraphs for a rough treatment outline for the eventual screenplay. This isn’t the case at all. “A Case of Identity” was simply an article about a tragic mistake that nearly ruined a man’s life. It was merely a coincidence that it touched upon some of Alfred Hitchcock’s pet themes. Herbert Brean was, however, commissioned to work with the director on a 69 page treatment in the June of 1955.

June 29, 1953 - Posed Photograph of real Manny - Life Mag

This is a posed photograph of real the real Manny Balestrero taken for “Life” Magazine. The photo re-enacts Manny’s apprehension by the police.

Actually, the article was adapted as the subject for an 60-minute episode of “Robert Montgomery Presents” in 1954, but the episode was nowhere near as chilling (or as brilliantly rendered) as Alfred Hitchcock’s film. He remained faithful to the facts contained in Brean’s article, and even did exhaustive additional research into the case in order to ensure fidelity to Balestrero’s unique story. Hitchcock became consumed with minute details, and this concern can be seen in the final product.

As a matter of fact, Hitchcock had been secretly longing to make a more down-to-earth story (having been inspired by Italian Neo-realist films). Balestrero’s story seemed the perfect subject for him to achieve this goal.

The Wrong Man offered Hitchcock a real-life incident—involving an Italian American—that would enable him to continue his lifelong critique of the judicial system. It gave him an opportunity to adopt an ‘unmistakably documentary’ approach, in his words—a radical challenge for the director… He wanted to tell the story exactly as it had transpired, with minimal dramatic or cinematic embellishment.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

shooting a cameo that never ended up in the film

Alfred Hitchcock’s commitment to the actual events, and his respect for the story led him to scrape his usual cameo appearance. He added an introductory prologue to the film instead.

Hitchcock himself elaborated on the film’s fidelity to the actual events in great detail during his lengthy interview with François Truffaut years later. He even gave a specific example:

“…For the sake of authenticity everything was minutely reconstructed with the people who were actually involved in that drama. We even used some of them in some of the episodes and, whenever possible, relatively unknown actors. We shot the locations where the events really took place. Inside the prison we observed how the inmates handle their bedding and their clothes; then we found an empty cell for Fonda and we made him handle the routines exactly as the inmates had done. We also used the actual psychiatric rest home to which his wife was sent and had the actual doctors playing themselves.

But here’s an instance of what we learn by shooting a film in which all scenes are authentically reconstructed. At the end, the real guilty party is captured while he’s trying to rob a delicatessen, through the courage of the lady owner. I imagined that the way to do that scene was to have the man go into the store take out his gun and demand the contents of the cash drawer. The lady would manage in some way to sound the alarm, or there might be a struggle of some kind in which the thief was pinned down. Well, what really took place—and this is the way we did it in the picture—is that the man walked into the shop and asked the lady for some frankfurters and some ham. As she passed him to get behind the counter, he held his gun in his pocket and aimed it at her. The woman had in her hand a large knife to cut ham with. Without losing her nerve, she pointed the point of the knife against his stomach, and as he stood there, taken aback, she stamped her foot twice on the floor. The man, rather worried, said, ‘Take it easy, lady.’ But the woman, remaining surprisingly calm, didn’t budge an inch and didn’t say a word. The man was so taken aback by her sang-froid that he couldn’t think of what to do next. A;; of a sudden the woman’s husband, warned by her stamping, came up from the cellar and grabbed the thief by the shoulders to push him into a corner of the shop against the food shelves while his wife called the police. The thief, thoroughly scared, began to whine: ‘Let me go. My wife and kids are waiting for me.’ I loved that line; it’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t dream of writing into a scenario, and even if it occurred to you, you simply wouldn’t dare use it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Fidelity was probably the issue that Hitchcock, Angus MacPhail, and screenwriter Maxwell Anderson discussed most during the writing sessions. Minute details were discussed at length. No detail was too mundane for Hitchcock. He wanted to know how many people would have been in a subway station at 4 o’clock in the morning, what time a five-year-old would go to bed, precise police procedure, the order of events, and what the principal and ancillary participants in this real-life story were thinking and doing at every point in the story.

“When Anderson placed the scene where Manny is booked and fingerprinted too early in the script, Hitchcock gently reminded the writer of ‘the actual order of events.’ When Anderson wrote a speech in which a juror interrupted the proceedings to admit he has already reached a guilty conclusion before hearing all the evidence, Hitchcock praised Anderson’s writing, but said he couldn’t use the speech in the film. Anderson had taken too much license, and the speech as written was fictitious—‘a major contradiction of the actual events, and could be so easily used in hostile criticism.’ Whenever the team hit a dry spell, they returned to the actual people. Re-interviewing them for new ideas.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

This isn’t to say that minute details weren’t slightly altered for structuring purposes (or for points of clarity). There were small changes made if they could be altered without betraying the overall reality of any given moment. Of course, the biggest change made from the actual events was the text-based epilogue that was added to the final shot that assured audiences of Rose’s recovery. Rose had not fully recovered at the time the film was released. Audiences of the era expected happy resolutions.

Crook and Victim

This is a comparison of Balestrero and the real criminal that was published in “Life” Magazine.

Actual Stick-up Note and Manny's Note

A comparison between the original stick-up note and Manny’s note was also published with the “Life” Magazine article. This became a key element in the film.

Hitchcock has also been criticized for including a scene that shows the real culprit incriminating himself just as Manny begins to pray, but Balestrero’s strong catholic faith was suggested in the Brean article more than once. (In fact, Hitchcock discovered that Manny’s mother did urge her son to pray for strength after the mistrial.) The first suggestion of his faith in prayer occurred while Manny was waiting in a small jail cell.

“…He could not sleep. A religious man, he spent most of the night in prayer, much of it on his knees. He wondered what would happen to him…” –Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

The next example is even more suggestive (and is also dramatized in Hitchcock’s film version).

“…The first girl was asked I the holdup man was in the courtroom and, if he was, to step down and place her hand on his shoulder. The girl pointed out Balestrero, but when she tried to touch his shoulder she almost fainted from fear. It obviously impressed the jury. After that, the other girl witnesses were asked to point him out, and one after another they did. Balestrero again was seized with a wild desire to stand up and shout. ‘It’s a horrible feeling, having someone accuse you. You can’t imagine what was inside of me. I prayed for a miracle.

And a miracle—of sorts—happened. On the third day of the trial Juror No. 4, a man named Lloyd Espenschied, rose suddenly in the jury box… ‘Judge, do we have to listen to all this?’ The question implied a presupposition of the defendant’s guilt by a juror—a violation of his responsibility to refrain from any conclusion until all the evidence is in. It gave the defense an opportunity to move for a mistrial…” –Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

It isn’t a huge stretch to assume that the stress of having to go through the process of another trial would lead to more prayer. This is an established habit of the real-life Manny. In light of this, it seems that those who have criticized this particular scene are merely nitpicking.

Climactic Prayer

In an article published in a 1957 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, François Truffaut had compared The Wrong Man favorably to Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné a Mort s’est échappé). He even went as far as to say that the film is probably his best film, the one that goes farthest in the direction he chose so long ago.” However, his opinion seems to have changed somewhat in the decade that followed. In his 1966 interview with Hitchcock, Truffaut suggested that the film suffered because “the esthetics of the documentary” was in conflict with Alfred Hitchcock’s signature subjective style. He uses the moment where the camera spins around Henry Fonda in his cell as an example. This seems an unfair statement, because the power of The Wrong Man comes from Hitchcock’s subjective treatment. The story certainly has a dramatic power on its own, but the subjective treatment makes the audience feel as if they have been personally violated in the same manner that Manny Balestrero was violated (and it does this without taking away from the film’s authenticity).

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s more annoying personal idiosyncrasies was his habit of adopting the prevailing critical opinion about his films. This certainly seems to be the case here. Since The Wrong Man wasn’t the giant hit he had become accustomed to, he deemed the film a failure and tried to remove himself from it as much as possible in interviews. After Truffaut’s criticism, he responded with the following:

“The industry was in a crisis at that time, and since I’d done a lot of work for Warner Brothers, I made this picture for them without taking any salary for my work. It was their property.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It is true that the director made the film without taking a salary, but analytical minds must question whether Hitchcock did this purely out of kindness to the studio. After all, Warner Brothers owned the film rights to Balestrero’s story. It seems quite possible that Hitchcock’s decision could have stemmed from a sincere personal desire to adapt that property into a motion picture. It seems likely that Hitchcock is merely distancing himself from the film due to Truffaut’s negative commentary. There is a passage in Patrick McGilligan’s biography of the director that seems to support this theory:

“Warner’s was actually ambivalent about The Wrong Man until Hitchcock offered to waive his salary, an offer calculated to win him the go-ahead to make the picture. It’s hard to think of very many other directors in Hollywood history who have volunteered to work for free this way, at the peak of their success. Yet such a director was entirely in character for Hitchcock, who had often ignored money to make the films that interested him.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

A Happy Family

The director had other complaints about the film in the years that followed the film’s release. The most notable of these concern the character of Rose Balestrero. Hitchcock claimed that he felt that Manny’s story collapsed when Rose’s mental faculties began to deteriorate, and he often cited this as one of the film’s weaknesses. On the contrary, Rose’s breakdown is what carries the story to the trial. It has the effect of keeping the audience with Manny, and it is one of the most interesting things about the film.

The most poignant scenes are those that concern Rose, and we never feel Manny’s pain more than when he is worried for his wife. A perfect example is a scene that seems to have been plucked from the Brean article:

“…There Balestrero confronted the man who more than anyone else was responsible for his 15 weeks of torment. Daniell was handcuffed to a chair. He looked up at Balestrero once and did not look again. There was a fleeting resemblance between the two men, particularly in the set and expression of their eyes. Balestrero asked, ‘Do you realize what you have done to my wife?’ Daniell did not answer.” –Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

Let there be no mistake that these elements carry the audience through to the end of the film in a way that would have been nearly impossible to achieve otherwise. Frankly, this seems to be yet another scapegoat utilized to help Hitchcock distance himself from the film in the public’s mind. The root of this criticism probably stems from a number of reviews that suggested that Rose’s story was one of the film’s weaker elements. One such review was published in The Times:

“…In any event, the second half of the film, which sees Manny out on bail, hunting desperately for witnesses which will establish his alibi—while his wife, who is troubled with feelings of guilt, declines into apathy and eventually has to be sent to a mental institution, lacks the hypnotic fascination of the first.” –The Times (February 25, 1957)

It is simply another example of Hitchcock’s tendency to adopt critical opinion as his own. There isn’t any evidence that would suggest that Hitchcock walked onto the set feeling that this aspect of the script was deficient in any way. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. The director had cast Vera Miles (who he had under personal contract) to play the role of Rose Balestrero, and he had spent a lot of time developing this aspect of the story.

On March 06, 1956, Alfred Hitchcock wrote the following to Maxwell Anderson:

“I have always personally felt (whether I am correct or not would be or you and Angus to say) that the scenes of the preparation of the defense should begin to be interrupted by an unexpected element, i.e. the decline of Rose, so that the mechanical details of alibis, etc. become obscured by this growing process o Rose going insane. So that by the time we reach the eve of the trial the drama of Rose has taken over.” –Alfred Hitchcock (as published in “Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen,” edited by Mark Osteen)

Not only did Alfred Hitchcock not mind that Rose’s story took over the narrative at this point, it was his intention that this happen. Without Rose’s breakdown, this part of the film would be rather dull. Hitchcock certainly realized this and added minor elements to the story to spice up the drama.

“…In this same letter, Hitchcock mentions another small but telling addition to the sequence in which the Balestreros hunt down witnesses who can testify that they were out of town during the first holdup. As the couple track down a witness by the name of La Marca, Hitchcock and MacPhail insert ‘two callous giggling teenagers’ announcing to Manny and Rose that the witness has died. Then the hapless Balestreros learn that a second witness, Mr. Molinelli, has also died. ‘There’s our alibi! Alibi! Oh, perfect! Complete!’ responds Rose. Anderson echoed Rose’s words, praising the insertion of the giggling girls and declaring that the scene was ‘beautifully handled.’ (Anderson to Hitchcock 03/17/56).” –Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation)

Madness 2

A lot has been written about Hitchcock’s treatment of Vera Miles during the production of “The Wrong Man.” Miles always claimed that these things are untrue. “What he, Spoto, said about “The Wrong Man” and “Psycho” is all wrong. It’s the kind of book in which the author waits until a famous man dies, and then hits him with what can only be guesses… Anyone who knows me knows that I would never put up with that sort of thing. There was always a great deal of respect between Hitchcock and me. Spoto says that [Hitchcock] rehearsed me for nine hours a day on “The Wrong Man” which is nonsense. He expected people to be good, and never rehearsed them at all. When you signed a contract with Hitchcock, it stipulated the number of hours a day you would work. And as for playing casting couch to get the role, I’d have told him to go to hell. Neither of us had time for that sort of thing.” – Vera Miles

Hitchcock’s tendency to disregard films that do not meet with overwhelming success does his work a grave disservice. Critical opinion has a way of evolving, and Hitchcock’s dismissal of The Wrong Man has made this evolution rather difficult. When he told Truffaut to “file The Wrong Man among the indifferent Hitchcocks, he was giving future critics and scholars permission to do the same.

This is especially unfortunate considering that the unenthusiastic reviews that flooded newspapers, trade journals, and magazines upon the film’s release were colored by a rather narrow-minded expectation of what a Hitchcock film should be. The critics were conditioned to expect exciting films with a dose of macabre humor. The Wrong Man doesn’t deliver these elements. Instead, audiences experienced a deliberately paced emotional drama. The film’s sober tone was not what the critics wanted from Hitchcock. For example, a December 22, 1956 review published in Harrison’s reports complained that although Henry Fonda and Vera Miles were excellent in their roles, stories about human suffering are, as a general rule, depressing, and this one is no exception…”

A.H. Weiler was similarly disenchanted with the film:

“The theory that truth can be more striking than fiction is not too forcefully supported by the saga of The Wrong Man, which was unfolded at the Paramount on Saturday.

Although he is recounting in almost every clinical detail startling near-miscarriage of justice, Alfred Hitchcock has fashioned a somber case history that merely points a finger of accusation. His principals are sincere and they enact a series of events that actually are part of New York’s annals of crime but they rarely stir the emotions or make a viewer’s spine tingle. Frighteningly authentic, the story generates only a modicum of drama…

…Mr. Hitchcock is not setting a precedent with The Wrong Man. Facts have provided fiction for many films before as in Let Us Live, in which Mr. Fonda also was starred. Mr. Hitchcock has done a fine and lucid job with the facts in The Wrong Man but they have been made more important than the hearts and dramas of the people they affect.”A.H. Weiler (New York Times, December 24, 1956)

This seems to be a rather unfair conclusion on Weiler’s part, but one must remember the sort of film he was expecting. One wonders why his contemporaries dismissed him for not telling realistic and socially relevant stories only to become disappointed when he gives them such a film (as he certainly did with The Wrong Man).

 Scholarly opinion hadn’t changed much when Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky published a book of critical essays entitled, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock in 1976. Harris and Lasky seem to have taken a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s book, because they also singled out Rose’s story as the films primary weakness. It is worth questioning whether or not these men would have come to this conclusion had it not been one of Alfred Hitchcock’s repeated interview testimonies. Original ideas are rare (especially in film criticism). They were also quick to follow the lead of many critics that came before them in condemning Hitchcock’s climactic prayer scene.

The Wrong Man has a newsreel quality to it, with starkly lit black-and-white photography and real-life details that give it authenticity. When Hitchcock switches gears and no longer emphasizes Christopher Balestrero’s story, turning instead to his wife’s, he loses the audience’s interest. The intensity of the drama, horrifying because of its reality, diminishes because the chief focal point has been complicated with more details than the audience wants to consider

It is precisely because of this twist in the plot, the focusing on Rose’s mental breakdown that explains why Manny turns to prayer at the end. He prays for a miracle. With double exposure, he superimposes the holdup man’s face over Manny’s as he is praying. The documentary flavor of the film has been lost and religious motifs, harking back to I Confess, take over. The Kafkaesque nightmare of reality that Hitchcock has maintained has turned into a moralistic question.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

It is high time for the film community to re-evaluate this neglected film. If any other director had tackled the same material in the same manner, it would be considered a masterpiece of the genre. This is a bold statement about a bold film that deserves fresh analysis.

0136

 The Presentation:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. This artwork seems to utilize vintage promotional material (though it isn’t the same artwork used for the film’s original one sheet).

The menu utilizes the same art that is on the cover, and it is accompanied by music from Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film.

Menu

There is absolutely no room for complaint about Warner’s presentation. Everything really looks quite fabulous!

ss

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Black and white cinematography has the capacity to look truly incredible in high definition, and Warner Brothers has offered up a transfer that successfully demonstrates this. The image showcases a lot of fine detail with very nice contrast. The rich blacks do not crush detail, and there is a fully rendered range of greyscale between this and the white. This is a good thing, because much of the film takes place in darkness. There is a healthy layer of grain that betrays the film’s celluloid source, but many film buffs will see this as a good thing. It is certainly preferable to overzealous DNR. There doesn’t seem to be any distracting digital anomalies, but there is some hyperactive grain fluctuation on occasion. This is the single flaw in an otherwise lovely transfer.

Screenshot 2

 Sound Quality:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is also quite nice, although many modern viewers might wish for a more robust soundtrack. Dialogue is consistently crisp and clear, and this is married with well rendered ambience and intelligible sound effects. This is important, because Alfred Hitchcock uses sound in very interesting ways. The sounds are realistic and draw viewers into the world of Manny Balestrero. It is nice to see that the sound transfer doesn’t interfere. Bernard Herrmann’s jazz-influenced score is given adequate room to breathe for a 2.0 mix, but there may be a few moments in the film that could use a bit more room. Overall, this is an excellent sound transfer for a film that was made in 1956.

Screenshot 3

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man – (SD) – 00:20:19

Laurent Bouzereau’s Guilt Trip isn’t comprehensive enough to qualify as a “making of” documentary, and this is somewhat disappointing when one compares it to the excellent documentaries that he prepared for Hitchcock’s Universal films. Paul Sylbert (the film’s art director) offers viewers a minimal amount of general information, but this information is always quite interesting. Bouzereau expands on this information by utilizing interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel, Robert Osborne, and Richard Franklin. These gentlemen offer their general thoughts and feelings about the film, and this adds small doses of insight to the proceedings. This is certainly superior to the usual EPK nonsense that appears on most Blu-rays. Hitchcock fans should be happy that it has been carried over from the 2004 DVD release.

Theatrical Trailer  – 00:02:35

The theatrical trailer for The Wrong Man is narrated by Alfred Hitchcock himself (as many trailers for his later films would be). It is certainly more interesting than many trailers, and it is wonderful to have it included on this disc.

ss2

Final Words:

The Wrong Man is a seriously underrated gem that deserves to be studied and discussed. This new Blu-ray edition of the film is the best way that fans can see this film on any home video format, and it comes highly recommended.

Review by: Devon Powell

Epilogue
SOURCE MATERIAL:

Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

Unknown Author (Balestrero’s Nightmare, Life Magazine, February 01, 1954)

Unknown Author (The Wrong Man, Harrison’s Reports, December 22, 1956)

Unknown Author (Hitchcock and A New Form of Film Suspense, The Times, February 25, 1957)

A.H. Weiler (New Format for Hitchcock, New York Times, December 24, 1956)

François Truffaut (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1957)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

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

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Blu-ray Review: Dial M for Murder

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Release Date: October 09, 2012

 Region: Region Free

Length: 1:45:24

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Alternate Audio:  

French Mono: Dolby Digital

German Mono: Dolby Digital

Italian Mono: Dolby Digital

Spanish Mono: Dolby Digital

Portuguese Mono: Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH, Dutch, Italian SDH

Ratio: 1.78:1

Bitrate: 29.92 Mbps

Notes: This title is available in a DVD edition that contains a “flat” version of the film in the 1.33:1 ratio. Luckily, this version isn’t cropped. They simply unmated the top and bottom portions of the frame.

Title Screenshot

“I was running for cover. When your batteries run dry, when you are out creatively, and you have to go on, that’s what I call running for cover. Take a comparatively successful play that requires no great creative effort on your part and make it. Keep your hand in, that’s all. When you’re in this business, don’t make anything unless it looks like it’s going to promise something. If you have to make a film — as I was under contract to Warners at the time — play safe. Go get a play and make an average movie — photographs of people talking. It’s ordinary craftsmanship. But there is another interesting facet about the photographed stage play. Some people make the mistake, I think, of trying to open the play up for the screen. That’s a big mistake. I think the whole conception of a play is confinement within the proscenium — and that’s what the author uses dramatically. Now you are undoing a newly-knitted sweater. Pull it apart and you have nothing. In Dial M, I made sure that I would go outside as little as possible. I had a real tile floor laid down, the crack under the door, the shadow of the feet, all part of the stage play and I made sure I didn’t lose that. Otherwise, if you go outside, what do you end up with? A taxi arrives outside, the door opens, and they get out and go in.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Dial ‘M’ For Murder was a smart career choice for Alfred Hitchcock. He needed a fast hit after the commercial failure of I Confess (which deserves a much better reputation). Frederick Knott’s play had been a hit in both London and New York, and Alfred Hitchcock knew that it would make a fast and easy hit for him if he were to adapt it for the cinema screen. The play began its life as a rather unimaginative television production for the BBC, but the play’s success was really due to the enthusiastic reception that it received on the London stage. (Broadway success was just around the corner.)

Alfred Hitchcock opted to keep the play’s structure intact and hired Frederick Knott to help him turn his hit play into a screenplay. With the exception of a few minor changes to the text, Knott needed only to reformat his play into screenplay form. One of the more obvious changes was a dramatically different (and much shorter) opening.

“As the curtain rises, MARGOT is handing MAX a drink. She suddenly hears something in the passage outside and opens and peeps through the hall door for a moment. Then she closes the hall door and turns to MAX.

MARGOT
(A little worried)

For a moment I thought it was Tony. I’m sorry I interrupted you. What were we talking about . . . ?

MAX

I was just telling you that I murdered exactly fifty-two people since I saw you last.

MARGOT
(With a laugh, picking up her drink. Sits on couch)

Oh, yes — one a week. How did you do it?

MAX

Every way I could think of. I electrocuted some in their baths, locked others in the garage with the motor running or pushed them through windows and over cliffs. Other weeks I preferred to poison, shoot, strangle, stab, slug or suffocate.

MARGOT

Just according to how you felt?

MAX

When you write for that kind of television you don’t have time to feel anything.

MARGOT

Where do you get all your ideas from?

MAX

Oh — newspaper stories — police files — bad dreams — other writers . . .

MARGOT

You once told me you’d never write anything that wasn’t original.

MAX

Huh — you try being original fifty-two times a year!

MARGOT

Suppose you just dry up and can’t think of anything?

MAX

If it comes to that I just use my three hats.

MARGOT

What do you mean?

MAX

I’ve got three old hats marked: Who kills who, How, and Why.

MARGOT

Which is what? I mean what’s Why?

MAX

‘Why’ is the motive for killing. You’ve got to have a motive, you know. There are only five important ones. Fear — jealousy — money — revenge — and protecting someone you love. I just write them down on pieces of paper and pick one out of the ‘Why’ hat.

MARGOT

Sounds rather like sorting the week’s washing.

MAX

It’s about as artistic as that. But better paid. It’s no more frustrating than writing plays that aren’t produced or novels that aren’t published. . . . And don’t forget this: It all goes to prove that WITO makes teeth bright — white and bite! Makes amends and keeps your friends.

MARGOT
{Laughs)
Let’s have your glass, Max.

MAX

No . . . I’m all right, thanks.

MARGOT

I could hardly believe it when I heard your voice. At first I thought you were phoning from New York.

MAX

Yes, I thought you were shouting a little louder than necessary. As a matter of fact I was just around the corner. (A pause anxiously) Was it all right . . . my phoning like that?

MARGOT

Yes, of course.

MAX

Was that — Tony who answered?

MARGOT

Yes, it was. (An awkward pause) I do hope he isn’t going to be too late. Poor darling. He always gets caught when we’re going to the theater. (Pause) So you’re not here on a holiday — this time?

MAX

No, not this time. I came over to write some short TV films. After that I think I’ll finally knock off for a year and write that novel. I’ve got to write it someday.

MARGOT

Another crime story?

MAX

I have to stick to crime — it’s my stock in trade. But there’s no reason why a murder story can’t be as good as anything else. And I think I could write a good one if I took the time. I thought of a pretty fair gimmick on the plane coming over. There’s a pair of twins — identical — one lives in Paris and the other in New York — all of a sudden they both decide to…

(MARGOT has been growing anxious and loses interest in all this.)

MARGOT
(Interrupting)

Max, before Tony comes I ought to explain something.

MAX

Yes?

MARGOT

I didn’t tell him anything about us.

MAX

Oh.

MARGOT

When you rang up yesterday, I just said that you were a radio writer I’d met when he was in America.

MAX

Well, that’s true enough.

MARGOT
I said I’d met you again just before you went back to New York and you promised to look us up if you ever came back.

MAX

I see.

MARGOT

Max, I know you think it’s silly, but when you get to know Tony, you’ll understand why…”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

The rest of the scene plays out like Hitchcock’s film version (with a few minor alterations that condense their exchange). Hitchcock has replaced this text with a short montage that explains the relationship between the three principal characters in an efficient visual manner. One will also notice that Max has become Mark in the screen version.

There are a few other small additions to the screenplay. For example, Mark and Tony are shown at the club as Tony waits to make the phone call. Hitchcock is able to prolong the suspense elements of Margot’s attempted murder. We see Tony waiting to use the phone and Lesgate waiting anxiously for it to ring. This scene is improved exponentially by cross-cutting between these elements. We are also shown a slightly extended version of Tony’s manipulation of the crime scene. An example would be that in the play, Tony simply pockets the scarf, but he burns the scarf in the film. Hitchcock also shows us a short scene after this that dramatizes the police detectives discovering some of his planted evidence.

The only other major change to the original play occurs right before what is “Act Three, Scene One.” Hitchcock has added a somewhat expressionistic rendering of Margot’s trial. Instead of dramatizing a realistic condensation of a trial sequence, Hitchcock shows us Margot’s subjective emotional experience during her trial.

Judgement

The scene acts as a sort of bridge between scenes that would have played rather awkwardly without something to separate them. (Curtains are drawn between the scenes in Knott’s play.) The scene replaces a radio broadcast that is heard at the beginning of the final act.

“[TONY] puts attaché case on bed, looks at watch and then crosses to table. He turns on radio. He returns to attaché case and unlocks it. He takes out money, puts it in pocket and re-locks the case. The radio fades in as he looks up at the set and listens intently.

ANNOUNCER

… The main obstacles were the export of fruit and vegetables. Agreement has now been reached that the export quotas originally asked for be lowered by twelve and a half percent.

The Home Secretary has written to the lawyers of Mrs. Margot Wendice to say that he has decided that there are not sufficient grounds to justify his recommending a reprieve. At the Old Bailey last November Mrs. Wendice was found guilty of the murder of Charles Alexander Swann and was sentenced to death. The official forecast is that there will be bright periods and showers in all districts today. Frost is expected again tonight, especially in the South.

(Phone rings)

The time is now eleven minutes past one and that is the end of the news…

TONY switches off radio and crosses to phone.

TONY
(Into phone)

Hullo!

PENDLETON
(Off stage, heard through receiver)

Mr. Wendice?

TONY

Yes?

PENDLETON

Pendleton here.

TONY

Oh, good afternoon.

PENDLETON

Have you decided about the letters?

TONY

Yes — I’ll be quite frank with you — the cost of the defense has been very high. I shall have to ask for five hundred pounds.

PENDLETON

Five hundred! But I’m only asking for her letters . . .

TONY

That’s all very well — how would you like your wife’s letters read by millions of people?

PENDLETON

I’m prepared to offer three fifty . . .

TONY

No, I’m sorry. I’ve quite made up my mind.

PENDLETON

Could you give me a little time to think this over?

TONY

By all means, think it over — only I’m going away the day after tomorrow.

(The door buzzer, TONY glances anxiously at the door. Quietly)

Excuse me. I shall have to ring you back.

He rings off. Goes to door and opens it. MAX stands in the passage outside. He wears neither coat nor hat. They stare at each other for a moment or two.

MAX

Hullo, Tony…”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

Alfred Hitchcock omitted the exchange between Tony and Pendleton, because Mark arrives in a taxi just as Tony is entering his building. The exchange is interesting and says a lot about Tony’s character, but in the end it isn’t necessary. Other than a few minor alterations, the rest of the film follows the play rather faithfully. Most of these minor changes were made to simplify and condense the sequence. However, a small flourish was added to the film’s final moments. The curtains closed on the play after Tony realizes that he is trapped.

“After several paces he sees MARGOT and MAX, stares at MARGOT for a long moment and then drops the books and the handbag to the ground. Then he turns and sees HUBBARD. Suddenly he throws away his raincoat and rushes to the hall door in a panic. He opens the hall door but a detective in plain clothes moves in from the left and blocks his way. TONY turns back into the room and stares at MARGOT. MARGOT turns her head away from tony and toward MAX. HUBBARD looks TONY up and down for a moment, then moves very slowly to the telephone and dials a number.

Curtain”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

Hitchcock and Knott ended the screenplay with Tony pouring a drink for himself as he offers everyone else in the room a drink. He remains cool as a cucumber throughout the entire scene. It really is a very charming bit of business.

Most people would be fast to mention that Dial M for Murder was Grace Kelly’s first appearance in an Alfred Hitchcock film, but it is rarely mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock cast two actors that were featured in the successful New York production of the stage play. Anthony Dawson had played Captain Lesgate, and John Williams won the Tony Award for his portrayal of Inspector Hubbard. Anthony Dawson spoke about this in his unpublished memoirs.

“… I had never met Hitchcock before, and yet he was about to do me the most fantastic good turn I could imagine. In that wonderful fat man’s Cockney voice, he said, slowly, drooping every word separately, as though he had all day: ‘Tony, I just called to let you know that I want you for this picture, so you’re quite safe to make yourself a nice deal.’ What could I say? I mumbled my thanks and put the phone down, feeling rather dazed, electrified, stunned; all of these. The full impact of this call from Hitch was very soon to come home to me.” –Anthony Dawson (Rambling Recollections)

Original Play Cast

Warner Brothers was going through a 3D phase at the time, and they expected Dial ‘M’ For Murder to be shot with this same process. Alfred Hitchcock agreed to this and began educating himself on the technical aspects that would be involved with the thirty-six day production.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’ll have to be a lot of changes when you’re working with 3D. The close-up, for instance, will have to be scraped completely. Can you imagine two normal sized heads on that big screen? They’d look like monsters. In that respect, 3-D will be more like a stage play. But when you’re showing a lot of people at once, 3-D will be very effective. If the whole movie industry goes the way of 3-D, there will be a lot more panoramic films and a lot less intimate stories. It will be marvelous, though, for tricks like squirting water out at the audience. And I think 3-D will be best when a movie is planned around these tricks instead of trying to fit them into a movie. I’d like to have a movie start this way: The screen is dark. There is no sound. All of a sudden a large hand reaches out and takes the audience by the throat. Think that would frighten you?” –Alfred Hitchcock (Prevue Magazine)

It is important to keep this particular quotation in context. When Prevue magazine asked Alfred Hitchcock for a quote about 3-D, he was in the midst of pre-production for Dial ‘M’ For Murder, which means that the master was in publicity mode. One doubts that the director would have been very enthusiastic about abandoning his usual technique, and those familiar with Hitchcock’s style might imagine the sound of worry in his voice when he announced that “the close-up, for instance, will have to be scraped completely.

As a matter of fact, this particular issue with the 3-D film worried many people in the industry. When Jack Warner viewed the dailies from Hondo (another 3-D picture), the lack of close-ups bothered him a great deal. Warner had invested quite a bit of money into the 3-D gimmick, and believed that this was the future of cinema. Robert Burks, the director of photography on Hondo would have disagreed with Warner on this particular issue.

Interestingly, Robert Burks was the photographer on Hondo. Alfred Hitchcock fans will remember that Burks was one of the director’s most important collaborators, and he would find himself working on Dial “M” for Murder using the same complicated 3-D cameras that were used for Hondo. Alfred Hitchcock would have to work hard to achieve his usual high standards, because these 3-D cameras had a lot of technical issues. It is fortunate that Hitchcock was never one to shy away from new challenges. As a matter of fact, he preferred to create creative and technical challenges for himself.

The wonderful thing about the 3-D in Dial “M” for Murder is that it wasn’t shot in the usual “gimmicky” manner. Instead, Hitchcock preferred to subtly compose his shots for depth. The 3-D effects merely enhanced his mise en scène. This is much more difficult than simply hurling items towards the lens, and it is more effective. The audience is never pulled out of the film. They are instead brought into the world of the film. The operatic attack on Grace Kelly makes magnificent use of the 3-D effect, but the action is integrated into the story in such a way that it never becomes distracting (even when the film is viewed flat).

3D

However, the process of actually shooting these things effectively in 3D was an enormous challenge. Even Grace Kelly (who wasn’t one to complain about such challenges) mentioned that the process was “like going into the boxing ring with your hands tied behind your back.” While the director never lost patience on the set, he felt that his hands were tied as well. He described what he called the “tremendous new challenges” of shooting in 3D in trade articles.

“It’s a big, gross, hulking monster. It’s heavy and immobile and frightening. Why–for one of my best scenes–where one of the leading players falls on a pair of scissors and kills himself–I couldn’t even get this–this–thing under the scissors to create the illusion of the audience falling on those scissors itself. But we licked it. We built a big hole right under the stage and submerged the camera–so even though there will be no rocks thrown out of the screen, I don’t think anybody will go home disappointed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Trade Interview)

There were other challenges as well. Extreme close-ups were impossible to shoot, and in order to get certain shots (such as a finger dialing a telephone and a close shot of a wrist watch), giant replicas had to be built. He had used this giant prop technique before in Spellbound. Alfred Hitchcock had always found creative ways to get the shots that he desired. He wasn’t one to settle.

Unfortunately, it turned out that these technical challenges were unnecessary. By the time that Dial ‘M’ for Murder was released, the public (and exhibitors) had become disenchanted with the 3D process. In the end, exhibitors were given a choice between the 2D and 3D prints, while marketing merchandise allowed the “3D copy to be eliminated.” The flat version of the film became much more popular, and the 3D version was soon pulled altogether.

Marketing Announcement

However, the popular claim that Dial ‘M’ for Murder wasn’t released in its original 3D version is absolutely untrue. There is all kinds of documentation to prove that this version of the film did receive a short lived theatrical release. As a matter of fact, most of the critics commented on the 3D elements in their reviews for the film.

Variety mentioned the 3D elements in their less than enthusiastic review, but didn’t comment on the quality of these elements.

“The melodramatics in Frederick Knott’s legit hit, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, have been transferred to the screen virtually intact, but they are not as impressive on film. Dial ‘M’ remains more of a filmed play than a motion picture, unfortunately revealed as a conversation piece about murder which talks up much more suspense than it actually delivers. The 3-D camera’s probing eye also discloses that there’s very little that’s new in the Knott plotting…

…There are a number of basic weaknesses in the setup that keep the picture from being a good suspense show for any but the most gullible. Via the performances and several suspense tricks expected of Hitchcock, the weaknesses are glossed over but not enough to rate the film a cinch winner.” –Variety (December 31, 1953)

The Hollywood Reporter was more receptive, and praised Hitchcock’s masterful use of 3D.

“…one of the few films in which 3D is a decided asset, even though not a single audience-participation gimmick is used. The extra-dimension, coupled with the way Hitchcock uses the camera, gives the impression that one is sitting in a theatre watching a stage play.” – Hollywood Reporter (April 27, 1954)

Time magazine’s review also focused on these aspects of the film.

Dial M for Murder (Warner) started out in 1952 as a British television drama, moved on to long, successful runs on the London stage and Broadway, and has now been made into a first-rate movie. Director Alfred Hitchcock, by shooting the film in three-dimensional WarnerColor, avoids the static quality common to many stage plays when transferred to the screen. The 3-D is used not so much for its shock value as to bring alive for moviegoers much of the theater’s intimacy and depth of movement.” -Time (May 24, 1954)

Interestingly, Bosley Crowther’s rave review for the New York Times doesn’t mention 3D at all, and one imagines that this is due to the fact that it was written a few months later than those previously discussed. One imagines that the 3D version had been pulled by this time.

“The planting and raising of goose-pimples requires a certain theatrical skill which makes no demands whatsoever upon the season of the year… And so we attach no significance to the fact that there happen to be two varieties of goose-pimple bushes blooming brightly hereabouts this June…

More standard and conventional of the bushes, now sprouting on the Paramount’s screen, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder, cultivated on an ample cutting from the play. As a matter of fact, so similar is it to the popular melodrama of Frederick Knott that it might almost be suspected as a straight transplant from the stage. But the fine hand of Mr. Hitchcock as the goose-pimple horticulturist in the garden of motion pictures is evident all over it…

…The thing is that Mr. Hitchcock brings his crop of goose-pimples to flower when he’s building up to that murder and then switching the tables in the clutch. This is when the audience is made to break out in chilly bumps and the tension is drawn so tightly that one can almost feel it in the throat. It’s an ugly, gory encounter, one of the toughest Mr. H has ever staged. The rest of the picture is exciting, but entirely because of plot.

Credit the veteran director with keeping the whole thing on the move, without letting interest slacken, within the confines of virtually one room. He tried once before, in Rope, to build up a whole continuous drama in one set. He wasn’t as successful in that venture. Dial ‘M’ has all the space it needs, Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and John Williams — the latter, especially, in the role of a sharp-nosed detective — play it capably. Color adds lots of style.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, June 13, 1954)

One would think that the London Times would embrace this film adaptation of a London stage play, but the paper published one of the films more negative reviews.

“Mr. Frederick Knott’s thriller Dial ‘M’ for Murder, written for television and afterwards adapted for the stage, has now reached the screen and is to be seen at the Warner Cinema. In each transition it seems to have undergone the minimum of alteration for a different medium. For this there is one main reason: the ingenious plot is necessarily tied down to a single room and to long passages of verbal duelling between any two or three of the five characters who are virtually the entire cast. Even in the cinema there are very few opportunities for the action to get out and about, and the dependence of the film on words makes it unusually difficult for Mr. Alfred Hitchcock to give the production as a whole his characteristic subtle touch.

How satisfactory it would have been if Mr. Hitchcock had created that sense of claustrophobia which would have enabled the audience to share the mixture of exhilaration and fear in the criminal on the alert which is one of the curious pleasures to be had from watching detective films. The use of colour, too, hardly helps; the bright interior simply refuses to brood. But the real difficulty with which Mr. Hitchcock has to deal is only apparent in the final scene. What made Dial “M” for Murder the most successful play of its kind since Ten Minute Alibi 20 years ago was the ingenuity of the puzzle we are invited to solve; at what point has the homicidal husband (Mr. Ray Milland) made his fateful mistake? In the cinema the director’s problem is how to preserve the puzzle in all its ingenuity and how to serve at the same time, as far as possible, the peculiar requirements of the film. It may be that there is no perfect reconciliation of the two; that a kind of exercise in applied mathematics and the emotional tension of the chase are fundamentally incompatible; and that the best that may be hoped for is a compromise. At all events Mr. Hitchcock’s many admirers will be disappointed to find that in his care to be lucid he has merely become obvious and thus weakened the crowning effect of the tension so carefully built up in the rest of the film. Mr. Robert Cummings is the writer of crime stories, and Mr. John Williams the all-important police-inspector, a policeman in whom, for once, one can believe.” -The Times (July 19, 1954)

I think that it is safe to say that The Times has been proven wrong by the most important critic of all: the test of time. A viewing of this film in 3D reminds one that there is no such thing as “minor Hitchcock.”

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork, and the case is protected by a special slip cover with the same artwork rendered in 3D. It is an extremely attractive cover (much better than the covers for Universal’s Hitchcock Blu-ray releases).

The menus utilize the same attractive artwork and are easy to navigate. The telephone sounds that play over the menu aren’t necessary, but this is a minor complaint.

Dial M Menu 1

All of this makes the presentation slightly superior to what one would usually expect from a Blu-ray release.

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers has given Dial ‘M’ for Murder a well-deserved 4K restoration using the film’s original camera negative, and this transfer is the result of these efforts. There were massive obstacles that had to be overcome in their efforts to restore the film properly. One must remember while judging that the film’s original elements weren’t error free, and that various players will give different results that vary in quality. All in all, Warner Brothers has done a fantastic job on the transfer. However, it should be said that it is far from perfect. The trouble is the fault of the source elements, but people are still bound to be a bit disappointed.

The color is faithfully (if not perfectly) represented here, and there seems to be no DNR issues. Instead, the transfer has opted to retain the film’s grain structure. Any ghosting that one might experience is likely due to the player and not to the actual image transfer. There was only a brief moment of ghosting when it was viewed on my player. There is some minor haloing in some of the higher contrast shots, but this is never distracting. Both the 3D and flat versions of this film exhibit much better image quality than the previous DVD release, especially when it comes to the film’s color palette.

The 1.78:1 aspect ratio used for this transfer will probably bother a lot of people. Previous DVD editions carried a 1.33:1 transfer that claimed to preserve its “original theatrical” ratio. This is untrue. Dial ‘M’ For Murder had the misfortune of being released during a transitional period in cinema history.

Academy Ratio

“Dial ‘M’ For Murder” was released during a transitional period in film history. Some theaters were not equipt to project the film in the intended 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, and was these theaters projected the film in the Academy 1.37:1 ratio. Previous Home Video transfers were presented in 1.33:1, which is an approximation of this ratio.

Blu-ray Ratio

High end theaters were able to project the film in 1.85:1 widescreen format, which was the ratio that the studio intended. This Blu-ray transfer is presented in 1.78:1 ratio (the size of widescreen television sets). This ratio falls somewhere between the film’s two theatrical ratios.

Warner Brothers began releasing their films in 1.85:1 widescreen on May 07, 1953. However, studios were aware that some theaters hadn’t yet converted to the wider screens. Because of this, shots were composed for both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 ratios. In other words, Dial “M” for Murder was screened in both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1.

The Blu-ray presents the film in 1.78:1, which falls somewhere in between these two ratios. It would be impossible to release the film in any definitive aspect ratio for the simple reason that there isn’t one.

Screenshot 3.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix is free of any of the age related anomalies that often pop up in classic films and the tracks dynamic range allows the various sounds a lot of space to breath. It is a dialogue heavy track that showcases each and every voice quite clearly. Sound effects are accurately rendered, and the music is accurately rendered. It isn’t a particularly dynamic track, but it serves the film admirably.

Robert Cummings.jpg

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

It seems rather ridiculous that this Blu-ray should exclude 3D: A Brief History, which was included on the DVD release. After all, this Blu-ray is the first time that this film has been made available in the 3D format! Doesn’t it seem like a rather fitting supplement for this disc? Luckily, Warner Brothers didn’t forget to include the other two supplements from that release.

Hitchcock and Dial M – (SD) – (21:37)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentaries for Alfred Hitchcock’s Universal catalog were usually stellar, and extremely comprehensive. Unfortunately, the quality of his work seems to have diminished by the time he created the “making of” supplements for the director’s Warner Brothers catalog.

Hitchcock and Dial M is far from comprehensive. The interview participants include Patricia Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, M. Night Shyamalan, Richard Franklin, Richard Schickel, and Nat Benchley. None of these people have any real first-hand knowledge about the production (except for perhaps Patricia Hitchcock), so the viewer is treated to various historians and critics spewing conjecture while providing the rare grain of trivia. This is a far cry from Bouzereau’s in-depth documentaries for many of the Universal films. Perhaps this was unavoidable. After all, the principal cast members of Dial “M” for Murder had all passed away by the time this program was produced. It is just too bad that the participants didn’t provide a more in-depth account of the production based on research (since first-hand accounts were out of the question). Hitchcock and Dial M is certainly worth watching, and it is an entertaining conversation about the film. It is simply a little anemic.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:38)

The theatrical trailer for Dial M” for Murder is exactly what one might expect from trailers of this period. It isn’t as interesting as some of the director’s other trailers, but it is quite nice to see how this film was marketed.

Screenshot 5

Final Words:

It is nice that Dial “M” For Murder has finally seen a 3-D release on home video. Fans of the director should certainly want to own it.

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

Spine # 781

810iy07qJBL__SL1500_

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.

SS4

“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.

“WEALTHY FARMER, THREE OF FAMILY SLAIN: H. W. CLUTTER, WIFE AND TWO CHILDREN ARE FOUND SHOT IN KANSAS HOME.”

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

coldblood4_t440

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.

SS6

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.

SS11

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).

SS13

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.

SS15

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.

SS16

Final Words:

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

SS3

Notes:

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.

THE WRONG MAN -ONE SHEET

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)

PSYCHO

The Criterion Collection’s In Cold Blood page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/28788-in-cold-blood

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.

Screenshot 1

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.

Screenshot 2

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.

Screenshot 3

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.

Screenshot 4

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.

Screenshot 5

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.

Screenshot 6

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

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.

Screenshot 1

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.”]

Screenshot 2

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.

 Screenshot 3

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.

Screensho 4

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.

Screenshot 5

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